If you’ve seen Yellowstone National Park, you realize why it’s special: gurgling mud pots, erupting geysers and wildlife you might only see there in the wild.
You also likely know that visiting Yellowstone in the summer means navigating hoards of visitors jostling for space on boardwalks, RVs, motorcycles and cars choking the roads and bison and bear jams so long you can’t actually see the animal, but instead are forced to sit in traffic as though in rush hour in a big city.
Winter in Yellowstone is a totally different experience. If you’ve planned your Jackson Hole vacation for winter, you should include a stop in Yellowstone National Park.
The park is accessible only by snowmobile, snowcoach, or on foot or skis in the winter.
Snowmobiles and snowcoach tours can take you to some of the park’s most famous spots like Old Faithful, where you’ll admire the wonders of Yellowstone with only a handful of other intrepid visitors.
Winter transforms the landscape. Ice hugs the edges of thermal features and waterfalls. Snow-covered bison crunch through the snow. Boiling pools steam in the cold air. Yellowstone morphs into an almost brand new park and experience.
While most facilities in the park don’t open until mid-December, trips fill fast and you’ll want to book in advance, especially if you want to stay inside the park at one of the winter lodging options like the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
You can drive yourself to a gateway community like West Yellowstone, Montana, or book a Jackson Hole wildlife tour, which can make arrangements to get you to the park, as well as show you the winter wonderland.
Be sure to bring your cross-country skis or snowshoes when you visit the park in winter. If you are staying inside Yellowstone, you’ll want to further explore on foot to immerse yourself in this quiet landscape. You can also start a winter outing on foot or ski from the park’s gateway communities and venture in as far as you feel able. Just don’t forget to dress in layers and appropriate clothing and carry gear like water, snacks, a headlamp and other emergency supplies. The weather can change quickly and Yellowstone in the winter isn’t a place you want to find yourself unexpectedly stranded.
You can’t visit Jackson Hole and not see wildlife. Likely you saw a moose, or a few pronghorn on your way to town from the airport.
But just over Togwotee Pass, something extraordinary happens the end of November through mid-December, making a trip to Dubois, Wyoming, a worthwhile part of your Jackson Hole vacation during this time of year.
The bighorn sheep of Whiskey Basin near Dubois enter the rut. That means you can witness those moments you might have see on tv and in documentaries, where the animals collide and horns crash with a sound heard across the landscape. Give yourself about an hour and a half driving time, especially in the winter, to navigate the almost 60 miles to Dubois.
You’ll want to visit the National Bighorn Sheep Center once you arrive in town. The center also offers wildlife tours where an experienced guide will drive you up across the steep terrain (an adventure in itself) and take you to spots where you are most likely to find the sheep. They also offer information for self-guided tours for those wanting to explore on their own.
Bighorn sheep are elusive, making their home high in the mountains where they are safe from predators and hard to find. In the winter the animals descend to areas where they can forage and also mate. The Dubois region is home to the largest wintering herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the world. The wind exposes food and there’s plenty of room for the sheep to roam.
A visit to the area offers a rare chance to see not just one or two, but dozens of bighorn sheep. It also offers your best chance to watch two males fight in a display of dominance. The animals can reach up to 20 mph before their horns, which can weight up to 30 pounds, collide.
The rut usually last from the end of November to mid-December. Dress similarly for the weather in Jackson Hole. Think layers and warmth- especially for hands and feet.
There’s no bad time to plan your Jackson Hole vacation, but in October the crowds thin and the colors change. Aspen trees and ground foliage in bright yellows and oranges are striking set against the granite of the Tetons. And while snow might dust across the top of the peaks, there are plenty of lower elevation fall hikes where you can have the trails and scenery to yourself.
Here are a few fall hikes you should consider.
Cascade Canyon is teeming with people in the summer. A boat shuttle shortens the hike, but visitors are also drawn to the canyon’s beauty. The canyon clears out in the fall. The Jenny Lake boat shuttle closes before October so you’ll have to hike around the lake. This mellow trail along the shoreline is a great outing in itself. But if you have the energy, at the other side of the lake continue the short climb to Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls, some of the most popular spots in the park during the summer. If you want something longer continue up the canyon. It won’t be hard to understand why this is one of the park’s most popular hiking areas in the summer.
Granite Canyon to Teton Village
This mild trek starts through stands of aspen trees and opens to view of Jackson Hole. Start at the Granite Canyon trailhead, walk to the Valley Trail Junction, about 1 mile from the start. Then head south for about 2.5 miles coming out at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
To keep the hike short, leave a car at the village before you going to the trailhead.
Expect vibrant colors and even some wildlife.
Another hike that attracts the masses in the summer, it’s easy to see why when the crowds clear. You’ll get some short climbs, Teton views, fall foliage and two mountain lakes in just more than 5 miles. Often done as a lollipop loop, you also get new scenery most of the route.
Really there isn’t a bad hike in Grand Teton National Park, you’ll just want to watch the snow line when planning your outing.
Jackson Hole weather can change quickly this time of year. A warm day where you hike in a t-shirt might be followed by a day of snow and jacket-weather. Come prepared. Pack a variety of clothing options in your suitcase, but also your backpack. Don’t forget layers on the trail, food, water and a headlamp—just in case. It starts to get dark earlier this time of year. Don’t forget your bear spray and remember that even low-elevation hikes in Jackson start at more than 6,000-feet. It can make even an “easy” fall hike strenuous if you aren’t acclimated.
Three reasons to plan your Jackson Hole vacation in the Fall
Fall colors, bear sightings and solitude, Jackson is a special place to visit in the fall. You’ll find milder temperatures with crisp mornings, warm afternoons and brisk evenings, everything fall weather should be. There’s fewer people and still plenty to see and do. Read on to discover why fall might be the best time to plan your Jackson Hole vacation. (Just remember to bring an extra jacket. The weather in Jackson Hole is always variable, but especially as the seasons start to change).
- Fewer crowds. Jackson and Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks are brimming with visitors in the summer months of June, July and August. Come September the crowds thin. There’s still a lively bustle in town and plenty of activities, but there’s a little less congestion. Get out on the river this time of year and you might have it to yourself.
- Prime wildlife viewing. Fall is a great time to see animals in Grand Teton National Park. Many of the park’s animals are active during the season. The fall is the rut, or breeding season for elk. You can hear the animal’s piercing cry most often in the early evening as males bugle to attract a mate and show dominance. There’s even a chance to witness sparring between male elk. Moose are also seeking mates during the fall. Bears are especially active in the fall seeking berries and other nutrients to sustain them through hibernation. Scenic float trips down the Snake River make great Jackson Hole wildlife tours, giving you a chance to view animals on the river banks from a safe distance and learn about the area’s history from your guide.
- Fall colors. Fall in the Tetons is dependent on weather, but usually starts in early September and runs through mid-October. Fall colors often peak about the third week of September. The forests of the park are comprised of evergreens and deciduous trees. Cottonwoods line the banks of the Snake River. Aspens dot the hillside. And in the fall these trees, along with shrubs and ground cover, turn to yellow, orange and red. Barker Ewing’s Jackson Hole float trips take you through the heart of fall colors.
What you need to know about recreating in Jackson Hole
The scenery isn’t the only thing that will leave you breathless on your Jackson Hole vacation. Jackson is situated at 6,237 feet and if you aren’t used to that kind of elevation, chances are your body will let you know. Here are a few things to remember that will help you enjoy all the Jackson Hole summer activities, no matter where you call home.
Give your body a day to adjust to the higher altitude before heading high into the Tetons. You might find you don’t hike quite as fast, or you feel a little weaker if you aren’t used to exercising at high altitudes. When you haven’t adjusted, altitude can bring on headaches and nausea, especially if you try to get after it on the rivers or trails before your body has acclimated. Give yourself time to adjust. Listen to your body. Let it rest when tired and …
Jackson is a dry climate, but just because you aren’t soaked with sweat standing on the Town Square, doesn’t mean you should stop pushing the water. In fact, the higher up you are, the more water you need to drink. Staying hydrated helps prevent those headaches and nausea some people experience when at a higher altitude than they are accustomed. Drink more than you think you need.
Whether you are on a family white water trip, or scrambling up a peak in Grand Teton National Park, don’t forget the sunscreen. The higher altitude increases your risk of sunburn. Even when the weather in Jackson Hole seems mild, lather up.
Don’t let sunburns, dehydration or altitude sickness ruin your Jackson Hole vacation. Remember whatever you are doing, you are doing it at high elevation, and don’t forget to keep drinking water.
There’s no place better than Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the summer, and people know it. While visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks should top your list of Jackson Hole summer activities, you’ll have to share these special places with millions of other people as the parks continue to see record numbers of visitors. But with a little planning, a sense of adventure, and a willingness to get up early, you can still find some solitude. Here’s how to do it.
Go early or stay late.
Traffic peaks in the parks between about 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. It’s worth the early alarm to get through the gates a couple of hours before the rush. Or consider an evening trip into the parks. Jackson Hole in the summer offers long hours of daylight and you can maximize it to find solitude. You’ll find popular spots quiet, if not empty, in the off hours. Plus, you are more likely to see wildlife. Animals are most active in the early mornings and evenings. And there’s no better place to catch sunrise or sunset.
Get off the pavement.
There’s an old saying in Yellowstone National Park that 97 percent of visitors use only 3 percent of the park. While this hasn’t been fact-checked, you will find more people on the roads than on the trails. Both Grand Teton and Yellowstone offer a range of hiking and walking options from well-maintained trails and boardwalks, to long or steep trails that offer epic adventure. Talk to rangers in the parks for recommendations and the latest information on trail conditions and closures.
Take the less traveled trail.
Getting off the pavement is just the start in escaping the crowds. If you’ve never been to Yellowstone, you should visit Old Faithful. But if you’ve already seen the iconic geyser erupt, look for less popular spots. In Grand Teton National Park, most people head to Jenny Lake to hike to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. These are beautiful spots, but you’ll be sharing the trail and the views with throngs of others. Check with rangers for recommendations and trail conditions for some less popular places. There are plenty of sites that offer beautiful views and a little solitude.
Get in and on the water.
You can be just feet from the roads and feel a world away when you get on the water. Float trips offer stunning scenery, exceptional wildlife viewing and a knowledgeable guide to tell you about the area. Fishermen and women can find peace in the rivers of Yellowstone. As traffic crawls by, they can relax and focus on their cast. (Just make sure you get a park fishing permit).
Signing up for a wildlife tour to get away from people might seem counterintuitive. But Jackson Hole wildlife tours offer a chance to explore the area with a guide who often has insider info on the best time to hit popular sites and secret spots for wildlife viewing.
What month is best to raft the Snake’s rapids? That depends on you.
Rafting the Snake River in Jackson Hole offers plenty of fun and thrills all summer long, but the character of the river changes with the seasons. Deciding when to book your next river excursion depends on what kind of whitewater you’re looking for.
Adventurers seeking the Snake’s wildest rides might opt for a guided rafting trip with Barker-Ewing Whitewater down the Snake River Canyon during peak runoff.
Every year, sometime between late May and mid-June, the warm western sun sends snowmelt pouring down the slopes of the Tetons into the creeks of the Snake River Basin. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation engineers at the Jackson Lake Dam look at the past winter’s snowfall totals and make careful calculations to ensure that Jackson Lake will be full, but not overflowing. When the time is right, they begin closing the spillway gates, dropping water flows from the reservoir.
Until then, the Snake offers its most extreme conditions. Year-to-year, peak water flows can range from less than 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to more than 25,000 cfs. Regardless, hiring an experienced guide who knows the river’s moods and tricks is essential.
Several rapids in the Snake River Canyon change dramatically depending on the water level. Three Oar Deal, a hole 2.7 miles downstream from the West Table put-in, doesn’t exist during the late summer when the water is low. But, when the river flow exceeds 12,000 cfs, Three Oar Deal is a Class V whitewater feature with a small margin for error.
Another Snake River Canyon rapid, Big Kahuna, rapid offers a standing wave that’s best for surfing below 6,000 cfs. But Lunch Counter, a rapid 5.2 miles from the put-in, is a favorite for surfers when water flows range from 13,000 to 6,500 cfs.
But if your summer vacation falls later in the summer, never fear, rapids in Snake River Canyon still get the adrenaline pumping well into the late summer/early fall. Check our next blog post for scenic float recommendations.
What time is best for a scenic float? Just ask the wildlife.
A scenic float down the Snake River during the summer in Jackson Hole offers stunning beauty regardless of when you make the trip. But for wildlife watchers, there’s a few tricks to make sure you maximize your haul of charismatic critters. In general, rafters increase their chances of seeing the region’s stunning wildlife at dawn and dusk. Rafting companies like Barker-Ewing whitewater suggest their early morning trips for the best chance of success, especially for birds.
An 8:30 a.m. float from Snake River Ranch to Wilson is almost sure to include sightings of raptors such as bald eagles and osprey, and waterfowl such as Barrows goldeneyes and mallards. Be on the lookout for larger species such as trumpeter swans, Canada geese and American white pelicans too. Mammals also prefer the twilight hours, and the Snake River plays host to scores of moose and elk. Time it just right, and you might even catch these animals wading or swimming across the river as they move about their habitats. Foxes, beavers, otters and muskrats are also common. Even grizzly bears and wolves make an appearance by the riverside on occasion. In the northernmost reaches of Grand Teton National Park, rafters might even catch a herd of bison grazing near the water.
Time of year is also a factor. Many species migrate in the spring and fall, and its easier to spot these animals as they’re moving from their winter range to their summer range or vice versa. Entire herds of elk and deer may stage along the banks before a river crossing to greener pastures during the shoulder seasons. And, where these ungulates go, predators are sure to follow.
Still, even at the height of summer under the mid-afternoon sun, a spectacular wildlife spotting on a Snake River scenic float trip is practically a forgone conclusion. The Snake River corridor—the river and the riparian lands around it—offer some of the best habitat in a region known for its top-notch wildlife. Bring your binoculars and waterproof camera and prepare for some serious bragging rights.