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It is no secret that Yellowstone National Park is huge. I mean which park covers almost three states, has five entrances and close to 470 miles of roads? As you look towards planning a visit to Yellowstone, driving long distances can sound intimidating especially if you are strapped for time.
To begin, you could take a leaf out of our book. While you’re here, you could also check out our blog about an itinerary for Yellowstone National Park to know what’s in store.
In this blog, we will try to force you (ok, just coax you!) to follow a particularly scenic route if you decide to fly into Utah and drive from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone, as we did.
If you read our previous post, you might have noticed that we flew into Salt Lake City but departed out of West Yellowstone airport. This helped us avoid a long return drive, save time, making the one-way drop off fee for car rental totally worthwhile.
Comparing routes: Salt Lake City to Yellowstone National Park
Enough talking, now to the point. If you search for routes from Salt Lake City Airport to Yellowstone National Park, Google suggests the following options (click to open map):
Route I-15 which goes via Ogden might be the fastest, but that is not what we are after. We took the route I-89 North. This is arguably the most scenic route. The distance from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone is 300+ miles and adding another 15-20 miles to your route improves the experience of the journey considerably. Following this highway will eventually make you reach Yellowstone. Also, don’t worry about the tolls as there are none (even though Google says so). I will highlight the major stops along the way before we entered the south entrance. You can take a look at them on this map as well, though all our tips and sidenotes are mentioned below.
Salt Lake City to Yellowstone National Park road trip
Salt Lake City, UT
Our arrival was a late-night one, so we stayed in one of the hotels near the airport. There’s not much much to rave about except that we got a free shuttle ride to the hotel and a basic breakfast to start with. We picked up the car rental close to the hotel and set off.
Pro-tip: You save quite a bit of money if you rent a car from the city instead of the airport.
However one thing which we do need to rave about is the meal at Red Iguana which was delicious beyond words! We’ve had Mexican cuisine many times, but this has to be one of the best. Their moles are to die for and you can even request for the sampler plate before ordering your entrees. Normally we hate stopovers, but glad we had a 5-hour in Salt Lake on our way back to Boston 😉
Bear Lake, UT
Two hours north of Salt Lake City is the town of Garden City, home to the gorgeous Bear Lake.
Have your fellow passenger be camera ready as you start descending down. On a clear day, the shades of blue on this lake look too good to be true! Most likely, Google Maps will lead you to the marina center where there is a parking fee, but you can park for free at the state park and walk to the lake. We had our first picnic lunch of the trip at this spot 🙂
Pro-tip: Do not miss pulling over when you see the sign of Bear Lake Rest Area and Overlook. It comes right before you start taking the curvy roads down to the town center.
Besides the lake, this town is famous for raspberry shake. Head over to Raspberry Square and get yours! With the views of the lake and the yummy shake in hand, life will seem good. Count some more time in as you start driving north, as the vistas on the right side will urge you to pull over constantly.
In about 90 minutes, you will reach the town of Afton, Wyoming. We considered this as a quick stop for a stretching our legs and getting a glimpse of what Wild West towns look like. The biggest attraction here is the world’s largest arch made of elk antlers. The quirky cafes and bars made for good photo ops too.
About 70 miles north and you will reach the most commercial town in the Jackson Hole valley. However don’t rush but enjoy the drive up till here, as the panoramas just begin to showcase what this valley and the national parks hold for you.
Jackson is a nice, well-planned ski town and base for exploring Grand Teton and Yellowstone. You might opt to reach Yellowstone from Salt Lake City directly, but I would highly recommend planning a night stay. Here’s why:
- You’ve had an exhilarating day of drive today- why not celebrate it with a nice meal and few drinks?
- Besides stocking up on snacks, waking up early next day will enable you explore the jewels of Grand Teton NP with no crowds. It is literally a 20 minute drive away!
We stayed at Ranch Inn in Jackson and would rate it very fair for the price. Besides the location and free parking space in the heart of town, the staff was very friendly (So much so that I also befriended the server in the breakfast area who was from Slovenia on a summer gig. We’re friends on Instagram now). Normally I am an early riser but Supriya is not. But on this trip, she was up and pushing me to get in the car before sunrise. So next morning (and every morning thereafter in Yellowstone), we were driving around to the scenic spots or trails before the 10 AM crowd barged in. In this case, we drove to the most photographed places in Grand Teton, only to find the company of a few like-minded travelers with their tripods set up. It is also the best chance to view elusive wildlife, though we were not lucky that day. However, it was great to breathe in the crisp mountain air.
We got back in time for the breakfast at the motel, packed up, and followed our route to the South Yellowstone entrance. Our Yellowstone journey continued thereon.
Pro-tip: Walk to Persephone Bakery to have a coffee or grab something to go! It is clearly a local’s favorite.
I am not kidding but we literally witnessed how weather can be such a drama-queen on this drive from SLC to Jackson. Would we do it again? Yes, absolutely!
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