A Nature-Filled Utah & Wyoming Road Trip
It goes without saying that Yellowstone is one of America’s most compelling National Parks—in addition to being the country’s first (established well before Roosevelt’s time, by President Ulysses S. Grant), it lends itself extraordinarily well to an old-fashioned family road trip, as the roads leading into the park on all sides are almost as beautiful as what you’ll find inside its borders. We like to use Salt Lake City as a starting point—moving north from there, you can take advantage of the area’s great ski towns, which are quieter, but no less interesting, in the summer.
Salt Lake City
There’s a lot to like about Salt Lake City, beyond the fact that it offers easy direct flights to the ski terrain nearby. The city itself is bordered by the gorgeous Wasatch mountain range on one end and by the Great Salt Lake on the other. As part of a major tech boom that’s happening here, cool new restaurants, coffee shops, and breweries are popping up all over the place. It’s a city that deserves its own guide, but in the meantime, favorites below offer excellent road trip fare.
EATThe Copper Onion
The chef here, Ryan Lowder, actually trained with Jean Georges before he brought everything he learned back home to Salt Lake and opened his own spot. His menu leans on local meats and cheeses, and skews a tad Italian, with a healthy pasta section and some serious grilled meats. They’re open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
It’s almost sinful to leave Salt Lake without a dozen of Ruby’s famous cookies, especially with a long road trip stretched out ahead.
This classically hipster coffee spot roasts its beans in house—locals love that you can actually smell the process throughout the neighborhood. It’s a perfect place to swing through on the way to the mountains if you’re groggy from a long flight.
Park City/Deer Valley
One of the major benefits of living in Salt Lake is that the world-class ski resorts of Park City and Deer Valley are astonishingly close—between 45 minutes and an hour, depending on where in the city you’re leaving from. The towns are a bit quieter in the summer, but that’s really a benefit, as the restaurants and hotels all stay open, and there are more than enough warm-weather activities to entertain the kids (not to mention tire them out) for days on end.
STAYSt. Regis Deer Valley
While we couldn’t be bigger fans of the Montage Deer Valley, the St. Regis is a great option too, with tons of bells and whistles—from their signature butler service to a funicular that brings guests from the valet to the main lobby. Kids love the big swimming pool, and the fire pits on the terrace, where you can roast s’mores under the astonishingly starry sky. For parents, their impeccable service makes planning activities and getting around the town incredibly easy.
EATGrappa Italian Restaurant
The best thing about this cozy Italian spot is their sweet little patio, which is best experienced in the summer, under the twinkle lights they string between the building and the surrounding trees. The menu is classic Italian—hearty meat dishes and generous pastas that are blessedly filling after a long day of hiking or biking.
For an easy lunch, head to Bistro 412, a sweet little French spot on Main Street. The crôque-madame is perfect for pepping up tired littles. We also like the Troll Hallen Lodge at the Stein Eriksen, which has a view of the mountain—you’ll be able to watch mountain bikers finishing up their rides while you eat.
DRINKNo Name Saloon
This notoriously rowdy spot is the oldest, and arguably the most popular bar in town. Their rooftop is an excellent place to grab a beer with a view during the day, though it stays open well into the wee hours. This is also an excellent place to watch a game.
This just-opened shop on Main Street has a surprisingly contemporary buy for a resort town, though owner/buyer Katie’s style is still utterly wearable in Park City’s casual bars and restaurants. Expect to find shelves stocked with Frame denim, Rag & Bone sweaters, and Sundry loungewear (perfect for the long drive ahead), plus picks from See by Chloe and ALC.
The experts at Jan’s can pretty much get you through any mountain adventure, but we especially like to have a guide for fly fishing—they’ll make the sport fun for first-timers, and bring you to the locals-only spots where you’ll have the best chance of catching something.
From Deer Valley, head north to Jackson Hole. It’s a long drive (a little under 5 hours), but beautifully scenic the entire way. Route your GPS to drive you around the West side of Bear Lake; it adds about ten minutes, but it’s much more beautiful, and you’ll have the chance to stop in Garden City, a town that’s weirdly famous for their excellent raspberry shakes—locals argue about who makes the best ones, and while we haven’t tried them all, we can confirm that the version at LaBeau’s doesn’t disappoint.
Summer in Jackson Hole is arguably a busier season than the winter, since the town fills up with people exploring the mountains by foot, bike, and even boat. Those who’ve visited for skiing might not realize that the town is just a 30-minute drive from Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park, so it makes a perfect home base for exploring.
Amangani isn’t exactly in the center of town, but what it lacks in convenience, it makes up for in just about everything else. The views are breathtaking (and every single room has one), the spa is out-of-this-world, and the service is every bit as attentive as you’d expect at an Aman. Their concierges are well connected, too, so they’ll set you up with all the best outfitters for any adventuring you’d like to arrange.
EATThe Lotus Cafe
This cozy spot, right off the main drag, serves organic—and local, when possible in this snowy place—veggies and healthy breakfasts. It feels a bit like an old-school health food restaurant, with well-loved furniture, friendly waitstaff, and a miles-long tea list. It’s always buzzing with locals during breakfast and lunch.
SNACKJackson Whole Grocer
Like the local version of Whole Foods, this grocery store on the edge of town has great prepared food, plus local produce and tons of healthy packaged snacks. Fill up your cooler here before heading out of town, as the grocery options up in Yellowstone are significantly more limited.
DRINKThe Million Dollar Cowboy Bar
The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar isn’t exactly a discovery (you’ll know it by the enormous, neon bucking bronco sign in the middle of town), but it’s one of Jackson’s most iconic spots. You’ll find tourists, sure, but locals actually hang out here, too, in large part because of the raucous square dancing that takes place to the tune of live music six nights a week. Did we mention the barstools are made out of old saddles?
Of course, the real draw of Jackson is the outdoors—but if you need a break from the sun, the hot yoga classes at Pursue rival anything you’d find in a big city. The studio is clean and airy, with an excellent activewear shop in the front and fruit water on tap. It’s a nice place to duck out to while the kids are racing around on mountain bikes.
Though it certainly gets busy, especially in the summer months, Grand Teton is a bit quieter than some of the other National Parks—there are still plenty of hikes and places where a visitor can find solitude, and (unlike in Yellowstone) you can often snag a campsite late in the day. On the way in, you’ll drive by the National Elk Refuge: Don’t expect to see any elk in the summer, as they’re all up in the park; but if you’re lucky enough to be there in the winter, you can see the entire herd—they stick around thanks to a feeding program.
DOHike Phelps Lake
The Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Center is a gorgeous building with plenty of interesting educational stuff for the kiddos to check out, and it also makes a great starting point for some good hiking. Try the lollipop trail around Phelps lake, which offers beautiful views of the Tetons around a pristine mountain lake—there’s even a jumping rock for daredevils. As in most areas around here, it’s good to hike with bear spray, just in case.
DORaft the Snake River
The Snake River is unique because you can experience both whitewater and scenic float trips in the same general area. Sands Whitewater offers both, with some of the most experienced guides in the area.
From Jackson, you’ll drive north about an hour to reach Yellowstone’s south entrance—and once you’re in the park, most amenities are easily accessible from the major roads, which loop the park in a figure eight. Most people choose to explore the park by car, but there’s a lot to be gained—unique views, wildlife spottings, and (most importantly) some space from the other tourists—if you’re willing to get out of your car and walk around a bit.
STAYMT Under Canvas
Yellowstone obviously has some beautiful campgrounds, but they book up months in advance, and you’ll need to arrive around 7am (and probably wait out the previous occupants’ breakfast) for a first-come-first-serve option. For a camping experience that requires a lot less planning, we recommend Montana Under Canvas, a glamping operation in the tiny town of West Yellowstone, just outside the West entrance to the park. Tents have running water and private bathrooms, but the best parts of camping—the stars, the sounds of birds and other wildlife in the tall grasses—remain utterly intact. The staff here packs beautiful picnic lunches for daytime outings, and there’s a nearby restaurant that makes a great dinner option.
DOExplore the Lamar Valley
Located in the remote Northeastern section of the park, the Lamar Valley is by far the best place to see wildlife (this is actually the area where the famous Yellowstone wolves were reintroduced in 1995). Get out of the car and explore via a day hike at Trout Lake or Slough Creek, and don’t forget binoculars: bison, elk, bighorn sheep, wolves, and bears are usually sighted from quite a distance.
DOExplore the Geyser Basins
If you’ve never been to Yellowstone before, brave the crowds and take the littles to Old Faithful—there’s a reason it’s so popular. To get away from the crowds, check out the Steamboat geyser basin, which is less traveled—the park has done a lot of work to make it accessible, so it’s easy to walk around on the boardwalks and see everything up close and personal. The West Thumb Geyser basin is another great pick—it’s right on Yellowstone Lake, and the view of the Absaroka Mountains is amazing.
Another classic (and somewhat efficient) way to see the Yellowstone wilderness is on horseback. Yellowstone Mountain Guides is conveniently based in West Yellowstone, and they offer both day trips and multi-day packing excursions.
For those flying out of Salt Lake City, the drive down I-15 takes you through some gorgeous parts of Idaho—and as a major bonus, Robert Smithson’s stunning spiral jetty is a convenient stop on the way home.