Cottonwoods with fall color in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park. (Courtesy Jim Peaco — Click to enlarge)

Yellowstone and Grand Teton reopen to fall splendor—and the crowds are gone

By Kelsey Dayton
— October 22, 2013

Visitors were lined up when Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks opened October 17 after the end of the 16-day government shutdown that forced them to close. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, even if it was just a short two week absence,” said Grand Teton National Park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs.

The closure served as a reminder for many about how special the parks are and the unique opportunities they offer, Skaggs said. And fall offers one of the most unique experiences — visiting the parks without the crowds.

Hiking trails are now open—and mostly empty—since the end of the government shutdown that closed national parks across the country. (Courtesy Grand Teton National Park — click to enlarge)

And while roads in both parks will soon close to vehicles — the inner park road and Moose-Wilson road close November 1 in Grand Teton and the inner park road in Yellowstone closes November 4 — there is still time to get out and make up for time lost to the government shutdown. The trails in both parks are in great shape, according to park staff. Cooler weather makes long and steep hikes more enjoyable, and in Grand Teton you can still get up to about 9,000 feet before hitting patches of snow, Skaggs said.

But the best part of this time of year is the lack of crowds.

It’s the perfect time to hike Cascade Canyon, one the park’s most popular hiking areas in the summer. The boat service across Jenny Lake isn’t running so you’ll have to hike around the lake. If you stop at Inspiration Point, you’ll get a six mile round trip outing, and you’ll be able to take in the famous views without having to share it with others. You can keep going to the forks in the canyon, for a round trip of about 13 miles. It will be obvious why the canyon is the park’s most popular canyon.

“This is a time to really relish Cascade Canyon with solitude, which you don’t get in the summertime,” Skaggs said.

A moose grazes among willows in Grand Teton National Park. (Courtesy Grand Teton National Park — click to enlarge)

While many of the leaves have fallen off the trees, there are still smatterings of color. Death Canyon is stunning year round, but especially nice in the fall, Skaggs said. There is almost always moose in the area and the vegetation is a mixture of oranges, reds and maroons.

The days are shorter and cooler, so plan on carrying extra layers and supplies. It’s especially important to wear sturdy footwear since you might patches of snow or mud. Bears are also still active so carry bear spray and make noise while hiking.

In Yellowstone you can still hit most hiking trails- although the road between Canyon and Tower is closed for the season.

“Things remain very accessible until we get a really big snow,” said spokesman Al Nash.

Steamboat Geyser in Norris Geyser Basin (NPS photo — click to enlarge)

While Yellowstone isn’t known for its colors, it is famous for its thermal features. In the summer it can be hard to get a picture of some of Yellowstone’s most famous sites without strangers crowded in the frame. Fall is the best time to visit Old Faithful and the Norris Geyser Basin area, Nash said.

“I love both of them, but I can’t say I go to either of those in peak season,” he said. “You can have a very different Yellowstone experience in the fall at your favorite spots.”

Those boardwalks teeming with visitors in the summer are quiet in fall. Even driving through the park is more relaxing without the build-up of cars.

It’s a great time for wildlife watching in both parks.

Bears are preparing for hibernation and scouring for food sources and could be spotted anywhere in the park, Nash said. As the snow begins to stick at the higher elevations it drives animals down to lower areas, where there are also roads. There are bison in the Hayden Valley, around Old Faithful and in the Lamar Valley and elk easily spotted in the Mammoth area, he said. And wolf watching is year-round.

Elk graze amid sagebrush with Mount Moran towering above. (Courtesy Jackie Skaggs Grand Teton National Park — click to enlarge)

In Grand Teton it seemed the animals had grown used to a park without people, Skaggs said. There are incredible amounts of elk visible from the roads — some people claim there’s more elk than they’ve ever seen. You can also see bison, pronghorn and moose. There have still been bear sightings in the park, as well, she said. It makes for stunning photographs of wildlife with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop, Skaggs said.

Services in both parks have mostly closed — some decided not to reopen for the short end-of-season after the shutdown and some were schedule to close by now anyway. Skaggs recommends hitting up Dornan’s where you can take in mountain views while enjoying food or a drink. In Yellowstone you’ll need to buy food in the gateway communities, or you can pack a lunch. After all, the picnic areas will be free in the park.

Both parks are open year round, with different access options and services, so if you miss the window of fall, start planning your winter trip. Each season brings a new type of adventure.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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