Want some tips on how to make your next vacation to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks affordable and fun? Here are four ways to save money, avoid crowds, see wildlife and dip into the local scene in the Greater Yellowstone area.
1. Make Your Vacation Longer with Affordable Lodging
What you quickly discover when planning a national park vacation is how park lodging costs can shrink a fantastic 8-day vacation to a measly four days. Stretch your budget and opt for a longer Yellowstone vacation by basing out of the Idaho Falls area, which is just 1 hour and 45 minutes from the park.
“It’s a great place to stay, not to mention it will cut your hotel stay budget in half,” says Chip Schwarze, CEO of the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce & Snake River Territory Convention and Visitors Bureau. “When you’re staying in the park, you’re looking at $300-plus per night. In Idaho Falls, it’s $119-$240 per night, so it is significantly cheaper.”
In addition, you’ll have a variety of places to choose from from national chains to getaways like South Fork Lodge that offers fly fishing float trips and guided fishing tours. Between Idaho Falls and Jackson, Wyo.,on the Idaho side, South Fork Lodge sits on the South Fork of the Snake River, offering extraordinary fishing and solitude.
Plus, staying outside the park means you can bring the kids out to a movie, take a stroll down the River Walk in Idaho Falls and choose from a variety of restaurants to eat. The River Walk, which stretches five miles on either side of the Snake River, has live music concerts, a farmers market on Saturdays and a number of restaurants along it, including Snowy Eagle Brewery & Grill. Serving American pub fare, Japanese dishes and sushi, the brewery is a great place to enjoy riverside dining.
2. Experience Guaranteed Grizzly Sightings Plus African Penguins
Missed spotting a grizzly or black bear in Yellowstone’s famed Lamar Valley? You’re guaranteed a bear sighting at Yellowstone Bear World. Located in Rexburg, Idaho, Yellowstone Bear World is a drive-thru wildlife park that’s home to grizzly bears, black bears, moose, elk and more. There is also a petting zoo and amusement rides to keep everyone in the family engaged.
If you’ve toured Yellowstone Bear World and are still up for seeing animals, head to the Idaho Falls Zoo, dubbed “the best little zoo in the West.” Small enough to see it all in a couple hours, this zoo has played a large role through its breeding program in helping ensure the survival of species endangered in the wild. On June 29, 2019, the zoo’s 6-year-old red panda Delilah gave birth to Marvin the Red Panda. Red pandas are endangered in the wild, and every red panda born in zoos helps boost the numbers of red pandas alive in the world. On the same day in 2019, an African penguin chick hatched at the zoo, two days after another African penguin chick hatched. Since African penguins are endangered, their arrival was a huge celebration.
"As wildlife numbers globally continue to decrease these chicks are important ambassadors for the conservation of their species," Zoo Director David Pennock said in a press release.
The zoo has raised more than $120,000 for local and global conservation programs since 2015.
3. Enjoy Spectacular Views without the Crowds
Few travelers know that the Idaho side of the Tetons is just as striking as the Wyoming side with one huge bonus: fewer people.
“The scenery is just as good on this side and it’s without the crowds,” says Schwarze.
Plus, there are amazing hot springs and waterfall hikes with none of the parking lot jams you’ll find in the park. Heise Hot Springs in Heise, Idaho, is a popular local place that attracts travelers every year. When it's hot out, the summer pool is kept at 84 degrees and has a 350-foot waterslide and diving board. For those who prefer to soak, a hot pool with 104-degree temperatures will ease your sore muscles while the warm pool stays at 92 degrees. Don’t miss the Heise Pizza Parlour next door where you can sit on the deck, eat pizza and watch golfers aim for a hole-in-one at the Heise Hills nine-hole golf course. Locals drive for miles through snow and rain for the pizza here.
For a great and short waterfall hike, head to Mesa Falls in Caribou-Targhee National Forest north of Ashton, Idaho. Stop first at the charming Mesa Falls Visitor Center, which is open daily in the summer, to learn about the volcanic geology of the area. It’s a gorgeous Victorian-style log cabin with trails and a boardwalk leaving from it. The Upper Mesa Falls stretch 114-feet, as high as a 10-story building. The Lower Mesa Falls are a mile away. Both are the most prominent waterfalls on the Snake River to be unaffected by dams or other human-made projects.
From Idaho Falls, you’ll also be close to a lesser visited national park site: Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve. Just an hour and a half from Idaho Falls, Craters of the Moon is a giant lava field that spans 618 square miles. The lava from eruptions poured out of the Great Rift beginning 15,000 years ago and ending 2,000 years ago. Do a short hike, attend a summer ranger program or camp there and enjoy its dark skies, which make for fantastic star gazing.
4. Get a Taste of the Wild West
Live out all your wild West dreams when you go on a chuckwagon dinner outside of Idaho Falls. Head to Mountain River Ranch in Ririe, Idaho, where you’ll witness an old-fashioned Wild West Shootout. When the dust settles, you’ll load up into a horse-drawn wagon to the Meadow Muffin Dinner Theatre. After unloading, you’ll find a legendary Western-style BBQ dinner awaiting complete with corn-on-the-cob, BBQ baked beans, beef tri-tip or chicken and huckleberry ice cream. But the fun does not end there. Kick back and enjoy the humorous music variety show that includes song and dance.
For more information:
Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce &
Snake River Territory Convention and Visitors Bureau
365 River Parkway, Idaho Falls, Idaho 83402