Fall is one of my favorite times to head to Grand Teton and Yellowstone. The aspen glades are igniting in gold, maples add a splash of rouge, the conifers a dense green background, and the sky overhead often is clear and blue.
Of course, there's always the chance of an early snowstorm, but that simply adds to the raw beauty of the parks at this time of year.
Visit in fall and you'll find that animals are on the move, with the elk heading into their rut, bison slowly migrating to river bottoms, bears foraging to bulk up, and wolves following the bison and elk. By now the crisp nights have killed off most of the pesky insects and the cool days are perfect for hiking. With summer over, most of the crowds have left as well, beckoned home by the school calendar.
How do you chart out a fall trip to these two classics? You easily could wing it, as there's so much to see in both. You would be hard-pressed to come away disappointed simply by drifting through the parks with no specific plan, heading where the moment and your desire suggests.
But if that's too abstract and you prefer something a bit more disciplined, here's a suggestion or two.
If you're camping, either in tent or RV, in Yellowstone the Madison Campground is probably your best base of operations as it's conveniently located between Old Faithful, the colorful Norris Geyser Basin (a must see!) and West Yellowstone (for a fix of civilization or that night when you really don't want to cook).
The only in-park campground with RV hookups is Fishing Bridge, and that only allows hard-sided RVs due to its location within grizzly bear habitat. This location isn't bad, as it's right on Yellowstone Lake and close to West Thumb and its hot springs, geysers and mud pots, the wildlife-rich Hayden Valley, and Lake Hotel, if you want to splurge for a decadent meal.
The Norris Campground also might be good, as it's close to the geyser basin, Old Faithful is 30 miles to the south and Mammoth is 21 miles to the north, which is handy if you've never been there to see the travertine terraces. If you have been, then I'd suggest Madison over Norris.
If you like hiking, try the trail to Mystic Falls. Located near Biscuit Basin, it's not quite as busy as some of the other front-country trails and the falls are pretty, although by this time of year they're more of a trickle than the gusher that early summer creates. There's a short route and a longer, looping 4-mile route that entails hiking up some switchbacks to a promontory that provides a beautiful view of the valley before you swing back toward the falls.
Another great hike is to Lone Star Geyser. The trailhead lies near Kepler Cascades just south of Old Faithful. The trail actually is paved almost the entire way to the geyser and parallels the Firehole River, making for a truly beautiful setting. And the round-trip distance is only about 5 miles. If you opt for this, check with the Old Faithful Visitor Center for the geyser's estimated time of eruption so you can be sure to see it.
You also easily could spend a couple hours hiking the boardwalks around the Upper Geyser Basin at Old Faithful, and if you haven't previously done so you must now. If you have been there, take the time to walk through the Norris basin with its colorful thermal features. If time allows, the Mud Volcano site north of Fishing Bridge also is worth a stop.
Now, if time allows for a longer, multi-day hike, one of the best is from Old Faithful to Shoshone Lake with its geyser basin. You'll start from Old Faithful on the Howard Eaton Trail, which connects with the Shoshone Lake Trail near the Lone Star Geyser. There are some gorgeous lake-side campsites at Shoshone Lake, and of course the geyser basin is wonderful to see. However, there are no boardwalks here to keep you a safe distance from the boiling waters, so if you make this journey don't leave your commonsense behind.
If you prefer wildlife over geothermal attractions, visit the Hayden Valley and/or the Lamar Valley, both of which are magnets for bison and elk. The Firehole and Madison rivers also are good bets to spot geese, ducks, possibly trumpeter swans and, near the mouth of Yellowstone Lake at Fishing Bridge, even American white pelicans.
Grand Teton is much more straightforward than Yellowstone, as there are fewer options. If you're driving an RV, the Colter Bay RV Park, the only RV campground in Grand Teton that takes reservations, is a good location, being close to the lake and Jackson Lake Lodge and in good wildlife habitat for spotting moose and, this year, black bears it seems. If you're tenting it, the campgrounds at Signal Mountain and Jenny Lake are both centrally located and perhaps the most beautiful in the park.
If there's one hike you have to do, it's up Cascade Canyon on the far side of Jenny Lake. It's a popular trail, and so could be busy, though certainly not as much as in July or August. The trail quickly gets you up off the valley floor and offers great views back down across the lake. You can either walk a path around the lake or take a boat across for a somewhat small fee. Inspiration Point is not too far up the trail.
Depending on how warm the weather is, and if you want to take a dip, hike to String and Leigh lakes just north of Jenny Lake. Both lakes warm up more than any other in the park due to their shallow nature; String Lake will be the warmer of the two. This is also a great place for a picnic.
North of Moran, there are several points along U.S. 89 where you can pull off to view famous Oxbow Bend and get pictures of it with the Tetons in the background. You usually will spot quite a bit of waterfowl on this stretch of the Snake River. And don't forget to scan the treetops for roosting bald eagles.
The Teton Park Road, from Moose to Jackson Lake Junction, also is a nice drive with many points to pull over and take in the craggy views of the Tetons.
If you like art, the National Museum of Wildlife Art, just on the left side of U.S. 89 as you're leaving Jackson, is wonderful with its collections of oils, sketches, watercolors and bronzes. Among the works you'll find here are those of Ansel Adams, John Woodhouse Audubon, Albert Bierstadt, George Catlin, and even 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast.
I also like stopping at the Cunningham Homestead, located off U.S. 89 five-and-a-half miles south of Moran Junction, as it was one of the first homesteads in the valley and really gives you an idea of how tough things were way back when.
Also, seeing as the rut should be getting under way, check at one of the visitor centers in the two parks to see if they can recommend where you should head to listen to the elk bugle.
An indispensable hiking guidebook for these two parks is Andrew Dean Nystom's "Top Trails, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks."