Destination: Yellowstone and Grand Teton National ParksWritten by John Ruley
“Pilot Report: Gorgeous!” That’s what I said when closing my flight plan after a two hour air tour during a flying vacation in (and over) Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, two of the premier vacation destinations in the U.S. Both parks and related areas, including the resort town of Jackson Hole, Wyo., turned out to be particularly well suited for a flying vacation—in fact, as our photos show, some features really can’t be fully appreciated unless you see them from the air.
The scenery in both parks is so spectacular that when fur trappers and other early explorers came home with tales of them, they were not believed. Yellowstone is located in the basin of a giant—and still active—volcanic caldera, which accounts for its many geysers and other geothermal features. The Grand Tetons, a few dozen miles south of Yellowstone, are some of the youngest (and most rugged) mountains in the world, though formed from very old rocks. They’re actually much larger than they look: During the ice ages, glaciers destroyed what would have been their foothills, so the peaks rise directly from what amounts to a sea of gravel, which accounts for the high surface elevation in the valley called Jackson Hole.
That elevation means that pilots flying into the area must be very aware of density altitude—the two closest airports; Jackson Wyo. (KJAC) and West Yellowstone, Mont. (KWYS) have field elevations of 6,541 and 6,649 feet, respectively. On hot summer afternoons the density altitude can exceed 10,000 feet. Of the two, West Yellowstone is closest to the parks, just a few miles from Yellowstone’s west entrance. With a rental car, you can be out of your airplane and into the park in a matter of minutes.
Jackson is further away, requiring about a one hour drive to reach Yellowstone’s south entrance, but the drive provides stunning views of the “Cathedral Group” of the five largest mountains, including Grand Teton (13,770 MSL). If you fly in from the West, as we did, you’ll fly past it, which is best done in the morning on a calm day. Be forewarned though: Jackson is a tourist town, and KJAC caters to high-end executive jets. We paid $6.50 per gallon for 100LL, and $15 per night for a tie-down. West Yellowstone would have been considerably cheaper, but we were staying with a friend who lives in Jackson.
Weather is another challenge when flying into the area—as with other mountain regions orthographic lift can lead to localized thunderstorms, and mountain waves are an issue if there’s more than light wind. In the summer, forest fires and smoke can be a problem—visibility at KJAC was eight miles when we flew our air tour due to preventative fires that were being set to avoid the kind of holocaust that devastated Yellowstone in 1988.
Winters can be harsh. For all practical purposes, the town of West Yellowstone closes down at the end of the summer tourist season, and full-time support by the KWYS FBO ends at about the same time, around October first. If you want to fly in after that, you’ll need to call ahead for services, and for that matter to check which park entrances are open. Jackson, on the other hand, is open year round.
We flew in for the last two weeks of September, which turned out to be good timing, with a ten day spell of excellent weather and thinner crowds than in mid-summer, but some attractions, including the chair lift at Snow King in Jackson and horseback riding in the northern part of Grand Teton NationalPark, had already closed.
Assuming you arrive during the summer season when the roads are open, I highly recommend getting a rental car and driving around first before flying an air tour. Doing so helps in understanding the terrain, so you can tell what you’re seeing from the air, and the Park Service maps at the entrance are a big help finding things. We spent three days and two nights exploring Yellowstone, and several days driving through Grand Teton before flying over both.
The park service map was invaluable when planning our air tour. On a visit to the FBO at West Yellowstone, I was reminded to maintain at least 2,000 AGL above the park (per AIM 7-4-6) and advised to follow the loop roads. Since elevations along the roads reach almost 9,000 feet, that requires at least an 11,000 foot cruise altitude.
To play it safe, I planned to fly my initial North-West bound leg at 12,500 and then descend to 11,500 for my South-East return to Jackson. Once I reached Yellowstone, my plan was to fly a figure-eight pattern staying about ½ mile to the right of the upper and lower loop roads (in case someone else was doing the same thing in the opposite direction), but wound up only doing the lower loop due to time constraints.
With a bit of time circling locations of interest, the flight took exactly two hours (half of which was due to the flight time to and from Jackson). Fortunately, the lower (or southern) loop includes many of the best known attractions, including the Old Faithful complex, three geyser basins, artist’s paint pots, mud volcano, the south end of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Yellowstone Lake; and of course we had views of the Tetons and associated lakes on the way up and back. Flying the upper loop would probably have taken an additional hour, and would have provided additional views of the Canyon, Washburn Mountains and Blacktail plateau.
Now, about our air tour photos: You’ll note that while we have (inevitably) a shot of Old Faithful geyser from the ground, all we got from the air is the huge Lodge complex. Despite what you may have heard, Old Faithful doesn’t fire on the hour. It is predictable—based on the length of an eruption, the time of the next one can evidently be estimated within a few minutes. If you’re leaving from KWYS it might be possible to call the lodge, get an estimate of the next eruption, time your arrival to get there a bit early and loiter until it blows; otherwise you won’t see it go from the air. But that’s not necessary, just a few miles north on the lower loop road you’ll find Midway geyser basin, which runs pretty much constantly and right next to it is the Great Prismatic Pool.
The Pool is the unearthly looking blue thing with the orange rim in the photo on pages 38-39. It is flat-out the most amazing sight we saw on our air tour, and is up there with Meteor Crater and the Grand Canyon in terms of amazing things I’ve seen from the air. While it can be visited on the ground, the Pool is so big that you can only see parts of it. In Kate’s aerial shot you’ll notice tiny specks on the ribbon winding around the upper right: Those are people on the boardwalk.
By the way, when planning the air tour I worried a bit about how much traffic there might be, and what communications frequency to use. It turned out there wasn’t much traffic, not only on our flight but while we were in the parks. I only saw airplanes flying overhead three or four times in almost two weeks. Of course this may vary at different times of year. As for communications, flying North from Jackson I stayed on the KJAC tower frequency until I got near West Yellowstone, then called their Unicom frequency (KWYS is a non-towered airport) and monitored it until time to turn South.
We didn’t spot any wildlife on our air tour, but made up for it while driving: bison were common, elk a bit less so, we saw many birds, and I got one look at a gray wolf, but didn’t get a picture as he quickly ducked into the tree line. Short hikes took us around various thermal features, and to views of the upper and lower falls of the Yellowstone River. In Grand Teton National Park, we hiked part way around Jackson Lake, and took a boat across Jenny Lake (at the foot of Grand Teton itself), then hiked up a steep, rocky, path to Inspiration Point (which I personally think ought to be called Perspiration Point) for a view across the lake.
Besides driving and hiking through the parks, we spent some time in the small town of West Yellowstone and the larger town of Jackson—and were surprised to discover some aviation tidbits that aren’t mentioned in most guidebooks. West Yellowstone has an excellent historical museum that turned out to have a surprisingly wide range of aviation artifacts, including a pair of hand-made wooden skis used for the first winter landing in the park. A smaller museum in Jackson has a “snow plane”—basically an airplane engine and fuselage on skis with no wings. They were commonly used as transportation around and across frozen lakes in the winter until quite recently. A docent at the museum in Jackson told us that the Antler Motel used to be a fly-in destination, with pilots landing airplanes in an open field next door. That field has long since been built over, but the motel is still standing.
A guidebook we picked up from our local American Automobile Association (AAA) office alerted us to a surprising location just off the West Yellowstone airport access road, marked with a sign that says “Interagency Fire Control Center.” It’s actually a smokejumper base, and if you arrive during working hours and ask, they’ll happily give you a tour. We were particularly impressed by the tower in which they hang their parachutes between jumps, so they can check them for burn holes.
Of course, the museums have non-aviation exhibits as well, and there are other museums and visitors centers in and around the parks that cover topics including the geology of the area, vegetation and animals, and history, among other things. We particularly enjoyed the Indian Arts museum at the Colter Bay visitor center in Grand Teton National Park, and the Museum of Wildlife Art, which is just a few miles South of KJAC on the road into Jackson, Wyo.
On our last day before flying home, we discovered some alternatives that may be of interest for pilots unable to fly their own airplanes into Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. We took a tram ride from Teton Village to the top of Rendezvous Mountain (10,500 MSL).
After a half-mile hike around the peak I wished we’d brought the portable oxygen bottle from N4696K, but a hot cocoa at Corbet’s Cabin before heading back down helped. Just being that high with an unobstructed view of the valley floor is pretty impressive, but if you want to leave the ground, there are Paraglider pilots who can accommodate you on a tandem ride. For $245 or less, you can swoop over the mountainside on your way to the resort, about 4,000 feet below.
For a less strenuous flight, $325 per-person buys a one hour balloon ride (we discovered this, coincidently, on the day we took our air tour) over a ranch south-west of KJAC.
We found three guidebooks helpful on our trip: The AAA Tourbook for Idaho, Montana and Wyoming has useful information on both parks including food, lodging and attractions. Frommer’s Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks has very useful sample itineraries for trips from one day to more than a week in each park. Janet Chappele’s Yellowstone Treasures focuses on Yellowstone, and provides fascinating background on regional history, geology, flora, fauna and the effects of forest fires—we found a slightly dated copy at our local public library.
To sum up, I can’t recommend Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks highly enough—as you can see from the photos, they offer some of the most spectacular scenery in the continental U.S. Unless you live nearby, flying in may require a little extra effort (and expense). Trust me—it’s worth it! –JDR
For More Information:
FAA Airman’s Information Manual 7-4
West Yellowstone Airport
Jackson Hole Airport
Yellowstone National Park
Grand Teton National Park
Jackson Hole Paragliding
Wyoming Balloon Company