From the Tetons to Yellowstone: A Classic American Road Trip

Sunski explorer Elisabeth Brentano knows a thing or two about epic road trips. After giving up her apartment and full-time office gig in 2016, she’s been working as a freelance photographer and blogger while living out of her Jeep — and traveling all over the west.

Every year I do a girls’ trip with my former college roommate and a few other gal pals, and it usually consists of us relaxing, talking for hours, making food, drinking wine, playing Cards Against Humanity and going on the occasional hike. Time slows down, and sleeping in until 11am is totally acceptable. We’ve been to Costa Rica, Palm Springs and a few other spots in California, but this fall we decided to get some mountain time in Montana.

Of course, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to work in a solo road trip, so I ended up spending nearly three weeks between Wyoming and Montana after driving up from California. It had been years since I visited Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, so I also played tourist for a good part of the trip, and it was awesome. As much as I love exploring off the grid spots, there’s really something to be said for finding beauty in those “classic” vistas too. Here are some of my favorite photos from that late autumn adventure…

Does it get any better than this? When you drive up this road, the Tetons literally come out of nowhere, and watching them rise from behind the cracked pavement is one of those moments that doesn’t even seem real. Even on a cloudless evening, the range looked incredible, and since they were socked in the next day, I felt very lucky to see this when I did. And so my road trip began…

All I wanted was to see the Grand Teton in front of a fiery sky, but the peak had been covered in clouds the entire afternoon, and the range was completely socked in. I was camped on a forest road across from the east side of the mountains, and while it’s an amazing spot, it doesn’t offer much in the way of landscape compositions. I knew my best bet was to keep my long lens out and hope for some light to blow up behind one of the peaks. Slowly but surely, some faint pink lines appeared on the horizon, and then they started to turn orange. I kept staring at the Grand hoping it would pop out, but suddenly Buck Mountain seemed to scream, “Look at me! Look at me!”

Slowing down and paying attention to the details can be just as rewarding as a sweeping mountain view or a close encounter with wildlife. The lighting was the first thing that caught my eye, and then it was the texture of this long, golden grass that really grabbed my attention. It swayed and sparkled in the wind, glowing under the last sunlight of the day. Seeing as the foliage had already peaked a few weeks prior, this was really the only pop of color on the otherwise barren landscape.

 

It doesn’t matter if an animal is crossing the road or posing in a field of magically-lit grass, seeing wildlife makes you feel like a kid at Disneyland sometimes. While there are bison and bears in the Tetons, Yellowstone is always teeming with wildlife (especially in Lamar Valley), and all you really need to do is drive around, be patient and wait. Just a few minutes before this photo was snapped, a herd of bison crossed the road right in front of me, and some of the animals were literally an arm’s reach from my car. After they made their off the road, I pulled over in a nearby turnout and snapped a few shots out the window on a long lens. (Per NPS rules, always make sure you stay at least 100 yards from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards from all other animals, including bison and elk, which have been known to charge individuals who get too close.)

Yellowstone is one of those parks where every sense is engaged, and this was just my second time visiting as an adult. The park boasts incredible scenery and an abundance of wildlife, but there is also something to be said for the feeling of piping hot steam from the geothermal zones hitting you in the face, especially when it’s 20 degrees out! I walked up the boardwalks to Mammoth Hot Springs not really knowing what to expect, and I was blown away by layer after layer of terraced earth. The colors and textures are unbelievable, whether it’s the deep blue of the Morning Glory pool or the gradient of earthy tones on the land around the hot springs…

 

This certainly isn’t the prettiest photo I’ve ever taken. But again, the texture and natural gradient around Mammoth Hot Springs was something I simply couldn’t stop staring at. I felt the same way about the mud pots, and I stayed for at least 5 minutes watching the chalky-white pool of boiling mud burp up bubbles. It’s not often that you see something like that, so why not stick around for a while? No one said you had to walk right by these spots on the park’s boardwalks…

 

I’ve seen a few photos of this place, and I was instantly drawn in to the uniqueness of the landscape. How could such a scene be real? It seemed so inviting, yet so dark. A friend pointed me in the right direction regarding the location, and when I first saw the cluster of trees around the curvy creek, I did a double take. It was such a small patch of land, yet it seemed to go on forever. I felt like I was looking through an extreme wide angle lens or a distorted window, and when the wind picked up, the layers of dead trees behind me creaked and groaned in a way that seemingly made them come to life. It was eerie, beautiful and I know I’ll stand here again someday with the same sense of wonder. When real life is just as enchanting as a photo you’ve looked at dozens of times, that’s a pretty special thing. This doesn’t happen all that often, so these moments are ones I really enjoy hanging onto.

Follow Elisabeth Brentano @elisabethontheroad to see more of her amazing photos and adventures!