Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Confession: National Parks have always been on the back burner for me. Why? Traveling outside of the U.S. has still called to me more...and as I now look back on the summer of 2020, I have to think, "Why didn't I do this sooner?" "How does this even exist in the U.S.?" "but why male models?" The silver lining of COVID-19 for me has been the opportunity to explore my backyard in the most conventional (and safe!) way. So, let's deep dive into the beautiful region of the Northern Rocky Mountains and how I accidentally hiked 14 miles in one day. Not by choice.
Stop 1: Grand Teton National Park
*Before we begin, I would highly consider purchasing a National Park Pass for your journey. It is $80 for the year (which you can split between friends) and is an easy way to enter parks quickly while avoiding cash fees. It also gives you an excellent excuse to visit more national parks at a later date!
The Tetons are the gateway to the northern Rockies and a great jumping-off point to begin your trip. As our entire crew was from southern California, we all flew into Jackson Hole for our first leg and to experience running water and beautiful downtown Jackson Hole (which I will get into in a later post!). Jackson Hole is only a 30-minute drive to Grand Teton National Park, making it the perfect place to stay when visiting northwest Wyoming.
IMPORTANT (but irrelevant) NOTE: You will see me wearing this Stetson hat in EVERY photo. A reasonable concern for me is okay, but I'm fairly certain they would not let me into the National Parks without it on...
If you can wake up early, grab a cup of coffee at Persephone Bakery and head out to the park before as crowds can form when entering the park. We entered the park and started hiking around 8 am and had only three other people that hopped on the trail at that point; however, it does fill up quickly!
Cascade Canyon Trail is a breathtaking hike that has all nature lovers crave: waterfalls, lakes, vast mountain ranges; you name it. The walk is beautiful, and part of it surrounds Jenny Lake, which is stunning, clear, and perfect for swimming. You can hike to your heart's content, but if you're like me and struggle to find the limit, IT EXISTS. Do not get to mile 7 and realize you have run out of water and have seven more miles to go. Speaking of which, BRING LOTS OF WATER.
Other Hikes In Grand Teton National Park:
Leigh Lake: Just north of Jenny Lake, this spot boasts beautiful mountain and lake views.
String Lake: About a 3.8-mile trek, This loop has several vantage points of Mount Moran and continues on Wyoming's quest only to display gorgeous mountain and lake perspectives.
Hidden Falls: Just below Inspiration point along the Cascade Canyon Trail, is lined with Huckleberry bushes. If you have the energy, continue up to Inspiration Point for a bird's eye view!
Stop 2: Yellowstone National Park
A road trip classic, Yellowstone National Park is arguably the most universally known attraction for National Park consumers. If you did not hear or read about Old Faithful during your Scholastic Bookfair in 4th grade, did you even attend? Don't know what the Scholastic Bookfair is? Want to feel old?
So unpopular opinion, but we were able to accomplish everything listed below in one day. If you are taking this same trip (*in Alexis Rose voice* so cute, so sweet), I would recommend waking up early and just knocking out attractions, as you'll want to spend the most time exploring Glacier National Park, your last stop!
Our Yellowstone adventure began with taking the entire Grand Loop Road around the park. Naturally, our first pitstop was Old Faithful. Before you gripe on me about the beauty and tradition that is this landmark, I have to confess: it was somewhat underwhelming. But you are not going to enter Yellowstone and NOT see Old Faithful. So, the next best thing? Utilize these timetables like this Geyser time predictor or this National Park Service one. Important note: no time table will be 100% accurate, so allow an extra 15-20 minutes before the predicted eruption to enjoy the scenic grounds, grab some water and wait for the geyser eruption. *Hot tip: Start as early as you can for Yellowstone. We arrived for one of the early eruptions starting around 8:15 am and with visiting in the peak season (summer) & parking, it set us up for success for the rest of the day.
Next, do a quick backtrack to the Grand Prismatic Spring. This rainbow-colored Hot Spring is incredible to witness and a short, low impact hike leading to the boardwalk next to the spring. For a different vantage point, follow the signage for the Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail, which we opted to do instead and still delivered incredible views. *Hot Tip: Park in the south entrance toward fairy falls to avoid boardwalk foot traffic if you plan to hike the Overlook Trail!
Making your way around the West side of Yellowstone, turn off at West Thumb Geyser Basin of Lake Yellowstone. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, I would advise looking into what areas of the park are closed/open. However, the West Thumb is a beautiful way to see other glaciers against the scenic lake Yellowstone.
Moving through the west side, you'll start your journey into the Hayden Valley region, which is hands down the best place to spot wild bison. There are pull-off areas where you can watch these bison roam through the valley and snap killer photos.
Our next stop: the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, which I honestly cannot recommend enough. Ever been to a place that feels like a postcard? This waterfall & canyon combination felt like we stepped right into one. There are several vantage points to see the falls and adjacent canyon for a quick photo op!
To round out the Grand Loop Road excursion, head back toward the west entrance to Firehole Swimming Area. We were disappointed that this was closed to due high water levels on the day we visited, but the crystal clear water is the perfect way to cool off after a day of walking & hiking.
Other Hikes/Attractions in Yellowstone National Park:
Excelsior Geyser Crater/Turquoise Pool/Opal Pool: Along the same path as the Grand Prismatic, these are beautiful attractions to see more hot springs similar to the West Thumb Geyser Basin.
Gibbon Falls: Beautiful cascading waterfall with a viewing area for optimal sightseeing.
Black Dragon's Calderon - Mud Volcano: Incredibly unique hot spring (check for closures!)
Tower Falls: Stunning overlook area that captures the best view of this waterfall.
Stop 3: Glacier National Park
The final stop on the ultimate National Park road trip is certainly not as close in proximity as Grand Teton and Yellowstone are to one another; however, it remains my absolute favorite of our trip. Located in Crystal Point, Montana, this vastly large landscape has views that remind me of time spent in central Europe. I advise breaking up your trip with stops on the way to Bozeman and Big Sky, Montana. A beautiful, scenic route to not drive 6 hours straight!
You will need more than one day to accomplish a lot of the itinerary recommended here, so I suggest allowing 2-3 days for the entirety of Glacier National Park.
As Glacier National Park is incredibly vast, it is essential to prioritize your bucket list based on direction. We first headed to Bowman Lake for a quick hike around the water and a quick dip. Entry into the northwest part of the park had us drift into the adorable Polebridge, Montana, which is a must stop! The Polebridge Mercantile boasts the best huckleberry bear claw in the state and has fun merchandise for purchase. Polebridge is also one of the few areas in the park with restrooms, food, & water, so it is advantageous to visit - or at least that's what I tell myself whilst wolfing down bear claws.
Probably noteworthy to mention at the beginning of the post: All wheel drive is important. As in, we were scared for our tiny car as it ventured up and down the gravel road the entire way to Bowman Lake. Although our Nissan survived the trek, not all are as lucky, and I highly suggest an all-wheel-drive vehicle when visiting this spot. Bowman Lake can be hiked for as little or long as you'd like, but we did take it easy this day - however, you can trek around the entire lake! The lake is beautiful, crystal clear, and is perfect for a mid-morning swim. You could realistically spend a good part of your morning and afternoon in this slice of Glacier National Park.
After rejuvenating our stomachs with some sandwiches from the Elkhorn Deli (cannot recommend enough), we headed back into the park for an early sunset hike along the Highline Trail Loop. On your way, enjoy Going-to-the-Sun Road as stopping along to see sites such as The Weeping Wall and mountainscape are highly encouraged. We pulled over when we saw these gorgeous flowers with the breathtaking mountain views!
Typically, The Highline Trail is incredibly busy and bustling with people. More people= parking insanity. However, we found that going in the evening hours supplies fewer tourists at peak times and cooler weather to enjoy the sunset views. Park at Logan Pass and make your way across Going-to-the-Sun to access the Highline Trail. We opted to bring rosé in a can because it was necessary. The great thing about National Parks is you are entirely in control of how far or not far you go on a trail, but I do suggest hiking at least a mile in for the most exquisite views! There is something about golden hour on this trail that really made me thankful to live in such a beautiful country.
Much like Yellowstone, I advise waking up early to start your day, find better parking, and avoid the crowds! Day 2 brought us first to Avalanche Lake at the Trail of Cedars Trailhead. Absolutely a must-see and a more leisurely hike to start the day (about 4.5 miles roundtrip), Avalanche Lake was where we spotted our first and last Grizzly Bear, which ended up chasing a few unfortunate hikers. The park rangers are incredibly diligent, and I did not feel unsafe at any point! However, you are still in nature, and it is crucial to have bear spray on you at all times!
We then drove back onto Going-to-the-Sun Road to St. Mary's Falls Trail. This hike is a quick one (about 1.7 miles roundtrip) but has stunning waterfalls and natural vegetation. When you come to the falls, you will see many people crowded on the main bridge that connects over the falls. Do yourself a favor and continue for another .5 miles or so until you get to Virginia Falls, which is way less crowded and arguably more impressive! We enjoyed our time in the cold water and even had a mini rainbow enter our photos! *Hot Tip: Be sure to look to the fresh produce you can forage along the way to the falls!
Other Hikes/Attractions in Glacier National Park:
Hidden Lake: We were incredibly disappointed this was closed due to bear activity! It's about 5.4 miles roundtrip and carpeted in wildflowers and scenic views.
Lake McDonald: You essentially drive around Lake McDonald to get to most destinations, but it would have been nice to stop at the pier to enjoy it! It is Glacier National Park's largest body of water.
Granite Park Chalet: COVID-19 impacted area, but next year could be a great place to stop and enjoy picturesque views!
This experience was remarkable, surprising, and one I will absolutely remember amidst 2020. If you venture on this road trip this year or next, I would love to hear from you about your experiences! And as always, feel free to comment with any additional questions or feedback :) Or you know, if you have another hat I can buy...