National Parks Road Trip: Northern Rockies
Grand Teton > Yellowstone > Glacier
Gateway Airport: Jackson, Wyoming
Explore the three crown jewels of the Northern Rockies on this tour spanning some of the continent’s most stunning alpine scenery and explosive geologic wonders. This trip takes you into the beating heart of wild America, from the soaring spear tips of the Tetons and the teeming wildlife of Yellowstone’s volcanic plains to the ice-carved cliffs of Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Grand Teton National Park
The Tetons may be the most magnificent mountains in the Rockies, rising 6,000 feet from the valley floor and necklaced with glittering lakes and the sinuous bends of the Snake River. Wildlife abounds in the sagebrush flats of the valley bottom, where a paved road spans the park, offering access to the web of hiking trails leading to lakes, canyons, and peaks that claw at the sky.
The Route: Jackson > Highway 191 > Yellowstone National Park South Entrance
On the Way: The thrilling, family-friendly tram to 10,450-foot Rendezvous Peak at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort—between the town of Jackson and the park on Moose-Wilson Road—delivers spectacular views and access to high-mountain hiking trails. Grab some waffles at Corbet’s Cabin at the top. The Teton Raptor Center on Highway 22 in Wilson has programs every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday featuring live eagles and owls.
Stay: The luxurious cabins at Jenny Lake Lodge—starting at $689 and including dinner, breakfast, bicycle rentals, and horse rides—may provide the poshest lodging in any national park. Families on a budget should head for the rustic conviviality of the Colter Bay cabins near the shore of Jackson Lake.
Eat: Jenny Lake Lodge serves elegant five-course dinners overlooking the most sublime lake in the park. For the casual crowd, Leek’s Marina and Pizzeria in Colter Bay serves tasty pies and local microbrews.
Don’t Miss: The neck-straining scenery along Teton Park Road, which passes Jenny Lake and a bevy of pullouts perfect for admiring the views. Stop at the state-of-the-art Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center for its films, dynamic exhibits, and unique “video river” set in the floor.
Tour: Rangers lead daily walks through Menor’s Ferry, where you can tour a 19th-century homestead and shop for period goods at the log general store. A replica ferry crosses the river in late summer.
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoints: Head up Signal Mountain Road, a spur off Teton Park Road, where an overlook offers grandstand views of the surrounding summits and sweeping valley below. Bring binoculars to scan for wildlife.
- Easy: Emerging at the foot of the Tetons, Hidden Falls tumbles for 200 feet from the mouth of Cascade Canyon. A shuttle boat across Jenny Lake leaves from the visitors center, where ranger-led hikes meet at 8:30 every morning. Continue up the trail for a more strenuous hike past Inspiration Point and into the canyon, where the crowds thin and mountains rise.
- Moderate: Tracing the shorelines of a series of gem-like pools that mirror the Tetons above, follow as much of the flat, 4.6-mile Leigh Lake Trail as suits you. Leigh Lake is a great spot for a refreshing swim on a hot day.
Side Drive: Antelope Flats Road leads to Mormon Row, where a cluster of homesteads dates to the 1890s.
Oddity: The thermally heated waters of Kelly Warm Spring host a population of tropical fish released from aquariums.
Before You Come: Read Wapiti Wilderness by Margaret and Olaus Murie.
Park Website: www.nps.gov/grte
Seasonal Notes: Summer is peak season in the Tetons for a reason—the crisp, sunny weather is perfect. To avoid the crowds consider coming in September, when afternoons are often still warm. Spring can be wet but rich in wildlife. Highway 191 is open year-round; Teton Park Road and other park roads are only open from May 1 through October 31.
Yellowstone National Park
Yes, Yellowstone has a wealth of geysers—more than anyplace else on Earth—but it also hosts the massive waterfalls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the profuse wildlife of the Hayden and Lamar Valleys, the volcanic peaks of the Absaroka Range, and the scintillating sprawl of Yellowstone Lake, the largest high-elevation lake in North America. There’s a reason this was the world’s first national park. The famed Grand Loop Road runs a figure eight through the park’s best sights.
The Route: Grand Teton > Grand Loop Road > Gardiner, MT
On the Way: See live wolves and grizzly bears at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. A nearby IMAX theater shows excellent films on the park.
Stay: Built with lodgepole pines felled in the park and featuring a 500-ton stone fireplace, the historic Old Faithful Inn is a masterwork of rustic “parkitecture.” With seven stories and 327 rooms, it’s the largest log structure in the world. Rooms start at $108 and its namesake geyser erupts just outside. For a more remote experience, Roosevelt Lodge Cabins in the Lamar Valley has wood-burning stoves and offers wagon rides to evening cookouts. Cabins start at $80.
Eat: For a taste of colonial elegance, the stately dining room at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel features fine dining with views across Yellowstone Lake. For a budget-friendly, once-in-a-lifetime experience, watch Old Faithful erupt over lunch at the Old Faithful Lodge Cafeteria.
Don’t Miss: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has two heart-pounding perches. The paved, half-mile Brink of the Lower Falls Trail leads to the precipice of the 308-foot cataract, where the viewing platform actually trembles. Across the canyon, you’ll never hike anything like the 328 metal steps of Uncle Tom’s Trail, ending at a thunderous cliffside platform where you can literally feel the power of the falls.
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoints: Most people miss Lake Butte Overlook, which offers the park’s best car-accessed view of Yellowstone Lake and the surrounding mountains. It sits on the edge of the massive volcanic caldera, the ongoing simmering of which produces the park’s myriad geysers and thermal features. Watch the sunset near Buffalo Ranch in the wide, wild Lamar Valley. This is when the wolf packs and grizzlies are often afoot and when the Absaroka Mountains are gilded with honeyed light.
- Easy: For a view of Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin away from the crowds, take the one-mile (round-trip) Observation Point Trail.
- Moderate: If you can only do one hike in the park, take the six-mile (round-trip) jaunt up Mount Washburn, where you’ll cross sloping meadows of wildflowers to summit views across the dynamic expanse of Yellowstone.
- Strenuous: For a true alpine experience, test your quadriceps on the two-and-a-half mile climb up 10,566-foot Avalanche Peak, near the park’s eastern boundary.
Side Drive: The two-mile road through Firehole Canyon leads past the 800-foot walls of an ancient lava flow to a waterfall and spring-warmed swimming hole.
Oddity: Straddling the Continental Divide, Isa Lake has two outlets—one flows to the Pacific, the other to the Atlantic.
Before You Come: Read Searching for Yellowstone by Paul Schullery.
Park Website: www.nps.gov/yell/
Seasonal Notes: The Grand Loop Road begins opening on May 1, and all segments of the road but one are closed by November 1. The exception is the Dunraven Pass, which closes in October. May is great for wildlife watching, but rain is common. The sunny days and cool nights of summer are peak season; get early-morning starts to beat the multitudes. The cooler weather and lighter crowds of autumn, when many animals begin gathering in the valleys, can be perfect, though winter can arrive at any time.
Glacier National Park
One of our wildest national parks and a hiking playground nonpareil, the wild and majestic high country of Glacier Park is laced with dirt ribbons leading to glaciers, waterfalls, and alpine meadows bursting with wildflowers. The few roads are equally magnificent, crowned by the Continental Divide crossing Going-to-the-Sun Road, one of America’s most beautiful drives.
The Route: Gardiner > Montana 89 > US 90 > Montana 287 > Montana 89 > Montana 2 > East Glacier
- Nat Geo Expeditions
On the Way: Viewing the planetarium and world-class dinosaur exhibits at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, just north of Yellowstone, is a fascinating way to spend an afternoon. Spend the night in an authentic tepee at the Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Village on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation outside of Browning, Montana, near Glacier’s east entrance.
Stay: With its massive Douglas fir columns and campfire-style central fireplace, the grandly rustic Many Glacier Hotel echoes a bygone era in park history. So do the small, simple rooms, but the balcony views across Swiftcurrent Lake at sunset are the park’s ultimate luxury. Rates start at $165. A 6.7-mile hike vaults over 3,000 feet up from Lake McDonald to the stone and cedar Sperry Chalet, built in 1913 amid mountain goats and glaciers. One of only two remaining alpine chalets in the park, its rooms start at $204 for one person (includes three meals per day).
Eat: Just outside the park boundary at West Glacier, inside the historic, Swiss-style Belton Chalet, the Belton Grill offers organic produce and an extensive wine list. The adjacent taproom has Montana beers and more budget-friendly fare. For a more frontier-style dining experience, head up the long, dirt road into the North Fork of the Flathead Valley, where the Northern Lights Saloon and Cafe serves elk burgers and huckleberry pie in a century-old homesteader’s cabin.
Don’t Miss: The best place to see one of the park’s disappearing glaciers from a road is Jackson Glacier Overlook on Going-to-the-Sun Road’s east side, where a view deep into the headwaters of the Saint Mary River reveals the vestigial slab of ice hugging the northern slopes of Mount Jackson. Visible from the road’s west side, the main plunge of Bird Woman Falls spills 560 feet out of a spectacular hanging valley.
Tour: For a Native American perspective on the history and ecology of the park, Sun Tours offers guided drives along Going-to-the-Sun-Road, led by local Blackfeet tribal members.
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoints: From Logan Pass, walk 1.5 miles across a carpet of alpine wildflowers and the Continental Divide to the Hidden Lake Overlook, where an aquamarine lake suddenly appears in a deep glacial cirque beneath muscular peaks. Sun Point along Saint Mary Lake is a lakeside picnic spot with magnificent views into the knife-edged summits of the Continental Divide.
- Easy: To see Glacier’s lush side, stroll the fern-fringed boardwalk through shady, old-growth cedar and hemlock on the half-mile Trail of the Cedars.
- Easy: Easy on the legs but a workout for the adrenals, the cliff-etched Highline Trail at Logan Pass cuts a precipitous path along the Garden Wall, where grizzlies and wolverines roam the flowered slopes.
Side Drive: Head north from Apgar up the Camas Road, where a sometimes rough dirt road leads into the North Fork of the Flathead Valley, a wild, off-the-grid enclave where the historic Polebridge Mercantile serves heavenly baked goods and Bowman Lake makes for a gloriously picturesque late-summer swimming hole. Plan at least half a day for the adventure.
Oddity: Water pours forth from the Weeping Wall on the west side of Going-to-the-Sun Road, cascading over vehicles in early summer.
Before You Come: Read Crown of the Continent by Ralph Waldt and Fools Crow by James Welch.
Park Website: www.nps.gov/glac
Seasonal Notes: Going-to-the-Sun Road, the park’s foremost attraction, typically opens in full in early June and normally closes in mid-October, though timing varies and may be affected by construction schedules. Some portions of the road remain open year-round. Though Glacier generally avoids the crowds that can plague Yellowstone and Teton, the parking lot at Logan Pass can fill up in midsummer, when early starts are essential. The park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle service, free with park entry, is an excellent solution. As is coming in September, when crowds thin and a kaleidoscope of color paints the high country.