Self-Driving Tour: Western National Parks

See Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks

Self-Driving Tour: Western National Parks

From jagged mountain peaks and towering cliffside waterfalls to wildly colored hot springs, the Western national parks’ jaw-dropping landscapes are ripe for discovery. Venture on a self-driving tour and explore all the scenery, wildlife and outdoor adventures that await. Yellowstone National Park is a great place to pack it all in, but if you’ve got a full week or more to hit the open road, add stops at Grand Teton or Glacier to your itinerary. Use this guide to design your own must-see route through one, two or three of these bucket-list national parks.

  • If you have 3-5 days: Visit Yellowstone National Park
  • If you have 5-7 days: Add on Grand Teton National Park
  • If you have 8-10 days: Add on Glacier National Park

If You Have 3-5 Days: Visit Yellowstone National Park

Getting There:

The nation’s eighth-largest park has five entry points, and all offer spectacular views on your journey. As you drive from Salt Lake to the park’s South entrance, the ride past the Grand Teton mountain range will have you itching to unpack your boots and get to climbing those awe-inspiring peaks. It’s important to plan your Yellowstone trip with the seasons in mind. Most park roads close from November to mid-April, and its entrances can be hundreds of miles apart if your chosen route is out of commission. Consult the park’s seasons and operating hours so you can pack the most adventure into your trip.

What to See and Do in Yellowstone

With 2.2 million acres spanning Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park is home to impressive sights like the bright, rainbow-colored Grand Prismatic Spring — the largest hot spring in the country — and the breathtaking Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, on the Yellowstone River. If you’re new to national parks, Yellowstone offers ranger programs and guided tours to get your bearings and immerse yourself in the park’s history.

Grand Prismatic Spring The Grand Prismatic Spring’s rainbow rings are courtesy of colorful bacteria.

A hiker’s paradise, Yellowstone offers more than 1,000 miles of trails. For an easy adventure, make the 5- to 8-mile trek along Fairy Falls Trail, which leads to the 200-foot waterfall known as Fairy Falls. The longer hike includes views of the Spray and Imperial geysers, two of the park’s more than 500 active geysers. Don’t miss its most famous geyser, Old Faithful, which erupts like clockwork each day. To commune quietly with this landmark, head to the Upper Geyser Basin early in the morning before the crowds arrive.

Yellowstone is home to many more thermal water features, including Norris Geyser Basin with its amble-friendly boardwalks and Roaring Mountain with its mystical steam vents that project a hissing sound. Drive to the Norris-Mammoth section of the park, just off Grand Loop Road, to hear it for yourself. In cooler waters like the Firehole or Gibbon rivers, anglers can cast their lines to catch some of the park’s 16 species of fish. Then visit the Fishing Bridge — where, ironically, fishing is no longer allowed — to spot the bright red cheeks of the cutthroat trout passing by.

Norris Geyser Norris Geyser Basin has the highest documented thermal temperature in Yellowstone at 459 degrees and geothermal features dating back 115,000 years.

For a few more relaxing options, try boating on Yellowstone Lake, the largest high-elevation lake in North America, with 141 miles of crystal blue shoreline. Or horseback ride along the park’s trails and backcountry. Bear Paw Outfitters offers popular rides like the Slough Creek trip, surrounded by mountain vistas and open meadows (pack your rod and reel for a brief fly-fishing stop along the way). Other area outfitters offer guided tours on llamas and mules, which should give you and your crew some tales to tell once you’re back home.

Coming and Going from Yellowstone

For a day trip or two on your self-driving adventure, exit the park at the Northeast entrance and drive the scenic Beartooth Highway. Make sure your crew packs binoculars for wildlife sightings and dramatic views along the highest-elevation highway in the Northern Rockies. Closer to Yellowstone’s eastern edge is the Buffalo Bill Center for the West, a series of five museums that illuminate life in the Wild West more than 100 years ago. Their exhibits include extensive Plains Indian artifacts and the largest collection of Buffalo Bill’s belongings. To better understand what life is like for the park’s furry residents, head for the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center on Yellowstone’s western edge. Fine-tune your own howl as you learn secrets of the center’s wolf packs at its Naturalist Cabin.

Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center Get up close with the bears at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, then check out the eagles and raptors in its birds of prey exhibit. Photo by Michelle Callahan. Flickr


Where to Sleep and Eat in Yellowstone

Yellowstone offers 12 campgrounds and nine lodges. Visitors to the Old Faithful Inn can watch its namesake geyser erupt from the hotel’s outdoor patio. If camping is more your style, the Bridge Bay Campground has a striking location on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. Some hotels and campgrounds are not open year-round, so check availability when planning your trip. Visiting in June through September? Try to book six to 12 months early to secure your spot.

For hungry travelers, there are 52 picnicking areas in the park and a host of restaurants. The Roosevelt Lodge Dining Room, built in one of former President Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite areas of Yellowstone, is a tribute to the Old West. The cozy, family-friendly log cabin boasts two large fireplaces to help capture the rustic mood. For a fast-casual option, the Canyon Lodge Eatery offers customizable meals featuring local ingredients.

If You Have 5-7 Days: Add on Grand Teton National Park

Getting There:

Grand Teton abuts its northern “big sister,” Yellowstone. But there’s nothing little about its majestic mountains. For some of the best scenery on your self-driving route, head south from Yellowstone on U.S. Highway 191. Grab your camera, look west and channel your inner Ansel Adams at the Snake River Overlook, where the river slithers down from the Teton range. The trees are a bit taller since Adams snapped his iconic black-and-white shot — but with luck, your sunrise mountain scene will feature pink clouds against a purple sky.

What to See and Do in Grand Teton

Located in northwestern Wyoming, Grand Teton is a mecca for outdoor activities, whether you choose to climb the Teton Range or float down the Snake River. Bait your rod for world-class fishing on the river, or enjoy a wide variety of water activities — windsurfing, sailboating, stand-up paddleboarding and water skiing — at Jackson Lake. Up next, see wildlife play out like a nature film. Head to Oxbow Bend, about 12 miles north of the Snake River Overlook, to observe American white pelicans, osprey and moose. (This spot also makes for a popular photo op, with the dramatic broad peak of Mount Moran reflected in the river below.) The 1890s homestead complexes of Mormon Row, located south of Oxbow Bend, are great for bison sightings. And just west of nearby Jenny Lake, you’ll spot some slightly smaller mammals: Golden-mantled ground squirrels and yellow-bellied marmots scamper through Cascade Canyon, formed by glaciers 15,000 years ago.

Visitors are also drawn to Grand Teton’s 230 miles of hiking trails, to explore on foot or by horseback. Head out from the Hermitage Point Trailhead on Colter Bay for a mostly flat 10-mile hike and keep your eyes peeled for great blue herons, river otters and elk (and maybe some bear tracks, too). Grand Teton trails are known for rough terrain, high elevations and unpredictable weather changes, so check ahead for any closures. Parking at the trailheads fills up quickly, so rise and shine early to begin your trek.

Biking is also an option on multiuse roads, or visit the park in the winter if cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are more your speed. Visitors can also make reservations online to backcountry camp at Grand Teton. Or pick up first-come, first-served overnight camping permits at the Craig Thomas or Colter Bay visitor centers or the Jenny Lake Ranger Station.

Teton Biking For views of glacial canyons, peaks and alpine forests, cyclists should tackle Jenny Lake Pathway — beginning at Moose Junction and pedaling to the shores of Jenny Lake.

For a well-deserved rest after your adventures on land and water, hop in your rental car and check out the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive and Signal Mountain Summit Road (both off Teton Park Road) for some stunning panoramas. You’ll find ample parking at the Signal Mountain summit to take in the views of the Jackson Hole valley, Jackson Lake and more of the towering Tetons.

Jenny Lake Hiking and boating are both excellent ways to explore Jenny Lake, which was formed by glaciers 12,000 years ago.


Coming and Going from Grand Teton

Travel about 160 miles south on U.S. Highway 89 to prehistoric times at the Fossil Butte National Monument, home to a spectacular variety of reptiles, birds, insects, fish and mammal fossils. If you’re traveling with budding archaeologists, they can create souvenir fossil rubbings and even dig for new discoveries at the research quarry on Fridays and Saturdays in the summer. Back in Jackson Hole, the National Museum of Wildlife Art brings the outdoor beauty indoors with its extensive collection of international animal art, featuring works by the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol.

Fossil Butte National Monument Buried in fine-grained sediment at Fossil Butte lie clues about the animals that inhabited the area tens of millions of years ago.


Where to Sleep and Eat in Grand Teton

Unless you’re traveling in a large group or by RV, all Grand Teton campgrounds are first-come, first-served. (Jenny Lake and Signal Mountain sites are usually the first to fill up.) The Grand Teton Climbers’ Ranch offers bunks in a proper log cabin and stellar views of the mountains. For a more posh adventure, the Jackson Lake Lodge has plush rooms, outstanding views of its namesake lake and surrounding mountains, and locally sourced fine dining. Want a more casual bite with equally great scenery? Try a calzone and a craft brew at Leek’s Marina & Pizzeria.

If You Have 8-10 Days: Add on Glacier National Park

Getting There:

However you plan your journey, take a scenic detour through Flathead National Forest, less than 70 miles south of Glacier National Park. It boasts 2.4 million acres full of pristine lakes and streams and wilderness teeming with wildlife in the heart of the Rockies. Then push on toward the Continental Divide for even more pure, natural beauty in Glacier.

What to See and Do in Glacier

Glacier offers world-class hiking, camping, wildlife watching, boating, cycling and guided tours throughout its impressive landscape, which includes more than 700 miles of trails, along with lakes, waterfalls, mountains — and its 25 remaining glaciers. One of the best ways to marvel at this park’s 1 million-plus acres is from your rental car, driving along Going-to-the-Sun Road, which runs through the middle of the park and connects the east and west sides. Tip: You’ll encounter almost every type of terrain on this 51-mile route, which can be tricky to keep clear in the snowy alpine tundra. Keep an eye on road conditions before you head out.

Going-to-the-Sun Road Embrace the views along Going-to-the-Sun Road as you navigate its twists and narrow tunnels on your way to the Continental Divide.

Spend an afternoon hiking around one of the park’s many emerald and turquoise lakes, like Lake McDonald or Avalanche Lake. Conveniently beginning and ending off Going-to-the-Sun Road, the Trail of Cedars at Avalanche Lake is a moderate 4.5-mile hike that serves up lush views of red cedars, western hemlocks and Avalanche Gorge along the way.

To visit one of the park’s most rugged and blissfully unpopulated regions at Goat Haunt, you’ll need to pack your passport. The U.S.-Canada border floats through this serene section of the park, and while the animals are free to travel internationally, you’ll need to check in at the Goat Haunt Ranger Station. Come here expecting quiet and a heavy dose of beauty.

Avalanche Lake Cliffs Avalanche Lake sits at the base of Bearhat Mountain, whose waterfalls originate from Sperry Glacier.

Budding botanists will appreciate the Logan Pass area of wildflowers and alpine plants that blanket the area in summer. Even in the dry winds at Logan Pass — Glacier’s highest point accessible by car — you’ll find a rainbow of scarlet red Indian paintbrushes, purple daisies, yellow glacier lilies and orange monkeyflowers.

A great way to see some of Glacier’s animal kingdom is by water. Rent a boat or join a tour from Glacier Park Boat Company and sail along Two Medicine Lake. When you’re not spotting bighorn sheep or moose out for a swim, notice Sinopah Mountain reflected in the lake’s calm waters.

Two Medicine Lake For a relaxing day, Two Medicine Lake is a peaceful place to take a boat ride — and some fantastic snaps of Sinopah Mountain.


Coming and Going from Glacier

Round out your self-driving tour with some lessons in local culture. Check out the Museum of the Plains Indian, about 30 miles east of Glacier in Browning, Montana. Its well-curated collection features art from tribes including the Chippewa, Cree, Crow and Blackfeet. If you’re visiting during the second week of July, head to the Blackfeet Reservation in town for its annual North American Indian Days. The powwow features tribal traditions in action, with hundreds of dancers, a rodeo, food and games.

Where to Sleep and Eat in Glacier

Inside the park, stay at Lake McDonald Lodge, a historic 1913 hunting lodge, or bunk at one of Glacier’s 13 campgrounds. Another option is the Many Glacier Hotel on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. Though recently renovated, the hotel pays homage to its old-world accommodations, forgoing both television and air conditioning in its more than 200 rooms. When you wake up, grab a breakfast burger at nearby ‘Nell’s at Swiftcurrent. In the evening, sample Montana’s microbrews surrounded by hunting lodge vibes at Russell’s Fireside Dining Room. Overnight accommodations in the park are seasonal and popular, so park visitors are advised to make reservations as early as possible.

Many Glacier Hotel Guests of the Many Glacier Hotel enjoy unobstructed views of Swiftcurrent Lake and epic stargazing.
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