Welcome Jacqueline, a globetrotting travel writer, to ColeTries.com! Normally, she and co-founder Shannon share their travel tales on The Strange and New, a unique travel site that deals with real issues and showcases one-of-a-kind stories. Today, she stops by to recommend a jaw-dropping romp through some of the United States’ most beautiful destinations!
Hey Colefans! I’m Jacqueline from The Strange & New, and I’m here to convince you (and Cole) that you can see four of America’s best national parks in 9 days. And you will sleep, and it’ll feel complete, and you won’t regret it. (Seriously, the cheapest yet best vacation you might ever take.)
Of course, America’s national parks aren’t experiences you should drive through. They aren’t doable in an afternoon hike, and their best parts usually aren’t had at overlooks, shared with crowds of clamoring tourists. You probably know this.
But sometimes you only have so many vacation days and indecision hits. Do you want to see Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, the Tetons, or Rocky Mountain? This isn’t Sophie’s Choice — give yourself nine days, and you can see them all. Here’s how.
Day 1: Denver, 7:00 AM.
To do this trip, your starting city is going to have to be on the outskirts of a national park. You could’ve chosen Great Falls, Montana, or Jackson, Wyoming, but newsflash: Flights to Denver are infinitely cheaper (and there’s more beer).
Book your rental car in advance (oops!), and get ready to get up early. Set the coffee pot to a programmed timer, and plot your route. For this one, we’re going from Denver to the Tetons, to Yellowstone, to Glacier, back to Denver, and then hitting up Rocky Mountain. You brought your John Denver CD collection, right?
This is your drive for day 1. Yes, it will be awesome. Add about an hour in for stops and gas, and know that Dairy Queen will be the one constant on your trip (and you will love it, damnit).
Around 4:00 PM, you’ll roll into Grand Teton National Park. These are the views you’ll be presented with:
After you dink around on the road, try to get to Jenny Lake — that is, if you’re like us and suck at camping. But more on that later. Hit Jenny Lake at sunset, and this is what you’ll find:
Chyeah. Good job, Mother Nature.
But back to said sucking — we were so hypnotized by our surroundings that we got to our campsite at nightfall. Hint: Setting up a tent and making a fire when it’s 1000% dark out is not fun. The temperature had already started dropping (the Tetons can get quite chilly, even in summer. There’s routinely piles of snow through April and into May) and we actually couldn’t keep our fire going despite having the necessary gear.
Sleeping that night wasn’t fun. My toes were somehow both numb and hurting, and the next morning they were white for hours — keep in mind this was August. One of the lessons throughout this trip? Bring a freaking warm jacket.
Day 2: Yellowstone National Park, 10:00 AM
We achily stopped attempting to sleep early in the morning, and packed up our tent to head to Yellowstone. The Tetons were beautiful, but we were glad to (hopefully) hit warmer temps and shake off the night before.
Google says GTNP and Yellowstone are 9 minutes apart, which seems about right but also totally unfair to the rest of the country. Pro tip: If you end up driving into either of these before sunrise when no one is manning the entrance, you can get in fo’ free (and out, despite the signs). That being said, the National Park Service deserves your money — a year pass is $80 and that gets you into every NPS unit (417!) in the entire country. With the big parks being around $20 and even small ones sometimes costing a few bucks, it’s easy to knock out that $80 in no time.
For day one, we started out doing the area around Upper and Lower Falls. Give them as much time as you have. Each falls has multiple viewpoints, and see them all if you can. They’re worth it.
Then we spent hours wandering around the geysers near Old Faithful. While it’s definitely awesome, I personally found that others were just as interesting, if not better.
We spent so long there that it was nightfall before we even got around to figuring out the camping situation — can you sense a pattern emerging? And since the last thing we wanted was another night of latching poles in the dark and eating cold soup out of the can, we sauntered on over to the Old Faithful Inn and said,
“Hi. Do you have press rates?”
Pro tip, guys. They do. One of the nicest lodges in the entire national park system has press rates for $87. Ah, the not-very-lucrative benefits of being a “journalist.”
Day 3: Yellowstone, cont.
Our second day in Yellowstone was spent in the area of Grand Prismatic Springs, Firehole Canyon Rd (take it — it’s a brief off-shoot off the main drag and worth the extra 15 minutes), and the Hayden Valley. You can do all the Yellowstone big’uns in about three days, though you can’t dilly-dally.
If you’re curious, we actually got our tent set up in the morning this time. Yay! Tent! Fire! Warm food! Not failing at camping!
Day 4: Out of Yellowstone to Missoula, MT
On our way out of Yellowstone in the morning (that is, going north), we hit Mammoth Hot Springs and the Lamar Valley. Honestly, Mammoth Hot Springs was the only sight that didn’t require me scraping my brains up off the ground. If you have to skip one thing, I’d make it that one.
Though the original plan was to make it to Glacier that night — they’re only 6 ½ hours apart — that didn’t happen. I’ve neglected to mention that my coworkers and I are “working” during this trip. And by “working,” I mean getting up early and shoving in a few hours here and there. On this day, we shot the morning, and it just wasn’t happening. We booked a questionable HoJo in Missoula, 2 hours shy of Glacier, and would venture forth in the morning.
Days 5 – 7: Glacier National Park
To attempt to describe Glacier National Park in words would be an insult — the English language can do it no justice. Just go. Go and drive the entirety of the Going-to-the-Sun road. Go and do the hike to Grinnell Glacier, the most accessible glacier left in the Lower 48. Go and spend as much time there as possible. Grab a cider and drink on the edge of Lake Macdonald. Contemplate the universe and how it’s changing. Because spoiler alert: All the glaciers might be gone by 2030, so put down that coffee and get to packing (and remember the bear spray).
Seriously, though. Bring bear spray. This national park is not a joke. We didn’t have any, and we had a semi-close encounter. Even “semi-close” is too close for comfort.
Bear spray and your camera.
Day 8: Glacier National Park to Denver, CO
Now comes the 14-hour drive back to Denver and the come-down from your nature high. Not a fun day, but not the worst (when you’re from Iowa, you’re used to everything being hours away). Lots of stops at DQ, lots of Doritos, lots of John Denver songs. Like I said: Not the worst day, especially when turtle sundaes are there to get you through.
Day 9: Denver, CO, to Rocky Mountain National Park
You’ve taken a shower and had some coffee, yay! Human again! Now time for the last step. Gather up that energy, and book it to RMNP (it’s just over a 90-minute drive). If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the elk migration.
And then hit up a brewery, because you’ve just K-O’ed a big portion of that American bucket list. Time to celebrate.