From the heights of the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park to the iconic waterfalls, geysers, and hot springs in Yellowstone, we celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service with an epic road trip through Montana and Wyoming. The best part? Thanks to affordable lodging and awesome stops along the way, this incredible vacation is within reach of Budget Travelers.
Quite honestly, that's the first word out of my mouth when I learn that the National Park Service is celebrating its centennial in 2016. Thinking like a travel editor requires that most news items be filtered through the lens of “Is there a travel angle?” For me, the words “national park” brings to mind Montana’s two: Glacier and Yellowstone.
And so my family’s “Park-to-Park Adventure” is born. I resolve to bring my wife and daughters to Glacier in summer 2016, then make our way to Yellowstone, stopping at some of the beautiful towns along the way. The NPS centennial isn’t the only inspiration, of course: Like Paris, Montana is “always a good idea," and perhaps never more so than this record-breakingly hot summer in New York City. Plus, my wife, Michele, lived in Montana in high school and college, and our daughters, now 9 and 13, enjoyed brief visits when they were younger. One more incentive (shh! don't tell): I’ve somehow managed never to visit Wyoming, Montana’s beautiful neighbor to the southeast and home to most of Yellowstone’s 3,500+ square miles. In mid-July, we board a plane in NYC and fly to Glacier International Airport, in Kalispell, Montana. Here, the story of our amazing two-week adventure out west. (If you’re inspired to book your own trip, learn more at VisitMT.com.)
Our stay in the Flathead Valley city of Kalispell is short, just an overnight between picking up our rental car at Glacier International Airport and heading up to the park the next morning, but it’s just what we need to get acclimated to life in Big Sky Country. The lobby of the Kalispell Grand Hoteldelivers a bit of the Old West without overdoing the kitsch: Beautiful dark wood, a comfy sitting area, great home-baked cookies, and a warm welcome from the staff. Rooms are nicely appointed, allowing guests to enjoy contemporary conveniences while still feeling that they’ve stepped back about a century. Right up Main Street from the hotel, we are overjoyed to discover Norm’s Soda Fountain, an old-timey lunch counter and candy store that serves fantastic burgers (including choices of both beef and bison) and our first taste of… wait for it… huckleberry ice cream! We learn that here in the Rockies, huckleberry season is short (mid-to-late summer) but its sweetness is extended by the blue fruit’s transformation into syrups, candies, ice cream, and more.
Next morning, we pack up the car and stop at the Super One so we can stock our kitchen in Glacier and beyond: Pancake mix is at the top of my kids’ list, but we also load up on easy-to-cook staples and picnic favorites to maximize our budget and to be prepared for whatever adventures the park presents us. Pro tip: We pick up a cheap ice chest for the duration of the road trip, eventually leaving it with our friends in Billings just before boarding our plane back home.
The drive from Kalispell to Glacier National Park climbs up Highway 2 for less than an hour, and if it were located just about anywhere else in the U.S., that ride alone would be considered a spectacular must-see. In western Montana, it's just par for the course. We love seeing the peaks of Glacier’s mountains looming up ahead. Before we enter the park, we stop in the tiny town of West Glacier (mostly motels and shops) to visit the strategically placed Alberta Visitor Center. Even though Canada is not on our itinerary for this trip, the Alberta displays devoted to the Canadian Mounted Police, western heritage, Native American culture, and wildlife are totally worth a stop. And (I'm burying the lede) the immense T-Rex fossil in the lobby will delight visitors of all ages. (And, note to self: Next time we visit Montana, let’s leave some time to cross the border into beautiful Alberta.)
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
As we pass through the entrance to Glacier National Park ($30 per car for up to a week-long stay), we begin to recognize sights from Glacier’s webcams, which we’ve been following all winter and spring in anticipation of this visit. (The bridge! The ice cream shop! The lake!) The webcams inspired us, then helped us plan our trip, but as we finally arrive in the park, the pinch-me feeling is almost too much to bear: We can’t quite believe we’re actually here.
Our cabin for the next three nights is in Apgar Village, a small community of lodgings, restaurants, and outfitters at the southern shore of Lake McDonald. The cabin is just roomy enough (bedroom with two big beds, full eat-in kitchen, bathroom) that we enjoy the minimal time we’ll spend there (mornings, evenings), but once we get our luggage loaded in and the kitchen stocked, we’re ready to get back outside. We happily wade in nearby McDonald Creek and skip rocks in Lake McDonald while the peaks of the Continental Divide stand sentinel in the distance. In mid-July, there’s still plenty of snow in the mountains, and the creek and lake water, fed by snow melt, is still incredibly cold (frame of reference for travelers who like to make these comparisons: colder than the ocean in Maine, for real).
We also notice that the rocks along Lake McDonald are multi-colored, reflecting the grinding of the glaciers against the mountains for thousands of years. Here, I point out to my older daughter, Clara, is the perfect vacation spot for a rising 8th grader who will be studying earth science in September.
One of the things that make national parks such amazing vacation experiences is that the natural wonders are complemented by the presence of knowledgeable, friendly rangers. Our first day in Glacier is made even more special by our chat with a ranger manning a telescope in Apgar Village. We couldn’t help but ask what he was doing pointing a telescope at the sky in the middle of the afternoon. Turns out he was studying sunspots and the sun’s corona, and invited us to join him. My younger daughter, Rosalie, especially enjoyed the experience and it inspired us to pick up a Junior Ranger activity book for her at the Apgar Visitor Center. For the next three days, Rosalie would record our activities in hopes of receiving a Junior Ranger badge. (She succeeded, with a ranger signing her book and presenting her with a badge at the Apgar Nature Center a few days later.)
Dinner that first night in Glacier is home-made burgers in our little kitchen, and that suits us just fine. We turn in early, with visions of the Continental Divide (tomorrow morning’s destination) dancing in our heads.
The drive from Apgar Village to Logan Pass, at the Continental Divide, is less than an hour, but the Going-to-the-Sun Road offers such an array of views (tree-filled valleys below, granite peaks and the Big Sky above), you can actually spend half a day just getting to the pass. We opt for efficiency this morning, though, because we’ve learned that getting to the Logan Pass parking lot before 10 a.m. during summer’s high season is the only way to guarantee a parking spot. We don’t rush up to the pass (and I take the opportunity to point out to Clara that the sheer rock faces that the road hugs are like geologic time capsules with their varied colors and shapes), but we don’t take our time either.
We arrive at the Logan Pass Visitor Center right on time, and, sure enough, we nab one of the last available parking spots. Stepping out of the car, we realize that as we drove the winding highway up to the 6,000+ foot pass, the temperature dropped into the 40s, and we’re grateful for those layers we packed. In sweatshirts and jeans in mid-July, we hit the trail to the appropriately named Hidden Lake Overlook. Up a winding boardwalk, then a dirt trail, then a rock trail, and then another boardwalk, visitors traverse this subalpine environment, where pine trees are twisted and stunted by the winter winds and snow, flowers grow for a heartbreakingly brief instant in midsummer, and it’s perfectly acceptable to pause and catch your breath now and then (possibly from the high altitude, and possibly from the sheer beauty).
Long story short: A July snowfall (yes, it happens up here) has left some of the trail covered in slippery snow, and by the time we reach the incredible overlook, we’ve earned the unforgettable view with slips, slides, and one fall that almost resulted in my rolling down a steep hill. (My kids were briefly terrified, then merely embarrassed for me as I got to my feet and brushed the snow from my 501s.) We snap pics of the lake below (if that July snow ever melts, the trail to Hidden Lake will open to visitors, but we won’t be in Glacier long enough on this trip and we simply enjoy the amazing overlook).
The big stars up here, though, aren’t water or rock: They’re goats. Actually, mountain goats are more closely related to antelope than the tin-can eating farm denizens they’re named for. Adults and kids are awed by the white, bearded mountain goats that clip-clop their way over the rocks, across the boardwalk overlook, and up the sides of the mountains. Fair warning: Once you’ve looked one in the eye, you’re forever hooked on this unique subalpine environment, and start counting the days till you can return.
Sure, Logan Pass may be the high point, both literally and figuratively, of Glacier National Park, but we are by no means done with all the park has to offer. We picnic by St. Mary’s Lake, on the east side of the park, noting evidence of the relatively recent forest fire that turned some of the area around the lake into charred stumps. Rangers are eager to point out that fire is an essential element of forest ecology, not a catastrophe but a means to clear out underbrush and for certain trees, including lodgepole pine, to spread their seeds via pine cones that open up only when exposed to extreme heat. And with the beautiful lake spread out before us, I wouldn’t trade our humble picnic (bologna on sourdough bread, carrot sticks, and apples) for any Michelin-starred menu in the world.
We briefly exit the park on our way to the Two Medicine area, where two lakes (Upper and Lower Two Medicine) await, and one of our favorite waterfalls enthralls us: Running Eagle Falls is impressive both from the creek bed at its base and also from an easy overlook above, and as temperatures climb in the afternoon sun, we happily splash one another with the icy water.
Tonight, we’re splurging (a little) on dinner at the East Glacier Lodge. Built in the glory days of the Great Northern Railroad, the lodge dazzles visitors with a cavernous lobby whose pillars are actual tree trunks. After a comfort-food meal (I tried the fish-and-chips, washed down with a huckleberry margarita, which is actually a thing and it’s pretty great), Michele notices that the lobby boasts a grand piano that welcomes “accomplished musicians” to play. I gladly sit down and entertain my family and the lodge’s staff and guests with some jazz piano.
Rather than return to our cabin at Apgar Village via Going-to-the-Sun Road, we opt for the perimeter of the park, which takes about the same amount of time minus the switchbacks and vertigo. We sleep like stones.
Next morning, after another of my pancake breakfasts, we are determined to conquer Lake McDonald in canoes. Joined by Michele’s friend Tami and her daughter Alex, who are visiting Glacier from Spokane, we rent two canoes from the vendors at the river bank, do a little practicing close to shore, then head out to explore the lake on a perfectly cloudless day with a slight breeze. We’re impressed by how our girls take to the discipline of padding and steering, and later in the day they insist that Alex teach them how to do some standup paddle boarding. I’m worried, of course, but tell myself that with life vests and swimming lessons my daughters will survive. They do more than survive: They thrive on the thrill of SUP, and watching them take to it reminds me to savor these days when both girls navigate that border between needing me and, um, not so much.
One of their rewards for trying something new and tricky? BBQ ribs in our cabin kitchen, of course. After dinner, we go back to the lake to watch the shadows fall on the water. We’re surprised to find a gentleman playing an alpine horn, a very long tube with a brass mouthpiece. He plays simple folk melodies, sending low, resonant notes out over the lake to bounce off the surrounding mountains. The melancholy echoes are the perfect soundtrack for our last evening in the park.
Next morning, we resolve to enjoy our final hours in Glacier at the iconic Trail of the Cedars. An easy hike along a boardwalk, the trail takes us past ancient cedar trees, including downed stumps with roots in the air, hollow trees perfect for photo ops, and the beautiful Avalanche Falls. (Don’t worry, the avalanche happened a long time ago, and you can safely traverse Avalanche Creek on a footbridge that’s perfect for snapping photos.)
It’s hard to say goodbye to Glacier, and we can only do it by promising one another that we’ll be back sooner rather than later. But out next national park is Yellowstone, several hundred miles to the southeast, and we’ve got some pretty cool destinations to visit between here and there. Once we’ve driven out of Glacier, we can’t help but look forward to our next stop: the Flathead Valley town of Bigfork, whose gigantic Flathead Lake is the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi and the perfect place for the family to test its newfound paddling skills.
Our next two night are at the gorgeous Bridge Street Cottages in Bigfork. With lots of room, a full kitchen, a front porch (!), and an easy walk to the Swan River, Electric Avenue (the town’s evocatively named main street), and a playground for shaking our sillies out. One of the nice things about visiting Bigfork after Glacier is that the town can pack your dance card to such as extent that you don’t spend much time looking back: Live theater, great food, and views of the lake and the surrounding mountain ranges.
We decide that, having conquered Lake McDonald in canoes and on paddle boards, it’s time to get serious: Two tandem kayaks to explore Flathead Lake. We turn to the professional, reliable, and affordable Base Camp Bigfork, which delivers two kayaks, life vests, and a “dry bag” right to the dock on Bigfork Bay, provides a little coaching. I share a kayak with Clara, Michele shares a kayak with Rosalie, and we’re off. We get used to the tandem paddling and steering on the bay, then head out into the lake for a three-hour paddle that is, for me, the high point of our entire trip. We paddle past pine forests, beach our kayaks for a picnic, collect the incredible colored rocks on shore, and Michele even creates an impromptu mosaic out of rocks on shore. It’s only when we’re back in Bigfork (Basecamp meets us back at the dock to collect our equipment and settle up) that we realize that none of us has ever kayaked more than 10 minutes in our lives. It is an exhilarating day.
Anyone traveling from Glacier to Yellowstone will be grateful for the town of Philipsburg, a little mining town in Granite County, a short drive south of Interstate 90. Especially if you’re driving with kids, Philipsburg may be the town of your dreams: Stop here to learn how to pan for gems and chow down at "The World’s Greatest Candy Store." Any questions?
The Sapphire Gallery will teach you how to turn a pile of dirt and rubble into a smaller pile of beautiful raw sapphires: You purchase a bag of gravel mined from the nearby mountains, then swirl it around in a pan to align the gravel so that the raw sapphires (much denser than the surrounding debris) sink to the bottom center. Then you turn your sieve upside down and pick out the raw sapphires. Staff is on hand to help, and you can then take your favorite sapphires to be analyzed to determine which ones are good candidates for heat-treating, which gives sapphires their shine and their color. We ended up with three good candidates, paid to have them heat treated, and they arrived in the mail a few weeks later, even more beautiful than we’d hoped.
Even if we weren’t a little peckish after our sapphire activity, it’d be difficult to say “no” to The Sweet Palace, billed as “The World’s Greatest Candy Store” and located right next door to the Sapphire Gallery. As you walk in the door, you’re greeted by the unmistakable aroma of taffy, fudge, and other other delights all blending together in way that takes you back to your childhood, or the childhood of your dreams. Rows and rows of candy jars, ranging from well-known favorites to unusual regional treats, invite you to overindulge. We do. I hand each of my daughters a candy bag and instruct them to pick out no more than one pound each. It occurs to me only later, as they spread their bounty on their hotel beds, that one pound of candy is a little much; oh well, we’re on vacation, right?
For dinner, we enjoy Tommyknockers, across the street from our hotel. The burgers and lemonade are just what we need after a day on the road, and I especially enjoy a refreshingly light craft beer, brewed just down the street at Philipsburg Brewing Company. We bed down in style at The Broadway Hotel, where each room is decorated in the style of a particular travel destination. Appropriately enough, we get a U.K.-themed room that suits my family's literary taste (Dickens, Austen, Rowling) perfectly. In the morning, we join other hotel guests in a hearty breakfast of home-baked quiches, pastry, and more. Even though we weren't traveling with a dog, we appreciated the hotel's pet-friendly policies, and we loved chatting with the staff about the town's mining history and cool comeback in recent years.
From Philipsburg, we could power right on into Yellowstone in about four hours, but instead we opt for a pitstop in Belgrade for the truly exceptional sandwiches, ribs, and variety of sauces at Bar 3 Bar-B-Q, then one more stop, a night at Huntley Lodge at Big Sky Resort. Over the years, we’ve noticed that ski resorts in summer can be affordable and beautiful. The drive down from Interstate 90 via MT-85/191 is one of the most beautiful drives in the U.S., flanking the Gallatin River for much of the way. As we pull into Big Sky, we note that the terrain is already changing from the dramatic granite peaks of western Montana, and we know we’re getting closer to Yellowstone country. The girls put their newfound panning skills to the test at the resort’s kid-friendly sluice (no sapphires here, but cool treasures nonetheless). We enjoy a roomy lodging that includes a loft, and we rest up for the adventure that awaits us tomorrow.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, just outside the park, combines what we love about national parks with what we love about the best zoos: Here, grizzlies and gray wolves rescued from the wild (some have been injured or abandoned by parents, others have become dangerously acclimated to human food) are kept in spacious exhibit areas where they can live out their days with ample food and water and the loving attention of a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving wildlife and educating the public. We especially enjoy the exhibits because these two species are native to Yellowstone National Park but are difficult to actually see on a three-day visit like ours. Entering Yellowstone knowing that we’ve already had our up-close-and-personal experiences with grizzlies and wolves is a great feeling.
Yellowstone National Park ($30 per car for up to a week-long stay), the first national park, was founded in 1872 and remains one of the most popular in the U.S. More than 3,500 square miles that include portions of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, the park boasts more than 10,000 “hydrothermal” spots like geysers and hot springs, more than the rest of the world combined, thanks to the "supervolcano" under the park, which heats rainwater and melted snow into steam that rises back up to the earth's surface.
As we enter Yellowstone, I’m psyched to be visiting this park for the first time. A few earlier plans to visit the park always managed to fall through and I’ve been an avid fan of the place from afar, following the reintroduction of wolves here in the 1990s, the new findings about the “supervolcano” under the park, and, of course, hearing from Budget Travel readers over the years about how much they love this place. There’s a lot to love: In many respects, Yellowstone combines the majesty of Glacier with the eye-candy of Yosemite, with sudden changes in terrain and wildlife seemingly around every bend of the road. All that awesomeness comes at a price, though: As we pay our entry fee, I ask the ranger on duty if there are any attractions in Yellowstone that require an early arrival time, such as Logan Pass did at Glacier. She replies, “Yes, pretty much all of them.”
Our home for the next three nights is Hayden Lodge, at the Canyon Lodge complex in Canyon Village, and we’re thrilled to find that the room is not only brand-new and extremely design-forward and green, but also includes a patio. Our patio faces east, so on our first evening we are treated to a rising full moon, which recalls folk singer Bill Stains’s classic song “My Sweet Wyoming Home” and its lyric, “Watch the moon smilin’ in the sky…”
We set out the next day to explore the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, fully aware that the name raises expectations for anyone who’s been to the better-known canyon in Arizona. We’re pleased to find that none of the photographs of Yellowstone’s canyon do it justice: Standing on the overlooks of the upper and lower falls is one of those experiences that can’t really be brought home except in memory. The scale is tremendous, the distances difficult to appreciate until you’re standing there. The lower falls are the ones farther down the Yellowstone River and they are much taller than the upper falls, raising a confusing point of nomenclature that we notice visitors discussing in various languages all day. Along with travelers from all over the globe, we happily snap pics even as we know that they won’t fully convey the feeling of standing by the canyon.
After our day at the canyon, a little awed by the sights and a little sluggish from the altitude (in Glacier, our highest point was around 6,000 feet at Logan Pass; here in Yellowstone we’re at about 8,000 all the time), we grab an early dinner at Canyon Village’s cafeteria, an affordable option with no-frills comfort food like burritos, shepherd’s pie, hot dogs, and chicken fingers.
We devote the next day to the natural loop of Yellowstone’s main road, which allows visitors to hit nearly all the park’s major attractions in one big circle. We head toward the Old Faithful Visitor Center with a slightly jaded attitude: Sure, we’ve got to see the iconic geyser, but we’re not looking forward to the throngs. But the visitor center offers such a great array of exhibits devoted to the supervolcano that is Yellowstone, we soon perk up and really dive into the informative displays; there’s also a great short film about the park, and a “Young Scientists” section with hands-on activities. And, of course, the geyser itself does not disappoint. Once as reliable as its name, Old Faithful now tends to erupt roughly every 90 minutes, and rangers keep visitors informed as they monitor the next impending display. We loved it.
Other stops along the loop include the Grand Prismatic, an otherworldly pool of bubbling mud and steam; Lake Yellowstone, much bigger than Glacier’s Lake McDonald and much wilder in just about every way; and numerous pullouts where steam happens to be rising out of the ground. We spot bison in several places, including one or two that are surprisingly close to the road, something you get used to quickly in Yellowstone. We stop to see Yellowstone Lodge, the first hotel in the park, and marvel at the way terrain and trees change within just a few miles of one another here: From the moonscape of the Grand Prismatic, we’re quickly back in lush pine forests, then just as quickly we’re surrounded by giant boulders that look as if they were dropped from the sky by playful aliens.
We’re just as sorry to leave Yellowstone as we were Glacier, but on our last day here we have two cool things to look forward to: The drive to the park’s northeast exit will take us through the fabled Lamar Valley, and we’ll be meeting friends in nearby Cooke City for dinner.
Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley is perhaps best known as the place where gray wolves were reintroduced to the park in the mid-1990s. These days, it’s the place you’re most likely to spot a wolf, but your chances are still pretty slim. The valley has a gentle beauty that’s different from the more rugged spots elsewhere in the park. Gone are the hydrothermal displays and in their place, pine forests, immense meadows, and wildlife encounters that we’ll never forget.
On our way out of the park, we don’t see any wolves, but we don’t really fret about it: We are treated to an absolutely unreal bison extravaganza. Rutting bulls are everywhere in the valley, butting heads in their ritual attempts to impress a mate, rolling around in the dust like gigantic puppies, and liberally crossing the highway as if cars were a minor irritation. Of course I shoot endless stills and video, capturing one bison in particular as he gets especially close to our car and crosses the highway right in front of us.
We arrive in Cooke City tired but happy to meet up with our friends Keith and Molly, longtime Billings residents who have been visiting a family cabin in Cooke City on weekends and vacations for years. Cooke City, named one of Budget Travel’s Coolest Small Towns in America in 2012, is a tiny Wild West outpost, with the iconic Cooke City Store (often referred to as "the red store"), souvenir shops, and the best burgers I’ve had in years: You must stop by Beds N Buns for a Cheddar Bomb, a burger served on an onion kaiser roll and smothered in onions, pickles, and melted cheddar (406-838-2030). And we explore a nearby park that boasts a waterfall as dramatic as any in Glacier or Yellowstone. (I have promised not to reveal its location lest it become overrun with visitors: Some insider secrets, after all, must actually remain insider secrets.) We sleep soundly amid the utter silence of the mountains here in Cooke City before experiencing one more staggeringly beautiful highway in the morning.
At the risk of sounding like a movie trailer: In a world full of dramatic highways, the Beartooth Highway stands above them all. Literally. We hit the highway on our way from Cooke City to Billings, and the road takes us into the clouds. Above the treeline, we’re covering ground that’s inaccessible from mid-October well into the spring due to the feet of snow that pile up here. The views are endless, the switchbacks challenging, and the pullouts are some of our most vivid memories. At one point near the highway’s highest point (around 13,000 feet), we get out of the car to drink in the view of a massive valley before us and Clara and Rosalie begin to spontaneously dance. When we get back home to New York, we’ll ask them what their favorite place in Montana was and they’ll both answer “Beartooth Highway!”
As our park-to-park adventure, which kicked off in Kalispell two weeks earlier, draws to a close, we pull into Billings, “Montana’s Trailhead,” for a relaxing weekend with friends and our flight back home. Montana’s biggest city, Billings is a destination unto itself, decidedly urban compared with our days on the road, our paddling expeditions, hikes on snowy trails, and dips in ice-cold mountain lakes. We love the Yellowstone Art Center, the Western Heritage Center, and the Downtown Brewery District, among many other spots.
Boarding that plane back to NYC wasn’t easy, but Michele, Clara, Rosalie, and I continue to relive our extraordinary two weeks in Big Sky Country and hope our trip will inspire you to follow in our footsteps.