Park-to-Park Adventure: Glacier to Yellowstone
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 Hotel delivers 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.
As a little boy visiting the Gettysburg National Military Park for the first time, I didn't need to know that this piece of Pennsylvania farmland was the site of the turning point of the Civil War, or how many people had died here over the course of three days in July 1863. On that first trip, historical facts and statistics were trumped by the words "Devil's Den." My father's gentle description of the firefight that had occurred amid the towering gray boulders there, where Union and Confederate soldiers had once crouched for cover, was enough to inspire a blend of fear, awe, and respect that I associate with the place to this day. As an adult, I've caught myself saying, "I don't believe in ghosts, but I believe in Gettysburg." Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is located just north of the Mason-Dixon line about an hour and 20 minute's drive from Baltimore and two hours and 20 minutes from Philadelphia. Here, in early July, 1863, General Robert E. Lee led his rebel Army of Northern Virginia across the Pennsylvania border in an attempt to seize Washington, D.C., and force a Union surrender. What happened here, with American fighting American, often hand-to-hand, changed the course of U.S. history, with Lee's army eventually forced to retreat. Each summer, as the battle anniversary nears, the museum, the cemetery where President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address in November of 1863, and the winding trails of national parkland play host to armies of tourists and history buffs. And, yes, for better or for worse, children will be cajoled, bribed, or dragged into the action. But Gettysburg ain't Disney. How you introduce kids to a place like this can mean the difference between igniting a spark of historical curiosity and sending them screaming for the snack bar. Here, some expert advice on showing your little ones how to tread lightly on hallowed ground. PLAN YOUR VISIT IN ADVANCE I spoke with Barbara J. Sanders, education specialist at Gettysburg National Military Park, for her suggestions about the best way to introduce children to this historical site and the troubling chapter in American history that it represents. Sanders suggests visiting the park's website (nps.gov/gett) as well as the website of the park's partners, the Gettysburg Foundation. "By planning the trip together and allowing each member of the family to select an activity of interest, everyone will become involved and excited about their upcoming visit," Sanders suggests. She also recommends reading some age-appropriate books about the battle of Gettysburg, or about the Civil War, together prior to the visit. At Gettysburg, or What a Girl Saw & Heard of the Battle is an autobiographical account of the battle written by a woman who witnessed it as a young girl—appropriate for grades four and up. Jimmy at Gettysburg is the true story of Jimmy Bighams, who also experienced the battle first-hand as a boy—suitable for grades three and up. For parents who could use a little grounding in Civil War history, Ken Burns's documentary film The Civil War remains the gold standard for its clarity, elegance, and emotional wallop. For a deeper dive, Shelby Foote's trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative, reads like great fiction. The park's website also features a robust "For Teachers" section intended to help with planning class trips but easily adapted by parents who are wondering where to start, what elements to teach their children, and what they might want to leave out. ARE YOUR KIDS READY FOR GETTYSBURG? "There's something at Gettysburg for all ages," Sanders insists. She points out that even very young kids often shout "Abraham Lincoln!" when they see the president's statue in front of the park's visitors center, and even if that's their only touchstone here, they can see the spot at the Soldiers' National Cemetery where he delivered his Gettysburg Address in November 1863, and even stand in his footsteps at the train station where he arrived in town. Of course, for elementary and middle school kids, there are themes presented at Gettysburg that will require either preparation or explanation. A film, dramatic 360-degree painting, and museum all help to put the conflict, the issue of slavery, and the sheer loss of life that occurred here in their historical context. The National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation offer a variety of children's education programs in summer that allow young visitors to learn as much—or as little—as they feel is right for them. "The focus of the trip should be to connect to the place and the people, and ignite a spark of interest in the minds of the kids," says Sanders. CHILDREN'S PROGRAMS For a summertime visit to a place as big as Gettysburg (a typical auto tour covers 24 miles), a friendly guide and some kid-friendly activities may be as essential as sunscreen, insect repellent, and water. Sanders recommends that you consider booking a personalized tour of Gettysburg. You can book a Licensed Battlefield Guide in advance, or take your chances with a first-come-first-served sign-up each morning at 8 a.m. The guide can accompany you in your car on a two-hour battlefield tour—it's essentially like having a teacher along for the ride to lead you to the most important sites and answer your family's questions. Gettysburg also offers free summer ranger field programs—sign up first thing at the visitors center information desk as space is limited, and pick up Junior Ranger activity booklets. A GETTYSBURG ITINERARY The most common approach to Gettysburg National Military Park is to start at the visitors center and museum, then embark on the 24-mile self-guided auto tour (an annotated map shows you the route and points out the major battle sites along the way). While the museum is a must-see with an extensive collection and interactive education stations, and visitors should try to plant their feet on key spots around the park, such as the site of Pickett's Charge (the doomed Confederate attack that turned the tide of the three-day battle), there are other, better ways for kids to really experience Gettysburg. "My recommendation is for families to find a specific person, or a specific regiment that they are interested in learning more about," says Sanders. As many families have experienced when visiting a museum dedicated to, for instance, immigration, or tolerance, or slavery, sometimes tracking the progress of just one person through a difficult chapter of history is far more rewarding than trying to understand the bigger picture, especially for grade-school children. "For example, if a family is coming from Alabama, they could research the 15th Alabama Infantry and follow their path from July 2, 1863 as they launch repeated attacks on the end of the Union line, occupied by the 20th Maine Infantry," Sanders suggests. "Or if a family is interested more in the farmers and civilians, they could learn about the John Slyder family, and then visit their farm at the base of Big Round Top, or Abram Bryan, a free black farmer whose house and barn was located near the very center of the Union line on July 3." Got a dog? Tell your kids the story of Sallie, the canine mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry, and a visit her monument near Oak Ridge. LET YOUR KIDS TAKE THE LEAD Give the little ones the elbow room to experience the place on their own terms—as Sanders suggests, and as my own parents did for me all those years ago. You may not entirely understand why your child is, say, fascinated by a particular field, or artifact, but be assured that they are processing this complex chapter in our history the very best they can. A visit to Gettysburg is not a time for lectures. Whether they come home with a solid sense of history's sweep or just the indelible memory of one soldier's few days on this rolling farmland, you'll have ignited a spark. HOW TO GET THERE Gettysburg National Military Park, Museum and Visitor Center entrance at 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Penn., visit nps.gov/gett.
Seems like there's a lot of talk about the U.S.—Mexico border these days, usually from folks who don't live anywhere near it and who perhaps have never even been there. That's a shame, not just for all the rich cultural and political implications of understanding the region, but also because it is home to one of the most beautiful jewels in our National Park Service: Big Bend National Park. Here, in West Texas, the Rio Grande winds through stunning limestone cliffs, the warm breezes quickly dry you after a paddle downriver, and the vistas are as limitless as the dreams of the people who've traversed this borderland for centuries. In hopes that you'll embrace this unique landscape, Budget Travel shows you how to get here, find reliable lodging and good eats, and get the most out of one of the least-visited—and most majestic—of our parks. DOWNLOAD OUR FREE ULTIMATE ROAD TRIPS APP HERE! MARATHON Texans, getting to the beauty of Big Bend ain’t easy. But that’s one of the charming things that have kept the park a “hidden gem.” The nearest airport is in Midland, more than 160 miles to the northeast. Best known as the city where future vice president and president George H.W. Bush made his name in the oil industry, and where one of his sons, future president George W. Bush, did the same, Midland has been booming in recent years thanks to the hotter-than-ever business of drilling and refining oil. But even Midland’s residents admit that it’s not exactly a tourist magnet, and most of the Big Bend-bound will pile into their rental cars and head southwest on Interstate 20. Spend a comfortable night in Marathon at the Gage Hotel (102 NW 1st St., Highway 90 West, Marathon, Texas, 432/386-4205), which includes a historic original hotel plus a variety of rooms, suites, and houses on the property at a variety of price points, including 16 rooms in the original hotel, 20 adobe brick rooms in the Los Portales property surrounding a courtyard with a fountain, and a number of historic homes. A steak or seafood dinner at the on-site 12 Gage restaurant (102 NW 1st St. Highway 90 West, Marathon, Texas, 432/386-4205) is utterly called for, followed by a drink at the White Buffalo Bar, even if you belly up to the bar just to see the massive head of the distinctive eponymous animal mounted on the wall. Next morning, spend some time getting to know this authentic western town. Don’t leave town without chowing down—you won’t find restaurants on your drive through the park. Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit (109 NE 1st., Marathon, Texas, 432/386-9020, legendary fluffy biscuits with sausage gravy and fried pies including apple, cherry, pecan, nad peach) is a highly recommended spot for breakfast or lunch—their huge biscuits and satisfying sausage gravy are the fuel you’ll need for a day in the park, and, if you have room, their array of fried pies (don’t judge, just enjoy) won’t disappoint either. Because Big Bend National Park has ample spots for picnicking but few places to actually buy food, make sure your car is stocked with snacks or lunch and plenty of water (a gallon per person per day is recommended). Then hit U.S. 385 South toward Big Bend. You’ll soak up about 69 miles of expansive West Texas scenery on your way to Panther Junction. Stop at the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center for maps, brochures, and to ask park rangers for advice about the day’s weather and park conditions. At Panther Junction, take some time out to explore the Panther Trail, a self-guided nature tour that is a nice introduction to the desert landscape you’ll be exploring (a trail map is available at the visitor center), before driving the 19 miles to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which will take you through the heart of the park. The trip from Panther Junction to the western side of the park and its stunning Santa Elena Canyon can be done in one day, but if you intend to stop at many of the overlooks (and we suggest that you do!) or take the hiking trails that allow you to explore dry waterfalls, canyon floors, historic ranches, and other one-of-a-kind sights here, you should consider either camping in the park or returning after a night in a hotel to spend at least one more day taking in this amazing place. BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is one of those unforgettable stretches of road that unfolds before you in a series of vistas and experiences. Like better-known drives in better-known parks, such as Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, and Glacier, this is a carefully plotted out route that is literally part of the land, allowing you both convenience and authenticity at the same time. Stop off at the Sam Nall Ranch, the evocative remains of one of the many homestead ranches that once dotted this landscape. Here, you’ll see an original windmill that still pumps out water and is a magnet for some of the park’s thirsty wildlife, including javelinas, painted buntings, green-tailed towhees, and mockingbirds. The Blue Creek Ranch Overlook offers another look at one of the ranches that were active here before it became a park. You'll look down at the Homer Wilson Ranch and, if you like, follow a short trail down to the ranch buildings and to additional hiking opportunities on the Blue Creek Canyon and Dodson trails. Don't miss the Sotol Vista Overlook—one of those awesome spots that our National Park Service does so well. Here, high above the floor of the desert you'll be able to scan the western side of the park and whet your apetite for the majestic Santa Elena Canyon, which you'll see in the distance. (Don't worry, you'll get to the see the canyon up close later in the day and it's worth the wait.) Burro Mesa Pour-Off requires you to pull off on a mile-and-a-half side road to get to the clifffs of the Burro Mesa, where you can take a short half-mile hike into a canyon and savor the desert foliage and a waterfall that does not, in fact, "pour off" at all—it's dry. From the Mule Ears Overlook you'll take in the distant twin peaks and won't have to ask how they got their funny name. If you're up for more hiking and can afford to add some time to your stay, find the two-mile trail from teh overlook's parking area that takes you to a desert spring. Another overlook along the highway lets you view Tuff Canyon (named for the volcanic ash taht formed the rocks—which isn't actually "tough" but rather soft.) Castolon Historic District will seem like a bustling little city compared with the trails and overlooks you’ve been enjoying. It’s a preserved district that was a cavalry camp at the turn of the last century. Spend some time at the visitor center, but the most fascinating place in the district is La Harmonia Store. On the surface it’s an ordinary convenience store, but the shop’s history is extraordinary, dating back more than a century to the days when the border between the United States and Mexico was far more porous than it is today and government resources were stretched thin. The store played an important rold in the coming and going of Americans and Mexicans back and forth across the border, touching on not only commerce but also law enforcement and even international relations. If you're not quite ready to move on to the far western side of Big Bend just yet, you can spend a night at the nearby Cottonwood Campground for $14 per night (no hook-ups, just 24 campsites with pit toilets, grills, and clean running water.) TERLINGUA Big Bend saves the best for last. The Santa Elena Overlook provides a stunning look down Santa Elena Canyon, cut into the limestone over the eons by the Rio Grande. Marvel at the 1,500-foot- high canyon walls and the fact that the left wall of the canyon is in Mexico, the right in the United States. If you’ve got time, or if you come back after a good night’s sleep, follow the trail along the river that takes you down to the canyon floor. Better still, contact Big Bend River Tours (FM 170 West, Terlingua, Texas, 432/371-3033, offers floats, hikes, and other tours of Big Bend National Park) and sign up for a float down the gentle, shallow waters of the Rio Grande with the canyon walls on either side. Tuckered? Of course you are. Drive into Terlingua dusty and damp and check into the El Dorado Hotel (Highway 170, Terlingua, Texas, 800/371-3588), a reliable option near the park in this former ghost town. Yes, you read that right—the mining community of more than 2,000 cleared out after WWII and in the ’70s folks began coming back. These days, the hotel and its High Sierra Bar & Grill (Highway 170, Terlingua, Texas, 432/371-3282) are a great outpost for visitors to the western side of Big Bend.
Mount Rainier and the North Cascades
Washington State's Mount Rainier National Park is a rugged landscape of waterfalls, glaciers, and lakes. The upper slope of its highest peak, Mount Rainier, a 14,410-foot-high volcano in the Cascade mountain range, is covered with 26 glaciers and scores of snowfields. Together they total 35 square miles, making it the country's largest single-mountain ice mass outside of Alaska. And that holds true even in summer, when hikers find ample ammunition for snowball fights after only 20 minutes of climbing up any number of trails. A four-day, 600-mile-loop drive out of Seattle is the ideal way to take in Mount Rainier, along with its national park neighbor, North Cascades National Park; an Old West mining town that's working hard to preserve its history; a bustling lake resort; and a curious village with Bavarian aspirations. Day one: Seattle to Winthrop The drive got under way inauspiciously as my wife, Sandy, and I negotiated the traffic on I-5/I-405 north out of Seattle's urban clutter. But as soon as we exited east onto the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20), the road opened up, and a seemingly impenetrable wall of soaring peaks loomed ahead. The Cascade mountain range is a 700-mile-long chain stretching from northern California into British Columbia. Within it, North Cascades National Park has the sheerest, most rugged peaks. More than a dozen soar above 8,000 feet; even the most experienced hikers can find them intimidating. Drenched by Pacific storms, the western slopes are covered in a dense, eerily dark forest dripping with moss. And on the high cliffs, hundreds of waterfalls cascade down--which is how the range got its name. We stopped briefly in Newhalem, where the National Park Service operates a visitor center, and picked up a free guide to day hikes. A mile beyond, we entered a misty forest on the gentle Trail of the Cedars. Following the racing Skagit River, the path makes a short loop among giant Douglas firs and western red cedars, which rival the California redwood for size and beauty. Signs along the way introduced us to the region's plants and trees; I started my informal education on how to tell the difference between firs and cedars. (Though both trees have reddish brown bark, cedars have scale-like leaves, while firs have needles.) After our hike, we picnicked at the trailhead, buying bread and a sharp cheddar at the Skagit General Store, which is right in the parking lot. East of Newhalem, the highway climbs through a spectacular gorge, edging high above a trio of slender lakes resembling the fjords of Norway. Gorge and Diablo lakes appeared bright green; Ross Lake, shimmering in the sun, reflected the deep blue of the sky. Checking our guidebook, we kept an eye out for the trail to Rainy Lake. The trail is just a mile long (one way), and it leads to what we agreed was one of the prettiest views in the Cascades. The path plunges into a forest of spruce, fir, and mountain hemlock. We crossed two bridged streams that splash down the mountainside. Then we found a place where suddenly the trees give way to a small turquoise lake, with evergreens lining the shore and a wall of rock towering above. Three thread-like waterfalls pour down. The road reaches its highest point at Washington Pass, at 5,477 feet. From a viewing area, we spotted climbers inching up 7,740-foot Liberty Bell, a massive rock that resembles the Philadelphia landmark. A ranger next to us watched the climbers' slow progress through her telescope. The highway descends gradually through a winding canyon to the town of Winthrop, on the sunnier, drier eastern foothills of the Cascades. The old mining outpost has worked vigorously to preserve its frontier look. Balconies hang over wooden sidewalks, creating a main street that looks like it could be a Gunsmoke set. Old Schoolhouse Brewery now occupies the town's little red schoolhouse--a fake frontier structure that was actually built in the 1970s--and serves the award-winning Ruud Awakening. In addition to refurbishing some old buildings, the town also built new ones in an Old West style. In search of a decidedly more authentic experience, we walked a block off the main road, Riverside Avenue, to the multibuilding Shafer Museum. The weathered collection of historical structures outlines the town's mining past. At the end of Riverside Avenue, the new 29-room Hotel Rio Vista lived up to its name; our room had a terrific view of the Methow River. For dinner, we took a two-minute walk down the street to the Riverside Grill, where I had a generous platter of excellent barbecued ribs. Day one Lodging Hotel Rio Vista 285 Riverside Ave., Winthrop, 800/398-0911, hotelriovista.com, from $60 Food Riverside Grill 162 Riverside Ave., Winthrop, 509/996-2444, barbecued rib platter $13 Old Schoolhouse Brewery 155 Riverside Ave., Winthrop, 509/996-3183, pint $3.50 Attractions Visitor Center, North Cascades National Park Newhalem, 206/386-4495, nps.gov/noca Day two: Winthrop to Yakima Before leaving town, we stopped in at the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery to learn about efforts to boost the number of chinook, steelhead, and coho salmon spawning in the waters here. The chinook and steelhead are officially listed as endangered species, and the coho is in even more serious trouble. Since the 1940s, the hatchery has been raising salmon, releasing almost 1 million youngsters annually on a 600-mile journey to the Pacific Ocean past nine dams, where the salmon live for an average of two to three years before returning to spawn. Annual returns number in the low hundreds. Due to the hatchery's efforts, the salmon are surviving, though certainly not thriving yet. This area has been plagued by summer forest fires, and the 66-year-old North Cascades Smokejumper Base, just outside downtown Winthrop, is the "birthplace of smoke jumping." Sandy relaxed in the room while I took a free 60-minute tour. An on-duty smoke jumper showed me the crew's parachute rigging room and led me aboard the two-engine plane waiting on the runway for the next fire call. Next up was Chelan, a busy resort town on a large lake. It was a little cold for a swim, so we enjoyed the views from the banks. Lake Chelan was carved by a glacier and cuts a thin swath into the heart of the Cascades. Passenger ferries cross the lake, which is 50 miles long, but we arrived too late to catch the 8:30 a.m. round trip on the Lady Express. For the next 40 miles to Wenatchee, U.S. 97 south runs along the Columbia River and the massive Lake Entiat, formed by a river dam. We stopped at one of the many roadside fruit stands to purchase a small box of golden Rainier cherries, fresh-picked and luscious, before briefly detouring west into the mountains to the curious little Bavarian-inspired village of Leavenworth. Taking a cue from their Alps-like setting, the local folk--who are not necessarily of German descent--decided to revitalize their once-failing community by creating an ersatz Bavarian village. Shopkeepers and restaurant crews are decked out in lederhosen. Yakima is an agriculturally rich city, noted in particular for its cherries, apples, and very good wines. It's possible to taste for free at 46 Yakima Valley wineries, many of which are clustered south of town. Day two Attractions Winthrop National Fish Hatchery Winthrop, 509/996-2424 North Cascades Smokejumper Base Winthrop, 509/997-2031 Lady Express Operated by Lake Chelan Boat Company, Chelan, 509/682-4584, ladyofthelake.com, 8:30 a.m. cruise $47 Yakima Valley wineries 800/258-7270, wineyakimavalley.com Day three: Yakima to Mount Rainier National Park We kept jackets and sweaters close at hand as we headed back to the high country. Even in midsummer, daytime temperatures can drop as low as 30 degrees, and lingering snowbanks line the road. On the way out of town, we stopped at a grocery store and picked up cheese, crackers, cherries, and cookies and packed them in a cooler in the car. Our winding ascent began just outside Yakima. Initially we passed through the slender canyon of the Naches River, and then at Chinook Pass (elevation 5,432 feet), we entered Mount Rainier National Park. At the first sight of snow, Sandy and I pulled off the road to toss snowballs, each of us scoring a direct hit. Though it's not America's highest peak, Rainier is the most awesome I've ever seen, because of both its massive bulk and easy accessibility. You can drive almost up to the edge of some of the glaciers. Practically filling the sky, the mountain towers in solitary glory above neighboring Cascade peaks like the statuesque ruler of a mystical ice kingdom. Our first stop in the park, requiring a round-trip detour of 40 miles, was Sunrise, which, at 6,400 feet, is the highest point reachable by car. We got a close-up view of Emmons, the largest (at 4.3 square miles) of Rainier's 26 glaciers, before stopping to pull out our cooler contents and picnic along the White River. It has its name for a reason: It appears white in color, a result of the silt--crushed rock called "glacial flour"--that is carried by glacial melt. Doubling back, we headed west to Paradise, which is the park's hub. The mini-village has a visitor center, a restaurant, trailheads to the summit, and a climbing school. Rainier's last major eruption was more than 500 years ago, but it could spout off again at any time. There are signs pointing the way to evacuation routes in the park, should you be on hand for the next eruption. Needless to say, I found the warnings a bit unnerving. The best way to view Rainier, a ranger told us, is to hike one of the well-marked trails at the edge of Nisqually Glacier. A low portion of the Skyline Trail led us through fields thick with wildflowers. A side trail took us up to a point where snow started. Not too far past that, the snow was so high it blocked our path, and we were forced to return to the original trail. That night, we stayed in Paradise, at the Paradise Inn. Built in 1917, it's a handsome wooden structure. In the grand lobby, the furniture is made of hand-hewn cedar. And upstairs, the rooms are tiny; a double bed all but fills one, leaving space for only a nightstand and--if you're lucky enough to get one of the bigger rooms--a chair and desk. But rates are reasonable, and the views in every direction qualify as luxury-class. It's the best place to stay in the park, and for that reason, it tends to book up months in advance. Day three Lodging Paradise Inn Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park, 360/569-2275, guestservices.com/rainier, from $92 Food Paradise Inn Dining Room bourbon buffalo meat loaf, $15.50 Attractions Mount Rainier National Park 360/569-2211, nps.gov/mora, $10 per car, valid for one week On our way out of the park, we stopped at Narada Falls. The magnificent waterfall spills over a cliff's edge in a roar and hits a huge rock; the water is then dispersed, spreading wide in a flow that seems as delicate as a Spanish fan. At the base of the falls, we picked up the 93-mile-long Wonderland Trail, which encircles Mount Rainier. We hiked for an hour and then turned around. But it led us into a quieter side of Rainier, with shadowy forests where the peace is broken only by the splashing of a stream. Before returning to Seattle, we caught a last glimpse of Rainier's glaciers out of the car's rear window. Just the memory of the ice seemed to keep us cooler for the rest of the summer. Finding your way At least five discount airlines serve Seattle-Tacoma International Airport: America West, American Trans Air, Southwest, Frontier, and JetBlue. You should be able to rent a car with unlimited mileage for under $140 a week. Keep in mind that snow in both North Cascades and Mount Rainier national parks can close parts of this route from November to May. If you go during any season other than summer, it's wise to check ahead about road conditions. Even in summer, on the western slopes of the Cascades you'll need a jacket, and it's possible that you'll also need a poncho or other rain gear. On the sunny eastern slopes, shorts and T-shirts should be sufficient. Temperatures reach 80 degrees. 1. Seattle Airport to Winthrop, 200 miles From the airport, take I-5/I-405 north to Route 20 east (North Cascades Highway) to Winthrop. Be sure to allow plenty of time for the drive; after leaving the interstates, the road becomes narrow and windy, and its edges are sheer drop-offs. 2. Winthrop to Yakima, 190 miles Take Route 20 south via Twisp to Route 153 south. At Pateros, continue south on U.S. 97, detouring four miles west into Leavenworth on U.S. 2. Return to U.S. 97 south to Ellensburg, picking up I-82 south into Yakima. 3. Yakima to Mount Rainier National Park (Paradise), 125 miles Take U.S. 12 west, picking up Route 410 into Mount Rainier National Park. Once in the park, detour north to get to Sunrise. To reach Paradise, you'll have to double back the way you came. 4. Paradise to Seattle airport, 95 miles Follow the park road to the Nisqually entrance. Pick up Route 706 west to Elbe, connecting to Route 7 and then to I-5 north. From the park, the drive to the airport should take about two and a half hours.
The National Parks of Utah
Cramming five national parks into four days isn't for everyone. But if you are going to attempt such a quest, Southern Utah is the place to do it. Five of the nation's most gorgeous parks are packed into 650 miles of high desert. Bryce Canyon and Zion are both justly famous; so are the sandstone bridges in Arches National Park. Less well known are Canyonlands, every inch as impressive as the Grand Canyon, and Capitol Reef. Sure, attempting five parks in four days was ambitious. Not to mention the fact that my friend Stew and I did it at the very chilly start of spring, in part to beat the crowds. But over the years, we've climbed mountains together. We've traveled through the hinterlands of eastern Cuba. We've even taken a troop of Boy Scouts on a three-week tour of Europe. In other words, we can't resist a challenge. Day 1: Grand Junction to Moab Less than 90 minutes after landing in Grand Junction, Colo., we made it to Moab, Utah, a laid-back city wedged between Arches and Canyonlands. We had booked a mountain-bike ride north of Moab leading to a panorama of the desert from the northern end of Arches National Park. We'd have to grind 700 vertical feet up slickrock, a bald sandstone which, despite the name, is remarkably grippy. Our guide, from Rim Tours, was a lean young dude called Goose. Nine years ago, he left his home in Ohio, as well as his full name (Mike Gostlin), to guide rafting and biking trips in Colorado and Utah. Goose rode a one-gear with no shocks. Stew and I were on state-of-the-art mountain bikes with fast shifting and full suspension. Not that it helped. Five minutes into the ride, I was gasping for air, pushing my jelly legs to propel myself up a four-mile-long rock ridge. All I could think was, Thank God for dinosaur prints. The three-toed impressions appeared every 50 yards, and each was surrounded by a circle of stones to keep people away. I disembarked to examine every single one. After the ninth footprint, Goose saw through my sudden interest in paleontology. The ride down was much easier. Stew and I then drove into the popular southern end of Arches. Families piled out of minivans and trotted along trails to view aptly named geological formations such as Balanced Rock and Double Arch. By late afternoon, we were over the pain of the bike ride enough to do a 3/4-mile hike up to a view of Delicate Arch, a 45-foot-tall horseshoe of orange and red sandstone. We raced the setting sun as we looped up Highway 191 and then down Rte. 313 into Dead Horse Point State Park, at the northern corner of Canyonlands. The main overlook at Dead Horse Point also offers a view of Canyonlands. The muddy Colorado River snakes in from the left in wide, lazy curves. We got there just in time to catch the last bit of daylight. Our hotel's best feature was its location--right behind Moab's oldest microbrewery, Eddie McStiff's. The bartender plunked down a basket of tortilla chips and some tasty salsa--for 69¢--to accompany pints of the brewery's own Sky Island Scottish Ale, Cisco Bend Stout, and Rock Amber Ale. Day one Operators Rim Tours 1233 South Hwy. 191, Moab, 800/626-7335, half-day ride $90 Food Eddie McStiff's57 S. Main St., Moab, 435/259-2337, eddiemcstiffs.com, pint $3 Attractions Arches National Park435/719-2299, nps.gov/arch, weeklong car pass $10 Dead Horse Point State ParkRte. 313, 435/259-2614, stateparks.utah.gov, day pass $7 Day 2: Moab to Torrey The largest of the five national parks at 527 square miles, Canyonlands is divided into three sections. Stew and I had gotten a quick look at the northern Island in the Sky section yesterday at sunset, and we wanted to see how the southeastern section, Needles, compared. (Reaching the westerly Maze section involves 46 miles of dirt road just to get to the ranger station; maybe next time.) The road into Needles ascended to the Big Spring Canyon Overlook. Whereas Island in the Sky was all grand, wide canyons, Needles felt more intimate. Pygmy juniper trees decorated the ground, and hundreds of layers of sandstone fanned out in phyllo-like sheets. Newspaper Rock was on the way back to the main road. The black stone is covered in petroglyphs that were scratched over a 2,000-year period by native tribes (Anasazi, Fremont, Paiute, and Navajo). It was an impressive collage of images: men on horseback hunting antelope, oversize gods sprouting horns and antlers. We stopped for lunch at Twin Rocks Café in the one-road town of Bluff. The Navajo fry bread was crispy, puffy, and wonderfully greasy, and a platter of mesquite-smoked barbecued pork ribs and brisket was huge and satisfying. A sign past the town of Mexican Hat announced that we were now in "Navajoland," the Native American reservation, which sprawls across southern Utah and northern Arizona. The only real detail our map showed was a dot labeled Goulding, just north of Arizona. It turned out to be Goulding's Lodge & Tours, a complex with a lodge, museum with memorabilia from movies shot locally, and outfitter that runs tours of the reservation. In an air-conditioned gift shop we picked up some Native American drums and turquoise jewelry. Stew noticed that the map outlined a little dirt road that headed west, turned south, and rejoined Highway 163 after just a mile or two. Craving a glimpse of the real reservation--anything beyond the gift shop--we took the shortcut. We immediately spotted a modest home with a dome-shaped ceremonial Navajo mud hut in the yard. Success! Continuing on, we took a left at each fork. But after half an hour had passed with no more signs of civilization, I tossed the map onto the floorboard and declared us lost. A Navajo couple in a pickup truck gave us some good directions to the town of Blanding, which is along the highway. Our two-hour detour left us short on time, and we still needed to get halfway across the state to Torrey, where I had booked a night at the Cowboy Homestead Cabins. Restaurants were sure to be closed by the time we arrived, so before getting on the road, we made a quick grocery stop. After a good long drive, we checked into our cabin, one of four, and fired up a nearby barbecue. The smell of steaks, pork chops, red peppers, and zucchini lured Greg Daussin, a Utahan from upstate who had been coming here for the past 10 years and was staying in the cabin next door. He and Stew discovered a shared love of rock climbing, and we stayed up until 3:30 a.m. trading climbing stories and slowly emptying the cooler. Day two Lodging Cowboy Homestead Cabins2100 S. Rte. 12, Torrey, 435/425-3414, cowboyhomesteadcabins.com, from $49 Food Twin Rocks Café913 E. Navajo Twins Dr., Bluff, 435/672-2341, twinrocks.com/cafe, pork ribs $8 Peace Tree Juice Cafe20 S. Main St., Moab, 435/259-0101 Attractions Canyonlands National Park435/719-2313, nps.gov/cany, weeklong car pass $10 Shopping Goulding's Lodge & Tours100 Main St., Monument Valley, 435/727-3231, gouldings.com Day 3: Torrey To Bryce Canyon Torrey is the gateway to Capitol Reef, the least well known of Utah's five national parks. Route 24 cuts through it, threading a high valley carved by the little Fremont River. I had planned for us to spend only an hour or so at Capitol Reef--just enough time to take it in and move on--but I liked what I saw. The 10-mile Scenic Drive led us to a long wash (a dry canyon that becomes a river after heavy rain). The walls rise hundreds of feet on both sides as the dirt road twists its way through the increasingly narrow canyon. At the end of the road, we parked and continued on foot for two miles. As we walked, lizards scurried out of our path. It was quiet and eerie, like bandit country. I later learned Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch used Capitol Reef as a hideout. From Torrey we wound south on Highway 12, through Dixie National Forest. It earns my vote for the country's most spectacular drive. By the time we reached the summit, the road cut through a forest of tall firs and eight-foot-high snow drifts (at the highest points, the snow can stay through late spring). A span of red and yellow mesas and desert lay below. And that was just the first 20 miles. Descending into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the road follows the top of a ridgeline in a series of tight curves with drop-offs of more than 1,000 feet on both sides. Once again, we found ourselves racing the clock, this time to get to Bryce Canyon to see the sunset light up the hoodoos, which are spindly, orange-and-white-striped spires of rock. We missed the natural show at the park's Sunset Point by five minutes. But as the crowds dispersed, a photographer stayed planted. "Wait a few more minutes," he instructed, smiling. "You'll see." Soon enough, the snow between the pinnacles glowed a luminous pale purple. We'd decided to splurge on Bryce's own historic lodge for a night. Our room was bland, but had a lovely balcony with rough-hewn logs for a railing. Unfortunately, dinner at the lodge was pretty awful. Everything was salty, my salmon managed to be both pink and dry, and by the next morning I felt queasy. Perhaps it was just due to opening-night jitters--we did happen to come on the first day of the season. Day three Lodging Bryce Canyon LodgeBryce Canyon National Park, 888/297-2757, brycecanyonlodge.com, from $125, dinner $16 Attractions Capitol Reef National Park435/425-3791, nps.gov/care, car pass for Scenic Drive $5, otherwise free Bryce Canyon National Park435/834-5322, nps.gov/brca, weeklong car pass $20 Day 4: Bryce Canyon to Grand Junction At Bryce, the altitude ranges from about 7,900 feet to more than 9,100 feet. With the lingering effects of dinner, I wasn't up for too much activity. So Stew and I drove out to the end of Bryce's scenic road and stopped at each overlook. The best were at Agua Canyon and the rock window called Natural Bridge. Four parks down, one to go. By the time we got to Zion, we had just enough time to take the park's most rewarding short hike, the half-mile-long Canyon Overlook Trail. Private cars are no longer allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive north of the visitors center, so after we finished our hike, we caught the free shuttle to the Riverside Walk trail, which leads to the Narrows. The Narrows is a 16-mile trail that doubles as the bed of the Virgin River. (Only the first mile is accessible without a permit.) Hikers have to check with the visitors center before setting off, as flash floods can send a wall of water racing down the trail, between the 2,000-foot-high canyon walls. Attempting the Narrows at twilight was our final act of ill-advised bravado. We made it only around the first bend before the frigid water rose to our knees. We snapped a couple of quick pictures for bragging rights and hightailed it back to the car. Down the road from the park gates, we checked into a spacious cottage at the Canyon Ranch Motel and immediately headed for the outdoor hot tub. Fifteen minutes of soaking restored our circulation. We then finished off the evening with some of the best Mexican food I've ever tasted in the States, at the Bit and Spur Restaurant and Saloon. We ordered potato, poblano, and chorizo soup, and a couple of sweet potato tamales topped with shredded pork and salsa. The next morning we zipped back across the state. And as we neared the border, a flock of tumbleweeds playfully chased our car toward the state line of Colorado. Day four Lodging Canyon Ranch Motel668 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-3357, canyonranchmotel.com, from $69 Food Bit and Spur Restaurant and Saloon1212 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-3498, sweet potato tamale dinner $16 Attractions Zion National Park 435/772-3256, nps.gov/zion, weeklong car pass $20 Finding your way This trip can just as easily be done in reverse by flying into Las Vegas, a two-hour drive from Zion. The parks are open year-round, but outfitters and most lodges are only open for business April through October. Early spring and early fall are the best times to beat the crowds. And even though this is the desert, it's the high desert: Daytime temperatures in the 70s plummet to the mid-30s some nights, and there's still plenty of snow at higher elevations. To save money on entrance fees, consider an annual National Parks Pass. It's only $50--$15 less than the total cost of the entry fee