With the Coronavirus crimping our usual travel plans, we decided this year to go where people and the virus are scarce. We headed north from Texas to the home of America’s great national parks. Our road trip included six national parks: Rocky Mountain, Arches, Canyonlands, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and The Badlands. We would have visited the Little Big Horn Battlefield, but it was closed due to Covid 19. It was a pleasant time to travel in early June.
An auto-driving tour app for National Parks is GyPSy Guide, which can be purchased online. Or if you are like me you do your own research online well in advance. Also, for visiting multiple parks, purchasing the appropriate pass is recommended. Different types of passes are available, and you’ll have to decide which is best for you. In the end it saved us a great deal of money.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park, Colorado, encompasses over 415 square miles of magnificent mountain scenery. Long’s Peak, the park’s highest, reaches over 14,000 feet. Another 60 mountains stand at over 12,000 feet. There are also 147 beautiful lakes. We arrived the day after a light snowfall in June which gave the park a scenic dusting. The snow did not stay long on the roads, but did linger on the mountains, giving them a striking three dimensional quality. There are 280 types of birds including eagles and hawks and 60 species of animals including elk, black bears and moose. The bears make themselves scarce, but we saw plenty of elk.
One activity that gives you a unique park perspective is a tour by horseback. Over 260 miles of trails network the park. They can be rented through several stables located inside and outside the park. Horseback riding is has been a pastime here since the park opened in 1915. We also noticed a number of people fishing which requires a Colorado State fishing License.
Due to Covid 19, Rocky Mountain required special timed tickets. These reservations were made online the day before our arrival. Parts of the park had not yet reopened to the public.
We spent two nights in Estes Park in a cabin (see a room with a view) to enjoy the ambiance of this appealing town with mountain peaks framing every vista!
Arches & Canyonlands National Parks
Our next stop was Moab Utah, a 400 mile drive from Estes Park. Some of the drive was quite lovely on scenic I 70 with remarkable rocky mountain roadcuts and the Colorado river coming and going alongside the drive. As we reached Moab, the land became a wilderness of red rock and canyons. The main street in Moab is bustling and crowded so we were glad we picked a place to stay back away from the rim in a peaceful neighborhood surrounded by a pinyon juniper forest See (a room with a view) Some of our favorite moments in Utah were spent on the patio at sunrise and sunset looking at the rim in the distance without a soul in sight except for coyotes, deer, rabbits and an amazing array of birds.
These parks are an easy drive from Moab.
Canyonlands was largely unknown to the mainstream public when it was established in 1964. The rugged, rocky terrain conjures visions of the Old West— with Native Americans, cowboys and prospectors struggling to wrest a living from the harsh land. The park’s beauty—true to its names largely canyons and rock formations—is astounding from the Green River at Fort Bottom to Mesa Arch in the Island in the Sky section of the park. The Needles district in the southeast corner of the park contains colorful pinnacles of Cedar Mesa Sandstone.
Many of the natural arches and canyons are best explored through long hikes, overnight trips and 4 x4 vehicles. The best sites may be for those hardy travelers, but plenty of the beauty can be enjoyed from your car.
Close by Canyonlands is the Arches National Park. Rainwater and ice, along with extreme temperatures and underground salt dispositions, are responsible for the dazzling rock scenery. Over 2,000 arches of varying sizes and profiles are in this park, as are a some ancient pictograph and petroglyph panels left by Native Americans. The most photographed feature, “Delicate Arch,” sits on the edge of a canyon with the La Sal Mountains in the background. This iconic arch is featured on Utah license plates and is a three mile round trip hike from the road.
The vistas that flow through the park are outstanding. Among them are towering spires, pinnacles, and rocks precariously balanced over narrow bases. Some might make a driver nervous, as they are close to the edge of the road along the drive.
After the beautiful spectacle of these parks, we drove over 500 miles to Driggs, Idaho. We spent two nights close to the Wyoming/Idaho border to see Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park. We chose Idaho to avoid both the very high costs in Jackson and the crowds of tourists which congregate in this charming town. Accordingly, Jackson boasts a large variety of restaurant and shopping choices. The arches that are pictured are full of shed elk antlers.
Grand Teton National Park
From your car, Grand Teton Park is a procession of towering peaks. The Alpine Environment of Grand Teton National Park in late Spring/early Summer is strewn with golden sprays of tall grass and wild flowers. The cloud layered sky and the jagged snowcapped mountains meet in perfect harmony giving the whole scene a surreal quality and splendor which a photo cannot capture. The Teton Scenic 42 mile loop drive is full of great scenery. Some of the highlights in the park: the Snake River Overlook, Jenny Lake Scenic Drive and Jackson Lake overlook and Mormon Row historic district where the iconic Moulton Barns are one the most photographed places in the Tetons.Plus there are many more stops that you can reach by car. There are plenty of areas to see animals, there are both Black bears and Grizzly bears here. Oxbow Bend, Willow Flats and the Snake River are all good places to look for wildlife.
From Driggs, we drove through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, through Gardiner, Montana and north to Emigrant. There, we stayed on a cabin perched on the side of mountain, and enjoyed majestic views of the Yellowstone River framed by the mountains of Yellowstone in the distance (see a room with a view).
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is a geothermal wonder, with the world’s largest collection of active geysers. The park is actually the remnants of a super volcano which last erupted about 630,000 years ago. The result is a 30 by 45 mile caldera which still fuels the geysers, hot springs and mud pots. The area is still active and might erupt again sometime in the future. When—no one knows.
Yellowstone’s terrain is diverse. It ranges from desert like plant life towards the North entrance to meadow and forest areas. The diversity allows the park to sustain a variety of wildlife including bears, wolves, coyotes, buffalo, a variety of birds, mountain goats, and elk—to name a few. The Lamar Valley is full of bison and elk. You will definitely see these, but you may need some luck to spy a wolf or a bear. We were lucky and saw two bears. The early morning and twilight hours are probably the best time for seeing wildlife.
Huge waterfalls, deep canyons and multiple lakes will highlight your drive through the park. My favorite areas have the hydrothermal features. The travertine terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs are incredible and look colorful in the waning sunset. The Abyss pool in the West Thumb Geyser basin has a lustrous inner light. The West Thumb includes mud pots springs and geysers and is an another easy scenic hike. The Upper and Lower Falls at the Yellowstone River are also impressive.
The geysers in the Old Faithful area as well as the Norris Geyser Basin and Midway Geyser Basin are not to be missed (although because of the Covid Virus pandemic we decided not to wait in a crowd for old Faithful’s eruption which we plan for another visit). The Old Faithful Inn was closed for the pandemic. This s a fabulous full service lodge that is over a century old brimming with history.
Last but not least the Roosevelt arch which is a triumphal arch constructed under the supervision of the US Army. The cornerstone was placed by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. It is located near the north entrance at Gardiner, Montana.
For our Yellowstone visit, we stayed in a cabin in Emigrant, Montana.The town is appealing and full of local charm. It has several good restaurants and off beat watering holes. It is much less touristed than the towns next to the park entrances. About 26 miles north of Emigrant is the town of Livingston. Livingston has a great deal of allure and history. Film director, Sam Peckinpah lived for a number of years at the historic downtown Murray Hotel . The “Peckinpah Suite” is now something of a tourist attraction, in which you can stay. It has been said that it is on the list of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite hotels. The lobby of the Murray has a display of Peckinpah’s belongings left behind at his death. Artists and celebrities have gravitated to this general area because of the natural splendor and solitude. Media mogul Ted Turner owns the Flying D ranch in nearby Bozeman.
Further north is Butte, a mining town once known as “the richest hill on earth” because of its copper reserves. The uptown district is a well preserved historic area with plenty of turn-of- the-century architectural charm. We stayed in an industrial styled loft in the middle of this area (See a Room With A View).
Farther north from Butte is the impressive Glacier National Park, which we plan to do on our next visit.
Deadwood, South Dakota
From Butte we drove more than 500 miles east to Deadwood, South Dakota. We passed the Little Big Horn Battlefield, which was closed due the Covid-19. Deadwood is well located for its proximity to Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, The Devil’s Tower, Custer State Park, and Badlands National Park—all an easy drive. But Deadwood itself is a vibrant town with a wild and rough history. Founded during the Black Hills Gold rush in 1876, and named for the dead trees lining a gulch where gold was found, Deadwood is a great place to visit and stay. The town lies beneath the shadow of Wild Bill Hickok’s and Calamity Jane’s graves in the Mount Moriah Cemetery. The town is thus a tourist attraction, with many restaurants and hotels.
We especially enjoyed the Badlands National Park. Its mountains seem stacked in multilayers of colored rock surrounded by rolling prairies. The park is full of vividly colored buttes, spires and canyons. The scenic vistas are haunting in its naturally eroding splendor. Some very important fossils are still being found in this geologically significant region. Custer State Park is also a must see destination. The Needles Highway through this park is a beautiful 14 mile drive through jagged granite mountain formations for which it gets its name. There are plenty of mountain goats lingering along the roadsides and small single lane road cuts to navigate through this area.
After South Dakota we headed back south to Texas with visions of the parks lingering in our minds. It was an inspiring journey. We hope to return in the future to see the parks and the destinations we missed in another season perhaps the Fall.