“Keep close to Nature’s heart, yourself; and break clear away once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”– John Muir
So far, our “out west” National Park vacation has been our biggest, best family memory – confirmed by both of us and all three boys. (See Memory Makers, Part 1). Not everybody likes a road trip, so if that is you, you may want to skip this one. For road trip fans, I’m sharing our itinerary, because my cousins and my Uncle Jack generously helped me plan it by sharing their itineraries, and because this vacation was such a treasure.
At a glance:
- We took 2 ½ days to drive from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Jackson Hole, Wyoming so we could visit the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore on the way.
- 4 days in Grand Teton National Park. We rented a condo in Jackson Hole, outside the park.
- 3 full days in Yellowstone (We arrived at dinner one night and left in the morning on the last day to drive to Montana). We stayed in the park at Canyon Lodge.
- 3 days for Montana and Glacier National Park (One day driving up through Bozeman, and two in the park). We rented a condo in Columbia Fall, MT, outside the park.
- 2 days to drive home from Columbia Falls, MT to Grand Rapids, Michigan.
We have three sons, ages 11, 10 and 6 at the time of the vacation. The transportation was a minivan – which was new because our old minivan’s transmission died three weeks before the trip. We made breakfast and lunch every day for the two weeks we were gone, and we ate takeout every night for dinner, including when we were on the road. (Restaurants were all closed because of COVID, including inside the parks).
We opted not to rent a camper/RV, because we heard that some of the roads in the mountains and parks are not open to RVs or would be perilous to drive on. I am irrationally afraid of driving on mountain roads (even as a passenger), so this was the deciding factor for us. As it was, my poor husband still had to endure my dramatic gasps as we drove up Signal Mountain. I have more gray hair than I did pre-trip.
We took 2 ½ days to drive out to Wyoming so that we would have time to make a few fun stops and not require more than 8 hours in the car in a single day. On the way home from Montana at the end of the vacation, we aimed for getting home in two days. That worked despite some long days in the car, and a tornado in St Paul, MN, which cost us some time taking shelter at a rest area. (A little extra adventure).
The Badlands in North Dakoka were a perfect stop on the way. I had no idea what to expect, but it was a chance to climb around and move our bodies. The Badlands are also a fun teaser for what was to come in Wyoming and Montana – uncommon natural beauty plus plenty of strangeness. The boys loved it too.
Mt. Rushmore is what it is. This was a quick morning stop for us. The downside was being around other people, because of COVID. In the entire two-week vacation, Mt. Rushmore was the only place where we had to be careful to stay away from a crowd, although everyone was wearing masks and were distanced pretty well.
We spent four days in Grand Teton National Park. The Tetons were filled with breathtaking, unspoiled natural beauty, alpine lakes, stillness, wildlife, rest, and family adventure. Just wait! It is the absolute best. (Can you tell it was my favorite?) From now on, when we hear John Muir’s famous quote, “The Mountains are calling, and I must go,” we will forever picture the Teton range.
Yellowstone National Park is a show of sights and smells (sulfur!), deep canyons and boiling rivers, chalky geysers and lush savannahs. Do not miss it. We had one evening plus two full days here, and we felt like we saw everything we wanted to see. The Roosevelt Lodge area in the Northeast was closed while we visited, and our days were packed. If you are staying outside the park, you may want to allocate three days here (or more, depending on your interests). We also spent a lot of time pursuing wildlife sightings, so if that is not your thing, 2 ½ days may be enough.
At Glacier National Park, we felt like we were living in an outdoors magazine, or in the Alps. It is similar to the Tetons in unspoiled natural beauty. There is nothing like the awe of these mountains to make you feel appropriately small! We were not able to stay in the park, and the entire eastern half was closed due to COVID, so we only spent two days in the park. I heard from some of the rangers that the eastern half is “much better” and even more beautiful than the Lake MacDonald area where we spent our time. Road and trail closures notwithstanding, it was still a highlight of the vacation.
As you are packing, here are a few things you could consider.
- We did not buy everyone hiking shoes, we just wore our regular gym shoes. We had a six-year-old with us, so no hike was more than four hours long or more arduous than what our Nikes could handle.
- Consider bringing more water bottles than you think you’ll need. At our first stop in the Badlands, we bought a big disposable water jug so we could refill our water bottles between activities each day.
- Water shoes/sandals were helpful, if you want to be in the rivers with rocky bottoms while you’re out hiking. We also used ours in the Tetons for a Snake River float and when we rented kayaks on Lake MacDonald in Glacier.
- Bring layers. We used our sweatshirts or zip-up fleeces over shorts and t-shirts most evenings. We only used hats and mittens once – when we got up pre-dawn for a sunrise. But we NEEDED them.
- We brought rain jackets, but it never rained. We were happy to have them as another layer in the early morning or late evening.
- We brought one large backpack for day hikes. It held lunch, snacks, binoculars, bear spray, water shoes, one small beach towel, hike book, map, and all the water bottles.
- Consider a small, packable cooler bag with a refreezable ice pack for lunch in your day pack. That worked well for us. We didn’t have to try to find a place to buy lunch in the middle of a day, we always carried something with us. Some of my favorite moments were eating a PB&J sitting on a rock in the middle of a river or laying on a log by a waterfall.
- I found the book series “Best Easy Day Hikes” for the Tetons and for Glacier to be helpful.
- Don’t plan to buy much of anything other than groceries while you are out there. Other than camp stores inside the parks, options are few and sparse.
- We brought fishing supplies and never caught a single thing. But it was idyllic and good for the soul to watch the boys fishing in the shallow water of Lake MacDonald!
If this type of road trip is starting to sound good to you, refer back here for a few more posts soon. I’ll write a short essay about each park including what we did, what we recommend (and don’t). If you have a fourth grader, which we did, entry to all the parks is free for everyone in the vehicle. For anyone who has done this type of trip, add your tips in the comments!
If you decide to do some of this, enjoy! The effort we put in was more than paid back in laughs, wild animal sightings, memorable kid quotes, and pure awe.
“Keep close to Nature’s heart, yourself; and break clear away once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”John Muir
“God’s splendor is a tale that is told;Psalm 19:1, The Passion Translation
His testament is written in the stars.
Space itself speaks His story every day
through the marvels of the heavens.
His truth is on tour in the starry vault of the sky,
showing His skill in creation’s craftsmanship.”