How we drove 3,500 miles through eight states and visited five national parks, six national forests, and a state park with only six days to plan.
With little warning, my wife ended up with two weeks of vacation to use immediately. So, in the middle of August, she decided it was high time we visited Yellowstone National Park. We’d never been. Didn’t know much about the park other than what Ken Burns had taught us. Do we camp? Do we rent a cabin? We had no idea what we were doing, but opened up a map and dove in.
We decided to look for a hotel in West Yellowstone, Montana, that sits on the western entrance of the park. Then, looking at the map we saw that Yellowstone [West Yellowstone?] sat conveniently right on top of Grand Teton National Park, so we booked two nights at a ranch near the southern entrance. We intended to get back home to Texas on a different route, one that would take us on a path through Moab, Utah, where we could see another two national parks, Arches and Canyonlands. We also decided we wanted to check off a few more states on our road trip, so we left the Grand Tetons heading southwest through Idaho and stopped by the Great Salt Lake for a quick float on our way to Moab.
We had friends in Albuquerque we could stay with, and visited Mese Verde National Park on the way there.
Before we knew it, we had traversed eight states, visited five national parks, and driven through several national forests. Had we known it was that easy to wing it, we wouldn’t have waited so long in life to see the most beautiful and awe-inspiring land our country has to offer.
I had grown up learning about the parks as a conservation story. The beauty always read to me as an added benefit of preserving the wildlife and water sources and trees, etc. It wasn’t until we were standing there that we understood it was the unadulterated glory of the landscape that caused great people to want to preserve it. The beauty is always the first and last part of this story.
The first place I’ve ever actually experienced something breathtaking. In past travels to museums, beautiful pieces of art have certainly moved me, but it wasn’t until we walked up to the ledge of a cliff and looked down at the Lower Falls of Yellowstone that I truly lost my breath.
More than once we learned the lesson that if you think what you’re looking at is amazing, just drive around the bend. It always gets better at Yellowstone. Driving on the Grand Loop Road on our way from Canyon Village to Lake Yellowstone, we came across a large herd of bison on the horizon kicking up dust, and just generally being bison. We backed our truck into a lookout spot, dropped the tailgate and ate our lunch watching this swarm of little black dots several hundred yards away. We got back in the truck to continue on to the lake and literally drove around the bend to find another herd half the distance closer to us, meandering across the Yellowstone River. We watched them for another 10 minutes thinking, OK, we really need to go. Then, around another bend, there were another several bison standing less than 50 yards from us. We threw our hands up, frustrated that we’d spent 30 minutes watching little black dots and counting ourselves lucky, when all we had to do was keep going. On our way back from the lake on the same route, we came across one of those herds. This time they were five feet from the road.
PARK TIP: We had zero knowledge of the park before entering but feel like we saw quite a lot by dividing the duties. My wife would take the map you’re given when entering the park the first time and start looking up sites, trails, and attractions and navigate while I drove us to the locations. Between the animals, traffic, steep grades, and turns in the roads, your driver is going to want complete focus at all times
We settled for two nights at Heart 6 Ranch on Buffalo Valley Road. They have covered wagons you can stay in. We opted for the cabin. This was the first place I’ve stayed in a couple of decades that didn’t have a television set anywhere. It was marvelous. In the summer they offer guided river float trips and horseback rides over mountains. In the winter they offer dog sledding, snowmobiling, and hunting. But the special thing about this park compared with Yellowstone is that the whole focus and point of the park is the Grand Tetons. It feels less stressful wondering if you’re doing what you should be doing or seeing what you should be seeing, because almost everywhere you step, you have a gorgeous view of a magnificent mountain range.
PARK TIP: Go swimming in Jackson Lake. I doubt you’ll ever swim in water with a better view anywhere inside this country. Warning: Even in the height of summer, this lake is extremely cold. This was the second time on the trip I had my breath stripped from me.
Great Salt Lake
Very glad we saw it. Very glad we floated. It’s a completely different experience than I had anticipated. Prepare for off-setting, sulfuric smells, though. And there are little alien insect larvae floating in every square inch of the water that will “come to life” when touched. It took three showers and I was still cleaning salt out of my ears.
Arches National Park
My idea of natural beauty is forested hillsides with mountains and streams and lakes. You would think after seeing all of that in Yellowstone and Grand Teton that my brain would be content. Then we drove into Arches and my mind was blown. Even to this day I can’t say which park was my favorite.
Because of the layered, striated, water-torn, wind-blown, sun-baked rock formations, every 10 paces or so is a new view. I’m not joking. We would see a breathtaking view, stop, soak it in, take a long panoramic photograph, and start walking. Then I’d look up again after just a minute of walking and see a completely different scene. It was the same rocks and cliffs. My mind knows this. But it looked completely different.
I was reminded of the stories you hear of hikers getting completely lost in the forests of the Pacific Northwest after only walking for a few hundred yards. You think you know where you are, but the view changes so drastically so quickly.
PARK TIP: This place is small enough that you could see the majority of all of the major rock formations in one day, but intriguing enough you could spend an entire week. And it features the best entrance drive out of all of the parks we saw.
We snuck this in the same day we did Arches. So by the time we hit our first trail, we already had 25,000 steps for the day, and had been in the sun for nine hours, so we drove as far as Mesa Arch, did the mile round-trip trek, took a bunch of pictures, and headed back. But we managed in one photo to capture an arch, a giant cliff, a floor of more cliffs and winding trails and tributaries to the Colorado River, and all of this with Mount Waas and Mount Peale looming on the horizon. We didn’t give this one its due.
Photography: (All images) Courtesy Jasmine M. Lehman
From our April 2021 issue