On America’s Best Idea
Our National Parks System holds the honor of America’s Best Idea. Having recently spent nine days in Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Tetons National Parks, I offer my support for this emeritus title. As an ambitious execution of an Unboring List item, a college friend and I enjoyed more than a week of fresh air, sunshine, exercise and education. Here’s my take from earlier this month!
Each park has its own personality. For instance, Glacier has only one road that goes through the park - Going to the Sun road. The drive alone is an experience and we took the opportunity to stop to take pictures of the peaks and valleys, waterfalls, snow fields and animals along the way. There is not much development on the park land, a good thing in my opinion, so we ate most of our meals (including boxed lunches) from the restaurant at our cabin. This was the location of our most ambitious hike; 11+ miles 1600 foot elevation gain. We trekked along the side of one of the mountains past four lakes and higher than an enormous water fall and a mountain goat to see one of the few remaining glaciers up close. Estimates are that there won’t be any glaciers left by 2030. At night, Glacier had the best star viewing.
Yellowstone is like Disney World by comparison. Catering to millions of visitors a year, it has many well paved or wooden paths near its most popular sites to keep the human impact to a minimum. There are also food courts and shops in perhaps half a dozen locations. I admire the efficiency of the system but this isn’t the style of vacation I was seeking. Still we found a way to hike 5-7 miles each day – usually spread out between a few locations. Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres of land and boasts some of the most amazing geysers and hot springs in the world. They are impressive and worth the trip alone. We also saw bison herds, elk, a bald eagle, and coyote as well as an enormous canyon, volcanic influence on the land, and waterfalls. Our accommodations, thanks to a Buy With Me coupon my father found, were new, the food was good, and this cabin had one TV on site in the bar.
Grand Tetons is located mere minutes south of Yellowstone. Jackson is a beautiful town for skiing, and also lodges many hikers year round. We enjoyed the get-away-from-it-all hikes during the day and local brewery and shops at night. Here we saw mountains, lakes, streams, and learned about the three kinds of evergreens – Spruce are spikey (the needles’ are round with strong and sharp ends), Firs are friendly (flexible and flat, the needles won’t twist between your fingers), and Pines come in packets (the needles grow two or more needles from one spot on the branch). Thank you park rangers!
It was an amazing trip and I enjoyed the different scenery immensely. Nine days was the right amount of time. And I had a blast trying out my new camera and the zoom lenses. Here’s what else you may want to know if you plan to take a similar trip:
1) Ranger Led Hikes – You can follow the hiking trails with confidence on your own in any of the three parks. They are well marked and well maintained. By taking a Range led hike, you’ll learn about the history, geology, weather patterns, special features, plants, and animals of the area. You can learn about Ranger led hikes at Information Stations.
2) Park Personality – It would be more difficult for someone with limited mobility or a wheelchair to enjoy Grand Tetons but Yellowstone would be a great choice. Also, you may want to decide what you want to see while you are in the planning stages. My goal was to see a glacier, so an obvious choice was Glacier National Park. If you want to see rock features, for instance, you’d be disappointed here. At Yellowstone, you could spend your entire day in the car because it is enormous. If you plan to see the entire park in one visit, consider staying in two different corners of the park.
3) Environment – There was smoke from Idaho fires that affected our views and our lungs. Also, the elevation in these parks ranges from 5,000 – nearly 9,000 feet, which also had impact on our physical abilities. Be sure you measure your health with the trip and plan accordingly. You’ll be spending your entire day outside, so even in the fall, pack your sunscreen!
4) Seasons – Not being a big fan of crowds, circling for parking, or waiting in lines, the off-season was the right time for my visit. We had amazing weather (sunny every day, high 60s – 70s in the day and 30s at night) so we lucked out. We didn’t see as many wild flowers, which I would have greatly enjoyed, and some of the talks, programs, and trails were closed already so there is some give and take.
5) Plan ahead but don’t get too specific – You should have air travel, rental car and hotel accommodations ready before you leave home. Many of the hotels, cabins and campsites in/near the parks sell out well in advance. But, leave your days fairly flexible. The Ranger Stations have ample literature, maps and trail guides to plan your days. Some trails may be closed because of animal activity or weather, which the rangers can offer advice on when you arrive.