Wallace Stegner, considered “The Dean of Western Writers,” once remarked that America’s national parks are “the best idea we ever had.” They reveal some of the most majestic places you will ever see in the world. The parks inspire us, challenge us and provide a respite from our hurried, stressful lives. They protect and nurture wildlife and keep wilderness areas pristine for all to enjoy. These stunning natural spaces tell us something about who we are as a nation.
There are 59 national parks in the United States that are operated by the National Park Service. Our first national park was Yellowstone, designated in 1871. Yosemite, long the project of naturalist John Muir, became a park in 1890. Today, in addition to the national parks, hundreds of monuments, battlefields, seashores, scenic rivers and other recreation areas are also protected by the park service. The largest national park is Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska, encompassing 13 million acres! The most visited park is Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, with over 9 million visitors a year.
Yellowstone National Park
My husband and I have visited 15 of our national parks and recently returned from a trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Yellowstone contains more than 2 million acres of geographic diversity spread across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. It is best known for its geothermal features – hot springs and geysers – including “Old Faithful.” The park is so large that it is best to get an overview by first driving the Grand Loop Road, a 154-mile loop that connects Yellowstone’s featured attractions. During this drive, you can stop and marvel at multiple geyser basins and hot springs (the real show-stoppers of Yellowstone), enjoy Yellowstone Lake (the largest high-elevation lake in North America), and be awed by the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (a 1,200 foot canyon that includes spectacular waterfalls). Driving is the primary way most people see Yellowstone, so the road is very congested during busy tourist season.
You can also be stopped by wildlife using the road! Yellowstone contains the most elk and bison in the country and is home to moose, antelope, wolves and bears roaming the interior.
The best way to experience Yellowstone or any of the national parks is to actually get inside them, away from the crowds. (Only about 10% of those who visit the parks ever get away from the main road and attractions.) Just hike a mile or two into the interior, and you can find yourself alone to enjoy the serenity and view wildlife up close and personal.
Our first hike in Yellowstone was the Beaver Ponds loop trail, a moderate 5.2 mile hike at Mammoth, with spectacular views of mountain peaks, lakes, valleys and wildlife. After the hike, we stopped in at Mammoth Hot Springs General Store for ice cream. Later in the trip, we hiked the easy six-mile South Rim and Ribbon Lake loop trail for stunning views of Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls. From Artist Point, you branch away from the canyon rim and hike past several small lakes, fumaroles and hot springs until you reach Clear Lake, a lovely, acidic spring-fed lake where you might see wildlife and won’t see many people!
Hotel accommodations in and around Yellowstone are plentiful but fill up fast during peak tourist season.
Even though our trip was in September after peak season, we still were not able to get reservations in the park. My sister and her husband who joined us were able to stay one night at Old Faithful Inn, and their window overlooked Old Faithful Geyser! Dining at Old Faithful Inn is a “must-do” during your stay, but make reservations well in advance. Dan and I enjoyed our stay in the funky town of West Yellowstone, Mont., where you’ll find lots of hotels, shops and dining options. At the end of a long day of hiking, we enjoyed the pizza at Wild West Pizzeria, recommended by the locals.
Grand Teton National Park
While I loved Yellowstone, I was most captivated by the iconic, jagged mountain range known as the Grand Tetons in northwestern Wyoming, just south of Yellowstone. The mountain views here are among the most breathtaking in the world, with peaks above 12,000 feet. Get oriented first by driving through the park and stopping at the scenic overlooks. On my trip, one world traveler declared to me that the Jenny Lake Overlook was the most beautiful spot he had ever seen in all his travels!
Our first adventure in the Grand Tetons was a float down the Snake River. Our 10-mile, three-hour trip with Barker-Ewing Scenic Float Tours covered the most scenic stretch of the Snake River within Grand Teton National Park. A knowledgeable guide pointed out wildlife and features in the park. We saw bald eagles, pronghorn, elk, and beavers during our float. Later Dan and I enjoyed an easy, three-mile day hike at the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve to Phelps Lake. The preserve was privately owned by the Rockefeller family but donated to the park in 2008. The trail follows Lake Creek and leads you to Phelps Lake for spectacular views of Albright Peak and Rendezvous Mountain. Benches here provide an opportunity to sit and soak up the scenery. On another day we took the 100-passenger Jackson Hole Mountain Resort aerial tram ride from Teton Village to the summit of Rendezvous Peak. At 10,450 feet, you see the Tetons, Snake River and the whole valley spread out before you. Don’t miss enjoying top-of-the-world waffles at Corbet’s Cabin before descending in the tram.
The shuttle ferry across Jenny Lake is a fun experience to access the trails on the other side. When we pulled into port at Cascade Canyon, we joined a big crowd taking the short (about a mile) but steep hike to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point – great places to take photos.
Hotel accommodations are abundant around the Grand Tetons. Jackson, Wyo. is a favorite destination for dining, shops and hotels. We stayed in nearby Victor, Idaho at the Victor Springs Lodge & Spa. We arrived early and our room was not ready, so they upgraded us to a suite! It was the most luxurious place I have ever stayed and a wonderful retreat after a long day of hiking.
Our trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons was not only memorable but life-changing. As John Muir said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”