We took the scenic route, I told her – three nights at Grand Teton National Park and four nights at Yellowstone National Park before making our first visit to Glacier, which touches the Canadian border in northern Montana.
“At least you saved the best for last,” she said.
At that moment, it was difficult to argue with her. As much as I enjoy the jagged mountain peaks of the Tetons and the abundant wildlife of Yellowstone, a blue sky at Logan Pass is invigorating. I didn’t care about the rising mileage total or the long drive home that awaited. I was eager to explore, just like I was on our first mornings in Grand Teton and Yellowstone – when we were a lot fresher.
By the time I returned to Boise with my wife Brandi and 8-year-old son Oliver, plus extended family, we had driven 2,370 miles in 12 days. (A similar trip from Spokane would involve about 1,500 driving miles.) But it was worth it.
Our three-park trip began as a Teton-Yellowstone combo. Here’s some of what we saw and learned.
Omnipresent Snake: The Snake River dominated the first four days of our trip. We stopped at Shoshone Falls on the drive to Grand Teton, enjoying the show three days before flows were scheduled for reduction. We started the second day at Grand Teton’s Schwabacher’s Landing, the gorgeous photo stop where the mountains reflect on the Snake in the morning light. The third day featured a whitewater rafting trip where the Snake hugs the highway south of Jackson – not far from the Idaho border (a fun, splashy ride). And on the fourth day we hiked along the Snake to Flagg Canyon, just outside Yellowstone’s south entrance. Given the river’s importance to our state, it was interesting to follow the Snake almost to its roots.
Lamar over Hayden: We spent countless hours 10 years ago watching for wildlife in Hayden Valley, the picturesque stretch of Yellowstone between Fishing Bridge and Canyon. But we never saw much more than elk and bison.
This time, staying at Canyon, we made the drive to Lamar Valley in the northeastern corner of the park early in the morning twice (leaving Canyon around 6 a.m.). The wildlife viewing was far better. On our first morning, we saw a black bear, wolves with pups (through a spotting scope), pronghorn (butting heads), bison, a coyote, elk and deer. My brother’s family also spotted a pair of wolves running across the road in front of them and playing with food at about 40 yards.
We went back later in the week for a second round of wolf viewing. A large group of wildlife watchers sets up at the Slough Creek Campground turnoff from Northeast Entrance Road. The Junction Butte Pack features 10 adults and eight pups. Several folks with high-powered spotting scopes were more than willing to share – and they made sure Oliver got a good look at the pups.
Still get away from the crowds: By rising early or going an extra half-mile, we were able to find moments of tranquility even in the ultra-busy national parks.
On July 4 in Grand Teton, most of our group hiked to Taggart Lake. We arrived early – around 8 a.m. – and were the only people at the lake when we reached the end of the trail.
We only saw one other hiker during our trip to Flagg Canyon, a less-trafficked area. We hiked down from Tower Fall to a beach on the Yellowstone River and found it empty. We made the extra walk to Punch Bowl Spring at the Upper Geyser Basin (Old Faithful), and nobody was there even though the parking lot was packed.
At Glacier, we did the popular hike to Avalanche Lake. But by walking an extra seven-tenths of a mile to the far end of the lake, we enjoyed a few minutes of quiet to eat snacks and take photos.
Yes, the parks were busy – but by planning our excursions, we were able to do what we wanted, when we wanted. And the only time we had trouble finding a parking spot was at our Yellowstone lodge at night.
The bear spray effect: The last time we visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton, we didn’t see a bear. This time, everyone seemingly told us to take bear spray – particularly since we were going to Glacier.
On our first hike of the trip, a short jaunt on the Hermitage Point trail from Colter Bay Village, we encountered a large, black bear at about 25-30 yards. The bruin barely acknowledged us and wandered off. But having bear spray made the experience more joyful than stressful. It also gave us the confidence to venture into the woods the rest of the trip.
In Yellowstone, we saw three black bears, all from the car. In Glacier, we saw a pair of black bears, also from the car.
Goats share the trail better than people: The highlight of our visit to Glacier was hiking at Logan Pass.
We started with the climb to the Hidden Lake Overlook – a stunning view of peaks still dotted with snow soaring above a small, blue lake. Along the way, we passed within a few feet of several goats – including a kid – that didn’t mind a bit.
The usually moderate hike turned treacherous on the way down because of the snow. The woman directly in front of Oliver slipped and slid about 100 yards down the mountainside, narrowly missing a large rock. We changed course and got down safely.
Across the road, we sampled the Highline trail. Highline includes three-tenths of a mile of walking between a rock wall and a cliff edge. The trail is about 6 feet wide, and there’s a cable attached to the wall to grab for safety.
On our way back through that portion of trail, two mountain goats hopped off a ledge in front of Brandi. We slid up against the wall and watched as they calmly wandered by, walking right on the cliff edge.
“That was cool,” Oliver said as the goats passed.
Needless to say, we brought home a mountain goat stuffed animal. And some fantastic memories.
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