Oh how I wish I could have had more days in each of these US National Parks!
Thankful though for at least 24 hours in Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier and North Cascades National Parks.
Summer 2020 and my parents decided they were headed to the lake cabin in Eastern South Dakota for a few months. Jobless me decided to join them because what else is there to do during a pandemic with no job but explore and leave the cities!
On a road trip with my parents at 36 years old I managed to convince them to stop to see some National Parks along the way. What I didn´t know was that I would only be allotted 24 hours or a tad over in each of them. Their agenda is not mine and my idea of a road trip is obviously different than my parents who were happy to stop but really just trying to get to their destination and I was just the passenger with an endless idea of sights to see along the way. They definitely agreed that I made the journey more entertaining and that they saw things and places they would never have seen without me so overall everyone in the vehicle was happy.
I took my bike because it is pretty much my vehicle and main transportation for over 10 years now and knew it would allow me to explore farther each stop along the road. I am so glad I did because, well without it I most likely would have seen near nothing in each park as my parents really only were going through for a day.
Yellowstone National Park (NP) was the first of our stops and it was a negotiated stop prior to even starting the road trip with them since it was kind of on the way….just south of Interstate-90 (I-90). Teton NP is just below it and some how was not on the agenda but was added once we were in Yellowstone. It was a complete surprise and has been my favorite of the four National Parks I visited. The real surprise was my father actually chosen to go and he was the most eager to get to our destination! I had not added it because it was farther South than the route to South Dakota but as with any road trip you can go many ways to a destination (that old saying, All roads lead to Rome…?). Glacier NP was the negotiated return trip stop of mine and it was added after driving through Montana where it is located….and yes it is not really on the way home per se but everyone agreed on making the stop so all clear! Lastly, North Cascades NP, was not actually on the road trip at all but a fluke in the agenda. Literally on the return road trip home as we entered Washington State again for the first time in months my friend text me and said she was going the next week and wanted to know if I was interested. I was like, ¨Well, I haven´t even got home yet?, but YES to camping and hiking!¨ so I found myself there a week later ha ha!
The US is for me one of the most beautiful countries in the world, maybe top 10. For obvious reasons it get´s this title as it is such a huge diverse land mass…then throw in spectacular Alaska and Hawaii and you have infinite landscapes…many of which contain protected forests which is something often hard to find elsewhere in the world. The NP system in the US is mostly the highlights of the countries diverse beauty but the US Forests, State Parks and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas have this intense beauty too. Yellowstone is the first ever NP in the US created by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 and because of this early initiative we have considerably preserved our nature. By the way the oldest NP in the world is in Mongolia, Bogd Khan Uul – 1783 and the US National Park Service didn´t officially exist until 1916 but natural areas like Yellowstone were starting to be preserved way before. In total there are 62 parks in fact just last year 3 new ones were added! (419 if you count the national monuments and other protected lands). All these NP are only found in 29/50 states and as of 2019 the most visited park had over 12.5 million visitors…least visited tend to be in Alaska for obvious reasons (colder and father away)! Would you have guessed Great Smoky Mountains NP had the 12 million figure?
Now, I have been to other NP before. I won´t compare them here, I am just sticking to these four from this trip. I also very randomly visit them. I´ve never sought NP out but rather found out about them through friends or because I was nearby. These days it seems like many are just trying to check places off and take a photo for Instagram…I am just going to continue taking my time to see them and hope they don´t get super overcrowded over time. When I returned from the last NP of the four the other day I saw in the local news they are talking about Mt. Rainier NP (1 of 3 NP in my state, Washington) and what they should do to stop overcrowding…um because it is at that point there already…which isn´t good for trails, animals, parking, nature, etc. It is a top 20 NP and in 2019 had 1.5 million visitors… nowhere near Smoky NP lol but also less than half the size (acreage) and really one viewing platform (where most go).
Maybe an odd year to travel but I feel the outdoors are the safest place you can be currently. NP were closed until sometime in early June in the US and you can tell there are way less visitors than normal but there still are moments where crowding does happen although for the most part there is plenty of space for everyone. In Yellowstone, at Ol´Faithful, the famous geyser felt like a Covid concert with the amount of people watching…some close up and 3 deep….on trails, the popular ones had plenty of people passing and not always tons of space. Usually you found considerate hikers using a mask when passing or where crowding happened…again everyone is outside and time near others is very limited. The whole mask wearing situation in America really proves to me how Americans in general are viewed around the world…as a least courteous/respectful population 😦 ..sad though that this has become political. Hotels in parks were closed but camping and cabins were still functioning just fine. Due to maybe 30% of the usual visitors going we were able to book same day at all NP (we did cabins)…something unheard of usually! I do think when we went in June and then later in August there were more people on road trips. Totally makes sense…quarantine for months, hear the NP are open, going stir crazy and boom road trip!
Yellowstone is a geothermal park, it is massive and beautiful with bubbling spots, steaming ground, funky mineral colors and fantastic animals easily seen everywhere. Most people drive and stop at the main sights but there are tons of hiking trails to explore and you can cycle the roads. Every time I arrived to a NP I wanted to do it all, hike, cycle, even swim but I only had 24 hours and kind of had to pick….because you also want to drive and see the sights and enjoy. We didn’t stop at all sights in the park, you could but I left some for next time…as my dad says, “ You will be back, save some for another visit.” In fact I wanted to hike from Ol’ Faithful to Grand Prismatic Spring but lacked time…we drove instead and saw how packed the parking lot was….we were not stopping! “FINE!” I snapped back at my dad and tried negotiating the stop. The general road trip with the parental units never changes even mid 30s ha there is always the negotiator, the decision maker and the comforting soul. Sometimes these negotiations worked but not there…we were instead leaving the park lol.
In Yellowstone we mainly drove but In the morning I did ride my bike to West Thumb from our cabin in Lake, had a look around and waited on my parents to meet/pick me up there so we could continue. I also thought about swimming (not taking a dip but literally swimming) but realized Yellowstone Lake is one of the deepest in the US and at high altitude that I wasn’t risking it even in my wetsuit. Temperature of the water is 41F (5F) nearly all year as it is located at 7732 ft. (2356m) elevation with a depth of 390 ft (118m). Would you swim?
For me the most beautiful part of the park was the Canyon…and we arrived around sunset! The colors were just fantastic! Even my dad was stunned. The geothermal stuff was cool too but I had seen other areas like it in New Zealand and Ethiopia for example that it wasn’t as impactful for me. Seeing a geyser though was a first! You know the hot hole in the ground that builds pressure and then explodes hot water and steam… There are plenty of them in Yellowstone but what makes Old Faithful so famous is the frequency of it’s explosion, about every hour to hour and a half…so everyone can see it if they wait just a bit. Imagine though there are larger spouting ones, the largest is actually in Yellowstone too, Steamboat Geyser which shoots boiling hot water up 300 feet (91m) for 3 to 40 minutes…hot stuff! If you were there last night (Sept. 1, 2020) you would have witnessed this…HAHA…the full moon must have set it off! And apparently it went off when we were there too…oops we missed it…patience though is a must with this geyser! Truth is we didn´t even stop and would have visited the day prior had we tried…add to bucket list!
Out of all the parks I went to I had the most animal encounters in Yellowstone NP. Teton and Glacier were close seconds. Yellowstone had buffalo stopping your car on the road, elk grazing just off the road, moose, deer and bears easily spotted in the meadows and more. We saw plenty of the animals but missed the bears…and yes the bears were in the meadow but we didn´t stop….tear. In Montana I had hiked with friends and they carried bear spray as it is bear country in this region…so I too bought it before entering the parks as I planned on hiking. When you buy bear spray it sure brings your hiking game up a notch! I mean the chances of encountering one and not being a safe distance is quite rare but better to be safe then um mauled. This is just a precaution that hopefully really would deter a bear from attacking. Any who in Teton NP there are a lot of the same animals as Yellowstone, as it is just below it. Here we saw a moose up close, plenty of deer and elk, a marmot or two and I saw a baby red fox! Glacier had the mountain goats and bighorn sheep (rams)…also plenty of bears but again missed seeing one. Finally North Cascades has mountain lions and a mix of some of the other animals….zero animal sightings here although a bird did surprise scare me.
Grand Teton NP was my favorite just because of how stunning the mountains are in this park. I also really loved how bike friendly it was and how many great hikes you could do here. Interesting to know that the Teton mountains are comparatively young mountains (in the US) only having formed (and still forming) for less than 10 million years whereas The Appalachians formed over 1.2 billion to 300 million years ago (oldest in the US) and yet are beyond stunning. I will most definitely go back to this park as it really rings true to what I enjoy…not to mention that Jackson Hole, WY is very close by making arrival easy…ha ha literally arrive and just bike over on the bike path! The lakes here also seemed like they could be swimable (not soo deep and cold) and it is one activity I am sad I didn´t do. So many activities I wanted to do with so little time that I really had to pick and choose which. The place we stayed (Signal Mountain Lodge) was also just perfect and I would love to stay again. Actually this location had plenty of other amenities too…campground (I´ll try one day), gas, general store, restaurant – usually – and a few trail heads too (for example, Signal Mountain hike).
From everywhere in this park the mountains are big and in your face….In fact I even saw them from Yellowstone but didn´t associate them with Teton nor did I get the same immense feeling of them until we drove through Teton NP! As soon as I saw the park I knew I would enjoy it more and here I made sure to get in a hike. I took my mom with me to Inspiration Point from a side of Jenny Lake. It was actually her first real hike ever…she just waited until 70.
It is good plan to hike with others in bear country so that was a plus and well she kept wondering what it looks like up close to the mountains so I took her. Obviously to get there you must go up the mountain so we did a 1000 ft climb for that but the rest was fairly flat. There is a boat from Jenny Lake that most take to do this highly popular hike and I thought she could take it back if she was tired. We got down the mountain and she decided to skip the boat…and not because it had a really long line (social distancing on the boat made for less people onboard aka longer wait) but because she was enjoying herself. She did 7 miles on her first hike including +1000 ft elevation gain at +70 years old!. Mom you are amazing!…such a rockstar…no task is ever too big for her.
At the start of the hike we chatted about the hike and she thought 8 miles around the lake would be too much so I thought maybe she could go just to the boat some 3.5 miles then take it across while I continued the loop around the lake, meet her on the other side and drive back to get her. I was super flexible about it all. She felt good by the time we reached the boat area and I told her we could continue around or go up closer to the mountain like she had mentioned interest in doing… Up we went past a waterfall and well plenty of people often having to wear a mask…the problem with popular hikes during covid era ha ha (luckily it was just that section from the boat on up). The view was great but the thing my mom enjoyed most was when we sat down to eat our snack…ha ha Obviously for the needed break but really because this being a popular hike meant the chipmunks have no fear and come up to you hoping for a nibble. Something I take for granted as I have seen many on hikes do this but for my mom it was so new and awesome. It was nice to see her enjoy this simple hiking pleasure (well at least found on the popular routes). No worries I did try to get her to not feed it but um it was her first hike ever!
My mom and I joke a lot about how my mom is a follower…or really she says a sheep ha ha because a lot of the time she does stuff with me and achieves things I do by simply following me. During our trips last year in Japan and Italy I would see her doing this and it worried me because if I left her alone or we got separated would she be able to get home (hotel/airbnb)…would she know the way after always following me…ha ha imagine in Japan with Japanese lol. On this hike she was much the same. Other hikers at the top mentioned a better view around the corner so she slowly made her way up…then another hiker mentioned a moose. I went to check before she had to walk more but she heard moose and came almost running over. Before I could turn back she was nearly there…I hadn´t seen my mom move that fast the whole hike ha ha! Motivated rightly by the moose alright, some 15 feet from us walking across the path. It came so close we had to back up. My mom wanted to get even close to the wild animal…she probably wanted to pet it…ha ha not thinking about horns or wild or that the moose was massive..none of it crossed her mind, just that it was elegant with it´s long slender legs, narrow face with a cool beard handing under it´s neck and inspiring to see right before her very eyes. Probably how many new hikers get themselves in trouble…yup…glad I was there to keep her back!
This hike only inspired my mom to hike more so once we got to Glacier NP I took her on a few trails. We did one the very first night when we arrived to Glacier. A short 2 mile hike through forest, across a clear river, along it and looped around back to the vehicle catching sunset along the way all to prepare for the next day´s longer jaunt in the mountains. More animals were found up close in Glacier, this time some mountain goats, bighorn sheep and deer. I wanted to do the Hidden lake hike but due to a bear sighting it was closed….We instead did a chunk of the Highline trail and part of Siyeh Creek trail. In total 5 miles…not quite as long as the hike in Teton NP but 5 was the plan all along because I also did a long hard bike ride earlier. My favorite by far was Siyeh Creek and I wished we had more time to do the whole route, it was absolutely beautiful. Basically we did small segments of each. The Highline trail was not a favorite because it had way more people since it is located at Logan Pass (kind of the highlight of the park) and the other trail (Hidden Lake) was closed. This and the Highline trail overlooks the road up (Going to the Sun Road) so views only change miles down the trail. It was here though that we saw the animals, the area was flooded with them! The goat a few feet above us huffing and puffing and the rams wandering or laying about here and there…just crazy! This trail is also kind of a cliff hanger, so if you have height issues it might not be for you, one slip and it is a long rocky tumble…stay close to the rocks! The goats we heard were chased by a bear and was why the Hidden Lake trail was closed…also likely why the goat was sweating and out of breath when we say him…thankfully but also unfortunately no bear for us to see.
My main plan for Glacier was to bike the Going to the Sun Road and it is exactly what I did earlier in Glacier NP. The road is one of the most difficult to clear of snow each spring and takes about 10 weeks to plow…though it is usually open completely by July…this year due to Covid it wasn´t even completely clear in August (nor will it be in 2020)!
I set off from Hungry Horse, where we stayed some 10 miles outside the park (at the very nice Mini Golden Inn Motel), at 6 am and followed the nice bike path all the way to the park entrance. During the summer months or high season this road is closed to cyclists between 11 am and 4 pm because of heavy vehicle traffic. Once I rode up I totally understood why! The road is quite narrow with rocks jutting out onto it making it hard at times for two cars to pass each other and it has completely gorgeous scenery the whole way up (hello distraction!). In order to make it within cutoff times I had to leave early. I think I arrived to the top a little after 10:30 am…luckily the way down doesn´t have this restriction since most cars at the hour are still on their way up so I had time to relax and look around before zooming back. I did have to meet my parents down below as they would pick me and the bike up so we could explore more of the NP together. In the end I cycled 60 miles with 4400 ft elevation gain on the bike. Getting to the pass alone was over 3300 feet gain in 11 miles which took me about 1.5 hours of going slowly up the road. I later drove the same road with my mom (dad decided to bail on seeing the park) and I must say that biking it was 1000% better because you go so slow and you are so close to the edge that you can peer over and see even more of the view!
Personally this ride felt like such a huge achievement; it was amazing. Doing it made me feel so proud and filled with joy after having completed the challenge. A feeling I have not felt in a long time, especially with Covid around. I felt ecstatic doing it especially the way down…the reward. On top of this just before reaching the top of the pass, a car drove by with their windows down and cheered me on…over joyed accomplishment I´d say! Many people approached me to ask if I´d biked the whole way (they were impressed and excited when I said yes), congratulated me and even took photos for me without questions because they felt the moment needed to be captured (oh and I looked good with those mountains behind me of course…ha ha…literally one person did say this). Everyone forgot about Covid and avoiding people for a split second due to the excitement it was surreal (then sanitized of course lol). Seeing others as excited about it as I was really made the moment/achievement that much more special. It felt like running a marathon or a race again and having all this attention toward you along with the achievement…something definitely lacking for almost every athlete in 2020. If you have not felt this way in a while, I feel you, challenge yourself to reach new limits and go out of the comfort zone and you can feel this again too, it is not all about a race. The way down was beyond maximum elation on the speedy, effortless and not to mention absolutely gorgeous ride down (not many cars headed down at all…one did let me pass though). The reward really was the downhill, just an incredible experience. If ever in the park and you ride, do not miss this route, it is for the record books worthy.
North Cascades NP was the only park I didn´t cycle in only because I decided to focus on hiking while there. This is also the only park I didn´t visit on the road trip or with my parents but instead went with a friend of mine. It did feel like the longest I had been away from my bike all year and though it would be a wonderful and very challenging road to bike I chose to save it for another visit Plenty of people do cycle here (usually bike packing/touring) even though it is quite lacking on shoulder space and speeds are faster…cars are less overall. The visit to North Cascades was very last minute and I include it here because it was set up literally the day I entered back into Washington state finishing up my road trip ha ha…correct I had not even finished the trip yet I had another trip set for a week later. Normally I would say no because it was so soon but I really wanted to return to the Pacific Northwest earlier in the summer to enjoy some summer here and I could not turn down camping and hiking with my friend. It was the exact thing I needed after 2 months away, on the road and in the Midwest!
We camped 3 nights together and then I stayed one extra alone (eh, never really alone). Each day my friend had a hike planned and camp sites reserved. The extra night I decided to stay in the park and found myself a spot along the forest service road (free) where a few group had already set themselves up along the lake and for the morning I even had a hike in mind. So four complete days camping and hiking. The only catch was that these last 2 nights were no longer in the National Park but an hour away near Mt. Baker also well worth a visit.
First things first if you go to this park make sure you drive all the way to Washington Pass as it is out of this world…well to me it looked like Patagonia in a way but here so close by not having to travel that far…It is 3 something hours from Seattle to the pass (around 2.5 hours to North Cascades NP). This park is one of the least visited in the US but in reality I have no clue how they even track it since it is free to enter and you are not required to stop at the visitors center although probably a good idea for hiking information and a map. Also for me this park is the least beautiful…a hem from the road. Unlike the other 3 NP the best views here are actually on the trails. You get some lookouts on the road that are impressive but if you were to just drive here know that you are missing basically the whole park. Since most national park visitors generally just stop at the pull outs, viewpoints and easily accessible areas I can totally see why it is under rated and less visited…you need time in this park. Go drive it, check it off the list but if you want the real beauty of it grab your shoes, water, snacks, jacket and get wild a bit longer.
By the way the most popular NP cost around $30 to enter but we were lucky being my dad has a lifetime pass so they were free while with him…Oddly we got in at Glacier without him, both me and my mom separately, but we (mom) did have his pass. I simply said they were coming to get me after cycling and that no way were they getting up at 6 am nor biking with me ha ha..and all was cool. Also to note: protected forest land usually does require a pass/permit to park and hike.
My friend hiked a few trails (her 3rd trip here) before I arrived so I really only got one done in the NP. For it we choose to do a car shuttle (since we both had vehicles) so that we could do several trails that connected…aka I parked at the end of the trail and she drove us to the start and then the exchange when we finished. Our hike that day was perfect, we saw one person on the first trail and like 5 on the second part…pretty much what all hikers hope to encounter…nature all for themselves ha ha (most of the way if possible). It was not the most scenic trail but it was 11 miles and with tons of scenery changes that is was very enjoyable. The other hike we did was actually out of the park but was amazing for the views. Specifically the views looking at the North Cascades…an endless wall of beautiful mountains everywhere you looked. To get here we did have to drive 7 miles up a dirt road then hike a short switchback filled 2 miles. After days of hiking though my legs were sore they adapted quickly and made that last hike I did on my extra day speedy and easy (even if quite steep). I wont mention the hikes here since we really enjoyed them without the usual over crowding you run into these days on popular scenic trails but if you must know send me a message and I will respond.
In the end I once again managed about 24 hours in a National Park. Funny how even in North Cascades NP I managed only 24 hours…completely unplanned on my end ha ha. I even said to my friend when it dawned on me ¨Aaanother 24 hours in a NP!!!¨ as if she understood that all the other NP I´d recently visited were for that long or that it was her fault…it was definitely not…just on my end unbelievable given I was now in my home state. Each park was incredible and I am glad I got a glimpse into each National Park. There is so much to see in all of these NP and so many ways to go about seeing them as well. Hope you enjoyed hearing about my first experiences at each of them and hope one day you make it to see some of the US National Parks which are by far the US highlight, not those big cities you hear about more often (ok some cities are great too).
Quick review of parks:
Teton NP information:
So we don´t forget this hotel gem in the future: https://www.signalmountainlodge.com/
Cycling Glacier NP information:
A bit more about North Cascades NP: https://www.dirtinmyshoes.com/8-things-cant-miss-first-visit-north-cascades-national-park/3/