Two of my college besties and a cappella maniacs, Rachel and Gwen, joined me on a two-week vacation through four United States National Parks: Craters of the Moon, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier. Happy 100th birthday to the National Park Service!
This was a trip of firsts for me:
- Visited the wild west: Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana
- Camped (not “glamped”) for more than two consecutive nights
- Drove for 40+ hours (in an American Jeep Patriot, no less)
- Packed my bags without any makeup, jewelry, or “nice” clothes
- Survived without reliable Wi-Fi or cell service (I’m a hero)
- Learned how to handle a bear encounter
- … And so much more.
As a self-proclaimed itinerary maniac, this trip was booked months in advance. That said, my biggest advice is to make friends with a Park Ranger and remain nimble in your plans. Depending on the weather, construction, seasonal plants and animals, and your general mood on the particular day you’re visiting, a ranger can help you do and see the best the park has to offer.
Saturday 6/18 – Salt Lake City, UT to Arco, ID
Flew into Salt Lake City International Airport and picked up our Jeep Patriot.
Hit the road to Arco, ID. Caught our first glimpse of the “ribbon of highway,” “endless skyway,” and “purple mountains majesty” featured prominently in the Great American Songbook. I got pulled over for speeding because it was all too beautiful. Whoops.
Stopped at a Walmart in Blackfoot, ID to pick up camping supplies, toiletries, and food for the next four nights of camping. With little to no cell service or Wi-Fi for the duration of the trip, Seamless and Amazon wouldn’t be there to rescue us from poor decisions. And for the first time in my life, I found myself sniffing bottles and wondering how bears (not my fiancé) would feel about the scent.
Once we arrived at the Arco Motor Inn, we were greeted by an affable, toothless woman named Bobbie. Fun facts about Arco: population of 993, first city in the world to be lit by atomic power, and each high school class since 1929 has painted their graduation year on a mountain in the center of town. We ate dinner at Pickles, walked “home,” packed our bags for camping, and got some sleep.
Sunday 6/19 – Arco, ID to Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve
We returned to Pickles for another slow-paced, western feast, doused in ketchup and maple syrup. The Brooklyn cold brew snob in me drank five cups of brown water before heading out, sufficiently caffeinated.
Craters of the Moon is described as a “weird and scenic landscape” by the National Park Services. I agree. Basically, a volcano erupted 15,000 and 2,000 years ago and the lava covered 618 square miles, ripping through the Snake River Plain, creating caves, tubes, tree molds, cinder cones, and craters in its wake as it cooled. These bizarre geological features look like the surface of the moon (get it?). While the conditions are harsh, spunky “monkey flowers” covered the hills and we saw the occasional ground squirrel scurry across the rocks.
Here’s what we did and saw:
- Made friends with a ranger at the Visitor Center.
- Cruised around the 7-mile Loop Drive and took in the scenery.
- Went spelunking (turns out that’s the verb meaning, “explored a cave”) in the Dew Drop Cave, Indian Tunnel, Boy Scout Cave, and Beauty Cave. We strapped on headlamps and squeezed into small, dark crevices that each opened up into pitch black, chilly caverns with stalactites hanging from the ceiling and ice and rock covering the ground.
- Climbed the Inferno Cone, a steep, black, basaltic hill. The coarse rock sparkled in the sun and we captured the memory with our rugged selfie stick.
- Checked out the Tree Molds Trail to see what happens when a “tree falls on lava while it’s cooling.” It’s kind of like stepping on silly putty with a boot.
After a full day of exploring, we set up our Group Camping Ground. Our vacation wound up being equal parts camping and Airbnb/hotel/lodge. Overall, here’s what I took away from my camping experience:
- Three petite women fit perfectly in a six-person tent. A three-person tent is designed for three Barbie dolls or perhaps a handful of Polly Pockets.
- Petroleum camping stoves are terrifying until you figure out how to light the burners and then you feel like a Vulcan god.
- You can accomplish a lot during the time it takes for poop to exit your body and make contact with the outhouse septic system a million feet below.
- If you close your eyes, Purell hand sanitizer, baby wipes, and a three-foot tall cold water spigot are almost as luxurious as a hot shower.*
- Canned chili isn’t as gross as it sounds.
- It’s equal parts thrilling and terrifying to sleep all alone, a mile away from the closest [human] neighbor.
- Campfires are so fun and s’mores are so delicious, but be prepared to smell like a chimney for the rest of your life.
- Your tent is your temple. Mosquitoes will want to pay dues and join the congregation.
- “The only thing that runs in [insert National Park] is food.” – Every Park Ranger
- Anything can be toilet paper if you put your mind to it.
- Want to encounter a bear? Easy! Just leave literally one molecule of food out after dinner. They’ll smell it and find you!
*This is a lie
Monday 6/20 – Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve
Woke up and set out for a full day of exploring!
Walked the mile from our campground to the North Crater Loop then took the North Crater Trail. Twelve miles later, we meandered back to our campsite, exhausted!
Tuesday 6/21 – Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve to Grand Teton National Park
Packed up our campground and drove to Wyoming! Quick pit stop in the “bustling metropolis” of Idaho Falls for another Walmart run and a decadent Starbucks iced coffee. Then we grabbed lunch in Jackson Hole. Turns out Teton County, WY, home to Jackson Hole, tops the list for highest average income in the US. Which is to say, we did a lot of window shopping.
We set up our tent at Colter Bay Campground and made more park ranger friends at the Visitor Center before taking the Lakeshore Trail, a level, scenic path along Jackson Lake. The hike culminated in a glacial dip at Swim Beach in Jackson Lake with a view of the Teton mountain range in the background.
Wednesday 6/22 – Grand Teton National Park
Took a boat across Jenny Lake and began our ascent of the Grand Tetons. We gladly stopped to take photos at the breathtaking Inspiration Point because, well, we felt inspired.
During this 10-mile hike, we blasted the Hamilton soundtrack on our jambox speaker. This was efficacious at keeping our spirits high and bears away. We made friends along the trail, stopped for a taste of nostalgia (PBJ sandwiches in Ziplock bags), and slurped down the entire contents of our CamelBak bladders along the way.
We ended the day with another glacial dip at Swim Beach (we’re masochists) and then caved to our dirtiness and did laundry at the communal laundromat. We rewarded our “hard work” with Cards Against Humanity and ice cream.
Thursday 6/23 – Grand Teton National Park to Yellowstone National Park
Took a quick jaunt north to Yellowstone. The star of today’s show was geysers. Geysers, as I learned, are hot springs (read: nature’s hot tubs). Periodically, they may come to a boil and shoot a lot of water and steam in the air. Some erupt predictably (Old Faithful) but most are erratic. Heat-loving bacteria give them brilliant colors and hydrogen sulfide gas gives off a gaseous odor. There’s a heap of science behind geysers that I do not fully understand, but suffice to say they are beautiful, yet smelly.
Checked out West Thumb Geyser Basin, Old Faithful Geyser (the celebrity), and Upper Geyser Basin.
After inhaling a sufficient quantity of farts, we treated ourselves to our first truly lavish lodging of the trip: Philips Lodge at Island Park. We each took a long, hot shower and I, personally, exfoliated all of my skin off and shampooed at least five times. Scrubbed clean, we treated ourselves to a steak dinner and individual chocolate lava cakes. Then we hopped in the hot tub (manmade, not courtesy of Yellowstone), watched trashy TV, read trashy magazines, and fell into a trashy (but clean) slumber.
Friday 6/24 – Yellowstone National Park
Enjoyed a big breakfast at the Running Bear Pancake House then set out to tackle the Norris Geyser Basin. The pancakes were delicious and the geysers smelled like farts. Nothing surprising here.
Hiked the South Rim Trail overlooking “The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone,” a lush forest surrounding the Yellowstone River. Waterfalls galore! Then we drove along the North Rim Trail to get to Canyon Campground, our third campsite of the trip.
After consulting with a Park Ranger, Rachel and I took our chances and went on a run along the North Rim, armed with bear spray. Spoiler alert: we survived!
We paid the few bucks to treat ourselves to the communal showers and sang our hearts out (much to the chagrin of the line of women waiting their turn with their disgruntled children).
Hitting our dinner-making stride, we made a delicious meal and roasted marshmallows for s’mores.
Saturday 6/25 – Yellowstone National Park
Finding it impossible to remove ourselves from our warm sleeping bag cocoons and enter the cruel freezing world, we booked a cabin at Yellowstone Lake Lodge for that evening. I like to think of myself as being “proactive and solutions-oriented” in this moment. “Giving up” doesn’t have as nice a ring.
We ate another hearty, hikers breakfast at the cafeteria and then summited Mount Washburn! At the top, we made friends with a nomadic mountain man and talked about life, happiness, spirituality, family, love. You know, all the things you would expect to talk about with a nomadic mountain man. We wish him all the best in his upcoming Survivor audition.
That evening, we walked around our good friend, Old Faithful, and saw her erupt two more times. We also ate one of our good friends, the bison, and I don’t regret it for a moment.
Sunday 6/26 – Yellowstone to Paradise Valley, MT
Drove a meandering path to squeeze the last bit out of Yellowstone. We drove along the Lamar Valley and saw a bear, bison, and goats. Then we stopped at Mammoth Hot Springs and saw some massive elk and a large complex of hot springs on a hill.
We next drove to Paradise Valley, MT to stay the night with Al, an Airbnb superhost. Al is a former NYPD officer who moved out to Montana over a decade ago. Sporting a gray ponytail, a camo tanktop, and a ruddy glow, he gregariously chain smoked (yep, that’s a thing) and gave us a tour of his place (that he shares with a hippie Vietnam vet with PTSD, a cat named Spatz, and seven chickens including Blondie, Gertie, Rowdy, and Rudy). He tacks horseshoes, makes handmade drums, paints, built a horse-drawn wagon, and is a real salt of the earth kind of guy. All the money he makes from Airbnb goes directly to fund his daughter’s education. Oh, and he has a tipi in his backyard where we slept that night.
We hung with Al and his friend Tanya for awhile, had a bottle of wine, and sang them a song (naturally). Al suggested we check out Chico Hot Springs and sing for his bartender friend, Beau. Equal parts spa, dude ranch, and bar, we had an unforgettable time and made “lifelong friends” (read: acquaintance relationships that were bolstered by the free Fireball shots straight from a dispenser). Turns out John Mayer and Kesha are regulars at this place. I don’t blame them.
Monday, 6/27 – Paradise Valley, MT to Glacier National Park
Gave a tearful goodbye to Al (and Spatz, Blondie, Gertie, Rowdy, and Rudy) and embarked on a six-hour drive with pitstops in Bozeman (hip lil’ town where we were served kombucha on tap (Brooklyn, is that you?)), Helena (state capital), and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation (in which we were offered lots of gas-filling assistance from locals seeking money and hugs).
After miles and miles of “ribbon of highway” and “endless skyway,” we arrived in beautiful Glacier National Park and checked into the Rising Sun Motor Inn.
Tuesday, 6/28 – Glacier National Park
Drove on the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, a scenic road carved into the Rocky Mountains. The views were… um… I am really running out of words here. Someone, get me a thesaurus!
First stop was Logan Pass, the highest point on the road, located on the Continental Divide. The air was warm, but the ground was covered in slippery snow, which made hiking a bit difficult. We slogged our way up and then “skied” down on our hiking boots.
Next, we took the Siyeh Trail to Piegan Trail to Piegan Pass, culminating in about 10 miles distance and 2,000 feet of elevation. Our jambox scared off a real, up-close-and-personal bear and we braved forest and snow to make it to the summit.
We set up camp at St. Mary Campground, made a yummy dinner, and hit the hay.
Wednesday, 6/29 – Glacier National Park
Drove to East Glacier to get Gwen to the airport so she could fly to home, sweet San Francisco. Tended to laundry then headed back into the park.
Hiked the Iceberg trail. Name is destiny.
Checked into Swiftcurrent Motor Inn & Cabins and enjoyed emu burgers and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc at Nell’s restaurant.
Thursday, 6/30 – Glacier National Park to Columbia Falls, MT
Leisurely explored the many trails and many lakes in Many Glacier:
- Swiftcurrent Lake
- Josephine Lake
- Grinnell Lake
Packed up our things and headed to Columbia Falls to spend the night with another Airbnb superhost, Pamela. Pamela, wearing a nightgown and sporting purple hair, greeted us like family with a big kiss on the cheek, made us a feast, and ensured we were squarely seated in front of chocolate at every moment in time. Her home was on a beautiful property overlooking mountains and trees and she told us stories about her sons, all of whom are professional snowboarders. Pamela singlehandedly opened up the first skatepark in the neighboring town of Whitefish, so she’s pretty badass.
Friday, 7/1 – Columbia Falls, MT to Anaconda, MT
Strapped on our life vests (ahem, PFDs, as we were corrected) for white water rafting at Glacier Rafting Company. Our motley boat braved rapids with names like Last Chance, Jaws, Toilet Bowl, and Washboard and avoided “Rosie the Rock.”
It was time to bid adieu to northern Montana and begin our long journey back to Salt Lake City, UT. But first, a stop for the evening in Anaconda, MT.
Our last Airbnb superhost was Kristen. We pulled up to her property (after unlocking three fences and passing 20 free-range horses) and found ourselves in an old western town. There was a saloon, brothel, jail (our home for the night), church, bath house, and more. Kristen used to be a trauma nurse and was frustrated and demoralized by her job so she Googled, “I want to own a town.” And here we are.
We ate dinner at Hofbrau, the only option in town. There was nothing German about this cross between a bowling alley, Chuck E. Cheese, and TGIFs. We returned to our old western town, sang songs in the saloon, explored the “neighborhood,” and stargazed on the brothel balcony (will I ever say that again?). The sky was so clear and dark that we saw Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter!
Saturday, 7/2 – Anaconda, MT to Salt Lake City, UT
Emerging from our jail cells, Kristen made us breakfast and we rolled out of Anaconda like a tumbleweed.
Took a pit stop in Idaho Falls and made it back in time to check out the Mormon Temple and tabernacle and the local shopping scene. The familiar fluorescent lighting of the Ann Taylor Loft bathed my patchy, tanned arms. My iPhone persistently buzzed in my pocket, cellular service coursing through its veins. I perused pairs of trendy, denim cut-off shorts. I checked into my flight online. I Yelped self-serve froyo. It was time to assimilate back into real life.
National Parks, it’s been good. See you soon!