Park-to-Park Adventure: Glacier to Yellowstone
From the heights of the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park to the iconic waterfalls, geysers, and hot springs in Yellowstone, we celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service with an epic road trip through Montana and Wyoming. The best part? Thanks to affordable lodging and awesome stops along the way, this incredible vacation is within reach of Budget Travelers.
Quite honestly, that's the first word out of my mouth when I learn that the National Park Service is celebrating its centennial in 2016. Thinking like a travel editor requires that most news items be filtered through the lens of “Is there a travel angle?” For me, the words “national park” brings to mind Montana’s two: Glacier and Yellowstone.
And so my family’s “Park-to-Park Adventure” is born. I resolve to bring my wife and daughters to Glacier in summer 2016, then make our way to Yellowstone, stopping at some of the beautiful towns along the way. The NPS centennial isn’t the only inspiration, of course: Like Paris, Montana is “always a good idea," and perhaps never more so than this record-breakingly hot summer in New York City. Plus, my wife, Michele, lived in Montana in high school and college, and our daughters, now 9 and 13, enjoyed brief visits when they were younger. One more incentive (shh! don't tell): I’ve somehow managed never to visit Wyoming, Montana’s beautiful neighbor to the southeast and home to most of Yellowstone’s 3,500+ square miles. In mid-July, we board a plane in NYC and fly to Glacier International Airport, in Kalispell, Montana. Here, the story of our amazing two-week adventure out west. (If you’re inspired to book your own trip, learn more at VisitMT.com.)
Our stay in the Flathead Valley city of Kalispell is short, just an overnight between picking up our rental car at Glacier International Airport and heading up to the park the next morning, but it’s just what we need to get acclimated to life in Big Sky Country. The lobby of the Kalispell Grand Hotel delivers a bit of the Old West without overdoing the kitsch: Beautiful dark wood, a comfy sitting area, great home-baked cookies, and a warm welcome from the staff. Rooms are nicely appointed, allowing guests to enjoy contemporary conveniences while still feeling that they’ve stepped back about a century. Right up Main Street from the hotel, we are overjoyed to discover Norm’s Soda Fountain, an old-timey lunch counter and candy store that serves fantastic burgers (including choices of both beef and bison) and our first taste of… wait for it… huckleberry ice cream! We learn that here in the Rockies, huckleberry season is short (mid-to-late summer) but its sweetness is extended by the blue fruit’s transformation into syrups, candies, ice cream, and more.
Next morning, we pack up the car and stop at the Super One so we can stock our kitchen in Glacier and beyond: Pancake mix is at the top of my kids’ list, but we also load up on easy-to-cook staples and picnic favorites to maximize our budget and to be prepared for whatever adventures the park presents us. Pro tip: We pick up a cheap ice chest for the duration of the road trip, eventually leaving it with our friends in Billings just before boarding our plane back home.
The drive from Kalispell to Glacier National Park climbs up Highway 2 for less than an hour, and if it were located just about anywhere else in the U.S., that ride alone would be considered a spectacular must-see. In western Montana, it's just par for the course. We love seeing the peaks of Glacier’s mountains looming up ahead. Before we enter the park, we stop in the tiny town of West Glacier (mostly motels and shops) to visit the strategically placed Alberta Visitor Center. Even though Canada is not on our itinerary for this trip, the Alberta displays devoted to the Canadian Mounted Police, western heritage, Native American culture, and wildlife are totally worth a stop. And (I'm burying the lede) the immense T-Rex fossil in the lobby will delight visitors of all ages. (And, note to self: Next time we visit Montana, let’s leave some time to cross the border into beautiful Alberta.)
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
As we pass through the entrance to Glacier National Park ($30 per car for up to a week-long stay), we begin to recognize sights from Glacier’s webcams, which we’ve been following all winter and spring in anticipation of this visit. (The bridge! The ice cream shop! The lake!) The webcams inspired us, then helped us plan our trip, but as we finally arrive in the park, the pinch-me feeling is almost too much to bear: We can’t quite believe we’re actually here.
Our cabin for the next three nights is in Apgar Village, a small community of lodgings, restaurants, and outfitters at the southern shore of Lake McDonald. The cabin is just roomy enough (bedroom with two big beds, full eat-in kitchen, bathroom) that we enjoy the minimal time we’ll spend there (mornings, evenings), but once we get our luggage loaded in and the kitchen stocked, we’re ready to get back outside. We happily wade in nearby McDonald Creek and skip rocks in Lake McDonald while the peaks of the Continental Divide stand sentinel in the distance. In mid-July, there’s still plenty of snow in the mountains, and the creek and lake water, fed by snow melt, is still incredibly cold (frame of reference for travelers who like to make these comparisons: colder than the ocean in Maine, for real).