Two weeks ago, my family and I hopped in our wagon and started on the Oregon trail, beginning the arduous journey out into the wilderness of the west…..
Oops. I meant, we hopped in our Subaru Outback to ride smoothly and quickly on those 80mph interstate roads out to some of the most beautiful national and state parks the U.S has to offer (and some of the most visited!) This was my family’s second road trip out west, so we had already checked off some of the major national parks to visit. This trip was a second run around the track, picking up where we left off, and hitting up the other beautiful national parks we couldn’t miss.
So, if you’re wondering, how was the trip? Great! (minus the 95 degree weather our first two days in Montana!) But I’m here to tell you all about the places we went to, how amazing they were – and which ones you should go to if you get the chance someday!
Number 1: Roosevelt State Park
First off, we went to Roosevelt National Park, in North Dakota. When you go West coming from the East (So Wisconsin for us) you have the choice of going through North Dakota or South Dakota – two states only infamous for being two states where there is absolutely nothing to do, or to see. Well, that is except for the state parks in the Westernmost parts of the state! On our first trip out west we went through South Dakota and drove through the Badlands, saw Mount Rushmore, and drove through Custer State Park. All three were great! Custer State Park and the Badlands were both full of natural beauty, wildlife, and overlooks with absolutely gorgeous views. In terms of landmark sites, Mount Rushmore is one you don’t want to miss, as it’s an iconic view. However, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands both offer some education of the Native American tribes who once owned the land, and a large section of the Badlands is still Native land (Did you know the Badlands is named as such because two neighboring Native American tribes both called it that in their language?) Anyway both sites are definitely worth seeing, and Mount Rushmore presents a thought-provoking experience – the four giant carved statues representing great leaders of America, carved into a place sacred to Native Americans.
On our second trip out west, however, we went through North Dakota instead, and visited Roosevelt National Park. Similar to Custer State Park, the park is a safe haven for multitudes of wild animals whom roam about the park. On our drive through we saw an abundance of prairie dogs, buffalo, birds of prey, flying grasshoppers, and even a few wild horses and one mule deer. On the way out of the park we stopped by Theodore Roosevelt’s old cabin, built by him after the sudden death of his wife. Although a controversial figure in terms of foreign policy, Roosevelt’s legacy in the national parks is worth praising and remembering. Roosevelt set aside 230 million acres of lands to national and state parks and forests and we benefit from all his work to protect our natural resources to this day.
Number 2: Glacier National Park
*Many hours of driving later…..* We got to Glacier! When we talked about this trip, this was the place I wanted us to go! With only minimal whining and wheedling from me, we drove all the way up into Montana and up the winding switchbacks of the mountainous area to the very top of Glacier Park. Driving up the mountains to the top of Glacier had me looking like a cartoon character! My sister counted how many times I said Wooww (23) and I think my mouth probably fell open at the bottom of the mountain and stayed that way the entire hour and a half drive up. Glacier Park is a place you could definitely stay for days – however, we had just one so we had to make it count. As you drive up the mountains, there are numerous places to stop and take a hike on a number of different trails with varying levels of difficulty. We drove all the way to the top and started there, with a 2.6 mile hike to Hidden Lake. At a warm 85 degrees, an uphill 2-plus mile hike was not anyone’s favorite thing – but the views more than made up for it. Along the way we several mountain goats and bighorn sheep. About two miles in we reached what we hopefully thought was the top, or the end (it wasn’t) and stopped by a beautiful cascade surrounded by bright yellow and purple wildflowers and stopped to appreciate the view. Looking back we could see the trail we had hiked up (which now looked tiny!) and could see out the valley. The mountains seemed to go on and on and the world was a beautiful mix of the bright blue sky and the vibrant green of the grass and trees that surrounded us. After regaining our energy we finished the hike up – we rounded one final bend (there had been so many – so much false hope it was the last one!) and all of a sudden Hidden Lake was there! Aptly named, Hidden Lake is shadowed by mountains all around so it can’t be seen from the outside, you have to hike up one of the mountains to look down and see it. The water in Glacier Park, when it is deep, is a beautiful green-blue that pratically glows, and the lake was beautiful to see. Then, we were incredibly lucky – and spotted a Grizzly bear, and her three cubs, down near the lake! We were (thank god) a safe distance away and could watch them for a few minutes. I have always wanted to see a Grizzly so I was so pumped! It was also one of the most picturesque things I’ve seen – the cubs playing in the sunshine and the flowers near this beautiful lake. It was also such a wonderful representation of what the national parks represent – nature undisturbed and thriving.
After our hike, we took it easy for the rest of the day. We had a quiet lunch by the river – another beautiful part of the park. We ended the day wading around in Lake McDonald – crystal clear and cold as ice! All in all, I would 100000% recommend visiting Glacier – it’s hands down the most beautiful place I’ve been to.
Number 3: Yellowstone
If you’re out west – there’s one place you’re bound to go to (heck, obligated to go to) and that’s America’s most visited national park – Yellowstone! Just minutes after our drive into Yellowstone, we saw our first wild animals – a herd of about fifteen elk with cows! Adorable? Of course. (But don’t get me started with how cute prairie dogs are, they definitely win the cuteness contest) Yellowstone is an absolutely giant park (3500 sq miles!), so even with many people visiting in the summer season, there’s still a sense of being out on your own in the wilderness, and it never felt too crowded. During our visit we saw several hot springs and small geysers, the Upper Falls, a cascade, and the painted pots. Unfortunetaly, due to time constraints and my sister and dad having already been, we skipped Old Faithful and Mammoth Springs. So although I didn’t get to see those on this trip, I would definitely still recommend seeing some of the most well-known attractions of the park.
However the parts we did see were still absolutely beautiful. The hot springs are absolutely dumbfounding to me – that science is way over my head and I’m still not convinced someone doesn’t have an aerator running somewhere. But watching the hot springs and small geysers was so cool (once you get used to the rotten eggs smell) and it’s amazing to see such real evidence as to how active the Earth is at all times.
The Upper Falls of Yellowstone, and the Yellowstone River were arguably the most awe-inspiring parts to see. The loud rushing of the waterfall and the sheer height of the falls is enough to make you feel very small compared to the power of nature! We also got lucky and spotted an osprey in its nest, which was a cool sight!
We wrapped up our time in Yellowstone with a mud volcano and Yellowstone lake – where we spotted one of the largest rainbows I’ve ever seen and felt like a fitting end to the trip!
Well! I’ve told you all about the trip highligts (minus the joys of being confined to a small space with your entire family for multiple consecutive days) (and minus the amazing lunch we had at a Pizza Ranch on the way back) so hopefully you’ve added a few places to your travel list! On our trip we also got to visit my Grandma in Lander, stop at a few smaller national monuments, and spend a day in Missoula with a family friend and play around in the Bitteroot River.
To recap, if you’re taking a trip out West, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, and either Custer State Park or Roosevelt National Park are definitely places to go! Prepare for some warm weather, bring your camera (get yourself a long range lens if you want to stay a safe distance from animals but still get good shots), and also be open to stopping at places and getting some history, too! Not only are these sites beautiful and awe-inspiring, but there is a great deal of American history wrapped up in these parks and monuments – along with Native American voices and stories that deserve to be heard.
*NOTE* All pictures in this post were taken by me and belong to me.