🏞 September 15, 2021 - A Year With A National Park Pass - Part 1

Written By Amanda

During COVID, we pivoted from international travel to focus on exploring national parks here in the US. It started with a road trip during the summer of 2020 from North Carolina to Montana. That went well, so we did a second road trip to Utah in the spring of 2021.

This post covers the national parks we visited during our first road trip. We plan to do follow up posts on the road trip itself. As well as, a post on the other parks we visited during the second road trip and some one-off national park adventures.

Raleigh, NC → Knoxville, TN → Nashville, TN → Gateway National Park (St. Louis, MO) → Kansas City, MO → Sioux Falls, SD → Oacoma, SD → Badlands National Park, SD → Mount Rushmore National Memorial (Keystone, SD) → Gillette, WY → Yellowstone National Park, WY → Grand Teton National Park, WY → Helena, MT → Glacier National Park, MT → Missoula, MT → Bozman, MT → Billings, MT → Gillette, WY → Devils Tower National Monument, WY → La Crosse, MO → Madison, WI → Raleigh, NC

Gateway Arch - St. Louis, MO

Gateway Arch National Park is right in the middle of downtown St. Louis. We easily found parking at a deck nearby. Known as the “gateway to the west”, it was a perfect stop as we made our way west.

The well maintained, big open field of grass at the arch was just what our legs needed after all of our driving to get here. It was perfect for Evelyn to play a few rounds of her favorite game; tag. We enjoyed walking on the pathways around the arch and down to the Missouri River. Seeing the monument up close, you realize how truly massive it is. Your perspective changes from every angle as you walk around.

It took us a while to realize we could actually go inside! We were more than content just walking around outside but a much needed bathroom break prompted us to explore more. We got a ticketed time to enter and briefly explored the museum and gift shop. We were unable to take the elevator ride up at the time due to COVID protocols.

Our visit to the park was not complete until we were able to try out some St. Louis BBQ.

Badlands - South Dakota

Driving through south western South Dakota on I90 and once in Badlands National Park, the landscape was like nothing I had ever seen before! Definitely nothing I thought I would see in the United States. We drove miles and miles through rolling fields of wild native grasslands. Out of nowhere the most uniquely shaped and colorfully layered rock formations rise out of the prairies. It’s name, “bad lands”, came from the Lakota people. The name references the very hostile environment (extreme temperatures, rugged landscape, and lack of water). Although a difficult habitat to live in, it was a stunning sight to visit.

We did not know what to expect prior to visiting this park and we definitely did not give ourselves enough time to explore and do it justice. We entered the park through the northeastern entrance. Driving along the Badlands Loop Road (hwy 240) through the park, we stopped at several of the scenic overlooks. We hiked the Door Trail, Window Trail and portions of the Notch trail. On these trails we were able to get up close to some of the formations and, to Evelyn’s delight, do a little climbing. We stopped by the visitors center for Evelyn to get her first Jr Ranger badge of the trip.

At the time we were disappointed that the Fossil Exhibit was closed. We also did not save time to search for buffalo in the more remote western portion of the park.

On our way out, we had to make a quick stop at the famous and overly advertised Wall Drug.

Mount Rushmore - Keystone, SD

When planning our trip out west, I pushed to go to Mount Rushmore the most. For some reason, likely because of its popularity, I really wanted to visit it. Ultimately, it did not live up to my expectations.

Our visit was short. The site was small, crowded, and extremely commercialized. I was disappointed how far the viewpoints were from the actual sculptures. You are not nearly as close as all those zoomed in photos you see.

My disappointment was lifted as soon as we left the memorial and drove through the nearby Black Hills National Forest.

Driving from Mount Rushmore to Deadwood, Sturgis or Spearfish through the heavily forested mountains was a beautiful treat after spending so much time in arid grasslands. I would love an opportunity to spend more time in this area in the future.

Yellowstone - Wyoming

Looking back on our trip to Yellowstone, it still manages to amaze and overwhelm me! This park is so massive and the landscape so diverse. It really could be 5 national parks standing on their own. There is so much biodiversity in this enormous volcano crater. Even with our 4 days/5 nights in the park, I feel like we only scratched the surface. We saw bears, bison, huge ravens, a wolf, elk, waterfalls, forest, canyons, hot springs, geysers, mud pots, snow, lakes, rivers and I am sure I am forgetting a ton more!

We tent camped for 5 nights in Yellowstone at 4 different campsites. It was a pain to take down and set up our campsite so often but at the time, these were the only reservations we could secure. We felt fortunate to even be able to piece something together since most people make reservations a year in advance. Although inconvenient, it ended up working out in our favor. This gave us a head start in different sections of the park each morning. We also had to be careful about what we took in our tent (nothing you could eat, drink, or that smells like you can eat or drink it) due to wildlife (BEARS!). So we never really fully unpacked/settled in anyway.

Day One

On our first day, we drove into Yellowstone around 4pm. We had a long drive from Gillette, WY with a stopover in Cody, WY for “one last meal” before entering the park. We came in through the east entrance and made our way south to Grant Village Campground. This area of the park is very forested as you drive along Yellowstone Lake and the West Thumb. While setting up camp, we were very anxious to make sure we followed all the bear precautions. This was our first experience with camping in “bear country” and we did not want to make any mistakes. That night, we did a fire and s’mores. Although it was a little late, we wanted to go ahead and get in a fire while we could because we never knew when the fire danger level in the area may change.

Grant Campground was beautifully forested and shaded but the sites were very close together. Typically not a problem, but our neighbors did not abide by the quiet hours. When they did finally go to bed, you could actually hear one of them loudly snoring. The earplugs I brought were only somewhat helpful.

Day Two

On our second day, we woke up early and made a campsite breakfast of instant oatmeal and coffee. We actually brought a french press so the coffee was a nice treat after a long night. Unfortunately, I dropped and shattered the french press trying to load all of our food and supplies back in the car for the day to avoid wildlife visitors. It was instant coffee from then on.

Taking advantage of our location in the southeastern portion of the park, we drove into Grand Tetons National Park for the day (more information below). We made a quick stop at Lewis Falls along the way.

That night, we were able to stay at Grant Village Campground again. Fortunately, we did not have to completely take down camp that morning. Unfortunately, we still had the same neighbors. I convinced Evelyn to use her powers as a Junior Ranger to notify the campground staff of the disruption. That helped keep things a little calmer for the evening. That night, we had a campfire meal of hotdogs and canned veggies.

Day Three

On our third day, we woke up anxious and ready to take in the sights. After the craziness at the Grand Tetons the day before, we knew we had to get started early!

After fully taking down camp, we arrived at the Old Faithful area just before 10a. Here we got our first glimpse of a bison! He was just relaxing in the grass beside the Old Faithful Inn. We watched Old Faithful erupt and hiked around the Upper Geyser trails to view the different geysers and springs. Totally unplanned, we were able to see the less predictable Grand Geyser erupt. The Grand Geyser puts on a far more spectacular show than Old Faithful. Next, we headed to the Midway Geyser Basin where we viewed the Grand Prismatic Spring and nearby geysers and pools. Seeing the geysers erupt was neat but my favorite were the springs with their beautiful rainbow of colors. Evelyn did not really care what she was seeing. All she cared about was the fact that it stunk! We were right to start early. Definitely a lot of people and the weather definitely warms up as the day goes on.

Late afternoon, done with crowds and the heat, we decided to go ahead and make our way to our campsite at Bay Bridge Campground. When checking in, I realized in the hustle and bustle at the Old Faithful area I had left my credit card at the gift shop. This meant we had to drive the hour back that evening (and then back again the next day because they had already sent it over to the visitor center which was now closed). Frustrated by the setback, we just decided to eat at the Geyser Grill. One advantage to this was we did get to see a huge elk on the side of the road and a bison actually “looking both ways” before crossing the street in front of us on our drive.

While setting up camp, we watched two large bison grazing through the campground. Of all the nights camping in Yellowstone, this was the one I was most nervous about with the wildlife. I was afraid a bison would trample us while grazing in the early morning and I also swore I heard wolves howling in the distance.

Day Four

On our fourth day, we explored the Yellowstone Grand Canyon Area. To get here, we drove through the Hayden Valley stopping first to walk around the Mud Volcano. Driving through the Hayden Valley, we were delighted to get our first view of many large roaming herds of bison. There would definitely be more bison to come!

At the Yellowstone Grand Canyon, we visited Artist Point, Lower Falls, Inspiration Point, and Uppers Falls. We were lucky to see a beautiful rainbow formed over the Lower Falls. Unfortunately, we had to rush our time here because we had to make yet another trek back to the Old Faithful area for my credit card. I can now say I have seen enough of Old Faithful to last a lifetime. To make the drive somewhat worth it, we stopped at the Norris Geyser Basin and viewed the Steamboat Geyser.

That night we camped at the Canyon Campground. We had time to make a campsite dinner and more s’mores. We also met and were inspired by a couple camping out of a camper van (which may have influenced us on our Iceland trip).

Day Five

On our last full day in Yellowstone, we drove up to and through the Lamar Valley almost to the Northeast entrance of the Park. We knew this area is susceptible to wildlife traffic jams so we tried to get here as early as possible. Not sure if this strategy helped or not because there were still tons of people.

The wildlife encounters that are possible in the Lamar Valley on any given day/time are an incredible experience. We saw countless amounts of bison, three bears, numerous deer, and a ram all within a 30 mile stretch of road. As we were driving over a bridge heading into the Mammoth Hot Spring area, a group of bison decided to cross the bridge with us! It was unnerving to sit in the car on a shaking bridge while several large bison ran by.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch in front of the old homes at Historic Fort Yellowstone. We then explored the Lower and Upper Terrace of Mammoth Hot Springs. Here the mineral deposits from all the hot springs in the area have created colorful, uniquely terraced hillside like formations. In some spots, the hillside almost looks like the color of white pearls.

That night, we camped at Madison Campground. This ended up being everyone’s favorite campsite of the trip. We enjoyed a dip in the nearby Firehole River which is fed by hot springs. This made the glacier-fed river not so cold in a few spots. Evelyn also spent hours playing with some campsite friends. At dinner, Evelyn lost a tooth! Despite her fears, the Tooth Fairy was able to find her in Yellowstone.

Grand Teton - Wyoming

We visited the Grand Tetons for the day while camping in the southeast portion of Yellowstone National Park. The crystal clear waters and the snow capped mountain peaks of this park are absolutely stunning.

We arrived early into the park but this did not seem to help us much. We felt like we were constantly fighting for parking. Even at the largest lot (Jenny Lake), we spent well over an hour driving around looking for a spot. This definitely added a major stressor to the day.

Our first stop was at the Colter Bay Visitors Center where we took a brief walk around the marina. Then we headed to the String Lake Picnic Area. Here we had a picnic lunch while watching the paddle boarders and canoers out on the lake.

We then headed over to the Jenny Lake Visitors Center. Once we finally parked and after handling a bathroom emergency, we took the ferry across Jenny Lake. Here we hiked up to Inspiration Point for incredible views over the lake. We also hiked to the rushing Hidden Falls. When returning from the ferry, we had our second bathroom emergency. We were fortunate we had a change of clothing with us since we were packing up our campsite each morning. From here we completed the 42 mile scenic loop drive to head back into Yellowstone.

Glacier - Montana

Getting to and planning for Glacier National Park was a little touch and go. Not knowing how much of the roads would be cleared of snow by our arrival and the last minute cancelation of our campsite left us piecing together some of our plans. We had originally planned to stay in St. Mary’s, MT and enter from the east side of the park. Unfortunately, the adjoining Blackfeet reservation unexpectedly remained closed to tourists due to COVID.

I also had the added pressure that it was Evelyn’s birthday and Nana and Papa were joining along on this portion of the trip. I wanted to make Evelyn’s day feel extra special because I knew she was missing all her friends and family that she would typically celebrate with. She was a little reluctant to spend the day hiking but was excited to camp with Nana and Papa. Again, here most people book their campsites a year in advance. I ended up scoring a site at the Moose Creek RV Resort & B&B near West Glacier by pretty much calling and begging. We had the site for two nights, which allowed us to spend a very full day in the park.

Up early and in the park by 8 am, we already could not find a parking spot at Avalanche Lake/Trail of the Cedars trail head. I was having flashbacks to our day at the Grand Tetons. From there, we decided to drive straight up the Going-to-the-Sun Road (no stops) to see if we could find parking at Logan’s Pass. Luckily, Logan’s Pass had just been cleared of snow and opened up the week prior. We were also able to score a parking spot!

This is where the perfect birthday magically all came together! Here we hiked the Hidden Lake trail and this was only because the Highline Trail was closed. We started the hike as a leisurely stroll through the alpine meadows covered in yellow wildflowers. As we climbed in elevation, we could see that the trail was completely snow covered. This stopped very few hikers nor did it stop Evelyn, who thought it was the best thing ever to hike in the snow on her birthday in July. Everyone was slipping and sliding as we ascended a large snow mound. I was questioning when we should turn back, as skiers are skiing down around us, when we start to spot mountain goats. This motivated us and kept us going. We saw several more mountain goats along the trek until we made it to the Hidden Lake Viewpoint. Evelyn proclaimed this as her favorite hike EVER! Seeing how happy she was, I could finally relax a little and enjoy the breathtaking views around me. This park is phenomenal.

From Logan’s Pass, we drove further northeast to the Rising Sun area to view St. Mary’s Lake. From here, we then back tracked along the Going-to-the-Sun Road allowing ourselves time to actually stop at some viewpoints since we were not in such a rush to find parking. At some points along this road you feel like you are in the clouds! Rising high above even some other mountains. The waterfalls, along the roadside (some even splashing into the road) were incredible! We were even able to see big horned sheep grazing as we passed back by Logan’s Pass Visitor’s Center.

As we made our way towards the exit of the park, we were able to actually find parking at the Trail of the Cedars. We were limited on time, so we were not able to hike to Avalanche Lake. We were more than impressed with the portion of the trail we did get to do! Evelyn loved climbing in and on the fallen cedars.

Before leaving, we made one quick stop at Lake McDonald and took in the remarkable view. The glacier fed lakes in this park are crystal clear and radiate with the most beautiful color of turquoise!

Of all the national parks I have been to, this is one of my favorite national parks tied with Zion for number one! Tommy and I want to go back and explore the park more and do some longer day hikes.

Devils Tower - Wyoming

We attempted a stop at Devils Tower National Monument on the way to Yellowstone but had to change our plans as a pretty scary storm was brewing (with tornado warnings) as we came through the area. My parents went on their way to Glacier and told us we definitely needed to stop on our way back. So we readjusted our route and hotel reservations allow us to stop on our way back east.

Devils Tower is a butte literally in the middle of nowhere. This large butte juts out of the surrounding land. You can not help but question how this thing got here? Up close, the butte is made up of several multi-sided columns. At the base there are several large boulders that Evelyn and Tommy loved to scramble across. The site is popular with rock climbers and it is neat to spot them climbing from down below. The site is sacred land for Native Americans and there are several religious artifacts tied to trees at the base. With the help of Papa, Evelyn was able to make and leave her own offering.

As we left the monument, we stopped at a large field full of the wild prairie dogs and watched them scramble about.