On US Independence Day I couldn't think of a better way to mark the occasion than by sharing my love of the US national parks.
Few holiday destinations offer as much variety as America, but as much as I love visiting its exciting cities, nothing beats the beauty of the country’s National Parks, which are undoubtedly also its national treasures. The US led the way with the national park movement, inventing the concept by designating Yellowstone as the country’s (and the world’s) first national park in 1872.
But while Yellowstone can boast about being the first, I decided to take it down a peg or two by making it the last of three parks I visited on a road trip through America’s Rocky Mountain region, a trek that took me from Montana down through Idaho to Wyoming. This not only suited my travel plans best, but I liked the idea of saving the best 'till last. Little did I know.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Because… wow. Just wow. Imagine elements of the Swiss Alps, the UK’s Lake District and California’s Yosemite National Park all rolled into one.
That’s the best way I can describe the phenomenal impact the park had on me, and the level of awe I constantly felt in its 1,600 square miles of beautiful wilderness. The Alps element was especially evident at Logan Pass, which at over 2,000 metres is the park’s highest point.
The panoramic views from this point, which also marks the Continental Divide - rivers and waterways to the west feeding the Pacific Ocean, those to the east head to the Atlantic - are nothing short of spectacular, with stunning snow-capped peaks towering over Alpine meadows carpeted with wildflowers that roll into the valley below.
To get a closer look I hiked a section of the Highline Trail, which starts with a narrow shelf section beneath a cliff-face, known as the Garden Wall, before opening out into flower-filled meadows surrounded by towering mountains. It was like wandering through an undiscovered new Eden, even though I'd walked less than an hour from the car park.
Accessibility is one of the great things about Glacier, with much of its jaw-dropping scenery close to Going-to-the-Sun Road, the park’s 50-mile main thoroughfare.
There are umpteen viewpoints along the road, but you do need to get out to make the most of the park, and there are a variety of hiking trails on which to do so, with the easier ones just as rewarding as the more strenuous.
You’ll see plenty of warnings about bears, though the chances of encountering one are slim. I certainly didn’t - a disappointment to me, despite the obvious safety concerns - but came prepared all the same. Bear spray comes in what looks like a mini fire extinguisher, and temporarily incapacitates bears if you aim it at their face, giving you time to make a sharp exit.
I purchased a can from a store at Apgar Village, a lovely spot just inside the park’s West Entrance at the southern end of Lake McDonald, which at 10 miles long is the largest lake in the park.
Surrounded by mountains in a valley created by glacial carving, it’s the perfect place to take in the park’s beauty, which I did while tucking into ice cream flavoured with huckleberries, a purple-black fruit that grows locally and appears in everything from pies, jams and pancakes to lemonade and beer.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
I had a day-long drive to get over the wrench of leaving Glacier, so by the time I reached Grand Teton I was more than ready for things to look up. And if anything requires you to look up, it’s a mountain. Or better still three of them.
Especially when they jut straight out of the earth, their harsh beauty heightened - literally - by the lack of any rolling foothills to ease you into the view.
The jagged peaks of the Teton Range soar thousands of metres above Jackson Hole Valley in western Wyoming, and are a truly jaw-dropping sight.
The rugged spines of the South, Middle and Grand Teton peaks - originally christened ‘les trois tetons’ or ‘the three breasts’ by French trappers - gave the park its name and are its natural focal point. They also felt like a constant companion throughout my two-day visit, not least as they peeked down through a foggy heat haze. I hiked near Jenny Lake, one of the park’s many lakes.
Like Glacier, you need to get out of the car and explore to really appreciate the park, but the good news is that even the slightest effort is rewarded. A gentle 1.5-mile hike from Jenny Lake led me to Hidden Falls, a crashing 60-metre waterfall, while a two-mile stroll from Death Canyon trailhead took me through pine forests and aspen groves to Phelps Lake Overlook, a terrific beauty spot offering wonderful panoramas of the glacial lake and surrounding forest below.
The bear spray thankfully went unused again, but I was lucky enough to catch a distant glimpse of a black bear feeding in the undergrowth, oblivious to the gaggle of excited tourist photographers trying to capture the scene from the road above.
Grand Teton is just the place for these types of wondrous moments, but if it’s the wildlife you’re interested in, then nothing beats its near neighbour - Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Little more than 30 miles away, Yellowstone is probably the world’s most famous National Park, and attracts around four million visitors a year. It’s also one of the most incredible places on Earth - some of the landscapes don’t even feel like Earth - with an extraordinary variety of scenery, flora and fauna in its near 3,500 square miles.
Some of it is heavenly - majestic mountains, wide open prairies, meadows filled with wildflowers, while some of it, in the form of bubbling mud pots and steaming geysers, could almost be a vision of hell.
The park contains more than half the world’s geysers, including Old Faithful, whose popularity is probably derived from living up to its name, as it spurts over 36,000 litres of water up in the air every 90 minutes or so.
Don’t worry if you turn up with 89 minutes to go though, as there’s plenty to do while you’re waiting, with a walking trail around its companion geysers as well as a visitor centre, gift shops and the Old Faithful Inn, a fabulous wooden lodge built in 1903 and reputedly the largest log structure in the world. I watched Old Faithful erupt, took a leisurely walk and came back in time for another performance. The viewing area gets busy of course, but if anything, a few whooping tourists adds to the sense of occasion - after all, if Old Faithful’s not worth a cheer, what is?
But while the iconic sight is one of the park’s undoubted must-sees, it was by no means the highlight of my four days in Yellowstone, which served up spectacle after spectacle. The park apparently contains 10,000 geothermal features for a start, and I was especially taken with Grand Prismatic Spring, a steaming 370-metre wide lake given its spectrum of colours by the pigmented bacteria that grow along its edges.
Like most of Yellowstone’s colourful thermal areas it can be toured and viewed from a wooden boardwalk that skirts its edges. Everything is well signposted and you must stick to the paths - and not just for the sake of the fragile environment. The cauldron-like waters reach temperatures of more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit, as more than one visitor has learned to their cost.
Navigating Yellowstone itself is a breeze, and you can tick off most of its highlights by driving the figure-eight-shaped Grand Loop Road - though not all in one day, as it’s 142 miles long. It’s easy to break it into sections, and there are plenty of parking areas and visitor centres that offer access to the top sights.
Top sights include Norris Geyser Basin - the park’s hottest, most dynamic area - and Mammoth Hot Springs, which you can even partly tour by car. Don’t be tempted to stay in your seat though - you need to tread the boardwalks to truly appreciate the extraordinary cascading terraces sculpted from travertine, which itself has been deposited by mineral-laden water welling up from beneath the Earth’s crust.
There’s much more to Yellowstone than geysers and hot springs though. The park has 900 miles of hiking trails, striking valleys and soaring mountains, and even its own Grand Canyon, a mesmerising 24-mile chasm of yellow rock (hence the park’s name) overlooked by three waterfalls, including Lower Falls, which is twice the size of Niagara.
But for all the amazing scenery, my favourite thing about Yellowstone is its fantastic array of wildlife. The park is known as the ‘American Serengeti’ for the variety of species that live here, and during my visit I spotted wolves, eagles, osprey, deer, pronghorn and so many bison I almost got bored of them. A statement that is of course totally unbelievable - just like our experiences in these three incredible National Parks.
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