The Best USA Road Trips

Rocky Mountain Road Trip

Rocky Mountain Road Trip
By Amy Balfour

The national parks of the northern Rocky Mountains share a few iconic features— snow-capped peaks, shimmering lakes, bright wildflowers—but it's their individual characteristics that give a Rockies road trip its appeal.

Elk and bighorn sheep keep things wild at Rocky Mountain National Park while the rugged Grand Tetons are a photogenic showstopper. Yellowstone has its geysers while Glacier National Park keeps it real with grizzlies.

Rocky Mountain road trip

Approx. distance: 1,500 miles

Duration: Two weeks

Suggested route: Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, Jackson, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Beartooth Highway, Missoula, Glacier National Park.

USA Montana 68 mile beartooth highway

Montana's 68-mile Beartooth Highway

The route

From Denver drive 80 miles west to Rocky Mountain National Park. You’ll pass through Estes Park on your way to the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station on the east side of the park. Spend a few days hiking the trails and checking out wildlife, then drive eight hours north to Jackson, Wyoming, a vibrant launchpad for exploring the Grand Tetons. In the early evening check out the shops and restaurants around the town square in Jackson’s compact downtown.

In the morning make the 20-minute drive north to Grand Teton National Park and spend the day hiking the trails. From here it’s just a 10-minute drive north to Yellowstone National Park. Make your basecamp at one of the lodges or campgrounds within the park and plan to spend several days exploring.

From the Tower/Roosevelt Entrance it’s about 30 miles to Cooke City. Montana and the start of the stunning Beartooth Highway (generally open late May-mid-Oct), which runs 68 mountain-topping miles to Red Lodge, Montana. From Red Lodge it’s a five-hour drive to outdoorsy Missoula, a good place to overnight before driving to Glacier National Park. In the morning, drive three hours north to the West Entrance of Glacier National Park. Be sure to drive the high-altitude Going-to-the-Sun Road, typically open from mid-June through September, and connecting the west and east sides of the park.

From Glacier it’s a 2½ hour drive to the Missoula Montana Airport. Amtrak also pulls into the town of West Glacier on its thrice weekly run between Seattle and Chicago on the Empire Builder route.

What to see

Rocky Mountain National Park

Those with a fear of heights will have to white-knuckle it over parts of the 48-mile Trail Ridge Road (open June-September), a sky-kissing drive that crosses a windswept alpine tundra as it twists past high-altitude forests and meadows and breath-taking drop-offs. But the lofty views – and the sense of accomplishment at reaching the road’s crest at 12,183ft – are worth the moments of terror. This road can get clogged with cars, so forget about hurrying.

Wildlife is another highlight, with elk drawing some of the biggest oohs and ahhs. If you’re lucky, you might spot a bighorn sheep. If you’re traveling with kids, consider a hike to pretty Gem Lakes. Try to spend the night at altitude before exploring the park because the high elevation will quickly wear you out if you’re arriving from lower elevations.

Grand Teton National Park

With an elevation of 13,775ft, Grand Teton is the highest peak in the park and one of eight with an elevation above 12,000ft. Lined up side-by-side like a jagged comb, these glacier-carved peaks pack a visual punch as they shoot from the valley floor. They also look impenetrable when driving between Jackson and Yellowstone, but first-glance views are deceiving. More than 240 miles of trails crisscross the park, some twisting past wildflowers, meadows, and lakes in the front-country while others follow canyons deep into the Teton Range and the backcountry. Gentle Jenny Lake, stretching along the eastern front-country, is an inviting spot to soak up the mountain views.

Cyclists can pedal the valley floor from Jackson to the town of Moose and then on to Jenny Lake on a paved multi-use path. Rent bikes in Jackson or in Moose. The park is also a hotspot for rock climbing and fishing.

Yellowstone National Park

Established in 1872, Yellowstone is America’s first national park. Befitting its historic stature, the park is also enormous, sprawling across 3,472 square miles and three states (Montana, Wyoming and Idaho). Shaped like a figure eight, the Grand Loop Road swings past Yellowstone’s diverse regions. Following the road in its entirety over several days is an easy way to see the park’s highlights. Just be aware that in summer your drive will be slow-going, with cars lining up—sometimes in the middle of the road—for a closer view of the wildlife.

For good wildlife spotting, head to the Lamar Valley in the northeast corner of the park. Here you may see bears, bison, deer, and wolves loping across its lush meadows. The best times to spot wild animals are morning and early evening, when they are actively foraging and hunting for food.

Yellowstone sits above a section of the Yellowstone Volcano. Heat from the volcano activates the groundwater, which causes the park’s wild hydrothermal features, from hot springs to mudspots to geysers. Many of them can be found in the western section of the park, with boardwalk trails swinging past some of the most interesting.

Beautiful scenery abounds across the park. Top-notch hiking trails take in mountains, lakes, forests and meadows. One breathtaking vista is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its powerful Upper and Lower Falls. For an all-round great day hike with lofty fire-tower views, tackle the 6.4-mile roundtrip Mt Washburn Trail.

Glacier National Park

With hairpin turns climbing past granite peaks to Logan Pass and beyond, the soaring Going-to-the-Sun Road is an engineering marvel and a 50-mile adventure for travellers. Open only a few months annually, usually after snowplows have cleared the road in mid-June, this scenic drive should be one of your first activities after arrival. From Logan Pass (6,646ft) at the top of the road, the Highline Trail drops nearly 12 miles past purple and yellow wildflowers, snow-dappled peaks, a gritty glacier and, quite possibly, roaming grizzlies. Catch the shuttle at The Loop shuttle stop for a ride back to the pass. As for the park’s namesake glaciers, the number has dwindled from eighty or so in 1850 to 26 in 2015.

Safe wildlife watching

Remember to stay at least 100 yards (91 metres) away from bears and wolves and 25 yards (23 metres) or more from other animals.

Rocky Mountain Road Trip

Amy Balfour

Amy has authored or co-authored 26 books on the USA for Lonely Planet. Her articles and essays have appeared in Backpacker, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Houston Chronicle, Redbook, Southern Living, Women’s Health, Vegetarian Times, the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

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