My partner, Nic, and I have made the lofty goal of visiting all 59 U.S. National Parks. Yes, I know there are officially 60 now but I’m far too salty about the inclusion of the St. Louis Arch as a National Park to even include that on my list. In the two years we’ve been together, prior to this road trip, we have visited:
- Redwood National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Kings Canyon National Park
- Sequoia National Park
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Crater Lake National Park
I’m not even sure how we came up with the goal of visiting all 59 parks, but in true Kelly fashion, once we had the idea, I was pretty obsessive about planning it all out. This summer, we went on a road trip where we were able to visit six additional National Parks.
- Glacier National Park
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- Badlands National Park
- Wind Cave National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
- Yellowstone National Park
I’ll talk about each park, the hikes we did, where we stayed, and I’ll show some photos. As always, post a comment on here or DM me on Instagram (@kellyinoregon) for any follow up questions!
Glacier National Park
Glacier, located in Northern Montana, may have been my favorite park on this trip. We arrived in the early evening and spent the night at St. Mary Campground. So, here’s the thing about Glacier, especially earlier in summer. The park is quite large and the road that runs through the middle of the park, connecting the East and West sides was not fully open yet (about 14 miles of Going-to-the-Sun road was still closed). That said, we only explored the East Side of the park.
It was windy AF there. It made it hard (for Nic) to cook. The next morning there was a woman making coffee in the bathroom because it was too windy outside. Get it girl. We woke up, probably earlier than we needed to, but that’s sort of our thing, and set out to hike Grinnell Glacier, per the recommendation of several friends. I will coincidentally recommend that hike. The top bit (maybe the last 1/2 mile or so) was closed because of snow that I was not interested in messing with, but the views were still SO worth the incline, the elements, and that one slug I saw. At one point the trail splits to either Grinnell Lake or Grinnell Glacier. In a weak moment, I considered going to just the lake, but we ended up going up to the Glacier where, gasp!, we could see the lake! That’s the blue-ass lake you see above. Do the Glacier. Not the lake.
We spent the rest of that day exploring the Many Glacier and St. Mary area. We drove down what we could of Going-to-the-Sun Road and caught some beautiful views. And we saw a bear family! Luckily we were in the car, but we were the first car to pull up to a mama bear and three babies about a foot off the road. We stayed the night again at St. Mary campground then peaced out for our next destination, Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Notes about Glacier:
- Hike Grinnell Glacier if you can. The entire hike is about 9 miles with almost 2,000 ft in elevation gain.
- Camping at St. Mary Campground was beautiful and there’s cell service (at least for Verizon).
- It’s cold, at least in mid-June it was. Also it’s windy. Like make coffee in the bathroom windy.
- Bears are a very real concern at Glacier. Be mindful, as if your life depends on it, about what items you keep in your tent. Hike with bear spray and a bear bell. Don’t leave any food anywhere god damn it.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
I’ll be real with you. This park wasn’t the most exciting National Park I’ve ever been to. But, as with all government-funded endeavors, some things are great, others are fine.
Here we stayed at the Cottonwood Campground. It was cute, clean, and had some cool views. Most importantly, Teddy Roosevelt has expansive prairie dog towns, which is the funniest shit I’ve ever seen. Prairie dog towns are giant meadows with probably a million holes where little doggies just pop up. They make the squeakiest little sound, and yell at each other if humans approach. 10/10 on those.
We arrived at Teddy Roosevelt in the early evening and went on a walk on a nearby trail, the Ridgeline Loop. We found that trail accidentally but it ended up being perfect. We were tired from a long day of driving, and it got our legs moving without making me sweat enough to have to shower. It also had a trail guide, and there’s nothing Nic and I love more than an interpretative trail. Except for maybe ranger-led information sessions at the campground!!! We listened to a talk about coyotes, that actually made me want to find a coyote and say, “I am so sorry for the bad rap we’ve been giving you. Let me pet you and let us find peace with each other.” I never saw a coyote though, so… After a night’s sleep we set off to Chicago, our turning around point. We attended a banging wedding for one of my best high school friends, then set back to Oregon, starting with Badlands National Park.
Notes about Theodore Roosevelt:
- Check out prairie dog towns. I’m serious. They’re all marked on the park maps. I’m serious about that too. We also saw hella bison here, including one like 20 yards away from our campsite.
- Find a hike. There’s nothing too strenuous here, but the landscapes are cool.
- There were a mild amount of skeeters (aka mosquitoes). I have an irrational fear of ticks so I loaded up on the bug spray. No ticks spotted though (probably because I had the bug spray).
Badlands National Park
I give the Badlands a resounding YAS. We did a few short hikes, both the evening we arrived and the next morning before we went to Mount Rushmore (more on that in a hot sec). We hiked Notch Trail, Window Trail, Door Trail, Cliff Shelf, and Saddle Pass. They’re short but some are pretty straight up so I’d recommend hiking boots.
We camped at Cedar Pass Campground in the park and some of the sites were completely waterlogged. Apparently it only rains 14 inches all year in the Badlands, buuuuut it had just rained the day before. Hm. Anyways, our campsite was pretty damp so we set ourselves up on the concrete pad meant for a table and just loaded the underneath of our sleeping bags with blankets. The campground had incredible views of the rock formations and gave us easy access to anywhere in the park.
We left the Badlands and went to Mount Rushmore. Neither of us had ever been and we felt like we probably should see it, since when are we ever going to be in South Dakota again (answer: never).
It was cool. I won’t argue with that. Do I need to see it again? Nah. We camped at a KOA near Mt. Rushmore before going to Wind Cave National Park.
Notes about Badlands:
- Honestly the views are better on some of the shorter-distance hikes. The longer ones mostly take you through flat meadows instead of getting you on top of some of the rocks.
- Don’t expect to be in total awe like you might be at Glacier. It’s a different kind of beauty here, and the more you learn about it the more interesting it becomes.
Wind Cave National Park
Didn’t know this was a National Park? That’s okay, we didn’t either until we bought a map with all the National Parks. This is also located in South Dakota. I actually don’t have any photos of it because the entire park is literally UNDERGROUND. How cool is that? It was dark AF in there and we were walking the entire time so it was hard to get a good photo.
You can only explore this park on a guided tour. It costs a little bit, depending on which tour you do. There are three options, with varying lengths and difficulties. We did the medium one–the Natural Entrance tour. It was about an hour and a half which is exactly the amount I want to be trapped underground for. We left Wind Cave, stayed a night at a random KOA in Wyoming, then arrived at Grand Teton National Park.
Notes about Wind Cave:
- Get there early! There are a limited number of tickets for each tour. We got there about an hour before the first tour to get tickets.
- If you have been in any other caves, either wear different shoes than you wore there, or tell the park staff about it. They will clean your shoes for you. This helps prevent the spread of White-Nose syndrome, a bat disease. C’mon, don’t hurt the bats.
Grand Teton National Park
Y’all. Grand Teton was amazing. I saw a friend’s photos from here a couple of years ago and I knew I would fall in love with this place once I saw it. I wasn’t wrong.
The mountains are unreal here. Per the recommendation of a local we met at the place we camped, we went straight to Jenny Lake. There is an easy-moderate 7-mile trail all around the lake. You can also take a boat across the lake for, I think, $7 each way. We hiked to the other side of the lake, and did a few offshoot trails: Hidden Falls and Cascade Canyon. Hidden Falls was short and easy and Cascade Canyon was not short and not easy. We only did about a mile each way of Cascade Canyon then hiked the rest of the way around Jenny Lake. If I could do it again, I would have hiked more of Cascade Canyon and not hiked allll the way around Jenny Lake. So it goes.
After hiking a total of TEN MILES, we decided to just drive around, and pull out at any cool viewpoints. The views got better and better.
From Grand Teton, it is about an hour drive, depending on which d-bag you get stuck behind in traffic, to Yellowstone National Park. I booked us a campground ahead of time in Yellowstone so that we could have the luxury of staying in the same place for two nights. We got to the campsite in the early evening, so we began our Yellowstone adventures a little early.
Notes about Grand Teton:
- Don’t bother driving up Summit Mountain. I know, it’s tempting that you can get to the top of a mountain by driving, but the views are better right on the lake.
- The Jenny Lake area is beautiful. There is some construction near the visitor center and store. Plan ahead and be prepared for changing weather. It began hailing and thunderstorming when we were, luckily, almost done hiking. Others, I’m sure, were not so lucky.
- Soak in all the views from every vantage point that you can.
Yellowstone National Park
Ah, the crown jewel of the United States National Park system. This park lives up to its reputation and holy moly it is huge. We were there for two days and saw maybe 3 inches of it. We started off with the classics: Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring. Both places are busy and tourist-y, but for good reason. They’re freaking cool. There’s an app that tells you when Old Faithful is going to erupt (it’s every 80 minutes, on average) but there’s zero phone service in the park so I guess be prepared to chill at the visitor center for a while if you arrive between eruptions.
We camped at the Grant Village campground inside the park. Listen, Yellowstone is super overwhelming. I got lucky that I happened to choose a fairly central campground that gave us easy access to most things we wanted to see in Yellowstone. Also, Yellowstone was the only place on this whole trip that I got bug bites. You’re near water everywhere you go so be prepared with bug spray (and while you’re at it, anti-itch spray for after you get bitten).
The next morning, we hiked Mt. Washburn. I 100% endorse this hike. Please view me being majestic near the top, right below. It was a very steady uphill climb (7 miles round trip with 1,300 ft elevation gain) with awe-inspiring views and a fire tower at the top. There’s also bathrooms at the top (what!) and lots of informational signs (again, my fave). After sufficiently exhausting ourselves, we drove around to a few more geological features and saw the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (yes, that’s what it’s really called). It was insanely beautiful, and there were some trails around there but we were too tired at that point to even entertain that idea.
After a few hours of sleep in the car (we didn’t want to disassemble a tent at 2:00 am) we were so ready to head home and cuddle our cat.
Notes about Yellowstone:
- Get a park map. Like a nice one, before you go. This park is huge and overwhelming so getting to know the layout a little bit ahead of time is helpful.
- Do a strenuous hike, and also walk around on the boardwalk trails around some of the geological features. The best views don’t always require hiking boots and lots of sweat.
- Check out Yellowstone Lake. It’s the largest high-elevation lake in the country and boasts some prime photo-taking spots.
- Bears, again. We didn’t see any here, but they exist. Follow all regulations for your safety and the safety of the bears.
In closing, WOW. This was a trip of a lifetime. Sometimes, especially lately, I get disheartened with the condition of our country, yet I can’t help but be grateful for these federally protected lands. I’m glad more people are getting out and exploring and I also know that contributes to more damage to the plants and wildlife in the parks. Leave no trace, or in fact, leave it better than you found it.
I’m always happy to share more, and let me know if you want any posts about the other parks I’ve visited!
Thanks for reading! Check back soon.