The cashier in the gift shop at Logan Pass — Glacier’s famous perch on the Continental Divide — looked at my Idaho driver’s license and said, “You didn’t have to go too far to get here.”
Oh, but we did.
We took the scenic route, I told her — three nights at Grand Teton National Park and four nights at Yellowstone National Park before making our first visit to Glacier, which touches the Canadian border in northern Montana.
“At least you saved the best for last,” she said.
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At that moment, it was difficult to argue with her. As much as I enjoy the jagged mountain peaks of the Tetons and the abundant wildlife of Yellowstone, a blue sky at Logan Pass is invigorating. I didn’t care about the rising mileage total or the long drive home that awaited. I was eager to explore, just like I was on our first mornings in Grand Teton and Yellowstone — when we were a lot fresher.
By the time I returned to Boise with my wife, Brandi, and 8-year-old son, Oliver, we had driven 2,370 miles in 12 days. But it was worth it.
The three-park trip began as a Teton-Yellowstone combo to celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday. Our party of 23 family members included 20 who hadn’t visited either park. Glacier was a late addition for six of us who had the time. Here’s some of what we saw and learned:
The Snake River dominated the first four days of our trip. We stopped at Shoshone Falls on the drive to Grand Teton, enjoying the show three days before flows were scheduled for reduction. We started the second day at Grand Teton’s Schwabacher’s Landing, the gorgeous photo stop where the mountains reflect on the Snake in the morning light. The third day featured a whitewater rafting trip where the Snake hugs the highway south of Jackson — not far from the Idaho border (a fun, splashy ride). And on the fourth day we hiked along the Snake to Flagg Canyon, just outside Yellowstone’s south entrance. Given the river’s importance to our state, it was interesting to follow the Snake almost to its roots.
Lamar over Hayden
We spent countless hours 10 years ago watching for wildlife in Hayden Valley, the picturesque stretch of Yellowstone between Fishing Bridge and Canyon. But we never saw much more than elk and bison.
This time, staying at Canyon, we made the drive to Lamar Valley in the northeastern corner of the park early in the morning twice (leaving Canyon about 6 a.m.). The wildlife viewing was far better. On our first morning, we saw a black bear, wolves with pups (through a spotting scope), pronghorn (butting heads), bison, a coyote, elk and deer. My brother’s family also spotted a pair of wolves running across the road in front of them and playing with food at about 40 yards.
We went back later in the week for a second round of wolf viewing. A large group of wildlife watchers sets up at the Slough Creek Campground turnoff from Northeast Entrance Road. The Junction Butte Pack features 10 adults and eight puppies. Several folks with high-powered spotting scopes were more than willing to share — and they made sure Oliver got a good look at the pups.
Still get away from the crowds
By rising early or going an extra half-mile, we were able to find moments of tranquility even in the ultra-busy national parks.
On July 4 in Grand Teton, most of our group hiked to Taggart Lake. We arrived early — about 8 a.m. — and were the only people at the lake when we reached the end of the trail.
We only saw one other hiker during our trip to Flagg Canyon, a less-trafficked area. We hiked down from Tower Fall to a beach on the Yellowstone River and found it empty. We made the extra walk to Punch Bowl Spring at the Upper Geyser Basin (Old Faithful), and nobody was there even though the parking lot was packed.
At Glacier, we did the popular hike to Avalanche Lake. But by walking an extra seven-tenths of a mile to the far end of the lake, we enjoyed a few minutes of quiet to eat snacks and take photos.
Yes, the parks were busy — but by planning our excursions, we were able to do what we wanted when we wanted. And the only time we had trouble finding a parking spot was at our Yellowstone lodge at night.
The bear spray effect
The last time we visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton, we didn’t see a bear. This time, everyone seemingly told us to take bear spray — particularly since we were going to Glacier.
On our first hike of the trip, a short jaunt on the Hermitage Point trail from Colter Bay Village, we encountered a large, brown bear at about 25-30 yards. The black bear barely acknowledged us and wandered off. But having bear spray made the experience more joyful than stressful. It also gave us the confidence to venture into the woods the rest of the trip.
In Yellowstone, we saw three black bears, all from the car. In Glacier, we saw a pair of brown black bears, also from the car.
Goats share the trail better than people
The highlight of our visit to Glacier was hiking at Logan Pass. We started with the climb to the Hidden Lake Overlook — a stunning view of peaks still dotted with snow soaring above a small, blue lake. Along the way, we passed within a few feet of several goats — including a kid — that didn’t mind a bit. The usually moderate hike turned treacherous on the way down because of the snow. The woman directly in front of Oliver slipped and slid about 100 yards down the mountainside, narrowly missing a large rock. We changed course and got down safely.
Across the road, we sampled the Highline trail. Highline includes three-tenths of a mile of walking between a rock wall and a cliff edge. The trail is about 6 feet wide, and there’s a cable attached to the wall to grab for safety. On our way back through that portion of trail, two mountain goats hopped off a ledge in front of Brandi. We slid up against the wall and watched as they calmly wandered by, walking right on the cliff edge.
“That was cool,” Oliver said as the goats passed.
Needless to say, we brought home a mountain goat stuffed animal. And some fantastic memories.
Here were my favorite moments/activities in each of the three national parks we visited:
Grand Teton: I love big, jagged peaks that are prominently displayed above the surrounding landscape, so the Tetons wow me. We celebrated my birthday there and my main request was to go paddleboarding on String Lake, at the base of the mountains. That was a thrill.
Yellowstone: Ten years ago, I was stunned by the beauty of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. My previous visits to the park had been brief and we missed the canyon. This time, Grand Prismatic Spring made the same impression. The colors seem impossible. Stand on a bench and raise your camera as high as you can. The spring is even more striking from that angle.
Glacier: Get to Logan Pass before 10 a.m. and you can snag a coveted parking spot. The hike to Hidden Lake Overlook was more difficult than expected because of snow but the view was fantastic. The Highline trail, which we only sampled, was a treat even before mountain goats decided to wander through our hike. Together, the trails provided the unique experience you want from a national park.
Boise to Grand Teton (410 miles), July 2: We made a quick stop at Shoshone Falls near Twin Falls on our way to Colter Bay Village on the northern end of Grand Teton.
Grand Teton to Yellowstone (76 miles), July 5: We stayed at Canyon Village.
Yellowstone to Whitefish, Mont. (436 miles), July 9: We added a few miles by taking the scenic route out of the park through Tower and Mammoth (we were rewarded with a bear sighting) and passing through Bozeman and Missoula, two cities we hadn’t visited. We stayed in Whitefish because we booked this part of the trip too late to get a spot inside Glacier National Park. It was a 26-mile drive each day to the park’s west entrance.
Glacier to Boise (531 miles), July 12-13: We hiked to Glacier’s Avalanche Lake on our last morning in the park and drove to Salmon for the night. That split the drive home into segments of 291 and 240 miles.
Note: We drove a total of 2,370 miles, including many miles spent touring the parks. That total doesn’t include three excursions in my dad’s truck or one day spent riding the shuttle buses at Glacier.