A Tale of Three Parks

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Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton are three of the most popular national parks in the U.S. And we got to visit all of them in the course of just over a week.

Glacier National Park

The week before we left Libby, we did one more trip over to Glacier. Labor Day weekend there had been crowded and, while we’d been able to do the main hikes we intended, we were curious to experience the park with fewer people.

We left Libby very early on a Tuesday morning and made the 2-hour drive to Glacier’s entrance, and then another 45 minutes or so through the park to reach our destination for our third day in Glacier, the Jones Lake Trailhead. We were parked and prepped for the trail by 8:15 a.m. We first hiked the McDonald Creek trail, which turned out to be my favorite of all our hikes in Glacier. It wasn’t dramatic, but it followed the rapidly flowing creek and was really enjoyable.

This is an unsung trail in the park and we really didn’t see too many people along the way. It does intersect with the popular McDonald Falls and bridge, but on our first walk past it, there was only one person there. Since it was an out-and-back trail, there were several more people when we came back by later, but the trail itself was quiet. It was just under four miles to the end of the trail, which was some very nice falls at the end and a view of the mountain peaks above. Walking back to the trailhead made it about an 8-mile hike.

We followed that hike with a picnic next to Lake McDonald and then got a few more miles in by hiking the Johns Lake Loop, which covered some similar ground but on the other side of Going to the Sun Road.

We’d chosen to book our hotel in Kalispell this time because it was a lot cheaper and only about 10 minutes further from the park. We also wanted to do some Target shopping. After our errands we rested at the hotel (review below) and had a date night dinner at the Mexican restaurant across the road, where one of the specialties was a huckleberry mojito (yes, I ordered it).

The next day, we left for the park REALLY early, because we wanted to one of the most popular trails, Avalanche Lake. We ended up arriving long before the sunrise, but enjoyed our picnic breakfast and looking at the stars. Finally, it was light enough to see the path and we were the second people onto the trail. It was a great hike also, though a fair bit of climbing. After three miles, the trail ended with Avalanche Lake, which is beautiful. We took a ton of photos and increased our mileage for the day by walking part way around the lake.

Heading back to the main part of the trail, we had our first bear sighting, a black bear right on the trail. As soon as it saw us, it meandered into the woods, but Chad pulled out the bear spray just in case and we both yelled a lot and waved our arms to look bigger. It was only a little after 10 a.m. by the time we reached the car, so we decided to drive over to the Agape area on the other side of Lake McDonald and hike a trail over there. After a bit of searching, we found one that we thought would suit us, called the McDonald Lake trail from the Rocky Mount trailhead, but while there were cool aspects (like going through a burned part of the forest, and a few nice views) it was only so-so. So we headed down to the Fish Creek picnic area to eat our lunch and then headed back to Libby, with a quick stop at the Kalispell Costco to get our flu shots (the cheapest place to get a flu shot when your short-term medical insurance doesn’t cover prescriptions).

Yellowstone National Park

We chose to stay in West Yellowstone for our three nights near the park because it is right next to the west entrance and seemed like it would be fairly convenient for visiting Teton too. For our first day in Yellowstone, we got up bright and early and were in the park by just after 5:00 a.m. We drove all the way over to Lamar Valley. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see much in the dark, but it was a nice drive. One thing we learned this trip about national parks is that if you arrive early enough, there’s no one at the entrance to collect money. That didn’t impact us because we have an annual pass, and I’d prefer to support our parks by paying anyway, but that might be helpful for some folks to know.

Once the sun came up, we saw dozens of cars parked along the road and people with enormous camera lenses out trying to spot wildlife. We realized then this is more of a driving park, but we were still hopeful for our early morning hike. We saw a small herd of bison on the drive in but not much else. We reached the Lamar Valley trailhead by 8 a.m. and the small parking lot was about half full. We set out on a chilly hike into the valley, but didn’t see many signs of wildlife at all. We decided to turn back after 2 miles (and a wrong turn taking us to a creek we didn’t want to risk wetness to cross) and head on to another trail near Mammoth Hot Springs.

Elk hanging out in Mammoth area

When we arrived in the Mammoth area, the first things we noticed were the elk. They were just lounging around, right in the midst of the people (and the dozens of “do not approach the elk” signs). They were much bigger than expected and were making their crazy rutting call.

Then we hiked the 6-mile Beaver Pond Loop. The first part was kind of rocky and dry (we departed from the trailhead by all the cabins) but after a mile or so we entered into some woods. There were signs that said bears frequented the area, but we didn’t see any. By the time reached the end of the loop, we’d done over 10 miles on the day and were tired and hungry. We found a picnic table to eat our lunch and decided to forego the very cool-looking Mammoth Hot Spring for a future day. When we arrived back in West Yellowstone 2 hours later (it is an enormous park and takes a long time to drive from place to place) we found a bar with a patio where we could enjoy a well-earned beer.

The next day we did a brief stop in Yellowstone after our time in Grand Teton National Park in the West Thumb area. It had some interesting geothermal features but wasn’t our favorite part of the park.

West Thumb area – geothermal features on the shore of the “thumb” of Lake Yellowstone

On our final day in the area, we got up early again and went straight to Old Faithful, hoping to beat the crowds. We succeeded. There was only one person there when we arrived. It was chilly out (probably upper 20s Fahrenheit) so we walked the loop around Old Faithful multiple times while we waited for an eruption. More and more people began to arrive, though the crowd never got huge. Finally, we heard the next eruption would be in the coming 10 to 30 minutes, so we hung out and waited for it. We must have just missed the prior eruption. The geyser only ended up spewing about 40 feet in the air, not quite as impressive as the one we saw in Iceland. Now that we’ve seen it, we’d probably advise waiting until later in the day when they do the time predictions so you have less waiting around.

We did a quick stop at the Grand Prismatic Spring which was neat even covered in fog, and then on to Mammoth Hot Spring, which was as cool as we’d predicted. I’m glad we saved it for when we had more energy to walk all around the area. The boardwalks through it are extensive. We chose to park at the upper terrace and walk down, which worked out really well.

After a quick picnic in the main part of the Mammoth Hot Springs Area, we were on our way for an overnight stay in Missoula. Missoula was quite fun and we had a great meal out on the makeshift patio of an Irish Pub and Chad got two scoops of local ice cream from Twin Peaks to enjoy as we walked by the river.

Grand Teton National Park

In between our two Yellowstone days, we went for an excellent hike in Grand Teton National Park. It was even more beautiful in Grand Teton than I expected, with plenty of aspen trees with their bright fall yellow leaves amongst the pines and impressive mountain peaks. We chose the Jenny Lake trail hike up to inspiration point and then went all the way around the lake. We thought it would be 10 miles but turned out to be only 9, which was just about perfect. We had Inspiration Point all to ourselves for some great photos and it was a really enjoyable hike. The trail tends to be crowded, so we made sure to arrive before 8 a.m. and were back to the car a little after 11. We drove back north to one of the picnic areas along Jackson Lake before returning to Yellowstone. 

Summary

All three of these national parks are excellent for a visit and I’d highly recommend them. Yellowstone is definitely more of a driver’s park than a hiker’s park, but they all three had their own unique beauty and interest. Chad and I did decide that the biggest attractions of Yellowstone could be done in a day if you start in the northeast corner and visit Lamar Valley to look for wildlife, then stop and explore Mammoth Hot Spring, then the Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful and West Thumb on the south end. You could stay near Grand Teton and go hiking there the next day. With all the crowds at Yellowstone, I’m not sure it is a place I’d want to spend a lot of time. But I’m so glad we had the chance to visit all three of these great places.

Lodging Reviews

Stage Coach Inn West Yellowstone, MT – Older hotel in a great location. The room was spacious and had a microwave, fridge, and coffeemaker, so we could manage our own breakfast. The location was great and there was plenty of parking. But, the place is showing its age and the doors felt a little sticky. It didn’t feel like they were doing much extra cleaning for COVID. The breakfast doesn’t start until 7 a.m., and we left for the park each day long before 7.

City Center Motel Missoula, MT – Good simple place near downtown. We liked the simple room and it was nice to be able to park right outside the door. The front desk staff are very friendly. Easy walk to the downtown area, and good highway access too. Unfortunately, there was no access to coffee in the morning because there wasn’t an in-room coffee maker and the lobby doesn’t open until 8 a.m.

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