Updated: September 30, 2022
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Montana and Wyoming are beautiful states that everyone should try to visit in their lifetime. With everything going on in the world surrounding COVID-19, we opted for a domestic vacation this year. We set out on a trip to visit the major national parks of Montana and Wyoming. We opted for a national park tour with beautiful scenery, fresh air, and wonderful time spent with family.
There is so much to see and do out West. It is so beautiful, no matter what time of year you decide to go visit. As our trip inched closer, we were nervous because of what we had read about the traffic this summer. I guess everyone had the same idea we did about a national park vacation! There was even mention of people waiting hours to enter Glacier National Park. This is one reason we love to travel during the shoulder season. We love to travel during shoulder season for a couple reasons: 1. less crowds and 2. cheaper.
This also means that planning can become a bit more convoluted. There were some hurdles along the way, but that didn’t stop us from a national park trip this fall. I’m here to help you plan a national park trip during the best time of year while avoiding the hurdles I experienced.
Tip 1: When deciding a time of year to travel, make sure to confirm shops, restaurants, and attractions will still be open.
The major national parks of Montana and Wyoming…
There are 3 major national parks that come to mind when thinking about Montana and Wyoming. The national parks of Montana and Wyoming that we chose to visit were Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park. You must realize there are more than these 3 national parks in these states; however, we were focused on the major ones!
When I did my research, I knew there was a chance things would be closing for the summer. I started panicking a few weeks prior when I realized the companies I wanted to use for horseback riding and boating tours would already be closed for the season! Even though some places may be closing, I’d much rather enjoy nature with less crowds.
Tip 2: If in question about hours/days of operation, give them a call! We called the concierge for our hotels to inquire about recommended activities during our stay. They were very helpful and even provided us the name of another company for our desired horseback riding and boat tour!
Our National Park Itinerary
In 11 days, we set out to see 3 national parks of Montana and Wyoming: Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park. With limited time, we flew into Kalispell, MT (FCA) to begin our road trip adventures. Rental car prices were sky high, so we elected for a mini van. Oh, did I mention there were 6 of us on this trip?!
The Big 3 National Parks of Montana and Wyoming
Glacier National Park (GNP)
As I researched these national parks of Montana and Wyoming, I originally was going to end in GNP; however, I quickly changed my mind. We were already traveling during shoulder season and were risking some things being closed. A very popular road in GNP is Going-to-the-Sun-Road. Often times, this road can close early October/late September due to weather. EEEK – that’s when we were traveling!
Since it was our most northern park, I elected to travel there first in the hopes of avoiding inclement weather. ❄️
☀️This year, the “summer” season ended on September 26th. That was the last day we were in GNP, so we lucked up! We were able to enjoy Going-to-the-Sun-Road, a boat tour of Lake McDonald, and were blessed with weather in the low 70’s!☀️
Inside Glacier National Park
When researching what to do in Glacier National Park, every travel and blog site talked about Going-to-the-Sun-Road. I now understand why it is a top attraction at Glacier. Going-to-the-Sun-Road is a 50 mile paved road that traverses the entire park, from all types of terrains that include cedar forests and large glacial lakes.
Tickets and reservations to enter Going-to-the-Sun-Road, in addition to a Glacier National Park Pass, are required if traveling between certain dates. Because we were traveling at the end of September and the end of peak season, tickets were not required during our travel dates!
If you plan on driving the entire Going-to-the-Sun-Road, prepare for a full day of sightseeing. Start early and take your time. The road takes a minimum of 2 hours and that is without stopping. With all of the waterfalls, beautiful scenery, and hiking trails, you will want to stop and take an abundance of pictures.
Tip 3: Allow plenty of time to drive Going-to-the-Sun-Road. Without stopping, the drive takes a minimum of 2 hours in one direction. You will want to stop!
There are very limited food options on the trail, especially after the summer when restaurants are closing for the season. There are restaurants located in Apgar, Lake McDonald, Many Glacier, and Rising Sun. If, however, you are traveling at times that are not peak season, I recommend checking to ensure they are open! Also, check for road closures as the Many Glacier Valley was closed due to road construction during our visit.
Yep, you guessed it! As mentioned earlier, there isn’t much on this beautiful road, including gas stations!
Tip 4: Take plenty of snacks and fill up on gas before embarking on the sightseeing adventure. There is limited food options and no gas stations along the road. There is gas located before and after exiting Going-to-the-Sun-Road in the towns of West Glacier and St. Mary.
- Logan Pass
This is a popular place to stop along Going-to-the-Sun-Road. Not only is it the highest point reachable by car at 6,646 feet, but it also has a few hikes that lead up to spectacular views. In my opinion, these are not “easy” hikes- so keep that in mind when deciding a trail. A popular trailhead from Logan Pass is the Hidden Lake Overlook…
- Hidden Lake Overlook
While it has been known for all walks of life to be seen on this trail, this is not for the faint of heart. I do not consider this an “easy” trail. The Hidden Lake is located on the continental divide and it is 1.5 miles to reach the overlook. Unfortunately, it is not an easy 1.5 mile trek to the top. You will gain approx 460 feet to reach the Hidden Lake Overlook. If you feel up to the hike, it is definitely worth it and you won’t be disappointed!
- Apgar Village
This is a great place to stop and grab lunch at a casual restaurant, have a quick potty break, or look for souvenirs in the gift shop. Apgar Village is just 2 miles from the West Glacier entrance.
The Glacier Park Boat Company offers scenic boat tours on 4 different lakes in Glacier National Park. A knowledgeable and entertaining guide will provide narration throughout the boat cruise. You will have plenty of opportunities to take pictures and it is a great way to view Glacier National Park from a different view point.
Tip 5: Make reservations and book ahead of time online!
Update 2021: Currently masks are required while on board due to COVID-19.
- Lake McDonald
Of the 4 lakes that Glacier Park Boat Company offers tours, Lake McDonald is the largest at 9-10 miles across and the warmest, allowing tours to run later in the season. It has also been measured up to 500 feet deep! You will learn of the 35 private homes within the park if taking a boat tour on Lake McDonald. Unfortunately, these homes have been in the park for 150 years and no one else has been allowed to establish homes after 1910. Such a beautiful lake with lots of history!
Outside of Glacier National Park
- Downtown Whitefish
Our hotel was located in Whitefish, Montana which was approx 40 minutes outside of Glacier National Park. Downtown Whitefish is a quaint town with art shops, restaurants, and clothing boutiques. If you are looking for areas to explore around Glacier, I’d recommend a day trip to this cute town.
** We also checked out the town of Bigfork, MT. It is another cute town that is 45 minutes from Whitefish. Personally, I preferred Whitefish and could have spent more time browsing the area. **
- Hungry Horse Dam
Hungry Horse Dam is located on the Flathead River, just 15 miles from the west entrance of Glacier National Park. Sitting at 564 feet hight, Hungry Horse is one of the largest concrete arch dams in the United States.
Yellowstone National Park
Did you know that Yellowstone was America’s first national park?
The park was established in 1872 and is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined at over 2.2 million acres. Yellowstone is shaped like a figure eight and it is best to allow for a minimum of 2 days to explore the park. The Grand Loop is split into the Upper Loop and Lower Loop. Although the Upper Loop is shorter at approx 70 miles, I feel like it takes longer to see all of the attractions. The lower loop is approx 96 miles and this is where the famous Old Faithful is located as well as the majority of the geothermal areas and geysers.
Tip 6: If limited on time, allow 1 day for the upper loop and 1 day for the lower loop. Order doesn’t matter – you’re going to see both!
The Grand Loop
- Norris Geyser Basin
For some reason, this was one of my favorite stops in Yellowstone!
Of all the thermal areas in Yellowstone, Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, oldest, and most dynamic.
There are two areas that you can explore here: Porcelain Basin and Back Basin! They are clearly marked by signs and let you know the distance if you decide to walk the entire boardwalk.
The Steamboat Geyser and Echinus Geyser are the most popular attractions here. Steamboat Geyser is the tallest geyser in the world; however, it is unpredictable and the eruption window can be anywhere from 3 days to 50 years… so you may be waiting awhile!
Echinus Geyser is the largest acidic water geyser known. Acidic geysers, in general, are very rare.
- Mammoth Hot Springs
Many people I have spoken to who have visited Yellowstone say that Mammoth is their favorite attraction. Unfortunately, I did not have the same reaction. I do feel like it is worth visiting as there is a lot to see in the area. Wildlife, especially elk, are commonly viewed in this area so keep an eye out!
There is an upper and lower terrace of Mammoth. Hey, you’re at Yellowstone so just go ahead and explore them both!
Upper Terrace: You can drive through the upper terrace and it’s about 1.5 miles.
Lower Terrace: Put on your hiking boots because it’s quite a trek up the boardwalk steps! It is a steep incline with hundreds of steps.
- Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
This was a beautiful, picturesque spot and I could have spent more time here enjoying God’s masterpiece!
If you are limited on time, make sure to just stop and take in the breathtaking views.
If you have more time to spend, some people spend a couple hours viewing the waterfalls from all different vantage points.
No matter what your schedule looks like, I would make sure you make time to see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. It’s well worth your time!!
- Fountain Paint Pots
At this area, you can see all 4 popular types of thermal features in 1 location: geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles. Walk the 1/2 mile boardwalk to see everything!
- Grand Prismatic Spring
Apparently it is photographed more than Old Faithful?!
Ok, so I didn’t get a good picture 😞 BUT the Grand Prismatic Spring is often seen with bright, vibrant colors of orange, yellow, and green rings.
It is deeper than a 10 story building with extremely hot water traveling 121 feet from a crack in the earth to reach the spring’s surface.
It is wider than a football field, measuring 370 feet in diameter!
Those are just some crazy facts to me!!! Don’t mess with nature!
- Old Faithful
The most predictable of all the geysers!
You’ve probably heard mention of Old Faithful. If you want to see a geyser erupt, Old Faithful is probably your best “predictable” chance.
Old Faithful was running a little late for us! I was beginning to think she decided to be unfaithful! To know when her planned time to erupt will be, eruptions times are posted everywhere around the area. Take a look in the visitor center, gift shop, and/or Old Faithful Inn.
If you have cell service (doubtful!), you can also look online!
- Old Faithful Inn
The most requested lodging inside of Yellowstone National Park is the Old Faithful Inn.
The Old Faithful Inn is a beautiful historic landmark that features a massive stone fireplace and a hand crafted clock as the focal point. It was declared a national historic landmark in 1987. Its architecture is worth visiting. There is also a gift shop and diner located off the lobby.
If you decide to stay at the Old Faithful Inn, please note that no televisions, radios, or air conditioning can be found in park lodging!
- Yellowstone Lake
Yellowstone Lake is the largest high elevation lake in North America!
It is a beautiful lake and you will have plenty of places to pull over to take a picture.
Tip 7: Download the Gypsy App. This will allow you to do a self-driving tour of the area. Not only does it have driving tours of the Yellowstone/Grand Teton Area, but it also has driving tours of Hawaii, Canada, Eastern US, and more! There is a driving tour of Glacier National Park too – I just didn’t notice this until it was too late!!!
Grand Teton National Park
Ten years ago in 2011, I visited Grand Teton National Park with my parents. It was one of my favorite places, but it’s crazy how things change in 10 years. It didn’t look how we remembered it. Things have changed. The beautiful, gigantic Jackson Lake was practically non-existent as water levels have significantly dropped due to the drought out west.
I don’t have many suggestions, unfortunately, as my favorite activities in the Grand Tetons revolve around water. Sadly, there is little to no water at this time, forcing marinas to close. See pictures below (same place, different time)
Inside Grand Teton National Park
- 42 mile scenic loop drive
So you’ve made your way to the Grand Tetons! The 42 mile scenic loop drive takes approx 1-2 hours to complete, but you may want to allow some extra time for those photograph worthy moments!
Was not expecting this…. There is no Grand Teton entrance station when heading south from Yellowstone into Grand Teton.
- Jackson Lake Lodge
Like Old Faithful Inn, Jackson Lake Lodge is a popular location. While it does not have the grand entrance of Old Faithful Inn, Jackson Lake Lodge has gorgeous views of the Grand Tetons. There is also a gift shop inside 🛍️
- Snake River Overlook
This overlook provides beautiful view of the snake river that is surrounded by the Grand Tetons. During the summer, you can even take some float trips down the snake river (assuming water levels are up!)
- Horse back riding
Every year we travel out west, I have to go horse back riding. It is a great way to see scenery that is unaccessible by car. Because we were traveling during shoulder season, our selection of horse back riding companies still operating were limited. The only company available in early October was Spring Creek Ranch.
I had a lovely time on this trail with wonderful views of the Grand Tetons. From my experience, I do not know if I would recommend this company if it was your first time on horseback. Spring Creek, however, got wonderful reviews so it could have been just my experience! The only reason I say this is because we only had 1 wrangler for 8 riders and no one inquired about our riding experience. My husband had never ridden before and had a lot of anxiety going into this ride. No one tried to put his fears at ease. Sadly, I doubt he will be riding horses again.
Outside Grand Teton National Park
- Jackson, WY
Who loves shopping? I do! Jackson has the cutest boutiques, cafés, breweries, bookstores, antiques shops, and more! It is possible to go in every store in a day – as my nana and papa proved – BUT you may want to pace yourself a bit. There’s a lot to see 😁
- Make sure things will be open if traveling outside of peak season.
- Pack snacks when touring the national parks – food options will be limited.
- Fill up on gas before entering the national park.
- Download the Gypsy Guide app – There are self-guided narrated tours available for all 3 parks!
Are you ready for your national park road trip vacation?!
Be safe and happy travels! ✈️
Until next time!!
xxx Sara + Josh
National Park FAQ’s
How many days do you need to visit Yellowstone National Park?
Yellowstone is shaped like a figure eight and it is best to allow for a minimum of 2 days to explore the park.
Is October too late for Glacier National Park?
A very popular road in Glacier National Park is Going-to-the-Sun-Road. Often times, this road can close early October/late September due to weather. Keep in mind that traveling to Glacier National Park in October could mean more attractions will be closed.
Is the Going-to-the-Sun-Road open in October?
This road is usually closed by early October/late September due to inclement weather.
Is Lake McDonald open in October?
Of the 4 lakes that Glacier Park Boat Company offers tours, Lake McDonald is the largest at 9-10 miles across and the warmest, allowing tours to run later in the season. Boat tours usually can run into late September.
How long is Going-to-the-Sun-Road?
Going-to-the-Sun-Road is a 50 mile paved road that traverses the entire park, from all types of terrains that include cedar forests and large glacial lake.
Start your national park journey here!