A few years ago, we took the Grand Circle road trip, hitting all of the big national parks in Utah, plus a few more. This year, we decided to take another road trip that would take us north, all the way to Glacier National Park, hitting the Tetons and Yellowstone on the way up, and Sawtooth National Forest on the return. Little did we know that, given the COVID pandemic, about a million other people had the same idea.
We had recently purchased a rooftop tent for our Subaru Outback and it came in handy on this trip given the limited accommodations available at each of the parks. It gave us the option of pulling off onto access roads, even those that required high clearance, and setting up camp within a few minutes.
We used the tent on our first night near the Uinta Mountains in Utah, after driving for 10+ hours. We found a fantastic spot about a quarter-mile off the main highway on a high clearance road complete with a nearby stream and fire pit.
Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks
The next day we headed for Grand Teton National Park, a place I had wanted to visit for years. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we found it clogged with RVs, cars, and boats. Campsites were limited to sites without shade outside of the park itself where we were greeted by the ever-present sounds of barking dogs and RV generators.
It wasn’t the wilderness the way we hoped to experience it, but it was beautiful.
The next morning we did a hike just under 10 miles around Jenny Lake (video below), then drove to Yellowstone for the afternoon. Despite less-than-ideal accommodations, the scenery was incredible.
As we arrived in Yellowstone, Bec and I were both shocked to see a Disneyland-sized parking lot next to Old Faithful. Wow. I had no idea of the scale of the visitor center. This place was set up for millions of visitors a year to a relatively small exhibit space.
We were able to walk around and see a number of geysers in the area, then sat down to watch Old Faithful erupt. It was all pretty amazing to see. On the drive back to camp, we saw some elk on the side of the road and enjoyed the spectacular views of the Snake River.
Glacier National Park
We cut our time short in the Tetons, given the crowds, and headed to Glacier National Park. We wanted to spend as much time in Glacier as possible since it was the farthest park on our itinerary. When we arrived, once again, COVID had made a huge impact on the park.
The eastern entrance of the park was completely closed, so we had to drive another 90 minutes to the western entrance. Nearly all campgrounds in the park were closed as well, so we got a hotel for the first night, then found an RV-style campground for the rest of our stay. The campground had public showers, which was a plus, but was otherwise less than spectacular. We were there to hike the park, though, not to sit at camp, so this wasn’t a deal-breaker.
On our first day in the park, we drove The Road to the Sun (above) all the way to Logan Pass where we did a short day hike to Hidden Lake (below). Just driving through the park is a religious experience – huge vistas of snow-capped mountains, meadows, lush forests, and hundreds of waterfalls draining into the valley below.
On our second day, we hiked to Piegan Pass (below), which was by far our favorite trail. Creeks, wildflower meadows, big trees, snow-capped peaks, and big views are the trademarks of this park, and this hike had them all.
On day three, we hiked to Florence Falls (below). This 10-mile hike follows a creek drainage to a huge stair step waterfall. This hike didn’t have the vistas of Piegan Pass, but it was spectacular nonetheless.
Because so much of the park was closed, we decided we had seen as much as we were able to. Bec and I agreed that, when the park reopened, we would plan a two-week trip where we would stay in the park and explore the whole time. When we come back, I plan on climbing some of the high peaks in the area as well.
Sawtooth National Forest was a long way from Glacier, so we drove all day until we found a remote campground (above) along the way. I got the roof tent a few months ago and I had only used it a few times for overnight adventures in the Eastern Sierras before this trip. It sets up in five minutes and sleeps two comfortably on an inflatable air mattress. Given our difficulties in finding suitable campsites, this tent worked splendidly, giving us a lot more options than most people had.
Sawtooth National Forest
When we finally arrived at Sawtooth National Forest, we found it clogged with RVs, boats, trailers, and ATVs. The campsites were ALL full, so we had to find campsites along the highway, 30 miles down the road along the river, and move to a new location each day.
Nights got down to 40 degrees, which was quite pleasant, but the highs in the day rose to 90+ which was hot! This forced us to get up at dawn and get on and off the trail by the afternoon. While the camping situation was not ideal, the back country was incredibly beautiful.
We did two hikes in the Sawtooth Wilderness, and they were both absolutely stunning. Our first hike was to Sawtooth and Alpine Lakes (shown above). This hike followed a creek drainage and climbed out of a box canyon to a series of alpine lakes with huge crags lining the valley. The weather was perfect and so was the scenery.
Our second hike in this area was to Cramer Lakes (shown above). Sawtooth National Forest is definitely somewhere I want to go back to. The challenge with this area is that, if you’re doing car camping or RV camping, the campsites are terrible. But the backcountry is absolutely incredible. When I return, I’ll plan on leaving the car at a trailhead and backpacking across the whole range. This is where the beauty is.
Some Final Thoughts After 4,200 Miles…
Overall, we drove over 4,200 miles in 13 days and saw some incredible things. I’m so glad we did this trip. There are definitely places I want to go back to. But the place I want to go back to for sure is Glacier National Park. I hope our trip inspires you to get out and do your own epic road trip.
I found myself frequently tired and irritated on this trip by all of the “people” issues – the army of RVs clogging the road with their oversized toys being dragged behind, the noise, the crowds, and those delightful people who don’t respect personal space in a pandemic.
I had to remind myself to stay in a posture of gratitude.
I got to do this trip and it was amazing! It’s so easy to lose focus on the obvious. It’s also very easy to let our own petty expectations rob us of the joy of some of the best moments we’ll have in this life. I am so grateful for what we experienced and I want to encourage you to take the same grateful posture the next time you are out there.