AAA Magazines

On a family road trip through Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks

Glacier National Park Glacier National Park | Photo by Rick Strobaugh

The 1,000-mile car journey enchants parents and a youngster with awe-inspiring scenery and wild animal sightings.

As my daughter, Ursula, bounded along the mountain trails of Glacier National Park, I felt a smile spread across my face. We’d flown from pancake-flat Houston to Montana to see old friends and visit old haunts, and now my one and only was surging uphill like a mountain goat, imbibing the fresh air along Avalanche Lake Trail. With my wife, Christina, by my side, I marveled at the sturdy, steady pace set by our 11-year-old as she climbed over steep rocky steps rising through a majestic woodland of hemlock and pine. We’d left the traffic of the park’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road behind and were headed for a high-altitude picnic.

It seemed inconceivable to me that Ursula was a mere preschooler when I last set foot in Glacier, a million-acre jewel of parkland in Montana. I fell for the park back when I was in my 20s: During a brief spell working as a line cook in nearby Whitefish, I would backpack during days off. Later, I relocated to Missoula and landed my first full-time newspaper job, with many holiday weekends spent with friends canoeing the park’s out-of-the-way lakes near the Canadian border. In the late 1990s, I moved to Texas with Christina, who’d received her undergraduate degree from the University of Montana. While I’d made it a point to visit since then, she hadn’t been back to the Treasure State in 20 years. 

We were both sporting a touch of gray and mildly creaky knees last summer when we decided to take a family road trip with our daughter to get reacquainted with the landscape and natural wonders that had helped first kindle our romance. We wanted to make the most of Missoula, while Ursula had clearly articulated her desire to explore not only Glacier but also Yellowstone National Park, which one of her young neighborhood friends had raved about. The best avenue to check all these boxes was a 1,000-mile family road trip across Big Sky Country—with brief side trips to fly-fish a few trout streams. We wouldn’t do any backpacking, but Montana’s scenic highways offer plenty of chances to gawk at rushing rivers and jagged alpine vistas, not to mention scope wildlife. Our checklist included sandhill cranes, ospreys, and eagles; bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and bison; and grizzly bears, black bears, and wolves. 

So a couple of days after flying into Missoula, where we caught up with old friends and rafted on the Clark Fork River, we filled our rented Dodge Journey SUV with gear, cranked up the radio, and hit the road. Christina rode shotgun and Ursula ensconced herself among stuffed animals and snack crackers in the back. Eventually, we tired of Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars and started an audio version of Rick Riordan’s recent best-selling series, Trials of Apollo.

Over the years, I’ve learned that even a trouble-free drive of four hours can seem like a lifetime to a child. Fortunately, as we angled north to Glacier, we found plenty of roadside action to enjoy. We passed under one of the several wildlife crossings along US Highway 93 maintained by the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes, and bought fresh cherries from an orchard on the shores of Flathead Lake, the Lower 48’s largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. For lunch, we stopped at Flathead Lake Brewing and dined overlooking the water.

horseriding swan mountain outfitters

Ursula Oko and wrangler Mason Justus of Swan Mountain Outfitters go on a trail ride in Glacier National Park. | Photo by Dan Oko

Hitting the Trail

By the time we reached the Avalanche Lake trailhead, I was more than ready to fill my lungs with fresh air. As we climbed, thick hemlocks and flowering shrubs replaced tall cedars. Squirrels and small rodents rustled in the underbrush; below, the tumbling creek disappeared into a slotted gorge. Still gaining her mountain legs, Ursula started to flag, so we braked for photos and a sip of water in an old fire-scarred section of forest. A mom and dad with tiny kids hiked past, and Ursula perked up again. 

“This was so worth it,” she declared when we sat on a log and spread out our picnic at Avalanche Lake, which is ringed by soaring mountains that extend to the park’s namesake glaciers. Assorted peaks loomed above the cirque while snowmelt-fed waterfalls threaded the amphitheater of rock and ice.

I didn’t want to bring us down, so I saved the talk about how some of the park’s namesake glaciers are retreating (scientists estimate many will vanish between 2030 and 2080). I hoped that seeing these ancient, ethereal snowfields would leave a lasting impression on Ursula as she arrived at the threshold of adolescence—that loss of childhood its own kind of disappearance that parents must grapple with. 

We spent two more days in Glacier, twice driving Going-to-the-Sun Road, the twisting 50-mile ribbon of pavement that traverses the park, as well as hiking above the Continental Divide, where we encountered shaggy mountain goats munching on grass. In the evenings, we car camped at Fish Creek near Lake McDonald, cooking mac-and-cheese over a small gas stove. To cap our Glacier experience, we signed on with Swan Mountain Outfitters for a two-hour horseback ride.

bison

Bison roam the range in Yellowstone National Park. | Photo by Dan Oko

On the Road Again

Ready to resume our road trip, we broke camp and bade farewell to Glacier, steering south toward Yellowstone. With the saga of Theseus and the Minotaur playing on the car stereo, Ursula showed limited interest in the historic roadside markers that told of the adventures of Lewis and Clark, but we all agreed that the passing landscape was something special. Twisting mountain roads along the Rocky Mountain Front descended into tawny fields of grain shimmering in the sun, and by the time we reached the shadowy canyons carved by the tributaries of the Missouri River near Helena, the Minotaur had been killed. 

Provisions were easy to secure in Helena’s Last Chance Gulch, a revived historic neighborhood. We spent the night at a friend’s place and then joined the parade of vehicles at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park. 

 While Glacier impresses with its soaring peaks and slab-like mountain steeps, which earned the park the nickname “the Crown of the Continent,” the great caldera of Yellowstone rises like a giant fortress, ringed by mountains, riven by rivers. It’s a wild playground for animals and humans alike—at least in summer. A herd of elk milled around the famed Roosevelt Arch, where Teddy Roosevelt himself laid a cornerstone, and which bears the welcoming words: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”

Midmorning, we pulled up to the Mammoth Hot Springs and Ursula faced her initial whiff of the hydrothermal features that help make the world’s first national park such a fascinating place. Christina nervously noted that geologists regard Yellowstone as a still-dangerous “supervolcano,” testimony to the size and power of the park’s superheated subterranean elements. That did not keep us from investigating the hot springs as they billowed clouds of sulfuric steam into the sunlight. A boardwalk led us through trippy pink and white limestone where dripping formations glowed like crystal. An appetizer, I imagined, for Old Faithful. 

Though Ursula was charmed, she decided the odorous scenery left something to be desired: “Definitely pretty cool, but I wish we’d brought clothespins.”

With the radio off and our cameras at the ready, we followed the stream of traffic over towering Dunraven Pass, which reaches nearly 9,000 feet, and then descended from pine woodlands into the sunken subalpine Hayden Valley. As we drove deeper into the park, even longer lines of cars snaked along the road. Christina reminisced about an early-spring trip years ago when we traveled with ecologists and biologists. They set up scopes to spy on sandhill cranes prancing across the bottomlands, and we were lucky to glimpse the then-recently reintroduced gray wolves frolicking on the snowy edges of distant aspen groves. Before us now, bison were causing traffic jams with their courtship rituals, as big bulls rolled in the dirt and sent up giant clouds of dust to rival the steam pots. What magic to see Ursula wide-eyed at the American Serengeti. 

Indeed, there is plenty of fun to be had from behind the steering wheel for anybody visiting Yellowstone, especially considering that the national park covers more than 2.2 million acres, mostly in Wyoming. But after jousting with drivers in RVs and camper vans, not to mention the constant concern that we might collide with some wild critter, I wanted to get out and explore on foot. That led me to Josh and Emily Jo Mahan, the couple who run Yellowstone Hiking Guides, a concessionaire specializing in day hikes. So, on our second day in the park, we headed to the Lamar Valley and joined a group of travelers who were similarly inclined. “When we walk across this bridge,” Josh said as we hit the trail, “it’s like stepping back in time 200 years."

fishing montana

The author, Dan Oko, and his daughter Ursula go fly-fishing in Yellowstone National Park. | Photo by Christine Oko

Into the Wild

Ursula shot ahead to hike alongside Emily Jo, a cheerful and sporty role model for my city girl who’s growing up in Houston, and our posse bushwhacked across rolling grasslands to a streamside lunch spot. We glassed soaring raptors, a few pronghorn antelope, and a couple of intrepid anglers. I desperately wanted to see wolves, but they stayed hidden. Everybody was thrilled when a couple of sandhill cranes showed up, standing about 4 feet tall, showing distinct red caps. By the end of the hike, we were sweaty and sunburned, ready for a dip in the Lamar River. 

Having already declared her affinity for Glacier (“When can we go back, Dad?”), my daughter was now deeply absorbed in the sights and sounds of Yellowstone. Not that I was surprised. Few things please Ursula more than the chance to see wild animals in their native habitat.

On our last morning in the park, we woke as the sun peered over the jagged Beartooth Mountains, hoping to finally catch the sly gray wolves at home in the Lamar Valley before we made the trip to Old Faithful. We pulled up alongside a crowd below a stony formation known as Soda Butte, but as soon as we arrived, the wolves disappeared into the tall grass. We combed the shadows with our binoculars, hoping to spy this enduring, if controversial, symbol of the American West, but we were denied an audience with the wily Canis lupus. Then, as we prepared to depart, a ranger alerted us that a grizzly had crossed the road maybe a half-mile away, so we hurried up the valley to see what we could see. 

The bear sauntered across a clearing in the mid-distance. A group of antelope stood suddenly in the tawny grass and burst across the hillside, their bellies flashing white as they sprinted. A tour bus pulled up, disgorging its passengers. Then the big bear stood on its hind legs to sniff the air, and as I focused my binoculars I could see its cocoa-colored fur ruffled by the breeze. I had spotted brown bears in the wild before, but with my “little bear” daughter along, this sighting felt like a gift. 

Yellowstone kept giving as we closed in on our final goal. It took an hour of driving to get from the grizzly zone to the Old Faithful Inn, where parking was nearly as hard to come by as a wolf sighting. But soon we happily quit the car and strolled toward the plaza surrounding the most famous geyser in America, if not the world. Families and couples crowded together in anticipation as the geyser began sputtering, the pressure building to send steaming hot water into the air with a hiss. Gorgeous spumes nearly 200 feet high roared out of the ground, the ahhs and whoas of maybe 1,000 people echoing across the viewing platform. 

Old Faithful slowed. The ancient foam fountain shrank back into the earth, and I set my camera aside. Holding Ursula’s hand, I drew her and Christina closer. Soon, we’d be in the car listening to Greek myths or Taylor Swift. Back in the big city, our lives would accelerate in no time. But spending these days among the West’s eternal mountains, surveying wildlife, swimming in rivers, and breathing fresh air in Glacier and Yellowstone had reset our priorities. With my growing child resting her head on my shoulder, I embraced this last best chance to just stand still.

Houston-based Dan Oko has written about his outdoor adventures for Outside and Men’s Journal.

map

Roadside Attractions

The Izaak Walton Inn, Essex, Montana: Located on the southern edge of Glacier National Park, this charming, historic hotel takes its name from the English author of the 1653 book Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton. Summer rates start at $169. 406-888-5700; izaakwaltoninn.com.

Elk River Books, Livingston, Montana: Located an hour’s drive north of Yellowstone, the shop stocks a wide selection of Western authors and collectible first editions. It shares space with the Wheatgrass Gifts and Green Door Gallery. 406-333-2330; elkriverbooks.com.

The Berkeley Pit, Butte, Montana: This former open-pit copper mine is a worthwhile, if toxic, spectacle: The stew of heavy metals left behind can give the 49-billion-gallon pool an otherworldly hue. The observation deck and gift shop typically are open from May to October. 406-497-6250; pitwatch.org.

Houston-based Dan Oko has written about his outdoor adventures for Outside and Men’s Journal.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

Travel offers and deals

Mom on kids on roller coaster

Entertainment savings

Save big with AAA discounts on tickets to your next adventure.

Learn more

Woman at airport looking at arrival and departure screen

Travel with confidence

Purchase travel insurance with Allianz Global Assistance.

Learn more

Infinity pool

Hot travel deals

Get the latest offers from AAA Travel’s preferred partners.

Learn more

Makena Beach, Maui, Hawaii

Travel with AAA

See how we can help you plan, book, and save on your next vacation.

Learn more

Zip code banner

Welcome to the

American Automobile Association

Please enter your home ZIP Code so we can direct you to the correct AAA club’s website.

GO
back to top icon