The US indisputably has some of the most stunning national parks on earth, and back in the summer of 2015, I was fortunate enough to go on a two-week road trip with my amazing family to see just some of the country’s natural wonders. It truly felt like an all-american experience; we drank at a bar with bikers, lived it up in Las Vegas, and hiked through enchanting forests (constantly in fear of being attacked by bears); we saw waterfalls, trees that turned to stone, and beautiful domestic wildlife. To top it all off, I got to spend hours in the car with my sisters and parents, singing along to american classics from the likes of the Eagles, The Beach Boys, and Journey.
Anyway, whether you’re considering jetting off to take your own road trip stateside, or simply want to learn a bit more about what the country has to offer, this itinerary will hopefully provide some inspiration, or will at least be of some interest to you.
DAY ONE. We woke up bright and early and took a flight to Chicago‘s O’Hare airport, and from there we took a domestic flight to a city in southern Montana called Billings. We stayed at the airport for a short while to take some snaps of the amazing skyline – this is visible from the airport car park – and then took our rental car to our hotel for the night: the Hilltop Inn (around £70/pn in peak season).
DAY TWO. In the morning, we took a walk along the Yellowstone River, which runs through Billings, and then set off for Cooke City: a quintessentially-american town with a population of only 140 people. This quaint little town at the northeastern border of Yellowstone National park is reminiscent of the western movies of golden-age cinema; it even has its own saloon and casino. On route towards Cooke City, we drove along the scenic Beartooth Highway, with roads winding through mountains and towering pines. There is a viewing point along the highway called Rock Creek Vista Point, with a great photo opportunity to look at the valleys down below. A little further along, you come to the Beartooth Pass Summit (elev. 10,947), overlooking a lake and snowy mountain peaks.
After a couple of stops to take in the views, we finally moved on to Cooke City. Once there, we left our things at our motel for the next couple of nights, the Alpine Motel (£114/pn in peak season), and then drove to the Lamar Valley: a great opportunity to look at Bison. On our way back from the Valley, we struck gold and got to see a black bear wandering across the road.
DAY THREE. After a delicious breakfast in the morning, we drove into Yellowstone and stopped at the Yellowstone Canyon. We parked up and did a short hike down to the Lower Brink Falls, a truly astounding waterfall cascading down into the valley below. The views were astonishing, and the sunlight hit the water perfectly to create a double rainbow. After taking a few pictures, we drove to the historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel for a bite to eat. With the afternoon wearing on, we made our way back. On the way, we stopped at the Fishing Bridge and the Sulphur Cauldron, which, as you can imagine, was a delight for the senses. If you take a walk around the Sulphur Cauldron, make sure to check out Dragon’s Breath.
DAY FOUR. This was a more relaxing day, with far less walking. We drove to some falls and strolled around a beautiful little spot called Trout lake. We then took some time to marvel at the “wonders” that Cooke City had to offer. The first place we went to was the Taxidermy Museum, which was unusual but interesting nonetheless. After glaring into the lifeless eyes of stuffed lynxes, bison, and eagles, we walked a few meters across the road to the Beartooth Plateau Outfitters, a small shop whose walls were adorned with moose heads. In the evening, we went to the local watering hole, Hoosier’s bar, where we met three lovely, albeit highly intoxicated, biker couples; among the group was a gold minor and a beekeeper. We spent the night chatting with them, and one of the bikers constantly teasing me about my British accent. They were great, though, and bought us drinks all night.
DAY FIVE. In the morning I awoke feeling extremely hungover. but we went to the Cooke City bakery for breakfast, which certainly helped to take the edge off; they served a delicious fish-cake Eggs Benedict. We then moved on to Mammoth Hot Springs, but stopped for a hike to look at some petrified wood (wood that has fossilised). The walk up to see the wood is quite strenuous, so if you are not a fan of hiking, there is some petrified wood that can be reached without the need to hike. Once we had finished the hike we drove to Mammoth Hot Springs and checked into a Best Western hotel; the rooms are absolutely stunning. The hotel also comes equipped with a pool, spa, and hot tub, which is always a bonus!
DAY SIX. On day six, we traveled down to a creek that the barman from Hoosier’s had recommended to us. We followed the directions he had provided and eventually arrived at the Boiling River. As we parked up, we saw a sign that read, “warning, water may scald”. This was rather disconcerting, but we decided to take a dip anyway. There were parts of the river where the temperature was perfect, but there were also spots were the water was uncomfortably hot: you have been warned.
DAY SEVEN. The first activity to tick off on day seven was a viewing of Old Faithful – the most famous geyser in the US. It is great in terms of accessibility, located conveniently next to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, with benches placed around the geyser for a more comfortable viewing experience. It is also really easy to schedule a viewing because it has highly predictable eruption interval times. The eruption is definitely worth watching, spewing an impressive tower of steam and water only a short distance from the viewing area.
Note: If you stay at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, slip out after sundown for a magical viewing of Old Faithful under the stars:
After Old Faithful, it was time for the most highly-anticipated landmark of our trip: the Grand Prismatic. This enormous hot spring (the largest in the US) is a natural marvel, with its vivid blues and oranges evoking strong feelings of wonderment. I had seen pictures of the Grand Prismatic previously, but it is a completely different experience to witness it in real life.
Note: If you do decide to visit this particular hot spring, you may also consider a short 5-mile-round hike to a waterfall called the Fairy Falls, which is within close proximity.
DAY EIGHT. Day eight was another relaxing day. We drove down to Grand Tetons National Park and checked in at the Signal Mountain Lodge on Jackson Lake. The weather had been pretty dismal for most of the drive, making our hopes of good hiking weather for the next day pretty low. But once dusk arrived, the skies transformed and we bore witness to a beautiful sunset; the amber tones of the sun gleamed off the calm lake. We simply spent the evening sitting on the deck outside our room and sipping a few beers as we drank in the view of the Grand Tetons across the lake on the horizon.
DAY NINE. We started off the day by hopping on a speedboat that took us across a neighbouring lake: Jenny Lake. We did a leisurely hike along the Cascade Canyon trail (the gradient at the beginning of the trail is quite steep). On the trail, there is a viewing opportunity at Inspiration Point, which provides impressive views of Jenny Lake.
Day TEN. We said goodbye to Grand Tetons and drove 5 and a half hours to Antelope Island, Utah, to get a view of the Great Salt Lake. There weren’t many people at the lake, so it was nice and peaceful, and the reflective waters were reminiscent of the reflective salt flats of Bolivia. We then drove on to our hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah.
DAY ELEVEN. Day eleven involved a visit to the ultimate place of worship within the Mormon community; the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City. Upon entering the reception, each guest is generously gifted a complimentary Book of Mormon, before being presented with slightly unsettling introductory videos about the Mormon church and faith. Group tours are offered in various languages and the guides are all Mormon missionaries from around the world. We had a lovely guide called Candy who showed me her Book of Mormon, which was filled with annotations and coloured sticky notes. I even gave her my mobile number and she texted me different passages from the text on a daily basis.
Afterwards, we did a spot of shopping at the shopping center (mall) nearby before leaving for Cedar City, Utah, where, once again, we stayed in a Best Western. Though an unassuming little town, it has its own charm, with lights lining the quiet streets at night and a selection of restaurants from which to choose.
DAY TWELVE. In the morning, we headed seventeen miles south of Cedar to Kolob Canyon, with stunning trails through the crimson cliffs of the Colorado Plateau. The canyon, which is in the northwestern part of Zion National Parks, offers a great opportunity for a peaceful walk among geologically-exquisite surroundings. If you decide to take the Taylor Creek trail – a five-mile-round trip – you will be rewarded at the end with a view of the partially created Double Arch Alcove, a stunning arch of deep reds and oranges. On the way to the Double Arch, you will pass two historic cabins: the Larson Cabin and the Fife Cabin.
After our hike, we drove on to Vegas, Nevada, making a pit stop at a cafe called 25 Main in St George, Utah. This quaint family-run cafe is definitely worth a stop if you’re passing through St. George, offering large cups of coffee and delicious frosted cupcakes.
Once we had filled up on cakes and coffee, we moved on to Las Vegas, Nevada. Las Vegas is definitely unique, with scorching heat outside and freezing cold air-conned casinos inside. Once there, we checked in to the Belagio, which, though pretty damn pricey, is worth the cost for the views of the strip and the Belagio fountain from the hotel room. Whilst Vegas comes alive at night, during the day the atmosphere is slightly more gloomy, with women in their sixties spending their last pennies on the slot machines.
DAY THIRTEEN. In the morning, we drove to the outskirts of Vegas to have breakfast at the Blueberry Hill Diner, a classic american diner with large, stacks of buttermilk pancakes and free refillable coffee. The quality of the food and the size of the portions make this diner fantastic value for money.
After breakfast, we spent the day wandering through the various hotels along the strip and spent a little time shopping (pretty much the only thing you can do during the day, save gambling).
DAY FOURTEEN. Home