Road Trip from Denver to Glacier National Park
Story and photos by Rebecca Holland
Rebecca is a freelance travel and food writer based in Chicago. You can find her on Instagram.
A road trip from Denver to Montana shows off the vast and varied scenery in the U.S.
The thing about travel is it makes you yearn for home yet always want to leave it. This has been a dilemma for the last eight years of my life. After finishing college in Wisconsin, I spent a year traveling in Asia and the Middle East before settling into a job in Washington, D.C., where I rekindled my love for all things America. It’s hard not to be giddy about democracy when you can walk into a free museum and see the founding documents of the country on your way to work.
But the travel itch set in again, and I found myself working in Rome, Italy, for a few years. When I was ready to return home, I moved to Chicago, a city I love. That doesn’t mean I don’t leave it often, though. For the last three years, I’ve spent time in Europe, Asia and Iraq.
Ironically, I’ve never felt more patriotic than when living abroad. When I’m defending against American stereotypes or feeling a sense of pride when others say they hope to one day visit the United States, I find it difficult sum up my home country in a few sentences. It is too diverse in its people, landscape, culture and beliefs.
Last year, I resolved to limit my travels to the U.S. for a while. I’d been off seeing the world without seeing very much of my own home. As part of this reintroduction to America, I recently took a road trip from Denver to Glacier National Park. It was the highlight of my year, so far.
Cowboys and Other Wildlife
My boyfriend and I flew from Chicago to Denver, where we rented a car and headed toward Wyoming. We didn’t have much of a plan, except that we wanted to visit Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park. We had rough ideas of how many hours to drive each day, but left the schedule open enough to stop in random towns, national forests or state parks. (This approach works when traveling in late spring or fall. In summer months parks fill up, and reservations should be made in advance.)
For the start of the trip from Colorado into Wyoming, we took Interstate Highway 25 to U.S. Highway 26, a drive that was initially flat and boring, but after a few hours, we saw the first hint of mountains. We drove through the Wind River Reservation, where Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Native American tribes live. We ate dinner in Dubois, which was delightful. With a town slogan of “Where real cowboys come to work and play,” how could it not be?
We chose to camp in nearby Shoshone National Forest. It was dark by the time we arrived, and snow had started to fall. Pouring rain woke us early, so we headed to Grand Teton National Park. One nice thing about the rain is there are fewer crowds and more wildlife. We saw an otter, numerous elk and pronghorn, and then, right next to us on the road, a mother bear and two cubs. They trotted along into a field, oblivious to our presence.
One Park, Different Landscapes
As we made our way to Yellowstone National Park, we could see striking mountain views. At the park, we stopped to see the main attraction: Old Faithful. The visitor center lists estimated eruption times, so while you wait, you can hang out in the nearby lodge or see the other geysers and hot springs along the boardwalk.
We talked to a park ranger who crafted a driving route that would take us along the prettiest park roads and to all the major stops — Upper Yellowstone Falls, Inspiration Point, Grand Prismatic Spring, Mammoth Hot Springs and more. The drive brought us high into the mountains, where we experienced a storm that made me feel like we were in a snow globe.
We drove through several different landscapes, each reminding me of another place in the world — snowy, evergreen-lined passes in Austria, hot springs in Italy, geysers and lava fields in Iceland. But it all was here.
As we exited the northwest side of the park, the clouds parted, and the sun started to shine, revealing farms nestled into the sides of Montana mountains. Take U.S. Route 191, which follows the Gallatin River and cuts through a canyon, providing views of mountains on both sides and rushing rapids nearby. The route is a picturesque way to get to Bozeman, Montana, which feels like a bigger, more modern Dubois.
Bozeman features updated versions of Old West-style buildings and signs, but as a college town, it’s also full of trendy bars and coffee spots. Plenty of outdoor gear shops remind you that you’re in the mountains. Fried fish and local beer at Montana Ale Works were a perfect end to a long day of driving and sightseeing.
A Moose Welcomes Us
The next morning, we got coffee at Zocalo Coffee House and hit the road. Helena, the state’s capital, is worth a quick stop because it’s the last sizable town you’ll see for a while. Bynum is a fascinating place to visit because it’s on the Montana Dinosaur Trail. The Two Medicine Dinosaur Center displays a 137-foot-long Seismosaurus model, designed and built by paleontologist Dave Trexler.
Finally, we entered Glacier National Park from the east side. As we approached Many Glacier Lodge, we noticed a crowd gathered near a trail. “There’s a moose,” someone whispered when we rolled down our window. We parked and watched it climb nimbly over rocks and toward a waterfall, a wonderful welcome to the park.
Glacier National Park lodges don’t open until early June, and in late May most campsites weren’t open yet either. We wandered around the outside of Many Glacier, a picture-perfect lodge that could easily be mistaken for one in Switzerland. There are signs everywhere warning you that “This is bear country,” and without other hikers around, the possibility of running into a grizzly seemed more likely. We didn’t, though, and instead were rewarded with trails all to ourselves on our 1.3-mile hike to Apikuni Falls and our 4.8-mile hike to Iceberg Lake.
St. Mary’s campground opened early. Its hot showers and campfire pits provided a snug place for the night. It’s also right off Going-to-the-Sun Road, which is especially beautiful driven at dusk or sunrise. The road, a National Historic Landmark, is full of hairpin turns and steep drop-offs, which provide spectacular views of the Rockies. Winding higher and higher into the cliffs, the road’s name begins to make more sense. Keep an eye out at Logan Pass for bighorn sheep and other animals. Parts of the road remain open throughout the seasons, but much of it is closed until June. We could only drive about half of it in May. If you don’t want to drive high, windy roads, bus options are available. Check the National Park Service website for opening hours and transportation information.
On the other side of the park, the friendly folks at the Apgar Visitor Center helped plan a day of hiking for us. They recommended we start at Avalanche Creek, walk past McDonald Falls and end at the base of Lake McDonald, where the snowcapped mountains reflect in the bright blue lake, surrounded by lush green trees. As we hiked, tourists emerged from the trees into the clearing, catching their breath at the sight of the mountains and lake. They spoke English, Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Arabic. I felt pride that people from so many different backgrounds were marveling at such beautiful scenery in America.
On the hike back, we stopped near the lake for a picnic. Sure, Lake Como in Italy is beautiful, the beaches in Thailand are incredible and Lake Palena in Chile is majestic, but there was nowhere I would rather have been at that moment.
From the plains of Wyoming to the rugged Tetons, from the natural wonders of Yellowstone to the timeless Western towns, from the archaeological dinosaur sights to the stunning vistas of the Rockies, this trip was rife with beauty and contradictions, just like America. And the craziest part? This was only one small part of the country.
RelatedView all articles
Read more stories about national parks.
The only national park in the Northeast has stunning fall scenery and unique carriage roads.
Utah's first national park spawns creativity in visitors.
After suffering loss, a lifelong traveler reconnects with relatives and creates lasting memories.
The 409-mile drive across Nevada features sand dunes, hot springs and plenty of social distancing.
Drive scenic routes to snowy slopes and popular peaks.
The iconic bridge is stunning, and our newest national park offers much more.
Outdoor enthusiasts revel in this remote park’s opportunities for adventure.
A western Colorado gem remains almost hidden until you’re there.
Minnesota’s North Shore All-American Scenic Drive leads to a prime wilderness experience.
Exploring wide-open spaces now makes perfect sense.
Three national parks in three days makes a great getaway.
An autumn camping trip offers serenity and easy social distancing.
Utah's national parks are beautiful during the day and turn to a magnificent spectacle at night.
The 440-mile drive pays homage to the state’s diverse landscape.
Solitude and stunning vistas prevail in one of America’s least visited parks.
The drive from Olympic National Park to San Francisco features spectacular views of towering forests.
From roaring waterfalls to colorful trees, the park is a year-round spectacle.
The remote area in the Gulf of Mexico is a prime spot for snorkeling and diving.
Mount Hood, Smith Rock and Crater Lake are high spots of the state’s interior.
A trip from Denver to Montana shows off the vast and varied scenery in the U.S.
Visit the Southwest’s most otherworldly natural attraction.
Visit log homes, churches and other buildings from the early 1800s on a relaxing 11-mile road trip.
The iconic saguaro cactus is a symbol of the Southwest.
Just a 50-mile drive from Chicago, America’s 61st National Park has much to offer.
Hot Springs National Park features Bathhouse Row and the first brewery in a national park.
A father and daughter bond while photographing the Milky Way.
Two Californians explore three national parks in their home state.
From A (Acadia) to Z (Zion), national parks offer ideal destinations for a weekend trip or longer vacation.
For the first time, a professional climber chooses to explore the lower elevations.
The All-American road traverses slickrock and features a petrified forest, a beautiful waterfall and gourmet dining.
A national park and nearby parkway offer stunning views of the ancient Appalachians.
A road trip through the San Luis Valley promises otherworldly experiences.
Montana’s gem offers different rewards during the season of stillness.
An easy road trip takes you from a world-class city to a top national park.
Six family members immerse themselves in nature and attempt to bond.
Beginning in Las Vegas, the ‘Death Valley Rally’ includes beautiful vistas and unique stops.
Geologists, paleontologists and other riddle-solvers will enjoy spending time at this Arizona treasure.
A loose travel itinerary allows discoveries around every turn.
College friends reunite in a desert wonderland with a deepened appreciation for each other.
Protect your gear and yourself from freezing temperatures.
A world traveler reconnects with her California roots.
During the cold-weather months, the park offers spectacular scenes of wildlife.
All the destinations are beautiful and within a day’s drive.
Sharing one of Wyoming’s scenic gems is particularly satisfying.
The Love family embraces winter in Colorado to experience a new adventure.