America the Beautiful: Exploring our National Parks

This trip it was time to take in some of our national treasures and see the way America may have looked in the beginning. We started with a Ranch Holiday in Big Sky Country, enjoying tremendous activities from fishing, shooting, horseback riding, hiking, mountain cycling, and archery on an Idyllic western ranch called The Ranch at Rock Creek (more on my experience here).

We made our way as well to experience the Resort at Paws Up, another Montana special ranch option. I would be very glad to discuss which ranch will be the best fit for you whether a romantic get-a-way, a special occasion, or a multi-generational family milestone trip – sure to be a winner for all!

Paws Up features tented accommodations with a real feeling of camping, well, glamping, and also Big Timber homes and larger estates. Below are some of the experiences we captured on our iPhones as we toured the ranch by both ATV and mountain bike.

The Resort at Paws Up

We hit the open road to drive to West Yellowstone in Wyoming and the road trip from Montana to Wyoming had to be one of the most beautiful drives ever! (Make sure you have a full tank of gas before hitting the road, this is a gorgeous and remote part of the country!)

Big Sky Country Driving

We entered Yellowstone from the Western Entrance and shortly thereafter crossed over the Montana-Wyoming state line, 90% of the park is in Wyoming.

We immediately spotted heards of Bison, idyllic lakes, rivers, and trees as far as the eye could see – truly God’s country! I was blown away with how large the park is, at almost 3,500 square miles, Yellowstone National Park is larger than many countries and was the first designated National Park in the world, established in 1872.

It’s a Wonderland. Old Faithful and the majority of the world’s geysers are preserved here. A mountain wildland, home to grizzly bears, wolves, and herds of bison and elk, the park is the core of one of the last, nearly intact, natural ecosystems in the Earth’s temperate zone.

Our Drive into Yellowstone from Montana, each mile prettier than the next.

For the most part, the National Parks are not known for their food nor lodging, but if you can take a night or two to sleep in the park your experience and sight seeing will be much rewarded. In Yellowstone, there is the historic Old Faithful Inn and the newer more modern Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Consider either one and option and just a place to rest your head, shower and have a meal while exploring the vast and beautiful park.

A private guide as always is an invaluable and personable way to get an expert interpretation of the natural beauty, thermo geological features, wildlife and all at your own pace and preferred activity level. Josh met us at our hotel and we walked through by Biscuit Geyser Basin to explore the beautiful and fascinating geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles. To think these dazzling holes filled with searing thermal water and colored in dazzling blues and oranges are the source of such wonder, science and danger (people and even a story of a pet have fallen into these waters with temperatures between 120-200 degrees Fahrenheit.

We took a gorgeous and challenging hike up into the woods, enjoying waterfalls, looking for bears, and being awe struck by the views.

Yellowstone National Park

Our day ended with the coup de grace at the Old Faithful Geyser basin. We watched dozens of bison lumbering in to take their place on the warm ground all around the steamy geysers. What lucky animals to be able escape what will soon be one of the harshest winter environments in the country with balmy sprays from Old Faithful and the 100’s of geysers sitting atop one of the world’s largest active volcanoes. And right on time, as she has been doing “Faithfully” since first viewed in 1870, Old Faithful blew her mighty steam load at 4:49pm. Every 65-90 minutes, give or take 10 minutes.

The next day, my son and I packed our car and headed to the Canyons area of Yellowstone where we hiked around the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” and continue our gorgeous drive to the South entrances, stopping for wildlife sightings and unbelievable views all along the way.

As we exited the south gate to the park, it was only minutes before we entered into the gates of and were dramatically greeted by the mighty Tetons and stunning Lakes. Watch for the entrance to Jenny Lake Lodge, truly the gem in the National Park lodging and a highly recommended place to sleep over for a night or two or least plan to stop in for a lunch – reservations strongly recommended.

Tip – You will need to pay a $25 entrance fee when you drive into Yellowstone but this is valid for multiple days and will also allow you entrance into Grand Teton National Park so keep it handy in your glove box.

Once in Jackson, we met up with our fantastic naturalist, Jonathan, for a wildlife safari throughout Grand Teton National Park. Grand Teton is a fraction of the size of Yellowstone and a half-day wildlife safari is perfect. We spotted bison, pronged horn, badgers, mule deer, elk, and moose. There are many grizzly and black bear sightings, but it was just not our day (or on second thought, maybe it was!). One can easily make a full day of it as well by adding on a cycling trip or a float trip, complete with picnic, all within the park.

Grand Teton National Park

After the National Parks, arriving into Jackson Hole is a huge treat. Jackson is such a great Western town and a fantastic place to continue the adventure.

The town of Jackson is a quaint and jolly town with excellent restaurants and shops and some great bars including the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. One of my favorite restaurants is the Snake River Grill but there are terrific options from sushi, to burgers, tacos, and barbecue.

If you only have one night and want to be in town, a moderate but cute hotel is the Wort Hotel right off the town square. However, if you want to really relax or indulge in the beauty of the area there are two top-notch options.

Amangani – Located 10 minutes from town in the East Gros Ventre Butte is a stunning, serene, and romantic property with the best view in the area. Service here is discreet, personable and incredibly intuitive. When I asked what time dinner was served to, I was told that they gladly stay until all guests have eaten. I had since heard this told to other guests as well and on our final night I received a call to my room to insure we were not planning on dining with them before they send the dining room team home. The bellman, front office manager, and restaurant team on all shifts introduce themselves with a handshake and a smile and they truly seem to know everything about you.

Each time we ducked out of the room, housekeeping slipped into to tidy up. Our balcony over a watering hole, the sound of coyotes and bugling elk through the night, and the sleek pool overlooking the valley (yes, we were able to sit out and sun in our bathing suits in October – unheard of!) makes the property a gem.

AmanganiNothing is too much to ask including at lunch when I could not decide between the Bison Rib sandwich or the warmed asparagus and poached egg salad – “How about half and half the server offered?”. When I knew I would likely drink a glass of two of wine at dinner and maybe one the next day at lunch, the server offered me an excellent bottle of Chenin Blanc which they kept in the cooler just for me.

The National Parks were the reason for our trip but to come and be pampered following a bit of roughing it, makes the experience all the more sweet and the deep soaking tub, gorgeous organic lemon grass bath products and in room fire place, just made me feel new again!

Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole4SeasonsFirePit – The other luxury hotel in town and probably the one closest to my heart and certainly the best option for those who want a livelier setting and to be on the mountain itself, is Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole. For winter visits, there may be no better ski in/ski out resort in the Western United States – it commands the entire base of the mountain steps from the main Jackson Hole lift. The ski concierge suits and boots guests right on property and in summer time, this area turns into base camp to arrange all of the mountain biking, fly fishing, hiking and the vast summer activities and excursions. The property has a General Manager that has come in and really upped the ante on the food and beverage scene adding fire pits and fire features all around the lobby lounge outdoor terrace and at the new hot restaurant, Handle Bar. This is THE place for lunch, tapas and dinner with fabulous apres-ski indoor and outdoor seating.

Westbank GrillOf course, the Westbank Grill is still one of the best restaurants in Jackson and to either one, skiers can ski in at lunchtime and have their boots warmed as they dine. The outdoor heated pools with complimentary hot chocolate and s’mores and adult libations make it a wonderful spot for family, friends and couples summer or winter. My guests who love the two and three bedroom residences will be delighted to know that these rooms have all been completely refurbished and the regular guest rooms and suites will follow suit shortly in anticipation of the 2014/15 winter ski season. Four Seasons is the place to be for all the action, convenience, and sophistication of a holiday with a family or a group of friends.

Teton Mountain Lodge – For those on more of a budget but wanting to be on the mountain, I can suggest an excellent four-star option at Teton Mountain Lodge. This is a great option for families on a budget as they have a variety of interconnecting suites with kitchenettes and nearly all have very comfortable murphy beds that are pulled out at night to accommodate kids. A great accommodation to consider for a larger family is the 2 bedroom duplex suite, which connects to an additional 3rd bedroom if needed. The duplex suite even with out the 3rd bedroom has a downstairs master bedroom and an upstairs loft room and regular room each with a double bed plus a murphy bed downstairs. So in sum 8-12 people can sleep in this configuration and there is plenty of light with the vaulted ceiling and high windows. There is a good-sized spa and indoor and outdoor pool. While it certainly does not have the same glamour, style and service that you would find at Amangani or Four Seasons, the property has great character and amenities, and an excellent location with walk in /ski out access.

With time, you can continue on see Mount Rushmore and the Badlands National Park (about a 8 hour additional drive) or you can do as we did and fly into Rapid City.

Rapid City is a small city that has really tried hard to make a name for itself, and it seems to have worked. The historic downtown is tiny with a few shops and restaurants and has done a fantastic art installation of every former US President cast in bronze and standing on different street corners. Of course, we came to Rapid City to see Mt. Rushmore but were delighted to learn from our outstanding guide, John, so much more. The area has a fascinating history and John entertained us with tales of the Wild West and recited some fantastic Cowboy poetry from his favorite author throughout our two days of exploration.

I was blown away with the geological magic of the Badlands – millions of years of layered sediment from the black hills that were pushed in place by glacial activity. What one finds is an ever-changing and alive mosaic of the wind and water shaped forms, cast in reds, browns, neutrals and whites. While the background of many a Western film, there was nothing as breathtaking as seeing this in person. In Custard State Park, we witnessed and climbed on the “needles”, again incredible shaped mountains that are perfect for novice climbs and the real deal, again a stunning and unique natural phenomenon.

Arriving to Mt. Rushmore was a treat and I had to pinch myself. To learn of the sculptor and his dream, how the site was selected, and how Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt were selected to be great leaders memorialized on the mountain, to see how this 14 year project was created and worked on up until the project was abandoned at the start of WWII, was spectacular.

Mount Rushmore

We also visited Crazy Horse, maybe even more moving. Many Native American Indians wondered why the original great leaders of this land had not been chosen to be represented on Mt. Rushmore and they asked another sculptor, Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, to create a memorial to Crazy Horse. The great Takota leader, refused to succumb to the white men and defeated Custard’s army at Little Big Horn. This project is 3 times the size of Mt. Rushmore and may not be something that is ever complete in my lifetime. It is being built by one family with private donations, not government funds and the project plan is to also create a North American Indian University for education of the Native American Indians.

Custer State Park and the incredible “Needles” – a fantastic park for climbing.

Seeing our National Parks, the beauty and diversity of our landscapes and wildlife, increasing my consciousness and awareness of the original people and the current lives of the many Native American nations, experiencing ranch life, and partaking in the exhilarating activities and breathtaking drives through Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota will be something I keep close to my heart forever.

I have fantastic partners along the route and I would be delighted to organize a tour of any of our National Parks from Sea-to-Shining-Sea and everything in between. Allow us to set you up with the best possible lodging including some luxurious respites, incredible guides who will help you maximize the experience, and provide turnkey logistics and suggestions all along the way.

For summer travel, we recommend booking one year out as July and August are incredibly popular and busy times. For the very best times to travel when the weather should be spectacular and the crowds have either not yet arrived or have gone, and most everything should be open, may I suggest – Mid June up to July 1 or Mid September up to October 1! For winter visits, we can certainly organize some one-day visits including snow activities in some of the parks and the Ranches we work with our winter wonderlands!

America the Beautiful!

Approximate Driving Distances:

Missoula to West Yellowstone – 5 hours
West Yellowstone Entrance to Old Faithful – 1 hour
Old Faithful to the Canyons – 1 hour
Canyons to South Entrance of the Park – 2 hours
South Entrance of Yellowstone to Jackson – 2 hours
Jackson to Rapid City – 8 hours

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