The Great American West
Follow Megan Johnson on a trip from Missouri to Yellowstone National Park and Jackson Hole. Her tips and experiences could help you plan the ultimate trip with your own family.
By Megan Johnson
The Road Trip
I’d heard the only way to describe The Badlands was “bad,” but I didn’t really know what to expect. I had purposefully not looked at any pictures of the area because I wanted to be totally surprised. And I was. We started seeing these giant sharp rock formations out the side of the car, but nothing I would consider “bad.” Just random small clusters here and there. I was already feeling the disappointment of this stop, but my opinion changed 100 yards within the gate of the Badlands National Park. We came up over a ridge and saw peaks and valleys that made up sharp, tiny mountains that go on for what looks like forever. I say tiny mountains not because they are little, but because they look like the tops of mountains all crammed in together. There are beautiful layers in the rock that form bands of color and prove that they have been here for a long time. It definitely lives up to my definition of “bad.”
Historic Deadwood, South Dakota (you know, where Wild Bill Hickok was laid to rest) was a great place to stretch your legs and do a little gambling. There were about as many casinos and flea markets along the main brick-street downtown area. The whole city is a registered National Landmark and has the charm of a one-of-a-kind Wild West town.
Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming is composed of the core of a volcano that has been exposed from erosion and now appears to be a massive flat-topped mountain formation. You would expect to see it from miles away, but you don’t. There are hills leading up to it. But once you finally crest the last of them, there it stands. It rises above everything else: 1,267 feet up from the base to be exact. We decided to explore and take a walk on the paved pathway that circles the base of the monument. When we get a closer look, we realized the tiny specs we’ve been seeing on the façade are indeed mountain climbers scaling the volcanic columns created all over the exterior of the formation. From where we stood, they seriously looked like ants. This was our last big stop on the road trip portion. By nightfall we were in Cody, Wyoming on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park.
Things I learned on the road trip:
1. The Corn Palace, which is advertised as a tourist destination on every billboard, is not worth the stop. You are kind of bored from the monotonous drive and might welcome a break, this is not one worth taking.
2. Pack a cooler with sandwich stuff and other snacks. There aren’t a ton of places to stop, and this will save you money and time on the drive.
3. The Black Hills really are black.
4. There are a lot of national monuments and sites in the United States that are created by underground volcanoes. We haven’t even seen all of them yet.
5. Local wineries in Hill City close about 5 or 6 p.m. and do not open before 8 a.m. This was a stop I was excited to make but didn’t get to try it out on this trip.
6. Make sure if there has been any rain to check the national flood map. We crossed the Missouri River multiple times and even had to detour because of closed bridges.
7. If I were going to the Badlands again, I would suggest entering through the west entrance where the look-out is your last stop (or maybe even not going through the whole park). Entering the way we did, we saw the best thing first so everything else seemed pretty pale in comparison. Go another mile or two into the park, and you get to see some cool formations up close and personal and another neat look-out. But after that, I would turn around and come on out because if you don’t it is a 30-minute drive to the other exit, and you’ll be wishing you had turned around at the beginning.
8. No need to walk around the whole base at Devils Tower. Just head to the right about a quarter of the way around and then head back.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is made up of hundreds of geysers and hot springs, plus the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. It is home to elk, bison, wolves, bears, antelope and more. Laced in with the natural beauties are a maze of man-made pathways and boardwalks that take you and everyone else to these crazy geological features. We entered the park at the northeast corner via the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway through the rolling valleys that are known for their wildlife. There was a valley full of hundreds of bison.
The opposite northwestern corner of Yellowstone tells a different story. Mammoth Hot Springs isn’t like anything I had ever seen before. From afar, the boiling caldrons looked like snow, ashy and fluffy. But once you creep up on the massive bubbling pools, you realize they are definitely not cold or soft. The sulfur from the geothermal waters has hardened over time, creating the hardened edges allowing the water to fill in these pool-like formations. The water’s temperature was indicated by its color, from oranges (the coolest) to blues and then to whites (the hottest). You can feel the steam rolling off of the pools and blasting you in the face.
On the route south, we came across Firehole Canyon Drive, a small 1-mile road. From the map, it doesn’t look like anything special, but we’d been tipped off that it was worth the detour. We were all stunned when we took a sharp curve in the one-way road and there it was: The wide, roaring Firehole Falls. It was stunning, giant and set 100 yards below the roadside. The massive sound blasted our eardrums and then continued up the mountain walls. It seemed so loud, but had we not taken this road, we wouldn’t have even known this waterfall was hiding over here.
The only spot where we spent much time on the mid-eastern section of the park was the vast Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We decided to take the oldest trail in the park. Uncle Tom’s Trail is a steep metal staircase that took us down 328 steps (then back up) and three-quarters of a mile into the canyon. We got close enough to the base of the Lower Falls that we could almost feel the mist from the falls crashing onto the canyon wall and into the river. Once we made it back to the top (with multiple stops along the way), we jumped in our cars and continued down the river to see the most photographed spot in Yellowstone. It was one of the busier places we encountered, but worth it all the same. It was so interesting to see the Lower Falls so close from Uncle Tom’s Trail and then so far away at this lookout.
Things I learned in Yellowstone:
1. Don’t just look for lodging on hotels.com. I had seen Red Lodge on the map and had wanted to stay overnight there instead of Cody, Wyoming, but I couldn’t find any lodging. When we drove through it, there were plenty of places to stay. They were just little mom and pop places. So check out the local chamber of commerce websites for additional lodging options.
2. There are a lot of dead trees. We learned it is just nature: Old ones die out, and new ones sprout up right about the base of the dead ones. But it appears as if there has been a massive fire.
3. It’s not like parks around 417-land. They serve alcohol at all gift shops.
4. About a half a mile north of Firehole Canyon Drive there is a place to swim beside the road.
5. Pay attention to the signs. They are there for a reason. At Tower Falls there were warning signs telling us we couldn’t get to the bottom of the falls, but we assumed you could at least see the base. Wrong. A long hike down was even longer on the way up with no reward.
6. While driving through the park, be open to detours. If there are a lot of cars stopped by the side of the road, they are most likely looking at something worth looking at. So stop, be a tourist, block up traffic for a minute and get a picture of the bear in the woods.
Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park
Our home base for this trip was in the town of Jackson. You may have heard it referred to as Jackson Hole, which is a common nickname that actually refers to the entire valley that’s surrounded by Yellowstone National Park on the north, the Tetons on the west, the Gros Ventres on the east and the Wyoming Range on the south. Grand Teton National Park and Teton Village (both in the Tetons) were close enough to town to make great day trips.
The warm evening weather made it perfect to enjoy the fun patio at Rocky Mountain Pizza Pie in the heart of downtown Jackson. There were more than 10 large tables on the patio, but each one was taken the second it opened up. My Greek salad was topped with feta cheese and fresh cherry tomatoes, then smothered in their homemade Greek dressing and was the perfect size to gobble down with a few pieces of pizza. You can build your own pizza or calzone or pick from their house specialties, salads and sandwiches.
The hike at Jenny Lake, in the Grand Teton National Park, came highly recommended by about everyone we asked in the area, including the owner of the house we were renting. The most recommended hikes (Hidden Falls, Inspiration Point, Cascade Canyon) all started at the Jenny Lake tourist center. All of the trailheads were across the lake, so we opted for paying the $10 per adult ($5 per child) to hitch a ride by boat.
We ended up taking all three hikes. Hidden Falls was the first, just about half a mile from the trailhead. These trails were much more rustic than the Yellowstone trails. We were walking on dirt paths with natural rocks and trees still obstructing the pathways. You hike right next to the rushing water downstream from Hidden Falls all the way to the base of the falls. From the base there is a slightly steeper climb up to Inspiration Point, where you can see all of Jenny Lake and the surrounding mountain ranges. We almost stopped our hike here, but we heard there was a moose on the way up to Cascade Canyon, so we didn’t hesitate and took off. It was a few miles farther, and you felt like you were in the woods in the middle of nature. The path narrowed at times and touched the river at times. At one point the tall tree canopy completely covered us and there was a stunning green glow that radiated off of everything. I think that made Cascade Canyon even more majestic. The canopy of trees just lifted, and all of a sudden we were in the canyon in between two massive mountains in the still of the river, upstream from the falls. It seemed bizarre that this calm body of water would turn into the massive Hidden Falls we had just seen roaring down the mountainside.
Since we added on to our hike, we finished a little later than we’d planned. We were hungry and didn’t want to drive back into Jackson to eat, so we stopped at Dornan’s Pizza & Pasta Company on the opposite side of the Snake River from the Grand Teton’s in Moose. It is the perfect distance away from the mountains to have a spectacular view. It was very casual and had a big variety of food on the menu including nachos, pastas, pizza and sandwiches. Not to mention a liquor store connected to it. We went and bought a bottle of wine and guess what: No corking fee.
We decided to enjoy not enjoying nature for at least one day of our trip and headed to Snow King Mountain Resort. It’s a ski resort in the winter but a mecca for family fun in the summer with an Alpine Slide, putt-putt golf course and an scenic chair lift. At the base of the chair lift was 43 North where we opted have lunch al fresco on the lower decks. The menu was eclectic with fare from roasted a duck quesadilla with black bean salsa to the hot buttered lobster claw BLT with avocado and kettle chips. The atmosphere was a little classy; we might have been under-dressed had it been dinner time. After lunch we stumbled upon the Giant Maze on our way to the Alpine Slide. My 32-year-old brother, my 29-year-old husband, my 7-year-old nephew and I all ran through it. Sad to say, but I lost, and I really tried. It was hilarious, a good workout and only $5 per person ($3 for a re-try). The Alpine Slide was basically two identical waterslides cutting down the hillside, minus the water. You rode a sled-on-wheels down the chutes while racing the person next to you. I think I found it as enjoyable as my 7-year-old nephew. Once we hit the bottom, we were all ready to go again.
The Merry Piglets Mexican Grill has been around in Jackson since 1969. It’s just a block north of the Jackson Town square, and it’s a great spot to grab dinner after the nightly shoot-out on the town square. There is an awesome table in the very front of the restaurant that is almost a patio seat, but it fills up quickly, so you need to call ahead if you have a big group. Their menu is full of Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican fare. It’s reasonably priced and has a fun atmosphere with neon bright walls and an abundance of whimsical murals of dancing pigs.
Teton Village is about 12 miles north of Jackson and nestled in the Grand Teton Mountain range. Here there are fun summer activities including a climbing wall, bungee trampoline, pop jet fountains, disc golf, mountain biking trails, hiking trails, plus a handful of shops and eateries. The main attraction is the Arial Tram that takes you from the base in Teton Village to the summit of Rendezvous Mountain—a whopping 4,000-foot climb in just more than 10 minutes. The tickets were a little pricey at $29 per adult, but the 360-degree views of Jackson Hole and the surrounding mountain ranges are incredible. All of that snow that seemed so far away was now at our fingertips. Corbet’s Cabin also sits atop the summit and is known for its fresh, made-to-order waffles. Even if you aren’t hungry, you must indulge. Ours was piping hot and smothered in butter and brown sugar then wrapped in foil for easy eating on the go. Those waffles alone were worth the tram fee!
“There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country,” President Roosevelt said. So thanks Teddy, for making sure these national monuments and parks will still be around for years and years to come. It made for one heck of a spectacular trip.
Things I learned in Jackson:
1. The Grand Teton National Park is much less traveled than Yellowstone. Or they keep it more rustic looking.
2. The drive between Yellowstone and Jackson is pretty long and boring once you’ve driven it once. We stayed in Jackson for the week and made the drive back up into Yellowstone only once. We had planned to go twice but didn’t want to have to make the drive again.
3. I would stay in Yellowstone for a few days and check out that park and then come down to Jackson to stay for a few days and explore the Tetons.
TO SEE ALL OF MY PHOTOS, click here.
Desperados Cowboy Restaurant
301 Main Street, Hill City, South Dakota
Rocky Mountain Pizza Pie
Dornan’s Pizza & Pasta Company
Moose, Wyoming (12 miles north of Jackson)
307-733-2415 ext. 204
Snow*King Mountain Resort
400 E. Snow King Ave., Jackson Hole, Wyoming
645 South Cache Jackson, Wyoming
Located across from Snow King’s Scenic Chair
The Merry Piglets Mexican Grill
1 ½ blocks north of Jackson Town Square, on Cache
Located at Arial Tram Summit