Updated: Sep 13, 2022
A 10 week exploration of one of the most beautiful states in the USA
Why such a long trip?
My husband and I both work from home. He is a professional landscape photographer and and I create low-cost personal development courses. Travel writing and sharing our experiences through free itineraries is one of my creative outlets, as well as a way for us to contribute to the global travel community. Since our international travel had been limited over the last few years due to COVID, we decided that a change of scenery would do us good. We hadn't been to Montana, nor explored Glacier or Yellowstone National Parks yet. So, we planned out a 10-week hybrid travel road trip that would also serve as a different live-work-explore 'home base'.
Our Rig / Accommodation style - for this trip we used a mix of hotels ( when too hot or smokey to camp en route), Rover van-camping, backpacking, and longer-term home rental so we could also work while away.
2017 Mercedes Sprinter Van – 4x4; 19’ long; diesel engine, gets 14-17mpg; 14-15 gallon water tank; 2 solar panels, AC and DC power; shower head (between rear doors out back with snap-on curtain); hot water heater; DC space heater; electric penthouse canopy; sleeps 4 (but 2 adults have most room); outdoor roll-out canopy; automatic sideboards; off road lights; air compressor; fridge; sink; microwave; lots of storage. Code name: the Stover Rover.
We started in San Luis Obispo, CA (not shown here) and stopped to see family in Carbondale, CO and backpack the Four Passes Loop while in the area. Then headed towards Montana. It was a big push in driving on the first and last two days. But otherwise, the distance between each major stop was about 4-5 hours.
Stop #1 - Red Lodge
The town - This small town surprised me. For having only 2200 residents, it had a vibrant energy to it, a local ski hill and several tasty restaurants. The biggest draw to this are was the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness - you'll see photos throughout this section
Accommodations - We chose this historic farmstead as our home base for 10 days. It was very comfortable and well-equipped. And Quincy got a chance to meet some new 4-footed friends.
Other unique lodging options - there are a few hotels and motels to choose from. But if you can't find what you're looking for through AirBNB or VRBO. Here are a few other resources to check out:
Campgrounds - many to choose from, including KOA type, paid campsites or free camping in Forest Service areas en route to popular hiking trails as well as up off the Beartooth Highway. We stopped at Island Lake campground for its beautiful view, but it was closing for the season.
TIP - make a reservation at Tippit Rise, they only allow a certain number of people on the grounds at a time.
Hiking / Backpacking trails - Beartooth High Lakes Trail to/from Island Lake campground, the infamous Beaten Path between East Rosebud and Clark's Fork, The Hell Roaring Plateau**, Glacier Lake, Sundance Pass
TIP - the road up to the Hell Roaring Plateau trail head is extremely rocky. We took our 4x4 Jeep and it still was challenging. Many visitors rent a quad / UTV for the day and take it up.
NOTE - this is grizzly-country, so carry bear-spray with you and either a canister or bear-bag with you for backpacking. There were not any sightings on the well-traveled routes while we were there. But the rangers and locals are very pro-active.
Dining/ restaurants - Wild Table (breakfast options, bakery), Cat Tail Bakery ( Bakery - fabulous!), Piccola Cucina , Perogative Kitchen, Mas Taco, Regis Cafe (breakfast all day - get the Chile Verde omelet!)
Stop #2 - Whitefish/Kalispell and Glacier National Park
For the next several weeks, we opted to rent a small home in the Many Lakes are, between Creston and Big Fork, about 15 miles east of Kalispell. This is a beautifully wooded community served as a quiet home base, from which we ventured into Glacier National Park. guided by the weather and smoke forecast. It was only a 30 minute drive to the West Glacier entrance, and we had easy access to groceries and other services in Kalispell.
DOG-OWNER note - the Glacier K9 Resort and Spa is a terrific service for your pooch and has a wonderful and knowledgable staff. We used them three different times, so we could do some longer day hikes in the park as well as when we wanted to overnight at Glacier Park Chalet.
Accommodations - we chose this quaint Hideaway Cabin as our home base for visiting Glacier National Park. You can read more about it here. But it suited us - as a couple traveling with their dog - just fine.
Other unique lodging options:
Granite Park Chalet - this was a real treat and although priced a bit high for the style of accommodation, we were glad we added it to our budget. It's accessed by hiking 7.8 miles along the Highline trail from Logan Pass (fairly flat, very safe and not as 'treacherous' as social media videos sometimes depict). You can also access the chalet from the "Loop" end - it's shorter, but MUCH steeper. I'd recommend doing an out-n-back from Logan Pass. It's far more scenic and with less logistics to consider. You won't miss much bypassing the 4 miles at the other end.
TIP - the chalet books up for the summer within minutes of the website opening for reservations! Be prepared to be online in January, on the day they start take bookings and have flexible dates. We booked these dates first, and worked the timing of the rest of our trip around it.
TIP - If you stay here, you MUST hike up to the Swiftcurrent Lookout tower! It's only ~5 miles roundtrip from the Granite Park Chalet end of the trail (but steep, so bring trekking poles), but the views are stupendous! This was without a doubt my favorite hike in the park. This link gives you information on the trail. But realize, it's much shorter hike from the chalet end.
Many Glacier Hotel - Don't hate on me for saying this but.... this lodge, although a fantastic setting, for us, it wasn't worth the cost or the effort to stay here. Yes, it's historic. But it badly needs some TLC to bring it up to today's 3-star hotel expectations, even as a historic property. That being said, we enjoyed the time we spent here, if only for the early access to the nearby trails.
TIP - if you stay here in July, realize the lodge has NO AC and rooms can get incredibly warm. I'd personally recommend bypassing the higher 'Lakeview rooms' and get a room on a lower floor (or even a basement room) which is much cooler. The great room and the deck are loaded with chairs and are fabulous places to watch sunrise and sunset.
TIP - Due to COVID staff shortages, the food quality and service at Many Glacier Hotel was really poor during our stay. I hope it rebounds in the upcoming years. But during the 2021 season, we had to wait in line, order food from a limited menu and then have it brought to us in take-out containers. That in itself didn't blow the experience. But the food quality just didn't represent the lodge well. I'm a big supporter of the National Parks and understand that COVID impacted a lot of businesses. But I'm also known for being straight-forward with my readers. So...there it is.
Hiking trails near Many Glacier Hotel - of course the hike the Grinnel Glacier hike is a must. Depending on your fitness level, this will either be a tiring or arduous hike. It's about 11 miles roundtrip from Many Glacier Hotel and has some steep pitches. Leaving early, using trekking poles, leaving time for rest stops and bringing enough water will make this trail far more enjoyable. We also enjoyed the Iceberg Lake hike, although (spoiler alert) there was no icebergs left in the lake by July. But the scenery was still beautiful.
TIP - Bear spray - bring it. Talk amongst yourselves or sing. Although we ourselves did not encounter grizzlies on these trails, the day AFTER we hiked, there were encounters. So stay alert. Don't be bear food.
Campgrounds - Most of the campgrounds in Glacier National Park are first come, first serve.
Fish Creek , Saint Mary and Many Glacier only take reservation. You can get more information here. We really enjoyed the campgrounds at Bowman Lake and Two Medicine - both were quiet, took more time to get to, and therefore saw fewer people - even in July.
More of our favorite hiking trails - Someone has probably dedicated an entire blog to the trails in Glacier National Park. There are so many, it can be hard to choose. We prefer trails with fewer people, and are willing to do the work to get to some of the more challenging views. That being said, we also really enjoyed several of the more 'popular' trails. The key is..GET UP EARLY. You can always take a nap in the afternoon. But beating the crowds that typically start around 9am, is worth setting your alarm for.
The video above is from the Dawson-Pitamakin trail out of Two Medicine campground. Even if you don't do the full loop, and only go up to Dawson Pass and back, you'll get these views.
Others trails we recommend
Trail of the Cedars - this is an easy trail and has an accessible boardwalk - which allows more people to see these amazing trees. You can access Avalanche Lake Trail from here, if want more of a challenge.
Highline trail - even if you only walk a mile or so out and back from Logan Pass, it's worth your time. It's about a 3-4' wide trail in most parts, safe, and in areas where the wind picks up, there is a cable to hold onto.
Hidden Lake - Off Logan Pass - this is the trail to see all sorts of wildlife (around 4pm is reported as best time). Although everyone else in the park saw mountain goats, bear and sheep, we'd didn't see any! But the hike was well worth it on it's own.
Siyeh Pass and Sun rift gorge - this was on our list but we ran out of time. Check it out, we've heard it's gorgeous and plan to hike it on our next visit.
Restaurants / dining in the GNP area
Kalispell and surrounding area - Norm's Soda Shop (classic diner!) ,Blaine Creek Grill, MudMan Burgers (get the huckleberry milkshake), Brownie's Bakery, Polebridge Mercantile (you must stop here on the way to Bowman Lake - get the Huckleberry bear claw and a Brat and Pickle sandwich!)
Other interesting accommodations we noticed in the area
Village Inn - Apgar (this is in the park, but a much quieter area of MacDonald Lake)
Stop #3 - Paradise Valley (Pray - south of Livingston)
For this last leg of our journey, we rented this Paradise Valley farmhouse in Pray, Montana. It was quite a contrast from the wooded neighborhood home in Kalispell, with wide open spaces and a lot of land between neighbors. But the home was comfortable, with a large bookcase, and showcased the beautiful wildlife photography of its owner. Although the property manager didn't score high on 'congeniality' points, we still enjoyed our stay due its fabulous location, and plenty of open space for our dog to run around.
The closest grocery was just south of Livingston, a solid 20+ minute drive. Pray itself, had very little activity. And the next closest town was Chico and Emigrant - with a few restaurants, bakeries and the hot springs. Yellowstone National Park was 35 minute drive away. But because our stay for so long, and this trip was a work-explore type adventure, we had our visits to the park planned in advance, with weekend campgrounds reserved earlier that year.
BONUS! - the best part of the location of this property was that it was within a 10 minute drive of three of the THE best restaurants in the entire area! Chico Hot Springs Historic dining room is typically booked 30-45 days in advance and has been written up in dozens of wine and food magazines, which adorn its walls. Sage Lodge is newer and more modern addition to the valley with two restaurants at your disposal. We ate at the Fireside Room twice, which had incredible views. But if you're in the mood for Waygu and fine dining, you can find it at the Grill. And third, was the dining room at Yellowstone Valley Lodge. This was my favorite meal by far and of course came with a fantastic view of the river and its mountainous backdrop.
Other food favorites in the area
Pine Creek Lodge - On Sundays in the summer, they have free live music and fabulous brunch
Wildflower Bakery - Emigrant (we came here several times a week! - the fresh baked scones, coffee cake and berry bars are mouth-watering. And the breakfast sandwich is fabulous/
Follow Yer Nose BBQ - yum! Outdoor seating, good beer selection - TIP - first weekday it's open, the ribs aren't done until dinner.
Emigrant Brewing Company - great selection of beers, fabulous burgers and pizzas and even a reasonably priced tasty steak dinner.
Yellowstone Grill - Gardiner. Fabulous breakfast, if you have the time to wait in a short line
Accommodations in Paradise Valley (other than in Gardiner)
Sage Lodge - (above photo) more contemporary rustic, beautiful setting
Chico Hot Springs Resort - classic, historical
Yellowstone Valley Lodge - large, private cabins, beautiful grounds and view
Mountain Sky Guest Ranch - upscale guest ranch / resort
Bbar Ranch - organic working ranch, great area for grizzly sighting in the Fall
Hubbard's Lodge - known for it's fly-fishing and horseback riding
The Ranch at Rock Creek - calls itself a Luxury Dude Ranch
Pine Creek Lodge - unique, rustic, comfortable, known for its live outdoor music scene.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is so massive that we explored it primarily through driving to specific locations and doing short day hikes. Although this park sees far more visitors than Glacier National Park, it actually felt less crowded. Probably because people were dispersed over its massive acreage, and there is SO MUCH accommodation within the park.
TIP - Our biggest recommendation for seeing this park is to make the effort to get up EARLY or go in the EVENING - not only will you miss the traffic and crowds that come between 10am and 3pm, but your chances of spotting wildlife is far greater. You can eat brunch and take a nap in between.
Our favorite areas - it's hard to pick one and we enjoyed them all for different reasons. But below are some of the most memorable.
Mammoth Hot Springs area - Seeing this area at sunrise is worth getting up early for. the area starts getting crowded by 8am.
Hayden Valley - This the best place to see herds of buffalo. And you may even be lucky enough to have some up-close encounters if you park and sit quietly in your car. Early mornings again, are the best time to see them without getting stuck in a "bison-jam" of cars. And often the early morning frost an add to the experience, as you can see in my husband's work above. We also saw coyote, elk, and bald eagles in the valley.
The Grand Prismatic - This is truly a marvel of our world. The full array of colors (created from the heat-loving bacteria that thrive there) can be best appreciated from Fairy Falls overlook. This is a fairly level hike (to the lookout) and worth making time for. As you can see from the photo in the heading of this section, I got lucky when a bison broke the 'stay on the boardwalk' rule right as we arrived. However, walking along the boardwalk as the sun is setting gives an eerie and mystical view of this spring as well.
Old Faithful/Biscuit basin - Although we saw the tail-end of this infamous geysers eruption, we found the walkways behind Old Faithful to be far more interesting and worth 1-2 hours of our time! We also enjoyed the Paint Pot area - but I didn't have many photos that did it justice. To explore this area fully we stayed 2 nights at the Madison Campground. If you are not a camper, there are plenty of other lodges in the park to choose from.
Lamar Valley - If you want a shot at spotting wolves, Lamar Valley is where you need to be. We also spotted moose and grizzly here. But it took two early morning trips out there to do it. We opted to drive outside the national park and stay a night at Soda Butte campground near the Cooke City-Silver Gate entrance, so we didn't have to drive as far for early morning wildlife spotting.
Other experiences worth checking out
Firehole Lake drive and Great Fountain geyser - If you can catch this geyser, I personally liked it better than Old Faithful (shh). It's a easy access drive, less traffic in the late afternoon
Tom Miner road Grizzly spotting - this road is outside of the National Park, north of Gardiner. But in the Fall, you can spot grizzlies (sometimes 8-10 at a time!) coming out of the woods each evening to munch on a calorie-rich root called caraway. In this area, we even saw a grizz, a moose, and elk all grazing in the same field at once. No lie.
Yellowstone Natural Hot Springs - this hot spring is for soaking and we preferred it over Chico's classic resort. This place is outdoors, has 3-4 different temperature pools, and allows you to bring in your own food and drink. It has a beautiful setting and was only a few minutes drive north of Gardiner.
I hope this itinerary helps you with your road trip or National Park visit planning. As always, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any other questions.
And oh, although I don't typically monetize this website (other than our van rental), my husband got a lot of requests for his National Park photos, so he created this affordable National Parks calendar as a gift option if you're interested.
Cheers and happy road tripping!