How to take a National Park road trip through America’s Mountain States (and beat the crowds)

·14-min read
 (NPS Photo)
(NPS Photo)

When it comes to road trips and America, there’s certainly no shortage of choice.

For music lovers there’s the pulsing American South, for West Coast dreamers there’s the Pacific Coast Highway and for the great outdoor enthusiasts, perhaps there’s no better than a classic route through the Mountain States. Traversing the constantly changing landscape of the Wild West, through rural towns and a variety of the country’s top 10 National Parks, the drive lasts two weeks and takes you across Utah, Wyoming and Montana (missing out Colorado and Idaho which are worth including if you have more time).

Here, Alice Howarth reveals everything you need to know about this once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Day 1 - 3

Zion National Park, Utah

When Mormon pioneers arrived in Zion in the 19th century they were so awe-struck by its vast beauty, they gave it the Old Testament name for the city of Jerusalem. Defined by its towering auburn canyons, Navajo cliffs and cascading waterfalls, today it’s a spiritual place for some, an adventure playground for others but for most, it’s both.

 (NPS Photo)
(NPS Photo)

What not to miss?

The Narrows - Bottom-Up (half to full day)

This iconic hike takes you up the Virgin River which flows through a towering slot canyon with 2000-foot high cliffs that narrow down to just 20-30 feet wide. The round-trip is 10 miles but you can do as much or little as you like. The difference between a good day and a great day is getting there early. Make sure to catch the first shuttle into the park (6 a.m.) — by afternoon, the trail will be teeming with tourists.

Guides aren’t necessary but as you’ll be walking through ankle to waist-deep water, proper equipment is. Head to Zion Adventures in Springdale to rent shoes, neoprene socks and a stick ($27 plus taxes). The hike is weather dependent due to the risk of flash flooding, so check with your hotel or online whether you’re advised to go before setting off.

Observation Point (half day)

Most people will know of Angel’s Landing, an epic trail that takes you to Scout’s Lookout (one of the best viewpoints of the park) but many won’t realise Observation Point is a solid alternative. While you need a permit to embark on Angel’s Landing which can only be secured via an online lottery the day before you hope to go, Observation Point can be hiked at any point, with far fewer crowds and takes you through a juniper and pinyon pine forest to a summit actually three times higher than Angel’s Landing.

Drive the East and West rims of the park

Completing the scenic drives that surround the park and stopping at the viewpoints along the way is a complete must to take in Zion’s full beauty. The east rim (12 miles along Mount Carmel Highway) shows off the iconic views of Zion’s rock faces whilst the west rim (21 miles from the town of Virgin) is greener with fields, farms and homesteads along the way.

Where to stay?

25 minutes from the south entrance of the park, Under Canvas is a haven to retreat back to after a day in and around Zion. Situated in a red rock desert, the glamping site is as picturesque as it is comfortable. The luxury tents have sprawling beds, wood-burning stoves, animal hide rugs and outside seating areas. There are various categories to choose from - some with shared bathrooms and some with private - and if the budget stretches, we’d unsurprisingly recommend the latter. A long hot shower in the privacy of your own tent following a day of adventure is welcome bliss.

Starting rates from $418 (plus tax). undercanvas.com

 (The Normadic People)
(The Normadic People)

Where to eat?

Under Canvas has a concise but delicious menu for breakfast and dinner and offers packed lunches to go. For the days you want a change of scene, Springdale is the biggest town around Zion and a laid-back spot for a beer and meal. Those looking for gourmet dining will be disappointed but the club sandwich at MeMe’s Café or the Pork Chilli Burrito at Oscar’s Café will sate any rumbling tummy.

Day 4

Drive from Under Canvas Zion via Bryce Canyon National Park (90 miles on Highway 89 - 2.5 hours) onto Sorrel River Ranch (251 miles further - 4.5 hours)

Punctuated by Hoodoo rock columns, stop in to see the magnificent amphitheatres of Bryce National Park on your way to Moab. Sunrise, Sunset and Bryce Point viewing platforms are the ones worth prioritising.

Day 5-6

Arches National Park, Utah

Containing over 2,000 natural stone arches as well as rock fins, towering pinnacles and balancing giant rocks, the majestic Arches National Park is spellbindingly beautiful. Not unlike a Hollywood set, countless films have been shot in and around the area including Stagecoach, Rio Grande, Westworld and Thelma & Louise.

 (NPS Photo)
(NPS Photo)

What not to miss?

Sunrise at The Windows

The Windows section of the national park is home to a number of scenic arches but it’s the North Window that offers the best spot for sunrise. Arches is the only park in this itinerary where you have to make a reservation to enter but if you’re going before 6 a.m., you can enter straight away (and dodge the entrance fee). Rise early to get a prime position sitting within the giant arch. When you see the golden light flood the red rock landscape and hit off the sandstone formations, you’ll be glad of the prompt start.

Sand Dune Arch

One to visit when you drive the 18-mile scenic route around the National Park, this arch is only a half-mile round trip from the roadside but it feels like you’ve hit a secret corner of the park with a perfect spot for an Instagram snap.

 (NPS Photo)
(NPS Photo)

Upper Delicate Arch

The biggest freestanding arch in the park that appears as the official emblem on Utah license plates, the Upper Delicate Arch is the ‘bucket list’ sighting. Located in the “backcountry”, if you want a close-up (which you will) you need to hike to see it but it’s just a three-mile round trip. Leave two to three hours for getting there, viewing and getting back.

Where to stay?

Set on 240 acres of sprawling ranch land, Sorrel River Ranch is a haven on the banks of the Colorado River. The resort is made up of private log cabins that feature Old Western decor with hand-carved four poster beds, riding stables, a swimming pool, a tennis court and a spa.

Just 25 minutes from the town of Moab and Arches National Park, there are countless excursions to try in the area, but riding through the towering red mesas adjacent to the property on one of the hotel’s stallions is a fairly unforgettable experience. Don’t leave the area without popping your head into the unexpected and charming Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage (moabmfwh.com) just along the road from Sorrel either. There are some Western Hollywood relics in there you don’t want to miss.

 (Sorrel River Ranch)
(Sorrel River Ranch)

Starting rates from $1062 (plus tax) in peak seasons. sorrelriver.com

Where to eat?

Sorrel River Ranch grows much of its own produce which makes dining at the resort’s farm-to-table restaurant all the more enjoyable. Dish highlights included the bison ragu with homemade pappardelle, Colorado lamb rack and the gooey molten chocolate cake. When in Moab, head to Jailhouse Café for breakfast or the Quesadilla Mobilla food truck for a seriously good — you guessed it — quesadilla.

Day 7

Drive from Sorrel River Ranch to Hotel Jackson (470 miles - 8 hours)

Day 8-10

Grand Teton’s National Park, Wyoming

Wyoming’s Grand Teton’s mountain range is, as the cliché goes, picture perfect. The snowcapped peaks of the craggy mountains, preserved 19th-century homesteads, expansive glassy lakes and rolling plains make up some of the most dramatic scenery in America.

 (NPS Photo/Tobiason)
(NPS Photo/Tobiason)

What not to miss?

Jackson Hole Safari Tour

The team at Jackson Hole Safari are experts in nature photography, wildlife spotting and the geography of the Teton range. A half-day tour will offer a solid overview of the park but if it’s wildlife you’re mainly there for, commit to a full day. Like an actual safari, the longer you’ve got the more likely you are to see the park’s common animals like the bison, elk and moose and, if you’re lucky, the more reclusive grizzlies, mountain lions and wolves. Make sure that Jenny Lake and the Mormon Historic Row District are on your itinerary too. The team will provide you with the likes of binoculars and spotting scopes.

Half-day mixed group safaris from $165 (plus taxes) and private half-day tours from $565 (plus taxes). jacksonholewildlifesafaris.com

Sunrise at Oxbow Bend

Ask any local and the one piece of advice they’ll give you about Grand Tetons is to see a sunrise while you’re there. Oxbow Bend is one of the best spots for it thanks to the likelihood of seeing the sparkling reflection of Mount Moran on a clear day. Arrive 30 minutes prior to sunrise to ensure you get a parking spot.

 (NPS Photo)
(NPS Photo)

Taggart and Bradley Lakes Hike (2 to 3 hours)

A moderately easy trail that loops around two serene lakes, the Taggart and Bradley Lakes Hike offers spectacular views of the Tetons. Six miles in total, start with Taggart Lake and then press onto Bradley Lake. You’ll pass budding meadows, jagged peaks and emerald alpine forests. As for all hikes in the area, it’s good to take bear spray, just in case.

Where to stay?

Hotel Jackson may do luxury very well but there is not a whiff of snobbery or stuffiness about it. The family-run boutique hotel is gloriously comfortable and the staff are, well, gloriously nice. After a day exploring the Tetons, you can come back and soak in the rooftop hot tub, sink into a huge bathtub or take a nap in one of the marshmallow beds before venturing out to see Jackson.

Located just one block from the centre, it’s the ideal spot to explore the iconic Wyoming town from and, when in The Cowboy State, it would be simply remiss not to embrace the ranching culture that is rife in the area. The hotel can arrange tickets for the weekly rodeo (an absolute must) and is situated a stone’s throw from the famous saloon-fronted Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. Grab a bourbon on the rocks, perch on the saddle stools and settle in to see line dancing in all of its glory.

 (Hotel Jackson)
(Hotel Jackson)

Starting rates from $409 (plus tax). hoteljackson.com

Where to eat?

Figs is situated within Hotel Jackson but it’s not just hotel guests that dine there. The Lebanese restaurant is a favourite amongst locals and visitors alike that come for the smoky baba ganoush, authentic kibbeh and tender shawarmas.

Glorietta Trattoria is a cool yet laid-back spot where you could as easily arrive dressed up as you could in a pair of jeans. The wine list is weighty (make sure to try the orange wine), as is the Italian-meets-Western menu. Standouts include the grilled bone marrow with peppadew jam (served with a sherry shot) as well as the spicy sausage and sage handmade pasta.

Day 10

Drive from Hotel Jackson to Montage Big Sky (183 miles - 3.5 hours) - driving through Yellowstone on the way.

Day 11-13

Yellowstone, Montana

Officially the first National Park in the world and one of the most iconic in the United States, you may enter Yellowstone and think the green hills and pine forests don’t look too dissimilar to the UK but continue on and you’ll soon discover the hundred-foot geysers, hot springs and wildflower fields that draw crowds in their droves.

 (NPS Photo)
(NPS Photo)

What not to miss?

Old Faithful

Out of the nearly 500 geysers in the park, Old Faithful was the first to be named and is the most famous. Conveniently predictable, it erupts approximately every 90-minutes but when you arrive, check when the next eruption is likely to be. If you’ve just missed it, walk around the Upper Geyser Basin first.

Grand Prasmatic Spring

The can’t-miss site of Yellowstone is the Grand Prasmatic Spring. You’ll be joined by crowds no matter what time of year you go but its mesmerising beauty makes it worth it. The largest hot spring in the USA and third in the world, the colours are even brighter than they appear in the glossy travel brochures.

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

One of the main landmarks of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is 24 miles long, 1200 feet deep and its north and south rims offer incredible viewpoints and trails. Both the Artist Point lookout and Cascade Lake Trail, which takes you through wildfield meadows, are worth doing.

Where to stay?

Overlooking the majestic Spanish Mountains, Montage Big Sky is the first five-star resort in the area. A slice of alpine heaven, the hotel resembles a dreamy Montanan log house on a giant scale with expensively rustic decor and incredible mountain views.

Rooms, or perhaps more aptly apartments, are suitably plush with vast bathrooms, balconies, sprawling king-size beds, walk-in wardrobes and living rooms complete with push-button fireplaces.

 (Montage Big Sky)
(Montage Big Sky)

The ideal ski-in, ski-out resort in winter, during summer it’s all about the outdoor adventures after which you can come back and recoup in the impressive spa. The attentive and friendly staff will help you arrange a host of activities but one not to miss is a UTV ride with Summit Motor Sports (summitatr.com). Self-driving in the all-terrain four-wheel vehicle, you’ll head through the backcountry, up and over the mountains for some of the best views in the area. It does get super dusty so just make sure to wear workout clothes.

Day 13

Drive from Montage Big Sky to Kimpton Armory Hotel (50 miles - 1 hour)

Bozeman, Montana

Bozeman has historically been a stopover place due to it being the home of Montana’s international airport but today its downtown is worth spending time in thanks to its expanding restaurant scene and quaint shops. Currently the fastest growing micropolitan in the USA, the city currently has 50,000 permanent residents but by 2050, its population is expected to reach 400,000. An influx of remote workers from the likes of New York, LA and San Francisco are bringing their cool to the area.

Where to stay?

 (Hotel Kimpton)
(Hotel Kimpton)

The Kimpton Armory Hotel swung open its doors in 2020 and is the city’s first and only four-star hotel. Centrally located in downtown Bozeman, you are within walking distance of the city’s main high street which is perfect for an afternoon of perusing. You can also borrow one of the hotel’s free bikes to ride around if you’d prefer.

Functional yet comfy, the hotel features crisp and clean contemporary decor. Rooms are pared back with muted tones, suitably large bathrooms and expansive beds perfect for getting a proper night’s sleep in before the impending long-haul the next day.

Starting rates from $399 (plus tax). armoryhotelbzn.com

Generally good to know

1. Entry per vehicle into the park per day varies between $30-$35 (plus tax), so get an America The Beautiful pass for $80 (plus tax) instead. It grants you access to more than 2,000 national parks and recreation areas for a year.

2. Stopping by the park’s Vistor Centers to find out the ranger’s tips on routes and wildlife is totally worth it.

3. Plan all of your excursions as early in the morning as possible. Afternoons are often crowded and are typically too hot in summer.

4. Some assume the animals are tame because they are in national parks but they are wild and will attack you if they feel threatened. Stay at least 25 yards from any animal and 100 yards from a bear or wolf.

5. An all-wheel drive is advised if you want to explore some of the off-the-beaten-track spots on this trip. We rented our car with Avis.

6. Wifi is not reliable in many areas along this route, so take a sat nav and pre-download your route onto it. We used TomTom GO Camper Max which proved totally invaluable.

When to go?

April to June, September and October are the best months to visit the parks for wildlife, diminished crowds and pleasant temperatures.

Getting there and around

We flew direct from London Heathrow to Austin with Virgin Atlantic. Return fares start from £520 per person; virginatlantic.com

We flew with American Airlines from Bozeman to Austin; americanairlines.co.uk