National Park Road Trip

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enamored with America’s National Parks and the opportunities they offer to experience nature face to face. This summer, I took the opportunity to experience a few parks: The Badlands National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.

I’m an avid photographer and so that was the real focus (pun intended) of my trip. I also wanted to camp out, which I’d never done before. I also wanted to make good use of my time and decide ahead of time what I wanted to see and photograph. The research and pre-trip planning made everything go smoothly, yet it allowed me time and space to go “off script” and see things I hadn’t planned to experience.

I really wish I could have visited more parks, and maybe spent more time in the parks I saw…alas, it was not to be. I’ve got to say I’m somewhat jealous of the road trip that the fine folks at Travel Eat Enjoy Repeat took from Chicago through Yellowstone and to Las Vegas.

Getting There

Google Maps is a great resource for planning your driving route. I was able to create a map and download it to my iPhone – using the Google Maps app on my phone, I had excellent directions during the entire trip.

Coming from the Midwest as I did, Interstate 90 is the easiest and fastest way to get to all these destinations. I followed it from Illinois up through Wisconsin and Minnesota, then headed west toward South Dakota. 90 continues on into Wyoming – and at Buffalo, Wyoming you can pick up Route 16 to head directly into the park. If your trip originates in or near Colorado, take Interstate 25 north and join up with Route 16 in Buffalo, WY. If you’re coming from the northwest or southwest, take Interstate 84 or 80 (respectively) east to Interstate 15.

If you choose to fly, consider heading to Bozeman, MT or to Jackson, WY. Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) is located in the Grand Teton area and provides service to/from Denver, Salt Lake City, and other major hubs for most airlines.

Badlands National Park

07-28-16-badlands-np-110-hdr-1The trip started with an overnight stay in Badlands National Park. I rented a space in the Cedar Pass Campground. The campground is for tents as well as campers and RVs. Since I went in peak season it was pretty full, but I had no trouble reserving a spot ahead of time. I arrived just in time to set up camp and to capture a beautiful sunset.

07-29-16-badlands-np-20-hdr-2-edit-edit-1I awoke the next morning early enough to catch the sunrise – and I’m really glad I did. The approach of a cold front made for some really beautiful colors during the sunset, and they were enhanced by light fog that was rolling in.

I found that a single day in the Badlands was enough for me. I planned my visit around photography, and I knew I would get most of my good shots at night or early in the day. If you plan to visit for hiking, you may want to consider a longer stay there.

Yellowstone National Park

After leaving the Badlands I headed out toward Yellowstone. It’s a long drive (about 9 hours) but a beautiful one. Wyoming has a lot of wide open spaces, and towns tend to be few and far between. If you need gas, groceries or other supplies, consider making a quick stop in Cody, Wyoming. It’s about an hour outside the edge of the park and is the last major town for supplies before getting into the park.

I chose to stay at the Canyon Village Campground for this trip because it was well-located for the things I wanted to see. The Canyon Village area also contains stores and restaurants and a gas station. The gas station has a mechanic on staff in case you have any car trouble during your trip. If you plan to travel during peak summer season as I did, plan on reserving your lodging at least 8-10 months in advance, as the sites book up quickly.

brink of the Upper Falls, Yellowstone National ParkAfter a quick stop to set up my tent, I was off to explore. I wanted to spend most of the first day around the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone area, and I arrived at the perfect time as the lighting was excellent. Plan for a drive – or better yet, a hike – along both the north and south rim trails.07-31-16-yellowstone-np-215-hdr-3

I found that the best time to venture out and explore was in the morning and I was usually on the road between 6AM and 7AM daily. As a photographer I’m always looking for the best light, and mornings and afternoons tend to have the softest and warmest light to cast everything in a beautiful glow. From a practical standpoint mornings worked out well – most visitors to the park are not up and about until 9AM or later. I found that being among the first ones out meant I had my choice of parking spots and that the vistas were largely uninterrupted by cars or other people. It’s also the best time to see wildlife – most of the animals in the park are active at morning and at night, and tend to rest during the warmer parts of the day.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I had a well-thought out plan to see everything that I was interested in. I found several useful guides and resources that helped me make the best use of my time. I really wanted to see the iconic spots like Old Faithful, the Norris Geyser Basin, and Mammoth Hot Springs. Seeing all these areas exceeded my wildest expectations – they were absolutely breathtaking, and the views will stay with me forever. But I also made time to stop along the path at several places that just looked interesting and I found some beautiful surprises, like the Twin Lakes area.

I planned a full day in the middle of my trip to visit Grand Teton National Park as well – it’s a beautiful drive and a fantastic destination.

Grand Teton National Park

The drive from Yellowstone to Grand Teton takes you down the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway – a beautiful and convenient route. If you’ve only got a single day or limited time to visit the park, this is an excellent way to see it. There are great vistas and viewpoints along the way, both outside and inside the park.

Another “must see” for me was the area called Mormon Row. It’s in Moose, WY and is just south of the main part of GTNP. Mormon Row is the remainder of a colony of Mormon pioneers who landed in this area in the mid-1800s. There are several iconic barns and buildings in the area, and the skies are big and open – evoking thoughts of the wide open spaces that one sees in this part of the world.

Another “can’t miss” site is the Church of the Transfiguration. It’s a very small Episcopal church located near the south entrance of GTNP. The church has a large picture window in the front area and it’s got a breathtaking view of the Tetons. It’s so relaxing and inspiring to sit for a few minutes and contemplate the view.

My time here was much too short – if I ever visit the area again, I plan to stay in Grand Teton longer to see more wildlife and take in more beautiful vistas.

Summing it up…

Because of careful planning and lots of reading and research, this trip was everything I hoped it would be. All the parks I visited are vast and have tons of things to see – I literally only scratched the surface of what was there to see. Plan your time well, and reserve your lodging well in advance – and you’ll have a great trip.






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25 thoughts on “National Park Road Trip

  1. Of the three you visited, I must say that while the Badlands are impressive… we fell in love with Yellowstone. We stopped one night in Cody because we wanted to go slow and enjoy the area, a 9 hours drive is pretty tiring! Which one of the 3 parks did you like the most?

    1. Yeah, I’m with you – loved them all, but Yellowstone was my absolute favorite.

  2. I have never visited any American National Parks (Canadian here), but it sounds like an amazing road trip. Your photos are excellent (maybe you should make them bigger?). Your planning ahead of time was well thought out (Google Maps is amazing). I really should at least get to one of these parks in the future.

    1. It really was amazing! Depending on what part of Canada you’re in, you may not be too far from a US national park and they’re worth the drive. Thanks for the kind words about my photos…I debated on whether to make them larger or not. I do have a separate website for my photography and have a gallery there for Yellowstone. I’m also going to add one for Grand Tetons and for the Badlands.

  3. Your photos are beautiful, I especially like the cover photo and the one with the yellow clouds at Badlands National Park. I can understand why you got up early to get great photos and avoid too many people!

    1. Wow, thank you for the kind words about my photos! Getting up early was definitely worth it.

  4. National Parks of a country help connecting with the nature of the country which usually gets lost in cities. Love the scenic locations, what a scope for photography! I need to make a good plan to tour the country at least once.

    1. Totally agree with you! I live in a suburban area, and I feel like I lose my connection to nature way too often. This was seriously one of the best trips I’ve ever taken in my life. Thank you for your kind comments about the photos!

  5. My cousin just did a month along the parks and she said only one thing. If you are in Badlands National Park or Yellowstone you will take great pictures anywhere your camera pans:) Love the sunset hues along the vast lands. Great pics!

    1. What your cousin said is absolutely true – it’s one of the most beautiful natural areas I’ve ever seen. Glad you liked my photos!

  6. I’ve only heard about Yellowstone National Park before but Grand Teton also looks like it’s worth a visit. Nice that you were out early in Yellowstone to catch the best shots. The Yellowstone grand canyon is quite impressive.

    1. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d make it down to Grand Teton, but I am so glad that I did! It’s really amazing. I made a special effort to be up early every morning for the good shots, and I feel like it was worth it based on the results.

  7. I visited this area a very longtime ago and did not plan at all. I saw quite a bit but have been considering returning. I think it would be a lot of fun to fly in and rent a camper van and explore at my leisure

    1. Oh my gosh you should totally do that! I camped – my first time solo in a tent – and I had an absolute blast. I found that planning helped me a lot…I varied from the plan I made, but at least I got to see the big attractions that I wanted to visit.

  8. Visit to the National Parks is always great. It helps one get the real feel of nature, woods as well the virgin beauty. The sunrise picture and the stream flowing picture are just superb shots. I loved the way you have included tips on photography and travel in your post.

    1. I completely agree that a trip to the national parks really gets you into nature in a big way! Thanks for the very kind words on my photos. As I write more, I’m going to include photography tips in my posts – so make sure to subscribe to my mailing list to get the latest updates!

  9. My dream trip! Road tripping across the US to visit and photograph National Parks is super high on my bucket list. Camping and sleeping under the stars in these National Parks must’ve been quite the experience! Where to next?

    1. That’s exactly what I want to do when I grow up – road trip across the US and photograph national parks! Good luck pursuing your dream. 🙂

  10. I took would like to explore Americas natural parks and all the wonders. So many pretty things to see. Would like to see Yellowstone.

  11. Such a useful post. I love a road trip, and wow, a national park road trip is more than awesome! Thanks for sharing this!

    1. Yeah, I’d definitely encourage anyone thinking about it to take a national park road trip! Glad you enjoyed the post.

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