Best of the West National Parks
From the majestic splendour of Glacier National Park in Montana, to the awesome beauty of the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks in Wyoming, this new 18 Day self drive tour takes the adventurous traveller on a truly spectacular and unforgettable journey through the mountains and national parks of North America. Crossing between four different states in 18 days you will also drive along the same pass used by the Lewis & Clark Expedition over 200 years ago and learn about the Nez Pearce Indians as well enjoying some of the most dramatic and beautiful scenery you are likely to experience in North America.
- Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks
- Mount Rushmore
- Glacier National Park
- Going to the Sun Highway
- Jackson Hole
When the first flakes of gold were found in Cherry Creek, Denver sprouted up as a mining camp filled with gunslingers, gamblers, gold miners, saloons, cattlemen and a sheriff. Goodness, how things have changed. Today’s Mile High City is the center of a very sophisticated state, one of the most educated, prosperous and ecologically minded places in the world. Downtown, the 16th Street Mall connects the Capitol Building with LoDo (Lower Downtown) the cultural district that a century ago was home to Bat Masterson, Calamity Jane and other frontier icons. The Colorado State History Museum, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Denver Visitor Center, and the Molly Brown House, home of the “unsinkable” local heroine, are all nearby. Try one of the interesting restaurants in LoDo for dinner.
A walking tour of downtown introduces you to distinctive architecture that was, almost from the beginning, built for permanence. Good clay for bricks was plentiful, local wood was soft. As a result, much of the massive masonry architecture constructed around the turn of the century is still in use. The Santa Fe Arts District has Denver’s largest collection of art galleries. Cherry Creek has the best shopping and dining. Quaint Old South Pearl Street has a Farmer’s Market every Sunday. The Highlands neighborhood was recently featured in National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure Magazine as a great place to visit.
This morning, as you head for South Dakota, prepare to be introduced to some of the most unusual scenery in America. Sandstone desert and twisted rocks jutting out of the ground are coupled with the dense Black Hills National Forest, which does indeed, look nearly black from a distance. The hot springs dotting the area were the result of water pressure being caught underground when the earth changed position. At Mammoth Hot Springs, the remains of mammoths are still being discovered in the “sink-hole” that turned into a steeply sided pond. When you’re in the region, plan to leave plenty of time to explore Badlands National Park, a 244,000 acre treasure trove of Oligocene fossils dating back 37 million years juxtaposed with buttes, spires and pinnacles. Two visitor centres offer interpretive exhibits on the cultural and ecological heritage of the Park. The Badlands Loop National Scenic Byway, which passes through the Park has 14 designated overlooks on the 31.5 miles that let you enjoy the dramatic landforms sprouting out of the mixed grassy prairie. Nearby, Wind Cave National Park was named for the constant movement of air within. It is filled with delicate boxwork, an unusual cave formation composed of thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs.
The 71,000 acres of Custer State Park are truly one of the last wild places in America. Nearly 1,500 bison, commonly called buffalo, roam the prairies and hills which they share with swift pronghorn, shy elk, sure-footed mountain goats and curious burros. You can enjoy an up-close and personal encounter with these permanent residents along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road that winds around the southern edge of the park. Be sure to allow time for the other scenic drive that takes you past slender granite formations called "Needles" that dominate the skyline. These unique rock outcroppings are an excellent place for rock climbers to push themselves to the limit. With its winding roads and small granite tunnels, Needles Highway (SD Highway 87 between Sylvan Lake and Legion Lake) is not only stunning, but fun to drive. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is connected to the other Black Hills attractions by another scenic road, the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway, named after the South Dakota Governor who began the movement to preserve the natural treasures of the state. On the Byway, the Crazy Horse Memorial is the largest sculptural project in the world. The best time to visit Mount Rushmore is in the evening when the monument is illuminated. During the 45-minute Evening Program in the park’s outdoor amphitheater, you’ll enjoy a ranger talk, the film “Freedom: America’s Lasting Legacy” about the presidents carved into the mountain.
On the way between the Badlands and Buffalo, Devil’s Tower, also known as “Bear’s Lodge” to Native Americans, was considered sacred by more than 20 tribes. It was a place of prayer, introspection and renewal long before Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed it the country’s first national monument in 1906.
Upon reaching Buffalo, you’ll feel transported to the Old West – if you didn’t already! Your accommodations at the Occidental hotel give you a perfect vantage point from which to explore the whole historic town. Buffalo is nestled in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, a sister range to the Rockies and surrounded by the Bighorn National Forest, rich with lush greenscapes and glacier-carved valleys. For the best view of the Forest, the Bighorn Mountains, and Cloud Peak Wilderness, drive the Cloud Peak Skyway National Scenic Byway. The Skyway is the only way to view Cloud Peak, the highest peak in the Bighorn Mountains. From Buffalo, it’s a short drive to Fort Kearney, site of the famous Wagon Box Fight and “Hole in the Wall,” the hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
As your arrive at Bozeman, Montana, you’ll be amazed by the majestic peaks and steep canyons that ring the town. It’s a young town with an old history, located in the classic Rocky Mountain West landscape. Native Americans occupied the area for thousands of years before fur traders arrived in the 1700s looking for beaver pelts. Founded in 1864, Bozeman served as the trail head for the Bozeman Trail that lead to the gold fields 80 miles west. Today, students from Montana State University give the city the vibrancy of a college town. The Museum of the Rockies, on the university campus, houses one of the world’s largest collections of dinosaurs, along with exhibits on Native American and Western history and a 104-seat domed planetarium. The Gallatin Pioneer Museum provides a glimpse into Montana’s past through such unique exhibits as jail cells, a hanging gallows, and a reconstructed log cabin.
About 60 miles west of Bozeman, at the end of the Bozeman Trail, you can witness the birthplace of Montana frozen in time. The gold discovered in Virginia City, Montana, helped to silence the guns of the Civil War by providing funding for Union troops to defeat the South. The end of the mining era in the early 1940s silenced Virginia City, and it remains today the best preserved example of the many placer mining camps that flourished in the Rocky Mountains in the 1860s. The town stands as it did in its heyday, with 150 buildings certified as authentic historic structures, filled with museums, shops, a brewery, summer theater and restaurants. An authentic narrow gauge railroad, using cars from the railroad’s gold rush era, runs between Virginia City and Nevada City, another intriguing mining ghost town. If you prefer natural history, an 89-mile scenic route takes you to the Gallatin Petrified Forest, Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area, Gallatin National Forest and the Madison mountain range.
Glacier National Park
Get ready for some of the most spectacular scenery on earth today, as you head for Glacier National Park. Known to Native Americans as the "Shining Mountains" and the "Backbone of the World", Glacier National Park encompasses more than a million acres of forests, alpine meadows, lakes, rugged peaks and glacial-carved valleys in the Northern Rocky Mountains. The park is named for its prominent glacier-carved terrain and remnant glaciers descended from the ice ages of 10,000 years ago. The result of millennia of geological action is some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. This diverse landscape is home to more than 70 species of mammals including the grizzly bear, wolverine, gray wolf and lynx, over 260 species of birds, including golden eagles, and an incredible variety of plant life. An absolute must while you’re here is the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, truly the scenic drive of a lifetime.
With two days here, you may choose to spend one day exploring nearby attractions. Just over the Canadian border (remember your passport!) is Glacier’s sister park, Waterton Lakes National Park and the site of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. The first park of its kind in the world, the Peace Park symbolizes the long-standing friendship and cooperation between Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park. To the west of Glacier National Park is the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, home of the Museum of the Plains Indian. Take the 70-mile self-drive tour of Blackfeet Country, following 15 historical “Blackfeet Trail Tour” markers across the prairie, and you’ll understand why the Blackfeet felt so at home under this big sky. The Museum’s permanent exhibition illustrates the diversity of historic, social and ceremonial arts created by the tribal peoples of the Northern Plains. The park’s many hiking trails allow those who venture on them to steal glimpses of the heart of this majestic wilderness and its abundant wildlife, including bears, elk, moose and bighorn sheep. Arrive and overnight in the resort community of Whitefish.
Surrounded by the Lolo National Forest, Missoula, Montana is known as the “Garden City” for its lush forests and abundant fresh water. Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness, less than five miles from the city, offers endless mountain trails and bike paths on 61,000 acres of glaciated topography. Whether you want a walk in the woods or an intense mountain bike ride, you’ll find high mountain lakes, crystal clear waterfalls, hanging valleys, and slopes of sub-alpine fir, pine and spruce leading to open parklands. Be on the lookout for deer, elk, coyotes, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, black bears, grizzly bears (rare!), moose, and mountain lions, as well as eagles, hawks, ospreys, and a variety of songbirds. In the park’s northern region, the Flathead Indian Reservation protects sacred lands that were once vision-quest sites for the Salish Indians, so be sure not to trespass.
Before the arrival of European settlers, Western Montana was home to the Salish, Pend d'Oreille, and Kootenai tribes. Lewis and Clark passed through the Missoula Valley in 1805, but Europeans did not settle here until 1860 when entrepreneurs C.P. Higgins and Francis Worden opened a trading market called the Hellgate Village (now Wordens Market on Higgins Street). The name hellgate originated with French trappers who found carnage from warfare between the Blackfeet and Flathead tribes in the canyon on the east edge of town. Following on the success of Hellgate Village, a flour mill, sawmill, the gold rush and better roads brought people to Missoula, named for the Salish Indian name for the area, Nemissoolatakoo, or “near the cold, chilling waters.” By 1866 it was the county seat, in 1871 the first newspaper was published, and in 1883 the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Missoula. Learn about all these developments and more on an historic walking tour and at the city’s excellent heritage museums.
En route to Salmon, Idaho today, you’ll travel the beautiful and historic Bitterroot Valley Scenic Drive along the Bitterroot River, flanked by the Bitterroot Mountains to the west, and the Sapphire Mountains to the east. The valley opens up into large plains dotted with historic towns and working ranches near Stevensville, where you can observe nesting osprey and other wildlife at the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. Stevensville is famous for being the first permanent European settlement in Montana, a Jesuit mission established at the request of the local Salish Indians. St. Mary's Mission and the Fort Owen State Monument are open for touring on the site. As you approach the Idaho border, you’ll come upon Lost Trail Pass and Chief Joseph Pass, both of which are deeply historic, having been used by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery and later by Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Nation as they fled from the US Calvary.
Sacajawea, Lewis and Clark’s Shoshoni translator, companion and guide, was born in what today is the town of Salmon, Idaho. The Sacajawea Center honors her Agai Dika Lemhi Shoshoni heritage and her role in the Corps of Discovery. Perched on the edge of the Salmon-Challis National Forest, Salmon, Idaho provides the opportunity for a wide array of outdoor activities, from hiking, fishing and big game hunting to exhilarating whitewater rafting and relaxing hot spring soaking. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area affords beautiful views of the varied landscapes along the Salmon River—originally called the River of No Return for the difficulty of getting back up the river’s famous rapids.
Yellowstone National Park
As large as Rhode Island, Yellowstone National Park features an incredible array of natural phenomenon. The Park contains over 10,000 hydrothermal features, including 300 geysers that account for approximately one-half of the world’s total. The geography of Yellowstone is made up of eight distinct areas. At Mammoth Hot Springs, the bubbling, boiling springs appear to be covered with white chalk. Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, oldest and most dynamic of Yellowstone’s thermal areas. A temperature of 459F was recorded just a little over 1,000 feet below the surface.
In the Madison Natural Area, thermal action bubbles up in many colors. Trails take you through colorful hot springs and Artist Paint Pots just south of Norris Junction. The Old Faithful Area is actually made up of four different geyser basins where 60% of the world’s geysers share a very small space. The Grant Village Area and the Lake Area are both adjacent to Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake at a high elevation in North America. The deepest portion in the West Thumb area has the same terrain of geysers and hot springs at the bottom. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River is roughly 20 miles long and varies between 800 and 1,200 feet deep. The falls along the river range from 300 feet to Tower Falls, which drops 132-foot. Tower Creek is framed by eroded volcanic pinnacles that were documented by the earliest explorers in the region. Should you wish to learn more about the cultural heritage of the Yellowstone area, there are numerous museums nearby. From the Buffalo Bill Historical Center to the International Fly Fishing Museum, these excellent centers will round out your visit and put your experiences into perspective. In order to get the most from your visit, we highly recommend you spend one night in the Mammoth Hot Springs area and 2 nights in the Southern half of the Park near Old Faithful or The Lake.
The John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway connects Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park. As you drive along Teton Park Road at the base of the mountain, it becomes immediately obvious why this is a National Park.
Plant your gaze on the 40-mile long mountain range, rising nearly 14,000 feet straight out of the plain. Even around Jenny Lake, one of the most pristine lakes in North America, they loom overhead. All three Scenic Drives in the Park are a must do: The Teton Park Road, Jenny Lake Scenic Drive, and Signal Mountain Summit Road, from which you’ll have panoramic views of the Teton Range, Jackson Lake and the Jackson Hole valley. We highly recommend taking a Wildlife Expedition, whether an all-day adventure, a daybreak trip or an evening tour. Any of these will take you into the back country of Grand Teton National Park, which is otherwise inaccessible to auto traffic.
In 1867, while in command of the troops protecting the crew surveying the route of the first trans-continental railroad, General John A. Rawlins (chief of staff of the U.S. Army) expressed a wish for a drink of good, cold water. Upon discovery of a spring, he declared it was the most refreshing drink he had ever tasted and exclaimed, "If anything is ever named after me, I hope it will be a spring of water. If you have time later today visit The Wyoming Frontier Prison.
Denver & Home
As you depart Rawlins later today and head back to Denver, rest assured that you have seen and savoured the Best of the West National Parks.
- Direct return flights from London (Please ask about other departure airports)
- 17 nights hotel accommodation and room tax
- Fully insured compact car hire (larger vehicles are available)
- A detailed and comprehensive travel pack with driving instructions and maps
Daily departures from May to September.