Road Trips

Road Tripping Montana and Wyoming’s National Parks on a Budget

Gawk at the glorious vistas dotting Glacier National Park. (Photo: Getty Images)

From Devils (Tower) hot to Glacier (National Park) cool, a road trip that starts in eastern Wyoming before heading northwest into Montana will overload your mind with the wonders of nature — in the best possible way. Another perk? You can make the drive without taxing your wallet.

Hiking and star gazing make for mighty fine entertainment, and aside from national park fees (and there’s a way to reduce that cost, too), they don’t cost a thing.

The road ahead features stops where you’ll have to make choice after choice about what you have time to see and what can wait until your next visit. Anybody who tells you a national park is a one-trick pony is, quite simply, mistaken.

Before You Go

The most important card you can put in your wallet for this trip? An America the Beautiful Pass from the National Park Service. The days ahead will find you in three national parks and a handful of national monuments. The joint entrance fees to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks alone run $50 per vehicle.

But the pass allows you to buy a year’s entry to the entire National Park system — that’s 59 National Parks and more than 1,950 other sites — for a budget-friendly $80. (Military members get a free pass. Seniors? Just $10 for a lifetime pass.)

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Start: Devils Tower

national parks road trip
Devils Tower rises from the ground like an imposing monolith. (Photo: Alamy)

Start your road trip with a visit to Devils Tower National Monument, where you can spend hours walking around and around one of the grandest single-focus natural sites you’ll ever see. Devil’s Tower rises up out of the ground, looking like a massive tree stump statue carved from stone.

Hike around the Tower — and other nearby trails — by day, and stick around at night to see Devil’s Tower silhouetted against the night sky.

Devils Tower to Grand Teton National Park

Distance: 432 miles

Get an early start for a driving day that will take you to Grand Teton National Park. There are two routes to consider: Head slightly south first for a visit to the shortgrass prairie of Thunder Basin National Grassland, or head toward Highway 90, which passes through Bighorn National Forest, a 189,000-acre wilderness area that offers plenty of hiking opportunities in view of the Rocky Mountains’ kissing cousins, the Bighorn Mountains.

national parks road trip
Lose a staring contest with one of Grand Teton’s buffalo. (Photo: Alamy)

After a leg-stretching hike, continue on to Grand Teton National Park. The Teton Mountain range has a jagged, “yeah, try-me” look about it — but there’s great beauty under that imposing view.

Take a scenic drive through the park to watch for wildlife, from the wee yellow-pine chipmunk to the massive (yet surprisingly graceful) bison.

Lucky wildlife spotters may even get a glimpse of a mountain lion or a lynx. To get a different view of the park, settle onto a raft for a relaxing jaunt (just $56 per person) with National Park Float Trips.

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Grand Teton to Yellowstone National Park

Distance: 6.9 miles (does not include driving distances within each park)

A quick trip up Route 191 brings you to Yellowstone National Park. Though Yellowstone can be a crowded place — there are always loads of people waiting to watch Old Faithful do its thing — don’t skip it. The geothermal pools are mesmerizing.

national parks road trip
Geothermal pools wow the crowds at Yellowstone. (Photo: Alamy)

Make the most of your visit by taking the park up on the bevy of free ranger activities and talks on offer. Definitely do some hiking in the park, from easy wanders down boardwalks to outings more extreme.

If you’ve done a drop of hiking but you’re not quite comfortable on your own (or you’ve never hiked in bear country), consider going on a guided hike with one of the park’s licensed outfitters; the outings are affordable, and because you’ll learn a lot and have a safe day on the trail, it’ll be well worth the price.

SEE ALSO: A Local’s Guide to Driving Vancouver’s Picturesque Sea-to-Sky Highway

Yellowstone to Glacier National Park

Distance: 440 miles

Another six to seven hours of driving (north this time) and you’ll land at your final destination: Glacier National Park in Montana. But you just might want to add an extra day or two to stop along the way there.

Just outside of Missoula — a college town worth a visit for lunch — sits the wonderfully-named Lolo National Forest, which offers two million acres of hiking and other adventures. Foragers take note: Lolo is rich with mushrooms and berries. But make sure you get the proper permits before picking a thing.

Then it’s on up to Glacier National Park. With some of the country’s most beautiful hiking trails, your eyes will be as busy as your legs. For an easygoing hike, head down the 1.1-mile Forest and Fire Nature Trail where you’ll see regrowth of a forest and, from spring into summer, a riot of wildflowers.

Since this is a road trip, take note: Don’t skip the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road scenic drive. Between gawking at Mother Nature’s handiwork and marveling over the incredible engineering feat of building the road, you’re in for a treat.

Yeah, that thing about adding a few days? Think about it. Happy trails!