Leisure travel was far different in 2020 compared to the previous three plus decades of my life due to the global pandemic caused by COVID-19. It was important to do your due diligence in just about every aspect of trip planning. It was also important to assess whether the risk-benefit analysis favored flying or driving, and depending on your personal health or those around you at home, if traveling for leisure was something that should have been done at all. With all these considerations in mind, my family (wife, toddler son, and infant son) took a road-trip out to 4 different national parks. Initially we had booked a round-trip flight on American Airlines since both legs of the trip had a half-empty plane. However, as we got closer to departure, the Chicago to Bozeman, Montana flight started getting more and more crowded. Two days before our flight, I received a courtesy message from American Airlines that the flight was expected to be full. They gave me two options: A) I could get my miles refunded without any cost to reinstate them or B) I could book another flight for the same day which routed me through Dallas. Getting off the plane in a state that was a hotbed for COVID at the time? No thank you. We took option A and decided to do a one-way car rental and then fly back from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This was also going to be a test-run to see how our 22 month old and 4 month old (at the time) would handle a lengthy drive. Driving also allowed us to add Badlands National Park and Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota to our itinerary since we weren’t going to drive 1,500 miles from Chicago to Glacier National Park in Montana in one shot. The benefit of driving also allowed us to do some research and plan our stops away from COVID-19 hotbeds. It required meticulous planning and multiple calls to various hotels to see what precautions they were taking for COVID-19. The least they can do is ensure all staff and guests were wearing masks in common areas of the property while sanitizing every area of a room that would be prone to physical contact. One hotel also informed me that rooms would be blocked off for 24 hours once a guest checked out. Gathering that type of information gave us some peace of mind.
Day 1: Chicago to Mitchell, South Dakota
So it began. We left Chicago at 10am with the GPS showing us an ETA of 8:03 pm at Mitchell, South Dakota. Factor in diaper change stops, gas stops, and venturing out of the car for a scenic viewpoint or two, we knew 10-10:30 pm was the more realistic time frame. We chose this town since it wasn’t too close to Badlands National Park (204 miles) where overcrowding could be an issue, but close enough where we can drive over and get there in under 3 hours. We took I-90 West and made our first stop to explore the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River at Great River Bluffs State Park. We did a relatively short hike here with the kids and got panoramic views of the Mississippi River. The hike itself wasn’t difficult and it was a perfect way to stretch out after being in the car for nearly 5 hours.
After spending about an hour here, we continued on our journey further west to South Dakota where we’d spend the night. We stayed the night at AmericInn (Wyndham brand) and they did a great job of keeping things clean. Since this was a stopover hotel rather than a destination hotel, I won’t be doing a detailed review but it was sufficient for our purposes.
Day 2: Badlands National Park and Mt. Rushmore
On our second day of the trip, we had Badlands National Park on our agenda as the first stop followed by Mt. Rushmore. We made it a point to get up early and get to Badlands National Park as early as possible. It took about 2 hours and 45 minutes and as soon as we got through the gates, I felt like our decision to drive was validated. The scenery and rock formations over here are unreal and there is also some wildlife. We saw bison, big horn sheep, and pronghorn. There are several trails you can hike at Badlands but due to our time constraints, sweltering heat, and an infant and toddler in-tow, we decided to focus mostly on lookout points and drive through the park.
After spending about 6 hours at Badlands, we headed 75 minutes west to Mt. Rushmore. It’s not as big as I thought but the precision and detail that was necessary to carve out four U.S. Presidents is pretty incredible. In hindsight if I had to choose between spending more time at Badlands and visiting Mt. Rushmore, I’d have chose Badlands. If its a bucket list item that you want to cross off, by all means go ahead and visit it.
We finished Mt. Rushmore at around 7:15 pm and now it was time to make the 366 mile drive to Billings, Montana where we would spend the night. Along the way, we made a stop at Black Hills National Forest to take in the views. This was a very underrated place that deserved more than the 35-40 minutes we spent here. Absolutely beautiful and I should have done my homework before visiting. But hey, you can learn from my mistake.
We didn’t reach Billings, Montana until nearly 1am. Fortunately both kids were asleep nearly the entire way and the 80 MPH speed limit in South Dakota and Montana didn’t hurt.
Day 3: Bozeman, MT and White Fish, MT (Glacier National Park Area)
Our goal on day 3 was to get to Whitefish, Montana with a stop in Bozeman. Whitefish was going to be our home base to explore Glacier National Park. If you recall earlier, we had our flight booked to Bozeman, MT from Chicago and that is the location where we originally booked our rental car. We found a really good car rental deal through Budget and even though it was non-refundable, we went ahead and made the booking since prices were increasing by the day. Since we cancelled our flight, I came to the realization that Bozeman was going to have to be incorporated into our trip one away or another. With that in mind, we booked our one-way rental from Chicago to Bozeman and I just aligned the drop-off and pickup times so that we could drop off the car we rented from Chicago and pick up the SUV we originally booked in Bozeman. It took 2 hours to get there from Billings and then another 5 hours to drive up north to Whitefish which would serve as our gateway to Glacier National Park. The entire drive was scenic and beautiful and long drives don’t seem long and burdensome when you’re surrounded by beauty. We stayed at the Pine Lodge on Whitefish River and that is a hotel I will be doing a review on.
Day 4: Glacier National Park
This was our day to explore as much of Glacier National Park as we could. We entered Glacier National Park from the west entrance and immediately got on Going-to-the-Sun Road. This road connects the eastern and western sides of the park and offers stunning views at just about every turnout. There are many trails worth hiking at Glacier National Park but I strongly suggest going in groups of 4 or more due to the presence of bears. If you’re traveling with an infant or toddler or need wheelchair access, Trail of the Cedar’s is the one you want to do. It is an ADA accessible loop trail and there is no climbing, steep declines. or hard scrambles. This is a very popular trail for families with younger children so I strongly recommend getting there early as the parking area near the trailhead can get packed after 9am.
Continue driving on Going-to-the-Sun Road and have your camera ready for several pullouts that offer some of the best scenery in North America.
Going-to-the-Sun Road will eventually lead you to Logan Pass, the continental divide of the country. This where the watershed that drains into the Atlantic Ocean is separated from the watershed that drains into the Pacific Ocean.
There is a visitor’s center here and the parking lot tends to attract several bighorn sheep. It may be tempting but do not feed them if you encounter them. They will follow you and are capable of doing damage.
The sunsets at Glacier National Park are gorgeous. If you want the best spot for viewing, there is a stretch of Going-to-the-Sun Road about a quarter mile from Logan Pass that will give you the best vantage point. There are also car pullouts in that area.
Day 5: Drive to Gardiner, Montana-Yellowstone National Park
We slept in on day 5 and took our time making the 6 hour drive about 400 miles south to Gardiner, Montana. This was the segment where our toddler was most restless due to the long drive and spotty cell phone data coverage along the way. My wife did a great job keeping him entertained and he did a great job not throwing a tantrum. Ridgeline Hotel was going to be our homebase for the next 2 days and is situated near the north entrance of the park. Ridgeline is part of the Ascend Collection of hotels under the Choice Hotels network. We called it an early night and prepared for a longer day tomorrow.
Day 6: Yellowstone National Park
If you enter from the North Entrance of Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs will among the first sights. I highly recommend getting there early as parking can fill up quickly and parking along the road is illegal (many tourists ignore this warning). There are some stairs to climb but there is a wooden walking path and ramp that will take you right to the springs.
Once you’re done here, you can either head south towards Grand Prismatic, Old Faithful, and other geothermal hot springs or you can head east towards Lamar Valley. If you want to view wildlife including wolves, bears, bison, Lamar Valley is where you want to be. We saw wolves from a distance, several bears, pronghorn deer, elk, coyote, red fox, and other native animals. I do want to point out that if you do get out of your car to take a picture of a bear or wolf, you should maintain 100 yards of distance and 25 yards of distance from animals such as bison or elk. The pictures below were taken using a 200 mm zoom lens with more than 100 yards of distance between me and the bear and more than 50 yards between me and the bison. Bison may seem docile and gentle but if you get near them, they may charge you and can potentially kill you.
With the exception of wolves, we were able to sight all of the aforementioned animals from the comfort and safety of our car. This is ideal if you’re traveling with younger children and would rather not bring them along for a hike. I did allow my 2 year old son to walk on a trail with me and I made sure it wasn’t near the tree line or thick shrubs that can be used as a hiding spot for a mountain lion or bear.
It’s important to note that seeing certain animals such as bears and wolves in Yellowstone does require patience. It’s not as simple as you driving there and the animals just show up. The longer you stay in Lamar Valley, the higher your chances. The more days you spend in Yellowstone, the higher the likelihood that you will sight most if not all the animals. There is a 20 mile stretch of Lamar Valley which we drove back and forth several times. It took about 2 hours before we saw our first bear. Bison and elk are plentiful and those are the two you can count on seeing with minimum to no effort. We spent the entire day here and were rewarded for it. Remember to bring plenty of food and water if you plan on doing the same. Also remember to bring binoculars.
Day 7: Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park
Just as most other days, we got up early with ambitions to cover two parks in one day. We started our day very early in the morning (can’t thank the kids enough for cooperating) and drove south to view the geysers. Old Faithful is the one that everyone wants to see and the parking situation can be impossible if you don’t get there early enough. The same can be said for Grand Prismatic, a hot spring that is the largest in the U.S. and third largest in the world. Grand Prismatic is part of the Midway Geyser Basin which also home to Excelsior Geyser, Turquoise Pool, and Opal Pool.
Grand Prismatic is the size of three football fields so if you want to get a panoramic view or a picture that would fit its entirety, a little hiking is required. If you look straight ahead in the picture above, you will spot people (they’re very tiny in the picture) who have made the hike congregated in an area that allows them to get a birds eye view from elevation. Doing this hike with small children on a sweltering day was not an option for us but if that’s not a concern for you, do the hike. Once we finished the Midwest Geyser Basin, it was off to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
The southern entrance of Yellowstone and northern entrance of Grand Teton are only 31 miles apart. While Yellowstone covers over 3,500 square miles, Grand Teton is much smaller at about 484 square miles. Grand Teton National Park has stunning mountain views and also plenty of wildlife. We got here around 4pm which gave us time drive around Jackson Lake, Jenny Lake, and Leigh Lake and take in the various viewpoints the park has to offer.
We didn’t have much luck spotting wildlife other than bison on this day. We did enjoy the beautiful sunset and then called it a day. For this portion of our trip, we stayed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming at Hampton Inn. The summer time pricing of $400/night was exorbitant and I ended up using 131k Hilton points to book two nights. This was an average redemption rate but the property itself was very nice and the décor really fit its Wyoming location. It was easily one of the best Hampton Inn properties we had ever stayed at. We had one more full day left in Grand Teton National Park before it was time to fly home.
Day 8: Grand Teton National Park
On the final day of our trip, we woke up early and started driving around the park early in the morning. When we got to a particular area of Snake River, we were told by park rangers that three grizzlies had killed an elk overnight and consumed some of the carcass about 600 yards off the road. They said it was possible, even likely that the grizzlies would return later to finish off the carcass. With that in mind we drove around other parts of the park with a plan to return to that area a couple of hours before sunset when the grizzlies were likely to return. From our vantage point, we were able to spot the elk carcass and park rangers did not allow anyone to get within 500 yards of the downed elk. So we took in the beauty of other parts of the park but full of anticipation for what may ensue later in the day.
At about 6pm, we made the drive back to the area of Snake River where the elk carcass situated. By this time, several other groups had gotten word by park rangers about the potential of a grizzly sighting and the shoulder of the road was packed with cars. After about 30 minutes of waiting, we saw a grizzly running through the meadow and heading straight for the elk carcass. It consumed whatever it could for about 10 minutes before heading back to the trees.
To observe nature in action was the absolute perfect way to cap off our trip. Over 2,500 miles driven, countless hours in the car, and cooperation by both kiddos made this trip possible. A very special thanks to my wife who initially thought I was crazy for proposing this trip but eventually bought in. She did a great job keeping our 22 month old occupied while making sure our 4 month old was always fed. Without her kid/baby management skills, this trip would have been difficult. We’re always asked how we made this trip with an infant and toddler and if it’s possible for other couples with young kids in-tow to do something similar. Our 4 month old spent most of his time sleeping so he was pretty easy to deal with. To keep our 22 month old busy, we had several educational videos and interactive games uploaded to our phones. We also bought some puzzles, etch-a-sketch, and other toys that would keep him busy. The most important part of the trip was keeping our 22 month old (Now 32 month old) engaged and educating him along the way. If we saw a specific type of animal or landscape, we’d identify it for him and then ask him to identify it for us if we saw it later. This added to his vocabulary and gave him experiences he can not only look back on but also look forward to. We’re not huge fans of giving a ton of screen time but trips like this are an exception. These types of trips may seem daunting but you’re capable of more than you think. It does take a complete buy-in from both parents but once you have that, make a game plan and execute it the best you can.
Day 9: Departure from Jackson Hole Airport to Chicago
One of the unique things about Jackson Hole Airport in Wyoming is that it is the only airport in the U.S. located inside a national park, in this case Grand Teton. This makes for some spectacular views upon takeoff and landing. Even plane spotting with the backdrop of the mountains is very cool. Thank you for reading and if you have any questions, please leave a comment.