In case it’s escaped your notice, I have a bit of a thing for National Parks. My parents can attest that for most of my childhood I despised walking anywhere, but now I love exploring the countryside. Here in California that means the abundance of State and National Parks that are nearby-ish, from Joshua Tree National Park to Pinnacles and slightly further afield, the stunning parks in Utah, are a huge perk of living in the USA.
It makes sense then that the destination for our epic summer road trip was America’s first National Park, Yellowstone. Little did we realise when planning the trip that we would end up visiting not just Yellowstone, but three other parks, too.
Simply put, exploring Yellowstone is like visiting another planet. There are boiling rivers, technicolour hot pools, stunning crystal/rock/salt/mineral formations and geysers that erupt almost like clockwork. The first area of land to be given National Park status back in 1872, it’s so large that its borders cover three states. Understandably this makes Yellowstone a very popular destination for tourists, so during the day some areas of the park got quite busy. We stayed just outside the park for two nights and my favourite moment was on our way back from visiting a natural hot spring (which was 50 miles inside the park – that’s like driving from Bristol to Exeter just to go swimming) when we stopped at some of the geysers at dusk. All the tour buses had gone so it was much quieter, except for the sound of oversized mosquitos nipping at our heels.
In the park we saw a brown bear crossing the road, a buffalo taking a dust bath, deer chilling out in the shade and countless birds and smaller wildlife, including his little guy, a yellow belled marmot.
Grand Teton, Wyoming
Exiting from Yellowstone to the south takes you right though the unexpected but beautiful Grand Teton National Park. We didn’t have time to stop long here but that didn’t stop us from admiring the stunning Teton mountain range that overlooks Jackson Lake. Taking a slight detour, we headed up to a viewpoint where you can see for miles across the park and beyond, just before it started to rain.
Great Basin, Nevada
Another surprise addition to our itinerary, the friends we stayed with in Salt Lake City recommended this park to us for the journey back across Nevada. A small National Park on the eastern edge of the state, Great Basin is known for two things; Bristlecone pine trees that are thousands of years old, and underground caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites By the time we got there, tours for the caves had finished for the day, so we walked a trail that took us past Stella Lake and Teresa Lake to the site of the Bristlecones. Small plaques noted the age of each tree and put into context the astonishing time period that these eerie but majestic trees have lived, died and been reborn into.
It was in the car park here that several older men gave admiring comments to us about the Mustang, and one even commented on the “2/60 air conditioning.” When we tried to politely explain that the car doesn’t have air-con, he responded, “No – two windows down, 60 miles an hour!”
Our final National Park of the road trip was on home turf – Yosemite. One of California’s most popular tourist attractions, it’s a paradise for photographers, climbers and hikers, and was the only park that we actually stayed inside, finding accommodation the day before in the Tuolumne Meadows area of the park. Camping spots and hotel rooms book up months in advance here, so I was chuffed to find an in-between option of a canvas hut that came complete with a double bed, sheets, a fireplace and not much else. Meals were eaten mess hall-style with other campers and although it was the most expensive stay of the holiday, it was lovely to wake up in the park and be able to go on a couple of walks directly from the campsite.
I’ve heard that Yosemite is best to explore in spring or autumn and while I enjoyed visiting it when we did, I wouldn’t pick July again as we had to compete with families, hot weather, tour groups and traffic getting around the park – the latter not being something you’d necessarily associate with enjoying the great outdoors. For example, our main hike on the second day was to Mirror Lake, a beauty spot named for the reflections of the surrounding mountains on its surface. Unfortunately, it dries out in the summer – something we didn’t know until we got there two hours later!
That’s the National Parks section of my road trip series complete! Next up; one more outfit from on the road.