The American Northwest is home to some of the country’s most iconic national parks. We embarked on an RV journey from Denver to Seattle, exploring six stunning national parks in between. Part 1: Grand Teton & Yellowstone.
This summer marked my two-year anniversary of living in the US. I flew into Denver from Dallas to meet my brother and sister-in-law, Koen and Babs. We enjoyed the last bit of city life but were even more excited to start RV life.
Starting point for our two-week RV trip was Cruise America in Denver. The first challenge was fitting our luggage into an Uber. Koen and Babs had already been traveling for two weeks and built up an impressive stock of provisions and camping tools. Luckily our Uber driver was up for the challenge and helped us fill up her car to the brim.
The moment we took off in our Cruise America RV, we discovered the soundtrack of the trip: the kitchen doors opened and closed with every turn we took. As we traveled the first stretch from Colorado to Wyoming, the RV revealed more surprises.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton national park campgrounds were full long before I started planning our trip, so we ended up on a private campground just outside of the park. We woke up in Fireside RV Park with a first glimpse of the impressive Grand Teton range.
Our first up-close view of the three tetons (“the three nipples”) came on the way to Jackson Hole airport. My boyfriend Oscar was flying into what has to be the prettiest airport in the US.
Full of energy after a day of driving, we decided to take on one of the longer hikes in the park. Despite repeated discouragements from a determined park ranger, we embarked on the 16-mile Lake Solitude Trail around 1 PM. The short boat ride from Jenny Lake Visitor Center offers 360-degree views of the Grand Tetons and a head start on the trail.
The first part up to to the viewpoint of Jenny Lake was rather crowded, with all kinds of interesting visitors crossing our paths.
It wasn’t until we entered a quieter stretch of the hike that we realized what we were missing. Each hiker we passed was equipped with at least one bottle of bear spray. So when a group of hikers warned us there was a bear on the trail ahead, we took action. We convinced a group of three men who looked liked they could take on a bear without bear spray to sell us one of their sprays. Armed with the bottle, we ran into everything but a bear.
The views past the Cascade Canyon fork are simply breathtaking. The impressive Grand Teton peaks tower above the colorful wildflower carpet. We enjoyed all this beauty with no other soul in sight.
My brother went for a true polar bear plunge in Lake Solitude, of which the rest of us gladly opted out.
The fact that we were all alone on the last stretch of the hike was probably an indicator that we started late. The park ranger’s discouraging words echoed when realizing we only had two hours until the last boat ride. After 8 miles of hiking and 8 more to go, an extra 3 miles for missing the boat seemed insurmountable. That’s when hiking became trail running. Turns out that Babs was a racewalking champion in a previous life.
Our efforts and blisters paid off, as the last shuttle was approaching when we made it down to the boat ramp. We set off for Yellowstone while toasting to an amazing first day in the Far West.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
The first national park in the US is also the most varied one. Yellowstone is shaped like a figure eight, with the more famous attractions on the lower loop. To enjoy all this natural beauty, we spent three nights on two different national park campgrounds. Grant Village is the first campground when entering from the Grand Teton side. The hot showers were much appreciated after our adventurous day in Grand Teton.
Upper Geyser Basin
We woke up with the smell of eggs, but not the breakfast-type. The Upper Geyser Basin is home to Yellowstone’s most recognized geyser, Old Faithful. Park rangers can predict the eruption of Old Faithful very accurately, hence its name. The eruption times are posted in the visitor center and happen about 60 minutes apart.
The entire geyser basin is just out of this world. Yellowstone reveals a unique part of the earth that is not visible anywhere else. It’s easy to see why Yellowstone became the first national park in the US.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Yellowstone’s most iconic sight is without doubt the Grand Prismatic Spring. The largest hot spring in the US is located in the Midway Geyser Basin. There are two ways to see the spring: up-close from the boardwalk, or birds-eye from the overlook. The latter can be reached by a short walk from the Fairy Falls trailhead. It’s the kind of spot where you keep taking pictures only to realize later they all look the same.
We were planning to drive the entire bottom loop the first day, starting from Grant Village and ending at Bridge Bay campground. But traffic around the major attractions is walking pace at most in peak season. As the perspective of chilling in the sun seemed more appealing than chilling in the RV, we turned around and drove to Bridge Bay the way we came. We made a quick stop at Kepler Cascades.
Bridge Bay Campground
Bridge Bay is one of the five national park campgrounds. Just like Grant Village campground, it’s located at Yellowstone Lake. Bridge Bay is an open meadow, whereas Grant Village’s many trees offer more privacy. For “apéro” in the sun however, Bridge Bay campground is just perfect.
The bisons of Hayden Valley played the lead role in our second Yellowstone day. Oscar was flying out of Yellowstone airport, just two miles west of Yellowstone national park. To get there, we had to pass through Hayden Valley. This area is known for its large herds of bison that roam the valley, and apparently also the road.
Being completely stuck in traffic in the middle of a national park was definitely a first. After an hour of barely moving and some cursing, we realized we wouldn’t make it in time for the flight. Calling the airline to try changing the flight was impossible as we were in the middle of no-service land. Nothing left to do but giving in to the stunning landscapes around us.
When we made it out of Hayden Valley, we found a spot with spotty internet. Enough to purchase a flight from Helena Regional Airport leaving the next day. Thanks to the bisons of Hayden Valley, the four musketeers got an extra day together.
My brother’s excellent parking skills got our RV into a spot where I could barely get my car into. The small parking at Dunraven Pass is the start of the trail to Mount Washburn summit. It’s a 7-mile out and back trail that is constantly surrounded by panoramic views.
Mount Washburn summit is home to one of three remaining fire lookout stations in Yellowstone. During the summer/fall fire season, the tower is staffed 24/7 by one individual or “lookout”, who is tasked with detecting fires on the horizon. Not exactly a job I would apply for, but I could see the charm of this isolation with Yellowstone views.
Although this is an out and back trail, Oscar and I managed to end next to the side of the road about two miles from the Dunraven Pass parking. Up to date it’s a mystery how we lost sight of our hiking partners and ended up on a different trail. After jumping up and waving to about ten Cruise America RV’s, Koen and Babs came cruising behind the corner to rescue us.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
We took in the beauty of Yellowstone Canyon from Artist Point. It’s not hard to see where this lookout point got its name from: add a frame to the picture and it could easily be a painting.
We ventured out a bit further towards Point Sublime, a short trail that departs from Artist Point. The colors in the canyon are truly breathtaking.
Mud Volcano Area
Our last stop in Yellowstone national park was not of the breathtaking natural wonder-type. Although it does encourage you to stop breathing (and smelling). Mud Volcano Area is a collection of stinking, sizzling mudpots and hot springs. No beautiful colors here but just brown, bubbling mud.
The storm that broke afterwards forced us inside the RV for a cozy barbecue & caipirinha dinner. More RV adventures to follow when we continue our trip to Montana!