Our National Park System is nothing short of phenomenal. These vast swaths of land preserved for their natural wonders are something everyone should experience. Montana has a total of nine National Park service areas, but the two most famous, Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park, are also the most different.
Glacier’s tall, jutting mountains, massive moving glaciers, and mountain lakes are a vast contrast to Yellowstone’s wide open spaces, big rivers, simmering hot pots and shooting geysers.
Yet, the two can’t be compared; each has its own beauty and intrigue.
Glacier National Park
Aptly known as, the “Crown of the Continent,” Glacier National Park is tucked up at what seems like the end of the earth. Home to 26 glaciers, ancient, dense forests, 762 lakes and 746 miles of trail, this park is a backcountry lover's dream. The jagged, jaw-dropping mountains, are the epitome of alpine beauty, and seeing an actual glacier is something to behold. Yet, for all its grandeur, the park has still been described as quaint and charming.
The famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, a National Historic Landmark and engineering marvel, takes you through the heart of the park over Logan Pass. This narrow, winding road, leads you to breathtaking views and is one of the highlights of visiting the park. You can certainly drive the road yourself, however, the famous 1930s vintage Red Buses are a great way to relax and enjoy the scenery. The roll back tops provide full views of the tall, stunning mountain backdrops.
Families can enjoy day hikes to one of the many alpine lakes, which are easy to approach, or take a guided boat tour around Lake McDonald.
The steep, rocky terrain is home to numerous mountain goats. Watching them move over the rock with grace and speed is something to see, particularly the baby goats whose agility comes quickly and naturally. There is a large population of both grizzly and black bears. Don’t worry, a number of ranger led hikes are available giving you the chance to hike with a group. Bears don’t want to encounter people as much as people don’t want to encounter bears, and the noise of the group will alert them to get off the path.
Yellowstone National Park
The world’s first national park, Yellowstone National Park spans 2,221,766 acres, commanding a distinct spot in the wide open spaces of the west. Sitting on top of one of the world’s largest calderas at 45 x 30 miles, there are more than 500 active geysers in Yellowstone, making up more than half of the world’s total. Not to mention the multitude of hot springs, including the Grand Prismatic Spring which is the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world. The color of this hot spring is like nothing you have seen; a deep blue center turns to a Caribbean turquoise, then yellow and finally a deep rust.
While hiking and backpacking are both beautiful in Yellowstone, the sheer size of the park makes it more conducive to driving. The west side is where you’ll find the geothermal and seismic activity, whereas the Lamar valley is wide open with great fishing and lots of wildlife. If you’re patient (or lucky) you might see grizzlies, black bears, elk, bison, big raptors and the elusive wolves.
There are 290 waterfalls in Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone being the most impressive; 24 miles long, between 800 and 1,200 ft deep and from .25 to .75 mi wide. Among many places to view the falls, Artist Point delivers one of the most stunning.
Getting to Montana is easier than you might think. Both Glacier Park International Airport, and Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport have great air service. There are 17 non-stop flights to Bozeman from major cities across the nation.
If you have the time, a road trip between the two is ideal. It’s roughly a six hour trip, which takes you through vast and varied terrain. The drive itself is beautiful; there are three routes to choose from, each different from the other. We highly recommend allowing a full day so you can stop for lunch, or to explore some of the quaint towns along the way. (If you’re a motorcyclist, you’ll love this trip!)
Both parks have accommodations, but the gateway towns surrounding the entrances are fun to visit as well. Good food, interesting shops and lively locals all round out the experience. Keep in mind, Glacier is closed in the winter, whereas Yellowstone remains open and is a the epitome of a winter wonderland.
All told, both parks are bucket-list worthy.
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