For my fortieth birthday, I wanted to take a trip with some of my best friends to see some incredible places, so one of my friends planned a trip for the books! We had a jam-packed itinerary that would allow us to see a lot in just a little window of time. Here’s how it went down for us—and if you’re thinking of taking your own trip, I hope you find some inspiration from ours.
Our first step was to identify a region that had plenty of parks located in close proximity, which was key in making this possible. The seven parks we hit were Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Grand Canyon, Canyon Lands, Monument Valley, and Zion National Park. We were also able to visit some additional spots along the way that left us breathless.
TIP: We focused on seeing as much as possible, so going in, we knew we’d be waking up for sunrises and staying up for sunsets. For this, we mostly did budget accommodation, because the views don’t care where you’re staying. The key to swinging this trip is a National Park pass, which is only $80 and is good for one year, allowing access to all National Parks in the United States.
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Glacier National Park (GNP) is located in Montana and is a world of its own. With stunning mountain ranges and several accessible hikes, you could spend weeks here. We only had a day, so we chose to drive the iconic “Going-to-the-Sun” road. You’ll want to start your drive up the mountain before sunset, taking the hour-plus drive to the top during golden hour. When you arrive at the top, you’ll see the valley filled with light; the sunset at this spot is a wonder of its own. It is truly spectacular! Other great spots in GNP include Lake McDonald, Bowman Lake, and Grinnell Glacier hike. After a quick dash through GNP, we packed it up for a six-hour drive to Wyoming for Yellowstone National Park.
TIP: Stay at Tiny Homes at St. Mary’s Village. GNP is also known for its famous huckleberry ice cream, so be sure to grab a scoop!
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
Just hours away from GNP, Yellowstone National Park’s landscape changes significantly. Yellowstone is home to many geysers, including the famous Old Faithful. However, the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring is the most photographed thermal feature in Yellowstone. Be sure to walk around the boardwalk and feel the steam coming off the waters—it’s like walking through a hot sauna. Because the water is 160ºF, it is imperative that you stay on the boardwalk. Enjoy safely!
TIP: Keep your eye out for wildlife because bison love to roam this park.
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
After sunset, we made the sixty-minute drive to Jackson Hole for our third stop of the national park tour: the Grand Tetons. Jackson Hole feels like a town in a movie set. Perfectly curated, it boasts venues like the iconic Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. When in town, you’ll definitely want to stop in here for a drink—it’s full of character. Although we did mostly budget accommodations, we stepped it up in Jackson Hole. We stayed two nights at the Anvil Hotel, which, with its hipster aesthetic, added to the charm of the town.
Must-see these spots:
- Snake River Overlook
- Schwabacher Landing
- Mormon Row
- Jenny Lake Overlook
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
After two days in Wyoming, we took our longest drive yet: eight hours (503 miles) to Canyonlands National Park, Utah, which had a completely different terrain compared with the previous sites we’d visited. It was full of rock formations and canyons that would make you think you’re on another planet.
We arrived at the Mesa Arch in the middle of the night. If you want to get a good photo of the arch, you’re going to need to arrive early, as many people try to crowd into the little area for the shot. The archway is very small, but the view is enormous. As the sun rises, the whole canyon lights up and the sun flare hits the top of the arch. After you visit Mesa Arch, you can drive through the canyons, an experience that I imagine is what it’s like driving through Mars. The whole landscape is just surreal.
TIP: Stay in Page, Arizona, which is central to these next few stops, including Monument Valley.
You may recognize Monument Valley as where, in the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest decides to stop running. The long, narrow road points to the incredible sandstone formations of the valley in the background. If you want to be wowed, this place will leave you scratching your head, asking yourself, “how did that get there?!” Monument Valley is truly a wonderland! Be prepared to look up, as some of the sandstone formations reach as high as 1,000 feet.
While in the area, make sure to visit these other awesome destinations:
- Antelope Canyon: You can take a guided walk (guided is mandatory) through the canyons, one of the most photographed spots in the world. To go on this adventure, you will need to book your visit on their site.
- Horseshoe Bend: A horseshoe-shaped incised meander of the Colorado River, this once undiscovered spot has become very popular in recent years. Parking fee required.
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
Now, on to the sixth park, the grandest of them all: the Grand Canyon! We started the 123-mile drive to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to make it for the sunrise. For the record, there are two major spots of the Grand Canyon. The North Rim and South Rim and they are very far apart! By accident, part of our crew went to the South Rim and the other went to the North. It made for funny memories but we lost some time that we had to make up for later. Both North and South Rims are spectacular but you’ll want to stick with the North Rim to make it to your final destination … Zion National Park.
ZION NATIONAL PARK
Located in the southwest corner of Utah is one of the most magnificent natural wonders in the world and also one of the easiest to access. The park offers a shuttle that will take you to various spots in the park to explore. If you are looking to get really adventurous, you can hike the Narrows, which involves walking through the Virgin River as it flows through a slot canyon. Angels Landing will give you a breathtaking view of the park, but it is very steep and not for the faint of heart.
As the sun set in Zion National Park, so did our seven days of adventuring in this vast and beautiful part of the world. Ideally, it’d be worth taking several weeks to do such a trip and explore the parks at length, but if you’re short on time and want to see a lot in a little, you can check out these parks and have your own adventure. Happy exploring!
Travel and lifestyle photographer Scott Bakken founded Socality, a creative community designed to connect and develop cultural contributors to use social media for community impact. He consults with brands and organizations to help them with the development of their social platforms. He has worked with a range of clients, including American Express, Rogers, Canon, Google, Eddie Bauer, and Ford.