At the end of 2018 I wrote down the goal of visiting three national parks during 2019.
Well…we did it.
We did the trip with relatively little planning and zero reservations. I had a vague idea of where I wanted to camp and hoped for the best. Here are some notes.
Stop 1: Grand Tetons
Day 1: Arrived at Gros Ventre Campground around 4pm. Easily snagged one of the many remaining first-come first-serve sites in the large campground. Set up camp. Attended a ranger-led program with FC4 about bear safety in which the ranger demonstrated the proper usage of bear spray. Ranger-led talks occur daily at campsites maintained by the national park service.
Day 2: Parked on the North side of Jenny lake. Hiked to hidden falls (around 5 miles round trip). Like an idiot, I lugged a 50 lb paddleboard on my back the whole trip thinking that there was bound to be a good paddleboarding spot along the trail. I was wrong. Upon returning parking lot, we decided to paddleboard 100 yards from our car at String Lake. I’ll chalk that up to training for my upcoming 50 mile backpacking trip to WY.
Day 3: Took obligatory pictures of old buildings at Mormon Row. Intended to take the tram to the top of the ski resort but decided to call an audible and head up to Yellowstone to see if we could snag a campsite. Upon entering Yellowstone, we learned that the campsites were full so we pulled a U-turn and drove 5 miles back to Flagg Ranch, the Northernmost campground in Grand Tetons. Unlike Gros Ventre, this campground was privately operated (as opposed to being operated by the national park service). It was not the greatest campground (sites were packed like sardines) but it provided showers.
This is where our predicament began. To ensure a first-come-first-serve campsite at Yellowstone the next day, we figured we should arrive to the campground at around 6am (or so we thought…the reality turned out to be a bit different). We were 2 hours away from our desired campsite, so we figured we’d have to leave around 4am.
With our two tents, 7 sleeping bags, and 7 sleeping pads, it takes 2 hours to break camp. So we had the ingenious idea of having the kids sleep in the minivan that night (while the adults slept in their tent). When 3:30am came around, we’d simply wake up, pack up, and leave with only minor shuffling of the kids, with the hope that they’d continue to peacefully sleep on the way to Yellowstone.
That was the idea….the reality turned out to be a little different. The van got a bit stuffy, but we bribed the hell out of the kids with the promise of ice cream at the next opportunity. At around 10pm after everyone in camp was going to bed, FC2, who was attempting to sleep in the driver’s seat, accidentally honked the horn for a good 5 seconds. I wanted to curl up in a ball and die in my tent. I didn’t sleep a wink that night. Luckly, Mrs FP slept like a rock for 5 hours. When the alarm went off at 3:30, we packed up the tent and Mrs FP drove us to Yellowstone at 4am. After entering from the Southern entrance, we drove to Norris through the Western route (passing Old Faithful, etc) and passed a ton of thermal features in the process. Driving through the Western side of Yellowstone around a 5am sunrise is an other-worldly experience. The fog from the thermal features was so dense in places that we had to bring the car to a stop. When we were rounding a corner by the river at 40 mph or so, I saw a deer-like creature in the middle of our lane. I managed to scream out “ELK!!!!” to my wife who stopped with sufficient time. The elk, which was in a pack of 4, stood there like a statue for a good 10 seconds then continued its journey into the river. The adrenaline rush associated with that experience, when combined with the sleep deprivation, caused me to come closer to fainting than I ever have been in my life. During the remainder of the drive, Mrs FP saw a solitary wolf and the rest of us saw a bison. Finally, we arrived at Norris campground at 6am, the 7th car in line to get a campsite.
Stop 2: Yellowstone
Day 4: Visited the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The overlook trail was closed so we took the short trail to the headwaters. We also visited the Norris Geysers. As repayment for the night of hell, we bought the kids ice cream at the visitor’s center. $3.85 for a single scoop. $4.75 for a double scoop. What did we order? We shared 3 double scoops. $2.375/scoop for the win.
Day 5: Visited Old Faithful & surrounding geysers. On the way back we stopped to swim/paddleboard in the river. We saw a bear a couple hundred yards away on the other side of the river.
Day 6: Packed up and drove to Helena, MT en route to Glacier National Park. Pizza & gas at Helena Costco. Stayed at a hotel. Gale forced winds struck us as we checked into the hotel and temporarily knocked out power. It was crazy.
Stop 3: Glacier NP
Day 7: Awoke at 3:30am to arrive to Glacier around 9am. Due to a bear issue (in which they temporarily banned tent camping), we ended up camping in Rising Sun campground rather than Many Glaciers. It turns out that it is easier to leave a hotel than it is to spend 2 hours breaking camp. Spent the day hiking to a waterfall. The kids spent an hour wading in the water at the bottom. FC1 & FC3 dunked themselves in the freezing cold water. I wimped out.
Day 8: Drove to Logan Pass. Through a miracle we found a parking spot at the visitor’s center and enjoyed the hike to Hidden Lake. Saw a bunch of mountain goats on top. That evening, a 2-year-old black bear cub ran about 20 yards away from our camp.
Day 9: Our kids were pretty grumpy by this point and ready to get back to civilization. I was tempted to quit but Mrs FP convinced us to stay an extra day. So what did we do on our last day with tired & complaining children? We hiked a grueling 11.4 miles (with 2k feet elevation gain) on the most iconic hike in all of Glacier: the Grinnel Glacier trail. FC3, who is 8 years old, was complaining of asthma so I lugged him up a thousand feet of elevation for a few miles. Mrs FP carried FC5 for a good portion. When I wasn’t carrying FC3, I carried FC4. Also, our water filter crapped out on us so we also carried water & food for 7 of us. It was a heavy load. Luckily, we made it safely to the top. Once at the glacier, it started raining on us but we were pretty well equipped. On the hike we saw a big horned sheep and a moose.
It took us 5 hours to get to the top and 3 hours to get down. I was so proud of my kids that I broke my never-eat-at-restaurants rule and took the family out. The options were quite limited but we found a diner that served burgers. A burger was $10, a cheeseburger was $11, and a double cheeseburger was $13. One wanted $5 chicken fingers, with the rest of us wanting a burger. So naturally, I ordered three double cheeseburgers for $13 and we cut them in half, which is basically the same as ordering each of them a single cheeseburger. $6.50 < $11. Math saves the day again (the waitress probably hated us)! We also bought the kids ice cream treats for $2.50/piece. I feel that I’ve sufficiently repaid them for accompanying me on that death march.
Day 10: Drove to Billings, MT. Pizza & gas at Billings Costco. Stayed at a hotel.
Day 11: Drove to Denver.
In each of the national parks, our kids participated in the “Junior Ranger” programs in which they’d fill out an activity booklet over the course of a day or two. One of the requirements was to attend a ranger-led program. I attended 3 of them and they were a joy to attend (#1 bear spray, #2 history of Yellowstone, #3 frogs). At the end of the program the kids had to repeat an oath in which they promised to take care of the parks, have lots of fun, and explore other parks. Visiting the national park system made me proud to be an American: the government did something right by protecting and preserving those resources & making them nearly freely available to the public.
Overall, it was great and I have zero regrets. That said, I’m reminded that:
1.) National parks are a zoo, particularly during peak season.
2.) Car camping is inferior (though much more convenient, especially with kids) to backpacking.
- An average of $25/night for camping ($30 Gros Ventre x 2, $40 Flagg Ranch x 1, $20 Norris x 3, $20 Rising Sun x 3).
- $110/night for hotel x 2.
- $9.95 Costco pizza x 2.
- A few thousand miles worth of gas & depreciation.
- $0 national park pass thanks to our 4th grader.
- $15 for double scoops of ice cream + $11 for ice cream treats.
- $50 for overpriced, but much appreciated, cheeseburgers.
- Camping food becomes less novel after 10 days or so.
- Unshowered children (particularly their feet) smell bad but lakes/rivers provide free baths.
- It is fun to improvise while travelling – it was kind of exciting not knowing exactly where you’ll sleep that night.
- Sleeping in hotels ($110/night or so) is more expensive than camping ($20ish/night).
- It turns out that kids still fight and complain while in nature. Who would have thought?
- Mrs FP turned down my proposal to sell our home and live indefinitely in national parks for $20/night.
- We ended up about 10 miles South of the Canadian border in Glacier. If I had my act together, I would have purchased passports for the kids and taken them across the border.
- A diet of cup of noodles + peanut butter & honey sandwiches did not kill our kids.
- My new camping pad and pillow (both Klymit purchased at Costco) are worth their weight in gold. I will never again camp without them.
- I felt a special kinship with fellow campers, particularly those I met while waiting in line for a camping spot at 6am. It’s a pretty unique group of individuals willing to do so. I chatted with a dentist from Canada, a recent couple who had just wrapped up master’s degrees at MIT/Harvard and are living in Germany, and a family with 6 kids. Many, like us, were travelling several national parks. It was fun to compare notes and share stories.
- First come fist serve campsites are really easy to get if you can manage to arrive at 6am starting from hours away, though this is often times easier said than done.
- The US is beautiful. I’m not convinced I’ll ever need to leave the US/Canada for travel.
- I’d (continue to) recommend camping as a cheap & awesome vacation.
- Removing myself and my family from technology/the internet was great. Life goes on without these distractions, and in fact improves. We spent much time playing games together (pass the pigs was a favorite) and having good conversations while hiking.
Grand Teton Pics
Carrying the 50 lb paddleboard for 5 miles like an idiot.
This time without the weird looking people ruining the picture. Wrong focal length lens. Oh well.
Crappy 4am-5am pics taken from car in sleep deprived stupor.
Paddleboarding spot where we saw a bear 1/4 mile away.
The Lion Group Geyser.
The Heart Spring.
Kids getting sworn in as Junior Rangers.
Brought the wrong lens on this hike (85mm vs 28mm). Whoops.
Photo credit FC3.
They (rightfully?) scare the crap out of you any time you visit Tetons/Yellowstone/Glacier by implying that you will get ripped to shreds by bears. We brought bear spray but luckily didn’t have any undesirable bear encounters.
The trail crossed a waterfall here in which we got a bit wet.
The trailhead began at the end of that third lake up there.
Cool contrast from red/blue water.
No photoshop. Glacial water was really that blue.
Cup of noodles for 10 days straight and our kids didn’t die.
One of my kids captured this picture of a mountain goat breaking the sound barrier.
Saw this dude doing a crazy back flip into the freezing cold waters.