Going Our Way: A couple's trip combines Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks

By Carol Sottili
Sunday, March 28, 2010;

Who: Therese Martin, 73, and her husband, Bernard, 72, of Reston

Where: Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks

Why: Sightseeing, walking and enjoying natural areas and wildlife

When: September for 12 nights

Budget: $7,000

"We like history, easy hiking, sightseeing, nature walks, dining and ranger-led discussions. We like good eating and don't want to rough it. We had thought of spending three nights each in Glacier West, Glacier East, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons."

For reasons that may not be entirely logical, many travelers, like this week's Going Our Way-ers, Therese and Bernard Martin of Reston, tend to lump Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks into one vacation. When my family was planning a similar trip, I almost did the same before looking at a map and realizing the distances involved.

Glacier National Park, located in northern Montana on the Canadian border, is a good eight hours from Grand Teton, which is just south of Yellowstone. The Martins' itinerary, no matter how it's sliced or diced, is going to add up to a minimum of 24 hours in the car, with several stretches of more than six hours. That's assuming that they'll fly into centrally located Great Falls, Mont. And it does not include getting stuck behind an RV, pulling off to animal-watch or doing the complete Yellowstone loop.

But with a love for the open road and no screaming kids in tow, the trip is doable and may even be advisable if it falls into the once-in-a-lifetime category. In my case, we decided to cut out Glacier, and while that did result in a more relaxing trip, we have not kept our promise to go back.

Qualms addressed, let's go along with including Glacier in the Martins' plans.

Even though September is five months away, it's already late in the game to be planning this trip. Many of the most desirable hotels are booked for early to mid-September, as reservations generally open up a year in advance and the parks start to shut down for the season by the middle of September. The Martins may have to compromise on accommodations to take advantage of in-season activities.

Day 1: To minimize driving, fly to Great Falls, south of Glacier National Park. Fare on Delta or United from any of our region's airports in September is about $467 round trip for connecting service. (There are no nonstops.) Take the earliest flight possible, which will arrive about 1 p.m. From there, the closest destination on the wish list is East Glacier, about a 2 1/2 -hour drive. Renting an intermediate car will cost about $730 through a traditional car rental company, but save a couple of hundred dollars by paying in advance through Hotwire.com. (The catch is that they don't reveal the rental agency name until after payment.) If there is availability, settle in at the historic Glacier Park Lodge (406-892-2525, http://www.glacierparkinc.com), built in 1912, where a deluxe room will run about $219 a night. A cheaper option is Travelers Rest Lodge (406-378-2414, http://www.travelersrestlodge.net), with $115-a-night rooms.

Day 2: Take in the scope of the park with a full-day Red Bus excursion. The historic 17-passenger buses from the 1930s have canvas tops that roll back, allowing great views of the park in good weather. The Big Sky Circle Tour ($80 per adult; 8 1/2 hours) operates through Sept. 19 and traverses the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road, which closes for the season on Sept. 20. The Old North Trail Tour ($75 per adult; eight hours) is offered Sept. 20-25. Info: http://www.glacierparkinc.com.

Day 3: Head to Many Glacier Hotel and, if it's before Sept. 20, take the $22 boat tour (406-257-2426, http://www.glacierparkboats.com), which can be combined with a guided hike. Drive on to West Glacier Park and check into a $165-a-night cabin at Apgar Village Lodge (406-888-5484, http://www.westglacier.com).

Day 4: Take a day hike from Apgar Visitor Center and a sunset boat tour of Lake McDonald. (Tip: Buy "Best Easy Day Hikes Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks" by Erik Molvar to plot out some trail choices). More choices: http://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit.

Days 5-6: Start out early for the six-hour drive to Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa (800-468-9232, http://www.chicohotsprings.com), just north of Yellowstone National Park. Accommodations run the gamut from truly rustic to posh rustic; pay up for a North 40 Cabin at $209 a night. Take a nice long soak in the 96-degree hot spring pool (a smaller pool is set at 103 degrees) and eat dinner at the resort's Chico Dining Room. (Try the bison short-rib ravioli appetizer and leave room for dessert.) The next morning, consider taking a trail ride on one of the resort's well-loved, docile horses. Or take a day trip to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone and tour the travertine terraces, which are must-see hydrothermal formations. Keep an eye out for moose along the way.

Days 7-9: If Old Faithful Inn (866-439-7375, http://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com) has rooms, head there for the next three nights ($167 a night for a "high-range" room). If not, consider Lake Yellowstone Hotel or Grant Village, where a nice room will run $150 to $200. Take in the Old Faithful geyser and fill the days with hiking and ranger-led programs. A schedule of activities has not been published for September, but in 2009, they included half-day Ranger Adventure hikes from Old Faithful and a one-hour narrated cruise of Yellowstone Lake. Easy hiking trails include Fairy Falls, Lone Star Geyser, Pelican Creek and Storm Point. For more info, go to http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit.

Days 10-12: It's on to Grand Teton National Park. Stay at Signal Mountain Lodge (307-543-2831, http://www.signalmountainlodge.com) on Jackson Lake in a lakefront cabin ($274 a night). Before fall migration, you'll be serenaded by the haunting calls of sandhill cranes as they settle for the evening. Or for a real splurge, stay at Jenny Lake Lodge (307-543-2811, http://www.gtlc.com), where accommodations, including breakfast and five-course dinner, are $599 per night per couple. Hike around Jenny Lake, and take a float trip on the Snake River ($59 per person), which can be booked through the lodge. Info: http://www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit.

Day 13: The latest flight from Great Falls that connects to Washington leaves at about 2 p.m., so get on the road before 5 a.m. for the seven-hour drive to the airport.

Total Cost: About $6,200 including airfare, best-room-available lodging, rental car, gas, sightseeing and a meal allowance of $150 per couple per day.

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to www.washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

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