I never knew how special it was to live by mountains until I moved to the mountains! That probably sounds obvious, but for the first time, I feel like I’m living in a place that I don’t need a vacation from. I still feel the urge to get away every now and again, but I can literally walk outside or take a 5 minute drive and see some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on. Now, I want to shar it with you! This post described the PERFECT Rocky Mountain Road Trip you can take to see the best of the Rockies.
This Rocky Mountain road trip starts in Northern Montana and ends in Colorado, but feel free to do it in reverse, add more days in a certain area, and change up anything you need to make it work for your schedule.
Day 1: Explore the West Side of Glacier National Park
To see the entirety of Glacier National Park, you definitely need more than just two days. However, for the sake of keeping this Rocky Mountain road trip somewhat short and sweet, I’ll recommend seeing some of the bigger highlights. If you want a more in-depth guide, I suggest checking out a post by Chris and Sara of Let’s Be Us Travel Blog. They have an entire Glacier National Park guide for first time visiters!
The West side of Glacier is home to Lake McDonald. This might just be one of the most photographed lakes in Glacier National Park – probably because it’s so easy to get to. It’s also got colorful rocks at the bottom of the lake which make for a pretty unique photo. It’s up to you how much time you spend here. You can just stop by, or you can go swimming or boating in the lake.
If you still have some time left after Lake McDonald, you can either hick to Avalanche Lake or take a drive on one of the most beautiful roads in the entire USA: Going to the Sun Road. Hint: if you don’t drive on this highway today, you will tomorrow!
Day 2: Explore the East Side of Glacier National Park
If you didn’t drive along Going to the Sun Road yesterday, that’s what you’ll start with today – especially if you’re sleeping near the west side of the park. This highway will give you some of the most beautiful scenery you’ve ever seen! You’ll take this road to the east side of the park where you’ll explore Many Glacier Area.
A couple of my favorite bloggers, The Mandagies, recommend seeing Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine in Many Glacier Area. If you have more time on your hands, check out their 7-Day Glacier National Park Itinerary here!
Day 3: Drive to Gardiner, Montana
The next place you’re going to is Yellowstone National Park! You’ll enter through the Northern Entrance which is located very close to Gardiner, MT. The drive from Glacier National Park to Gardiner will take about 6.5 hours. So, you’ll likely get to your hotel in Gardiner, grab something to eat and just rest for the evening. Gardiner is a town that specifically caters to Yellowstone tourists. You’ll find hotels, restarants, bars, and gift shops lining the main street through town.
I recommend grabbing dinner and then heading back to your hotel and downloading the Yellowstone App. Make sure you download the map to your phone so you can use it without cell service. You won’t have much of that in the park! Within this app, you can mark the different spots you want to stop at. I’d go throught the list of sites I have below under Day 4 and 5, mark them on your map in the app, and then plan your route based on the sites you’re most excited for. This will save you a lot of time when you get into the park!
–>Read more: More tips and tricks for visiting Yellowstone<–
Remember to get a good night’s sleep this night because the next day will be long!
Day 4: Explore the Southern Loop of Yellowstone
I recommend exploring the Southern Loop on your first day in Yellowstone because it’s a longer day and it has the most popular things to see. Yellowstone’s Northern Entrance is about a 5-10 minute drive from Gardiner. That said, once you get into the park, its about a 1-1.5 hour drive to the first site you’ll stop at. I’d recommend heading into the park no later than 9am on this day.
Here’s what you’ll see on your first day in Yellowstone:
- Old Faithful
- Upper Geyser Basin
- Midway Geyser Basin
- Fairy Falls Trail
- Biscuit Basin
- Black Sand Basin
- West Thumb Geyser Basin
- Norris Geyser Basin
- Artist’s Paint Pots
- Gibbon Falls
- Sulphur Caldron
- Mud Volcano
- Hayden Valley
These seems like a lot and it is! Don’t worry – if you don’t make it to everything on this list your first day, there will be some extra time on day two to go back to them. If you’re counting on day 2 to see some of these, I would just make sure you see some of the most southern sites (e.g., Old Faithful) on day 1 so you don’t have to drive as far on day 2 from the Northern Entrance.
Day 5: Explore the Northern Loop of Yellowstone
Day 2 in Yellowstone will start off very similar to day 1. You’ll wake up and head into the park by 9am. However, today, you won’t have as long of a drive down to the southern loop. The first attraction you’ll see is actually only a few minutes from the Northern Entrance: Mammoth Hot Springs.
Here’s what you’ll see on day 2:
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Roaring Mountain
- Golden Gate
- Tower Falls
- Lamar Valley
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
- Anything you missed yesterday!
–>Read more: More details on each of the sites listed above!<–
Day 6: Drive to Jackson Hole, Wyoming
The next stop is Grand Teton National Park. There are a few different ways you can see this park. You can camp in the park or stay at a hotel right outside of it. However, I recommend staying in Jackson Hole, WY because it’s such a fun town and just another place to explore!
The drive time will vary based on whether or not you drive through Yellowstone. If not, it’ll take just under six hours to get from Gardiner to Jackson Hole. I’d leave as early as you can. That way, when you arrive in Jackson Hole, you can have some time to head out and do some shopping (there are some great boutiques here!) and get a bite to eat.
If you happen to be visiting Jackson Hole in winter, here are some exciting things to do that don’t involve skiing.
Day 7: Explore Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park is about a 20 minute drive from Jackson Hole, WY, so I’d suggest leaving around 8 or 9am. There is a lot you can do in Grand Teton National Park, so I won’t discount it and say you can see it all in one day. However, if you are trying to see it one day, here’s what I would do:
I would start by driving to Mormon Row. This area can get pretty crowded during the day, so I recommend seeing it first. The main thing to see here is Moulton Barn – it might be the most iconic photo spot in all of Grand Teton National Park.
After exploring Mormon Row, driveon Teton Park Road (one of the most scenic roads you’ll see!) to Jenny Lake. This lake is so picturesque with mountains framing it. It’s a great place to just look at and photograph or to hike around. You can also visit the Jenny Lake Visitor’s Center while you’re here.
If you still have some time left in the day after Jenny Lake, drive back the way you came on Teton Park Road to Taggart Lake Trailhead. Here, you’ll find a 3 mile long round-trip hike to Taggart Lake – just as beautiful as Jenny Lake.
You’ll probably be pretty tired by now, so head back to Jackson Hole, grab some dinner, and get some rest!
Day 8: Drive to Estes Park, Colorado
The final leg of the Rocky Mountain Road Trip will take you do Estes Park in Colorado. The drive from Jackson Hole will take you about eight hours, so that’s pretty much you’re entire day today. The good thing is that Estes Park is only about a ten minute drive from Rocky Mountain National Park, where we’ll be exploring tomorrow!
Day 9: Explore Rocky Mountain National Park
Jurga, over at Full Suitcase, has some amazing recommendations about what to do in Rocky Mountian National Park whether you have one day or five days to explore. Since we have just one day in this itinerary, I’ll take her advice and embark on a sunrise hike starting at Bear Lake Trailhead and ending at Emerald Lake. This is the most beginner hike, but Jurga lists hikes for more experienced hikers over on her site!
The next thing she recommends is to drive along Trail Ridge Road to get some of the most scenic views of the park. Her post about RMNP explains where to stop along the road to get the best views!
Day 10: Explore Denver or Head Back Home
Unfortunately, our Rocky Mountain Road Trip has come to an end! Estes Park is about an hour and a half from Denver, CO. So, if you have time, you can explore some of the Denver area, or just head home. If you started in Montana, you’ll have about a 10-hour drive ahead of you!
One Last Tip
Since the Rocky Mountain Road Trip takes you through four different national parks, I’d highly recommend getting the America The Beautiful Pass before you leave! This pass is $80 and gives you access to US National Parks for an entire year. This pass will be cheaper than paying the individual entrance fees which can range from $25-35.
Just make sure to order the pass about a month before you plan to go, because you have to actually receive it in the mail before you can use it!