This is a trip that I’ve been looking forward to doing with the girls for a long time. Exploring this beautiful country that we have the privilege of living in, and seeing its majestic wonders is a rite of passage for a child, in my mind. With so many incredible options of locations to choose from, Andrew and I landed on Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park for our first attempt at the quintessential “family road trip”. (Cue “Holiday Roooooaaad…”)
Andrew being the consummate travel planner, dove into exploring our options for best experiencing these two beautiful places and landed on a camping hybrid solution that involved living in a van. Yes, you heard that right. A van. I’ll be honest, my first reaction was “Huh?”, but once he explained the benefits of this somewhat non-traditional approach, I was sold. Essentially, to maximize our time in the parks and still get that rustic feeling of camping in nature, Andrew made arrangements to rent a Sprinter van that would act as both our transportation and our “home” for the next eight days.
These vans are equipped with convertible cots for sleeping, a small kitchenette with a stovetop, refrigerator, and microwave, and importantly a bathroom. Hallelujah. You had me at “toilet”. The really nice thing is that they are smaller than a typical RV and therefore, easier to maneuver, park, and drive. It’s especially nice for this girl who doesn’t exactly love the idea of piloting a vehicle the size of a small apartment building, containing my entire beloved family, down a busy highway at top speed. Nothing against large RV’s, but my nerves and sanity just can’t take that kind of pressure! It’s also great because we didn’t need to pack any camping equipment. The fact that were going to be on the move frequently, and knowing that we wouldn’t have to set up and break down camp each night would be very helpful.
Our plan of attack in terms of our route was to fly to Jackson Hole, WY where we would pick up our van. From there we would drive about six hours to Missoula, Montana the first night, then into Glacier National Park for three days of camping (or should I say “glam”-ping). From there we would drive to Bozeman, MT for one night, then into Yellowstone National Park for two additional nights. Then head back to Jackson Hole, for one last night and day to recover.
Picking Up Our Digs
We arrived in Jackson Hole on Thursday evening and first thing on Friday morning a very nice gentleman named Brad, dropped off our van. He spent a good hour giving us the download of how to operate the vehicle, including which battery supplied power to what, how to put the benches down to form beds, and most importantly, how to dispose of the lavatory and sink waste after every two to three days. As soon as Brad mentioned “black water” I could see Andrew shiver a bit and we both paid very close attention at this much dreaded, yet necessary piece to van camping.
He informed us that the company we rented the van from had quite a fleet of these beauties and each was named for ease of recognition by the company owner. We were told that our van was named, Shannon. This small fact immediately endured “her” to the girls. I made a point to secretly let Shannon know she had a big job ahead of her and that she better not let us down!
On the Road
Once we were checked out on the vehicle and our trip odometer was set to zero we were off and running! The girls immediately staked out which parts of the van were theirs and unpacked their books, journals, and stuffed animal companions at lightning speed. We had quite a few miles to cover this first day so as “trip navigator” I mapped out the route and off we went. The girls came up with a game that consisted of Andrew calling out whenever we entered a new town. The first person to spot the name of that town either on a sign or a storefront would yell it out and whoever got it first, won. The game lasted for the first hour or so and then the girls were over it. But it was still a fun way to start the trip and I could tell they were excited about this adventure, which as a parent is pretty awesome.
With the girls settling into their new living quarters in the back of the van, Andrew and I searched iTunes for the perfect road trippin’ music and landed on Willie Nelson, of course. After that six-ish hour stretch, with a quick stop for dinner in the itty bitty town of Dillon, MT, we arrived at the campground, just south of Missoula. This is where we would be staying for the evening. It was the Beaverhill Tail State Park campground located on the Clark Fork River. We pulled in around 8 pm having absolutely no idea how this whole campground thing worked. (Don’t get me wrong, we have done plenty of camping before, but never in a vehicle with four to six wheels. So this was all new to us!) Thankfully, we had a reserved spot, but we still stopped at the entrance and looked around like a couple of complete “glam”-ping newbies. A nice couple with a rocking RV set-up, complete with potted plants by their camp chairs, came out and greeted us. They sent us in the right direction of our reserved spot and we carefully backed into our slot.
It was a beautiful place right along the rushing mountain river and we quickly got to work getting beds put into place and plugging the van into the power source located nearby. The learning curve was steep being this was our first night in the van so there was a lot of checking, double checking, and “Do you remember what Brad said about this?” questions being asked. But once we got it all dialed in, we slept like babies.
Glacier National Park
Our plan was to get up very early and begin our three hour drive into the west side of Glacier National Park. When the sun started to come over the horizon, we carefully repositioned the girls from their cots toward the front of the van back to our bed so we could turn the front seats around into a driving position. With them tucked back in and comfy we quietly pulled out of the campground with only our parking lights on as to not wake up the other campers.
There is a beautiful place to camp inside Glacier National Park called Apgar Campground. This is a first come, first serve campground so we didn’t have the luxury of making a reservation. This meant we were relying on the right timing, a little bit of luck, and a lot of prayer to get a site. This campground fills up extremely quickly so we were nervous about our chances.
At the entrance of the campground, we met a nice park ranger who said that there were a few spots available, but we would have to circle the multiple loops to find one. We slowly made our way down loop B scouring each numbered site for a post that didn’t have an “occupied” tag on it. Our hearts were pounding a bit and we were slightly on edge because we knew that finding a spot was a long-shot.
As we slowly stalked each campsite, we spotted a post with an empty clip and immediately Andrew jumped out to ask the current inhabitant if they were indeed leaving that morning. A sleepy disheveled twenty-something crawled out of his car and confirmed that he would be vacating in about a half an hour. Thank you, Lord! Andrew quickly filled out the reservation tag and clipped it to the post as the other campers lined up behind us, also looking for spots, continued their search. We felt like we had won the lottery! This was a crucial piece to our planning and if we hadn’t found a site here in the park it would have drastically changed our direction for seeing Glacier.
Once our heart rates had decreased and we could breathe a little easier, we headed into the visitor center to get the lay of the land. I always recommend hitting the visitor center first when you arrive at a national park. The rangers are super helpful and if you’re a visual person like me, they have great maps and displays to show you what you can see and do.
The national parks also have a Junior Ranger program which is a lot of fun for the kids. It consists of an educational activity book with facts about the park. If they fill out a certain number of pages and attend an informative talk given by a park ranger, they can be sworn in as a Junior Ranger and receive a badge or patch. Each park has their own specific booklet and the rangers do a great job making this activity really special for the kids.
Because we had arrived early that morning we were able to book a horseback ride in the park for the afternoon. This was something Lauren desperately wanted to do. This would be the first time for both of the girls to ride a true trail horse, and they were pumped. We drove to the corral and got introduced to our respective horses. Lauren was paired with Red, Katherine was matched with Chester, Andrew had Winchester, and I got the pretty caramel colored, Legend. With a few whoops and “yee-haws” from our true cowgirl trail guides we were off!
The ride was about two hours and took us through beautiful forests of lodgepole pine trees, over rivers, and past patches of wild huckleberries. We even got a visit from two large bucks with fuzzy antlers that decided to run right by our group. The girls did great. Even little Katherine whose horse Chester had a mind of his own and continually went off the trail. She was very frustrated with him, but did a great job wrangling him back on track the best she could.
After we arrived back on the stables we all dismounted and waddled back to the van smelling like sweat and horses, but happy. Lauren was officially hooked and for the remainder of the trip persistently asked if we could do it again.
This was our first night sleeping in this particular campground which unlike our previous one the night before, didn’t have any electrical hookups. Our van was equipped with batteries that were designed to supply power to necessary items, like the refrigerator, throughout the night, but we still hadn’t gotten the hang of how to “do nighttime” in the van off the grid. So, at 5 am we were startled awake by the sound of a loud beeping. We jumped up, disoriented, and fumbled around in the dark trying to figure out what was happening. We were able to discern that it was the CO2 detector that was beeping because the battery that supplies it had run low due to the van not being plugged into a power source the whole night. It was similar to that annoying chirp from your home smoke detector that ALWAYS inconveniently happens in the middle of the night instead of a more manageable mid-afternoon time.
We were dying inside because the loud beeping was carrying through this quiet campground of other exhausted campers probably trying to sleep and here we were completely disturbing the peace. Ugh! So mortifying! Thankfully, we figured out how to disconnect the main battery to finally stop the beeping. We didn’t feel as bad a few days later when some poor soul set off their car alarm at about the same unruly time in the morning. It was way louder than our annoying beep, and Andrew and I both commented, “At least we weren’t that guy!”
Going to the Sun Road and the Red Bus Tour
This was the one thing in Glacier that I desperately wanted to do. I had heard so much about the beautiful Going to the Sun Road and I wanted to experience it on the famed Red Bus Tour. I’m so glad we did. We boarded the super cool, vintage, 1930’s bus and gazed up at the sky through the open roof. Andrew was particularly geeking out because these vintage buses had been refurbished by Ford Motor Company and being a Ford family, he felt right at home.
Our seasoned driver began the four hour tour up the mountains to Logan’s Pass and the continental divide. It was absolutely beautiful and honestly, pictures don’t do it all justice. Periodically, our driver would pull off on the side of the road and let us “prairie dog up”, which meant we could stand and stick our bodies out of the top of the bus to get a good photo. We passed waterfalls, weeping rocks, dall sheep, and a lot of nervous drivers creeping along, staring into the steep mountain canyons below. I was in heaven soaking up the beauty. The girls were in heaven because the driver gave them huckleberry licorice.
IT’S TIME FOR THE DUMP!
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on what I’m sure you all want to know, and that’s “How did the dump go?” By “the dump” I mean the removal of the dreaded van wastewater that I mentioned earlier. Yes, that oh-so fun, necessary task that we knew was coming sooner than later. Being the consummate rule followers, and knowing that we were supposed to empty these tanks every two to three days, we decided that today was the day. (The fact that the gauges read FULL was a slight motivator too.) I think we were more afraid of the potential sanitary repercussions for our living quarters than we were about disobeying Brad’s directions.
So with that we reluctantly drove to the dumping station at the entrance to the campground. We pulled up to the station, which consisted of a few hoses and a couple of holes in the ground covered by small cap and a stick, and I did what few people do. I got out the instruction manual. Yep. You heard that right. We were that desperate. I narrated the steps while Andrew gloved up with the supplied black rubber gloves. Here is how the conversation went.
Andrew: “Okay, now I open this hatch under here, right?”
Me: “Yes, don’t forget to prop it up so it doesn’t close on you.”
Andrew: “Got it.”
Me: As I’m reading from the manual… “Alright, now pull the hose out of the van and stick the nozzle in the hole.”
Andrew: (removes the cap and stick from the hole with flies swarming around and looks up at me with nose wrinkled)
Me: “Now open the valve, and I’ll push this red button here on the door. Wait, do you push the button then open the valve, or open the valve, then push the button?”
Andrew: “Brad said to open the valve, then push the button.”
Me: “Okay, open the valve then push the bottom. Got it.” (Pushing button) “Is anything happening?”
Andrew: “I think I hear some gurgling.”
Me: “That’s good, right?”
Andrew: “Yes babe, that’s good.”
Me: “How long do I hold this button?”
Andrew: “Till the gurgling stops, babe.”
Me: “Oh, okay.”
(Andrew is standing with his foot on the end of the hose that’s stuck in the hole so it doesn’t unexpectantly fly out. The hose begins to vibrate and shake as liquid begins traveling through it. The gurgling slows. I’m still pushing the button.)
Andrew: “I think it’s empty and you can stop pushing the button.”
Me: “But are you really SURE it’s empty? I mean, how do you really know?”
Andrew: “Trust me, I think it’s empty.” (He pushes the hose back into the van, closes the hatch and with that same wrinkled nose face gingerly peels off the black latex gloves and discards them.)
Oh my gosh. We did it. We drove away from that little dumping station with grins on our faces and all the satisfying feels one might have if they had just landed a spacecraft on the moon. We were officially seasoned “van campers” and we were ready to take on the world.
Avalanche Lake Hike
The next day we decided to attempt the hike to Avalanche Lake. We packed our pack with plenty of water, lunches, and snacks, and caught the shuttle from the visitor center up to the Avalanche Lake trailhead. There were plenty of other people with the same idea, so we were definitely not alone. The hike is approximately 4.5 miles round trip and the girls bounded down the boardwalks of the Trail of the Cedars with loads of energy. They bounced from rock to rock as I sounded like the proverbial worried mother, “Careful girls, whoa, hold on, don’t step there, get off of that boulder, you’re too close to the edge…blah, blah, blah…” In between the mini heart attacks I soaked in the gorgeous cedars, massive rock walls, rushing streams, and wild flowers as we ascended the mountain trail.
Finally, we reached the top and the girls’ energy by this point had significantly waned. The last stretch was a bit steep and the complaining, or should I say whining, was kicking into high gear. I used this moment to get all “mom philosophical” on them and reminded them that life can be hard and paths aren’t always easy, but if you keep putting one foot in front of the other you’ll reach a great reward. (Insert eye rolls, and grunts here.) Keep sowing the seeds, mommas. Even if you don’t think your kids are listening, your words are sinking into those sweet heads and hearts of theirs.
When we turned the corner at the top, the scene before us opened up and it literally took my breath away for a minute. A turquoise lake surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs covered in trees and waterfalls was a gorgeous site. We found a spot in the shade and ate our lunch with a couple of curious chipmunks. The girls took off their shoes and waded in the glacier fed water as Andrew snapped pictures. I was thoroughly entertained by two, slightly overweight, gentlemen hikers precariously lounging on a large rock in the water taking pictures of themselves with a long selfie stick. I was secretly hoping one would roll off and find himself drenched in the knee high water. (I know. I’m terrible. But it would have made for a great story, and a good chuckle!)
Once we had taken in our fill of the fantastic view we started back down the trail. I reminded the girls that it’s way easier going down than up, so thankfully the trek wasn’t quite as strenuous this time around. We made it back to our campsite and Andrew cooked a great meal on our van’s two burner stove and we made campfire s’mores for dessert.
As we left the park the next morning, Andrew made a point to find a poor circling camper looking for a spot. Knowing the stress we went through to insure our coveted campsite, we wanted to bless someone else with our soon to be vacated spot. He noticed a gentleman earlier in a silver truck slowly circling our loop with that familiar worried look in his eye and Andrew stopped him. He chatted briefly and then asked the man if he was a father. He said, “Yes, my wife and kids are still sleeping and I’m trying to find a spot for my family.” Bingo. Andrew told him it was his lucky day and the relief that came over his face was almost comical. We pulled out as he pulled in behind us and both smiled at each other. Good deed for the day….check!
We left the campsite and drove through a small town outside of the park entrance. Andrew spotted a sign for huckleberry pie so quickly stopped. Everything in this part of the country is “huckleberry” so when in Rome, do as the Romans do! Eat huckleberry pie! It was quite a treat devouring it in the van on the way to the next stop. We headed to the east side of Glacier National Park near the Two Medicine lake. We again stopped and had a picnic lunch, skipped rocks in the lake, and hiked to Running Eagle Falls. Katherine spotted a snake on the trail and came running back to us with wide eyes! We also had a fun encounter with a mountain goat in a parking lot as we were leaving.
We stopped at the small visitor center and the girls got sworn in as Junior Rangers by Ranger Jake. He went through their completed activity books with them, asked them questions, and had them hold up their right hand and repeat the Junior Ranger oath. I could almost feel the embarrassment exploding out of Lauren as she repeated the words and I think if she could have, she would have crawled under the rangers desk as fast as you could say “endangered species”. The girls were great sports however, and Andrew was beaming and recording every awkward moment for posterity. (And for further embarrassment in their wedding video someday, of course.) It’s actually a really fantastic program and super educational for the kids. I highly recommend encouraging/forcing your children to do it. It completely filled my elementary teacher bucket from my “past life”.
We jumped back into Shannon (our van if you forgot), and headed toward Bozeman, MT. The drive would be about five hours and the girls’ entertained themselves with the mountains of library books we brought (still haven’t done a book count to see if they all made it home, yikes) and a couple hours of season three of Little House on the Prairie. I figured if I was going to let them watch any TV on this trip, it would be during a long drive stretch and it was going to be something educational with good morals. Thankfully, they are as addicted to Laura Ingals Wilder as I was at that age.
We didn’t have much time in Bozeman so we grabbed dinner at a restaurant that was a recommendation from friends, and then found our campsite at the Bozeman Hotsprings Campground. This was a completely different feel from our site in Glacier so a good experience for us newbie van-campers. Thankfully, the campground was right next door to the Bozeman Hot Springs so we put our swimsuits on, and tried to keep up with the girls as they ran for the entrance. All we had to say was “pool and hot tub” and they were off like a shot. It felt SO amazing to soak in the naturally heated pools after previous days of hiking, horseback riding, and sleeping in a van. The shower felt extra amazing, and the girls got an education on showering in a public “locker room”. Broadening their horizons, folks.
Yellowstone National Park
After a good night’s sleep we were up early again to find a Starbucks and get back on the road. Our next stop would be Yellowstone National Park. I had been looking forward to this part of the trip for quite some time. I knew it would be a highlight for the girls and it had been years since I had been to the park myself.
We arrived at the West Yellowstone and headed straight for the visitor center. We hadn’t officially entered the park yet, but we wanted to get our bearings and figure out the best route to take with the two and a half days that we had. We spoke with a nice ranger that gave us the lay of the land and a suggested route. She asked Lauren what grade in school she was going into. Lauren responded, “Fourth,” at which the ranger replied, “Well, little lady, you qualify for the Every Kid in a Park program! You and your entire family can enjoy the national parks for free!” Oh yeah! Way to go Lauren! I had heard of this program, but I didn’t think she qualified because she wasn’t officially in her fourth grade year of school yet, but evidently she did! She saved us $35 which she continued to remind us of, and then tried to justify reasons for why she thought we owed her money. Hmmm… Nice try kid.
Because we came in on the west entrance we decided to start heading north toward the upper loop beginning with Norris and the Artist Paintpots. This ended up being a favorite of Lauren’s. The bubbling mud pots were fascinating to all of us and my teacher hat went on again as I tried to explain all of the geological reasons behind what we were seeing.
Thankfully, before we left on our adventure, we had downloaded a fantastic app called Gypsy Guide that gave us a narrated tour through the entire park. It was not only educational with fun facts and park information, but it also helped us as drivers to navigate which sites were ahead and what the “must see” stops were. I highly recommend downloading this app if you are traveling in any national park. But do it before you enter the park and have access to WiFi. You will not be able to download it once you are in the park.
We continued to head north toward Mammoth Hot Springs and around the loop through Tower-Roosevelt. This drive was absolutely spectacular and the landscape was vast. I was a little nervous on the narrow and windy roads as we went up in elevation, but Andrew handled the van like a champ.
As we made our way through this part of the park we came across a large field that was full of bison. Our helpful Gypsy Guide app informed us that August is rutting season for bison and that we may see quite a few at this time. Well, they weren’t kidding. We saw babies, two males forcefully head butting each other, and another right alongside our car. Lauren thought they were “Soooo cuuuuttee!!!”
We also saw a black bear not far off the road with a good handful of “not so smart” tourists out of their cars taking pictures. Really people. Did you not see the umpteen-million signs of sad stick figures flying over the head of a bucking bison that say, “Give the animals their space!”?
The next stop was Canyon Village and the famed Inspiration Point and Artist Falls. This is that picture you always see of the yellow, stone canyon and gorgeous rushing waterfall pouring into the valley. This was definitely a must see.
Andrew was getting pretty exhausted from all of the driving for the day so thankfully we were near our stop for the night. We stayed at Lake Lodge situated in Lake Village on Lake Yellowstone. The little cabin we found ourselves in was an adorable throwback to the 50’s and to be able to spread out in a real room with two beds with bedside tables was a total treat. We slept great and were ready to continue our adventure in the morning after hitting the cafe and coffee shop in the hotel.
All we had left to explore, of this amazing place, was the bottom half of the lower loop which consisted of Old Faithful and the Upper, Middle, and Lower Geyser Basins. Since we were staying at Old Faithful that night we drove right past it to hit the geyser basins first.
A highlight here was of course, the Grand Prismatic Spring. Not only were we completely impressed by the sheer size of this feature, but the colors were just gorgeous. I tried explaining to the girls how the colors were formed by the different bacteria living at different water temperatures, and I think they got it, but they were most disturbed by the rotten egg smell emanating from everywhere the went. In spite of the smell, this beautiful site was a favorite for all of us.
We made our way through the geyser basins and back toward Old Faithful and the Old Faithful Inn. We were lucky enough to secure a room last minute and I was super excited to stay in this iconic place. I was telling the girls that this building was one of the largest log-style structures in the world and has been around since the early 1900’s. Their response was, “But what about the Disney Wilderness Lodge?” Isn’t that the biggest log building? “Uhh…well…this is the real deal kids.”
The lobby is nothing short of impressive and what got me the most excited was reading the history of the crows nest located at the top of the vaulted ceiling. Many years ago in the heyday of the Inn, orchestras would play in the crows nest to dancing guests in the lobby below. Oh, be still my heart. I would have given up my portion of the huckleberry pie to go back in time to experience that.
After sucking down some ice cream cones, we went outside to catch the show that everyone was there for. Good “Old Faithful”. And that she was. We were even able to catch it again later that night as a rainstorm blew in complete with a double rainbow. Thank you, Lord!
The girls completed their new Yellowstone Junior Ranger books and graciously obliged their parents by doing the swearing in, once again, with Ranger Randy. This time he threw in that they would promise to eat their vegetables. Yes. Thank you, Ranger Randy.
Grand Teton National Park
Our trip was coming to an end and we spent the last day on the road driving south through the beautiful Grand Teton National Park. Our family has always had a thing for Jackson Hole and the Teton Mountain Range so being able to end our trip staring at those massive, snow capped peaks was such a treat. It felt like a fitting way to finish our journey.
As we pulled into our final stop in Teton Village, we climbed out of our faithful van, Shannon, and wearily unpacked our little mobile abode. We were exhausted, but completely filled with a sense of awe and accomplishment at what we had just done. The logistics of a trip like this are pretty massive, and I was so proud of my husband for pulling it all together. We were a great team, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience with the dearest three people in my life.