For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enamored with America’s National Parks and the opportunities they offer to experience nature face to face. This summer, I took the opportunity to experience a few parks: The Badlands National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.

I’m an avid photographer and so that was the real focus (pun intended) of my trip. I also wanted to camp out, which I’d never done before. I also wanted to make good use of my time and decide ahead of time what I wanted to see and photograph. The research and pre-trip planning made everything go smoothly, yet it allowed me time and space to go “off script” and see things I hadn’t planned to experience.

Getting There

Google Maps is a great resource for planning your driving route. I was able to create a map and download it to my iPhone – using the Google Maps app on my phone, I had excellent directions during the entire trip.

Coming from the Midwest as I did, Interstate 90 is the easiest and fastest way to get to all these destinations. I followed it from Illinois up through Wisconsin and Minnesota, then headed west toward South Dakota. 90 continues on into Wyoming – and at Buffalo, Wyoming you can pick up Route 16 to head directly into the park. If your trip originates in or near Colorado, take Interstate 25 north and join up with Route 16 in Buffalo, WY. If you’re coming from the northwest or southwest, take Interstate 84 or 80 (respectively) east to Interstate 15.

If you choose to fly, consider heading to Bozeman, MT or to Jackson, WY. Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) is located in the Grand Teton area and provides service to/from Denver, Salt Lake City, and other major hubs for most airlines.

Badlands National Park

The trip started with an overnight stay in Badlands National Park. I rented a space in the Cedar Pass Campground. The campground is for tents as well as campers and RVs. Since I went in peak season it was pretty full, but I had no trouble reserving a spot ahead of time. I arrived just in time to set up camp and to capture a beautiful sunset.

I awoke the next morning early enough to catch the sunrise – and I’m really glad I did. The approach of a cold front made for some really beautiful colors during the sunset, and they were enhanced by light fog that was rolling in.

I found that a single day in the Badlands was enough for me. I planned my visit around photography, and I knew I would get most of my good shots at night or early in the day. If you plan to visit for hiking, you may want to consider a longer stay there.

If you’re looking for great information on hiking in the Badlands, read this excellent post from ILive4Travel on the best hikes in Badlands National Park.

Yellowstone National Park

After leaving the Badlands I headed out toward Yellowstone. It’s a long drive (about 9 hours) but a beautiful one. Wyoming has a lot of wide-open spaces, and towns tend to be few and far between. If you need gas, groceries or other supplies, consider making a quick stop in Cody, Wyoming. It’s about an hour outside the edge of the park and is the last major town for supplies before getting into the park.

I chose to stay at the Canyon Village Campground for this trip because it was well-located for the things I wanted to see. The Canyon Village area also contains stores and restaurants and a gas station. The gas station has a mechanic on staff in case you have any car trouble during your trip. If you plan to travel during peak summer season as I did, plan on reserving your lodging at least 8-10 months in advance, as the sites book up quickly.

After a quick stop to set up my tent, I was off to explore. I wanted to spend most of the first day around the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone area, and I arrived at the perfect time as the lighting was excellent. Plan for a drive – or better yet, a hike – along both the north and south rim trails.07-31-16-yellowstone-np-215-hdr-3

I found that the best time to venture out and explore was in the morning and I was usually on the road between 6AM and 7AM daily. As a photographer, I’m always looking for the best light, and mornings and afternoons tend to have the softest and warmest light to cast everything in a beautiful glow. From a practical standpoint mornings worked out well – most visitors to the park are not up and about until 9AM or later. I found that being among the first ones out meant I had my choice of parking spots and that the vistas were largely uninterrupted by cars or other people. It’s also the best time to see wildlife – most of the animals in the park are active at morning and at night, and tend to rest during the warmer parts of the day.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I had a well-thought-out plan to see everything that I was interested in. I found several useful guides and resources that helped me make the best use of my time. I really wanted to see the iconic spots like Old Faithful, the Norris Geyser Basin, and Mammoth Hot Springs. Seeing all these areas exceeded my wildest expectations – they were absolutely breathtaking, and the views will stay with me forever. But I also made time to stop along the path at several places that just looked interesting and I found some beautiful surprises, like the Twin Lakes area.

I planned a full day in the middle of my trip to visit Grand Teton National Park as well – it’s a beautiful drive and a fantastic destination.

Grand Teton National Park

The drive from Yellowstone to Grand Teton takes you down the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway – a beautiful and convenient route. If you’ve only got a single day or limited time to visit the park, this is an excellent way to see it. There are great vistas and viewpoints along the way, both outside and inside the park.

Another “must-see” for me was the area called Mormon Row. It’s in Moose, WY and is just south of the main part of GTNP. Mormon Row is the remainder of a colony of Mormon pioneers who landed in this area in the mid-1800s. There are several iconic barns and buildings in the area, and the skies are big and open – evoking thoughts of the wide-open spaces that one sees in this part of the world.

Another “can’t miss” site is the Church of the Transfiguration. It’s a very small Episcopal church located near the south entrance of GTNP. The church has a large picture window in the front area and it’s got a breathtaking view of the Tetons. It’s so relaxing and inspiring to sit for a few minutes and contemplate the view.

My time here was much too short – if I ever visit the area again, I plan to stay in Grand Teton longer to see more wildlife and take in more beautiful vistas.

Planning My Next National Park Road Trip

I don’t know when I’ll get to take another trip to several of America’s beautiful and wonderful National Parks…but when I do, I already know where I’m headed. Bryce Canyon, Zion, Yosemite and Sequoia Kings National Park are all on my list of places to see. Can’t wait to get out again and experience nature in this way!

Summing it up…

Because of careful planning and lots of reading and research, this trip was everything I hoped it would be. All the parks I visited are vast and have tons of things to see – I literally only scratched the surface of what was there to see. Plan your time well, and reserve your lodging well in advance – and you’ll have a great trip.