- Mammoth Cave
- Rocky Mountain
- Grand Teton
Paula and I both concluded that the Grand Teton National Park is our favorite followed closely by Rocky Mountain and Glacier National Parks which are essentially a tie for second. The same conclusion from both of us surprised me since my wife is not a professed lover of the mountains, yet she also chose the three most prolific mountain parks. The Grand Teton National Park essentially had everything without having to work for it. The Teton mountain range offers breathtaking views from everywhere in the park. They are just always there as a backdrop to everything like a huge painting on the horizon whether you are sitting in a restaurant, going somewhere or just hanging out. You don't have to hike or drive or see them or even get a better view of them. The huge Lake Jackson that sits at the base of the mountains helps offer unique mountain views with water in the foreground plus offers additional recreational activities.
The accommodation areas (such as Colter Bay) are well thought out and offer everything you need within walking distance. We didn't have to drive anywhere. There was a Visitor Center, a marina, restaurants, camping area, cabin area, and even a service station and convenience store all discretely laid out within walking distance and obscured by tall pines so we didn't feel we were in a commercial strip. There was fishing, boating, hiking, and biking all available right there with reasonable prices for food, boat rentals, canoes, and fishing licenses. The weather was simply gorgeous with temps maybe getting to 83 in the day and going down into the 40's at night. Wildlife was abundant too. We did take a 15 minute drive down to OxBow bend in the Snake River in the evenings to see Beaver and Moose. Elk were abundant everywhere. We also saw a bear. Overall, it was relaxing, beautiful, and exciting all at the same time. Plus our cabin was very nice and very comfortable even for 5 people and the first class Jackson Lodge was only 10 minutes away in case you needed an espresso, additional choices of restaurants, or a wireless hot spot and a comfortable sofa on which to view the magnificent mountains.
Both Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks are a close second place. They also offer spectacular views and hiking and biking plus they have the same gorgeous cool weather, but what they don't have are the added water activities plus you have to drive their respective roads to get the views. OK, so it isn't such a hardship to drive Trail Ridge Road or the Going to the Sun Highway, and unlike Grand Teton National Park there are many different gorgeous views along the roads plus the same wildlife viewing opportunities, but the only drawback is you do have to load the family and gear into the car and drive to experience these views and your days adventure.
Our accommodations at Glacier's Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge didn't hold up to our large and comfortable cabin at the Tetons and both were similarly priced. The room was a small hotel room that was more than cramped with 5 people plus it was dated. Then again, we were staying in probably the remotest part of the country one will ever experience so the fact that there are accommodations at all is remarkable, especially when you consider the park is only open for 3 months out of the year. I didn't mind the "hardships" of the room given the location right in the middle of the park and at the starting point for some of the most popular hikes in the park like the hike we took to Iceberg lake. Bighorn and Mountain Goat viewing is a popular evening activity on the front porch of the lodge. Paula saw some bears through her binoculars too. We saw a Moose family up close at the lake within a short distance from the lodge. Paula and I nearly bumped into the male along the trail as we approached the lake. The restaurant and little store at Swiftcurrent were more than sufficient and provided anything you could want. Many people simply had a beer, a slice a pizza, or an ice cream right there on the porch and watched the sunset on the ridge while talking about their day's adventure. The higher class Many Glacier hotel is also just a 5 minute drive away in case you needed a little more pampering. Although I didn't go in I think it is comparable to the Jackson Lodge at the Tetons.
Our accommodations at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) were our own pop-up trailer so I will compare the views and conveniences. The view from our campsite was very similar to the view from the Swiftcurrent Inn at Glacier. In two directions you viewed the steep mountain ridges that swooped up from the valley floor. The large rock outcroppings on the top of the ridges at RMNP were more rounded and smooth, a rock climbers paradise. One could walk up perhaps 3/4 of the way, but rock climbing gear would definitely be needed for the rock outcropping on the top. At Glacier the steep ridges were only walk able about half way and then the top of the ridges ascended straight up from there with jagged rock that simply has been sheared off by an ancient glacier. Rock climbing gear and even more ability would be needed to ascend those ridges. Our camp, the National Park Retreats, bordered the national park and offered the usual little camp store plus a coffee house with a large beautifully shaded deck offering a spectacular view of the adjacent ridge and an overactive humming bird feeder. Like the Swiftcurrent Inn, it was a great place to sit and talk about the day's activities while enjoying an espresso, soda, or snack.
Yellowstone National Park is next on our list. The fact that it is this far down on our list is a testimony to the beauty of the other aforementioned parks. Yellowstone is still a must visit destination, but it just doesn't have the magnificent mountain views the other three parks offer. The mountain views are replaced by the unreal beauty of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its upper and lower water falls. They were fabulous, but we enjoyed it with about 500 other people including a bus load of kids running wild. Yellowstone offers the volcanic activity of geysers, thermal pots, boiling mud and the like which is unique and interesting, but not as picturesque as the mountain parks. The kids were thrilled with Old Faithful and the ice cream we enjoyed there, but were uninspired by the other thermal activity. We drove the entire park circumference and saw what I term "the big west", large rolling hills or small mountains with prairie grasses, scrub brushes, pockets of pines, and beautiful streams and lakes. It is the kind of terrain you can see yourself riding on horseback across. The wildlife viewing opportunities were equal to the other parks as we practically played with elk near our camp at the edge of Lake Yellowstone, viewed many buffalo from the road, and came across a couple of black bears. The weather was equally as beautiful, but perhaps a bit warmer in the afternoon and definitely even cooler at night. One night it went down to 37 degrees which was the low temp for the state. After driving the circumference of the park on one day and taking in the stops, we simply enjoyed hanging out by Lake Yellowstone and out campsite the next day.
Mammoth cave just can't compete with the aforementioned parks. The sheer size of the park cannot be experienced as all but 12 miles of the 367 total miles of the cave can be entered. Of those 12 miles, I think many probably look the same. We took in the most popular 2 miles on the History Tour. The previous most difficult part of the tour, Fat Man's Misery, was easily done by old and young alike as crawling on your belly has been replaced by just crouching a little. The hardest part now is climbing the couple hundred stairs back out of the cave through the Mammoth Dome which is quite an impressive feature.
The Badlands are just desolate. Walking off the path in the park is acceptable and even encouraged as erosion by wind and rain is so great it pales in comparison to damage that can be done by human feet. However, there are only a few short hikes even mapped out to experience. It seems that 98% of the park is just designed for driving. Mom was happy with that as every stop had a rattlesnake warning message to read. We did a short hike called The Door and played among the sandy spires and rocky ravines for about 30 minutes after eating our lunch. The kids enjoyed that and would have enjoyed a longer hike and scramble through the winding and undulating terrain, but none were readily available. Picnic tables are covered with a semi-circle of boards to provide some shade as nothing seems to grow in the eroded terrain that makes the Badlands interesting and only grass grows in other places. The breeze on the prairie was enjoyable during our visit, but the intensity of the sun and high-80's temps seemed hot to us after so many glorious days with cooler temps. Many very cute Prairie Dogs were viewed scurrying among their many holes on the mesa. We also stopped at a paleontology dig where bones of ancient animals about 30 million years old abound. A 12 - 18 inch jawbone was being uncovered during our visit. All-in-all our park visit was probably only 3 hours. We tried extending the visit by continuing on the dirt road portion down to the Prairie Dog Hotel and to an area where Big Horn sheep are frequently seen, but the seemingly rather smooth road had washboard ridges that rattled the car too much for our liking. We visited the very touristy Wall Drug store for the experience on the way out and had an early dinner at the Cactus Cafe there.