National Parks of the Interior West: Adventure Awaits in Your Own Backyard

Featuring many of the crown jewels of our National Park System, from Yellowstone to Grand Teton, preserved lands in the western U.S. top travelers’ bucket lists the world over. Revealing colossal geological wonders; ancient history; and jagged, snow-capped mountains, national parks of the interior west ground, challenge and amaze you at every turn. 

Whether you’re a family with tots or an adventure-seeker with rock-climbing skills, there’s something to move you. And if you’re fortunate enough to live in the western U.S.? America’s breathtaking backyards are a hop, skip and a jump from home. 

Considering a move to the interior western United States? Already settled in? The mountains, glacial lakes and red-rock wonders are calling — and so much more. 

Whether you’re a family with tots or an adventure-seeker with rock-climbing skills, there’s something to move you. And if you’re fortunate enough to live in the western U.S.? America’s breathtaking backyards are a hop, skip and a jump from home. 

Considering a move to the interior western United States? Already settled in? The mountains, glacial lakes and red-rock wonders are calling — and so much more. 

Tips for Visiting National Parks 

Whether you prefer a quick weekend jaunt or a full-on vacation, it’s important to get the lay of the land before visiting national parks in the country’s interior west, as these destinations are among the remotest areas on Earth. As such, you’ll lack access to certain necessities; cell service can be spotty; and weather and road conditions can change in the blink of an eye.  

It’s often an hours-long drive through challenging — not to mention exhilarating — driving conditions when traveling from one end of most national parks to the other. Plan your routes and map out everything in advance. It’s also a good idea to purchase hard-copy maps, like National Geographic’s waterproof trail map series. They not only include topography, but also roads and routes not detailed on regular maps — or, frankly, the ones you receive at the gate.  

Then, check the parks’ official website for things like road and trail closures before you go — otherwise you could be met with a closed road, entrance or trail that can derail an otherwise well-planned adventure. This is the wilderness, and you’re at the mercy of mother nature every day.  

Because the parks are so vast, timing is everything. Yellowstone, for example, spans nearly 3,500 square miles. Group viewpoints and hikes by regions within the park; note the distance and time between destinations; and know how to your must-sees in advance. No one wants to end up mid-mountain and crunched for time. Account for the fact that these drives can take longer than expected — mountain, unpaved and meandering roads are that way.  

Consider, too, what time of year is right for your visit. In some parts of the country, the summer heat is oppressive, while winter brings seasonal road closures that render parts of the parks off-limits for months at a time.  By contrast, off-season visits — spring and fall — prove more peaceful and less populated, while providing a beauty of their own. However, there can also be times when certain regions receive the most rain. 

Here are some other important considerations and rules of thumb when planning national park trips: 

  • Get an annual national park pass 
  • Buy a park passport — and stamp it at each visitor’s center 
  • Book early — nearby accommodations fill up well in advance 
  • Bring proper gear — and prepare for weather changes 
  • Dress in layers and bring a daypack 
  • Drink water — and lots of it 
  • Slather on sunscreen, regardless of the weather 
  • Pack a picnic, as dining options are limited-to-non-existent 
  • Stop by the gift shop — they tend to be great 
  • Gas up the night before — hours vary and options are few and far between 
  • Combine camping with a stay in a historic lodge or Airbnb 
  • Befriend park rangers for insider information 
  • Download park, weather and GPS apps in advance 
  • Check the park website for time entry requirements 
  • Leave no trace 

Ready to get started? Let’s explore the national parks of the interior western U.S. and delve into their biggest draws. 

  1. Grand Teton National Park 
  2. Yellowstone National Park
  3. Glacier National Park

National Parks in Idaho

Grand Teton National Park 

The Idaho side of the Tetons — known as “Teton Valley” — is the “quiet side of the Grand Tetons.” It encompasses Victor, Idaho, Driggs, Idaho, and Tetonia, Idaho. Significantly less busy than its Wyoming counterpart, it’s the jumping off point for explorations of the Swan Valley, Mesa Falls, the Teton River and Palisades Lake. 

Consider a scenic drive along the 70-mile Teton Scenic Byway, which runs along the western slopes of the Teton Range. You’ll be rewarded with picturesque vistas, rushing rivers and historical sites.

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Yellowstone National Park 

Primarily located in Wyoming and parts of Montana, 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone National Park extends into parts of Idaho as well.  

Idaho’s nearest Yellowstone entrance — the park’s busiest — brings you to geyser paradise. Plan your itinerary right and you can enjoy lookouts near Canyon Village and Artist Point and pay visits to Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring the same day. Have more time? You’d be wise to stretch your stay to fully bask in the beauty. 

Offering some of the best fishing and wildlife viewing in the state, the Greater Yellowstone Region is home to the gateway of Island Park, Idaho, where forests and rivers sit within the world’s the largest caldera — a nearly 50-mile hollow formed when a supervolcano erupted 2.1 million years ago. 

Looking for a scenic drive? The 64-mile jaunt along Highway 191 spans two states and two mountain passes and skirts Hebgen Lake, Earthquake Lake and Henry’s Lake. 

If seeing a bear tops your bucket list, a drive through Yellowstone Bear World in nearby Rexburg, Idaho, guarantees up-close sightings. The wildlife park is home to grizzly bears, black bears, elks and moose. Plus, it features a petting zoo and amusement rides, too. Cap off the detour with a stop at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, a wildlife center and educational facility with resident grizzly bears, gray wolves and river otters. 

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National Parks in Montana  

Glacier National Park 

First inhabited by Native Americans, Glacier National Park was dominated by Blackfeet in the east and the Flathead in the western regions around the time European explorers arrived. 

Featuring over 700 miles of trails that give way to alpine meadows, pristine forests, rugged mountains and crystalline lakes, Glacier National Park is a hiker’s wonderland in northern Montana, near the Canadian border. The result of glacially carved remnants of an ancient thrust fault, its snowcapped pinnacles are punctuated by plunging waterfalls and eye-popping turquoise lakes.  

Majestic and authentically wild, many of its peaks are covered in glaciers year-round. Come spring, wildflowers blanket its meadows and grizzlies emerge from hibernation to wander and hunt in their unspoiled habitat. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Situated at the headwaters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Hudson Bay drainages, Glacier harbors an astounding array of plants and wildlife. Across the border in Canada, both Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes International Peace Park were together designated International Biosphere Reserves and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

The park’s floristic provinces encompass cordilleran, boreal, arctic-alpine and great plains, resulting in moist coniferous forests; a mix of barren or sparsely vegetated rocks, ice and snow; dry coniferous forest; meadows and prairies; deciduous forests peppered with aspens and black cottonwoods; wet meadows, or fens; and lake surface water with thriving aquatic plants in shallower areas. From lush grasses to a dizzying number of fern species, woody shrubs and meadows carpeted with summer wildflowers, interest abounds. 

Not surprisingly, these habitats support impressive wildlife diversity, including majestic elk, tiny pigmy shrews and one of the largest grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states. America’s largest rodent, the beaver, also calls the park home, along with bighorn sheep, a complex mix of fish, amphibians like the Boreal Chorus frog, more than 275 winged wonders and even western painted turtles. 

The Weather 

Spanning the Continental Divide with more than 7,000 feet in variance above sea level, there are many climates and microclimates within Glacier.  

Moist, temperate conditions prevail on the west side of the park, where rainfall averages 23 inches in its dryer northeast and northwest edges and an average 30 inches at West Glacier. Precipitation over 100 inches may fall in isolated spots near the Continental Divide. 

In the Pacific watershed at the western side of the park, expect a milder and wetter climate, given its lower elevation. Winter and spring see the greatest precipitation. Snow can fall any time of the year, including summer, particularly at higher altitudes. Come winter, expect prolonged cold weather, especially on the eastern side of the Continental Divide. Winter snowfalls are significant, with the largest accumulation happening in the west.  

During the tourist season, daytime highs range from 60 °F to 70°F, dropping into the 40°F range at night. However, high-country temperatures are much cooler. The lower western valleys, meanwhile, see summertime highs that hover around 90°F. 

Keep in the loop about weather conditions and road and trail closures on the park’s website. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

The best day hikes are found in Many Glacier, West Glacier and Two Medicine, in addition to along Going-to-the-Sun Road. 

Among the park’s most popular hikes is moderately challenging, 5.9-mile out-and-back Avalanche Lake via the Trail of the Cedars near Lake McDonald, Montana — and for good reason since you’re treated to turquoise waters galore. 

The Grinnell Glacier Trail — a challenging, 14.9-mile out-and-back trek — showcases a bevy of glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, forests and wildlife along a highly elevated trail with steep drop-offs. Adding to the thrill, you can stand where the glacier ends and melds into the first lake. Beginning from the north side of Going-to-the-Sun Road at Logan Pass, it’s frequented by bighorn sheep and mountain goats.  

No matter what — and especially if your time is limited — make certain to drive along 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, storied for its dramatic mountain scenery. Its lower portion is open year-round, though the alpine section may not open until sometime in early July, once the gargantuan task of plowing the road is done. 

One of the park’s most spectacular hikes, the 12-mile, out-and-back Cracker Lake Trail starts at Piegan Pass at the south end of the parking lot above the Many Glacier Hotel. Marvel at the Cracker Flats area; pause to appreciate the mountains vistas across the upper reaches of Lake Sherburne; take in the soothing sounds of creeks and waterfalls; witness deep, steep-walled canyons; and keep watch for grizzly bears (bear spray is a must), particularly as you pass through dense vegetation. 

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Yellowstone National Park

Primarily located in Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park extends into portions of Montana and Idaho, too. Its north and northwest sections in Montana can be accessed via the park’s north and northeast entrances, the primary gateway being Gardiner, Montana, and West Yellowstone, Montana. The west entrance offers convenient access to Old Faithful; Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is best reached via the north entrance; and the northeast entrance is considered the park’s best for spotting wildlife, as it is closest to Lamar Valley. Dubbed “America’s Serengeti,” it’s renowned for its large concentration of bears, wolves, bison, pronghorn, eagles, ospreys and much more.  

See the park’s full description under the state of Wyoming.

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National Parks in Wyoming  

Grand Teton National Park

Richly scenic with exceptional wildlife, untouched lakes, massive mountains and alpine terrain, Grand Teton National Park is nestled into the northwest corner of Wyoming in Teton County, a few miles south of Yellowstone. Its 310,000 acres of wilderness are crossed by about 200 miles of trails. In conjunction with the surrounding national forest, the three protected areas comprise the almost 18-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the planet’s largest intact, mid-latitude, temperate ecosystems. 

The region’s human history is fascinating and rich. Dating back at least 11,000 years, the first hunter-gatherer Paleo-Indians migrated here during warmer months in search of food and supplies. By the time Europeans arrived, tribes — including the Shoshone, Blackfoot, Bannock, Flathead, Blackfoot, Crow, Gros Ventre and Nez Perce — were harvesting bounty from the land. From tales of fur trappers to the stories of homesteaders and ranchers, even its more recent history runs deep. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Rising more than 7,000 feet above the valley of Jackson Hole, the commanding Teton Range defines the skyline. Ascending from the sagebrush-specked valley floor to the 13,770-foot summit, its forests give way to meadows that come alive with wildflowers when weather warms. Crystal-clear alpine lakes — mirroring mountains — fill amphitheater-like glacial cirques; rushing streams plummet down rocky canyons into pristine lakes at the foot of the mountain range; and the Snake River weaves its way through the valley and across the vast landscape. 

Supporting over 1,000 species of vascular plants, Grand Teton is divided into communities of sagebrush flats, like those seen on the valley floor of Jackson Hole; forests in canyons, on mountainsides and along ridges; riparian corridors and wetlands that produce ribbons of green, moisture-loving plants along the Snake River; and alpine areas, matted with specially adapted species, like forget-me-nots. 

These create habitats for the likes of yellow-bellied marmots, mighty grizzly and black bears, moose, wolves and mountain lions, as well as rarely seen wolverines, over 300 species of birds, a host of native fish and salamanders. The park also harbors several species of concern, from the bald eagle to the greater sage grouse and gray wolves. 

The Weather 

Mid-April through June, pleasant days and cool nights alternate with pockets of rain and snow. In fact, trails on the valley are usually covered with the white stuff until late May. The months of July and August are warm, with temps cooling off in the evenings and afternoon thunderstorms a common occurrence. September through November are sunny and cold, offset by rain and occasional snow. Winters are frigid and unforgiving, with snow swathing the mountains and valley and all-winter tires recommended but really a must. Roads may close during blizzards.  

Conditions can change rapidly here. It’s important to monitor the park’s website for current road, trail and weather conditions

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

A remarkable, albeit moderately challenging, 9.1-mile route to the Grand Tetons’ Cathedral Group, the Cascade Canyon Trail requires taking the Jenny Lake shuttle boat across the glacially carved, 423-foot waters to trailhead — that is, if you want to cut off roughly 2.4 miles of walking each way via the alternate Jenny Lake Trail. The trek climbs through pristine conifer forests; crossing Cascade Canyon Creek; passing thundering Hidden Falls; visiting Inspiration Point for a breathtaking perspective of Jenny Lake, Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Mountains; entering boulder fields; tracking. along ponds frequented by harlequin ducks; and to the Forks of Cascade Canyon. 

Hike to beautiful, secluded Delta Lake via the Lupine Meadows Access on a challenging 8.1 mile out-and-back trail that gains 2,300 feet in elevation (about twice the height of the Empire State Building). Located in the southwest corner of the park, it’s an unmaintained trail that’s typically accessible only from June through October due to Jackson’s snowfall. Trek up a series of switchbacks for vistas of Bradley Lake and colorful spring and summer wildflowers. After scrambling through boulder fields for a final 500-foot ascent, you reach the placid, glacial lake. 

A 7.1-mile-long hiking trail that begins at the Jenny Lake campground and encircles its namesake waterway, the Jenny Lake Trail takes you first along the mostly forested east side of the 423-foot, glacially carved lake for views of Teewinot Mountain, Mount Owen, Cascade Canyon, Storm Point, Symmetry Spire, Mount St. John, Rockchuck Peak and Mount Moran. One of the most popular and easiest hikes in the park, the trail provides access to the Cascade Canyon Trail and is overlapped by the Valley Trail along the lake’s west side. 

A moderate 6-mile option, Taggart Lake and the Bradley Lake Loop winds through aspen-covered moraine before opening up to views of the mighty Tetons. 

The easy, 4.8-mile Hidden Falls Trail can be shorted a mile by taking the shuttle boat to the Jenny Lake Loop Trail, culminating in a panorama of the roaring 200-foot waterfall that cascades down rocky ledges at the far end of the lake. It’s an easy junction to Inspiration Point. If you choose, continue across a wood bridge to the north side of Cascade Creek before climbing rugged switchbacks up a granite knoll to 7,200-foot Inspiration Point, where you’ll be rewarded with perspectives that extend over Jenny Lake to the Gros Ventre Mountains and the Gros Ventre Slide, a massive 1925 landslide. Other views include Storm Point and Symmetry Spire to the west and, to the southwest, Teewinot Mountain as it looms over Cascade Canyon. 

The 10.1-mile Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes Trail — which climbs 3,000 feet — takes you to two alpine lakes, a journey through meadows and forests and up a series of switchbacks to views of the surrounding peaks. 

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Yellowstone National Park  

Mostly located in Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park spreads into parts of Montana and Idaho as well. The world’s first national park, 2.2 million-acre Yellowstone National Park is a land of geysers and hot springs; mud pots and fumaroles; meadows, dramatic canyons and pine-scented forests. Shaped by a volcano, thermal features, glaciers and earthquakes, it’s a sanctuary for the continent’s largest population of elks and the continent’s oldest, largest herds of wild bison, as well as both grizzly and black bears. In short, it promises a North American safari for the ages.  

Drawing people from all corners of the world to appreciate its unique hydrothermal and geologic features, it contains roughly half the world’s active geysers, as well as one of the planet’s largest, almost-intact temperate zones. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Complex and wondrous, the ecosystems of Yellowstone National Park protect a wide array of terrestrial, aquatic and microbial life, including the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states. That includes eight ungulate species — including bighorn sheep and mountain goats — as well as seven large predators, the Canada lynx, mountain lions, coyotes, black bears, grizzly bears, wolves and wolverines.  

From resident and migratory birds to fish like the Yellowstone Cutthroat trout; amphibians, such as chorus frogs; and reptiles that include the prairie rattlesnake and rubber boa, it’s a feast for the eyes — and senses.  

Of course, plant life is no less fascinating here, with vegetation that overlaps species typical of the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains to the east and intermountain region to the west. In addition to three endemic species — Yellowstone sand verbena, Yellowstone sulfur wild buckwheat and Ross’s bentgrass — you’ll find mountain and common juniper, quaking aspen and cottonwood. 

The Weather 

Given most of the park lies at 6,000 feet or higher above sea level, climactic unpredictability can lead to sudden changes in weather, including wild temperature swings and rain or snow any month of the year. Spring and fall see temperatures between 30°F to 60°F during the day, dipping to teens to single digits at night. Come summer, temperatures can reach 80°F at lower elevations, cooling off as mountain regions do at night. With an annual average of 150 inches of snow (though high elevations can see double that), sub-zero temperatures are common in winter. The lowest recorded temperature? A bone-chilling -66°F. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

There’s no way around it — you have to walk the 1.5-mile, out-and-back Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail, which gradually climbs 105 feet from the Fairy Falls Trailhead for a bird’s eye view of Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the world. More than 120 feet deep and located in the Midway Geyser Basin, it radiates exceptionally hot water—and a rainbow’s worth of color—from its center. 

Equally must-do is the 4.9-mile Upper Geyser Basin and Old Faithful Observation Point Loop — it’s the best trail for viewing the park’s hydrothermal features and specifically the most predictable geysers, including Old Faithful, Daisy, Riverside, Castle and Grand. Reached behind the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, be sure to check the geyser times board above the ranger’s desk before heading out. From Observation Point, you’ll glean the Historic Old Faithful District, most of the steamy geyser basin and the star of the show, Old Faithful. 

Mystic Falls, Fairy Creek and Little Firehole Loop total 3.5 miles, revealing 70-foot Mystic Falls, a geothermally heated waterfall; the Biscuit Basin, where boardwalks are flanked by colorful springs; and the Little Firehole River at an elevation of 7,264 feet.  

Easy, flat and meandering, the 4.8-mile Fairy Falls Trail affords views of its spectacular water feature about 2.5 miles in. One of Yellowstone’s tallest, it’s situated in a bear-populated area, so be sure to bring bear spray and engage actively in conversation as you go.  

Take the 6.4-mile hike to Yellowstone Falls, Crystal Falls and Inspiration Point for classic Upper and Lower Yellowstone vantage points, including an aerial view of rugged, deep Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. 

Not to be missed are the Mammoth Hot Springs trails, the feature’s volcanic heat source still somewhat of a mystery. Although the beautiful, colorful terrace steps do not have any high-spouting geysers, the region does contain the world’s greatest collections of hot springs comprised of travertine deposits. These “living sculptures” can be seen by walking a series of boardwalks or — if you’re crunched on time — from your car window on Upper Terrace Drive. 

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Whether you live in the interior west states, are considering a cross-country move to these states or are planning a visit, our blog is filled with ideas to experience the region through a local lens.  

Ready to make a move with United Van Lines? We’re ready when you are! So, let’s talk. 

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