Words by Chuck Tannert.
More than 330 million people visited U.S. National Parks in 2016, the most in history, according to the American Automobile Association. Most of these travelers (about 91 percent) road-tripped to their destinations, a feat that wouldn’t have been possible without the original National Park-to-Park Highway established in 1922.
In the early 1900s, the automobile was just starting to gain popularity. However, roads, as we know them today, didn’t exist to support the growth, and state and federal aid wasn’t earmarked to fund them. So, motorists typically had to follow rough, rut-riddled dirt trails originally designed for horses and horse-drawn wagons. Private business and auto clubs started to pick up the slack by helping to fund and build “auto trails” suitable for cars.
In 1915, the National Park-to-Park Highway Association was formed to secure funding for a “scenic tour” of the Nation’s Playgrounds, the term given to the existing 12 National Parks. When finished in 1922, the NPP Highway wasn’t perfect (made of mostly dirt and gravel), but it stretched nearly 6,000 miles through seven states and connected the parks in the Rocky Mountains and The Pacific Coast regions, opening up the parks to many more adventurists.
Today, only sections of the original NPP Highway survive. However, you can still follow the same loop thanks to modern, well-maintained roads that were built to replace it and open the parks to explorers of all types.
Retracing the entire route will take you at least seven or eight weeks. But since a week is all most of us can spare, we recommend starting in Jackson, Wyoming and going north up U.S. 89. It stretches along the old route, connecting three of the country’s most popular national parks — Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier.
So here’s what to do, where to stay, and what to eat for your seven-day trip through the original National Park-to-Park highway.
Drive: Start in the National Elk Refuge. The 25,000-acre refuge is home to a wide variety of birds and mammals. You can often spot elk, bighorn sheep, and mule deer from the road.
Stay: Antler Inn, a Jackson icon that’s been operated by the same family since 1961. It’s clean, affordable and within walking distance to everything.
Eat: Trio serves up creative fare in an intimate atmosphere. If you’re looking for casual meal, order the sauteed mussels and a side of waffle fries, which comes with a gooey blue cheese fondue.
Play: An hour-drive from Jackson, the Grand Targhee Bike Park has 47 miles of trails for every skill level rider, ranging from those with gentle, banked cruises; tight and twisty cross-country tracks; and gnarly, rock-covered downhills.
Drive: As US-89 exits the refuge, it travels up the west side of Yellowstone National Park, passing through “The Land of Fire and Brimstone,” which is home to Old Faithful, the Norris geyser basin and the sulfur terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs.
Stay: Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky. This full-service ranch is perfect for your base of operations while in Yellowstone and the surrounding area where you can raft, fish and go horseback riding.
Eat: Horn & Cantle. Try the Deadwood Pork Belly. It takes three days to prepare and is made with pickled local mushrooms and Montana honey.
Play: Take a trip down the Gallatin River. It has spectacular scenery plus the challenge of class 4 whitewater. And hey, if you book your trip through Geyser Whitewater Adventures, your lunch is included.
Eat: Gallatin Riverhouse Grill. Located on the outskirts of Big Sky, they offer a filling three-piece fried chicken special with bean, corn, coleslaw and cornbread for a mere 7 bucks. It would do you well to get a plate of ribs, too.
Drive: U.S. 89 takes you through the Lewis and Clark National Forest, Bob Marshall Wilderness, and Blackfoot Indian Reservation. Have your camera ready.
Eat: Jam in Bozeman for breakfast. Its crab cake eggs benedict and a cup of drip coffee is one of the finer ways to start a morning.
Stay: Rising Sun Motor Inn and Cabins. The road ends in St. Mary, Montana, at the east entrance to Glacier National Park. It offers basic lodging at a fair price and is an easy 6 miles into the park.
Drive: The famed Going-to-the-Sun Road runs from one end of the glacier to the other, east to west, passing lakes, rivers, forests, and waterfalls.
Stay: The Lodge at Whitefish Lake. Location, location, location is this resort’s main attraction. The posh digs are just a mile and a half from the banks of Whitefish Lake, which is beautiful and perfect for a day in a kayak.
Eat : Tupelo Grille. Order the crispy duck leg appetizer with buttermilk bacon waffles and Montana pork rib-eye with green chile corn pudding.
Play: Explore Whitefish. Learn how to fly-fish for trout in the same streams and rivers that Brad Pitt did in the film A River Runs Through It.
Drink: The Great Northern Brewing Company is great place to grab a beer. Try a sampler of its award-winning brews, alongside the queso-drenched nachos.
Eat: Pescado Blanco. The spicy elk tacos are delicious at this ambitious Mexican joint. The honey-cumin-glazed Coho salmon, grilled and topped with smoked corn black bean salsa is another favorite.
Eat: Buffalo café. Start your day with McCabe’s Combo – blueberry pancakes, eggs, and spicy sausage – before you head home. Wherever that may be.