My husband and I took our son Gordie (2 years old) on an 9-day driving trip from Calgary in early June to see Yellowstone National Park, Devil’s Tower National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Monument, the Badlands National Park, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and Deadwood National Historic Landmark.
Last year we took him to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks in late June. I love history and am fascinated by interesting geology so the US national parks have natural appeal for me. I’m going to blog about the different areas we visited this year in future posts but I thought I’d write about some overall thoughts first.
Although the mandates of the Canadian and US National parks are quite similar, from my experience, the US national park service puts more of a focus on making the enjoyment of the national parks accessible for everyone.
1. Passport Book
My first suggestion if you’re planning on visiting a few National Parks/Monuments on this trip or in the future is to get a Passport Book. They are inexpensive (around $10US) and you can collect free ink stamps with the date and location at all the National Park visitor centres. Most places also have a unique stamp for the park (see picture below). You can also purchase them at the visitor centres, so you don’t need to get one ahead of time unless you want to. They also have a place for stickers that you can purchase with a picture of the park or monument.
We ended up getting one at the end of our last trip because I didn’t really figure out what it was at first. This year we managed to nearly fill up the Rocky Mountain section and so decided to purchase the Passport Explorer Binder at the end of this trip. It is $50US but you can take out or add pages to the different sections. Since we may end up visiting quite a number of National Parks and Monuments in the Rocky Mountain area over the next few years, we decided to pick it up.
2. Visitor Centres
Each park and monument has a visitor centre (or more than one in the case of larger parks like Yellowstone) where you can get information, maps guides, get your passport stamp, sign up for the Jr Ranger program, see educational exhibits as well as purchase souvenirs at the park association store. At most of these store you can buy a membership to the association (for around $30). The parks all have different associations, but if you buy a membership for one, you can use your discount of $10-15% at most of the other association stores.
3. Jr. Ranger Program
Many of the National Parks and Monuments offer the Jr. Ranger Program. In this program, kids learn about science, history, art and nature through completing a series of activities and sharing their answers with the Ranger. The goal is to help kids better appreciate what they are seeing by having material that helps them interact with it at their own level. The kids receive a booklet to complete with different levels required of kids of different ages. Upon completion the kids receive a patch or badge and a Jr. Ranger certificate. I’m am ridiculously excited for Gordie to be old enough to do this but it is only for ages 5-12. Although they will sometimes be lenient for a 4 year old with older siblings. Ultimately though they wants the kids to be able to understand the Jr Ranger oath to protect the area and plants and animals within it and do no harm and as well as the activities themselves.
4. National Park Passes
Most areas will require you to purchase a park pass which costs $10-$25 and is good for a week. You can also purchase an annual pass for $80. There are some areas (such as Mount Rushmore) where a separate organization owns the parking area so you still need to pay for parking even if you have a pass. It’s a good idea to price this out before your trip and consider where you may go over the rest of the year. I was surprised to find that even though we went to 2 national parks and 3 national monuments it was actually cheaper for us to not get the park pass this year.
5. Always Make Sure the Route you are Planning is Passable
Many of the parks are in very unique geographic areas and can have road conditions quite different from the surrounding area. The Going to the Sun Road in Glacier as well as many of the routes in Yellowstone are closed over the winter. The time of year at which they open can vary depending on the weather. It is easy to think that you wouldn’t need to check the road conditions once you have hit June, however we were surprised to find the Road out of Yellowstone through Cody Wyoming was closed due to a slide and we had to amend our route when we got there (significant detour north into montana instead of travelling across WY). I wouldn’t travel to Yellowstone or Glacier again at any time of year without first checking the road conditions.
Some of the parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier have cabins and lodges that you can stay at inside the park. We had assumed that these would be frightfully expensive but they are price controlled so at least in some cases they are actually cheaper than the hotels outside the park. This does mean that they are not going to be as plush as they might be otherwise though. We stayed at a cabin this year and it was quite small. It had a heater and a small fan, but it would probably be quite hot in the heat and cold in the cold. It did have its own bathroom with a shower but not all the cabins or even all the rooms at the lodge do. Because we did opt for our own bathroom we only had one bed and it was not a generous queen. Which made sleeping a little squishy. They do have cribs that you can get for kids under 2 though.
It is also good to note that they fill up quickly so if you do want to stay inside the park, book ahead. It was challenging to find three days together in Yellowstone when we were booking in December. That being said if you are in a large park like Yellowstone, consider staying in different areas of the park on different nights to make it easier to access different parks of the park. We’re definitely going to try to do that next time we’re in Yellowstone.
7. Read up on the area Before Going – Lots of Hidden Gems
This is one of the things that we had done well last trip, but fell short on this trip. Look around at the tourism websites for the area you are going as well as the national park website to find out about things you may want to see that aren’t quite as famous as Yellowstone or Mount Rushmore. Last year we found out about the ringing rocks of Montana which is a type of rock formation that they have only found in 5 places in the world which sound like a bell when you hit them with a hammer. This year, we ended up missing the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site because it was closed by the time we got there. We hadn’t planned on going to it or Badlands National Park, but they ended up being a lot closer to Rushmore and Devil’s Tower than we had realized when we were planning our trip.