The world’s first national park is Yellowstone, established in 1872, almost entirely in Wyoming with slivers in Idaho and Montana. It remains one of this country’s most popular parks (4.1 million visitors in 2018) even though it is far from a major population center and has no major roads carrying travelers between destinations.
Yellowstone is famous for its wildlife and geysers (about half the world’s total), including Old Faithful. It has also become notable for tourists behaving badly.
Not far away, at least in open-space Western terms, is Glacier National Park in Montana, which offers the same animals, fewer people, and an increasingly rare sight: glaciers.
Yellowstone National Park. This park, which is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, teems with wolves and bears (grizzly and black), moose and elk, deer, bison and coyotes — creatures that biologists call “charismatic megafauna.” The park also features a diverse and otherworldly landscape defined by geysers and mud baths, canyons and lakes, and raging rivers. The park’s architecture is iconic, from the rustic-yet-magnificent Old Faithful Inn to the picturesque cabins for rent at Mammoth and other Yellowstone waypoints.
The crowds thin out once you get more than a mile from a road, but realistically, most Yellowstone visitors stick to the front country. And there, many indulge in their worst impulses — like placing toddlers on the backs of wild bison for photo ops or slathering their extremities with honey to get closer to bears.
It's not that Yellowstone isn't great; it is. But it's better outside of the high summer tourist season. May is typically still snowy in Yellowstone, but fall in the park is sublime.
Yellowstone is located about 90 minutes north of Jackson Hole, Wyo. (You’ll pass Grand Teton National Park.) Information: nps.gov/yell
Glacier National Park. About 400 miles northwest of Yellowstone, Glacier National Park promises equally breathtaking views, the chance to see the same species of charismatic megafauna found in Yellowstone, and the highest concentration of glaciers in the Lower 48.
To be clear, Glacier — the 10th national park, established in 1910 — is not undiscovered, attracting 3 million visitors annually. And if you bring passports, you can cross the border to Canada’s adjacent Waterton National Park — Glacier and Waterton create the world’s first International Peace Park — for an even more remote experience.
The free in-park shuttle makes getting around Glacier relatively easy. There’s a regular two-way shuttle along its main thoroughfare — the mountain-hugging, heart-thumping, 50-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road — as well as an additional hiker shuttle between popular trailheads. The park offers more than 700 miles of hiking trails ranging in length and skill level.
Lakes and rivers abound, from the huge St. Mary Lake, which is popular among boaters and a lovely spot from which to view glaciers, to unnamed crystalline mountain ponds. Scientists estimate that there were more than 150 glaciers covering the park’s jagged peaks in the mid-1800s; today, there are 25.
Though that statistic may be dispiriting, the park has extensive opportunities to view the remaining glaciers and to learn about them at visitors centers or on hiking and boat tours.
Glacier was home to Native American tribes, fur traders, miners, and settlers before rail travel — which was instrumental in the establishment of the park — started bringing scores of tourists. Summer visitors can still take Amtrak’s Empire Builder line from Chicago to the park.