Gateway to the Parks: Part II
It’s almost torture to be inside this week. The weather here in Missouri is gorgeous and the skies are blue and all I want to do is walk around our new neighborhood in Kirkwood.
We’re missing the parks a lot lately. It’s been just about two months since we’ve been home, and we’re feeling the pull of camping and hiking quite a bit. Locals: any suggestions for awesome weekend trips from St. Louis for fall colors? We’re thinking of driving down to the Mark Twain National Forest in a couple of weeks. Can’t wait to get back out there!
Tuesday we talked about five of our top ten favorite national park “gateway” cities — those cities located right outside the national parks — and today we’re back to finish our list.
Towards the second half of our trip, we leaned on these communities even more to give us respite from all the roughin’ it.
Just to remind you, our first five favorites were:
- Moab, Utah (Arches NP & Canyonlands NP)
- Bar Harbor, Maine (Acadia NP)
- Ventura, California (Channel Islands NP)
- Visalia, California (Sequoia & Kings Canyon NPs)
- Port Angeles, Washington (Olympic NP)
Here we go with part two! Today we’re talking about:
- Kalispell, Montana (Glacier NP)
- Jackson, Wyoming (Yellowstone NP & Grand Teton NP)
- Estes Park, Colorado (Rocky Mountains NP)
- Rapid City, South Dakota (Badlands NP & Wind Cave NP)
- Seward, Alaska (Kenai Fjords NP)
Kalispell, Montana ~ Glacier National Park
We visited Glacier National Park way too early in the season. It’s one our greatest regrets of the trip, in fact. Going to the Sun Road was closed in the middle, and one of the biggest snow storms of the spring hadn’t even hit yet. Most trails were impassable, and although what we saw was gorgeous, we couldn’t help but already start planning on a return trip. While there, we tent camped in near-empty park campgrounds, amidst falling snow and howling wolves. It was a very cold four days, and the not-too-big-but-not-too-small town of Kalispell offered perfect recovery for us. The vibe of Kalispell is very Montana, with stone lodges and pretty architecture everywhere you look. One of our very coziest trip partners, Red Lion Hotels, put us up in their gorgeous hotel in town, and we spent the day using all the internet and relaxing. There were so many cute restaurants around town, too, but we unfortunately didn’t make it to any. When we do make it back to Glacier, we will undoubtedly be spending more time in this adorable city!
Jackson, Wyoming ~ Yellowstone National Park & Grand Teton National Park
Coming from Glacier, we had more of a clear idea what it’d be like to visit mountain parks in the late spring. Lots of road closures and sudden weather. All of this came full swing when we visited Yellowstone & Grand Teton in late May. In Yellowstone, it snowed & sleeted four of the six days we stayed there. In Grand Teton, it was nearly always too cloudy to even see the Tetons. All of these things led to a very necessary respite in the town of Jackson. Located only about fifteen minutes outside of Grand Teton, the city screams Wyoming. (Kalispell screamed Montana, but that was nothing in comparison) The classic arches constructed of elk antlers greet you into the downtown area, and dozens of shops and restaurants line the streets. Our time in Grand Teton was extra fun because we were shadowed by two videographers from Garmin. We ate a three restaurants that were all delicious: Local Co for burgers & beers, The Merry Piglets for Mexican, and Bubba’s for BBQ.
Estes Park, Colorado ~ Rocky Mountain National Park
I guess we have a thing for cute mountain towns, because we also had a great time in Estes Park, Colorado. This was a park we spent with friends and family. We visited over Memorial Day weekend, so six friends joined us for a few days, and Cole’s family joined us for a few more days. Since even the very end of May is still too early for much backcountry park exploration, it was the perfect excuse to soak up the front country and the town of Estes Park. Baba’s Burgers was perfect for low key post-hiking devouring, and we also enjoyed Ed’s Cantina & Grill for Mexican food. And of course, there are ice cream shops just about everywhere too that we indulged in. We had a pretty good experience camping at Mary’s Lake Campground (since most of the park campgrounds were not opened and/or unreservable) but you do have to pay for showers (and you can probably guess how I feel about paying for showers at private campgrounds…) and it wasn’t extremely scenic or wooded.
Rapid City, South Dakota ~ Badlands National Park & Wind Cave National Park
Rapid City makes our list not necessarily for its ambiance, but its access to so many attractions. South Dakota surprised us with its scenery. Maybe it was because we were finally thawing out from all the mountain parks, and we could finally wear our Chacos without socks again, but we had a major thing for the Black Hills of South Dakota. While in the area, we of course spent a bit of time in Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks, but we also were able to visit Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, Jewel Cave National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Monument, and Custer State Park. All were top-quality parks in our opinion. I had never seen Mount Rushmore (maybe I have… Mom? Dad?) so we spent a half day reading exhibits and learning about the construction of this monument. Besides the monuments, there are ample things to do around the city. Some cheesy, some less cheesy, so beware of the tourist trap. We camped at the parks and in surrounding National Forest land.
Seward, Alaska ~ Kenai Fjords National Park
Seward seems to epitomize coastal Alaska, and we loved our two days here. Alaska went by so quickly, and for us, this was a weekend to slow down just a bit. In the park, we spent one day on a 9-hour cruise through Northwestern Fjord to Northwestern Glacier with Kenai Fjords Tours, and a second day hiking to the Harding Icefield. Even in just these two days, Kenai Fjords jumped to the top of our list of all-time favorite parks. We also had a bit of time to walk around Seward and fell instantly in love with the coastal vibe of the city. It reminded us of Maine, which we had fallen hard for back in October, with its local fishermen and kayakers and cute shops and restaurants. The only bummer was that after many recommendations, we spent a few hours in the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward. We were very underwhelmed. Fair warning! We spent two nights camping at Miller’s Landing, and had a pretty good experience, although I did have to pay for a shower (offset in my mind with their free coffee!) and the sites were packed in very tightly.
At first glance, it may not seem like a national park’s gateway city adds much to the experience of visiting a park. We certainly overlooked this aspect. But when we look back at our list of favorite cities versus our list of favorite parks, many cross over (especially Acadia, Olympic, and Kenai Fjords, ahem). It is easier to see now why that might be true.
While being inside the park boundaries fully immersed in the wilderness of a park is the most important aspect of any visit, your enjoyment is influenced by so much more. We loved the time we spent supporting these local communities and small businesses because we know how much they support the parks.
We’d love to hear from you in the comments… what role do you think gateway cities play in visitor experience?