‘Going-to-the-Sun Road’. ‘Big Sky’. ‘Many Glacier’. ‘Craters of The Moon’. When you see names like these on a map, you know you’re in for something special.
Behind the wheel however, it’s hard to not pinch yourself as the Rocky Mountains unfurl their swoon – inducing splendour. Although the US Rockies are vast, the compact region where the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho rub borders is ideal for feasting your senses on highlights.
These are just some of the reasons to start planning an American Rocky Mountains road trip:
A panorama of serrated, snow capped mountains, lakes, rushing rivers, glaciers and forests: we’re talking scenery on steroids, just about everywhere you look. Leisurely distances render this region relaxing to explore and there’s so many ways to get amongst it – horse-riding, rewarding short hikes, skiing, cycling, rafting. Each season is vividly expressed, but there’s a special magic about the trembling aspens brandishing burnished ‘fall’ colours.
In the many areas of protected wilderness, bison, bears, eagles, wolves or moose may appear in the foreground at any time. You can comfortably get up-close to these magnificent creatures at the educational Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary, Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Centre and Teton Raptor Centre. In the painted desert of Wyoming’s Bighorn Canyon, keep an eye out for mustangs.
In the erstwhile Wild West, cowboy culture and music go with the territory. During warmer months, keep an eye out for music festivals and affable ‘long-table’ events. Art figures in a big way, with many towns hosting open- night art gallery trails. The National Museum of Wildlife Art is located at Jackson Hole, along with other acclaimed galleries showcasing photography and nature -inspired contemporary art, as well as the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. A more domestic, though thoroughly intriguing genre of art reveals itself at the Jackson Hole Showcase of Homes, a self- guided tour featuring designers and homeowners - inspiration for a holiday home perhaps?
Gold fever hit the Rockies in a big way in the 1800’s and throughout these mountains you’ll find narrative- laden reminders of the heady days, like sun-silvered ghost towns, historic spa hotels and time-frozen settlements like Red Lodge and Salmon. At Old Trail Town near Cody in Wyoming, you can step into the very saloon – complete with bullet holes – used as a hideout by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the painted deserts of central Idaho, erstwhile wagons are scattered right beside the road.
Road-tripping through the Rockies, there’ll be many moments when you feel like you’ve walked into your very own personal awakening, cum adventure movie.
Hot Springs, an eclectic Montana small town, is one such cinematic charm. Back-dropped by rusted mountains, this arty settlement is as beguilingly eccentric as it is engaging. Everyone has a story here and a great way to chill out with the locals is to soak in the mineral- rich pools of the Symes Hotel. This blushing pink, Gatsby –era glamour stages frequent music festivals and events.
Bucket –list worthy Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park and Grand Teton National Park take pride of place in this part of the Rockies. However it’s well worth pausing at some of the large swathes of National Forest; they usually feature accessible walks and cosy eateries and accommodation nearby.
In Idaho, alluring options include the River of no Return Wilderness Area and aptly named Craters of the Moon National Monument.
In Glacier National park, be sure to at least drop in for a drink on the large stone veranda at historic Lake McDonald Lodge. In Grand Tetons National Park, comfort cuisine and music are offered amidst glorious mountain vistas at historic Dornans - where famous musicians have played at ‘hootenanny’ sessions.
Rockies appeal goes way beyond knockout natural wonders. Sprinkled at convenient distances, you’ll find charming small towns with atmospheric accommodation, eateries and entertainment. Typically back-dropped by snow-capped mountains, these low- slung settlements – Red Lodge, Columbia Falls, Idaho Falls, Whitefish, to name just a few - feature funky brick architecture and timber facades with hitching rails still firmly in place. There’s plenty going on, even the smaller villages and the gateway cities, such as Bozeman, Missoula and Jackson Hole are remarkable for their walkability and convivial vibe.
So many Rockies’ roads are attractions in their own right and should ideally be savoured slowly. (Bearing in mind they’re only open for a few months each year.) Standouts include the Beartooth Highway, Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, the eastern side of Flathead Lake, ‘Highway 2’ skirting the southern and eastern edge of Glacier National Park, Salmon River Scenic Byway, and of course – the jaw-dropping Going to The Sun Road.
Happily, driving around this part of the USA is a breeze. Even the scenic ‘byways’ – you could almost base your entire road trip on these soothing, empty routes - are in good condition and it’s easy to find your way around and to get into and out of cities.
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