As schools let out and the snows are finally cleared from the highest mountain passes, summer vacation means it’s time for families and friends to hit the road to visit our greatest national parks. After spending much of the last six months in virtual hibernation, by early June the incredibly scenic roads across these wild places open again to drivers. From now until the first snows start to fall sometime in November, unforgettable drives like Tioga Pass Road in Yosemite, the North Rim Parkway in the Grand Canyon, the Beartooth Highway to Yellowstone, and the Going-to-the-Sun Road across Glacier National Park, are open for your road-tripping pleasure.
This month’s featured drive links the two treasures of the northern Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. The first to open, and by far the most popular, is Yellowstone National Park, home of Old Faithful Geyser, wild bison, bears, and more. Though the park is technically open all year, and some roads and trails are groomed and cleared for skiers and snowshoers, most Yellowstone roads are covered by thick blankets of snow until May and June. This means the main visitor season is very short, so be sure to make your travel plans as soon as you can. If you can make the trek to Yellowstone, but can’t find a room in one of the park’s rustic lodges, don’t worry too much: there are additional places to stay in the nearby Wild West towns of Cody, home of the fantastic Buffalo Bill Museum, and the upscale mountain town of Jackson, where the road-trip-worthy Million Dollar Cowboy Bar is perched at the southern edge of Grand Teton National Park.
Yellowstone National Park stands on the crest of the Rocky Mountains at the border of three states — Wyoming, Idaho and Montana — and almost any road in the region guarantees scenic pleasure. West of Yellowstone you can follow the historic Oregon Trail across Idaho and the unearthly vistas of volcanic Craters of the Moon, then loop north through Sun Valley and the Sawtooth Mountains, following the Salmon River in the footsteps of early American explorers Lewis and Clark.
North and west of Yellowstone, US-93 winds across Montana around lovely Flathead Lake, passing the quirky college town of Missoula before reaching the western edge of Glacier National Park, perhaps the wildest of all the parklands in the lower 48 states. Like Yellowstone, Glacier has invitingly rustic lodges offering unforgettable accommodations, and driving around the park is if anything even more spectacular. The main driving route across Glacier National Park is a doozy: the winding Going-to-the-Sun Road, a breathtakingly narrow 50-mile path carved out of the alpine meadows and mountain cliffs way back in 1932. Sitting on the crest of the Rocky Mountains atop the Continental Divide, Going-to-the-Sun Road gets buried in such deep snow that plows are not able to clear the way until late June, sometimes early July, so the driving season is even more limited than at Yellowstone. That said, the road is truly unforgettable, and gives access to some of the wildest corners of the country.
Ready to go? Check for Going-to-the-Sun snowplow updates via the National Parks Service.
Other great June road trips:
Drive the Road to Nowhere to Carhenge
Car-loving druids will want to make the pilgrimage to the Sand Hills of northwestern Nebraska to spend the summer solstice at Carhenge—a faithful and fun recreation of the more famous prehistoric Stonehenge. Rather than solid stone, this one is made entirely out of dozens of late-model American cars! Carhenge stands outside the town of Alliance, just south of US-20, the main route to Yellowstone from the southeast. Just west of Carhenge on US-20, the town of Douglas, Wyoming, celebrates Jackalope Days in mid-June, an homage to the Wild West’s mythical hybrid beast.
Follow the Pony Express on the Loneliest Road
Of all the larger-than-life legends that animate the annals of the Wild West, none looms larger than that of the Pony Express. As is typical of frontier adventures, accounts of the Pony Express are often laced with considerable exaggeration, but in this case the facts are unusually impressive. Beginning in April 1860, the Pony Express ran twice a week between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento California, where it linked with San Francisco by steamship. In the era before trains or telegraphs, Pony Express riders halved the time it took to carry news to and from the West Coast, making the 1,966-mile trek in just 10 days.
Every June, Wild West aficionados re-create the era in the Pony Express Re-Ride, during which a team of more than 500 riders follows the old route as closely as possible. In 2019, the crew will be saddling up on June 10th from St. Joseph, MO, just north of Kansas City, and making their way west to California, arriving on June 20th. You can follow their progress online, and cheer them on from locations across the west. The Nevada stretch of old US-50, also known as the Loneliest Road, is a great place to get a feel for the Pony Express era while experiencing the gorgeous Great Basin on one of the world’s all-time great road trips.