To mitigate COVID-stoked cabin fever and decades-old nostalgia, I began planning a trip for the ages (and the aged). A trip that would be, in part, the 50th anniversary of a 1971 hike when a 20-something me trekked the Rockies for 10 weeks. With college students at Pikes Peak in Colorado, with Boy Scouts at Philmont Ranch in New Mexico, and with brother Bill from Grand Canyon to Yellowstone, I crisscrossed eight national parks. However, Glacier National Park at the Montana-Canada border was “a bridge too far” for us.
But that was then. Five decades later in 2021, my Glacier National Park dreams would come to fruition. Here’s how I mastered the Rockies, even as a septuagenarian.
Plan like a Park Ranger
Mindful of contingencies like health concerns, inclement weather, covid closures, and of course, bears, I create plans far in advance starting at 9 months out, then 3 months, 3 weeks, and eventually 3 days out. It works whether planning a vacation, wedding, or birth; but it works especially well when planning a 50th anniversary event that will fulfill a must-see bucket list item. Thus, I return to Glacier NP to enjoy more peak experiences—this time from a different angle.
Gone is the energy of two boys in their 20s; on this nostalgia trip are two adventurous spirits pushing 70. Also gone are some original body parts; with two hips replaced, this old man is nonetheless good to go. As a concession to aging bodies, my wife Sue and I are now glamping through the Rockies. As much as the pandemic bound us together, so has this extended trek through the Rockies.
The latest brain science and the ancient scriptures both tell us we all, young and old, need time to rest, relax and recreate. Our emotional engines need not only a Sabbath day of rest from week to week; but we also occasionally need extended vacation time to wind down, cool off, and tune up. Yet vacations can be nerve-wracking or stress-inducing.
What then? What makes for a good, even great, vacation? What are the mistakes to avoid?
Anticipation accounts for 80% of joyous travel, recollection the other 20%
Just thinking of all the fun soon to be had engenders the same joy that the experience itself brings. Sure, travel agents can hook you with “too-good-to-pass-up” tours with “limited time” discounts. But with Google (a tool certainly not around in my 20s), anyone can plan their own itinerary and save a few pennies along the way. By DIYing your experience, you become the engineer of your own adventure and create something even more meaningful to look forward to.
Adventure encompasses misadventure
Remember the idiomatic wisdom, “Those who fail to prepare are preparing to fail.”
One of the most valuable pieces of advice I could give is to anticipate mishaps with curiosity instead of fear. Like us, you may be met with impossible-to-foresee bad weather that canceled a second float trip, and snowfall at Yellowstone closed two high-altitude roads. All that, and more, messes up even the best-laid plans. The best thing to do in these scenarios is to develop resilience and remember that adventure encompasses misadventure.
Questions to ask and mistakes to avoid in doing the Rockies
When to go?
Spring/Summer (May–Labor Day) or Fall/Winter (Nov–April)? Summer has crowds, Fall has colors, Winter has its own beauty to discover. I chose shoulder season (post-Labor Day). At this time the prices are lower, the lines shorter, the weather cooler, the sights colorful, the animals plentiful. Two weeks in late September is the sweet spot.
Where to go?
Easy. The Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks make for a perfect trifecta. And getting there is half the fun!
How to get there?
This question follows after deciding When? and Where? I equivocate between self-guided options and luxury tour packages. “To book, or not to book?” That is THE question.
Given their high-ticket prices, I say dump the group excursion packages—but not before gleaning all I can for a do-it-yourself plan for the Wyoming and Montana parks.
Everything comes with prices that add up: e.g., Amtrak’s sleeper car with dining room privileges (up to $800/night), historic park lodges ($300-500/night), in-park luxury tours ($100 to $300/day extra per person).
So, go simple: coach (with snack bar), cabin, and self-guided tours.
Plane, train, or automobile?
With no stamina for cross-country travel by car, we let Amtrak take us from Chicago to Salt Lake City; a one-way rental car takes us north from SLC. The Amtrak to Parks program wins on safety, views, and meeting new friends.
Amtrak offers comfort—but only if you can sleep across two seats. Amtrak also wins on price, especially given their 50th anniversary special which at the time, could get us anywhere in the US for $50.
When train-hopping, don’t forget—as I almost did—to confirm bus tickets and other connections to/from the train depot if your city is not connected by Amtrak.
Camping or glamping?
Gimpy-legged folks with aching backs will want to “glamp” (in cabins), not camp (in tents). Arriving by car to cabin in Yellowstone, instead of hiking with gear to a remote wilderness campsite, is also a win for those who want more space, comfort, and ease. To stay in a national park grand lodge, book a year out; if “no room at the inn,” call back frequently, cancelations happen.
Is do-it-yourself really worth it?
Yes. I booked all travel including train, bus, and rental car, room & board, a Snake River float trip, and a dog-sitter for my sweet Cindy back home—spread across 11 days—all for just $400 per diem, per couple.
To save more money, glean tips from DIY travelers with limited funds and time. I downloaded “How to do Yellowstone in 3 days” and bought the book, Grand Teton in a Day. And don’t forget to secure state road maps and NP trail guides for must-see views.
What to bring?
To relieve pressure from bad hips or knee joints, and to balance on uneven surfaces while ascending and descending on foot trails, hiking poles are indispensable. Secure park maps from the Visitor’s Center, as cell phone and GPS services in NPs are unreliable. But most of all, pack patience (with yourself, family members, and the crowds) along with layers of clothing, wool hat, and gloves—especially for higher altitudes. At Yellowstone it snowed on us as you can see in the photo above.
The National Park Service has a pack list, including bear spray. And for more off-grid backpacking, see Go Wild: A Beginner’s Guide to Back Country Hiking.
Hike your own hike
Find a doable path that considers several factors: time driving to/from the trailhead to its finish, elevation gained/lost, degree of difficulty and the ability of companion hikers. There’s no rush, so stop for pics, rest, and mutual encouragement. One hiker crossed our path just in time, saying, “Look at me (alluding to her age, heft, and walking cane). If I can do it, so can you!”
On the day of your hike, make a quick assessment for health and weather; pack for hydration, safety, and remember to layer-up as mountain-tops create their own weather. For popular trails, parking space, and optimal pace, set out pre-dawn—before crowds arrive and for that sunrise shot.
You’ll be happy that you took the time to slow down and smell the roses, or in this case, wildflowers. Yellowstone is simply a wonderland. Hot springs, mud pots & steam vents—oh my! So colorful and smelly!
And even beyond such geologic wonders are the wildlife, namely the buffalo and elk whose massive packs blocking roads make traffic jams worthwhile. Then, there’s Glacier National Park. Or as I call it, a marvel and crown jewel of our continent. While exploring here, I reconnected with a college buddy, Jim Kirkley and his wife Mary, retired near West Glacier. Voilà, two nights at his AirBnB! We catch up on 50 years and enjoy hiking together.
More travel tips
Seven-day individual park passes are $35. But anyone over 62 may purchase a Lifetime Senior Pass to all National Parks for $80, the annual pass for $20. When I first turned of age, I bought my Lifetime Senior pass for $10. How the time and inflation flies. If permanently disabled (at any age), you get the Access Pass for free admission to all NPs.
There ya have it. Doing the Rockies is very traditional, accessible, and repeatable by anyone with cabin fever, a limited budget, or health concerns—and a bucket list. So, with a good strong wind under your tired wings, you can venture outside your comfortable nest.
I am driven by the motto: “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” But don’t just look down at the dirt trail you are walking, also look up and appreciate the majesty reflected in these mountains.
Journey meets journal
One more mistake to avoid is failing to write up your experience. You will have a story to tell—for the ages and the aged, for the next generation and “next time.” When journey meets journal, it’s a win-win. Your getaway to a world away from your problems also becomes a gateway to your inner world. You get to taste your journey twice—in the moment and in retrospection. If not for my brother writing up hinge moments and humorous anecdotes from ‘71, I would not have the memories or inspiration to recreate this trip 50 years later.
The mountains are calling young and old alike. How will you respond?