The Yellowstone Loop: 9 Stops You Must Make

By Amanda McCadams (story and photography)
July 26, 2019
Conestoga Ranch, Yellowstone Loop
Amanda McCadams
With two stunning national parks, four gorgeous western states, and incredible locations to savor along the way, the Yellowstone Loop may be the ultimate summer road trip.

If you’re looking to combine a unique road trip with two of America's most epic national parks, look no further than the Yellowstone Loop. While many visitors to Yellowstone National Park fall into a rush-rush routine—flying into Salt Lake City, UT, renting a car, and racing straight to the park—the Yellowstone Loop invites you to slow it down and take a scenic and enjoyable path to the park. It’s the ideal way to experience everything this region has to offer. Here are our favorite nine stops between your arrival in Salt Lake City and the loop up to Yellowstone and back.

1. Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Brigham City, UT

Amanda McCadams

Detour into the Bear River Wild Bird Refuge for the 12-mile driving tour. This 74,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge is an important resting, feeding, and nesting area for migrating birds. Depending on what time of year you visit, you’ll get to see American avocets, white-faced ibis, Tundra swans, American white pelicans, Snowy plovers, and Black-necked stilts.

2. American West Heritage Center, Logan, UT

Photojournalist Amanda McCadams hones her axe-throwing skills. (Courtesy Amanda McCadams)

Step back in time 100 years and take your turn at hatchet throwing, spinning wool, or have tea while playing parlor games. This living history museum inspires visitors to learn, live and celebrate what life was like in the Cache Valley between the years of 1820-1920. Spread across nearly 300 acres of open space are a historical farm, pioneer settlements, native American exhibits, a mountain man camp and more.

3. Bluebird Candy Company, Logan, UT

Amanda McCadams

The Bluebird Candy Company has been creating hand-dipped candies and treats in their factory since 1914. Walk through the door and immediately the sweet smell of chocolate will beg you to start looking for the samples (FYI: they are by the register). After you’ve grabbed a taste, turn your attention to the picture window and watch the chocolates being hand dipped. Their irresistible clusters, caramels, truffles, and chocolates are made using locally sourced ingredients, which don’t have any preservatives or waxes, and their candy centers are made daily. Each are hand dipped then given a unique signature.

4. Lava Hot Springs, ID

Amanda McCadams

When you are ready to relax, head to the natural thermal springs of Lava Hot Springs. Every day over 2.5 million gallons of natural, chemical-free water courses through five soaking pools before being diverted in the Portneuf River. The pools range in temperature from 102 to 112 and are laden with minerals. And, thank goodness, this mineral water does not contain sulfur, so you won’t have to endure the rotten egg smell while you unwind from being on the road. The springs are open year-round except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

5. Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone, MT

Amanda McCadams

You might not see a grizzly during your visit to Yellowstone National Park, but you can get up close to one at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, MT, just a short drive from the park’s western entrance. All of the grizzlies, wolves, owls, eagles, and hawks that reside here are unable to survive in the wild, so instead they serve as ambassadors to their wild counterparts. Throughout the day naturalists on staff lead a variety of demonstrations, including how to properly use bear spray (hint: you DON’T spray it on like bug spray) and general bear safety. Kids-only programs include helping a naturalist hide food in the bear habitat, then watching how a bear uses the sense of smell to find food.

6. Yellowstone National Park, WY, MT, ID

Amanda McCadams

You could spend weeks in Yellowstone National Park and never still see it all. Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Springs, herds of buffalo, are all the high-points you’ll definitely want to see. Our advice here is to drive slowly through the park, take your time and visit during shoulder season (it's also beautiful in winter, though most roads are closed). Following this advice, you’ll see more, the crowds will be smaller, and the cooler temperatures will have the wildlife still at a lower elevations, along the primary roads.

7. Grand Tetons National Park, WY

Grand Tetons could be an entire, epic trip all by itself, but if you are thinking of “saving it for another time,” while you focus on Yellowstone it's a good idea to just drive through it on your way back to Salt Lake City. The scenery is breathtaking and it’s no wonder this park is a magnet for photographers, painters and landscape enthusiasts. Along your route you should definitely make a stop where Ansel Adams made his famous “Tetons and Snake River" photograph. There is even a marker there, so you too can test your photography skills and shoot where the master did.

8. Bear Lake, Garden City, UT

Amanda McCadams

Bear Lake is known as the Caribbean of the Rockies. After seeing the stunning turquoise water and white beaches, you’ll understand why. There is no shortage of recreational activities that happen year-round here. There are thousands of square miles of fun that include beaches, boating, fishing, water sports, hiking, snow skiing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, exploring, history, and so much more.

9. Conestoga Ranch, Garden City, UT

Located on 18 acres along the shores of Bear Lake is Conestoga Ranch. This is glamping at its finest. Stay in a modern version of a covered wagon (with a plush king-sized bed and electricity), or a traditional (yet very roomy) tent. Each spot comes with campfire valet service (s’mores kit included) and there is resort-wide wifi. Some tents have their own shower and bathroom facilities, but if yours doesn’t, there are private shower rooms available 24/7 (none of that public bathhouse stuff with a flimsy curtain and lukewarm water). The on-site Campfire Grill restaurant offers upscale yet casual dining and a wine and craft beer list to go along with it.

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Gettysburg National Military Park: How to Visit With Kids

As a little boy visiting the Gettysburg National Military Park for the first time, I didn't need to know that this piece of Pennsylvania farmland was the site of the turning point of the Civil War, or how many people had died here over the course of three days in July 1863. On that first trip, historical facts and statistics were trumped by the words "Devil's Den." My father's gentle description of the firefight that had occurred amid the towering gray boulders there, where Union and Confederate soldiers had once crouched for cover, was enough to inspire a blend of fear, awe, and respect that I associate with the place to this day. As an adult, I've caught myself saying, "I don't believe in ghosts, but I believe in Gettysburg." Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is located just north of the Mason-Dixon line about an hour and 20 minute's drive from Baltimore and two hours and 20 minutes from Philadelphia. Here, in early July, 1863, General Robert E. Lee led his rebel Army of Northern Virginia across the Pennsylvania border in an attempt to seize Washington, D.C., and force a Union surrender. What happened here, with American fighting American, often hand-to-hand, changed the course of U.S. history, with Lee's army eventually forced to retreat. Each summer, as the battle anniversary nears, the museum, the cemetery where President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address in November of 1863, and the winding trails of national parkland play host to armies of tourists and history buffs. And, yes, for better or for worse, children will be cajoled, bribed, or dragged into the action. But Gettysburg ain't Disney. How you introduce kids to a place like this can mean the difference between igniting a spark of historical curiosity and sending them screaming for the snack bar. Here, some expert advice on showing your little ones how to tread lightly on hallowed ground. PLAN YOUR VISIT IN ADVANCE I spoke with Barbara J. Sanders, education specialist at Gettysburg National Military Park, for her suggestions about the best way to introduce children to this historical site and the troubling chapter in American history that it represents. Sanders suggests visiting the park's website ( as well as the website of the park's partners, the Gettysburg Foundation. "By planning the trip together and allowing each member of the family to select an activity of interest, everyone will become involved and excited about their upcoming visit," Sanders suggests. She also recommends reading some age-appropriate books about the battle of Gettysburg, or about the Civil War, together prior to the visit. At Gettysburg, or What a Girl Saw & Heard of the Battle is an autobiographical account of the battle written by a woman who witnessed it as a young girl—appropriate for grades four and up. Jimmy at Gettysburg is the true story of Jimmy Bighams, who also experienced the battle first-hand as a boy—suitable for grades three and up. For parents who could use a little grounding in Civil War history, Ken Burns's documentary film The Civil War remains the gold standard for its clarity, elegance, and emotional wallop. For a deeper dive, Shelby Foote's trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative, reads like great fiction. The park's website also features a robust "For Teachers" section intended to help with planning class trips but easily adapted by parents who are wondering where to start, what elements to teach their children, and what they might want to leave out. ARE YOUR KIDS READY FOR GETTYSBURG? "There's something at Gettysburg for all ages," Sanders insists. She points out that even very young kids often shout "Abraham Lincoln!" when they see the president's statue in front of the park's visitors center, and even if that's their only touchstone here, they can see the spot at the Soldiers' National Cemetery where he delivered his Gettysburg Address in November 1863, and even stand in his footsteps at the train station where he arrived in town. Of course, for elementary and middle school kids, there are themes presented at Gettysburg that will require either preparation or explanation. A film, dramatic 360-degree painting, and museum all help to put the conflict, the issue of slavery, and the sheer loss of life that occurred here in their historical context. The National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation offer a variety of children's education programs in summer that allow young visitors to learn as much—or as little—as they feel is right for them. "The focus of the trip should be to connect to the place and the people, and ignite a spark of interest in the minds of the kids," says Sanders. CHILDREN'S PROGRAMS For a summertime visit to a place as big as Gettysburg (a typical auto tour covers 24 miles), a friendly guide and some kid-friendly activities may be as essential as sunscreen, insect repellent, and water. Sanders recommends that you consider booking a personalized tour of Gettysburg. You can book a Licensed Battlefield Guide in advance, or take your chances with a first-come-first-served sign-up each morning at 8 a.m. The guide can accompany you in your car on a two-hour battlefield tour—it's essentially like having a teacher along for the ride to lead you to the most important sites and answer your family's questions. Gettysburg also offers free summer ranger field programs—sign up first thing at the visitors center information desk as space is limited, and pick up Junior Ranger activity booklets. A GETTYSBURG ITINERARY The most common approach to Gettysburg National Military Park is to start at the visitors center and museum, then embark on the 24-mile self-guided auto tour (an annotated map shows you the route and points out the major battle sites along the way). While the museum is a must-see with an extensive collection and interactive education stations, and visitors should try to plant their feet on key spots around the park, such as the site of Pickett's Charge (the doomed Confederate attack that turned the tide of the three-day battle), there are other, better ways for kids to really experience Gettysburg. "My recommendation is for families to find a specific person, or a specific regiment that they are interested in learning more about," says Sanders. As many families have experienced when visiting a museum dedicated to, for instance, immigration, or tolerance, or slavery, sometimes tracking the progress of just one person through a difficult chapter of history is far more rewarding than trying to understand the bigger picture, especially for grade-school children. "For example, if a family is coming from Alabama, they could research the 15th Alabama Infantry and follow their path from July 2, 1863 as they launch repeated attacks on the end of the Union line, occupied by the 20th Maine Infantry," Sanders suggests. "Or if a family is interested more in the farmers and civilians, they could learn about the John Slyder family, and then visit their farm at the base of Big Round Top, or Abram Bryan, a free black farmer whose house and barn was located near the very center of the Union line on July 3." Got a dog? Tell your kids the story of Sallie, the canine mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry, and a visit her monument near Oak Ridge. LET YOUR KIDS TAKE THE LEAD Give the little ones the elbow room to experience the place on their own terms—as Sanders suggests, and as my own parents did for me all those years ago. You may not entirely understand why your child is, say, fascinated by a particular field, or artifact, but be assured that they are processing this complex chapter in our history the very best they can. A visit to Gettysburg is not a time for lectures. Whether they come home with a solid sense of history's sweep or just the indelible memory of one soldier's few days on this rolling farmland, you'll have ignited a spark. HOW TO GET THERE Gettysburg National Military Park, Museum and Visitor Center entrance at 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Penn., visit

National Parks

Want to Visit Every National Park? Mikah Meyer Actually Did It

After three years on the road, a Nebraska man has achieved his dream of visiting all 419 national parks in the U.S. in one trip. Now working as a public speaker, Mikah Meyer (33) has just returned from traveling more than 75,000 miles in a cargo van, which contained a bed and a solar-powered fridge. He was inspired by losing his 58-year-old Lutheran pastor father to cancer when he was 19. “I learned a hard lesson at a young age that we really won’t have all the time we think to pursue our life goals,” he tells Budget Travel's parent company, Lonely Planet. “My dad was a big fan of road trips, so I did my first independent road trip just a few days after his funeral.” National Parks: The Story of a Nation Mikah documented his trip on Instagram, and images and videos show him camping, snorkeling, hiking and posing with landmarks and monuments. National parks are special because they tell the story of a nation, he says, and they are available to everyone. In the age of the smartphone, he loved being able to witness their incredible beauty and majesty in person. “There’s just something special about being awed in a way that no digital medium can capture,” he says. Close Encounters With Wildlife Of all the parks he visited, Mikah was most enchanted by Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado. Geese hold symbolic significance in Lutheranism, and while he was there, he had what he describes as It was one of the most “magical and mystical experiences” of his journey, when he met a goose he christened George. “It didn’t hurt that during a four-day, three-night rafting trip down the Green River that travels through the park, I was followed by a wild Canadian goose the whole time,” he says. “This park is special as there are recreational activities like hiking and rafting, incredible vistas along with up-close nature viewing, and it’s full of history due to all the dinosaur bones discovered there.” An Inspirational Solo Odyssey Mikah says that traveling alone can be fun because it gives us opportunities to meet new people and expand our human circle. But traveling alone when you’re trying to set a world record and having to spend most of your free time in libraries on your computer doing logistics, blogging and fundraising is not the same. “Even though I was going to some of the most beautiful places in America, I wished I had someone to share them with,” he says. “Three years is a long time to not get to have a regular beer with a friend, or see family members during normal holiday visits.” The highlight for him was that he actually successfully completed such a behemoth of a road trip. It also taught him the beauty of having a wonderful place to come home to, of seeing family and friends regularly, and being able to be part of a local community. As a gay man, he also loves the idea of being an inspiration to others. “When I started planning this project, I searched for openly gay outdoorsy role models and didn’t find anyone I could look up to,” he says. “Knowing that this journey has provided that for other people has been one of my proudest moments. And accomplishing a feat that no person has ever done before makes me proud to show that not only can gay people be ordinary, but we can also be extraordinary.” “For a kid from Nebraska who thought I might never make it out of my home state, it’s an incredible feeling to know I’ve now seen every corner of the US, and all 419 of our National Park Service sites.” You can check out Mikah’s Instagram page here and his website here.

National ParksTravel Tips

11 Safety Essentials for a National Park Trip

When it comes to America’s national parks, we wear our heart on our sleeve: For natural beauty, wildlife appreciation, and value, there may be no better vacation choice than, say, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the dozens of other national parks that stretch from the Caribbean to the South Pacific and from Maine to Alaska. But there’s something else we wear, not just on our sleeve: Climate-appropriate clothing, which usually means layering and sun-protection. The right apparel is just one of the must-packs for a safe and comfortable visit to a wild and sometimes unpredictable environment. As the summer travel season approaches, we want to share the number-one NPS safety tip all travelers must know, plus 10 essentials to pack to ensure health, safety, comfort, and fun. 1. Follow Park Rules & Ranger Instructions This should go without saying, but the number-one item to pack for a successful national park visit is your common sense. When you visit a national park, it’s vital that you follow all posted rules and directions, and follow any verbal instructions given by park rangers. Often, the rules boil down to staying on the park paths and keeping a safe distance from all wildlife. No problem, right? But, unfortunately, each year park visitors are injured or killed because they wander where they don’t belong or get too close to wild animals. 2. Prepare to Navigate Pack a paper map and compass in addition to your GPS device—not coincidentally, some of the most beautiful places in America are far from Wi-Fi hubs. Review driving and hiking directions in advance, from the comfort of a Wi-Fi-enabled hotel room or rental property, and be prepared to navigate the old-fashioned way when you hit the trails. 3. Protect Yourself From the Sun The sun’s heat and damaging UV rays pose both short- and long-term risks. UV-protective sunglasses, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and sun-protective shirts and pants will keep you cool and energized on your day hikes, and protect your skin from premature aging and skin cancer. 4. Insulate Even in summer, some national parks become chilly in the evenings and sometimes dangerously cold at elevation. Insulate yourself by packing a jacket, hat, gloves, rain shell, and thermal underwear. 5. Get Illuminated Packing a flashlight, lantern, and headlamp may feel like a throwback, but illumination that doesn’t require an electrical outlet can come in handy for campers, cabin renters, cavern explorers, and just about everybody else from time to time. 6. Bring a First-Aid Kit Sure, you are trying to limit what you have to stuff into your car’s hatch or your checked bag. But a small first-aid kit that can supply antibiotic and bandages while you’re out hiking, padding, or engaging in other summer activities can help keep cuts and scratches from turning into a much bigger deal. 7. Be Ready to Build a Fire This tip applies mostly to campers and those who plan on exploring park backcountry, where waterproof matches, a lighter, and kindling can help with cooking and, in a pinch, staying warm. (If you pack matches and lighters, keep them locked away where kids can't get to them.) 8. Bring a Repair Kit Duct tape, knife, screwdriver, scissors. No, you’re not preparing to appear in an episode of MacGyver. But outdoor activities from camping to kayaking to hiking can sometimes require last-minute repairs to equipment, and most travelers just don’t think of packing these handy tools. 9. Pack Nutritious Snacks The NPS suggests having at least one day’s food on hand in the event of an unforeseen change of plans, which can happen in the blink of an eye thanks to changing weather, wildfires, and flooding. Packing nonperishable foods can be easiest, but do strive for high fiber carbs such as woven wheat crackers, lean proteins such as jerky or cheese sticks, and easy healthy snacks such as trail mix, nuts, and granola bars. 10. Stay Hydrated Water can sometimes seem like an afterthought to travelers who are lucky enough to take access to abundant drinking water for granted at home. But staying hydrated in the wild requires some planning and is crucial to health and safety. In the hot summer sun, you should sip water regularly, not waiting until you feel thirsty. Park rangers suggest a gallon of water per person per day. That’s a lot of water. Campers and backcountry hikers will do well to pack water-treatment supplies and to research nearby bodies of water. (Never drink untreated water in a national park—as clean as the water looks and feels, it may carry bird-borne microbes that can upset your digestive system.) 11. Carry Your Own Emergency Shelter This may not be necessary if you’re planning to hit the park highlights via car or park shuttle, but those going farther afield should carry portable shelter such as a tent, space blanket, tarp, or bivy in the event that they get stuck out in the great outdoors longer than they expected.

National Parks

Travel News: Outdoorsy Launches Guides for National Park Week

In anticipation of 2019’s National Park Week, launching April 20 with entrance fees waived nationwide, RV rental site Outdoorsy ( has introduced digital guides to more than 40 national parks and a thousand state parks across the country. For Park Week inspiration and beyond, here’s where to look for an offbeat experience. The State of Outdoor Affairs National parks might claim most of the attention, but state parks deserve more than a passing mention. And Outdoorsy provides attention a'plenty. From the dramatically named—and deservedly so, given its blazing red-sandstone formations—Valley of Fire just north of Las Vegas to the idyllic waterfalls, caves, and lush plant life in New York’s Watkins Glen to the free-roaming bison of Custer, South Dakota, America’s often-smaller state parks highlight the diversity of our country’s landscape, not to mention its flora and fauna. National Treasures While the big guns like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon will always hold a special place in our hearts, we have plenty of love for the National Park Service’s lesser-known gems as well. In addition to protecting unique areas from human encroachment, the system’s 400-plus sites include historic landmarks and places of cultural significance—think: John F. Kennedy’s birthplace and the library of Frederick Douglass, Native American effigy mounds in Iowa and ancient Pueblo architecture in New Mexico, the birthplace of jazz in New Orleans and nearly 500 miles of planned roadway stretching between the Great Smokies and Shenandoah National Park. Outdoorsy’s picks for under-the-radar destinations include North Cascades and its 300-plus glaciers in Washington State, whale-watching and wolf-spotting in Alaska’s Katmai, and the islands, coral reefs, and marine life of the Dry Tortugas in Florida.