National Parks, Hot Springs, and the Great American Frontier: The Ultimate Wyoming Road Trip

A journey through this vast wilderness offers iconic parks, ancient forests, wildlife, and a history tour of the Wild West. One of the best ways to visit Wyoming is to hit the open road.

Wyoming Tetons

There is so much beauty and adventure packed into the the least populous state in the contiguous U.S.

Photo by Shutterstock

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first national park in the United States and one of the most famous in the National Park System—Yellowstone. The nearly 3,500-square-mile wilderness is situated mostly in Wyoming with parts of the park extending into Montana and Idaho. It is known for its mountains, meadows, and forest landscapes, its otherworldly natural hot springs, geysers, and lava formations, and its wildlife. But this year has also been a very challenging one for Yellowstone, which earlier this summer had its roads washed out due to the worst flooding to ever hit the national park.

As the park works to rebuild and as experts try to make sense of the long-term environmental and geological impact of the massive June rainfall, there is still much to celebrate both in Yellowstone and beyond. The park has since reopened and is welcoming visitors back to most areas (with the exception of the north and northeast entrances, as well as some sections of roads in those areas).

Beyond Yellowstone, the state offers an endless natural playground for paddling, fishing, hiking, spotting wild mustangs, studying ancient fossils, and soaking in hot springs. The best way to see and do it all—including many of Wyoming’s lesser-known treasures—is to road-trip across the state. From the railroad capital of Cheyenne to Shoshone National Forest, over to rock climbers’ paradise Vedauwoo, and on toward the Tetons, consider this adventure-packed route through the least populous state in the contiguous United States.

Cheyenne Wyoming

Stock up on rodeo-worthy gear at the historic Wrangler in Cheyenne.

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Day 1: Ropes and railroads in Cheyenne

After touching down at the Cheyenne Regional Airport, head to the Wrangler and pony up for some authentic cowboy boots, a Stetson hat, belt buckle, spurs, chaps—whatever suits you. Now that you’re rodeo ready, if you plan to be in town during the month of July, swing on over to Cheyenne Frontier Days to watch bareback, bull riding, and saddle bronco events in the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and western tournament. The nearby Laramie County Fair is fun in August, with animal shows, a demolition derby, and a kids rodeo. Visitors can also check out semipro kite fliers and BYOK (kite) at the End of the Trail Kite Festival in late September or hop a trolley on the Street Railway Ghost Tours in October. During the summer months, there is also a free concert series downtown. This is also a good opportunity to visit the Cheyenne Depot Museum, housed in the original Union Pacific Depot built in 1886 and now restored as a National Historic Landmark. Indulge in hand-crafted beverages at the dog-friendly beer garden Blue Raven Brewery, situated inside a historic home. Fill up on a hand-cut steak from a family run kitchen since 1942 at nearby Albany Restaurant, or opt for contemporary casual at the Metropolitan Downtown, with innovative twists on classics and creative cocktails.

In the evening, check into the Historic Plains Hotel, built in 1911 in the heart of Cheyenne. This landmark property, once frequented by cattle barons and movie stars, will take you back to the western frontier with its cowhide and antler decor accented by original artwork by Wyomingites.

Medicine Bow National Forest

Take in the views during a scenic hike along the Snowy Range Mountains.

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Day 2: Medicine Bow National Forest

Cheyenne is the gateway to the 2.9 million–acre Medicine Bow National Forest, so rise and shine and double knot your hiking boots. Start off with breakfast at local favorite Luxury Diner, which operated as a trolley car on the streets of Cheyenne until 1912. Then, head west toward Medicine Bow’s Snowy Range (a collection of 140 mountains within the national forest) for rock climbing or a light hike among the 70 million–year-old igneous rock formations of Vedauwoo. For lunch, you can fuel up in nearby Laramie—try an artichoke burger at the vegetarian Sweet Melissa Café or a beef burger along with wings or nachos at Born in a Barn before continuing onto alpine lakes for fishing, paddleboarding, or kayaking. Additional hiking options include a moderate three-mile (two-hour) trek along the Medicine Bow Peak Trail and, for a challenge, tack on the Lakes Trail Loop. Afterwards, visit the 4,700-acre family owned Deerwood Ranch Wild Horse EcoSanctuary, the country’s first private land parcel for wild mustang horses that happens to be free to the public. Finish the day an hour away at the luxurious dude ranch Brush Creek Ranch.

Day 3: Hot springs in Saratoga

If you’re ready to relax a little, you’ll find plenty of wellness offerings at Brush Creek, or you can head into the picturesque resort town of Saratoga, home to some of Wyoming’s famed mineral hot springs. Native Americans consider these waters that flow over magma and hot rock to be sacred and to have medicinal healing powers. Just 20 minutes from Bush Creek Ranch is Hobo Hot Springs, where the Lobster Pot and Hobo Pool stay at a balmy 120 degrees from the heat deep from within the Earth’s crust. They’re free, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and are near more natural hot pools that line the banks of the North Platte River. For dinner, consider an opulent meal at the Brush Creek Trailhead Lodge or a more casual creek-side spread outdoors, which is offered by the ranch. Then end the night at the property’s boisterous saloon. Alternatively, you can also head into Saratoga for a homey Italian meal at Bella’s Bistro.

Grand Teton National Park

With its soaring peaks, Grand Teton National Park is a highlight of any Wyoming itinerary.

Photo by Toan Chu/Unsplash

Days 4–5: Jackson and Grand Teton National Park

Now it’s time to head north to “the Mountains of the Imagination”— Grand Teton National Park, nicknamed for its wild and rugged landscapes that look like artwork. If you’re an experienced backpacker with the right gear—don’t forget your bear spray—head deep into the park’s 200 miles of trails (check out showstopper views at Cascade Canyon Trail), or opt for an easy 1.8-mile hike on Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point Trail, with a big view of a thundering cascade and, of course, lakes and mountains. If you make Jackson your base for exploring the Tetons, you’ll have no shortage of appealing accommodation options, including the Cloudveil, Autograph Collection, a sleek new property with thoughtful design features that opened in 2021, as well as two motor lodges turned hip hotels—Anvil Hotel and Mountain Modern Motel. Or splurge for a scenic and restorative stay at nearby Caldera House in Teton Village.

Grand Prismatic Springs Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone’s colorful Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the nation.

Photo by Denys Nevozhai/Unsplush

Days 6–8: Yellowstone National Park

Just 25 minutes north of Grand Teton National Park is the original U.S. national park—Yellowstone, a park that speaks in gurgles of geysers, hot springs, and mud pots. It also protects the world’s largest public herd of bison, sacred to the 27 tribes who have inhabited this land since the 1400s. This is one of the last and largest nearly intact natural ecosystems on the planet with the most active geothermal features anywhere, including half of the world’s active geysers. Check out the Yellowstone Guide for an online guided tour.

Visitors should take the park’s southern loop if they want to pay homage to Old Faithful, the most famous of the 500 geysers in Yellowstone—it shoots sizzling hot water up to 180 feet nearly 20 times each day. Next, get lost in the brilliant blue, green, and orange tendrils of the steamy Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. Yellowstone’s most photographed thermal feature is actually a supervolcano and the third largest hot spring in the world. Check in at the classic and popular Old Faithful Inn, complete with lodgepole pine and stone fireplaces. Built in 1903, it’s one of the country’s few remaining log hotels, an architectural marvel that influenced national park architecture we see throughout the country today.

While visiting the park, make sure to stop by the new Yellowstone Tribal Heritage Center, which celebrates the region’s tribal communities. When Yellowstone was first established, tribal communities were initially pushed out by the government and are now being embraced. The center is near Old Faithful and hosts daily tribal presentations; it is a fine place to learn about the culture and heritage of the tribal nations.

Yellowstone bull elk

Bull elk in Yellowstone National Park

Photo by Harrison Hargrave/Unsplash

Day 9: Yellowstone wildlife

While the north loop got the worst of the flooding, and some roads are still closed along with the north and northwest gates, park officials announced after a surge of funding the reopening of most of the park in early July. Check road closure updates, and if you’re in the clear, from the Old Faithful Inn drive 50 minutes to Yellowstone’s hottest and oldest thermal feature, Norris Geyser Basin, then hit up the remains of a 600,000-year-old volcanic explosion, Mammoth Hot Springs. Next, head east and be on the lookout for bison. In the park, you’re likely to stumble on these agile and burly beasts in the Tower-Roosevelt area (home to a 132-foot waterfall gushing down eroded volcanic rock), with expansive views of Mount Washburn, a petrified tree entombed in mud and rock, and other geologic formations that helped shape the area.

Visit the Lamar Valley to spot elk, moose, grizzly bears, badgers, bald eagles, pronghorn, osprey, deer, coyotes, wolves—and yes, thousands of bison. It was here and in the high plateaus above that the dwindling buffalo population recovered in the 20th century, when park managers purchased 21 bison and raised them here. (A second herd lives in the Hayden Valley.) Conservationists are still working this year to repopulate Yellowstone bison by moving some to 18 tribal communities across the country. Finish the day exploring the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Canyon Village, and your choice of Artist Paint Pots (thermal features including hot pools, mud pots, and small geysers), the Mud Volcano (remains of a mud deposit after a late-1800s thermal explosion), or waterfalls (yes, right in Canyon Village). Eat and crash in the sprawling, modern, and ecofriendly Canyon Lodge and Cabins.

Shoshone National Forest

Summer view of Shoshone National Forest in the Brooks Falls area near Dubois

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Day 10: Shoshone National Forest

If you exit Yellowstone at the East Entrance, you’ll stumble right into the country’s first national forest, which borders Yellowstone along the Wyoming–Montana border. The plains of Shoshone National Forest offer sagebrush, glaciers, and pristine lakes and rivers. Three craggy snowcapped mountain ranges create up to nearly 2.5 million acres for hiking. Here, you can also explore a mining ghost town called Kirwin, visited by gold prospectors Ernest Hemmingway and Amelia Earhart. Make the most of your final supper in Wyoming in nearby Cody with live music and slow-cooked meat at the Cody Cattle Company, finishing off the trip the way you came in—like a cowboy—in the Irma Hotel, built by Buffalo Bill (yes, Cody was named after him too). Now that your epic Wyoming road trip is over, tip your hat to this incredible state at the Yellowstone Regional Airport.

Anna Fiorentino is an award-winning storyteller and freelance writer with a focus on science, outdoors, adventure, and travel. Her work has appeared in AFAR, National Geographic Travel, Outside, and Boston Globe Magazine, among other publications.
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