Road Trip: Take the High Road from Denver to Glacier National Park

By: Bridget Clerkin July 19, 2018
Glacier National Park is considered the Crown of the Continent, as rivers from its peaks drain into the Hudson Bay, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific Ocean.
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The high summer season often comes with high temperatures, but where better to avoid the heat than high altitudes?

Life along the road from Denver, Colorado to Montana’s Glacier National Park is so mountainous, snow can be found at nearly any time of year.

Denver may be the Mile High City, but it’s also among the lowest points you’ll hit along this route. Yet the highlights abound, from the nation’s tallest paved road to some of its most spectacular national parks.

With extreme weather mostly in the rearview, summer is the best time to try the trek. And if you find temperatures climbing along with your altitude, fear not: the whole journey ends with a visit to some glorious glaciers—guaranteed to be as cold as the Rockies.

Regardless of what the road has in store, though, the perspective from America’s rooftop is truly unmatchable and destined to make for a memorable ride.

Denver, CO

DenverRoads
Downtown Denver, Colorado

Start off your northern journey in the mountain metropolis of Denver, Colorado.

The Mile High City has all the trappings of a western welcome wagon, stacked with plenty of sites to acquaint a traveler with their bearings. These include the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the city’s Botanical Gardens.

History buffs can get their fill at the History Colorado Center. Those looking for the faster pace of the modern age can enjoy the city’s water park, zoo, and an amusement park, among other attractions.

But mostly, Denver is the best place to take inventory before the trek ahead—and take some extra deep breaths. It’s essentially the lowest you’ll be before forging ahead on I-25 North toward Glacier National Park.

Rocky Mountain National Park

It may be located just 69 miles north of the city via Interstate 25 and U.S. Route 36, but Rocky Mountain National Park can feel like another world completely.

Whole panoramic vistas of mountaintop glory are self-contained within the park’s 415 square miles. Travelers interested in earning the view—or exploring avenues to countless others—are welcome to more than 300 miles of preserved trails in the park, some of which peak at well over 12,000 feet.

Biking, climbing, fishing, horseback riding, and even picnicking in wildflower fields are all options for outdoor enthusiasts interested in more than just taking a hike. And those who want to make a night of it—or more—can camp out in several different areas, all privy to an unsullied sky full of stars.

Still, as you travel along, the highs only get higher—including where you’ll cross over the Continental Divide on the country’s tallest paved road.

And the wilderness of Wyoming brings its own heightened standards of natural beauty.

Jackson Hole, WY

If the St. Louis Arch is the official Gateway to the West, the famous antler archways stationed at the four corners of Jackson Hole’s George Washington Memorial Park mark the entry to the Mountain West. You’ll travel about 470 miles, north along I-25 from Rocky Mountain National Park, before jogging west through cowboy country on U.S. 26 to reach it.

The structures are built with discarded elk antlers, something the area has in abundance. But there’s much more to see in Jackson.

The Grand Tetons sit just a few miles outside of the city, with their severe angles and extreme beauty dominating the skyline. Travelers interested in exploring the mountains need take a brief drive to Grand Teton National Park, home to more than 200 miles of trails and plenty of places to play in the forest, on the mountains, or along the Snake River.

Yellowstone
Roads through Yellowstone National Park crisscross the "American Serengeti"

And Jackson also serves as an unofficial gateway to Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national preserve and perhaps the country’s most famous, thanks in no small part to its 3,471 square miles of unique natural views. Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, and all other manner of geological wonders are just over an hour’s drive from the town.

But for those loathe to leave the northern trail, Jackson Hole itself boasts plenty to do, with museums, art galleries, historic sites, and nearly infinite parks to visit.

Still, it’s not the last chance to take in a bit of “city” living before reaching your final destination.

Helena, MT

About 345 miles north of Jackson, along U.S. Route 287 North, is Helena, Montana, a city founded as a gold miners’ camp in 1864.

The state’s capital, it’s still rich with activities today. These include Reeder’s Alley and the Helena Historic District, where visitors can get a sense of what went into the town’s founding. Modern-day amenities include all manner of unique shops and restaurants and even a huge carousel.

There’s also the eponymous Cathedral of St. Helena, modeled after a famous church in Vienna, Austria but found in the heart of the Montana mountains.

But don’t move at too glacial a pace through the charming town, or else you may miss out on the actively melting end of the journey.

Glacier National Park

GlacierRoad
Glacier National Park's famed Going-to-the-Sun Road

Continue up I-287 North about 214 miles until your reach your final destination: Glacier National Park.

Called the Crown of the Continent, the natural expanse marks the highpoint for headwaters streaming to the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Canada’s Hudson Bay. But the princely views also lend themselves to the name.

Glacier National Park includes over a million acres worth of pristine wilderness—and even with all that room, it’s overflowing with natural highlights.

All told, the area features 762 lakes, 563 streams, over 200 waterfalls, and more than 25 glaciers. Explorers can visit the spots along the hiking trail, through the backcountry, on a bike or a boat, or as part of a guided tour.

If you really want to nuzzle in to your final destination, the park also offers camping, but beware: grizzly bears aren’t uncommon sights, and sometimes camping is restricted to keep both humans and wildlife safe.

With an elevation of 10,466 feet, however, any visit to the Crown of the Continent offers a taste of the high life.

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