A few weeks ago I embarked on a fall road trip throughout Montana, Wyoming and Colorado with my brother, Ryan. Needless to say, it was everything I expected and then more! I quickly learned why they call Montana “Big Sky” country and why everyone must see Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons National Park at some point in their lifetime. As a photographer I tried to capture as much of it as I could, but to be honest, a photograph simply cannot portray the beauty that is in front of you in the present moment. None the less, come along on my latest travel log through the Mountain West!
Warning: It’s a bit long in length, but the photos and details of the trip make it well worth it! Grab a cup of coffee or glass of wine and keep on scrolling!
Since I live in California and my brother in Wisconsin, we both flew into Missoula, MT where we’d meet up to kick off our fall road trip. I’ll preface this travel log first by saying that our route was primarily determined by where my brother had to do work. So while we didn’t always go the most touristy route (for example, we didn’t go to Glacier National Park), we were able to experience some pretty magical places throughout our journey.
Days 1 & 2 : Missoula, Montana
We landed pretty late the first night, but since we were both hungry we decided to venture to Higgins Street in downtown Missoula and stumbled upon Plonk. What a beautiful wine & tapas bar! It’s definitely where all the hip & trendy people go. We enjoyed a few glasses of wine, a charcuterie board and a burger. Definitely recommend stopping here!
The next morning we grabbed breakfast at Catalyst Cafe & Espresso Bar (again on Higgins Street). It was a Sunday morning so the place was packed and a bit of a wait. Well worth it though! I had a huge, steaming cup of hot tea and “The Heap” which is a cast iron skillet filled with roasted potatoes, onions, peppers, mushrooms, spinach and topped with two eggs. It was so delicious, but you could easily share with someone else.
Now that we were fueled up we drove out to the National Bison Range (about a 45 min drive) to get our first taste of wildlife. Once you enter the park, there is a large loop (approx. 19 miles) you can drive that takes anywhere from 2-3 hours to complete (longer if you’re like me and stop to take a ton of pictures). The range is home to not only bison, but also elk, bighorn sheep, black and grizzly bears, mule deer, pronghorns and coyotes. What was actually really fun about the drive is that you are constantly keeping your eyes peeled for wildlife. Along a hillside you may see a group of pronghorns and on the next turn a herd of bison laying beside the road. We just missed seeing 2 bull elk run across the road by mere minutes!
Day 3 : Missoula > Helena > Billings, MT
Before hitting the road to Helena and Billing, Montana I got some work done at Zootown Brew in downtown Missoula. Again, another super cute coffee shop with exposed brick walls, an open floor plan and lots of yummy goodies.
One of the things I’m most proud of throughout this road trip is that we never took the Interstate. We opted for lesser known highways, often traveling through desolate towns and not seeing another car for 15 minutes at a time. We were rewarded with the most beautiful views, opportunity to pull over for capturing scenic photos (or those of us sitting in the middle of the road) and lots of laughs over quirky ways of life off the beaten path (Chuckles at a gas station in Harlowton we’re talking to you).
Day 4: Billings, MT > West Yellowstone
Our initial plan upon leaving Billings was to head to Red Lodge and continue south to the Beartooth Pass which would drop us down into the Northeast entrance of Yellowstone. Of course, as luck would have it, they already had to close that pass down due to weather. Instead we took the Chief Joseph Byway over to the Northeast entrance. I wish I could say that I enjoyed the epic views & took lots of photos, but we ran into a little gas quantity issue that prevented us from being able to pull over in fear that we wouldn’t be able to start our car again. So, with any good road trip, please make sure you have adequate amount of gas at ALL times. We were mere miles away from spending the night with bears.
Another tip – if planning to travel through Yellowstone in October, plan on roads & lodging to be closed. If doing the road trip again, I would probably opt to go at the end of September rather than pushing it the few extra weeks where they are likely to get inclement weather and that’s when the season closes.
On our first day in Yellowstone National Park we explored for about 5 hours until we reached West Yellowstone where we were staying the night at Moose Creek Inn. It’s a charming town just outside the west gates to Yellowstone with really good food and drinks at Madison Crossing Lounge.
Let me just say this, a bucket list for everyone should be to spend time in Yellowstone. As I mentioned earlier, pictures simply don’t do this place justice. We were given a map upon entering the park & came in through the Northeast Entrance, followed it to Tower-Roosevelt, onwards to Mammoth Hot Springs (the road to Canyon Village was closed), down to Norris Geyser Basin and over to the West entrance. This was just the first afternoon.
Plan on having a set of binoculars and your camera ready at ALL TIMES.
Day 5: West Yellowstone to Jackson Hole, WY
The trek through Yellowstone continues. We spent another 4-5 hours exploring the west and southern area of the park. We set off first thing in the morning and were rewarded with gleaming rivers and wildlife still roaming about. Head back east through the entrance towards Madison and then due south following the Firehole River where you’ll have plenty of opportunities to stop at geysers, thermal hot springs and basins, including Grand Prismatic Springs. Unfortunately, the morning we were there is was bitter cold and windy so we didn’t get to see as many vibrant colors and rather a lot of steam instead.
As you continue south you’ll run into the infamous Old Faithful geyser. It’s quite a tourist attraction they’ve set up here in the middle of the park, and after waiting a little over an hour it finally spouted off. It’s short-lived, but pretty cool to say you’ve seen it. Check out this photo below with the rainbow I caught on camera!
You’ll lose a lot of the traffic as you continue south after visiting Old Faithful and we continued past Grant Village and down towards the South Entrance. We pulled over on the side of the road and getting a glimpse of some water and after hopping a guard rail and climbing down some rocks a view like anything other was before us.
These hiking boots that I picked up at Target the morning I left for my road trip quickly became the only pair of shoes I wore. They’re warm, stylish and super lightweight, almost like a sneaker. Even better news is that they’re less than $40! I also was constantly wearing this Lovestitch red cardigan I grabbed for the trip. Talk about insanely cozy & comfortable!
We’re finally leaving Yellowstone and entering the Grand Tetons National Park! After following @grandtetonnps on Instagram for weeks leading up to our trip, I was very eager to set my eyes on these majestic mountains. If there is ever a time where a picture doesn’t do it justice, it’s when you’re trying to photograph the Grand Tetons. They are massive in size and never out of view. You could take a hundred photos of them each from a different viewpoint throughout the park and never get tired of seeing them.
We headed towards Jackson Junction and then west towards Signal Mountain which would lead us towards Jenny Lake (click here for map). Here we got out and did a short hike to the lake to give our legs some exercise after a lot of hours in the car.
I’m willing to be that if you haven’t heard of Mormon Row in the Grand Tetons that you’ve at least seen a picture of the infamous barn. Of course, I had to get my turn photographing it! There’s a good chance this is getting printed and framed to hang in our house.
The Grand Tetons drop you right into Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This was probably the city that I was most excited to explore because we’ve talked about moving our annual summer trip from Lake Tahoe to here in the coming years. I loved everything about what we did see & do, but with less than 24 hours to enjoy it, I didn’t get to experience too much of it.
Here’s what I do know —
You absolutely have to enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner at The Organic Lotus. For someone with dietary restrictions like me, I was in pure heaven. They’re açai bowl was the bomb! Even my brother, who can eat anything, really enjoyed his breakfast there with an egg scramble and elk sausage.
Day 6 : Jackson Hole, WY > Capser, WY
After leaving Jackson Hole we stopped in Teton Village at the base of the ski mountain but it was pretty quiet with the off-season in full swing. We loaded up the car with snacks and hit the road for a 5 hour trek east to Casper, WY.
Day 7 : Casper, WY > Steamboat Springs, CO
We are finally on to our 3rd and final state of the fall road trip! Entering into Colorado was all about stopping at some natural hot springs. Without having a real clear plan of action at this leg of the trip, we followed the map towards Steamboat Springs. This “accidental” stop ended up being one of my favorites and I quickly fell in love with this town.
After we checked into the hotel, we changed into our swimsuits and took the 7 mile ride to Strawberry Hot Springs. After putting on over 1200 miles, this was just what we needed, a relaxing 30 minutes in a thermal hot spring to soothe the muscles. Just note, we heard rumors that once it gets dark and kids aren’t allowed that nudity starts to happen. I definitely WAS NOT interested in finding that out!
We cleaned up and hit the town for dinner and drinks and boy did we find a great dinner spot! Thanks to a quick research session on Yelp, we decided upon some Italian food at MAMBO’s. Oh my gosh, it was ridiculously good and probably one of my favorite meals of the whole trip. I literally put myself into a food coma.
Day 8 : Steamboat Springs > Denver, CO
That didn’t stop us from waking up and heading right back into town for breakfast at Winona’s. It was a Saturday morning and we got there pretty early because after we were done there was a line outside. Guys, eat here if you’re ever in Steamboat Springs and order the cinnamon roll as a starter for the table. WOW! I definitely should not be eating that, but I had to try it (and by try it I mean 7 bites). The food here was so delicious!
After we had full bellies we hit the road again for our final leg of the trip into Denver, CO. You can’t be near Denver without stopping at some of their breweries that are littered over all parts of the surrounding area. Our favorite was New Terrain Brewing in Golden, CO. It’s located out in an industrial park, but they have a huge outdoor area, a food truck and the coolest tap room. Bonus, they’re dog friendly outside and I saw at least a handful of Golden Retrievers. Let’s be real, that’s probably the #1 reason why I liked the brewery so much!
Per our usual style, it was another night of eating and drinking before I headed back to the hotel catch some sleep before my early flight the next day.
I must say, I’m a really lucky girl that gets to call her brother her best friend. In 8 days of our fall road trip, we never fought, reminisced over stories of our childhood, ate bags upon bags of sunflower seeds and gummy candy and truly had an amazing trip. When you’re a photographer you want to travel with someone who is patient with your requests to stop for lots and lots of photo opportunities. By the end, I had my brother eager to snap some photos. From traveling to Santorini with him last fall to conquering this 8-day fall road trip, I think it’s safe to say we are pretty good travel partners.
I won’t make any promises, but I did take a lot of video in hopes of creating a video blog for this trip. I’ll keep you posted if I ever get it edited!
Keep LIving a Stylized Life.
Wonder what my road trip travel essentials are?
• A go-everywhere sturdy tote bag like this one from Fossil.
• Sunscreen on the go (even when in a car!). This 100% mineral invincible setting powder from Supergoop! was a lifesaver.
•My Canon 5D Mark III DSLR camera with 24-70 f2.8 lens to capture wildlife.
• A stylish where-everywhere hybrid watch.
• Dr. Lipp Mircale Lip Balm. Need I say more?
• A stylish, yet affordable pair of sunglasses where you won’t worry too much if they get left behind in one of the countless hotel rooms.