By Shelley Seale
The motto of Wyoming is “Roam Free.” In a wide-open state such as this, filled with towering mountain ranges, glacial lakes, dense forests and seemingly endless prairies, roaming is practically demanded of the visitor — exploration of the gorgeous natural resources found here calls in the national parks, rustic and laid-back towns, and the deeply rooted Western spirit.
It’s a great time to visit Wyoming: having just celebrated its 125th year of statehood, 2016 marks the centennial of the U.S. National Parks Service. And given that the country’s very first national park, Yellowstone, is located in the state — along with Grand Teton National Park, the first national monument, Devils Tower, and first national forest, Shoshone — roaming free is also a way to celebrate the wonders to be found here.
There are many ways to explore Wyoming, so check out these ideas and get ready to dream and plan.
The State Parks By Car
The most traditional way that most visitors get around the state and parks is by driving. Jackson Hole is the perfect place to base your visit if you’re concentrating on the northwest part of the state. The town of Jackson is charming and fun, full of upscale shops and restaurants yet completely unpretentious.
There’s plenty to do, and attractions like the Grand Tetons, National Elk Refuge, Shoshone National Forest, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, and the Wind River Indian Reservation are within a couple hours’ drive.
Some of the most iconic drives in Wyoming include:
Yellowstone National Park: Our first park’s two million acres are served by the Grand Loop, a 140-mile, figure-eight-shaped road that allows exploration of the most famous Yellowstone natural wonders such as Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower Falls, Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Prismatic Springs and more. Don’t feel like driving? Hop aboard one of Yellowstone’s historic, refurbished yellow buses for partial-day, full-day and evening tours around the park.
Wind River Range: The route around the stunning Wind River Range passes through a near-desert and two national forests, touches Grand Teton National Park, and twice crosses the Continental Divide.
Or try a wildlife safari tour, where an expert naturalist guide takes you by vehicle to spot free-ranging herds of bison, elk, deer, moose, fox, bear and more. Bird-watching is spectacular here, where bald eagles, trumpeter swans and ospreys call home. Check out a company such as Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris.
Or By Foot
There are few areas of wilderness as vast or stunning as those found in Wyoming. Venturing away from the roads for a hike into the serenity of nature — whether it’s one mile or 10 — is a great way to experience this peaceful grandeur. With miles and miles of hiking trails from novice to expert, visitors can plan anything from a half-hour hike to multi-day, overnight excursions.
In the Tetons, beginners can try a low-elevation route like the 1.2-mile hike to Phelps Lake, whereas advanced adventurers can opt for a challenging trek up Hanging Canyon. Hikers looking for a moderate challenge with wildflower-filled valleys and peaceful pools of water should try the trail leading to Solitude Lake. The 16-mile journey starts at South Jenny Lake and leads you through Cascade Canyon, and makes for a great overnight hiking/camping itinerary.
Parks such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton have camping sites which can be reserved in advance (permits are required for all backcountry camping in the state). Star-gazing is incredible; Wyoming is the least-populated state in the U.S., which practically guarantees clear skies if there’s no cloud cover. You can sometimes even see the Northern Lights.
Or on a Bicycle
The Jackson Hole area is an extremely bike-friendly place. A separate bicycle road goes alongside the main highways almost everywhere, and hundreds of miles of trails provide great off-road biking as well. Although biking on trails is not permitted in Grand Teton National Park, cyclists are allowed to pedal on roadways. Don’t miss a ride along the paved, multi-use pathway that stretches eight miles, from Moose Junction all the way to South Jenny Lake. You can rent a bike at many places in Jackson.
At Yellowstone, you can rent a bike at Old Faithful Snow Lodge in the heart of geyser country. While trail biking is not allowed in the park, there are plenty of paved and unpaved roads and paths that are excellent options for bicycling short rides (3-4 miles) or longer journeys (9-12 miles of moderate to difficult biking).
Checking with the bike shop staff before your ride will ensure you’re riding in an appropriate area. Helmets, racks, bike trains, trailers, jackets, gloves, hip packs, are available for rent as well.
Or On Horseback
Get ready to saddle up and experience the West in true cowboy form. A variety of guided horseback rides are available in the Grand Tetons, promising sweeping vistas of the mountain range, Christian Pond and Oxbow Bend on the Snake River.
Equestrians and families often choose to see the vastness of Yellowstone on horseback (it’s a great option for those who can’t hike far). One- and two-hour guided rides are offered at Mammoth, Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon. At Roosevelt Corral, visitors can take a horseback or wagon ride to a cookout site for a steak dinner.
Wyoming’s rivers and lakes create the natural place to get on the water. Whitewater rafting is very popular, as well as calmer scenic float trips down the Snake River. There is an amazing wealth of wildlife along the river — bald eagles, moose, marmots, pelicans, beavers, and osprey are just a few of the species that frequent the valley. Check an outfitter like Dave Hansen, who has been running tours since 1967; there are many others in Jackson Hole as well to choose from.
If you want to combine fishing with your water adventure, there are plenty of anglers and fly-fishing companies companies in the area. Imagine eagles soaring overheard while you cast to rising trout at the base of magnificent mountains.
Tips and Resources:
Before you head out on the road, be sure to check weather conditions, emergency alerts and a map of the state’s major highways.
With so much open land and so much to see, travelers are encouraged to have a minimum of a half-tank of gas before heading out. Every town marked on the map may not have services, or may not have services 24 hours a day.
Wyoming’s high altitude may somewhat affect your car’s performance. Pay attention to what seems normal to your car and its capabilities.
During the high season summer months, reservations are recommended for all types of accommodations.
Bring warm layers of clothing even in summertime, especially if you are planning on camping. Nights can get chilly due to the altitude.
Shelley Seale is a freelancer based in Austin, Texas. In addition to GoNomad, Shelley has written for National Geographic, USA Today, Travel + Escape, Shermans Travel and others. She writes about her adventures around the world at her blog, Trading Places. Visit her website.