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Fly to the national parks in the Intermountain WestFly to the national parks in the Intermountain West

Some of America’s most spectacular geological features, along with unrivaled beauty and abundant wildlife, characterize the Intermountain West national parks.

  • The Grand Tetons rise steeply above Jackson Hole and the John Moulton Barn. Photo by Gord McKenna via Flickr.
  • At Grand Teton National Park, the author once encountered a bull moose in velvet at close range exactly like this one and also feeding on willows, but lacked a digital camera to record the event. Moose are plentiful in the park. Photo by Alan English CPA via Flickr.
  • New for 2017, the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JMHR) is opening the first U.S. Forest Service-approved Via Ferrata on public land. First developed in the Alps, a Via Ferrata is a protected climbing route that allows relatively inexperienced climbers to access mountains safely. JHMR’s Via Ferrata uses metal rungs, cables, and bridges to get you up into the thrillingly steep terrain the Tetons are known for, without the risks typically associated with unprotected climbing and scrambling. Photo courtesy JMHR.
  • The Four Seasons offers luxurious accommodations at Jackson Hole. Photo courtesy Four Seasons Resorts.
  • Take a sleigh ride tour into the National Elk Refuge, just south of Grand Teton National Park. Elk are fed and congregate here in winter. Photo by Lori Iverson, USFWS.
  • A hot spring steams in Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin. About half of the world’s known geysers are inside Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Yu-Hsin Hung via Flickr.
  • The lobby of the Old Faithful Inn, the world’s largest log hotel, was built over the winter of 1903–1904. The 85-foot-tall stone fireplace weighs about 500 tons. Photo by Randy Watson via Flickr.
  • The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, viewed from Artist’s Point. Photo by Diane Renkin, courtesy NPS.
  • The Black Canyon of the Gunnison River is as narrow as 40 feet in some places. Photo by Terry Foote via Wikipedia.
  • Cliff Palace, with 150 rooms, viewed from above, is one of several elaborate ruins inside Mesa Verde National Park. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Guests at the Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde National Park can see into three states. Photo courtesy Aramark.
  • At Rocky Mountain National Park, Hallett Peak is backed by bluebird skies and reflected in the water of Dream Lake. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Bighorn sheep rams sit together in Rocky Mountain National Park’s alpine tundra. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Hikers in Rocky Mountain National Park enjoy the Ute Trail, taking in the view of the alpine tundra and Never Summer Mountains. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Visitors enjoy a sunset near the Alpine Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park, the highest elevation visitor center in the National Park Service at 11,796 feet. Photo courtesy NPS.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming: Fly to Jackson Hole Airport, the only commercial airport inside a national park. The Tetons rise abruptly from the valley floor to form perhaps America’s most stunning visual backdrop. Float the Snake River or take the ferry across Jenny Lake for quiet hikes where you’re likely to spot a moose. Stay in one of the park’s elegant lodges or rustic cabins. South of the park, swanky Jackson is filled with hip shops. Resorts offer excellent winter skiing and fabulous summer hiking. Via Ferrata is Jackson Hole’s newest attraction. Don’t miss the National Museum of Wildlife Art any time, or the opportunity to see hundreds of elk up close in winter. Both are in the National Elk Refuge between Jackson and the national park. Jackson Hole is linked to Yellowstone National Park, just to the north, via the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway. The name is due to the fact that Grand Teton National Park probably wouldn’t exist at all if not for the generous donations of land from Rockefeller, who had the foresight to protect it from development.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana: The world’s first national park, Yellowstone is often called “America’s Serengeti” due to the intense concentration of large wildlife including bison, pronghorn, grizzly bears, elk, deer, and wolves. This gigantic park almost demands a sightseeing fly-over (remain at least 2,000 feet agl) to see it all; don’t miss the Grand Prismatic Spring that appears like a giant rainbow bulls-eye from the air. Land at West Yellowstone in summer or Bozeman in winter. Highlights include the Norris Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, and the adjacent Old Faithful Inn, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Lake, Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls, and Mammoth Hot Springs, all drivable in a large loop over two days. In winter, visitors snowmobile or visit the Lamar Valley to view wolves.

Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring, a must-see from the air, is the largest hot spring in the U.S. and third-largest in the world, 160 feet deep and with a diameter over 300 feet. The center of the pool is sterile due to the extreme heat. Colors in the mud surrounding the spring are caused by different types of bacteria. Note the people on the boardwalk left of the spring. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado: Fly to Montrose to access the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The canyon’s name is derived from the fact that parts of the gorge bottom receive only 33 minutes of sunlight per day, because the canyon is so narrow. Excellent scenic drives are along U.S. Highway 50 and Colorado Highway 92, as well as the south rim. The park’s east end is the most developed for camping (no lodges in the park), as well as canyon tours, hiking, fishing, and boat tours. The park’s west end provides river access by car and guided canyon tours. The south rim has a campground and hiking trails; inner canyon descents are strenuous and require Class 3 climbing and basic route finding skills.

Old Faithful erupts at Yellowstone National Park. The first geyser in the park to be named, Old Faithful erupts every 44–125 minutes, spraying heated water 106–185 feet into the air. Photo by Jacob W. Frank, courtesy NPS.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado: Cortez Municipal Airport is your flight destination; from here it’s a scenic one-hour drive to this park, which preserves an astounding collection of Ancestral Puebloan ruins perched in the cliffs. The new Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center is the place for information for self-tours or to buy tickets for guided tours of the Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Long House (the only way to visit these sites, and well worth it). Evening campfire talks, twilight tours, and photography tours are also available, and there’s a driving loop where you can look down on many of the structures. The elegant Far View Lodge more than lives up to its name and delivers excellent cuisine as well.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado: Fort Collins is the best place to start this trip, as you’ll pass through the town of Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, and one of the world’s best places to see elk during the fall rut. Estes Park also provides lodging, restaurants, an aerial tram, and much more. A UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, Rocky Mountain National Park has five visitor’s centers and is chock-full of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, black bears, elk, and deer. Alpine climbing, hiking, horseback riding, camping, and scenic drives make this park popular, especially in summer.

Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as both the managing editor of Pilot Getaways magazine and editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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