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Tips for a successful summer road trip to the outdoors

Long days, open road and a little imagination make the summer a great time to get out and explore.

Moose in Grand Tetons.jpg
Wildlife are in their natural habitat in places like the Grand Teton National Park. Keeping calming and out of their way, even on trails, is advised. Steve Wagner / Forum News Service
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For a few years, the idea of a summer road trip adventure seemed pretty appealing.

A way to explore wild places, visit amazing spaces and experience life outside the city to help reset the mind and spirit.

Years ago, a buddy and myself would visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for several days each summer. Over the years, we refined our trips, gear and mission so that no two trips into the wild were the same.

That was before I became a runner.

But the lure of spending time outdoors and visiting the backcountry held its same appeal, leading me to spend more and more miles running on trails.


So last summer, after letting the idea brew for a few years, I finally acted on it. And my adventurous partner was not only willing to go along, but encouraged it. We would explore together.

An impulsive decision to commit, and then plan the trip, paved the way for an epic week to remember and my first visits to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

And whether you're like me and getting a late start to planning your outdoor adventure, or have had it booked for months, here are some tips to help make it memorable.

Find your inspiration

The key to a great summer road trip starts with finding a destination that inspires you.

No matter if it's visiting a national park, finding a mountain bike trail to shred, camping beneath the stars far from the city lights, casting a line into unchartered (to you) waters, searching for wildflowers in the forest or any combination of hundreds of outdoors activities, there's no better time than now to assemble the pieces for a great getaway.

And the best way to make sure it's successful is finding something that inspires you to move and get outside.


The impulse to act on last summer's road trip came after seeing a friend's Instagram post from his family's hike in Montana.

Within hours, the basic framework for a week-long road trip was in place.

Lava Lake.jpg
The view of Lava Lake south of Bozeman, Mont, is the reward for a climb up the trail. Steve Wagner / Forum News Service

Make a plan

It might seem obvious, but a good plan can go a long way.

Logistics can make or break a trip.

For our adventure, staying in one place for more than a day or two wouldn't suit me well. Using the Trail Run Project app, we pulled up trails near Bozeman, Mont., and jotted down notes. My partner did the same and soon we were piecing together a road trip that appealed to both of us.

The goal was to find our way to some backcountry trails, discover some hidden gems and explore as much as possible.


Next to the Gallatin River.jpg
After an arduous run to Lava Lake, a little downtime next to the Gallatin River south of Bozeman, Mont., provided icy waters for recovery. Steve Wagner / Forum News Service

But I did have one caveat. No traditional camping. After long days on the trail, I wanted a shower and a bed.

While we were a bit late in planning the trip, we were still able to find lodging accommodations.

Another key to a successful trip, especially one focused on running trails, was planning the hardest days and arranging easier days in between to provide a little bit of recovery. Our trip featured two big runs, spaced three days apart, and shorter runs on days between the hard, long efforts in the mountains.

Off the beaten path

Another advantage we had for our trip was that neither of us are the typical tourists. We'd rather be off the beaten path to appreciate the experience of doing our favorite activities.

There wasn't much of a checklist of must-see places other than finding alpine lakes at the end of our trails.

Since running trails were the main objective, we enjoyed the views on the run. When it came to visiting tourist attractions, we picked one or two for a day. Some days we didn't have any while other days offered a non-traditional tourist stop.

Our first day into Bozeman landed me inside Music Villa to check out the amazing guitar collection on display. Initially, a stop there wasn't on my radar, but as a music fan and occasional guitarist, it turned into a pleasant surprise after my brother tipped me off about the store.

Though Yellowstone could be a week-long adventure in itself, we weren't interested in spending time at most of the 'must-see' spots.

One morning, we drove to Grand Prismatic, which served as the starting point for a light trail running day that took us to Fairy Falls, which features a 197-foot waterfall, and Imperial Geyser, which was more active 100 years ago. Most visitors stop at Grand Prismatic, but the relatively flat trek to Imperial Geyser is worth every step.

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Yellowstone's Imperial Geyser is lesser known than the Grand Prismatic, a crowd favorite, but the approximately 3-mile hike (or run) offers a stunning waterfall view on the way to a stunning view of what was once a feature attraction in itself. Steve Wagner / Forum News Service

Once finished with the run, we swung by Old Faithful for lunch and then capped the day at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

Start early

Starting early is essential if you're going places that attract a crowd.

And even if you're planning a long day on the trail, the early morning sun can provide terrific lighting if you're taking photos along the way.

Our biggest trail day was a run and hike along the Sky Rim East trail, topping out at Big Horn Peak, elevation 9,930 feet. Some sections were slow going with the climbing but an early start helped us beat the heat of the day while giving us extra time at the top.

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Big Horn Peak tops out at 9,930 feet in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park in Montana. Jenn Faul / Special to Forum News Service

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An early start allowed us to spend more time at Big Horn Peak, after a long run and hike to the top. Steve Wagner / Forum News Service

After the 18-mile round trip, we enjoyed cooling off in the Gallatin River with a growler filled from the Beer Sanctuary in Bozeman the day before.

The following day, we left at sunrise for Yellowstone Park (we stayed in the town of West Yellowstone) and another early start helped us finish our trail run early so we could visit some popular spots.

Several spots, easily accessible by car and a short walk, allow for stunning views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Steve Wagner / Forum News Service

On another morning, my partner agreed to a pre-dawn departure so I could photograph the T.A. Moulton Barn in the Mormon Row Historic District near Grand Teton National Park.

It hadn't been on the schedule, but once I realized how close we were to the most photographed barn in America, I wanted to visit.

Smoke from wildfires in California had begun filtering into the region, but the stop was worth it. The silent serenity, even with about a dozen photographers on hand, brought a calm start to another long day on the trail.

TA Moulton Barn.jpg
The Grand Tetons stand out from the landscape, even with wildfire smoke in the air, with the T.A. Moulton Barn in the foreground. Steve Wagner / Forum News Service

Be flexible

Rarely will a trip follow the script written in advance.

Being flexible allows for adventure, spontaneity and unexpected memories.

In visiting the great outdoors, one can expect to encounter wildlife. During our trip, we came across a black bear, moose, elk and bison.

Be prepared -- all of those encounters were much closer than anticipated. The bear was the only distant large game encounter, but 50 feet was close enough.

Moose in Grand Tetons.jpg
Wildlife are in their natural habitat in places like the Grand Teton National Park. Keeping calming and out of their way, even on trails, is advised. Steve Wagner / Forum News Service

As our adventure neared its conclusion, we reviewed our route back to North Dakota.

My partner agreed to my request to change the route so we could travel the Beartooth Highway, which added several hours to our drive due to road construction.

But the change also offered some of the most amazing aspects of the trip: encountering bison herds, a walk through Mammoth Hot Springs, witnessing fly fisherman in Lamar Valley and an amazingly scenic pass through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area -- a drive Charles Kuralt described as the most scenic in America.

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A herd of Bison graze in Yellowstone National Park. Steve Wagner / Forum News Service

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A pullout alongside the Beartooth Highway offers panoramic views of the wilderness area's alpine lakes and mountains. Steve Wagner / Forum News Service

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The rugged Beartooth Mountains feature some of the oldest exposed rocks in the world. Steve Wagner / Forum News Service

When the morning began, I debated stopping for a short run early in the day, or wait until we passed through the mountains. Coincidentally, the decision to delay my miles for a short trail run through the Custer National Forest was a perfect close to the day -- and the nerve-wracking drive on the hairpin turns of the Beartooth Highway.

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A trail offers rolling terrain through Custer National Forest. Steve Wagner / Forum News Service

Read more about my trail running adventure from the 2020 summer on my personal blog, Plains to Trails .

Related Topics: NO-INSTAGRAM
As director of digital content development for Forum Communications, Wagner oversees digital training tools for newsrooms, audience engagement and niche content areas.
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