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Great Adventures in The Great American West

Are you hearing the call of the open road? Are you ready for spirit-soaring landscapes, dazzling skies, and thrilling outdoor adventures? There’s a place in the United States where you’ll find all these things and more; whenever you choose to go, and however you choose to explore.
The Great American West exists so you can tick ‘Ultimate US Escape’ off your dream holiday list – so now you’re just left with deciding which of the 15 national parks, 150 state parks, numerous historic monuments, authentic working cowboy towns and countless other attractions you’ll visit first in these five spectacular northern states.
Even alone, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, North and South Dakota conjure iconic images of mountains rising to meet big skies; tumbling rivers and rumbling buffaloes; Wild west towns and Native American Powwows; pine-clad valleys and cowboys riding across the plains. Together, the five epic states of the Great American West are a force of nature, and to travel here is to travel to the heart of America’s story: to discover the culture, stories, and passion of the land’s indigenous people, and understand the struggles and dreams that drove those who came after. 

Ready to answer the call? The Great American West awaits...

Montana: Big Sky Country

Soaring mountain vistas, sparkling glacial lakes, and sacred Native American sites: open yourself up to the magic of Montana.

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” The words of naturalist, John Muir, were made for Montana. The ‘Father of the National Parks’ inspired the preservation of America’s wild places, and ‘Big Sky Country’ has two of the most spectacular protected areas in the National Park System: Glacier and Yellowstone. In the former, more than 200 waterfalls, towering peaks, indigenous sacred sites and its famed glaciers provide the backdrop for 700 miles of hiking trails in Glacier National Park, which dazzles with russet and gold foliage in autumn, while the latter, Yellowstone – designated the first US National Park in 1872 – is a hotbed of geothermal activity and a hotspot for wildlife, including wolves bison and bears.
Between the two lies the funky town of Missoula, with its boutiques, restaurants and bars, and a three-hour drive leads to the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, where Indians stampeded buffalo over the mile-long precipice for hundreds of years, prior to the Lewis and Clark Expedition passing through. Boat tours near the state capital, Helena, follow in the explorers’ wake along the Missouri River, leading to the towering cliffs named by Lewis as the Gates of the Mountains. But in Montana, you don’t need to be going anywhere in particular to have an adventure: roads like the 64-mile Anaconda-Pintler Scenic Route are the destination, passing through some of the most breathtaking alpine landscapes in the Great American West. 

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Celebrate the gold-rush which earned the ‘Treasure State’ its name with a visit to the sites of the ‘Richest Gold Strikes in the Rocky Mountain West.’ Step back to the 1800s in Nevada City’s living history museum, then ride the Alder Gulch Shortline Railroad and wander the Virginia City Historic District. 

Surrounded by the dramatic landscapes of Glacier Country, Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in the west, stretching over 200 square miles. Offering boating, swimming, water-skiing and camping, the southern half of the lake lies within the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation Reservation.

Winter, late-autumn and early spring are prime times for some Northern Lights action in the skies above Montana. Head to Bozeman, Billings and Kalispell for some aurora spotting just out of town, or immerse yourself in the light-pollution-free wilderness of Glacier National Park for a mesmerising display.

What's on?
  • North American Indian Days – the ‘Celebration of Recovery’ is one of the largest powwows of the United States and Canadian tribes. July; Browning
  • Montana Folk Festival is a giant free festival featuring over 200 acts from the nation’s best performers appearing across six stages. July; Butte

Idaho: Take the Road Less Travelled

With the largest contiguous expanse of wilderness in the continental USA, Idaho is a nature lover's dream, and a treasure trove for fossil hunters and stargazers too.

Nowhere does the Great Outdoors better than Idaho, and however you choose to explore, you’ll find a trail leading to natural treasures in America’s ‘Gem State’. One of just two places in the world where the rare star garnet can be found (India is the other), Idaho is known for its abundance of minerals, but as well as rockhounding for garnets, visitors will dig the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, too, with its four-million-year-old animal fossils from the Pliocene epoch. With more miles of whitewater rafting routes than any of the lower
48 states, the southwest capital city of Boise and mountain resort McCall are hubs for exciting river adventures, plus rock climbing and hiking, horse riding and biking through the forest, while Payette ake is a playground for sailors, kayakers and paddle boarders.
In winter, there are glistening snowmobile trails to ride starting in Bear Lake and Priest Lake State Parks, and 19 ski areas across the state to channel your inner Gwyneth Paltrow. Idaho’s vineyards and breweries produce world-class tipples for some well-deserved après-ski, and more than 100 natural hot springs will soothe away any aches and pains after a day on the slopes.
Canopied by some of the darkest skies in the USA, Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, City of Rocks National Reserve and Bruneau Dunes State Park offer excellent star gazing by night, and don’t miss some cosmic viewing of the lava field kind at the otherworldly Crater of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.

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Whatever the season, the city of Coeur D’Alene has plenty of places to play your days away, from riding the rollercoasters of Silverwood, the largest theme park in the Northwest, to kayaking on the lake, golfing on the city’s famous floating green, or skiing and snowboarding at three nearby mountain resorts.

Despite its devilish name, Hells Canyon reveals some heavenly scenes from its rim, 1.5 miles above river level, and depending on your need for speed, North America’s deepest river gorge can be explored on a whitewater rafting adventure or a jet boat tour through the deepest and most rugged parts of the canyon.

 

Following the path of the old Milwaukee Railroad, which crossed the Bitterroot Mountains between Idaho and Montana, the 15-mile Route of the Hiawatha mountain bike and hiking trail passes through 10 long, dark train tunnels and across seven trestle bridges, offering beautiful views of the forest-clad peaks. 

What's on?
  • Founded in 1911, War Bonnet Round Up is Idaho’s oldest rodeo, and includes riders from the Native American Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Fort Hall. August; Idaho Falls
  • Established on 2 May 1924, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve will mark its centenary with celebrations in 2024. May; Arc

North Dakota: Land of Legends

Home to seven Native American tribes, the Peace Garden State is rich in history, with legends brought to life at historic sites across this rugged, untamed land.

“I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” said Theodore Roosevelt, who made his first trip to the region in 1883 to hunt buffalo. Roosevelt later owned cattle ranches in what was to became known as the ‘Roughrider State’ – named after the cavalry he organised to fight in the Spanish-American War – and today, Theodore Roosevelt National Park commemorates the President’s years in the Badlands.
North Dakota is a place of legend. Sitting Bull, the Native American chief who led the Sioux tribes against settlers taking their tribal lands, and Lewis and Clark, and Sakakawea, the Lemhi Shoshone woman who helped guide their expedition, have all left their mark here. The Lewis and Clark Trail leads through the state capital, Bismarck, and unspoiled landscapes first seen by the explorers, while the Interpretive Center at Fort Mandan shares their story and Knife River Indian Village National Historic Site honours the place where they met Sakakawea. Visitors can learn about the lives of the Mandan Native Americans at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, which includes a reproduction of the house of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, famously killed during the battle with the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes at Montana’s Little Bighorn.
And North Dakota’s rugged landscapes are legendary, too. Explore the Badlands’ 144-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail on foot, horseback or bike, or take a hike in the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area, one of the largest uninterrupted stretches of woodlands in the state.

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Just 50 miles south of the Canadian border, the city of Minot lies in the scenic Souris River Valley, surrounded by prairies which bask under some of America’s best sunrises and sunsets. There’s birding and kayaking in six wildlife refuges nearby, and from October to March, look out for the Aurora Borealis.

Opened in 1932, the International Peace Garden straddles the international boundary line between North Dakota and Manitoba in Canada and claims to be the longest unguarded border in the world. A symbol of friendship, the gardens bloom with more than 150,000 flowers and offer hiking, biking, kayaking and cross-country skiing.

 

A symbol of the Great American West, the buffalo is a big deal in Jamestown, which honours these iconic animals and the essential role they’ve played in the lives of Native Americans with a National Buffalo Museum, the World’s Largest Buffalo statue, and an impressive herd of 30 bison.

What's on?
  • The United Tribes Technical College International Powwowdraws singers and dancers to compete, and artisans to display traditional Native American crafts. September; Bismarck-Mandan
  • The largest event in the state, 300,000 people visit the North Dakota State Fair to watch live music and entertainment acts, plus a rodeo. July; Minot

South Dakota: Great Faces, Great Places

Explore rolling prairies, granite peaks and towering forests, before coming face-to-face with both sides of America’s heritage in the Mount Rushmore State.

With incredible vistas from the Great Plains to the Black Hills, Badlands and beyond, South Dakota is home to one of the largest concentrations of parks and historic monuments in the Midwest. To the east of the Black Hills, Badlands National Park protects one of the richest fossil beds in the world, and offers incredible hiking and biking through a supernatural terrain of ridges, canyons,
pinnacles and spires. The Missouri River runs through the state, and along with glittering lakes – including five in Custer State Park, known for its huge roaming buffalo herd – offers plenty of opportunities for wet and wild adventures. Stop off at Deadwood, an authentic 1800s Gold Rush town in Black Hills National Forest, to replenish in one of the many spit-and-sawdust saloons.
At South Dakota’s most famous landmark, Mount Rushmore, you’ll gaze in the face of history, in the shape of the four enormous carved heads of US Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, and at nearby Crazy Horse Memorial, see the site which was the Native American response to it. “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also,” said Chief Henry Standing Bear, when commissioning the world’s largest mountain carving. Looking out over the Lakota tribe’s sacred Black Hills, the monument in-progress honours Standing Bear’s cousin, the Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, and helps develop cross-cultural understanding at the memorial’s Indian Museum of North America and Native American Education and Cultural Centre.

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Standing on the bank of the Missouri River, the state capital Pierre, is the perfect place to dive into South Dakota’s history, and the collections at the South Dakota Heritage Centre preserve the cultural legacy of the Sioux tribes and early European settlers.

The largest city in South Dakota, Sioux Falls blends natural beauty with exciting urban life, and is one of the few spots in the USA where you can canoe straight through Downtown. Enjoy hiking and biking in the stunning Falls Park by day, and exciting nightlife in the city’s neighbourhoods after dark.

 

Get ready to head back to your childhood (and run down that hill!), with a visit to the Ingalls Homestead made famous in Little House on the Prairie. This feel-good attraction in De Smet has wagon rides, and traditional craft workshops, and offers a glimpse into life on the wild frontier. 

What's on?
  • The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is one of the biggest biker gatherings in the world, with concerts and rides through the Black Hills and Badlands. August; Sturgis
  • The most popular organised hike in the USA, the bi-annual Crazy Horse Vollksmarch is a 6.2-mile woodland ramble at Crazy Horse Memorial. June; Crazy Horse.

Wyoming: Explore the wild frontier in the state of Forever West

The least-populated state in the United States is ripe for a true Wild West adventure, with authentic guest ranches and stunning rugged vistas

Gateway to the epic wilderness of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, Wyoming is a land where superlatives are the norm, not the exception. Yellowstone’s unparalleled geothermal activity bubbles and blasts throughout the park, with the world’s most famous active geyser, Old Faithful, erupting 20 times a day, shooting water up to 180 feet in the air, and the largest hot spring in the USA: Grand Prismatic Springs. Yellowstone is one of the most near-in-tact ecosystems left on the planet and is home to wolves, bison and both grizzly and black bears, and its Lamar Valley is one of the world’s best wildlife viewing regions. Smaller than its neighbour – but still perfectly formed – Grand Teton is a marvel of granite, snow-covered peaks and pines, with over 200 miles of trails to explore. 
This still-wild frontier is known as the Cowboy State, and visitors can saddle up for a trail ride, chow down at cowboy cookouts, and step back in time in Cody, established more than a century ago by legendary soldier-turned-Wild-West-showman, ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, and still known for its warm Western welcome.
Artists, makers and foodies flock to the friendly city of Casper, while Jackson Hole is a mecca for skiers in winter and climbers and paragliders in summer. And for a truly out-of-this-world experience, head to Devils Tower National Monument.
Sacred to American Indians, this mesmerising 867-feet-high butte is the focus of extraterrestrial action in the Steven Spielberg classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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With awe-inspiring red canyons that pop against Wyoming’s clear, blue skies, Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area offers exciting water sports on the reservoir and river, including tubing, water skiing and jet skiing, or exploring on foot or by bike on the miles of spectacular trails, sometimes roamed by wild horses.

Watch the wandering bison herd, go hiking or biking, and enjoy the multi-hued terraces that line the Big Horn River, before taking a plunge into the world’s largest mineral hot spring at Thermopolis’s Hot Springs State Park. Wyoming’s first state park’s healing waters maintain a steady 40°C.

Wyoming’s cold sagebrush desert is full of prehistoric secrets: fossilised birds, mammals, fishes, insects and more, which can be seen up-close at the wonderful Fossil Butte National Monument, known as America’s Aquarium in Stone. Once the site of a freshwater lake, the fossils are an astonishing 52 million years old.
What's on?
  • Wyoming’s state capital hosts Cheyenne Frontier Days, a huge event with a rodeo, carnival and live music, which brings the Western culture to life. July; Cheyenne
  • Shoshone Indian Days celebrates traditional Indian culture with dance competitions, food, arts and crafts. There’s a parade and carnival games, too. June; Fort Washaki

Feeling inspired? Take a look at our latest trips, tours and itineraries now to book your dream trip!

This is a feature from Issue 16 of Charitable Traveller.