While Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks give visitors a taste of the untrammeled American West, they were once the edge of the real frontier. Consider George Cowan (a distant relation), who visited Yellowstone shortly after it was designated America's first national park in 1872. He was attacked by Indians, wounded twice by gunfire, fell from a tree after being shot by an arrow, nearly burned to death after starting a campfire and then was rescued by a horse-drawn ambulance that wrecked. Somehow Cowan survived, though it's not known if he ever returned to Yellowstone.
But like millions of more fortunate visitors every year, you probably will. Start your trip with a few nights in Jackson Hole getting acclimated at Spring Creek Ranch. Sign up for one of their Yellowstone Park wolf-watching programs and grab an aerial view of your drive from a breathtaking tram ride at the ski resort. Down a double-espresso breakfast at the Bunnery, and then begin your big loop through the parks ($20 per car for seven days) by driving eight miles north of Jackson to where Grand Teton National Park showcases the epic majesty of America's signature mountain range. Hike into the peaks via dramatic Cascade Canyon, glide across their reflections in a boat (rentals start at $10 per hour) on stunning Jenny and Jackson lakes, and check out historic Jackson Lake Lodge for a meal or room with panoramic Teton views.
Once in Yellowstone, you've entered one of America's true natural wonders. You'll encounter your first geysers at West Thumb. Here the road forks and Old Faithful is 17 miles to the west. Find the estimated time of the next eruption (about every 80 minutes) posted in the fantastic log-baroque lobby of the Old Faithful Inn, and enjoy lunch in the cavernous dining room before or after joining the international throngs waiting geyserside. Your route next heads west, then north, past the Firehole, Madison and Gibbon rivers with their renowned flyfishing ($10 for mandatory 10-day park permit). Wildlife viewing in the parks is spectacular; and you can encounter elk, bison, moose, coyote, deer, wolves and bears anywhere. Just look for the traffic jams. From the exquisite, colorful travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs in the northwestern corner of the park, Tower Falls is 20 miles to the west. Then your drive turns south to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, a jaw-dropping array of golden cliffs and massive waterfalls, and continues tracking the river south to Yellowstone Lake, where you can sip afternoon tea or spend the night in the quasi-Victorian grandeur of Lake Lodge. The route continues along the lake, ripe for fishing for lunker trout from shore or trolling by motorboat (rates start at $20 per hour). Then return to Grand Teton Park, where you can exit at Moran Junction and take Highway 191 along the Snake River, with gorgeous wide-angle views of the Tetons all the way back to Jackson. There you can toast George Cowan while sitting in the saddle barstools at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, safe from arrows, bullets and wildfire. -Jay Cowan
Drive Length 315 miles, excluding side trips and scenic loops.
Drive Time Eight to 10 hours, or a week you'll remember forever.
Don't Miss An often overlooked Native American collection at the Colter Bay Visitor Center on Jackson Lake, 307-739-3594.
Get Out Of Your Car At Norris geyser basin, with self-guided hikes through its sweetly sulfurous air and pastel palette.
Try To Avoid High-season traffic slowdowns by driving in the early morning and evening, when the wildlife viewing is also best.
Contact Grand Teton: 307-739-3600, www.nps.gov/grte;
Yellowstone: 307-344-7381, www.nps.gov/yell;
Spring Creek: 800-443-6139, www.springcreekresort.com.