Back to My Childhood: Camping in the National Parks

65 station wagon

When I was a kid in the 60’s, my favorite time of year was the two weeks when we took our family vacation.  The five of us (or seven if Grandma and Grandpa came) piled into the Dodge station wagon: parents in the front, two of us in the middle seat, and in the “way back” the lucky kid who got to lay in the cozy little nest we created among the tent and sleeping bags and coolers.

And the best of those family vacations were when we got to go to a National Park:  Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain, Acadia, the Badlands, Yellowstone, Grand Teton.   The scenery, the animals, the campfire, cooking outdoors, watching the stars at night – I was enchanted by it all.    I was such a nerdy kid that I even loved the nightly ranger talks at the campground.

Our tent was a big old canvas army tent that my dad had for years.   It seemed like it weighed a hundred pounds, and I remember the struggle it took for all of us to put it up.  (Although “all of us” was surely not the case.  I can’t imagine that the three kids were any help at all.)     Those early camping trips tend to blur together, but I do have a clear memory of our campsite in the Tetons, at Jenny Lake.    The lake was freezing, but we ran in and out anyway, and I couldn’t believe that those huge mountains were right there on the other side of the lake.    At night we lay in our flannel sleeping bags listening to the bears rummaging around the campground, and had pancakes and sausage when we woke up in the morning.   It was grand.

(My parents, by the way, were saints.  Driving all that way in a hot car with three little kids, then sleeping in the same tent with them for two weeks?  Wow.)

I now am lucky enough to live just a few hours’ drive from some of those same parks.   I have the luxury of visiting them pretty much whenever I want, which means that I don’t have to visit during the busy summer months when they are crowded with young families.  But each summer  I’m hit by nostalgia for those long ago family vacations, and by the time August comes I’ve usually managed to convince my husband that we need to take a national park camping trip of our own.      So last week we headed to Grand Teton.


As usually happens on these trips, my husband – who really doesn’t think that staying in a campground with a bunch of other people is his cup of tea – ends up being pleasantly surprised that the campgrounds are actually pretty nice.   We stayed the first two nights at Colter Campground.  Colter has 350 sites, which is definitely not a selling point for us, but there are generator-free loops, the sites are spacious, and there are plenty of nice hikes that you can take right from the campground.    We took a short hike to Heron Pond, and just enjoyed the beautiful day.



You can also take a longer hike and end up at Willow Flats, below Jackson Lake Lodge.  A storm was building, but for the most part it stayed over the mountains.


Next we wanted to check out the Gros Ventre Campground, at the southern end of the park.   It’s another big campground, but in totally different country than Colter:  the camp is in a beautiful healthy cottonwood grove along the Gros Ventre River.  Our campsite along the edge of the prairie was great; we watched birds and wandered along the river, and even were lucky enough to watch a huge bull moose and his mate foraging along the bank.







As for Jenny Lake Campground?  It’s still there, and beautiful as I remembered, but it’s the one campground that seems to be always full, so that’s one spot where nostalgia has to give way to reality, I guess.

About westerner54

Hello. I'm Cindy, and I love to hike, bike and explore the outdoors - particularly the western U.S.
This entry was posted in Hiking, Nature, Outdoors, Travel, Wildlife and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Back to My Childhood: Camping in the National Parks

  1. beeseeker says:

    We visited the Tetons after four days in Yellowstone, the contrast and scenery magnificent and magically obvious. Both great places!
    Colour me slightly jealous after reading this wonderful post and looking at those photos.

    • westerner54 says:

      It is surprising how totally different the two landscapes are, isn’t it? I’d actually forgotten that, but I noticed the same thing on this trip. Thanks for the visit!

      • beeseeker says:

        No worries: the post woke up so many great memories for me, travelling in a loop from Denver and back again via Yellowstone and the Tetons.

  2. I too have great childhood memories like yours with the grandparents in the middle seat and one kid in the way back that was required to lay down in a cubby hole. My sister and I took turns sitting next to grandma & grandpa or being in the way back. I remember on one trip after the first week we got to stay in an “expensive” KOA camp and take a shower! We also followed my aunt and uncle and their family so we had a two-car convoy from Iowa to California and back. I too loved the ranger talks!! Thanks for stirring up the memories!

    • westerner54 says:

      I’d actually forgotten that we’d called it the “way back” until I started writing, but then the image of us calling dibs on the “way back” popped into my head. Thanks for reading.

  3. Wonderful childhood memories, and your parents gave you a wonderful gift of loving being close to nature 🙂

  4. lylekrahn says:

    I have a theory that people tend to be drawn to the kinds of holidays they had as kids. Those sounds life great memories from both eras.

  5. oopsjohn says:

    I’ve camped at Jenny Lake and it is indeed marvelous. The lake, the mountains on the other side. Storms with high winds would come sweeping through in late afternoon, which made for great pictures out over the lake but sorely testing my tent skills.

    • westerner54 says:

      We were camped on a remote part of the Missouri one summer when a huge windstorm came through. We were both spread-eagled on the floor of the tent with it flattened above us – I thought for sure we were going to end up in the river. I’m sure if we hadn’t been in the tent we would have lost it. Would love to stay at Jenny Lake again sometime.

  6. de Wets Wild says:

    Magical post with beautiful images!

    My parents are also to blame for me being so addicted to nature and our beautiful wild places here in South Africa, and I will be forever grateful to them for every camping trip we undertook!

  7. Gorgeous shots, and that moose has a big rack!

  8. LuAnn says:

    You live in an amazingly beautiful part of this country! 🙂

  9. Erco Travels says:

    What the great memories! the landscapes pictures of your childhood travel looking wonderful.

  10. Janet says:

    Ahh, the good ole days. I remember all of that heavy camping equipment. My favorite photo: the birds in the branches with the moon showing through.

    • westerner54 says:

      I took a lot of that scene, just hoping one would come out. I don’t know enough to be able to get them both in focus, but at least that will help me remember the moment!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s