The American West Is Wide Open

A road trip through Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana reveals the astounding majesty of the region.



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IT’S THE SCALE we noticed first — the sheer size of the jagged ridge of the Teton Range that lines U.S. Highway 26 as you drive up western Wyoming from Jackson Hole to Yellowstone National Park, then back again. The East Coast doesn’t have horizons this big, so if (like me) you’ve spent a lifetime on the Atlantic side of America, you can’t imagine getting used to how open it is out here. We plotted destinations on Google Maps; we asked locals where to find the best viewpoints; we drove and drove and drove. The beauty felt endless. Ashy green fields of sagebrush and purple wildflowers spread to the horizon where they meet those Tetons, which extend around 40 miles and reach an elevation of almost 14,000 feet; so vast they feel far away even when you’re up close.



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A road trip through the Upper West — namely Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho — provides a nonstop series of such revelations. An Idaho highway stretched so far ahead of our car that it seemed to lift off the earth and pass through the clouds into heaven. The deep-green pine forests in Big Sky, Montana, seen from on high around the Spanish Peaks, appeared as unremitting as the Pacific Ocean’s waves.

Beyond sheer land size, Wyoming’s timescale also felt huge: There are surreal rock formations over 2 billion years old, and park placards revealed that the Shoshone, Bannock, Blackfoot, Crow, and Gros Ventre Indigenous tribes have been drawn to the Tetons for 11,000 years, first coming to the valley as massive glaciers receded. And then there are those skies, forever curving all around like a dome, making the world feel rounder than it does when the eyesight is narrowed by cramped cityscapes and groomed suburbs.

Wyoming is the place to start. You land right at the foot of the Tetons, seemingly descending directly into the range. A line of private planes at the Jackson Hole Airport reminds you that people have caught on to what’s special out here. A whole crop of bars, restaurants, boutiques, and luxury hotels have helped make Jackson not just a natural wonder but also a buzzing go-to for Western-bound travelers seeking high-end adventure. Year after year, ever more tourists come for the alpine skiing and National Parks. (Around five million visitors, a record, came to Yellowstone in 2021 alone.) They stay for the liberating vastness and sense of dusty, charming Americana — the latter epitomized, we learned on day one, by the infamous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, where local bands sing Tammy Wynette while patrons line dance and shoot whiskey. And by the nearby Kemo Sabe cowboy hat shop, where you can set your new Stetson on fire to stylishly distress it while drinking a margarita from the upstairs bar.

These days, there’s something for all types in Jackson Hole: The exquisite Caldera House, an eight-suite boutique property in Teton Village, feels less like a hotel than a collection of luxury apartments. Its sprawling suites are as personal and private as condos, with a casual, homey new mountain aesthetic and intimate service. Nearby, the Four Seasons invites you into something completely different and just as valuable — a classic hotel experience so warm and welcoming you feel nothing bad could ever happen here. Wander through the cindery hallways to its spa for a massage that incorporates the earthy aromatic essence of sage, a Wyoming mainstay, or past the massive fireplaces to the Westbank Grill, which served the best steak tenderloin I tasted in Wyoming.

Then, up U.S. Highway 191, there’s Yellowstone, which takes up over two million acres — more than Rhode Island and Delaware combined — of Wyoming, and small parts of Montana and Idaho too. The park is so big and storied you need a strategy to approach it; indeed, a recent surge of visitors has made hiring a private tour almost essential. Specialized operators like Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris help you circumvent traffic through small backroads — with geysers gushing smoke on either side — and zero in on the must-sees. For us, that included migrating herds of bison and a mama grizzly with her two yearlings digging for and then feasting on grubs in an open field just 100 yards from our car.

Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris also found us the best vantage point from which to see the marquee attraction: the Grand Prismatic Spring, America’s largest hot spring. Yellowstone is basically one enormous active volcano that last erupted 70,000 years ago and could erupt at any moment, with the springs and geysers acting as pressure-release valves for the heat beneath. The Grand Prismatic Spring’s acidic and blistering alkaline water makes it a habitat for billions of microscopic organisms called thermophiles, which give the basin its psychedelic, gradient palette, including the orange, yellow, green, and red that circle the rim of cyan water. Conditions in the spring are so generally inhospitable to life that NASA studies the pigmented thermophiles to suss out what kind of creatures could survive on distant planets with such harsh environments.


Once you traverse Yellowstone and head north past its Grand Canyon, with a 308-foot waterfall that gushes over volcanic rock, trees take on a deeper, darker green tone. This is how you’ll know you’re creeping into Montana. The Big Sky region is currently having an influx of interest in no small part thanks to the success of the television program “Yellowstone,” which showcases the state’s amazing rivers and ranchlands. Within the area, the Montage Big Sky is a resort so large and underpopulated that they say there’s only one skier per every acre of land, even in high season. Amidst the Spanish Peaks, the Montage is situated at the base of a mountain, in a roundabout of roads that are shrouded in mystique when the morning fog rolls in. If you climb high enough, you can get above that mist into blue skies and, quite literally, feel like you are atop the clouds, perched like some lucky Olympian god looking down at the world.

Drive southwest to Idaho, and the roads sprawl out starkly in that distinctly American way, running through tiny towns and crop fields irrigated by massive sprinklers. Past the farms, you wind through Bald and Dollar Mountains into Sun Valley, America’s first real ski destination. There’s a stately old resort called the Sun Valley Lodge here that’s steeped in chalet appeal and history — in 1939, Ernest Hemingway finished “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in suite 206. Nearby, the lovely town of Ketchum contains old and new at once, as exemplified by both the Pioneer Saloon, a throwback cowboy steakhouse, and Serva, a contemporary Peruvian restaurant owned by Rodolfo Serva that reflects the area’s growing Peruvian community. It will also make a vegan version of anything on its menu, including ceviche (replacing seafood with tofu).

But just outside Sun Valley’s borders is one of the strangest, most surreal sights in the U.S.: Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve. It is over 400,000 acres of lava fields that lie on Idaho’s Great Rift, a system of fractures in the earth’s crust that allowed magma to build up from eight major eruptive periods over the last 15,000 years. The lava has cooled to create billowing ripples of hard black swells that extend out over the steppe, covering everything with what is essentially fossilized lava. It is a discombobulating head trip, an infinite sea of stark rock blooms baking in the open sun.

After Idaho, we dipped back to Wyoming and, on our last night in the Upper West, we decided to photograph the constellations sparkling behind the Grand Tetons as our finale. We set out star hunting, driving through the dark, empty National Park to find the best place to glimpse the galaxies. We parked on the Antelope Flats around 11:00 p.m. as the last sun rays of the June solstice dimmed. To the east, a dramatic storm popped and crashed with lightning bolts, without giving a sense of how close or far the weather formation might be. A cloudy drizzle arrived, making us worry that the skies wouldn’t be clear enough. Here, massive weather patterns roll in and out like the tide. Some hours are gray, shrouding the Tetons behind clouds and dreariness, before the atmosphere magically turns bright and blue, with the peaks glimmering and shining like hematite.

Eventually, the patch of stars expanded as the rain departed. From the passenger seat, I laid my neck on the open window to look straight above me. The Milky Way’s three-dimensional richness opened behind us, the Big Dipper came into clear relief ahead, and white stars flickered like badly screwed-in light bulbs, knit together like spiderwebs. Thanks to the placement of the waxing moon — so bright and majestic it cast our car’s shadow onto the tall grass — we soon realized that there was too much natural light around the gray outline of the Tetons for us to capture exactly what we came for: that picture-postcard moment of the solar system embroidered precisely over the peaks. It wasn’t a bother: The rest of the stars were magnificent, and in the Upper West, you can’t fret about what you don’t see. You just keep at it, mile after mile, mountain after mountain, cataloging as much of this special expanse as possible, faithful in the knowledge that there will always be more just further down the highway, beyond the next horizon.

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Our Contributors

Alex Frank Writer

Alex Frank is a contributing editor at Departures. Based in Manhattan, Frank previously worked at as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.

Bryan Derballa Photographer

Bryan Derballa is a New York–based photographer with experience shooting a wide variety of work, from documentary to portraiture to fashion, for numerous newspapers, magazines, and commercial clients.


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