National Park Gateway Cities

Everyone should consider gateway cities as an essential part of any national park visit. They can be are everything from your basecamp, your respite spot, your supply stop, a place to kill time between hikes or a place that, on its own merits, is a treasured feature like Old Faithful is to Yellowstone. These are the favorites of ones I have visited; such is their charm, I’ve been to all more than once.

1. Jackson, Wyoming (Grand Teton): The downtown area is set up like an old West cowboy town, with a nice town square and its charming antler portals, but it also has its fancy side with elite restaurants, galleries and entertainment options. Since the region is a hiker’s paradise, spots that sell breakfast burritos are like Starbucks in Seattle – you can’t go far without running into one. The best is D.O.G. (Down on Glen). As far as eateries go, Bubba’s Bar-B-Que is a great in-between (fancy and casual) choice, but on a morning you skip breakfast burritos, you shouldn’t miss either the Bunnery Bakery or the more posh Persephone Bakery. En route to the parks, also stop at the edge of town at Tom Mangelsen’s Images of Nature for eye-popping photography, Teton Mountaineering for maps and gear, and the National Museum of Wildlife Art for a real half-day-or-longer treat.

2. Bar Harbor, Maine (Acadia): Bar Harbor has a layout similar to Jackson, with Village Green being its open space centerpiece, but being on the sea, the place has a lot more of a resort feel to it. Instead of breakfast burritos, the treat here is ice cream, which is very New England. The best of a very good lot is Mount Desert Island Ice Cream, on the perimeter of Village Green, with its many unique flavors and claim to fame visit by President Obama (to its Portland shop). Since you’re not doing grab-and-go burritos, sit down at Jordan’s for a blueberry pancake big enough to yield leftovers. Acadia is one of the dog-friendliest parks in the system, so naturally there’s a great pet store in town called – what else? –Bark Harbor. Cadillac Mountain Sports is one of my favorite gear stops anywhere in the country and the delightfully named Choco-Latte is a great place for coffee or Mexican hot chocolate.

3. Point Reyes Station, California (Point Reyes): PRS isn’t your classic gateway city since it’s really right in the middle of the national seashore. It also breaks from the pack because there are so many visit-worthy places stuffed into a smallish area. You could spend much of a day thusly: breakfast at Station House Café, a morning browse at Point Reyes Books, lunch and egg crème at Cowgirl Cremery where the cheese is so famous you probably can buy it in your hometown, afternoon culture at Gallery Route One, afternoon snack at Bovine Bakery, supplies shopping at Palace Market and culture/shopping stop next door at Toby’s Feed Barn, then dinner at Osteria Stellina. All of that is within a couple blocks. You can save your energy for a hike to Tomales Point.

4. Estes Park, Colorado (Rocky Mountain): One day, I might not mind living in a place like Estes Park. Ultra-hip Boulder (and a gigantic Whole Foods) is less than an hour away and big-city Denver another hour beyond that. And you’d still be just minutes from the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. The downtown area has good shopping and restaurant choices, and Outdoor World is a good place for gear and maps. For park alternatives, there’s the Stanley Hotel, which inspired the setting for Stephen King’s The Shining. For good eating, I favor Smokin’ Dave’s Barbecue, which offers great ribs in a place you’d not really expect to find them. And lest you forget that you are right next to one of the great nature sanctuaries in the world, you are apt to see Rocky Mountain elk strolling or lounging about town.

5. Port Angeles, Washington (Olympic): This is the most bustling city of the bunch. Besides being a gateway to Olympic National Park (the main visitor center is in town and Hurricane Ridge seems like just a drive up the hill), it’s a commerce center for the once-mighty logging industry, as well as a gateway to Victoria, British Columbia. Speaking of which, the Black Ball Ferry offers a great side trip across the border, eh, for Olympic visitors. First Street Haven would be my choice for breakfast, though the downtown area is worth exploring for all kind of dining options. If you’re a fan of crab and seafood, this is your place, especially in the fall for the Crab and Seafood Fest, worth a visit on its own. You’ll be on the Hurricane Ridge, Crescent Lake, Elwha Valley side of far-flung Olympic National Park, so you might want to catch a local sunrise one morning at Ediz Hook.