There is no way around the fact that a visit to Yellowstone National Park (YNP) is one of the great American road trips. Located many hours from any major metropolitan area, any trip to YNP and the surrounding area is a major commitment of time, patience, and money, but the payoff is immersion in nature that cannot be had elsewhere – a literal trip of a lifetime.
To be able to provide a detailed overview of this extensive road trip where we covered a lot more than YNP, I will break it into 3 parts:
- The Yellowstone Road Trip Part 1 of 3: Getting there – South Dakota and Wyoming
- The Yellowstone Road Trip Part 2 of 3: 3 Days in Yellowstone National Park
- The Yellowstone Road Trip Part 3 of 3: The Grand Tetons and Arches
This trip took place in 2011 and some of the details may be a little different now. That being said, I’ll provide our itinerary and thoughts about the locations we visited.
This was one of our first “massive” road trips, lasting just over two weeks from start to finish. We’ve learned a lot since – how to be efficient and effective with packing and spending, finding the right times of the day to get to highlights at national parks, how to be buffalo aware, and finally, how to know when it’s time to start heading home.
For this trip which began in late June, we knew we had to book places to stay well in advance, particularly for YNP. If you are not staying at the lodge or camping within YNP, all lodging outside the park is a solid hour from the start of your day. We booked a good bit of our accommodations several months in advance, and for the YNP and Grand Tetons region we were still paying a lot ($200+/ night) for basic accommodations.
Packing enough snack food, bug spray, and books on CD was important for a trip covering this many miles in the car. Though you can find stores along the route, the further west you are, the more sparsely populated the areas were, so we made sure to pack plenty for the trip.
Finally, the trip simply to get to YNP is long. Though maps will say about 20 hours from Chicagoland, that allotment is deceptive – especially when stopping and driving through the mountains. With stops along I-90 west, the eastern “Cody Gate” of YNP is 3 days of driving @ 8 hours/ day – and I’m not exaggerating.
Day 1: Chicago to Sioux Falls, SD
Day 2: Sioux Falls, SD to Rapid City SD (Corn Palace, Wall Drug, Badlands)
Day 3: Rapid City (Mt. Rushmore, Deadwood, Custer State Park)
Day 5: Rapid City, SD to Cody, WY (Devil’s Tower National Landmark)
The Long and Winding Road – Chicago to Rapid City, South Dakota
We had planned to do quite a bit on the way to YNP and we did a pretty good job of stopping at most of the places we had determined were worth a visit along the way. If you are in a rush, Badlands National Park and Mt. Rushmore are the two “must sees” for the trip out. Badlands are probably the unsung hero of the park system. I will go into more detail later, but I firmly believe this park is simply overshadowed by YNP, as it is often included in the route. I also really feel Mt. Rushmore is quite underrated. There may not be a lot to do there, and though a lot of fellow travelers speak of disappointment with it, I could not understand how that was the case.
The first day of the trip was a long slog of a drive. Besides a stop for dinner we simply drove from Chicago to Sioux Falls, SD. Our route took us along I-80 to Des Moines, IA, heading north on I-35 into Minnesota, before heading west along I-90 into Sioux Falls, SD. Not much to say about it besides running into very strong thunderstorms in southern Minnesota.
We woke early on Day 2 and began the drive along I-90, stopping about 1.5 hours in at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD. It’s just a few miles off the highway-not a critical stop if you are in a rush, but seeing a large auditorium decorated with murals made of corn cobs will catch your attention. 20 minutes off the road is all you need to see this unique building, and it is a fun place to take a road break and grab some snacks.
We continued on through the corn fields, stopping briefly at an oasis along the Missouri River which more or less is the half-way point of SD. It is also what I would unofficially call the “Gateway to the West.” Upon crossing the river valley, the landscape begins to change ever so slightly – a shift from flat lands to what become rolling hills. This is where we began to notice a minor increase in elevation that continued all of the way to YNP.
A few more hours in we reached Wall Drug, which is advertised for literally hundreds of miles along I-90. Having seen Wall Drug bumper stickers on cars for years and years, it felt like we had an obligation to stop – and a brief stop was all that is was worth for us. Though very large – 76,000 sq. ft., loaded with knick knacks, food, fresh donuts, and free water, it felt unnecessary and bloated.
The one perk of Wall Drug is that it sits just north of I-90, and the same exit puts you in close proximity to Badlands National Park (BNP.) I’ve already said it’s underrated – now let me explain why. BNP is reasonably small – you could drive through the whole park in less than two hours.
However the otherworldly formations set against the cobalt skies beg more time to be spent wandering.
Badlands has a few unique landscapes. First there are the vanilla toned hills, spires, valleys, and formations, which greet you shortly after entering the park. We spent a good chunk of time on a few shorter hikes. Additionally there are some amazing, pristine tall grass prairies, and finally some multi-colored hills which resemble landscapes out of The Wizard of Oz.
Having not anticipated the high temperatures with little shade from the sun, we abbreviated our first visit after 3 shorter hikes and spent the rest of the time driving through the park. On a subsequent visit we took more time to check out the prairies, as well as the vibrant polychromatic mounds found deeper within the park.
Half a day is enough to get more than a glimpse of the park, but I could imagine spending a full two days if time permitted, or if BNP was the focal point of the trip. Both of our visits to BNP were bookends of other more extensive trips which was sort of a shame – the park is more deserving.
Worth noting is that just outside of the park is the opportunity to visit a sod house/ Prairie Homestead. In the time one would normally alott for Wall Drug, you could have the unique experience of visiting the original structures dating from 1909. Our visit totaled about an hour and provided insight into life on the prairie in the days before electricity and running water – complete with prairie dogs. The 1-2 punch of BNP and the Prairie home is well-deserving of a stop.
We continued our trip west for a 2-night stay in Rapid City, SD, about 2 hours further down 90. I’m not sure we needed both nights, but the extra time provided a buffer for the extensive travel still ahead of us.
The Greater Rapid City Area
Located within the Black Hills area of SD, Rapid City is a large enough town to fill up on any needs – food, water, entertainment, and nature. It also makes a for a perfect home-base for Mt. Rushmore, Custard National Forest, and Deadwood.
I had been told more than once that Mt. Rushmore was worth bypassing – “the drive in is like a roller coaster, it’s not that impressive, it’s just a rock that’s been carved.” Our personal reaction was quite different – different enough that we visited Mt. Rushmore twice – once during the day, and then a return at night to see the landmark under dramatic lighting.
Mt. Rushmore is what you have seen in pictures. A large sculpture blasted out of the mountainside. That said, we found it plenty impressive both during the day and in the evening. There were a few hiking trails winding around the perimeter which allowed for alternative vantage points as our minds tried to grasp how this was created. I would certainly recommend a stop on your way out west. Additionally, seeing the dramatic lighting of the sculpture at night is a remarkable bonus, though the drive back from the park is scarier at night.
While in the Black Hills area we also chose to take a drive through Custer State Park, which was also very much worth the side trip. At the forest we had our first formal introduction to wild buffalo, and some incredibly intense views of the landscape from higher altitudes in the forest. This would be the first of a number of white-knuckled drives on this trip, and though we didn’t leave the car much (it was rainy) this was a nice introduction to being out west.
Two of our three excursions in the greater Rapid City areas had been remarkable. Unfortunately, neither of us fell for Deadwood, a historic cowboy city an hour or so north of Rapid City. Our visit to the city came on the heels of the popularity of the HBO show “Deadwood,” but our stay wandering the town was very brief. Some of that had to do with rainy weather. However, having been to other “cowboy” towns, such as Tombstone in Arizona, Deadwood felt like it was trying to capture an essence that was too far gone. Unless you have a need for stopping or a desire for a steak dinner, I would not recommend planning an excursion to this area – it was underwhelming.
Rapid City to Cody, WY
On a map, Rapid City appears ever so close to the Wyoming border, and taking what seems to be a small leap, one might think YNP is quite close. It’s not. As a matter of fact it’s still the better part of a day’s drive away.
After looking closer at the map and coming to the realizations we would not be arriving in Yellowstone proper in the next 24 hours, we decided on one more out of the way excursion once we entered Wyoming. After being on the road for a few hours we made the choice to exit 90 and head north to Devils Tower National Monument. The tower, formed out of cooling lava, looked to be a neat stop, and one which we would likely not find our way to if not for heading this far west. An hour and a half off of 90 we saw our first silhouette of the tower. Approaching closer we began to see large groups of energy infused prairie dogs rambunctiously playing in the grassy areas.
Arriving at the Tower we hiked a loop around the base which took a good hour to complete. Gazing up at the striated tower we noticed a number of rock climbers hovering hundreds of feet above the base. This was one of very few sites we have been to where my wife and I had differing opinions. Personally, I thought it was a cool place to check out, well worth the extra time and miles. My wife on the other hand felt like it could have easily been bypassed, preferring a more direct route to Cody. Either which way, the choice to go to Devil’s Tower is a commitment of a full 4-5 hours.
Once back on 90 we had a couple of hours of relatively flat driving before entering the Bighorn National Forest. In late June travelers still have to be concerned with roads being closed due to snow. Though this was not the case for us, the drive itself is a bit unnerving if not used to mountain driving. If I had one word of advice it would be to ensure to drive this during daylight. Not only does darkness make the twists and turns in the roads more dangerous, but at this time of the year deer are everywhere once dusk hits. EVERYWHERE!
We eventually arrived in Cody, the eastern launchpad for Yellowstone, shortly before nightfall, in time to grab a dinner and check into our hotel. Though Cody still remained a good deal of time from Yellowstone’s attractions, the anticipation grew very fast – we were officially in Yellowstone country. Though we still paid a premium for our hotel due to its proximity to YNP, besides a short stroll through the town, we chose to conserve our energy and get an early sleep for the try beginning of our YNP adventure the next day.