The Mountain West trip covers many of the most popular destinations in one trip. The featured destination is Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the United States. From its majestic geysers to multitudes of wildlife, Yellowstone offers something for every traveler. In South Dakota, you will be able to visit the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore all while exploring the history-rich Black Hills.
Along the Way
- Visit Dinosaur National Monument
Many GPS and map sites have the wrong information on the visitor center for Dinosaur National Monument. From Hwy 40, turn left onto State Hwy 149 in Jensen, UT. Travel around 2 miles to the Quarry Entrance. From there, you can take a short hike to see many exposed fossils. For further details, consult the park map >>.
Stay the night in Steamboat Springs.
Along the Way
- Drive the Trail Ridge Road
Don't let the drive time fool you, this is a packed day full of exquisite views of the Rocky Mountains. The Trail Ridge road is the highest continuous roadway in the US, reaching a top elevation of 12,183 feet. This trip is not recommended for RVs and is closed seasonally. Please check with the National Park site >> before leaving Steamboat Springs. Once you are in the park, the park map >> can help you find the side route in the park.
There are many option for accommodations in Rocky Mountain National Park or in nearby Estes Park, CO. The park offers some cabins and many camping sites. In Estes Park, there are some traditional chain hotels, as well as the Stanley Hotel >>, though the Stanley will definitely impact a trip's budget. Additionally, there is the YMCA of the Rockies >> for families looking for that type of lodging. For dinner, we recommend the family-friendly Estes Park Brewery >> located near the eastern park entrance.
Along the Way
- Visit Wind Cave National Park
- Visit Mt. Rushmore National Memorial
This is the longest driving day of the trip, so we recommend an early start. Much of the drive is through rural Wyoming, meaning fewer options for food, fuel, and stops; so please plan accordingly. Wind Cave, the first stop along the way is over 6 hours from Estes Park, CO. It is one of the oldest National Parks, created in 1903. There are many 1-2 hour cave tours that will cost about $9/adult or $4.50/child. See the park map >> for parking information. The short tour is the recommended way to see this National Park as part of the loop trip, due to the many other destinations.
The second stop of the day is Mt. Rushmore, a nice 1 hour drive through Custer State Park, where many roaming bison can be seen. The drive can be seen on the area map >>. Due to the length of the drive, you will probably arrive near the end of the day. At sunset, the park has a nice program, which we recommend you stay for. Upon the completion of the program, drive around 30 minutes into Rapid City. A relatively large city, Rapid City offers many accommodation options. With the following day being a day trip to Badland National Park, we recommend making two nights accommodation in Rapid City.
Day Trip to Badlands National Park
Along the Way
- Stop by Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
- Visit Badlands National Park
Badlands Visitor Center is about an hour and a half drive from Rapid City. About four miles north of the northeast entrance to the park, there is a small building just past the Conoco gas station on the right. This is the visitor center for the Minuteman Missile center, an educational 15 minute detour.
Continue into the park, where there are many turn-offs for scenic pictures and well as the option to get out of the car and hike. Near the northeastern entrance, the Big Badlands Overlook stop offers a great opportunity to explore and stretch your legs after the long drive the day previous. You can see more detail on the park map >>.
After driving the length of the Badlands Loop Road, prior to reaching the Pinnacles Entrance, we recommend a short detour onto Sage Creek Rim Road. Please note that this is a gravel road. Usually near the road, there is a large herd of bison that remain in very close view from the road.
Return back to the Badlands Loop Road and leave the park onto State Hwy 240. Along that route, there is Wall, SD, home of Wall Drug. While it is very much a tourist trap of town, it is probably worth a quick pitstop. You will likely see many billboards along the loop trip advertising Wall Drug.
From there, take the quick drive on I-90 back to Rapid City. For dinner, we recommend the family-friendly Firehouse Brewing Co. >> located in downtown Rapid City.
Along the Way
- Visit Devil's Tower National Monument
- Visit Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument
Traveling west on I-90 for about an hour, you will reach Sundance, WY, the turn-off for Devil's Tower National Monument. While it is about a 50 mile detour in total, it makes a nice stop for an early lunch or snack break. While there, be sure to try and spot climbers making their way to the top of the sheer rockface. Rather than backtrack to the interstate, continue west on Hwy 14 towards Moorcroft, where you can pick the interstate back up.
From there, it is a solid 3 and a half hour drive to the next location. The towns of Buffalo and Sheridan make good locations for a pitstop. When you arrive at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, take the easy walk around the main battle location. Be sure to ask about the ranger talk, by far one of the most engaging parts of the day.
Stay the night in Billing, MT. We recommend staying near the southwest side of town to get a headstart on the drive the next day.
Along the Way
- Drive over Beartooth Pass
- Drive through Lamar Valley
To start off this day, a choice may be made. You can either drive over Beartooth Pass into the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park or through Cody, WY into the east entrance. We recommend the Beartooth Pass option to see stunning alpine vista. Additionally, by taking Beartooth Pass, you will drive through the Lamar Valley, where some of the highest concentration of wildlife can be found in the park. Note that the pass is closed from October through most of May, so the Cody option will work better if you are traveling during that time.
There is a great deal of accommodation options within the park, but many fill up quickly. More than any other stay on the trip, we highly recommend reserving your accommodations for Yellowstone far in advance. With this being the featured stop of the loop, you should make two nights accommodation. Staying in Canyon Village, Norris, or Lake Village will offer the easiest starting point to see the major features the following day.
Daily OverviewYellowstone National Park Lower Loop
Today is a full day of sights around Yellowstone National Park. We recommend referencing the park map >>. prior to getting started.
The order of these activities can be switched around based on the location of your accommodations.
- Old Faithful. The geyser erupts on regular interval, check with the ranger station for the next eruption time. From the ranger station here, make sure to take the 2 mile roundtrip hike to see the Upper Geyser Basin. It is an easy hike, mostly on wood boardwalks
- Grand Prismatic geyser
- Artist Paint Pots
- Firehole Canyon. Cliffs and pool for swimming in the water. A nice break for lunch.
- Upper Falls View.
- South Rim drive
- Artist Point near Canyon Village. Best view in all of the park
In addition, a good deal of the park has bison out around sunset, make sure to drive around then. Yellowstone Lake isn't all that impressive, so you can probably just drive by it on your way out, or skip it all together. There are many other amazing aspects of the park, so feel free to plan other activities as time allows. The list above is what we recommend as the must see features.
Along the Way
- Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton is a major destination in it's own right and we recommend spending the better part of day 9 visiting the park. We recommend referencing the park map >>. Drive south on John D. Rockefeller Jr Memorial Parkway from Yellowstone Park (Hwy 191/287/89) into Grand Teton.
- The first stop is Oxbow Bend. Great views of the peaks
- Go into the Jackson Lake Lodge for a bathroom break and a neat view
- The Signal Mountain drive is long and not worth the view, you can skip it
- Jenny Lake is a nice place for a picnic lunch
- Chapel of the Transfiguration is a distinct view of the mountains
At the Moose Junction entrance at the south side of Grand Tetons, turn left back onto Hwy 191/26/89. While this seems like it is the wrong way, it is worth it. Drive 4.5 miles to Schawbacher Landing Road. There are no signs, so just measure the 4.5 miles from the left turn. It will be a short dirt road off to the left if you are driving north. It has the best view of the mountains and is commonly used for the postcard shots and posters seen at the visitor centers.
Moose have been spotted at times in many parts of the park, so keep a watchful eye out for them. Upon leaving the park, Jackson, WY is a ski town and is neat for a quick stop off. Continue down Hwy 89 until you reach I-15 just north of Salt Lake City. We recommend finding affordable lodging near the airport.
Return flight home.
Day 10 is the final day of the loop. Return you rental vehicle and begin the trek home. We hope you truly enjoy the loop experience and have found that you were able to see much more into this one trip than you could have imagined.