Dakota Badlands to Yellowstone Road Trip

Traveling to Yellowstone from the Midwest? The park is surprisingly accessible on a two-week vacation—and the attractions en route make the drive unforgettable.  Pioneer legends, natural wonders and historic sites await on this all-American road trip. Start in the Midwest and visit seven national parks and monuments including Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore, Devils Tower, Yellowstone, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park plus the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Start: Chicago

MILEAGE: 3,319 DAYS: 12

Day 1: Sioux Falls, SD

I-90 west

Get your big miles out of the way with today’s route from Chicago to stay the night in Sioux Falls, S.D. Or start this trip from another Midwest location such as Minneapolis, Des Moines, Milwaukee or Omaha.

Day 2: Wall, SD

I-90 west to US 83 north to US 14 west to I-90 west

Minuteman Launch Control Center at the Missile Site in South Dakota.

Minuteman Launch Control Center at the Missile Site in South Dakota.

Drive to Pierre, the state capital. Continue on to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Finish up in Wall (don’t miss a stop at the famous Wall Drug Store).

Day 3: Badlands National Park, SD

SD 240 south

Badlands in South Dakota

Badlands in South Dakota

Kick off the day with a trip to Badlands National Park. The multicolored, crinkled geologic formations of the Badlands draw hikers, wildlife-watchers and geology buffs. Drive the scenic Loop Road or explore trails that wind through rugged canyons and over viewpoints; look for bison, prairie dogs and bighorn sheep. The North Unit is more developed, while the South Unit encompasses remote wilderness suited to experienced backpackers. Extra time? Spend the night at Cedar Pass Lodge.

Day 4: Hot Springs, SD

SD 44 west to SD 79 south

Waterfall at Hot Springs, S.D. Long Fall River Freedom Trail. Courtesy photo

Waterfall at Hot Springs, S.D. Long Fall River Freedom Trail. Courtesy photo

Cruise on to Rapid City, a launching point for Black Hills exploration that features plenty of kid-friendly attractions and Wild West flair. Hot Springs is just an hour down the road: Check out Ice Age fossils at The Mammoth Site or the waterslides and spring-fed pools at Evans Plunge. Then go deep at Wind Cave National Park.

Day 5: Keystone, SD

US 385 north to US 16 east to US 385 north to US 16A

More than 1,500 bison roam free in Custer, SD

More than 1,500 bison roam free in Custer, SD

What’s a trip to South Dakota without a giant historic monument or two? Head north and pass through Custer, another Black Hills hotspot. Get an up-close look at 1,300 wild bison, hike dramatic granite spires, catch a trout and stargaze at this standout state park near Mount Rushmore.

Then it’s on to Crazy Horse Memorial, a sculpture-in-progress honoring the legendary Oglala Lakota leader, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial for a tour. Head to the restaurants in nearby Keystone for the evening.

Day 6: Deadwood, SD

US 16 west to US 385 north

Deadwood, S.D. Courtesy Photo

Deadwood, S.D. Courtesy Photo

Nearby Hill City offers chuckwagon dinners and frontier-era steam engine rides on the 1880 Train. Then witness a staged gunfight or visit an old gold mine in the legendary towns of Deadwood and Lead. Motorcycle fan? Sturgis, home of the mother of all motorcycle rallies, is just 15 miles up the road.

Day 7: Gillette, Wyo.

US 14 alternate west to US 85 north to WY 24 west to US 14 west to I-90 west

Devil's Tower near Gillette in eastern Wyoming

Devil’s Tower near Gillette in eastern Wyoming

Cruise between 1,000-foot-high limestone canyon walls and gaze at waterfalls on a premier scenic byway through 19-mile-long Spearfish Canyon. Stop in at Belle Fourche before visiting the 867-foot-tall rock pillar at Wyoming’s Devils Tower National Monument. Sacred to the Lakota and other local tribes, it also is a rock climbing mecca. Finish in Gillette.

Day 8: Cody, Wyo.

I-90 west to US 16 west to US 20 east to WY 120 west

Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. Courtesy photo

Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. Courtesy photo

Keep heading west through historic Buffalo (home of Paradise Guest Ranch and Bozeman Trail Steakhouse), Ten Sleep and Worland to Thermopolis. Must-do: Soak in steaming mineral waters at Hot Springs State Park.

Drive on to Cody and dive into Yellowstone Country‘s past at the historic Irma Hotel and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (a complex of five museums covering art, natural history, Native Americans and more).

Day 9: Yellowstone National Park

US 20 west

Boat tour on Lake Yellowstone

Boat tour on Lake Yellowstone

Spend a day exploring the scenery, hiking, camping and watching wildlife at Yellowstone National Park. See our favorite itineraries.

Day 10: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND

US 212 east to I-94 east

Badlands Formations in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Badlands Formations in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Leave Yellowstone via Cooke City, Mont., and cruise the 68-mile Beartooth Highway, one of America’s most stunning drives, through quaint Red Lodge and on to Billings. Take a side trip to historic Lewistown, home of the annual Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering in August. Then head east to the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Stay at one of the park’s three campgrounds or in Medora.

Days 11 & 12: Medora to Chicago

I-94 east

Take the northern route home through North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Minneapolis marks the halfway point.

End: Chicago