I’ve been saying it for a while, but 2020 is The Year of the Road Trip. So, it was time for me to put my money where my mouth is and plan an EPIC National Parks Road Trip for me and Will, which we dubbed our Dances with Wolves Road Trip. We….well I…..invited Kevin Costner to join us. Oddly, he declined. But, our ten days spent seeing America by Road were truly wonderful! Here’s how it all went, the good, the bad, and the awesome. Plus, all the details of our National Parks Road Trip Itinerary! Buckle up!!!!!
National Parks Road Trip
Over the course of 10 days, Will and I drove over 4000 miles. We started in Dallas, and experienced so many fun days as we explored America by Road, including the states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. See why we dubbed it our Dances with Wolves Road Trip?
Here’s my logic for mapping our our trip:
- Neither Will nor I had ever visited Mount Rushmore National Memorial or Yellowstone National Park. Our National Parks Road Trip had to include those two locations, so the big question was…..go West and loop back to Texas, or go North and then West and loop back to Texas. We decided North and then West, because at the time, Colorado was experiencing major wildfires, and we wanted to avoid any overnights in Colorado. And, on our second tier of “must see” National Parks was the Badlands National Park, which is East of both Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Yellowstone National Park. Decision made. Go North to go West.
- A second consideration was: it takes a LONG time to get to where you want to go from Texas. Just getting out of Texas takes a while, and the end of a road trip is always harder than the beginning. So…..I stacked the pain at the end of the trip. And, this actually turned out to be perfect, because at the beginning of our National Parks Road Trip, we saw the landscape change from the Oklahoma prairie, to the Kansas and Nebraska corn fields, to the Black Hills of South Dakota, to the mountains of Wyoming and southern Montana. If you are singing, “From the Mountains….to the Prairies…to the Oceans, white with foam!!!!” trust me….I did that the WHOLE time!
- The final consideration was the size of Yellowstone National Park. It’s not a one day deal, y’all. And, I really wanted to spend the night at the historic Old Faithful Inn, and accommodations in National Parks typically book up MONTHS in advance. So, I booked that hotel first, and then backed into the remainder of the trip. I was able to book this entire trip with VERY short notice, but in more normal times, if you want to stay in any National Park Property, I’d plan at least six months in advance!
Planning the Itinerary
I know my threshold of pain, and my limit per day of driving was eight hours in total. So as I planned each leg of the trip, I got us as far as eight hours would take us. Some days we stopped several times to see sites along the way. Some days we drove for 4-5 hours before reaching a particular destination.
I can get REAL deep in the details given the opportunity, and since Will was super flexible, other than seeing the two major National Parks I mentioned in the beginning, I fired up my trusty spread sheet and got to work.
I relied on several sources of information as I worked.
- The app Roadtrippers, which I discussed in a prior Blog Post. Bottom line, this app is populated with information submitted by other Road Trippers. From restaurants, to hotels, historic sites, to clean bathroom stops. There’s LOTS of good info to comb through. Think of it like Trip Advisor for the road.
- Speaking of….Trip Advisor was very helpful. Things have changed so much in 2020, and change daily, it seems. Trip Advisor is an excellent resource for up-to-date info, such as crowds, mask policies, hours, etc.
- Google Maps is incredibly helpful in understanding the distance and driving time between two points.
- And finally, blog posts written by other Travel Bloggers like myself. You can find hundreds of Blog Posts about every location under the sun on Pinterest. A wealth of information!
While we MIGHT do a similar road trip in the future, I approached planning as if we will never pass this way again, so I wanted to make sure we saw everything we could, within reason.
Here’s the exact itinerary we followed, and more detailed blog posts are coming, with deep information about some of the biggest sites and places we visited:
Day 1: Dallas to Oklahoma City. Then West along I 40, and some stretches of the old Route 66 through Hydro, OK and Clinton,OK, home of Lucille’s Roadhouse Lounge and Diner and the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum, respectively. Then North through Freedom, OK with a quick stop and tour of Alabaster Caverns State Park, finally ending our day in Dodge City, Kansas. We spent the night at the Hampton Inn adjacent to the Boot Hill Casino, which was a great location for a quiet night, and just a short 5 minute car ride to the Historic part of Dodge City.
Day 2: Breakfast at the Dodge House Restaurant (awesome old-school steak house), and then we spent the morning in the Boot Hill Museum, exploring its darling recreated Old West Main Street, as well as great artifacts from Dodge City’s colorful history. I especially loved seeing reruns and costumes of the TV show Gunsmoke, which was set in Dodge City. Back on the road, and an impromptu lunch stop at the Dairy Barn in Alma, Nebraska. There were ten people standing in line as we drove by, so we figured it was worth a u-turn…and it was!!!!
Then, on to a MUST-STOP MUST-SEE in Minden, Nebraska! The Harold Warp Pioneer Village was so amazing, it deserves it’s own Blog Post. Then a long drive through a whole lot of corn fields, crossing the Missouri River into South Dakota, and stopping for dinner at JoDean’s Steakhouse, before finally making it to Sioux Falls, to spend the night.
Day 3: Breakfast at Cracker Barrel, ’cause would it REALLY be a road trip without at least one breakfast there, and then we headed West toward the Badlands National Park.
A MUST STOP between Sioux Falls and the National Park, along I 90, is the legendary Corn Palace, in Mitchell, South Dakota. It’s the most amazing, weird, kitschiest place, and you just have to see it!
We arrived at the East Entrance to the Badlands National Park. Another MUST DO. It’s like driving through sand drip castles on Mars. Seriously. It’s amazing. We got out and took pictures along the way, but the Scenic 240 Loop Road took about two hours to drive, going VERY slowly and through VERY twisty roads. The day we visited, it was 107 degrees. That’s hot, even for this Texan!
The 240 Loop Road takes you right back to I 90, and to the famous Wall Drug Store. You will see a zillion billboards advertising this spot. It’s a huge series of buildings selling every kind of souvenir you can imagine, there’s food, restrooms, etc. There were a LOT of people there, in fairly crowded conditions, so we did not linger long.
Now….this is where the road trip got a little illogical, in terms of the shortest distance between point A and point B…..but I had a method to my madness. We drove past Rapid City (which is where Mount Rushmore National Memorial is located), all the way to Spearfish, South Dakota. Probably added 90 minutes to our drive, but I had a reason!
We spent the night at the Spearfish Canyon Lodge. It was nice, and the Latchstring Restaurant nearby, was UNREAL. Probably the best meal we had the whole trip. Spearfish Canyon is very well known for rock climbing, hiking, off roading and fly fishing. It’s located at the north end of the Black Hills National Forest, and it’s gorgeous.
Day 4: Logic for my detour….we drove the length of the Black Hills National Forest, from North to South, as we made our way back down to visit Mount Rushmore. So beautiful and well worth the 90 minutes of driving time.
Mount Rushmore will get its own Blog Post, but y’all. Pictures just do not do this National Park justice. You MUST see it once in your lifetime. It’s amazing, and for me, a Proud to Be An American moment!!!
A quick lunch in Rapid City at Murphy’s Pub and Grill, which was excellent, then back up I 90 for about two hours, with Devil’s Tower National Monument in our sights.
As a BIG FAN of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I was so sad to discover that there’s not, in fact, a UFO landing site located on the back side. Which, by the way, the formation is round, so what is the back side? But I digress. Another MUST SEE, on any National Parks Road Trip! Visitors can walk all the way around the base, on a paved sidewalk, that is about 1.5 miles long. I encourage you to do that, as each view of Devil’s Tower National Monument is different, and beautiful! We even spied a few folks climbing the formation.
Which, leads me to our accommodation for the night: The Devil’s Tower Lodge. It’s actually a Bed & Breakfast, but Will and I booked a private cabin. We paid extra for dinner, and breakfast is included. So, I HIGHLY recommend this spot. Not because it’s fancy. It’s not. It very clean and comfortable, though. Book it for these reasons. You LITERALLY look out your room at Devil’s Tower. A million-dollar view, to be sure. The folks who run this place are SO NICE. They cater to rock climbers, and they offer guided climbs around the area. So if rock-climbing is your thing, these are your people. And also, did I mention how NICE they are? Meals are at a communal table. The food was delicious and plentiful. And great conversation with folks who are passionate about rock climbing. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay!
Day 5: Hearty breakfast in our bellies, we hit the road again, headed to Cody, Wyoming. A decent six hours to get there. We ate lunch at our hotel, the Historic Irma Hotel, named for one of Buffalo Bill’s children, and admired the antique bar back, given to Buffalo Bill by Queen Victoria. I booked one of the Historic rooms, because y’all know how I roll.
Will was particularly excited to visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Again, this museum will get its own Blog Post. And it’s 100% worth your time to see. The Buffalo Bill artifacts are amazing. The collection of Western Art is amazing. The collection of Native American beaded clothing and artifacts are amazing. I loved every inch of the museum. Per our usual pack-in-as-much-as-we-can-each-day, we took in a “gunfight” before dinner, staged in the street outside our hotel. Whew!
Day 6: Here we come Yellowstone National Park. I recommend breakfast at Granny’s in Cody, and then pro tip: ask them to pack a sack lunch for you. We ordered sandwiches, and they included fruit, chips and a candy bar. Good thing, because there’s very few opportunities to stop and get food from this point on. It’s a long and very twisty road to the East entrance of Yellowstone, from Cody. But it’s GORGEOUS. Every twist and turn I felt like I should capture with my phone. Since Will and I are not campers, we enjoyed the views as we drove. And a picnic lunch overlooking a postcard perfect Yellowstone vista.
Many people asked us how the crowds were. Since I’ve never been, I don’t have a point of comparison, but we did not find the traffic inside Yellowstone to be bad at all. The only time we had to really slow down, was when there was a herd of buffalo on the side of the road. Which happened twice, and it was awesome to see both times!
Due to fires inside the National Park, some of the scenic routes were closed, and the Rangers give you all the info you will need about road closures, etc. when you enter the park. No worries. This is a place I will want to visit again, so closed roads just mean more to see next time. We made our way to Old Faithful, and our stop for the night, the Old Faithful Inn. This Inn is dates back to 1908, and is the largest log building in the world. Unfortunately, the Lobby and Restaurant were closed due to COVID restrictions. But…..in case you didn’t know, the Fort Wilderness Lodge at Disney World is modeled after the Old Faithful Inn, and I’ve stayed there, so at least I had a mind’s eye picture.
The good news was, our room literally looked DIRECTLY out onto Old Faithful. We watched the geyser a few times from our room, and of course, many more times up close. Room 2022, in case you are wondering. The geyser goes off roughly every hour to 90 minutes, so we had many opportunities to enjoy it.
Dinner was to-go only, and that was OK, because we ate and watched Old Faithful do her thing. Amazing!
Day 7: We exited Yellowstone through the North entrance, which was fun, because I caught a glimpse of the Historic Mammoth Hot Springs area, which I’d like to explore deeply next time I go, and the Historic North Gate Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
Continuing a little bit North, we stopped in Livingston, Montana, where we ate lunch and hit a couple of local book stores. One of Will’s favorite activities. Then, we drove about 30 minutes West, past Bozeman, to the tiny town of Three Forks, where we stayed at the charming Historic Hotel Sacajawea. I highly recommend this hotel, which has been restored, and our room was very nice and comfortable. It’s nice when you can enjoy historic and nice and comfortable. The highlight was dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. Beef eaters take note. The steaks were melt-in-your-mouth good. Reservations are a MUST. We ate late, because I had no idea! But, there was live music on the lawn while we waited, and I enjoyed a glass of wine while people-watching. GREAT experience!
Day 8: Long drive day, as we made our way South to Cheyenne, Wyoming. About eight hours (my limit). Gorgeous scenery every mile along the way.
Day 9: Breakfast at the Luxury Diner, the CUTEST diner, adjacent to the Wyoming Motel. Then two MUST SEE museums. The first, The Nelson Museum of the West, which will get its own Blog Post. This is a small museum of Mr. Nelson’s private collection, including everything from spurs, to saddles, to military uniforms, to cowboy boots and hats. Fabulous. If you are a fan of rodeos, then you must stop at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum. More in this Blog Post, but Cheyenne Days is a Rodeo, Parade, and celebration that has been running since 1897. The museum holds a huge collection related to this historic event.
We then hit the road, through Colorado and New Mexico, and eventually made it to Amarillo.
Day 10: Another long drive back to Dallas. Yes, yes….I know we missed the Palo Duro Canyon State Park, and a number of great museums in the area. But if you’ve read this entire Blog Post, you know that were were out of clean underwear at this point and ready to get back home. There’s no place like it, after all!
So, fellow road warriors. Get out there are see America by Road! We live in a beautiful country, with so many places to enjoy!
If you are planning a National Parks Road Trip, let me know in the comments!!!!
Tags: Cheyenne Frontier Days | Cowboy culture | Cowboys | Devil's Tower | Kansas | Montana | Mount Rushmore | Nebraska | Oklahoma | South Dakota | The Badlands | USA Travel | Wyoming | Yellowstone National Park
Mary. This is fabulous. Melissa Jarrett and family are headed this way at the holidays and I wanted them to be able to explore along the way. They live in Missoula MT so will be coming south and then North. You have put together an incredible journey
Love love road trips and the USA!!!
Thank you so much! We really had a wonderful time!
Mary! So glad to finally read about your trip. We did the Mount Rushmore and Badlands RV trip just prior to the boys heading back to their respective universities this August and now that we are empty nesters we are going back to Yellowstone to celebrate our recent 27th Anniversary! Last time we were there was 10 years ago with our 3 kids and stayed everywhere throughout the park which was fabulous but since planning this on shorter notice we are staying in Gardiner in our own cabin overlooking the Yellowstone River just at the north entrance so we can travel back in easily and see the Lamar Valley and check out more of that area. We are taking your advice and heading up to Three Forks after several days in Gardiner and reserved a cottage at The Sacajawea Hotel (I’ll be sure to share our experience of these new cottages they have on site) and have reservations at the Pompey Grill for that yummy melt-in-your-mouth steak! Excited to see where your next adventures take you! 😷😘
Can’t wait to hear about YOUR trip!!!!! xoxo
We don’t do road trips but if we did, this itinerary is an excellent resource!
Thanks for sharing your trip.
It was amazing!!!!
I love it! That’s a lot to bite off and it sounds awesome!
It was pretty ambitious….but we loved it all!
ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS trip! Thanks for sharing all of the details and information. I can NOT wait for us, old Steve & me, to do a trip like this. You hit the high spots. As you said, “You may never pass this way again.”
Thank you Carol! Wonderful places to visit!!!