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  1. Default Family road trip to Western National Parks/Monuments (hit UT, WY, MT, ND, SD, CO)

    Hello, I am planning a family vacation (2 parents and 2 adult children) for 2 weeks (approximately July 22-August 6th) for a western National Parks/Monuments and attractions road trip. We will be traveling by train from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, then on to Salt Lake City. We plan to rent a car in Salt Lake and begin our drive from there. Our tentative plan is to go Salt Lake -> Yellowstone -> Theodore Roosevelt NP -> Mt. Rushmore/Badlands -> Denver, and to take the train back to D.C. from Denver. We are slightly flexible with our dates, but not too much. Based on other information I gathered, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally starts around August 8th and we are trying to avoid that, so we were planning to be out of South Dakota before then. With 4 adults we have no problem driving long distances at a time without breaking it up (we have driven from Key West home to D.C., about a 20 hour drive, in one shot). We have a Buddy Bison and a National Parks Passport book, so are trying to hit as many spots as we can along the way. We plan to buy the Annual Parks Pass to use for the trip. We will be doing all hotel stays, and will need 2 rooms each night. Some places I looked did have cabins, which would also be great, we just unfortunately can not do any camping. We love all history, so can easily be persuaded to stop anywhere interesting. We also love roadside attractions, so have to cross a few of those off the list. With some preliminary planning, this is what we hope to do and see (in a tentative order). I would greatly appreciate any feedback on any parts of this trip, particularly about driving times and how long to spend in each place).

    -Salt Lake City (see the Olympic village, Great Salt Lake)

    -Golden Spike, Utah: We have watched all of the show Hell on Wheels and definitely want to stop in here.

    -Jackson Hole: Was told to make a stop here since it was on the way!

    -Grand Tetons: Need help in this area too. Would it be worth it to just drive straight up through the park and come in to Yellowstone from the South Entrance and work our way up?

    -Yellowstone: Here is where we need the most help. We want to see all the big attractions of course, but don't have a concrete plan. We are up for doing some hiking, but probably nothing major, just as we won't have enormous amounts of time. I read that watching the geyser eruption and seeing the waterfalls at night at very cool. Not sure if we should stay in the park, or outside. Would like to possibly visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone.

    -Cody, Wyoming: Visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

    Curious if we can drive through the Crow Indian Reservation on our way across Wyoming and if so, would it be of any interest?

    -Theodore Roosevelt NP, Medora, ND: We want to visit the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Want to go to the Pitchfork Fondue and maybe the Medora Musical, and see the Burning Hills Amphitheater. Have looked at lodging at the Rough Riders Hotel but am open to other options. Would love to then head east a bit and travel on the Enchanted Highway down through North Dakota.

    -Badlands NP: Would love to catch some of the nighttime stargazing and ability to see the Milky Way. Also want to go to Minuteman Missile Site, as well as Wall Drug while out there.

    -Custer, SD area: Plan to visit Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Deadwood, and all the surrounding areas. Looked at possible lodging in Custer State Park.

    May be interested in going to Chimney Rock on our way back down to Denver.

    -Denver: Try to catch a Rockies game before we depart. We know we may not have much time in Denver, because we would like to spend it elsewhere on the trip, and can always come back.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    May 2011
    Southern California


    Welcome to RTA!

    Part of our 2014 trip took us through many of these areas, and others we've done at other times, so here's what we learned.

    Golden Spike: allow 2-3 hours. It's way out of Salt Lake City, so allow some for the drive. At the point, there's a dirt road to follow to see areas where there used to be RR track. I wish we hadn't wasted our time, but that was a long time ago and perhaps they've actually signed it so you know what you're looking at, now.

    Grand Tetons: allow 5-6 hours, especially if you want to take one of the boat rides on Jenny Lake. We didn't, but felt we'd seen the area very well. Do find Mormon Row and the Elk Preserve, if you can.

    Yellowstone: The tour road is the Grand Loop and is laid out like a figure-8. One day, you could do the Lower Loop, which includes the geyser basins and Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake. Another day, you could do the Upper Loop, which includes Tower Falls, and Mammoth Hot Springs. If you had a third day, you could drive out to Lamar Valley to see the wolves. As for hiking, just seeing the geyser basin around Old Faithful can be a good hike of varying lengths, depending on how far you want to extend out. They're all on boardwalks, so you're safe. Hike out to see the Artists' Paintpots (1/3 mile one way) as those are also interesting. If you feel like a good workout, take the hike DOWN to the brink of the Lower Falls -- 1/3 mile down 700 feet elevation all on switchback trail. Bear in mind that going back up is strenuous! If you can stay in the park (can get a reservation and you can afford it), do so. Start NOW. Otherwise, your best bet is in West Yellowstone, but bear in mind it's still not cheap to stay outside the park there either.

    Roosevelt NP: Western North Dakota is under an oil boom right now, making motel rooms a little pricier and a little less available. Just be ware.

    Badlands and Wall Drug: Definitely worth a look see! We took 3 hours to drive through the park and only took one hike plus a bunch of stops, because we'd both been there before. Someone who hadn't been there might want at least a half day, and it sounds like an overnight nearby. I don't believe there are lodges in the park. You'd have to stay in Wall. Wall Drug is huge, btw, and parking is a bit of a bear to find at times. But definitely worth a stop.

    Custer area: If you can't get a cabin at Custer, try staying in Custer (City) where there are a bunch of motels and cabins. There's good food in town, too. It's a central place for Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park, and both Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, but a bit further to Deadwood. That area will be full of motorcyclists both just before the Sturgis Rally and afterward, just be prepared and have reservations!

    Hope this helps!


  3. #3


    Great itinerary but a challenging schedule! Especially if the 2- to 3-day trip each way via train in part of the 14-day adventure. The train is a great way to travel to Denver/Salt Lake City, especially the Denver to Salt Lake City leg.

    When my son and I trained that route some 20 years ago, we left D.C. around 4pm and arrived late to Chicago the next day around noon. We'd already planned to spend the night and catch a Cubs game so connecting with the 6pm train west was not an issue. We arrived to Denver around 8am for about an hour layover before continuing on to the next major stop, SLC. A park ranger joined the first part of that segment and narrated the journey and had a display in the dome car. We arrived to Salt Lake City around 11pm where the train split into two sections, one going to San Francisco and the other going to Los Angeles. We continued on to LA. The western leg, Chicago to LA, we traveled in a sleeper car which included all meals and a common shower in the sleeper car. The D.C. to Chicago leg we used coach.

    The town of Jackson Hole/Jackson is the gateway to the Grand Tetons. Excellent ranger-guided tours throughout the day and in the evening. West Yellowstone is a good gateway to YNP as is Cody, but West Yellowstone is more directly accessible.

    Teddy Roosevelt NP and the Black Hills/Badlands NP are a long ways from Yellowstone. Also, as others often note on this forum, drop-off fees for rental cars usually jack up the rental fee (sometimes by charging a per mile rate in addition to the base rates). There is a lot to see and do in the Western Colorado and Eastern Utah region if a tighter circle route is desired.

  4. Default

    Thank you LandMariner and DonnaR57, those both were super helpful! I appreciated the specific tips about the train LandMariner, we were unsure of what kind of accommodations we should book for the train trip.

  5. #5


    You're welcome! Be sure to check the current Amtrak schedule, seach and sleeper car availability. Sleeper cars are not cheap but factor in 3 meals/day + lodging costs.

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