Get ready for the most stunning landscapes, wildlife encounters, and adventures on a Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone Road Trip! It’s one of our family’s favorite vacations…come find out why!
This road trip has been on our list for awhile now, and we finally made it happen! My husband and I grew up in the West, and after living in the East for the majority of our married life, it was time to show our kids what it’s all about. We’ve made plenty of trips to visit family, and we’ve been many places in the Western states, but not as much time in South Dakota, Montana, or Wyoming (other than driving through). For us, this trip spanned 14 states, and were able to cross off a couple of ones from our countdown list.
We love road trips, and with six kids, it’s been the way we’ve traveled for many years. There are perks…it’s less expensive, you get to truly see the beauty of our country and experience life in different corners of our nation. This stretch of the country is utterly stunning–peaceful and largely uninhabited, with big skies, tall mountains, and lots of wildlife. If you’re looking for an adventure, keep reading!
Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone Road Trip Itinerary
I’m not going to detail out a specific itinerary, because this trip is doable in both shorter and longer lengths. It’s really up to you how much time you decide to spend in each place and along the way, and it’s probably not going to feel like enough! But I’ll share what we did, our favorite spots, and all the places that we wish we had had time for! We had a very set timeframe, because our eventual stopping point was in Bear Lake, Idaho, for a family reunion. We decided to take this route so we could see all these gorgeous spots along the way. I’d love to go back and spend more time in each place, there’s so much to do!
Leg 1: Traveling to South Dakota
We started in upstate New York, and it took us two full days to get to South Dakota. This length will definitely change depending on where you’re coming from.
If you’re flying in to start your trip, the closest airport to Mount Rushmore is Rapid City, South Dakota. It’s about an hour’s drive from the monument, and you can rent a car right there at the airport.
Leg 2: Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills
Because this trip was based completely on the timing of our family reunion, we didn’t choose the specific timing for being in the Black Hills. When we got to Wisconsin, we started noticing more and more motorcycles. By the time we hit South Dakota, there more motorcycles than cars, and we realized we would be there during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. We later found out that there were 555,000 motorcycles that week! It was actually really fun, and brought a level of excitement to the whole area. My kids loved seeing the motorcycles everywhere. The cyclists were courteous and kind, and very helpful as we explored the area. Those we met told fascinating stories, left maps on our truck of the best places to go, and helped us back out of tight spots.
I will note that it did make some things difficult. The roads through the Black Hills were very crowded and full of cycles, and some one-way tunnels were tricky to navigate because of it. The main streets of the surrounding towns were closed off for motorcycle parking, and it was nearly impossible to find a place to eat. One evening we walked up and down the main street for dinner, and we didn’t see another family. We had to go to a nearby town to find a restaurant that had space for us. We really enjoyed our time there, but if you’re a family headed through at during that week, I suggest planning accordingly, and finding a hotel room way in advance, because it’s likely you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
Black Hills South Dakota Sights to see:
- Custer State Park (Best scenic drives: Wildlife Loop Rd., Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Rd.)
- Mount Rushmore National Monument
- Badlands National Park
- Devils Tower National Monument and Lookout
- Jewel Cave National Monument
- Bear Butte State Park
- Black Hills National Forest
- Crazy Horse Memorial and Monument
- Wall Drug
We loved Devil’s Tower, but just be prepared. It’s a very steep and winding road, that’s more like a one-lane road than a two-lane road, with just a steep drop on one side. We drive a large vehicle, and we were so glad we didn’t meet anyone else on the way up! I’m not scared of heights, but I was holding my breath for a few minutes! But the views are unbeatable, and you can see the entire valley all the way to the Badlands.
Custer State Park is an absolutely stunning scenic drive. It’s a must-see! We took several scenic drives, including Wildlife Loop Rd. I can’t believe how many bison (also known as buffalo), elk, and other wildlife we saw–both off to the side of the road, but also on the road! A bison herd came so close to our car (right next to it) that we could have touched them by reaching out our car window! (We saw more wildlife up close here than we did in Yellowstone.) Take your swimsuits and towels along when you go — you can swim in all the lakes in the park, and even jump off the rocks into the water. There are restrooms where you can change, if you’re not going there just to swim, or want to cool off for a bit.
Leg 3: Bozeman, Montana
The drive from the Black Hills to Bozeman is 7 hours and 43 minutes…if you have a bunch of kids like we do, it definitely takes longer than that! We left first thing in the morning, so we could get in by early afternoon and be able to enjoy the rest of the day. We only had a day and a half here, but could have easily stayed much longer. It’s just an hour from Yellowstone, but definitely warranted its own stop along the road.
Bozeman Sights to see:
- Downtown Bozeman
- Museum of the Rockies
- Madison River Tubing
- Hike the “M”
- Custer Gallatin National Forest (great hiking trails, )
- Montana Grizzly Encounter
- Big Sky Resort (summer activities include a scenic lift, zipline, hiking, adventure mountain, golf, and more)
One day we went river tubing, and had a blast! My kids absolutely loved it. It’s not river rafting…it’s river floating. We were easily able to take a 4 year old with us–so it’s slower, but kids (and adults) of all ages really enjoy it. It’s the perfect way to stay cool, and enjoy the breathtaking scenery of Montana. Highly recommend!
Down town Bozeman is really hip and fun–the people are incredibly friendly, the food is outstanding, and there are so many shops, boutiques, and art galleries to browse. We ate yummy pizza, had THE BEST blackberry ice cream (The Chocolate Moose, @thechocolatemoose406), listened to a street concert, and peeked into a bunch of cute shops.
Leg 4: Yellowstone National ParK
Yellowstone is vast, with so many things to see and do. I’m share a list of the best ones (in our opinion), along with our favorites of the trip. It’s possible to spend days and days here, but our stop was only two days, so we had to pick and choose. If you have the luxury of being there longer, you can keep adding to your list. There are five entrances into Yellowstone, and coming from Bozeman, either the north entrance (89 miles) or west entrance (80 miles) are the closest. I highly suggest looking at the Yellowstone map, looking at which sites you want to see most, as well as your next destination, then marking your trail.
Instead of going straight from Bozeman to Yellowstone, you can also choose to take the Beartooth Highway to get there. It’s been touted as one of the most scenic drives in America, and begins in Red Lodge, Montana, which is about 150 miles. It can be treacherous, and is not open most of the year, so check their website to make sure it’s open.
West Yellowstone is the busiest of the entrances, and has the most options for lodging, restaurants, and tours. The west entrance (US 20) is usually closed between November and April. There is an entrance fee for Yellowstone, and when we went it was $35 for a 7-day pass (private, non-commercial vehicle). This does not include entrance into the Grand Tetons National Park, which is a separate fee.
Best Yellowstone Sights to See:
- Grand Prismatic Spring
- Upper Geyser Basin, Morning Glory Pool
- Old Faithful Geyser
- Yellowstone Canyon
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Hayden Valley
- Yellowstone Lake
- Yellowstone Grand Loop Road (great to follow to see many of the sites)
- Whitewater Rafting
- Waterfalls: Osprey Falls, Fairy Falls, Towel Fall, Upper Falls, Lower Falls, Union Falls
Grand Prismatic Spring was at the very top of our list of things to see at Yellowstone. The pictures simply do not do it justice, and it’s actually bigger than you might think it is. The colors are incredibly vivid, and it’s simply stunning. There are two places to view the spring–on the boardwalk, and an overlook for a view from up above. I highly recommend the overlook–it’s about a 1.6 mile round trip hike. It’s always busy here, and if you want to beat the crowds you should come early, but the mist will cover up most of the colors. It’s a tradeoff, but definitely worth the effort.
Old Faithful! It’s one of the things my kids really wanted to see, and we just to include it in our visit to Yellowstone. It’s what you think of when you think of Yellowstone! If you have more time to spend in the Upper Geyser Basin, hike up to the Morning Glory Pool. Did you know that Yellowstone has more than half of the world’s geysers? And most of those are in the Upper Geyser Basin. Definitely a must!
Out of all the things we did in Yellowstone, whitewater river rafting was at the very top of the list. My kids still talk about it, and was a definite highlight. We went on a tour with a company near the west entrance, and there are several to choose from. Even younger kids can go, but check the website for more details. It was SO fun, and the views were just gorgeous.
Leg 5: Jackson Hole, WY
Jackson Hole is about an hour from the south entrance of Yellowstone, and it’s worth visiting if you have the time! There are SO many fun things to do here, and it’s just a different experience.
Best Jackson Hole Sights to See:
- Grand Teton National Park (hiking, climbing)
- Mountain biking at Grand Targhee or Jackson Hole Resort
- Chuckwagon dinner
- Stagecoach rides
- Horseback riding
- Jackson Hole shootout (Memorial Day to Labor Day, 6 pm)
- Whitewater rafting, canoeing, paddleboarding
- Ropes courses at Jackson Hole Resort or Snow King Mountain
- Jackson Hole Town Square, and take a picture at the Antler Arch!
We did a chuckwagon dinner and had the BEST time. It started with us piling aboard covered wagons, and then making our way up the mountain. We enjoyed the yummiest dutch over dinner (all you can eat!), followed by entertainment (singing and instruments), and then the wagon ride back down. Definitely a highlight.
Horseback riding was on our list, but we didn’t sign up soon enough. I highly recommend if you want to do this, sign up quickly. We weren’t sure of our itinerary (our timing changed a bit while we were there) so we couldn’t reserve in advance, but if you can, definitely do so. There are lots of options, with different pricing, ages that can go, and lengths, and I think there’s something for just about everyone. It’s our one regret!
Jackson Hole is just such a fun town to walk around, eat yummy food, and soak up the Western feel. The mountains, fresh air, and friendly people make for the perfect day or evening.
The Grand Tetons are absolutely stunning, and you don’t want to miss spending time in the mountains. There are many hiking trails for a variety of abilities, length, and time.
We mapped out our trip ahead of time, and booked hotels or an Airbnb/VRBO at each stop. I would suggest that you also secure lodging as soon as you know about your trip, because they can fill up quickly, especially if you are traveling in the summer. Traveling in the winter through Yellowstone can be tricky because of the weather, and most of the entrances and roads are often closed.
If you’re spending several days up to a week in Yellowstone, and don’t want to have to drive as much during the day, you could consider staying at different entrances. Cody, Wyoming is closest to the east entrance, and actually has the shortest drive compared to the others. It’s known to be a more budget-friendly option. Staying on end of the park for half the time, then staying on the other end for the rest of the time, before continuing on your journey would save time, since the park is so large.
Bear Lake, Idaho
After visiting Jackson Hole, our trip was just half finished! We headed to Bear Lake, Idaho, which is about a 2 hour and 45 minute drive from Jackson Hole. It’s a great destination spot for spending time by the water, and enjoying the beautiful outdoors. There are a lot of fun things to do–kayaking, boating, waterskiing, ATVs, hiking, fishing, and so much more! We loved ending our trip there, and then having another whole week to relax and enjoy. And if you go, don’t forget to try their famous raspberry shakes—I still dream about them!
If you’re flying home, the closest airport to Yellowstone is the Salt Lake City airport (SLC), which is about a 6 hour drive. Or, if you visit Jackson Hole after Yellowstone, the closest airport is the Idaho Falls Regional Airport (IDA/KIDA). It’s about 100 miles from Jackson Hole. Check their sites for airlines servicing the airports.
After our week at Bear Lake, we hit the open road to head home. We went a different way–the faster way–since we were ready to be home again! The end of a trip is always bittersweet…sad to see it end, but looking forward to sleeping in your own bed! Our road trip from Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone is now on our favorites list, and our family will talk about it for many years to come!