For three weeks in the fall several years ago, we left home for an extended round trip to Yellowstone through twelve national park sites, eleven states, and more than 4,000 miles. Through several years of longer travel, we have figured out that what works best for our family is an extended stay somewhere in the middle of the trip for rest and to really focus on exploration one place. Usually, several days are added to the trip going and coming back in order to drive shorter days and to be able to stop to see places we would otherwise not get to explore (see post). 

This area is so full of national parks and beautiful places to see. I feel like even though we didn’t spend a lot of time at some places, we saw enough. It’s really just up to what’s most important to your family. Our ultimate goal was Yellowstone whereas you could spend a week in so many of these places alone.

You will not see it all. You may even drive right by national park signs but you have to. On this itinerary, we pretty much blazed around Colorado – not because it isn’t worth the stop but because we grown-ups have spent much of our lives exploring the state. If you have extra time, there is so much more to add!

Day 1 Going: Houston to Oklahoma City

Total Drive Time: 6 hours, 35 minutes 
This was a straight shot through familiar territory, so we didn’t stop.

Suggested Stops

  • Dallas World Aquarium
  • Science Museum Oklahoma – Oklahoma City
  • Oklahoma City Zoo – Oklahoma City, OK
  • Oklahoma State Capitol – If you have time, make sure you drive past and see the Native American statue on the dome of the Oklahoma State Capitol downtown. It is the only state capitol grounds in the US to have actively pumping oil rigs. Only in Oklahoma.
End of the Day Ceremony at Fort Larned

Day 2 Going: Oklahoma City to Valentine, Nebraska

Total drive time: 10.5 hours
OKC to Fort Larned, Kansas (4 hours, 33 minutes)
Fort Larned to Valentine, Nebraska (6 hours, 7 minutes)

We chose to have a long drive through Kansas and up into Nebraska for a hotel for the night without other stops. This stretch of the US is not the best area to wait to find a hotel. The bigger towns are pretty sparse. You might end up driving several hours through this farmland area before getting to another town big enough for a hotel. We ended up spending the night in Nebraska so we didn’t have to drive too far in the morning before the next stop.

Plan to leave OKC early so you have time on your way through Wichita, Kansas to stop at the Tanganyika Wildlife Park if you can. One of the best zoos I’ve ever visited and here’s my in depth trip discussion.

Fort Larned national Historic Site; Larned, Kansas

Fort Larned was a little bit out of the way but an excellent stop. This complete fort on the Santa Fe Trail was in operation from the 1860s to 1870s. Take yourself on a walking tour of the soldier barracks, hospital, supply storage, and other fort buildings. In addition to the fort to walk through, there is also a dugout home behind the fort for you Little House on the Prairie fans. Nearby there are wagon wheel ruts from the Santa Fe Trail. 

Savoring the Moment at the Badlands

Day 3 Going: Driving Through South Dakota

Total drive time: 3.5 hours
Valentine, NE to Minuteman Missile NHS (2 hours)
MMNHS to Badlands National Park (6 minutes)
BNP to South Dakota Air and Space Museum (1 hour, 15 minutes west)
Museum to Rapid City, SD (18 minutes)

The Black Hills in South Dakota has lots of places to explore in this small area. Spend more time if you can, but the sites are close enough together to allow a good sampling of several in one long day. We did Minuteman in the morning, the Badlands in the afternoon, and spent the night in Rapid City.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site; Philip, South Dakota
This is recent history in action. My husband’s grandfather was actually stationed here for several years, and we got to talk to him about his experience here! The site is free to visit so take a few hours to walk around the visitor center. The exhibits cover the full US interaction with the Cold War, reason for the missiles, and the military people who served down in the bunker prepared to launch the missiles.

There are several different sites you can tour at Minuteman, and you need to plan in advance if you want to do a tour due to availability. Parts of it are not available for tour the day of our visit. Doing this would also require you to spend more time at this site than you may want to spend.

There are several different sites you can tour at Minuteman, and you need to plan in advance if you want to do a tour due to availability. Parts of it are not available for tour the day of our visit. Doing this would also require you to spend more time at this site than you may want to spend.

Badlands National Park; Interior, South Dakota
Although you can spend days at the Badlands exploring trails and learning at the visitor center, our family drove around, saw the view, and visited the visitor center. Don’t overlook going to the prairie dog town. I had no idea so many could be in one area! There are so many trails and places to explore – save time if you’re up for a hike.

South Dakota Air and Space Museum; Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota
Just outside the gate for Ellsworth Air Force Base, this free museum is just east of Rapid City on the way into town. After the long day of driving, we got here after it closed for the day but were able to walk around outside and see the planes parked outside. It’s a good activity to give you something to do end of the day before heading into the hotel. Did I mention free??

Day 4 Going: A Busy Day Headed to Wyoming

Total Drive Time: at least 5 hours
Rapid City, SD to Mount Rushmore (30 minutes)
Mount Rushmore to Custer State Park (40 minutes)
Custer to Wind Cave (30 minutes south)
Wind Cave to Devil’s Tower (2 hours north)
Devil’s Tower to Gillette, WY (1 hour)

This is a long day with broken up stops and lots to see. The highlights of the day are Mount Rushmore and Wind Cave. If you want to dawdle and take your time, skip the others. Gillette, WY is one of the only large towns in this area; that’s the only reason we chose to spend the night here.

 Mount Rushmore national Memorial; Keystone, South Dakota
After enjoying the drive through the Black Hills, head into the park while looking for glimpses of the presidents through the hills. Walk through the flags and head to the visitor center which has excellent displays on making the memorial and a video to watch. You have a great view of the monument from the large windows at the back and plenty of time for the kids to complete their junior ranger badge.

Custer State Park; Custer, South Dakota
If you have some extra time, drive through this park on the way from Rushmore to Wind Cave and enjoy the scenery. There is a wildlife loop road to look for all the bison and other animals. However, you have to pay for a pass to just drive through the park. 

Crazy Horse MemoriaL; Crazy Horse, South Dakota 
At only seventeen miles south from Mount Rushmore, the statue of Crazy Horse can be seen from the road. There is a paid visitor center which has a museum and video about the construction, but we didn’t stop. 

Wind Cave National Park; Hot springs, South Dakota
This is a unique park with boxwork caves that look different than most other caves you have explored. Check the website before hand to see when tours are available and aim to arrive in time for one of these.

Devils Tower NationaL Monument; Devils Tower, WY
Welcome to Wyoming! If you have time, add Devil’s Tower to your itinerary. It is about an hour detour off the main highway. If you’re okay with just a drive by to see it, add the triangle detour an an hour of driving. There are pullovers to make it easy to pull over for the required picture. Before your kids get crazy ideas, climbing the rock is for the professionals and requires registration. Honestly, my kids were less than impressed, but we didn’t get up close.

Beautiful View from Little Bighorn

Day 5 Going: Headed into Yellowstone

Total Drive Time: 8 hours
Gillette, WY to Little Bighorn (2.5 hours west)
Little Bighorn to Island Park (5 hours, 20 minutes)

If you are planning on entering the park from the east entrance past Cody, WY, you don’t want to plan on Little Bighorn as it is way out of the way. However, if going up and into or around to West Yellowstone, it’s on the way.

Yellowstone is a huge and requires a lot of planning on its part. You can enter the park from the east entrance, but just remember that it isn’t a fast drive and can take up to all day depending on stops and traffic. If you are driving through the park, go ahead and just plan it as one of your Yellowstone days. If you’re in a hurry to check into your hotel or rental house outside of the park, drive up and around to the west side.  Also, depending on the time of the year you plan to visit, the road dropping in from the north entrance might be closed.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument; Crow Agency, MT
The scenery in this area is beautiful, and this site is a great place to break up the trip. This monument is up on the hill, and you can see all the surrounding area. There is an introductory movie in the visitor center, but most of the site is seen through the driving tour around the area. Prepare to sit in your car and get out frequently. 

Evening Elk Herd at Yellowstone

Arrived ——  Yellowstone

Plan way ahead for Yellowstone housing. Book this as your mid-vacation stop before everything else if you are wanting to stay in the park because it fills up so quickly. We chose to visit at the end of October when it was at the end of the season so some roads and places in Yellowstone were already closed. 

For our home base for the week, we chose Island Park, Idaho which is about thirty miles west of the West Yellowstone entrance to the park. It’s a smaller tourist city and very spread out. Know that Island Park is the country’s longest main street at more than 30 miles long, so make sure you look on the map for proximity to Yellowstone before booking a rental house. If your house is in the southern part of the city, your 30-minute trip to Yellowstone may extend to an hour. 

Day Trips

Yellowstone National Park
There is so much to do here. Prepare yourself for some long days of driving, take the picnics, and hope for little traffic. With that in mind, remember that the beautiful area doesn’t stop at the park entrances. Explore some surrounding areas!

Grand Teton National Park; Jackson Hole, WY
(IP to Grand Teton 2 hr 15 min back to the south east — and back)

For a lengthy day trip, we left Island Park, took the highway down to Jackson, and backtracked to the north to drive the main road through Grand Tetons to explore the visitor center. It’s more than four hours driving in the car for a day but allows to seeing the beautiful mountains of the Tetons.

Exploring Island Park and west yellowstone

Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone – This was one of our favorite animal experiences of the trip and left one of my kids determined to be a wolf researcher for several years. It’s a small place with lots of rescue animals including bears, wolves, otters, and birds of prey.

west yellowstone visitor center – Here’s your insider tip. This is a NPS Yellowstone site manned by park rangers. This is a great non-crowded place to plan your trip through the park and have the kids complete their junior ranger badge.

Harriman State Park A small nature area to explore for a couple of hours.

Earthquake Lake Short day trip for fishing at lake that was once a little valley town. Read up on the interesting history.

Overlooking the Great Salt Lake from the Top of the Mountain

Day 1 Returning: Exploring the Great Salt Lake

Total Drive Time: 8 hours
Island Park, ID to Great Salt Lake (4 hours)
Great Salt Lake to Vernal, Utah (4 hours)

This drive will take you through Salt Lake City – stop and see something. Our goal was Great Salt Lake with the plan to spend the night in Vernal, the closest town to visit Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah side of the park.

Great Salt Lake at Antelope Island State Park; Salt Lake City
Drive the causeway across Great Salt Lake to the island which is home to pronghorn, lion, mule deer, and bighorn sheep. The visitor center explains the lake, its tiny inhabitants, and the reason for the smell! Drive further up to go on a trail and climb all over the boulders. Make sure you drive down to the water before you leave.

Day 2 Returning: Dinosaur National Monument and Moab

Total Driving Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes
Vernal, UT to Dinosaur National Monument (<30 minutes)
DNM to Moab, UT (3 hr south)

This site is a little out of the way to head back east slightly. However, it’s so unique that it’s well worth it in my book. The park has parts in Colorado and Utah; to see the dinosaurs, you want to be on the Utah side. Give the kids the goal of looking for all the dinosaurs on signs and advertisements – they’re everywhere! Drive 3 hours to spend the night in Moab to visit Arches National Park the next day.

Dinosaur National Monument; Vernal, Utah
This park is huge and has lots to explore. If you have more time, plan to spend the whole day here at least. Don’t be misled by the park name. There is so much more here than just dinosaurs. To start with dinos, head to the Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall where you see a giant upheaval of a side of the mountain with all the dinosaur fossils still embedded at twenty feet above your head. Talk to the park rangers and do your junior rangers.

Afterward, drive down to the lovely river running through the canyon area that shows off the beautiful layers and colors of the rock. Look for the mule deer in the canyon. At the end of the valley, there are the remains of a pioneer homestead to explore, and make sure you allow some time to wander off the road to go find the petroglyphs up in the rocks. It’s a beautiful place.

MOAB
Moab is the hippie, rock climbing community where you stay for adventure. It’s a small town with lots of hotels. We visited a rock store and spent way too much money. If you have an extra day, stay here and go rafting the Colorado River or hiking in another park.

The Arch

Day 3 Returning: Exploring the Four Corners Area

Total Drive Time: 7 hours
Moab to Arches National Park (11 minutes)
Arches to Four Corners (2 hours, 45 minutes)
Four Corners to Santa Fe, NM (4 hours, 15 minutes)

There are so many national parks in this bottom southeast corner of Utah that it was hard to just go to one. However, I was advised that they tend to all look pretty similar so it’s really okay to not see all of them. Also, we didn’t allow time to explore all of these amazingly unique areas of New Mexico. If you have extra time, leave it for this part of the trip!

Arches National Park; Moab, UTAH
This beautifully unique place isn’t very big and easy to see on the loop road. After exploring the visitor center, head out. There are plenty of short hikes off the main road with nice paved parking areas. Park and explore for several hours in the morning before it warms up.

Four Corners Monument; Teec Nos Pos, Arizona
First – pronunciation. “Tiiis-Nas-Pas” is as close as I can come. I mentally said it wrong for several years, so I’m saving you the error. On Navajo land, this is the exact place where Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona meet. Also, this site is very remote. We ended up back tracking to get back to the main highway.

The is a tourist site out in the desert – plain and simple. You pay for the right to be able to show your picture and say you were here. It costs $5-10 per person (depending on the time of year) to enter a concrete area with flags and a marked site. If you are wanting to buy Native American souvenirs, save your purchase to buy here where there are native artisans in booths selling you their own native artwork like dreamcatchers, pottery, paintings, and jewelry. 

My kids still talk about it because they think it was exciting to be in four states at one time especially since one of them managed to fart on all four states at once – that’s the real memory. All in all, I’m glad we went because it really meant something to my map loving kids.

Shiprock Peak; Shiprock, New Mexico
There is part of New Mexico is a straight flat highway. Because of that, Shiprock is very easy to see off in the distance to the south. Shiprock is on Navjajo tribal land and is sacred. You can’t get close or even consider climbing it. Drive by and yell at the kids to look out the window – there’s nothing else in this area to spark excitement 🙂 . It’s very unique. Maybe they would be more interested if they knew it was used in the filming of “Jumanji 2”? 

When driving this highway, remember you are on Native American land. There are reservations nearby that you can tour. Go into the gas station and read the signs in the Navajo language.

Santa Fe, New Mexico
This long day doesn’t allow much time to explore this unique town full of so much history. You could easily spend a whole day walking around the downtown and exploring museums in this town. And make sure your family knows the words to “Santa Fe” from Newsies so you can fully appreciate it and sing along!

Suggested Stops

  • Mesa Verde National Park – This part of the trip is passing right by Mesa Verde if you want to grab that national park in south west Colorado. However, I don’t think I would plan to do both Mesa Verde and Bandolier due to their similarity. They’re both Anasazi cliff dwelling national parks. Mesa Verde is up on the mesa with beautiful wide overlooks and a couple of dwellings to explore; Bandolier is down flat with lots of smaller dwellings to climb ladders into.
  • Canyonlands National Park
  • Monument Valley
Climbing and Climbing – not for the Faint of Heart

Day 4 Returning: Bandelier

Santa Fe, NM to Bandelier – 50 minutes and then back

Bandelier National Monument; Los Alamos, New Mexico
This was a day trip from Santa Fe and a return back to the same hotel for the night. Bandelier allows for a good mix of history with all the natural national parks you have visited. The visitor center is excellent and at the entrance of the canyon where the cliff houses are located.  The trail walks past the kiva remains and head for the ladders which will allow you to climb up into some of the cliffhouses.

suggested stops

  • Los Alamos, New Mexico
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico

Day 5 Returning: Santa Fe to Houston

Total Drive Time: 12.5 hours — a long day!

There are many places to stop and see in this area, but they are not the straight path home. On our trip, we drove this path pretty much straight through.

Home!

Celebrating the Four Corners

This was one of our family’s most favorite trips and full of so many amazing places. I hope this inspires you to linger and explore!

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