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. 

This area of the United States is so full of national parks and beautiful places to see. 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, how much time you have, and how busy your want your days to be. Our ultimate end goal was Yellowstone whereas you could spend a week in so many of these places alone.

It is impossible to see it all. You will have to drive right by national park signs without stopping. 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!

Make sure you check out the second part of this post as we make our way back home to Texas from Yellowstone.

Walking Along the Geyser Boardwalk in Yellowstone
Walking Along the Geyser Boardwalk in Yellowstone

The Itinerary

  • Idaho
    • Island Park
  • Utah
    • Great Salt Lake
    • Dinosaur NM
  • Arizona
    • Arches
    • Four Corners
  • New Mexico
    • Bandelier NM
  • Texas

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. We spent the night with family, but OKC has so much to do if you have time!

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.
Evening Elk Herd at Yellowstone

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 the night without other stops. Do not wait to wait to find a hotel in this area; the bigger towns are pretty few and far between. 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 Valentine, Nebraska so we didn’t have to drive too far in the morning before the next stop.

If you can, plan to leave OKC early so you have time on your way through Wichita, Kansas to interact with the animals at Tanganyika Wildlife Park if you can. It is truly one of the best zoos I’ve ever visited.

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. 

End of the Day Flag Ceremony at Fort Larned, Kansas
End of the Day Flag Ceremony at Fort Larned Kansas

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 so many 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.

Learning Family and Recent US History at Minuteman
Learning Family and Recent US History at Minuteman

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.

Savoring the Moment at the Badlands

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??

Checking out the Airplanes at the South Dakote Air and Space Museum
Checking out the Airplanes at the South Dakote Air and Space Museum

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 at these two, I recommend you 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.

Viewing Devil's Tower from the Highway
Viewing Devils Tower from the Highway

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 need to plan out your days as best you can. 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

To break up the drive, Little Bighorn is a great stop. This monument is up on the hill and gives a beautiful view of 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 to read the plaques. Unless you are a true history learner, plan for maybe an hour.

Surveying South Dakota from Little Bighorn National Monument
Surveying South Dakota from Little Bighorn National Monument

Arrived ——  Yellowstone

So many posts could be written about Yellowstone – this isn’t one of them. Hope you aren’t disappointed! Required: 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. Because chose to visit at the end of October at the end of the season, 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. 

Exploring Sheepeater Cliff in Yellowstone
Exploring Sheepeater Cliff in Yellowstone

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.

Day Trip to See the Tetons - So Beautiful
Day Trip to See the Tetons So Beautiful

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. Break up the scenic drive days with a morning walking around with animals. It’s a great place to support.

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 Remember beauty doesn’t stop just because you leave the confines of the national park. This is a great small nature area to explore and hike for a couple of hours.

Earthquake Lake Take a short day trip for fishing at lake that was once a little valley town. Read up on the interesting history of how the dam formed the lake.

Hiking around Harriman State Park in Island Park, Idaho
Hiking around Harriman State Park in Island Park Idaho

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 – don’t forget to check out part two. We saw some more amazing things on the way back home to Texas!

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