Road Trip USA: Great Sights of the West - Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone And The Grand Tetons

Plan a Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone road trip to experience the West’s top national parks and monuments. Share other interesting Western sights in South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming with the kids as a bonus.

Road tripping through the American West Pin
Hop into the car for America’s favorite road trip.

America’s first national park was founded by Congress in 1872. The magnificent Yellowstone established a tradition for the preservation of our country’s natural resources. Today, we count nearly 400 natural treasures from Acadia to Mt. Zion in our National Park preservation system. The parks continue to entice travelers from around the world who are passionate about the great outdoors and American history.

Spend one to three weeks in this fascinating part of the American West. A Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone road trip introduces many of our most popular parks and monuments. The adventure exposes your family to the history of several Native American tribes, as well as prairie pioneers. Some travel tips:

  • Don’t get us wrong — this area is big. The Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming all have large, wide-open spaces.
  • Do not plan an itinerary that requires you to zip from one place to another with clock-like precision.
  • Stops can be far apart and you will want to change drivers often.
  • It is slow going. Winter driving conditions can be a factor even in October or May.
  • Roads approaching Yellowstone National Park, such as the Beartooth Highway or beautiful Rte. 191, are slow. Don’t expect to be cruising along at 65mph.  
  • Plan well ahead and engage your stakeholders. Let kids select pitstops and our suggestions for the sites and attractions that will most please your family.

Our suggested 7-10 day Ideal Western Road Trip Itinerary

Here are some suggestions for an easy-going, kid and backseat-friendly Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone road trip.

Day 1/2:  Rapid City, South Dakota
Day 3:  Rapid City to Custer State Park
Day 4/5:  Custer State Park to Badlands National Park
Days 6/7:  Badlands National Park to Buffalo, Wyoming or Billings, Montana
Day 8:  Little Big Horn to Yellowstone National Park, Montana
Day 9:  Yellowstone National Park to Jackson, Wyoming

Driving Out: Rapid City, South Dakota Is The Start Of A Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone Road Trip

If you have to fly in and rent a car or SUV or family minivan for this classic road trip, start slow in Rapid City. The small, fun town is located on the outskirts of the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota. Start slow and spend a few days exploring this area.

Don’t miss the city’s Art Alley, the colorful back lane downtown. Admire how the city channeled the artistic energy of would-be graffiti artists. It’s an intriguing gallery of political statements and pretty images that will get your kids talking.

Another must-stop is Prairie Edge, a local Native American trading post with curated boutiques. Small booths sell Western wear, landscape paintings, turquoise jewelry and the art of Chris Ravenshead and Mike McCloud among others. Let kids pick out less pricey fare such as ball caps or some glass beads imported from Italy for use by Native artisans.

The Journey Museum & Learning Center is a mixed bag, well worth a visit for the insights it provides. Picture a collection of local treasures brought together after a horrific flood that tore apart the city. The museum features Lakota culture and the settlers’ Gold Rush history. We liked the geology center with locally-found dinosaurs and STEAM lab supported by NASA. Overall, the Journey Museum is a good rainy day indoor space with lots of hands-on activities for families. Toddler Tuesday activities and the mid-October Native American Festival are calendar highlights.

Where To Stay and Dine in Rapid City, South Dakota

The local Rapid City Quality Inn boasts a clean indoor pool, free hot breakfast and convenient location. WaTiki Waterpark is perfect for cooling-down, fun activities during the summer.

Since its founding in 1870, Rapid City has grown from a Wild West outpost to a thriving small city. Good eating includes craft beer bars (think Firehouse Brewing Company.) Try at least one of the hearty steak and bison eateries. Cowboys invented chislik, a local specialty of fried beef chunks rolled in salt to preserve them. The Dakotah Steakhouse has its own gourmet chislik version that’s yummy with a beer or soda. Chow down on terrific hand-crafted dining, like the habanero pulled pork sliders with watermelon at Murphy’s Pub & Grill.)

There’s even a rooftop bar with mixologists and skyline views. Vertex, the bar, is on top of the classic red brick Alex Johnson Hotel. (This is not to be confused with the view from a fun family bike trip along Skyline Drive.) Unless you’re there in August over the famously wild Sturgis Rally motorcycle fest, you’ll enjoy the laidback charm.

Drive Day 3: On the Road to Custer State Park – 47 miles on Your Mt. Rushmore to Yellowstone Road Trip

Mt. Rushmore
The famous presidents of Mt. Rushmore.

Southwest of Rapid City via Routes US 16 and SD 244, it is about 25 miles (40 minutes) to the most recognized symbol of this region, Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum began the project in 1927 at the age of 60. It was not yet complete when he died in 1941. Known as the “Shrine of Democracy,” this awesome site offers a walking trail, a 2,500-seat amphitheater, a visitor center, a museum and food service. Nearly 3 million visitors each year learn about the 400 men who helped to carve the monument. Salaries averaged $1.00 per hour.

Did you know that the presidents’ noses are 20-feet long and their mouths are 18-feet wide? From May through September, the evening lighting ceremony is a particularly impressive sight.

Drive about 17 miles (25 minutes) southwest via Routes SD 244, US 16 and US 385. Discover another sculptural marvel, yet one which is still under construction. Lakota elders commissioned the creation of the Crazy Horse Memorial complex in 1948. Chief Henry Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota Chief, chose to memorialize Crazy Horse, who symbolized the Lakota’s spirit, pride and courage. When finished, this mountain carving, done in the round, will stand 563-feet high and 641-feet long. The complex welcomes over 1 million visitors a year. Allow time to explore an Indian Museum, a Native American educational and cultural center and the sculptor’s home and studio. Kids will benefit from pausing at the multimedia presentations and resting their feet at the restaurant.

If you’re planning to stay overnight in this area, consider the beautiful 71,000-acre Custer State Park or Custer itself.

Exploring More of the Black Hills from a Base in Custer

Bavarin Inn swimming pool and kids playroom
The stylish Bavarian Inn has a heated indoor pool and game-stocked kids playroom for cooler days.

Custer is a fun central base for exploring Mt. Rushmore, bison herds at Custer State Park and boomer-fueled shops and fine dining. This cute Wild West town has been attracting retirees for years. Young entrepreneurs opened local businesses to serve them and… Voila! There is a fun, buzzy atmosphere in Custer that kids will enjoy.

It’s more authentic in some ways than Deadwood and that much closer to the national park and attractions.

Allow at least one day in Custer State Park. Don’ miss the park’s Jeep Safari. The two-hour adventure brings you up close with otherwise shy bison a.k.a. buffalo who may come up and sniff your vehicle. A bonus: Enthusiastic driver-guides take the family off-road for a little spin to get closer to them. This place is packed during the September roundup and November Auction. Hotel room rates soar but it’s the only time to watch buffalo herds being culled to maintain the park’s sustainability as a bison habitat.

Where To Stay and Dine in Custer, South Dakota

While this region is great base for hikes and more exploration, some families will want to stay right inside Custer State Park, about 30-60 minutes south of Custer depending on weather. They rent rooms in four historic stone lodges, several modernized cabins and campgrounds.

If you’re moving south to the Southern Hills of the Black Hills consider the classic stone lodge, the State Game Lodge. We loved the cozy log cabin feel of the main lodge and one- to three-bedroom log cabins. Instagram the buffalo print pillows and retro Western décor your friends will love. WiFi is confined to the lobby of the rustic main lodge. Plan to hang out as President Calvin Coolidge did when it served as the summer White House under President Calvin Coolidge. There’s a large dining room and more remote buildings for events, plus a gift shop and very helpful staff.

For Days 4/5: Custer State Park to Badlands National Park – 55 miles

There are two routes to the Hot Springs region about 20 miles south of Custer State Park. Head 35 miles (1 hr) southeast of the Crazy Horse Memorial via Route US 385. Here you will find the fascinating Mammoth Site, an ongoing dig featuring 26,000-year-old bones of woolly mammoths that lived here. After the half-hour guided tour, you can spend an hour or two exploring on your own. For some relaxation, visit Evan’s Plunge for a soak in the healing waters of natural mineral fed pools.

Alternatively, on the way to Hot Springs, stop at the underground attraction Wind Cave National Park. One of the longest cave systems in the world, the ancient limestone is shaped like a complex subterranean maze. Wind Cave comprises 28,000 acres above ground. This terrain is home to native wildlife such as bison, elk and mule deer. Visitors come for the rare formations of crystals. Learn about the “windy” sound which accounts for its name on one of several cave tours.

Need a family-friendly hotel in the Mount Rushmore area? Go here.

An extraordinary side trip to consider is the stark, barren Badlands National Park. It’s just 80 miles (1 ¼ hours) southeast of Rapid City via Routes I-90, SD 240 and SD 44. The 244,000-acre park was so-named by 19th century fur traders who referred to it as “bad lands to cross”. Geological formations and the desolate beauty fascinate visitors. Select from eight hiking trails ranging from a quarter-mile to 10-miles long. It’s great to be out of the car. Watch for native prairie grasses, wildflowers, wildlife and fossils. Younger kids love the striking steep canyons, jagged spires and moon-like landscape out of a “Star Wars” film.

For more suggestions of family-approved attractions of interest, visit

A Detour Worth Taking on the Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone Road Trip: Wall Drug

Bison Burger at Wall Drug
Don’t miss the bison burgers and 5c coffee when you stop at Wall Drug.

What’s 50 miles east of Rapid City and less than eight miles from the Badlands? Yup, you can’t miss Wall Drug, a vintage road trip attraction that became world famous when they installed billboards pointing the way to their pharmacy back in 1931. The Hustead Family, now four generations strong with the founders’ great granddaughter Sarah waiting tables, has maintained that Dust Bowl-era charm rarely seen these days.

Dorothy and Ted Hustead were quick to realize that providing medicine wasn’t bringing in customers. A more compelling reason to visit was providing “Free Ice Water!” to summer road trippers who were sweltering in their cars. And, with that and coffee for 5¢ (still 5¢) they were off.

The Husteads famously expanded from 4,000 square-feet of pharmacy and beverages to a full 76,000 square-feet of dining. They now feature Western wear and souvenir shopping plus photo opportunities. Pause and play at the games arcade and mechanical T-Rex who roars every 12 minutes. Let off steam at the outdoor area with fun stuff for the kids (like a giant jackalope to climb upon). The restaurants are packed with 320 gallery-worthy Western paintings, including two portraits painted by Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of Mt. Rushmore. If the Badlands made Wall Drug, then Wall Drug certainly made Wall, a must-stop on your road trip.  If only for the juicy bison burgers with onion rings.

You literally can’t miss it because there are still tons of signs along Route 16A! The family manages 300 billboards which are constantly refreshed by a staff mural painter.

Days 6/7: Badlands National Park to Buffalo, Wyoming – 259 miles

En route to Yellowstone National Park, you could choose to travel west across Wyoming. (Or, head northwest through Montana by reading below.) To traverse Wyoming, take Routes I-90 and US 14 about 400 miles (7 hrs.) to Cody. As one of the Yellowstone’s gateways, it’s about a one-hour drive from the eastern entrance.

While here, you can have an authentic “cowboy” adventure. Drop into both the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and Buffalo Bill State Park. Make it more authentic with a stay on a dude ranch for a few days of riding and rodeos.

We especially recommend the Paradise Guest Ranch, located 6 miles west of Buffalo, Wyoming. It makes a great mid-way, overnight point between Rapid City and Cody. Ranch rates include luxury log cabins with private baths and fireplaces and three family-style meals a day. Activities range from fly fishing to riding, square dancing, spa and pool, an overnight teen pack trip and sing-along bonfires. Contact the Dude Ranchers Association for listings of other ranches in the region. (Tip: Be sure to ask the minimum age at which kids can ride.) Families interested in staying in town will like the indoor and outdoor pools at the Best Western Sunset Motor Inn, just a few blocks from the Buffalo Bill center.

Alternative for Days 6/7: Badlands National Park to Billings, Montana – 370 miles on your Mt. Rushmore to Yellowstone Trip

Alternatively, travel on Route I 90 375 miles (5 ½ hours) to Billings, Montana, through the Crow Indian Reservation. Tour the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, the site of General Custer’s famous Last Stand. It was his “last” stand because his troops were crushed by Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors.

In addition to a museum and memorial, guided tours focusing on military history are offered by Native Americans and Park Rangers. Unless someone in your group is a military history buff, a self-guided tour is more appropriate for families. You’ll want to spend the night in Billings; for lodging selections visit

Day 8: Little Big Horn, MT to Yellowstone National Park – 130 miles

Yellowstone National park
Glorious views at Yellowstone and throughout the West.

From Montana’s Little Big Horn, drive approximately 130 miles (2 ½ hours) to “Old Faithful.” To see the famous geyser, enter Yellowstone National Park from its north, northeast or east entrances.  Please note that the north entrance at Gardiner is the only one open to cars all year. During the winter months, only snow vehicles such as snowcoaches and snowmobiles can use the west, south and east entrances.

This vast natural treasure encompasses two million acres and entrances visitors from all over the world. Your exploration of nature will include viewing steaming geysers, hot springs and other geological wonders. Hike slowly and quietly to spot a variety of intriguing wildlife. Or, book ahead for horseback riding and snow-shoeing. The park is divided into the following five regions:

  • Mammoth Country, North Western Region: Site of the Mammoth Hot Springs and home to elk and bison.
  • Geyser Country, South Western Region:  Home to Old Faithful and other geothermal features such as fumaroles, mud pots and hotpools.
  • Lake Country, South Eastern Region:  Find osprey and bald eagles around the cold, blue Yellowstone Lake located at an altitude of 7,735 feet.
  • Roosevelt Country, North Eastern Region:  An area covered in sagebrush, spruce, fir, pine, aspen trees and a petrified forest. Inhabited by deer, bison and wolves, it is reminiscent of the Old West.
  • Canyon Country, East Central Region: Home to the “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” the Hidden Valley and Lower Falls are twice as high as Niagara Falls. Elk, bison and deer roam this area.

Tours And Overnight Programs Enrich A Yellowstone Road Trip

Several sightseeing excursions within Yellowstone are available. For great family programs, surf to the Yellowstone Association for information on year-round Lodging and Learning programs.

Visit Travel Yellowstone for day tour information. Highlights of your Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone road trip may well be a Yellowstone giuded tour. “The Circle of Fire” tour explores the caldera rim including the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins. “Yellowstone in a Day” introduces you to Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful. The “Yellowstone Lake Butte Scenic Tour” and several other tours operate during the summer. In winter you can explore the park on snow via snowcoach, cross-country skis, snowshoes and snowmobiles.

Special programs and activities for children include the Junior Ranger program. It’s free, right at the park, and offers visitors from age 5 a chance to complete a series of activities. Share answers with a park ranger to receive an official Junior Ranger badge or patch and Junior Ranger certificate. Have a STEAM day with The Young Scientist Program for ages 5+. Kids solve science mysteries to earn a Yellowstone patch or key chain.

Comfortable Lodging & Hotels to Make Your Yellowstone Road Trip Perfect

Several rustic but comfortable lodges are nearby. Review the Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins, The Lake Lodge Cabins and The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel on the parade grounds of the old Fort Yellowstone. The Old Faithful Inn offers accommodations with private baths, restaurants, hiking, boating, wildlife viewing, and sightseeing tours. A popular new hotel built in the traditional park-lodge style (with heavy timbers and a cedar shingle roof) is the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins, just a five-minute walk from the geysers.

Stay within the magical park’s boundaries if you can afford to. If you can’t afford to be in the park, several adjacent towns like Livingston and West Yellowstone have quality lodging. Additionally, area ski towns such as Big Sky and Red Lodge double as excellent summer vacation home rental options. Mountain resorts put you in pretty places, within an hour or so drive of a park entrance. These towns provide many amenities as well.

Road Trip Day 9: Yellowstone National Park to Jackson, Wyoming – 122 miles

Old Faithful Geyser
Explore beyond Old Faithful when you’re in Yellowstone.

Grand Teton National Park, only 7 miles south of Yellowston via Routes 89/191, is known for its abundant wildlife and dramatic scenery. The jagged mountain range rises more than 12,000-feet above sea level like the setting of a wildlife play. The high-altitude habitat creates many family wilderness opportunities. See a trumpeter swan. Visit the National Elk Refuge and hike to a mountain lake or waterfall. Chill out and go fish or raft down the Snake River.

For lodging suggestions, visit the Grand Teton Lodge Company. We suggest Colter Bay Village which offers a choice of well-priced rustic log cabins and tent cabins. It’s really popular with families. Other options include the Jackson Lake Lodge, a full-service resort. Or, splurge on one of the 37 cabins situated in a pine forest at the deluxe, historic Jenny Lake Lodge.

If you prefer a bit more civilization (galleries, shops, fine restaurants), consider staying at one of Jackson, Wyoming’s many hotels or fancy resorts. Commute easily to Grand Teton (within an hour’s drive on Routes 89/191) for day adventures.

We recommend both the luxurious, wilderness Spring Creek Ranch and the Snow King Resort. Check out the value condominiums surrounded by Bridger Teton National Forest (a popular ski area in winter, and a great hiking spot in summer.)

A fun option to add to the memory bank is the funky, wild west-themed, motel like Cowboy Village Resort in town.

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