23 Days, 5,018 Miles, 10 States, 3 National Parks, 2 Kids, and a Dog
The numbers don't lie. This was the longest trip (both driving miles and days) our family has ever taken.
My husband and I have always wanted to drive across the United States, so we rented a mini-van, packed up our belongings, and with all of our pups (human and canine), drove west. It turned out to be a fantastic trip. The road miles were manageable with good food, fun stops, iPads for the girls, and audio books for the parents (and the dog).
With the exception of an 11 hour haul to Kansas to visit the grandparents, we generally maxed our daily driving time at 7-8 hours. This seemed to be about the right amount of time before the minivan became somewhat unbearable. It also gave us time to enjoy the hotel pools and dinner before winding down for the evening.
Here's a short overview of the trip with lodging recommendations (if we loved them) and other fun finds we discovered along the way.
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700 Miles- Knoxville,TN to Kansas
Beautiful drive once you reach Missouri. We took a slight detour to Pittsburg, KS to visit the grandparents. Otherwise, we would have stopped at our friend’s recommendation to stay at the Wingate Hotel in Columbia, MO (608 miles from Knoxville). If you’re ever near Pittsburg, KS, check out Big Brutus!
485 Miles- Kansas to Sioux Falls, SD
Our first visit to the good state of South Dakota. We enjoyed Falls Park in downtown Sioux Falls and rave about one of the most family-friendly hotels we've ever stayed: Clubhouse Hotel and Suites. The indoor pool had a fun slide for the girls, and the outdoor courtyard led to a community greenbelt (bikes provided by the hotel). Loved it.
Order pizza from nearby Pizza Man and enjoy! The hotel offers a free breakfast, including a make-your-own smoothie bar. Doesn’t get any better!
387 Miles- Sioux Falls to Custer State Park
Several fun stops on this stretch of highway, ultimately ending at Custer State Park which in the future would be worthy of a longer stay.
Stop 1: Corn Palace
Took a quick 15 minute rest stop at the "World's Only Corn Palace" in Mitchell, SD before setting off to visit Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore. The Palace is redecorated each year using whole ears of corn nailed to the outside of the palace to reflect a theme. This year’s theme was South Dakota weather. It’s free, it’s corny, and we all enjoyed stretching our legs here!
Stop 2: Badlands National Park
Located just a few minutes south of I-90's exit 131, Badlands National Park is a convenient stop on this stretch of highway. Badlands was oppressively hot (July average high is 92) but was a favorite stop for the kids. We drove the Badlands Loop (40 minutes) with stops at various overlooks. We spent the most time at the first Big Badlands Overlook to scramble the rocks and take photographs. The kids had fun enjoying the unique topography first-hand.
Along the loop, we also toured the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, walked the short .25 mile Fossil Exhibit Trail, and made brief stops at the following overlooks: White River Valley (great photos here), Panorama Point, Yellow Mounds, and Pinnacles Overlook.
Tip: Purchase your National Parks Annual Pass at the park entrance.
Stop 3: Wall Drug Store
The end of the Badlands Loop literally leads you right to Wall, SD and Exit 110 on I-90. Here you'll find the infamous Wall Drug Store. By the time of your arrival, your children have spied over 100 Wall Drug billboards from as far away as Iowa.
This is a kitschy (and crowded) but fun tourist stop. Hop on a jackalope, grab a milkshake, and purchase your sheriff pins or other trinket of choice here.
Stop 4: Mount Rushmore National Monument
Another worthwhile but brief stop, and still 90+ degrees in July. Free entrance but you have to pay a $10 parking fee not covered by your national park pass. The Visitor Center is also worthy of more than just a cooling off stop with its fine description of the history and creation of the monument.
Stop 5: Custer State Park
Loved this beautiful state park just south of Mount Rushmore. You’ll find hiking, scenic drives, and plenty of lakes to cool off. We even had a bison visit behind our cabin one night!
Highlights included driving the Needles Highway and playing in the water at Legion Lake where we stayed in the sleeping cabin with 2 queen beds. Nice onsite restaurant within walking distance, and the cabins were small but cozy (and air conditioned!) Highly recommend.
494 Miles- Custer State Park to Bozeman, MT
If we could live anywhere else, it would be right here in Bozeman, MT. Friendly people, great local hiking, cold rivers and lakes, local breweries, good eats, festivals, and a charming Main Street. We stayed in a great VRBO cabin, #718651, just 10 minutes from town with amazing views.
Related post: "Simply Awesome Day in Bozeman."
Located just 30 minutes west of Bozeman, this small western town is also worth a visit. Make sure to stop for lunch at Gil's Goods. Great burgers and the kid's pizza could feed the family. Also stop by Sacajawea Park for a fun playground.
Located about 50 minutes south of Bozeman, all the pups cooled off here one afternoon. One of the few bodies of water we found that wasn't unbearably cold.
184 Miles- Bozeman to Grand Teton National Park
If you are a photographer, you must visit this national park. The scenery looks photoshopped--it is so beautiful. A great park for kids with short, easy hikes leading to scenic lakes.
We really enjoyed our 2 room rustic log cabin at Signal Mountain Lodge and wouldn’t stay anywhere else. We explored by day and enjoyed sunsets at the cabin. Onsite general store, restaurant, and marina rentals make it a great base camp.
Hikes to Phelps Lake and Leigh Lake were highlights as well as horseback riding and a scenic float trip on the Snake River.
67 Miles- Tetons to Yellowstone National Park
Although magnificent, this was our least favorite stop due to the crowds of people found at Old Faithful, the heat, not enough trailhead parking, and the abrupt realization that none of the national park lodging in Yellowstone has air-conditioning.
Nonetheless, the thermal basins were beautiful and worthy of a stop. We will camp next time to take advantage of the cool evenings if staying in the park. Related post: "A Simply Awesome Day in Yellowstone National Park."
64 Miles- Yellowstone to Island Park, ID
We enjoyed 2 fantastic days at a friend's cabin in Idaho. Mesa Falls State Park, a float trip on the slowly meandering Henry’s Fork, Harriman State Park, and card playing made for a great visit to Idaho.
376 Miles- Island Park to Rawlins, WY
237 Miles- Rawlins, WY to Golden, CO
Spent an afternoon here visiting Red Rocks Amphitheater, Dinosaur Ridge Trail, and the charming town of Golden, CO. Stayed at the historic and beautiful Golden Hotel which we loved. Also enjoyed the outdoor beer garden at Golden’s “2nd largest brewery” Golden City, complete with board games and a food truck. Another town worthy of a longer visit.
551 Miles- Golden, CO to Topeka, KS
Just a stop on the road, but we would perhaps drive an hour further to Kansas City next time.
482 Miles- Topeka to Paducah, KY
Definitely felt like eastern U.S. traffic during this section of the trip. Lots of cars, people, bulletin boards, humidity, and haze. Had a nice stay at the Drury Inn though.
327 Miles- Paducah to Home in Tennessee
Home sweet home after 5,018 miles! It was a great road trip! We particularly enjoyed the open spaces, big skies, cool evenings, good windshield time in South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming and the kind folks we encountered along the way. We would definitely do it again!