National Park loop through Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota

Jan 27, 2011 (Updated Feb 4, 2011)

The Bottom Line Hit the road this summer and enjoy the wild west!

Denver is a great starting point for a scenic road trip to some of America's most beautiful national parks in Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota. I'm going to save you a bit of time and effort and share our itinerary. Our road trip in 2009 spanned 9 days, but the suggested one below is actually for 10 days, since we did not include a stop at Rocky Mountain National Park.

This itinerary can be used for either who like to camp or stay in hotels. We chose to stay in hotels or motels, since we are tent campers and didn't want to be packing up every day. However, you might like to rent a RV. There are many RV rentals in the Denver area and we did see many RV's along the way on our trip.

If you don't have one already, purchase a National Park Pass at Rocky Mountain National Park for $80. With all the national parks you'll be passing through, it'll quickly pay for itself.

Starting Point: Denver International Airport

Day 1: Drive to Rocky Mountain National Park, stay overnight in Grand Lake  - 125 miles

Grab some lunch or breakfast in the cute tourist town of Estes Park (about 75 miles from DIA), just outside the east entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. Then follow Trail Ridge Road through the park for spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains. There are numerous pull-outs and view points, as well as hiking trails. Our favorite spot was up on top near the Alpine Visitor's Center (over 11,000 feet!). We also enjoyed hiking around Bear Lake.

Continue driving through the park to the west entrance. (total mileage through the park is about 45 miles) I would suggest staying in the town of Grand Lake. It's got a lot of nice tourist-y shops with a bit of a wild west/outdoorsy theme (great stuff for decorating cabins). For dinner, consider dining in a restaurant overlooking the scenic Grand Lake.

More on Rocky Mountain National Park here.

Day 2: Drive to Dinosaur National Monument, stay overnight in Vernal, UT - 247 miles

The highlight of the drive today is Steamboat Springs. If you have time in your schedule, you might want to add a night in here and enjoy the famous hot springs pool. The scenery in this area is gorgeous and we wished we could have spent more time here and taken a Gondola ride up to the top of Mt. Werner. But we ate our lunch and continued on our way.

Dinosaur National Monument  straddles the Colorado/Utah border. On the Colorado side you can take a scenic drive up a windy 32-mile road and take a short hike to a scenic outlook  of the beautiful canyons carved by the Yampa and Green Rivers. It's as beautiful here as any of the national parks in Utah or Arizona, but with a whole lot less people. Over on the Utah side is where the actually Dinosaur fossil quarry and visitor's center are located.

Our Vernal Accommodations:  Best Western Antlers
More on Dinosaur National Monument here.

Day 3: Drive to Jackson, Wyoming - 346 miles

While this was an even longer drive than the day before, we found it to be a bit more interesting, especially once we crossed over into Wyoming. The scenery became more rugged and beautiful than the flat Western Colorado plateau. On our way we encountered a pair of pronghorn elk running down the road. Then we came to the beautiful Flaming Gorges Dam and Reservoir. We had lunch in Rock Springs, then continued on our way through the rolling green hills of Wyoming. Toward late afternoon we started to see snow covered peaks and knew that Jackson wasn't far off. We headed down into Jackson Hole (a wide deep valley, flanked by the Tetons to the west). After dinner at the Gun Barrel Steak and Game House, we wandered around the downtown area, filled with lots of gift shops and such. It's definitely very touristy, but we enjoyed the unique Western flavor of this town, with board walks and log railing construction.

Many people stay in Jackson as a home base for vacation. While many think of this resort town for its famous ski runs, there are perhaps even more activities in the summer: fly fishing, white water rafting, and mountain biking, to name just a few. We, however, got back in the car the next day to explore Grand Teton National Park.

Our Jackson Accommodations:  Angler's Inn

Day 4: Explore Grand Teton National Park and spend the night at Signal Mountain Lodge

Finally, a day without a lot of driving! Grand Teton is right next door to Jackson, so your driving will be limited today. Suggested accommodation for the night is Signal Mountain Lodge. It's right in the center of the park (30 miles from Jackson and 27 miles from Yellowstone.) Of course, you could stay in Jackson another night, but this will cut back on the driving back and forth. Most of the activities we did in Grand Teton were on the southern end of the park.

Start the day with a tram ride up the Big Red Tram in Teton Village. Although technically outside the park, this 9 minute ride that climbs over 4000 vertical feet witll give you a greater appreciation of these grand peaks!

The other must-do activity is a boat ride across Jenny Lake and a short hike up to Inspiration Point. I did this as a 5-year-old and still remembered it. It's still a huge draw for visitors, but it's a beautiful way to enjoy to this splendid alpine lake and the scenery of the Tetons.

We kicked back at our cabin at Signal Mountain Lodge at the end of the day and enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the Tetons.

More on Grand Teton National Park here.
More on Signal Mountain Lodge here.

Day 5 & Day 6: Explore Yellowstone National Park, stay 2 nights at a park lodge or cabin

First of all, Yellowstone is a huge national park. It covers close to 3,500 square miles, or over 2.2 million acres! You could easily spend a week here and still not see everything in the park. However, the main roads through the park make it easy enough to see the main attractions in about 2-days time.

We drove in from the south and spent our first afternoon there exploring the geysers along the road between the South Entrance and Madison, including of course, Old Faithful, before arriving at our cabin in the central part of the park. I had tried to get reservations at either Old Faithful Lodge or at the Lake Village near Yellowstone Lake, but when I made our reservations in early January for our trip in June, these popular accommodations already were full! I instead booked our stay at a cabin at the Canyon Lodge & Cabins. As it turns out, we loved this location over either of the other two as it's more centrally located to other sites in the park that we wanted to see.

Our Yellowstone Accommodations: Western Cabin at Canyon Lodge & Cabins

Day 2 was spent exploring and hiking the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. In the afternoon we drove up to Mammoth Hot Springs in the northern part of the Park, and checked out Tower Falls on the return.

Day 7: A little more site-seeing in Yellowstone and drove across Wyoming to Gillette - 330 miles

Before leaving Yellowstone, we checked out the smelly Mud Volcano area and explored the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake. We didn't stay long at the lake, though, as it  had many mosquitoes.

We headed out the East entrance on for our long drive to Gillette. Wyoming, across a variety of terrain: rolling hills, narrow rocky canyons (be sure to stop at Shell Falls Wayside!), steep mountain passes through the spectacular Big Horn mountains and finally, the eastern plains of Wyoming. But once you hit the plains, it's super easy driving. We picked Gillette as a stop because we wanted to see Devil's Tower the next morning. For this purpose, Gillette is ideally located, as it's less than an hour away. But other than that, it's a pretty dull town for vacationers.

Our Gillette accommodations: Hampton Inn
More on Shell Falls here.

Day 8: Devil's Tower and Mount Rushmore, stay overnight in Keystone  - total miles 160-185

Devil's Tower is about half an hour's drive away from I-90, but it's worth it to take this short side-trip to see this huge rock monolith made famous by the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. After spending some time hiking around the base and enjoying the beautiful scenery, we continued on our way, stopping for lunch in Spearfish, South Dakota. Rather than take the more direct route through Rapid City, we opted to take the scenic route through the Black Hills. This will extend your mileage a bit, but we thought it was worth it. To go the same route we did, follow Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway (14A), going south out of Spearfish. Connect with 85, follow it northeast for a bit, then connect with 385 in the town of Lead.

We spent the afternoon checking out Rushmore, having dinner in Keystone, then going back for the evening show at Rushmore.

If you want to spend more time in this area (and many people do since it's so pretty!) you might consider also checking out the Crazy Horse Memorial and Wind Cave National Park. I'm not much into spelunking, so we headed out the next day to Badlands.

Our hotel in Keystone: K Bar S Lodge
More on Mt. Rushmore here.
More on Devil's Tower here.

Day 9: Badlands National Park - 90 miles

We decided to stay overnight in Badlands and for us, it was a good decision. We enjoyed hiking and exploring the rugged scenery and rock formations of the Badlands, which rivals the scenery of the Southwest, but without the crowds that you get down there. However, many people chose just to make this a short "drive-thru" type excursion, stopping to take pictures on the scenic drive and move on. You could easily do it this way. Admittedly, there isn't much to do if you aren't a hiker. However, it's a long drive back to Denver, so I'd suggest maybe doing Badlands as a day trip, stay in Keystone or Rapid City, and explore some other sites (such as Crazy Horse, Wind Cave, or Custer State Park).

Our rustic Badlands cabin:  Cedar Pass Lodge
More on Badlands National Park here.

Day 10 Return to Denver - 450 miles

Okay, start early and hope you have a driving partner! Both Google and Yahoo maps suggest following 385 south to 76 in Colorado, but we decided instead to follow 18 over to I-25, as we prefer driving the interstate rather than highways.

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