Our first leg of our trip was actually one of the longest. We wanted to spend most of the time in the car on the first day, so we went from Milwaukee, WI to Sioux Falls, SD. (it's about 10+ hours, depending how many stops you need to take)
Sioux Falls, was a clean interesting cities. If you're looking to stretch your legs consider stopping at the actual falls themselves. Very fun for 7+ year olds. The park has a series of rocks and waterfalls you can climb on.
Visit the Corn Palace. Ok, maybe it's one of those hooky attractions, but it is pretty interesting to see (especially at night) We didn't stay in Mitchell, but we made it a stop on the way out West.
On our way out to Wall Drug, (you'll see signs all over the place along the freeway) we exited the freeway on Hwy 240 which takes a scenic tour through the South Dakota Bad Lands. More Info
What is Wall Drug? It's exactly that, a drug store. History has it, that they offered free water to passing travelers and the rest is writing on the wall. (no pun intended)
When you visit, they have different kid's activities, souvenir shopping, and you have to try a buffalo burger at the restaurant. You could probably spend about 3 hours here if you needed some time to stretch the legs again.
You certainly can stay in Rapid City, if you plan on visiting South Dakota's main attractions, but we chose to stay in Hill City instead. The town offered some great rates on lodging and was centrally located next to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and the Black Hills.
We stayed in Hill City for two days. Since the drive was considerably long, we needed a chance to unwind and the area offers a number of attractions that you won't want to miss.
We visited Mt. Rushmore during the day, and then headed back for the nightly lighting of the monuments. (check before you leave, they only offer the lighting on certain days throughout the summer) Watching the lighting was really an experience and gave me a sense of patroiatism I haven't felt for a long time. More Info
The next day we visited Crazy Horse. It's interesting to see, but it is a little expensive. More Info
Another interesting spot you might want to visit is the Black Hills & the BadLands. More Info Since we already had visited the Bad Lands, we didn't get a chance to visit the actual park. There is an entree fee and you may or may not see buffalo. Since this adventure was leading us to Yellowstone, we figured we'd see enough buffalo later on (read on for our Buffalo Experiences)
Deadwood is a definitely stop for a night, especially if you don't have kids and love gambling. The town has the old west feel, and the locals try to keep that spirit alive. From the back poker rooms with saw dust on the floor, which we were told by the bartender that it's easier to clean up the blood when bar fights happen to the history of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Seth Bullock.
Ever see the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"? Now visit the attraction where the aliens landed! (at least in the movie) Devil's Tower is a somewhat short drive from Deadwood. It's a little misleading because you see the tower and then it feels like forever to actually get to the tower.
I would encourage you to walk the 1.5 miles around the base of the tower. The hike is pretty easy and stretches your legs for the journey ahead.
Prepare yourself for a long drive from Deadwood, or if you decided to visit Devil's Tower.
The state of Wyoming is vast. Especially coming from a Midwestern state, or even the east coast. As you drive across the state you'll see the road ahead for miles. This was the first time in my life where you could pass during a curve/bend in the road. As you drive you'll learn to appreciate the vastness of exactly how large our earth really is.
Once you arrive in Jackson Hole, WY we stayed at the Snow King Resort. The resort is primarily used for skiing of course, but we enjoyed the off-season rates and other amenities they had to offer.
If you stay during the off-season you can find some great rates on lodging. During the peak ski season, rates will jump considerably.
After spending one night at the Snow King we decided to move to The Alpenhof. The hotel was one of our favorite spots. The hotel maintaines the old mountain lodge feel with all the modern amenities. Outdoor hot tubs, real fireplaces with real WOOD in the rooms and although we didn't eat at the restaurant, we heard great reviews of the location.
Located right next to The Alpenhof is the ski lifts up the mountain. I highly recommend you pay the lift ticket during the summer months and take it all the way to the top. Once you are at the top of the mountain you will not believe how far you can see.
My wife and I decided to actually hike down the mountain (5 miles) .. BE WARNED. Bring water and take this hike very seriously. The mountain hike zig-zags you through out the wilderness and down the mountain. We were fortunate enough to see a cow moose that just watched us walk by. But towards the end of the hike it did start to get cold and rain..
Our muscles the next day were VERY sore. Walking downhill for 5 miles puts quite the tole on the different muscles that you may or may not regularly use.
We found that you will need at least three days in Yellowstone to fully enjoy what the park has to offer. You should check with the Yellow Stone web site More Info to find out what type of pass you can obtain for your vehicle during your stay.
Since we aren't true campers, we decided to stay in a town called Gardener MT. The name of the hotel was the Best Western Gardener More Info For our needs, the hotel was just fine. They had an indoor pool, with a nice restaurant for lunches and breakfasts.
As we approached the south entrance we stopped at Moose Falls for a quick peak at one of the many waterfalls Yellowstone has to offer. We made a quick stop to eat our lunch and to prove what Yellowstone has to offer, on our way back to the car we spotted three Elk just yards from the parking lot. Easily the largest animals I had seen in nature to date. The horns on this animal were huge, and intimidating.
Next you'll want to stop in Grant Village if you nee any supplies. Since we were on our way to Gardener MT, anyway, we bypassed this location and went directly to the West Thumb Geyser Basin. There aren't any huge geysers at this basin, but it's a great first introductory stop to the geyser basins.
Leaving the West Thumb Geyser Basin, we headed north, and encountered our first buffalo sighting! The buffalo are not timid and will chose to cross the road at any time. The pair we encounter walked directly in front of our car, turned towards us, as if they were waiting to have their photo taken, and continued on their way. An amazing experience. See the video at: More Info
Keep heading north, with Yellowstone lake at your right. There's plenty of opportunities to stop and take pictures and watch for wildlife.
You'll soon reach the Mud Volcano area. We had the opportunity to see a massive herd of buffalo at this point. They were literally 50 ft from everyone, going about their business. Check out the video here: More Info
Still traveling north, you'll find one of the most beautiful spots in Yellowstone. The Canyon area upper and lower falls clearly define the amazing scenery you will experience in Yellowstone. Make sure you walk out to Artist's point. The photos you will take will never give justice to the real life experience.
At this point we headed west towards Norris Junction. Day one was pretty busy, full of activities, so we just continued straight past any attractions. Don't worry, we'll tackled those on Day Two.
After resting up, we stopped in Gardener MT at a local gas station for sandwhiches for a picnic. Make sure you load up on water if you plan on hiking.
Our first stop for Day Two was at the Mammoth Hot Springs Basin. If you park at the bottom of the hill you can actually explore around the foothills and then drive to the top instead of hiking all the way.
After visiting Mammoth Falls, head east towards Tower-Roosevelt Jnct. We stopped an saw a few waterfalls along the way including Wraith, Undine, and Tower Falls. Tower Falls was our most favorite of the three.
Along your drive you should see some of the fire damage that was caused in the 1996 Yellowstone fire. It is amazing how much the terrain has improved with new trees sprouting everywhere. Yet the charred remains of the once tall trees still stand as reminders of what nature can do.
Next was the Norris Geyser Basin. Here you will find a variety of active geysers that will entertain. You can surely sit and wait for the action. The Puff N Stuff Geyser, and Steamboat was the most active when we visited. More Info
After visiting Norris Junction head North back to the hotel. You may find some of the terrain familier because you have already driven through this area. But by driving through Yellowstone a few different times it will increase your chance of finding wildlife. This time while driving back to the hotel in Gardener, we saw a coyote pup playing in the prairie. More Info
Starting back at the hotel in Gardiner, we actually checked out for the stay. Our plan was to stay our final night at the Old Faithful Inn. If you plan on staying, make sure you book your stay MONTHS in advance. The hotel is very popular and very crowded during the high peak season, which can run from May - Sept. More Info
After entering the park, head south towards Norris Jct. We stopped at Gibbon Falls for a while for an ice cream. It was a little crowded so we pressed on towards Madison Jct, and Firehole Canyon Dr.
NOTE: That Firehole canyon drive is one-way and can get very crowded. I would still recommend to make the drive. If you're towing a camper you may / may not be able to make the drive depending on the season and how crowded it is.
Along the way there is a swimming area, if the weather permits.
Next on the plan, was the Lower Geyser Basin / Midway Geyser Basin. Before you visit any of these Geyser basins, it's a good idea to actually find out estimated geyser times. We made the mistake of just visiting and hoping for the best. While waiting for the Great Fountain Geyser, we actually viewed another geyser eruption in the distance. Thinking that the geysers went off fairly frequently we didn't rush to the car to drive the 1 mile to get a closer look. Morale of the story, Great Fountain Geyser wasn't planned to go off for another 12 hours, and the geyser we viewed from a distance wasn't planned for another 8 hours. Luck of the draw really.
By around 3:00 you should be able to check in to the Old Faithful Inn if you have reservations. The Old Faithful Village and Upper Geyser Basin walk was a personal favorite. Lots of activity and of course Old Faithful which actually goes off every 90 minutes or so.
Americans save up their whole life to take that one big vacation out of the country. It always baffles me when I meet someone that has never taken the time to simply hop in the car and drive out west (or east if you're coming from the west coast of course) The experience of the old west, Yellowstone and the simple vastness of how large the United States is, never ceases to amaze. If you're looking for a vacation this year, or next year, consider the American Road Trip out west. You won't be disappointed.