Welcome to Tents, Trails and Taps: 3 National Parks and alotta Wildlife
Make sure to read the intro post to this series here.
If you are new to camping, read what gear you’ll need here.
If you’re looking for a more simple itinerary go here.
Get ready for a doozy.
Road Trip Rating: Hard. There is no easy way to say this, but you’re about to become a road trip warrior. You might hate me 10 hours in, but when you’re totally done with the trip you’ll send me a thank you card (or money. I accept money).
Total driving time: 50 – 60 hours depending on your start/finish point
Days: 9 – 11 depending on how fast you wanna go.
*This trip is not recommended for dogs. They are not allowed on the majority of these trails.
*Unfortunately, camping sites around Yellowstone/Tetons are first come first serve, try to make reservations with all of these camping spots IF YOU CAN, but just get to the camp sites early if you can’t make a reservation.
Highlights of this itinerary
- Hike all the best trails in Badlands National Park, experiencing the other-worldly landscape and tracking down some adorable prairie wildlife.
- Explore Custer State Park and hike my favorite trail I’ve done so far this year.
- Drive by Mt. Rushmore (if thats your jam) and Crazy Horse
- Spend two full days in America’s first National Park: Yellowstone
- See all of the famous geysers and hot springs
- Visit two of the park’s best waterfalls
- Be overwhelmed by the amount of animals (and break your bear curse if you had one like I did)
- Enjoy some relaxing time at Colter Bay
- Be a tourist in Jackson, WY
- Hike one of America’s best trails: Cascade Canyon Trail in Grand Teton National Park
- Bonus days include: Visit the world’s largest reptile zoo: Reptile Garden’s, take a scenic drive through Rocky Mountain National Park, spend a half day at Omaha Zoo, AND/OR frolic around America’s largest Danish rural villages in the middle of Iowa.
*You should purchase the National Parks Pass for this trip. It will ultimately save you money (and I promise I’ll give you more reasons to use it).
You ready? Okay. Let’s hit the road.
-Don’t hate me. You need to hit the road starting around 3 or 4 in the morning. You can break this time up a little bit by leaving the night before and sleeping at a rest stop once you get tired. But this will be a long day.
*I have done this drive twice now, once with just me and my dogs and once with the boy. It’s much easier with someone else assisting in the driving but obviously not impossible if you want to make this a solo trip.
**Also yes I did tell you this wasn’t a great trip for dogs because they aren’t allowed on most trails, and yes I did take my dogs on this trip once, but I couldn’t do much hiking with them there.
-Along this journey you’ll be driving by some noteworthy breweries that you should try to incorporate into your drive:
Rochester, MN: Forager Brewing Company (love this place)
Keeeeeep driving until you get to the Badlands (for us this drive was about 15 hours…). You have to drive through the park to get to your campsite, which is just one mile outside of the park. I know your eyeballs want to stop and enjoy the view right now, but if you’re following this itinerary as it is written its going to be getting dark soon and you have to set up camp before that happens.
First campsite: Badlands Interior Campground (the name makes it sound like it is inside the park, but the name of the city is Interior… so don’t get confused when you’re leaving the park to find it)
Be careful when picking your campsite here, as the weather is unpredictable and it can rain pretty dramatically at any minute. Danny and I moved our picnic table from under the awning and set up our tent under this fun protective home. A HUGE storm rolled through and in the morning we were one of the only tents standing.
–Welcome to your Badlands day!!
-Eat a delicious camping breakfast and hit the road. Leave your tent set up because this campsite is your home for one more night (or two if you add in the bonus day).
First Trail: Notch Trail (moderate… but pretty damn easy unless you don’t like heights)
-Your first trail is a short wander into what could easily be mistaken as another planet. This trail is known for a log ladder that takes you to the top of the cliffs. Reading reviews made me really excited for this ladder because everyone said it was scary, but when we approached the ladder I was disappointed because I was expecting something more extreme and awesome. The ladder is cute. Everyone should be able to climb it unless you have an extreme fear of heights. My favorite part of this trail was watching all the cliff swallows, and you have a good chance of seeing a prairie rattlesnake here.
-Notch Trail can be a pretty popular trail so you’ll want to do this early to beat the crowd
Second Trail: The Window Trail (extra easy)
-This trail is basically just a tiny boardwalk trail to a very pretty overlook. I found a chipmunk on this trail. It was very exciting.
Third Trail: The Door Trail (easy)
-This might be my favorite in the park maybe. It starts with a boardwalk, but then yellow markers take you out onto the rock formations and that was the fun part. Its a little easy to lose sight of the yellow trail markers, but make your way all the way to the end and you’ll get the best view in the park. If you’re doing this midday, wear sunscreen, there is no shade. This would also be a fun one to do at sunrise or sunset.
Fourth Trail: Saddle Pass (moderate)
-This is a fun one if you like climbing up the side of rock formations. Wear proper shoes (don’t be like us). We did this trail at sunset and the views were pretty but I think they would be more pretty maybe on The Door Trail. Be prepared for the ground to be a little sketchy, the incline is made out of loose pebbles and dirt. At one point on the way down I just crouched down and slid while balancing myself with my hands off the rocks on either side of me and the technique worked great.
-In between hiking, driving slowly through Badlands is an adventure all in its own. The wildlife you can see while driving is fantastic and totally worth driving the entire loop. Stop at all the lookouts along the way!
BONUS DAY: Welcome to your first bonus day. Technically you can accomplish all the trails and driving the loop in one day, but if you wanna go a little slow thats totally okay too! Break the above trails into two days, and on the second day in the morning visit Reptile Gardens, the world’s largest reptile zoo. It has an impressive collection of snakes and crocodilians and a walk through of giant tortoises. The horticulture team at this place deserves great praise. Its about an hour’s drive from your campsite, and you can eat lunch at Firehouse Brewing Company before heading back to Badlands and finishing your hikes!
– Go ahead and plug Mt. Rushmore into your GPS. Along the drive you’ll be able to see it just fine from a couple different viewpoints, but don’t pay to go into the park. Whatever your feelings are about Mt. Rushmore (hey PS its rooted in racism), there’s the info. Don’t pay money.
-Not far away is the Crazy Horse Memorial. If you want to give money to a monument, do it here… however you can just pull into the parking lot and ask to turn around and you can get a little closer to it this way. Time to spend at the memorial isn’t factored into this itinerary….but it doesn’t take long to just do a quick swing by.
-Okay now that you have all that historical stuff out of the way, plug in Custer State Park and head to your hiking destination of the day.
Today’s Trail: Sunday Gulch Trail (moderate-hard)
-Drive yourself to the amazingly gorgeous Sylvan Lake. If you park and walk to the rear of the lake you’ll find the trail sign for the Sunday Gulch Trail. You’re going to want to head counter clockwise on this loop trail (so when you’re staring at the sign go to your right).
–THIS TRAIL IS FUN. But if you don’t like parkouring down into a gulch on rocks using railings, then you might disagree with me… but it was my favorite hike of this entire trip.
-I’m rating this trail moderate-hard because the railings could be complicated for some people, there is a moderate amount of incline throughout the hike, and the distance is a little further than other hikes I’m recommending. It is worth every bead of sweat.
-There are many other trails in Custer State Park, but lets face it, you’re on a time crunch. So might as well do the most fun one.
-After your hike and after eating some treats near Sylvan Lake, you’re going to want to drive the Needle Highway. The rock formations here are so unique and many look like penises so you can giggle the whole time you’re driving.
-You’ll also want to drive the Wildlife Loop, because you’re pretty much guaranteed to see some cute things:
-Once you’re done exploring the park, get ready for a drive and an imperfect night’s sleep. You’re going to save time and money tonight by driving to the closest rest stop outside of Yellowstone and sleeping in your car. YOU CAN DO THIS, I BELIEVE IN YOU! Plug in Gooseberry Creek Rest Area in Thermopolis, Wyoming (but for real follow that link because my maps had a melt down when I tried to find it). This will mean you’re sleeping a little less than 2 hours outside of Yellowstone.
-Get as comfy as possible and sleep your little head off in your car (or FINE get a hotel or something, but financially that just doesn’t make sense).
-Today’s goal is to see and hike Yellowstone while also battling for a camping spot. Luckily if you’re tent camping, you have a relatively okay shot at getting a spot most places around Yellowstone and Tetons. That being said, it is typically first come, first serve. So you’ll want to check The Dyrt and look for the camp spots in the area and then make sure you get there as close to opening as possible. You will want a camping site near the south portion of Yellowstone… and if you’re really thinking smart you’ll get a site in between Yellowstone and Grand Tetons. We camped at Headwaters Campground which is right in between Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. It is a perfect location. We booked our spots a little before they opened and then waited around until we could check in and set up camp. They had about 4 spots left for tents when we checked in. This campsite can be a little crowded, but honestly we ONLY spent time here to sleep. We would explore the parks all day until 10 or 11 at night and then find our way home to our tent to sleep. Tent spots in these areas will be a little more pricey than other places, because it’s Yellowstone.
–Once you figure out your living situation, head back to Yellowstone because I have a list of things for you to do.
Day Four and Five
-Instead of mapping out everything you must do and the order you must do them in, I’m just going to give you a list of what you have to do in Yellowstone and you can plan it around your snack times. You have two days to accomplish everything on this list. You can do it. And you’ll enjoy it.
–West Thumb Geyser Basin Trail: Gorgeous views and most likely some elk
–Grand Prismatic Hot Spring Trail: Get an overhead view of that fancy rainbow hole in the ground
–Midway Geyser Basin Trail: Walk close to that rainbow hole on a cute boardwalk showing you sulfury things
–Natural Bridge Trail: Check out (gasp) a natural bridge
–Lower Falls: Enjoy this iconic view and walk to different view points
–Gibbon Falls: Just a quick overlook
–OLD FAITHFUL: Duh yes you have to watch this thing go boom. This thing goes off about 17 times a day, and in the visitor center it has a countdown of when they think it’ll likely go off again. Grab a snack and go claim a front bench and just chill till it goes off.
–Mammoth Hot Springs: This otherworldly area is pretty high up north in the park, but driving the park in general is a huge part of visiting Yellowstone, so buckle up and make your way up there.
-So there is your list. This is your minimal list of things you must do in two days. If you are good at time management you can do a whole lot more. But make sure you factor in a lot of driving time, because that’s how you’ll see all the wildlife for the most part.
-You can wander around the village and then head to this beach area. If you search you can find some good trees to hang your hammock and just take a little nap, eat a little snack and enjoy the gorgeous scenery. This is a great place for sunset too! We came back to this area maybe 3 or 4 times. The water is cold but you can swim here (if you’re crazy like Danny is).
-Once you’re rested you can lazily drive around Grand Tetons, pulling out onto every overlook and looking for wildlife. You’ll most likely see a moose or two and it’ll be very exciting.
-After driving and exploring the Grand Tetons, head down to the city of Jackson. This city is a cute little touristy town with lots of shops and restaurants. Head to Snake River Brewery for a beer tasting and some food.
-Once you are full and happy you can either browse town some more or head back to Colter Bay beach for sunset. Or even just head back to camp and start a fire and drink more beer. Your options are endless. E.N.D.L.E.S.S. (but also you have a big hike tomorrow so maybe get some rest).
-Today you’re going to do a hike that often makes the list of top 10 best hikes in America. Are you excited??!?!? AHHH SAY YES. You need to start this one very early because it is VERY popular. Since this is your last day in this area, make sure to pack up your tent and check out of your campsite before you hit the trail!
Today’s Trail: Cascade Canyon Trail (moderate)
-You’ll want to park in the parking lot at Jenny Lake and then walk to the boat area. Get there to take the 7 am boat (that is the first boat available during the ‘peak season’. Check this website to make sure the times fit the month you’re traveling). This quick boat ride will take you across the lake and to the starting point of the trail. The boat isn’t necessary…but it will cut off two miles of your already long hike. We bought a one way ticket to cut off the first two miles and then hiked back, but you can buy a round trip ticket to cut off a total of 4 miles.
-Once you’re on the other side of the lake, its rather easy to figure out where you’re going. You’ll head in the direction of Inspiration Point, this will be an up hill climb with a beautiful overlook at the top.
-Once you’ve enjoyed the views at Inspiration Point, you’ll hike into the canyon and the trail basically flattens out at this point. The views are amazing. The trail is just a straight shot into the canyon, and you can walk as far as you like and then turn around and head back at any point. If you’re feeling good and wanting to do the entire trail, do it!
-Like I already mentioned, once you’re done with the trail you can either head back to the boat dock and take a return trip, or you can hike for 2 miles along the Jenny Lake trail and head back to the parking lot. The trail itself is easy, but at this point it might be a little crowded. There are nice views of the lake along the way.
-After a long hike you’re gonna need some beer, so head over to Roadhouse Brewing Company in Jackson Hole and get hydrated. But not overly hydrated, you’re about to hit the road.
*Now you have a sort of a ‘choose your own adventure’ thing that is about to happen.
You’re about to head home to the Midwest. You have options for day trips on the way back. I am about to list them, with a list of breweries you’ll be driving past on the way home. At this point, you’ll have to choose your own way. God speed.
1.) Stop by Rocky Mountain National Park and do a couple hikes on the way home.
2.) You’re gonna be driving through Omaha! You can stop at the Henry Doorly Zoo! Say hello to Kara the sloth bear and tell her I miss her and love her.
4.) Visit Indiana Dunes National Park and swim a little.
5.) Just buckle up and drive home. It’ll be a long drive but you can do it.
Davenport, Iowa: Front Street Brewery
Joliet, Illinois: MyGrain Brewery
South Bend, Indiana: Crooked Ewe
OMG NOW YOU’RE DONE! You’re home! You did it!
I am both proud and impressed.
*Now rest a while and start thinking about your next trip.