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Western National Parks: A Summer Road Trip

by Grant

Looking to experience the American West in a summer road trip? Can’t decide where to start, how long to stay and where to go? Look no further. Here’s our ultimate western National Parks summer road trip. 

This trip will take you through some of the absolute best places this country has to offer. While we start in Denver, you could just as easily start in Wall, SD if coming by car from the east or Kalispell, MT if coming from the west. 

Lower Falls at Yellowstone National Park
Did you know that Yellowstone National Park has its own Grand Canyon, complete with Upper and Lower Falls?

In this trip, you will see amazing sites in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. If you have never been to this part of the world, I guarantee it will amaze you. 

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Why I Chose These Sites for the Ultimate Western National Parks Summer Road Trip

Folks who have spent a lot of time out West are going to take one look at this itinerary and say, “Wait! You left out _____! How can you leave out _____?” And, of course, those folks are right. 

There’s so much to see in the western National Parks and the distances are long. Omitting amazing places like Zion National Park in Utah, Great Basin National Park in Nevada and Yosemite National Park in California from this trip is a sin. Those places are amazing!

So, why did I choose what I did? 

Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills in the afternoon.
Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills in the afternoon.

Simple: I wanted to give you a more condensed, season-appropriate summer trip because I know not everyone can afford to spend eight weeks on the road. As it is, this western National Parks road trip is going to take you thousands of miles and you will see a truly staggering variety of sites along the way. 

With the four optional days, this trip will take you 40 days, including flying to and from Denver. Of course, if you don’t have six weeks to explore, you can always cut a few stops or spend less time in certain areas. This is what we would recommend for each park, though.

Ultimate Western National Parks Summer Road Trip Itinerary

Start – Fly into Denver, drive to Rocky Mountain National Park

3 Days – Explore Rocky Mountain National Park

1 Day – Drive west to Dinosaur National Monument

2 Days – Explore Dinosaur National Monument

Optional 1 Day – Camp in the backcountry of Dinosaur National Park and drive the unimproved roads

1 Day – Drive north through Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area to Jackson Hole, WY

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area

Optional 1 Day – Spend the day exploring Jackson Hole

2 Days – Explore Grand Teton National Park

1 Day – Drive the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway to Yellowstone National Park

4 Days – Explore Yellowstone National Park

1 Day – Drive the Beartooth Scenic Byway from Yellowstone National Park and then cut back to Cody, WY

Atop Beartooth Pass
Atop Beartooth Pass

2 Days – Explore Cody, WY

Optional 1 Day – Drive to Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

1 Day – Drive through the Bighorn Mountains and then turn north to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, ending in Billings, MT

2 Days – Drive to and explore Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site and then on to Kalispell, MT

3 Days – Explore Glacier National Park 

1 Day – Drive US 2 east across Montana, stopping at the Bear Paw Battlefield (part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park) and on to Medora, ND

2 Days – Explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park

1 Day – Drive to Wall, SD

Water fun in the backyard at Wall Drug.
You will find a small water attraction for the kids in the “backyard” of Wall Drug.

1 Day (optional) – Visit Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and Wall Drug

2 Days – Explore Badlands National Park

1 Day – Drive to Custer, SD

A bison statue in Custer, SD.
A bison statue in Custer, SD.

5 Days – Explore the Black Hills, including Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Park, Devils Tower National Monument and Custer State Park plus several other amazing sites. 

1 Day – Return to Denver

Pro tip: If you want to spend the 4th of July in Cody, WY, which we HIGHLY RECOMMEND, arrive in Denver on June 15 if you are taking all of the optional days. 

Fireworks at Cody
The Ponderosa Campground in Cody affords a great spot to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Rocky Mountain National Park

When it comes to seeing western National Parks, you can’t go wrong driving through Rocky Mountain NP. Located north of Denver in the Front Range, it’s a beautiful introduction to the Rocky Mountains. With dramatic vistas, abundant wildlife and one heck of an epic drive, this park is gorgeous from top to bottom. 

A moose in the grass in Rocky Mountain National Park.
A moose in the grass in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Trail Ridge Road is one of the best drives in America. We suggest making a loop out of the Old Fall River Road (an easy gravel road) if it is open. We found lots of elk in both Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park, as well as moose on the East Inlet Trail.

Be sure to get out to for some great day hikes. We particularly loved the Bear Lake area and the East Inlet Trail. 

Read about our three days in Rocky Mountain NP here.

Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park is an easy hike from Bear Lake.

Pro tip: Purchase an America The Beautiful Pass when you get here. This will save you $190 in entrance fees on this trip alone and will remain good for an entire year. Yes, it will SAVE you $190 after you purchase the pass for $80. There are special passes available for seniors, active military, those with disabilities and children in 4th grade. Read more about all the National Park passes.

Dinosaur National Monument

If there is one spot on this Western National Parks summer road trip that deserves to be upgraded to a national park, its Dinosaur National Monument. 

Located in western Colorado into eastern Utah, the main attraction of this park is the massive number of dinosaur fossils. Indeed, the Quarry Exhibit Center has hundreds of fossils on display, including more than 1,500 embedded in the cliff wall. 

Split Mountain in Dinosaur National Monument
Split Mountain in Dinosaur National Monument.

But once you get away from the Quarry Exhibit Center, that’s where this park shines. Head out Cub Creek Road to see amazing views of Split Mountain and the Green River. Also, be sure to make it out to the Josie Morris Cabin at the end of the Cub Creek Road. 

Josie Morris’ story is one of my absolute favorites from American history. The story of a woman who decides to strike out on her own and manage her own homestead is tremendous. I won’t spoil how it ends but just know it is worth your visit.

Harding Hole
Harding Hole in Dinosaur National Monument required a four-wheel drive to get there.

If you are driving a vehicle with four-wheel drive, spend a day driving out Echo Park Road and the Yampa Bench Road. I especially loved the Harding Hole Overlook, one of the prettiest views I have found.

One thing we haven’t done here but really want to go back for is the opportunity to raft the rivers. I think that would be a great way to see the backcountry and the river looks amazing. 

Read more about our visit to Dinosaur NM here.

Jackson Hole/Grand Teton National Park

Drive north through the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area up to Jackson Hole, WY. The drive is gorgeous with plenty of amazing views. A bit off the path further north is Fossil Butte National Monument. If you are a National Park geek collecting stamps, like we are, you won’t want to miss it. If not, while it is cool, it is nothing compared to what you just saw in Dinosaur National Monument.

Jackson Hole is one of the ultimate resort towns on this Western National Parks summer road trip. It’s also a good place to take care of anything you need to handle before disconnecting from the world. Once you start heading north into the Yellowstone area, getting any sort of cell phone or internet connection is tough to come by. 

Mt. Moran at sunrise in Grand Teton National Park.
Mt. Moran at sunrise in Grand Teton National Park.

Grand Teton NP is all about the views and they are more than worth the price of admission. There are spectacular views of the Teton Range, which seem to shoot straight up from the ground, everywhere you look. 

In terms of getting out on the trail, we loved the Jenny Lake Loop. The trail is not dfficult and the views are more than worth the sweat. 

On the Jenny Lake loop trail
On the Jenny Lake loop trail

While wildlife is not nearly as plentiful in Grand Teton NP as Yellowstone NP, there is still a lot of see and love. Indeed, one of my favorite pictures from any of our trips is a shot of bison grazing with the Tetons in the background (the cover photo for this article). 

Read about camping in Grand Teton NP and Yellowstone NP here.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone NP is easily one of our favorite places on earth. Seriously, there is so much to see and love, I am not sure where to start. 

Drive north on the John D. Rockerfeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway which connects Grand Teton NP to Yellowstone. If the National Parks bug has bitten you, be sure to stop at the lodge about halfway in between to get your passport stamped. 

Yellowstone River at sunset
Yellowstone River at sunset

We recommend four days in the park to really see and enjoy everything. You can do less but it will, likely, feel rushed. 

At the very least, drive the Grand Loop, stop at the thermal features at Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring, see Mammoth Hot Springs, drive the Blacktail Plateau Drive, look for the bison herds in Lamar and Hayden valleys, check out the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and do the Old West Cookout at Roosevelt Lodge

The horseback ride to the cookout provided great views!
The scenery during the two-hour horseback ride did not disappoint!

And that’s the shortlist!

Seriously, there is so much to see and do. We are already planning on spending a lot more time in Yellowstone during the summer of 2021. 

Read our top tips for visiting Yellowstone National Park here.

Cody, WY

The Beartooth Scenic Byway exits out of the northeast corner of Yellowstone NP and ascends up to 10,947 feet. You will feel like you are on top of the world. Charles Kuralt called it the most scenic drive in America for good reason. Yes, you are going out of your way getting to Cody but it is worth it.

Cody Gunfighters
Every afternoon at 6 p.m, there is a shootout at the Irma Hotel. It is free, but you can reserve a chair for two bits… Well, $2.

Cody, WY is another favorite of ours. It is truly the heart of the West. The town was founded by Buffalo Bill Cody and you can stay at the Irma Hotel he opened there. They even have a gunfight in front of the hotel every night. 

The Buffalo Bill Cody Museum of the West is probably one of our favorite museums. It has five different museums within it and a raptor center. While the natural history museum and Plains Indian museums are easy favorites, I particularly love the Western art exhibits and the firearms museum. 

Bronc Riding at the Cody Stampede
Bronc Riding at the Cody Stampede

At night, there is really only one place to be: the Cody Nite Rodeo. There is a live rodeo every night during the summer in Cody. As the motto says: “Cody is rodeo.” Over the week leading up to the Fourth of July, the rodeo world descends on Cody for the Cody Stampede, which takes the competition to the international level. It’s more than worth it!

Read more about Cody, WY here.

Bighorn Canyon, Little Big Horn Battlefield and Billings

Heading east from Cody, you will pass right by Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. This is a great optional stop on our ultimate western National Parks summer road trip. We found fantastic views and plenty of history in our visit to the southern end of this park. You can easily spend a day here. Be sure to keep an eye out for the wild horses!

Read more about Bighorn Canyon NRA here.

Bighorn Canyon from the Devil Canyon Overlook
Bighorn Canyon from the Devil Canyon Overlook

From Bighorn Canyon NRA, head east through the imposing Bighorn Range and then turn north on the Interstate towards Montana. Not far after you cross the border, you will find the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

No trip to the western National Parks is complete without seeing this iconic battlefield. This is where the famed cavalry commander George Custer and the 7th Cavalry were wiped out fighting against the Lakota (Sioux) and Cheyenne. 

Cheyenne Marker at Little Bighorn
One of the more recent additions to Little Bighorn is grave markers for the fallen Cheyenne.

What I love most about this place is how well the National Park Service tells both sides of the story. If you can manage to be there for a ranger talk about the battle, be sure to attend it. It’s worth your time. In all, plan on spending a couple of hours before heading to Billings. 

In Billings, be sure to check out the downtown area for some great restaurants.

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site

The drive across Montana on I-90 is actually quite beautiful. Once you get to Deer Lodge, be sure to stop for a few hours at the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site. This was the first cattle ranch in Montana and started an entire industry. 

Grant-Kohrs Ranch
Grant-Kohrs Ranch

It is preserved as a working cattle ranch with plenty of living historians demonstrating how the various parts of the ranch operate. Be sure to check the schedule for a tour of the main house which is more than worth your time.

You can stay in Deer Lodge, which we enjoyed, or you can head to Helena, which is not that far away for the night before heading to Glacier National Park.

Read more about Grant-Kohrs NHS here.

Glacier National Park

The drive north to Glacier National Park will take you through the Flathead Valley, which is one of the prettiest areas I have ever driven through. 

Glacier NP is often called the Crown of the Continent and for good reason. While Yellowstone’s main attractions are the thermal features and the wildlife, Glacier NP is all about the mountains, making it a perfect stop on our ultimate western National Parks summer road trip. 

A cabin in the Kintla Lake Road in Glacier National Park.
A cabin in the Kintla Lake Road in Glacier National Park.

Going-to-the-Sun Road will take you through the middle of the park and there are stunning views at every turn. Logan Pass and the crystal clear lakes along the way are jaw-droppers as well.

A hiker’s park, be sure to get out on the trail in this park. Avalanche Creek up to Avalanche Lake is a great hike. We also hiked some great trails in the Many Glacier area. 

Avalanche Creek in Glacier National Park
Avalanche Creek in Glacier National Park

On the east side of the park, be sure to stop at the Park Cafe for their scrumptious pies. Seriously, this place has some of the best pies I have ever had. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

I’m not going to lie… this is a long drive and it’s not nearly as scenic as some of the other drives on this trip. Still, there is a certain amount of romance about being out in the middle of nowhere… and that’s where you are on this drive. 

Do yourself a favor, though: stop at the Bear Paw Battlefield (which is part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park). This is where the final battle of the Nez Perce War occurred. It is where Chief Joseph famously said, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” 

The Missouri River where it flows through Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The Missouri River where it flows through Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

I teach this piece of literature and I really wish I had stopped here when I drove across in 2012. 

Keep on going until you get to Medora, ND. Alternatively, you could stop further north in Williston, ND and visit the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. It’s a neat stop because the fort was built by a private company, not the Army, as a trading post for the local tribes.

If you take this detour, you can easily head south to Medora from there. You will pass through the Bakkan oil fields, which is an education in and of itself. 

Wild horses grazing in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Wild horses grazing in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt, the man who did the most to create the National Park system, owned this land near Medora as a ranch, eventually donating it to the Park Service to create this park. 

These rugged badlands are home to tremendous vistas, herds of bison and wild horses plus some great hiking.

Badlands National Park

Wall, SD is home to the (in)famous Wall Drug, one of the most over-the-top tourist traps you will ever see. Still, it has some fun stuff and is an easy way to kill a couple of hours. This is especially useful in the summer when temperatures can easily climb over 100 degrees. 

Read about Wall Drug here.

Just east of Wall is another optional stop on this trip but well worth your time: Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. 

The missle control console at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
The missle control console at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

This park preserves launch sites for nuclear missiles from the Cold War. If you plan ahead and reserve a spot on a tour, you can take the elevator down to the launch control room. It’s a really cool bit of history you can’t see anywhere else. 

Just south of Wall is Badlands NP. This site has some of the most unique formations you will ever see. You can easily see why it is called the Badlands but there is serious beauty to be had here. 

I highly recommend doing the scenic drive. There are some amazing sites plus you will find bison, bighorn sheep and a prairie dog town! I could seriously sit and watch these little guys scurry about for quite a while. As Bonnie would say, “So cute!”

Badlands NP at Sunrise
Badlands National Park at Sunrise.

As for hiking, I recommend getting out early in the morning before the midday heat. There are some really good hikes and we really enjoyed exploring the trails. Indeed, if you get up really early, the Badlands really come alive with the light at dawn. It really is one of the best places to watch a sunrise or sunset.  

Read more about things to do when visiting Badlands National Park.

Black Hills

Head west from the Badlands into a completely different world: the Black Hills.

This is another one of our favorite spots on earth. There’s so much to do and love while you are in the Black Hills.

At the very least, I recommend you visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument and Custer State Park… that’s a bare minimum.

Mt. Rushmore in the winter
Mt. Rushmore in the winter

Be sure to book your cave tours at both caves in advance and we recommend taking a lantern tour for one of them. One of our favorite moments of that tour was where the guides had us extinguish our lanterns and sit in total darkness. It’s eerie not being able to see even a hint of light. 

There are several great hikes between Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park and Black Hills National Forest, including Black Elk Peak, the tallest spot in the Black Hills. 

Bison grazing in Custer State Park.
Bison grazing in Custer State Park.

In terms of driving tours, be sure to drive the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park, the Iron Mountain Road, the Needles and Norbeck scenic byways and Spearfish Canyon. Deadwood is not far from Spearfish Canyon.

Read about our winter trip to the Black Hills here.

We always end up in Custer, SD and love the little town but there are plenty of other towns and a LOT more to do in the Black Hills.

Devils Tower
Devils Tower

Devils Tower National Monument is at the western end of the Black Hills in Wyoming and is more than worth the drive out. You can do that as an out and back trip or you can do that as a detour on your way back to Denver, whichever works best for you. 

Final Thoughts on the Western National Parks Road Trip

The American West is truly something to behold. This trip will let you experience a glimpse of the wonder to be had. From the Front Range of Colorado to the herds of Lamar Valley, across the plains of Montana to the badlands of the Dakotas, you will see some of the prettiest places in the country, much less the world.

A grizzly cooling off in the creek on a hot day.
A grizzly cooling off in the creek in Yellowstone National Park on a hot day.

I hope this itinerary helps you plan your western national parks road trip. My list of places to visit is by no means exhaustive but if you have never been out West and want to see a great representation of this amazing country, this itinerary will get you there and show you what you should see at the very least. 

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