The Perfect 12-Day Northern USA Road Trip Itinerary for Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas

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I've said it before but I'll say it again: there's no better way to see the United States than by taking to the road. Road tripping is the ultimate way to explore America, and there's no shortage of options whether you want to travel for 10 days or 10 months.

And while certain US road trip routes are more popular than others, the truth is that there's something to see in EVERY state in this union.

Which is why my sister and I decided to tackle a slightly less-popular road trip route: we decided we wanted to focus on the northern states that never seem to get enough love, and plan a road trip through Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

These four states are some of the least-populated in the US, and yet they're home to some of the most stunning national parks, the quirkiest cities, and some of the nicest people.

Grand Teton National Park
Grand Tetons
Window Trail in Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park

If you're interested in a unique US road trip route this year, consider one like this!

When to take a Northern USA road trip

This particular itinerary is written with summer road tripping in mind, as it's the most popular time of year to visit this part of the USA. BUT, you can absolutely visit Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas in a different season.

Summer season is the busiest season for traveling within the United States; July and August are by far the most crowded times in most national parks, and the months when hotel rooms are the most expensive.

If you want to save some money (and miss the worst of the crowds), consider traveling in the shoulder seasons, like April-May and September-October.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park
You can see wildlife year-round!

You can visit this part of the US in the winter, too, though winter does bring snow and closures to many of these destinations like the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. If you're planning this trip in the winter months, be sure to do some research into what will/won't be open, especially when it comes to visiting national parks.

(Again, this particular itinerary is written with a May-September trip in mind!)

A 12-Day Road Trip Itinerary for Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas

Before we dive in here, it's important to note that this itinerary does include traversing through or near some Indigenous lands, mostly belonging to the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Sioux tribes. These include the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, and the Crow Reservation in Montana, as well as lands that traditionally belonged to these and other Indigenous peoples. Please be respectful when visiting and passing through these places.

You can technically start this northern road trip in a handful of different cities (my sister and I actually drove from where we live in Ohio), but in order to really get the most out of the time you have, I highly recommend starting/ending in either Minneapolis, Minnesota, or Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Sioux Falls is the ideal starting point if you can find decent flights there since it will save you some uninspiring driving, though you might find better flight options to Minneapolis.

Highlights of this Montana, Wyoming, and Dakotas road trip route include:

  • Falls Park in Sioux Falls
  • Badlands National Park
  • A stop at Wall Drug
  • Custer State Park
  • Mount Rushmore and/or the Crazy Horse Memorial
  • Wind Cave National Park
  • Devils Tower National Monument
  • Grand Teton National Park
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Billings, Montana
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park
  • Fargo, ND
  • And more!

Total mileage for this trip (assuming you start/end in Sioux Falls) is right around 2500 miles.

Want a printable version of this itinerary? Get one here!

Northern US road trip

Need to rent a car for this road trip? You'll find more options in Minneapolis, but all the big brands like Enterprise, Avis, Budget, Hertz, and Alamo have offices in Sioux Falls, too. I always use Discover Cars to compare car rental prices in the US. Search for rental cars here.

And now on to the actual itinerary! This itinerary was developed and tested by me personally, so I can vouch that you CAN do it all. (Though it's worth noting that this is a very ambitious itinerary, with several hours of driving required each day since these states are all quite big! If you don't want to drive 4+ hours on most days, then you'll need more than 12 days to complete this whole trip.)

Day 1: Sioux Falls

Sioux Falls is the largest city in South Dakota, making it a great starting point for a road trip through this part of the US. The city is known for the spot where the Big Sioux River cascades over huge slabs of pink quartz (in a place inventively named Falls Park), and has a history dating back thousands of years.

Various Indigenous American peoples called the area home centuries ago, and you can still find some of their burial mounds in Sherman Park.

Falls Park in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Falls Park

If you have some time to explore today, start out with a walk along the Big Sioux River to Falls Park to admire the city's namesake waterfalls.

Afterwards, you could visit the Japanese Gardens, tour the Pettigrew Home & Museum if you like stately old houses, or perhaps visit a brewery or two since, yes, craft beer has taken off in South Dakota, too.

Total driving time: 4 hours if driving from Minneapolis; closer to 0 if flying in to Sioux Falls

Where to stay in Sioux Falls: My sister and I stayed at the Country Inn & Suites in Sioux Falls because of its close proximity to the river and Falls Park. If a vacation rental is more your speed, check out this downtown apartment.

Day 2: Badlands National Park

Hop on I-90 today after breakfast so you can get to Badlands National Park by lunchtime. In my opinion, this is one of the most underrated national parks in the United States!

Pro tip: You absolutely will want to get yourself a National Parks Pass for this trip. They cost $80 and are good for one year (you can buy them online, or at the first National Park site you visit). You'll save lots of money on this trip if you have one!

Badlands National Park in South Dakota
The Badlands!

Stop for a quick lunch at Cedar Pass Lodge before entering the park (note that it's only open from mid-April through late October each year), and try the Frybread Tacos. Then you can spend most of the afternoon/early evening exploring the Badlands.

The great thing about Badlands National Park is that there are lots of shorter walks/hikes that don't take a lot of time but do show you some of the best landscapes. I recommend the Door Trail and Window Trail (both less than a mile round-trip) to start with, and the short Cliff Shelf later in the park.

Badlands National Park
On the Door Trail

There's also the Loop Road to drive, with several overlooks, pull-outs, and prairie dog “cities” along the way. I also recommend stopping at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to see the Fossil Prep Lab, where they work on the many fossils found in the Badlands.

Badlands National Park
Driving the Loop Road
Badlands National Park
Yes, the hills really are that colorful!

Just one note: There's little shade in the Badlands, meaning it can get HOT during the summer. Be sure to bring plenty of water with you, even on the shorter walks! (I always travel with a refillable water bottle, and on trips like these buy big 2-gallon or even 5-gallon jugs of water to keep in the car to refill whenever I need to!)

RELATED: All You Need to Know About Visiting Badlands National Park

From the Badlands, you'll head back to I-90 in the direction of Rapid City. But there's one more stop you should make on the way, and that's at Wall Drug.

Wall Drug is the perfect example of the American can-do attitude. Thanks to shameless self-promotion, Wall Drug grew from a tiny drug store into a tourist attraction that now covers an entire city block.

Wall Drug in South Dakota
Inside Wall Drug

Wall Drug became famous for its free ice water and 5-cent coffee (both of which you can still get there), and now is a must-visit roadside attraction for all sorts of kitschy Americana. If you're hungry, you could grab a quick bite here for dinner before continuing on to Rapid City for the night.

Total driving time: 6 hours (4 hours from Sioux Falls to the Badlands; 1 hour(ish) driving in the park; 1 hour to Rapid City)

Entry fees: Badlands National Park: $30 per car (or free if you have a National Parks Pass)

Where to stay in Rapid City: The Comfort Suites Hotel is the top-rated one on TripAdvisor, but if you prefer your hotels with a little character and history, then I recommend checking out either the The Rushmore Hotel & Suites or the Hotel Alex Johnson, both of which have central locations in downtown Rapid City.

If you prefer a vacation rental, check out this luxurious bungalow with a great location.

Day 3: The Black Hills (Pahá Sápa)

While Rapid City is pretty cool in its own right, I promise you won't regret spending today seeing some of the other highlights in the Black Hills. I recommend packing a picnic lunch today.

You could start your day today with a visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the famous rock carving dedicated to four influential US presidents.

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

I say “could” instead of “should” because Mount Rushmore is quite the controversial spot, and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't want to visit.

The carving is made directly into the Black Hills (Pahá Sápa), which are considered sacred land to the Lakota Sioux. There's been a land dispute over this area ever since the United States government granted it to the Sioux in a treaty, but then took most of it back once gold was discovered there.

There's also the fact that Mount Rushmore's sculptor, Guzton Borglum, had known ties to the Ku Klux Klan.

If you do decide to visit, the top things to do include watching the film at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, walking the short Presidential Trail, and visiting the studio where Borglum worked from 1939 to 1941.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Mount Rushmore at dusk

From Mount Rushmore (or instead of it), continue south to Custer State Park, my favorite part of the Black Hills! There is an entry fee to this park (it's not covered by a National Parks Pass), but it's well worth the cost.

Make for Sylvan Lake first, which is the perfect spot to stop for an early picnic lunch. (Or, if picnicking isn't your thing, you can also have lunch at the Sylvan Lake Lodge.)

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota
Tranquil Sylvan Lake

After lunch, continue on to the Needles Highway (Route 87), which curves and winds through 14 miles of spindly rock formations called “Needles.” Plan to go slow and stop at least a few times for photos.

Needles Highway tunnel
The famous Needles Eye Tunnel
Views along the Needles Highway in Custer State Park, South Dakota
Needles Highway views

If you have time after the Needles Highway, you can also drive the Wildlife Loop to look for some of the park's bison herds.

Or, continue south to the town of Hot Springs, South Dakota, where you'll find the Mammoth Site. This is a super cool active paleontological dig site containing the world's largest concentration of mammoth bones (actual bones, not fossils!).

The current visitor center/dig site sits atop what was a sink hole 26,000 years ago, and you can take a tour to learn more about mammoths and see what they've uncovered up close. This is one of my favorite things we did in South Dakota.

Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota
Active mammoth dig site

If you go to the Mammoth Site, then you can stay in Hot Springs tonight. Otherwise, you could backtrack back to Rapid City.

Total driving time: About 3 hours

Entry fees: Mount Rushmore parking: $10; Custer State Park fee: $20 per car; Mammoth Site tour: $14

Where to stay in Hot Springs: I recommend staying in Hot Springs tonight, simply for the sake of convenience. Check out the historic Red Rock River Resort, which is within walking distance of restaurants and some other sites in Hot Springs, or you could try this cute cabin for the night.

Day 4: The Black Hills (Pahá Sápa)

Roughly 10 minutes north of Hot Springs sits Wind Cave National Park, home to one of the longest caves in the world. Wind Cave is one of the oldest national parks in the US – and also the first cave to be designated as a national park anywhere in the world.

You'll probably want to take a ranger-guided cave tour here, and while some tour tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis each day, you can reserve cave tour tickets up to 120 days in advance. Tours vary in length and level of difficulty, but the majority last for 1-1.5 hours. (More info here.)

After your cave tour, head back north through the Black Hills and Custer State Park (the pass you bought on Day 3 is good for 7 days). If you didn't have time to drive the Wildlife Loop to look for bison on Day 3, make sure to have a look today!

Custer State Park, South Dakota
Custer State Park

Make a stop at the Crazy Horse Memorial on your way north on Highway 385. The Memorial was begun in 1948 by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, and his children are still working on the larger-than-life sculpture of Lakota leader Crazy Horse.

Even though the sculpture is still a work in progress, you can visit the Crazy Horse Memorial Welcome Center, the Indian Museum of North America, the Native American Educational & Cultural Center, and the the sculptor’s workshop. This is also a good place to see/purchase Indigenous artwork and crafts, especially during the summer months.

Spend another night back in Rapid City tonight; if you get in early enough, take some time to stop by Art Alley (a street art-filled alley between 6th and 7th streets downtown), or maybe visit Firehouse Brewing Co. (South Dakota's oldest brewery, which is housed inside a historic firehouse).

Total driving time: 1.5-2 hours

Entry fees: Wind Cave National Park: $15-$17 for a cave tour; Crazy Horse Memorial: $30

Where to stay in Rapid City: Again, I recommend checking out either the The Rushmore Hotel & Suites or the Hotel Alex Johnson, both of which have central locations in downtown Rapid City. Or you can look at this luxurious bungalow if you prefer a rental.

Day 5: Devils Tower (Bear Lodge)

Today it's time to bid farewell to South Dakota and head over the state line into Wyoming. The main stop today will be at Devils Tower National Monument, which was the very first National Monument in the United States.

You can't miss this incredible rock formation – literally, it rises up higher than anything else for miles, so there's no doubt once you see it.

Devils Tower National Monument
You can't miss Devils Tower

Stop in the visitor center to learn about the tower's formation (it's still a bit of a geological mystery!), and about the Native American stories and legends that surround it. The tower of igneous rock has been a sacred spot for the Northern Plains Tribes for centuries – they refer to it as Bear Lodge.

Then hit the 1.3-mile Tower Trail, which loops around the base of the tower and is a nice, easy walk.

If you're up for some more hiking, there are other trails that offer views of both the tower and the Belle Fourche River valley.

Devils Tower National Monument

From Devils Tower, continue on to the town of Casper for the night. If you arrive early enough, consider visiting the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center to learn about the area's pioneer history. If you don't get in early enough, take a stroll through the city's historic downtown before dinner.

Total driving time: 4.5-5 hours

Entry fees: Devils Tower: $25 per car (or free with a National Parks Pass)

Where to stay in Casper: The Best Western Plus Casper Inn & Suites is the top-rated Casper hotel on TripAdvisor.

Day 6: Grand Teton National Park

Today will be one of your longer driving days, so have a big breakfast and get an early start.

If you're a history nerd like me, take the southwestern route out of Casper on Route 220 so you can make a quick stop at Independence Rock. For those who played Oregon Trail as a kid, this is THE Independence Rock! Many early pioneers stopped at this landmark, carving their names into the granite.

From there, head back to Route 26, which will lead you straight into Grand Teton National Park.

Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park
Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park

You can spend the second half of the afternoon and early evening exploring the park. Hop onto Teton Park Road, headed south towards Jenny Lake Lodge. Take the one-way loop off the main road to visit Jenny Lake, or to do one of the shorter hikes to Leigh Lake (1.8 miles RT) or String Lake (3.7 miles RT).

Later, make your way south, stopping at as many viewpoints as your heart desires.

Grand Teton National Park
This park is amazing!

Stay in Jackson tonight so you can see the rest of Grand Teton National Park tomorrow morning.

Total driving time: 5.5-6 hours

Entry fees: Grand Teton National Park: $35 per car (or free with National Parks Pass)

Where to stay in Jackson: Jackson is a resort town, meaning there are lots of accommodation options. The downside is that it's super popular in the summer months – meaning you'll want to book as far ahead as possible and plan to splurge. If you're going to splurge anyway, check out Huff House Inn and Cabins (#1 on TripAdvisor), Rusty Parrot Lodge and Spa, or the Wyoming Inn of Jackson Hole. For rentals, this 2-bedroom townhome is a good option.

Day 7: To Yellowstone!

Another early start today would be smart so you can see a little more of the Grand Tetons before you head up to Yellowstone*.

*Note that the suggested route for the next two days can NOT be driven in your own vehicle during the winter months. The roads inside Yellowstone close during the winter, and you can only visit as part of a guided winter tour.

Start your morning with a stop at Mormon Row, just past Moose Junction on Highway 191 in Grand Teton National Park. Mormon Row is a collection of old homesteads and barns along Antelope Flats Road that once belonged to early settlers of this region. The old wooden barns look especially great in the morning hours, with the jagged mountains illuminated behind them.

Mormon Row, Grand Teton National Park
Mormon Row

On your way north, you can visit a couple of the viewpoints you missed yesterday, like Snake River Overlook (made famous by photographer Ansel Adams). Further north, Oxbow Bend and Willow Flats are also worth a stop, and are spots where you may be able to see wildlife like moose and bear.

Snake River Overlook, Grand Teton National Park
Snake River Overlook

You'll then skirt along Jackson Lake, and will eventually reach the south entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

Today, I would make your focus in Yellowstone the geyser basins and Old Faithful area in the southwest corner of the park. There's a LOT to see and do here depending on how much walking you do/don't want to do.

Stop first at the Old Faithful Visitor Center to learn about the area's geological history, and find out when the famous geyser is predicted to erupt next (they can usually predict it within about 10 minutes). There will be a lot of people waiting to see the geyser, but the viewing area outside is huge, so it's worth sticking around for.

There are short walks around the Old Faithful area you can do, too, to see more geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin.

Old Faithful Geyser
Old Faithful Geyser

From Old Faithful, head up to the Midway Geyser Basin, home to the famous Grand Prismatic Spring.

If you want the BEST view of this geothermal wonder, pull off at the Fairy Falls trailhead *before* you reach the Midway Geyser Basin. Here, you can take an easy 15-minute walk up a hill to see Grand Prismatic Spring from above!

Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park
Grand Prismatic Spring from above

Then head down to the Midway Geyser Basin proper to walk the boardwalks around the Excelsior Geyser Crater and Grand Prismatic Spring. This is one of the most popular parts of Yellowstone, so you'll probably need some patience to find parking here.

It's worth it, though, I promise.

Excelsior Geyser Crater in Middle Geyser Basin
Excelsior Geyser Crater
Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park
Grand Prismatic Spring

Once you've had your fill of geysers, make your way through Madison and to the West Entrance of Yellowstone, where you'll stay tonight.

Total driving time: 3-4 hours (driving in the park can be slow!)

Entry fees: Yellowstone National Park: $35 per car (or free with a National Parks Pass)

Where to stay in West Yellowstone: West Yellowstone is filled to the brim with motels and other accommodation options, but many are expensive and book up quickly during the summer months. As with Jackson, book early and be prepared to splurge a bit here! Good hotel/motel options include the Kelly Inn and the Explorer Cabins at Yellowstone.

If you want something a little more rustic (but still super cool), my sister and I stayed at Yellowstone Under Canvas, a glamping site where you can sleep in a tent (in a real bed) complete with s'mores around a campfire at night.

Yellowstone Under Canvas
Yellowstone Under Canvas

And there are vacation rental options here in West Yellowstone, too, including this small cabin, or this lodge-style home that can sleep 8.

Day 8: Yellowstone National Park

Note: Flash flooding in June 2022 severely damaged some of the roads within Yellowstone National Park, especially at the northern end. There may be some lingering construction delays in early 2024. Please refer to Yellowstone's page on Park Roads for the latest updates.

Get ready for a full day of exploring Yellowstone National Park today! Start your morning with a visit to Mammoth Hot Springs, the other major geothermal area in the park. Here, the Albright Visitor Center is worth checking out, and there's a cute general store in “town” where you might want to grab snacks for the day.

Park at the Upper Terraces and walk the boardwalks over the hot springs and down to a viewpoint of the terraces and Canary Spring. Then you can also walk down to the Lower Terraces and around all the crazy, steaming formations if you have time.

Canary Spring at Mammoth Hot Springs
Canary Spring

From Mammoth Hot Springs, either retrace your route south through Norris, or head east to Tower-Roosevelt and then make your way to Canyon Village (the route through Norris Junction is faster, but you may want to take the longer route to see more). Check out the visitor center in Canyon Village to learn all about the Yellowstone Super Volcano, and grab a quick lunch at the Canyon Lodge Cafeteria.

Next, it's on to see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. There's a North Rim and a South Rim drive here, with several short hikes to overlooks. You can walk to the brink of both the Upper and Lower falls, and I also highly recommend driving out to Artist's Point, which has arguably the best view of the entire canyon.

Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

After spending some time at the canyon, spend the remainder of your afternoon/evening looking for wildlife.

Head back north of Canyon Village to Tower-Roosevelt, where you'll turn east into the Lamar Valley. This is one of the best parts of Yellowstone for wildlife sightings, including the park's bison herds and wolf packs. And the early evening right before dusk is the best time of day to spot them.

Just please, for the love of Mother Nature, don't block traffic to look at animals (unless they themselves are blocking the road – which does happen!), and definitely DO NOT, under ANY circumstances, approach or attempt to touch, feed, or take selfies with wild animals. Bison are not cuddly.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park
We didn't see an wolves, but did spot plenty of bison!

After (hopefully) having some good wildlife sightings, continue to the Northeast Entrance of the park, where you'll cross from Wyoming to Montana and stay in Cooke City, Montana.

Total driving time: 4(ish) hours (again, driving in the park is slow!)

Entry fees: None, since your entrance from yesterday is valid for 7 days

Where to stay in Cooke City: Motels and B&Bs are your choices here – check out hotels in Cooke City here. Or you can consider this super fancy cabin (complete with hot tub), or this cabin in the woods.

Day 9: Billings, Montana

Feel free to have a lie-in this morning since you won't be driving too far – it's less than 3 hours to Billings, Montana.

Billings is the largest city in the state of Montana, and has been nicknamed “Montana's Trailhead” thanks to its proximity to nature and miles of scenic trails. And if you want to add something fun to your walk? Billings is also home to the only self–guided, walkable brewery trail in Montana. The city's unofficial “brewery district” is located downtown and includes six breweries, two distilleries, and a cider house, all within easy walking distance.

Another point of interest in Billings is the Moss Mansion, a stately home built in 1903 by local businessman Preston Boyd Moss. My sister and I love being nosy in old houses, and therefore added this to our itinerary in Billings.

Moss Mansion in Billings, Montana

RELATED: There's More to Montana Than its National Parks

Total driving time: 2.5 hours

Entry fees: Moss Mansion tour: $15 per person

Where to stay in Billings: It's gotta be the beautiful Northern Hotel, an upscale and modern hotel in downtown Billings. Fun fact: The hotel was originally opened in 1904 by Henry W Rowley and P.B. Moss (the Moss Mansion guy!). (Read reviews on TripAdvisor | Book a room here!)

Day 10: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

You may not think there's much to see between central Montana and, well, anywhere in North Dakota – but you would be wrong! I've got a couple goodies up my sleeve for Day 10 of your trip.

Head east out of Billings on I-94, and it's only about half an hour to your first stop: Pompeys Pillar National Monument.

Pompeys Pillar National Monument

Remember back in elementary or middle school when you learned about Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea and their expedition to explore and map the West? Well it just so happens that their party passed through this part of Montana, and William Clark carved his name in a rock. 

This carving – made in 1806 – is the only remaining physical evidence of the entire Lewis and Clark Expedition. (I'm not the only one who thinks that's cool, right??)

The visitor center at Pompeys Pillar National Monument does a good job of walking you through Lewis and Clark's history and journey, and then you have the chance to climb some wooden steps to see the historic graffiti up close.

Historic graffiti by William Clark
Historic graffiti by William Clark

The history nerd in me totally geeked out over this!

From Pompey's Pillar, you're going to get on I-94 and just drive for a bit. You'll pass through Miles City and Glendive, and not far over the North Dakota border you'll reach the town of Medora. Here you'll find a national park that you've probably never heard of before: Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park

One of the only national parks to be named after a person, this national park covers over 110,000 square miles in three different “units.” The one just off I-94 is the South Unit, which is the largest of the three.

The park has a scenic drive and some great wildlife viewing – “great” mostly because there's little traffic, and you'll have a lot of wildlife sightings completely to yourself.

Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
We didn't even have to try very hard to see this bison.

We visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the later afternoon and stayed until sunset, watching the sun go down from the Wind Canyon Trail.

There are several short hikes in the park, a couple prairie dog “towns,” and animals like bison and even wild horses to look out for.

Sunset at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Sunset at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Total driving time: 4.5 hours

Entry fees: Pompey's Pillar: $7; Theodore Roosevelt National Park: $30 per car

Where to stay in Medora: Medora may look like a “blink and you'll miss it” sort of town, but it actually has a couple of hotels and the famous Medora Musical, an outdoor western-style musical show that runs all summer. For hotels, check out the Rough Riders Hotel, where rooms come complete with a Teddy Bear (in honor of Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt).

Day 11: To Fargo

Today you'll make your way across North Dakota to Fargo, on the state's eastern border with Minnesota. Since you'll likely want to stop somewhere along the way, I recommend Jamestown, about halfway between Bismarck and Fargo. Here you'll find both the National Buffalo Museum and a recreated frontier village.

At the National Buffalo Museum, you can learn all about the great herds of bison that used to roam the prairies, and also may be lucky enough to see one of the albino bisons that live in the local herd. Then you can also stretch your legs in the pioneer town, which is really cute!

White bison at the National Buffalo Museum
Rare (and sacred) albino bison!

If you get to Fargo early, take some time to stroll through this historic downtown area, and perhaps visit the Plains Art Museum, which has everything from traditional American Indian and folk art to national and regional contemporary art.

Total driving time: 5 hours

Entry Fees: National Buffalo Museum: $8

Where to stay in Fargo: Homewood Suites by Hilton is top-rated in Fargo, but you know I don't like to recommend boring chain hotels if I can help it! For history and character in Fargo, check out The Hotel Donaldson, a boutique hotel right in the heart of the city.

Day 12: Back to the beginning

Today is the last day of your adventure. It's roughly 3.5 hours back to either Minneapolis or Sioux Falls, depending on where you wanted to start/end your road trip.

Chances are you'll already be dreaming about coming back to re-visit some of these iconic spots!

Northern US road trip

Get a printable version of this whole itinerary!

Know before you go: Road trip tips

Check out my list of road trip tips for ALL my tricks for road tripping in the U.S.

But here are the tips that are most important for this trip through Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas:

  1. Buy a National Parks Pass. This road trip itinerary has you visiting a bunch of national parks and monuments, all of which charge a per-car entrance fee. You can save some money by getting a National Parks Pass either before you leave or when you arrive at the Badlands. The pass costs $80, and then is good for an entire year at any NPS-managed site. Without a parks pass, you'll be spending roughly $150 on entry fees for this trip.
  2. Make sure you have extra water. Dehydration is not a joke, and can be a very real threat if you’re traveling out West during the summer. Always have extra water, because you never know when you might need it. Most national parks will have water bottle filling stations, but be sure to have a reusable water bottle (I love my Camelbak Chute) or a hydration pack with you – and fill up at every opportunity, as most tap water in the US is perfectly fine to drink.
  3. Allow extra time. I've estimated driving times, but it's always best to assume drives will take you longer than Google Maps suggests. Photo stops, bathroom stops, and detours to check out random things will add more time to any drive!

Curious about what else to pack for this trip? Head over to this post: USA Road Trip Essentials: What to Pack for a US Road Trip

Who's ready to plan a road trip through Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas?

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"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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175 Comments on “The Perfect 12-Day Northern USA Road Trip Itinerary for Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas

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  1. Hi there, thank you for the comprehensive guide. Quick question, I’m thinking of doing this exact trip from mid-October to late-October this year. Do you think it would be feasible with a rental car/jeep considering the weather and operating hours of the national parks. I will be travelling from Europe.

    An alternative I was thinking about was to follow most of this trip but continue to Jackson, WN and fly out from there. Only thing is the car will be that bit more expensive to drop off in another State.


      It probably would be feasible – the roads inside Yellowstone, for example, don’t usually close for the winter until early November (the same goes for some of the roads in the Grand Tetons). But by mid-October, it’s impossible to predict what the weather might be like. You might get sunny days and have no issues, or you could run into snow and road closures. If you decide to go for it, be sure you’re comfortable potentially driving in snow!

        Hi Amanda, many thanks for your swift reply. Yes, I need to decide shortly to avoid crazy flight prices. I’m between this road-trip or one further south, perhaps between Colorado and Texas, which I guess would render the adverse weather conditions more a moot point – at least in Texas! Will let you know how I go! Thanks, Joe

      Amanda is certainly correct. A few years ago we visited Custer, SD, to attend the Buffalo Roundup in late September. The day of the roundup we woke up to six inches of snow, which had not been in the forecast.

    Informative, but it’s sad you had to bring your political views into the part about Mt. Rushmore. We could have done without that!

      No political views were shared. Just straight facts.

        Great reply. I am going to use this information to do the reverse…Montana to Sioux Center Iowa. Thanks for the great ideas.

        Thank goodness we found out about this great controversy with Mount Rushmore, so we can set our travel agenda to avoid these colonialist creations that are emblematic of oppression and systematic racism. Maybe some penance at Little Big Horn would be appropriate…

    Love this itinerary! Can you suggest routes and places if your starting this journey from Indianapolis IN? Hoping to go in late spring! Ty😊

      I haven’t driven that exact route, but I imagine the easiest would be to drive through Iowa to start this itinerary in Sioux Falls. (I don’t really have any personal tips for that portion of the drive though, sorry!)

      We used parts of this itinerary last summer leaving from NE Ohio. You’re going to be starting farther south than we were, but some of our plans might work for you. We made a loop, going through Wisconsin and Minnesota on the way out and back through Iowa. Day 1: Milwaukee. We had dinner at Milwaukee Brat House and then went to the Brewers game (but there are lots more options!)
      Day 2: Minneapolis/St. Paul: Como Zoo and Conservatory; Minnehaha Falls/park; Sculpture Garden; Twins Game
      Day 3: St. Mary Basilica; Mall of America (we got there at opening and spent like 2 hours hitting a couple highlights); Drove in the afternoon and saw some highlights like Porter Sculpture Park and Corn Palace. Ate dinner at Al’s Oasis in Oacoma, SD.
      From there, we went to the Badlands area the next day.
      For the route home, we stopped at the Minute Man Missile Site and Akta Lakota Museum and stayed at Sioux Falls where we also checked out the falls. Then, we took a northern route (Route 20) across Iowa and stopped and bought corn, saw the world’s largest popcorn ball, and then saw the Field of Dreams in Dyersville. We also did some quick touring in Dubuque and then stayed in Rockford, Illinois (map looks like you might spend time in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City instead). There are also lots of great ideas for taking 80 and hitting Omaha and Des Moines if that is more appealing.

    Hi I really like how you layout your trip but instead of going to N Dakota I would like to go to Grand Tetons? Can you recommend an itinerary for that? Can I purchase or get a copy of your itinerary? I will be doing a trip in early June 2022. Thank you and God bless Mike

      Hi Mike! I don’t offer custom itineraries, but this one does include the Grand Tetons! You can always use this as a jumping off point to inspire your own trip, and then plan the parts that are most interesting to you.

    Ou have seen I just finished reading your blog and am drooling over it. My husband and I have covered each of the features you mentioned, some of them multiple times. Our route differs somewhat as we are driving from Kentucky and we have made some side trips you didn’t mention. On several occasions we took a day off in Billings to rest up for the rest of our trip and we have some favorite antique stores there. On our way from Billings to my favorite of all times, Yellowstone, we have taken the Beartooth Highway and spectacular doesn’t begin to describe it. I never tire of Yellowstone. My husband once remarked that if you have seen 10,000 geysers you have seen them all, but I think he enjoys it almost as much as I do. We haven’t been traveling much the last several years due to some serious family illness and now COVID, so I am enjoying just reminiscing about the times we have actually been to all these places.

      My post should have started with “I have just finished…..” I don’t know where those first words came from.

      I hope reading this has brought back some good memories. I agree that you could drive this route many times and still see something new each and every one! I definitely would like to visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton again sometime, so I’m sure I’ll be doing this road trip again myself eventually.

    Very informative.
    Hope to do this trip in the next year.
    Thanks for the information!

    Nice blog.
    We’ve been planning to visit South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana for the last couple of years.
    We’ve set the date for June 2022.
    Using your route looks like it will save us some work, though we’ll probably deviate here and there.


    Hi Amanda, I really enjoyed reading all about your trip. My husband and I would like to take a similar road trip and your itinerary looks great to us! My question is do you know how much of this trip is wheelchair accessible?

      Hey Sharon! That’s a good question. I don’t write specifically about accessible travel, so I definitely am not an expert. This itinerary visits a lot of national parks, and most of them will have accessible visitor centers and sometimes trails – but you’d probably need to visit each park’s site to confirm.

    Really helpful hints and driving times. Appreciate the info and will plan something in those four states summer 2022

    Just returned from a great 8-day trip, using your itinerary for SD and WY. Wanted to thank you for your invaluable insight and guidance. We flew to Sioux Falls from Ohio, picked up a rental car and followed your itinerary through Yellowstone. We then drove to Salt Lake City for a somewhat reasonably priced return flight home.

    Everything you detailed was spot on and really allowed my husband and I to enjoy the trip without feeling overwhelmed with decisions, but having confidence we had enjoyed the best each place had to offer. One note – Hot Springs, SD has been hit hard by COVID and as a result, many of the restaurants closed or are operating on reduced hours (only open Thursday through Saturday). While we did stay at the quirky Red Rock River Resort, their restaurant is closed, and on a Tuesday night, there were no places to eat for dinner except a Pizza Hut.

    We had an amazing time on the trip and I am now one of those people that wants to bore people by showing them my gorgeous photos from the vacation. I’ve shared your site and this link with several friends since we’ve returned. Thanks again!

      Thank you so much for this great feedback, Julie! I appreciate it so much, as well as the update on Hot Springs. It’s tough to keep every little detail updated throughout this pandemic, so thanks for the real-time report!

    I just wanted to thank you for this great itinerary. Based on your itinerary, we just got back from a 22 day road trip starting and ending in Minneapolis with some other sites thrown in. With 2 adults & 2 kids (ages 5 & 1), we had to increase the time to complete the loop and provide for more stops for the kids. Your information was greatly appreciated!


      I’m so happy to hear it, Tom! I’m sure you made some amazing family memories.

    Thanks so much for your detailed itinerary. We have never traveled to the Dakotas/Montana/Wyoming area and are so looking forward to our trip towards the end of August. We have used your itinerary for the basis of our trip with some modifications due to our specific travel plans. This definitely helped us out with starting out.

    Some friends and I are thinking of following your itinerary. Is there any way to get a printed copy of this? Thanks!

      There are two boxes in the body of this post that say “Free Printable Itinerary.” If you put your email address in there, a copy will be sent to you.

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