A great American road trip through Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming
Talk about a great American road trip. I've been living at my father's ranch in rural Montana ever since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down our New York City offices in March 2020. While I miss my colleagues and New York City, being in the West has given me great opportunities to see parts of the country I'd never explored before. That includes some national parks and more of Montana and states I hadn't even been to, like the Dakotas and Wyoming.
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Today, I'll take you on a road trip from Bozeman, Montana, to Bismarck, North Dakota, to Rapid City, South Dakota, and then on to Cody, Wyoming, before heading for a stop in Yellowstone National Park back in Montana. Along the way, you get to see places like Mount Rushmore, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Devils Tower and, finally, Old Faithful.
Start your trip in Bozeman, Montana
Bozeman was once a sleepy cow town, but that's history. It's a veritable boomtown -- one of the fastest-growing cities in the West. The town's charming Main Street offers tons of shopping, bars and restaurants.
The Museum of the Rockies is a must-visit. It's got the largest collection of dinosaur remains in the world, including a very impressive Tyrannosaurus rex.
And there's been insane growth at the airport: Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) bills itself as the “Gateway to Yellowstone.” It’s the busiest airport in Montana, with nonstop service to 19 U.S. cities.
American Airlines has been betting big on Montana and added four seasonal flights in 2020 and several more in 2021. American flies to Bozeman from Los Angeles (LAX), Charlotte (CLT), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Philadelphia (PHL), Phoenix (PHX) and Dallas Fort-Worth (DFW) nonstop.
I found tickets for between $239 and $425 in the main cabin. Award prices started at 12,000 AAdvantage miles in coach or 50,000 miles for first class, plus $11.20 in taxes and fees.
United Airlines flies to Bozeman from six of its hubs, and Delta Air Lines also flies from six hubs, including Salt Lake City (SLC). Alaska Airlines has flights from Portland, Oregon (PDX), San Francisco (SFO), San Diego (SAN), and Seattle (SEA), and Allegiant flies from four cities, including Nashville, Tennessee (BNA). Frontier flies from Denver (DEN) and Sun Country now flies from its Minneapolis hub. JetBlue flies from New York-JFK and Boston (BOS) and from Los Angeles (LAX).
There are several brand-new hotels, including one of my favorites, the four-star Kimpton Armory hotel that opened in 2020. Rates range from $207 to $299 a night during August and September. If Marriott is more your speed, there's a nice newish Element Hotel as well.
Related: The new Kimpton Armory in Bozeman, Montana
A day in Billings, Montana
Once you're done exploring Bozeman, your road trip begins in earnest with a just over two-hour drive to Billings in I-90 East. Billings is the largest city in Montana and is also experiencing rapid growth. This is really where the Great Plains begin. I'm not a huge fan of the town, but there are some things to see.
There are several walking trails you can do in the city and the surrounding areas, including ones that will get you some nice views of the cliffs surrounding the town or even on the cliffs.
There's also a park called the Shiloh Conservation Area that has turned an undeveloped 66 acres in West Billings into a wetland area to help control flooding and pollution in the Yellowstone River that flows through town.
If you want to spend the night, there are a ton of cheap hotels and motels in Billings. I stayed at Hampton Inn, which was fine. Rates for summer start at $136/night or 30,000 Hilton Honors points.
A side trip to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Park
It's just over a one-hour drive from Billings to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Park and well worth going a little out of your way. You take Interstate 90 in a nearly straight shot all the way there.
This national monument is a memorial to one of the last of the major battles between Native Americans and the U.S. military. It pitted the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry against warriors from the Arapaho, Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes. This place is popularly known as Custer's Last Stand and the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. More than 265 were killed and it was a major defeat for the U.S. Army. Now the site is preserved as a compelling tribute to those killed on both sides of the battle.
Plan on a pit stop in the charming little cowboy town of Miles City, Montana. I got gas here last summer and stopped into the famous Montana Bar on Main Street. It opened in 1908 and is considered one of the best-preserved Western bars in the state.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
It's a four-hour drive to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota on Interstate 94. You should probably plan on spending the night in nearby Medora, North Dakota, or even Dickinson, North Dakota, unless you don't mind a six-hour drive direct to Bismarck. That wouldn't get you much time in Little Bighorn or in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Medora's Badlands Motel has basic rooms for between $119–$172 a night.
Related: State-by-state guide to coronavirus reopenings
The park is 70,400 acres in the badlands with a ton of hiking trails. You don't need more than a day here, in my opinion, though it's worth a visit. I spent about two hours on a small hike from the parking lot at the Painted Canyon Visitors Center. You could probably spend a few days at the park on various hikes if you are so inclined.
Bismarck, North Dakota
It's another two-hour drive to Bismarck, North Dakota, the state capital and where you can stay the night at one of many moderately priced hotels.
I enjoyed walking around the state capital building and exploring the historic downtown, including Camp Hancock State Historic Site built in 1872. There's a cool old train station nearby, and you can do the whole town in just a few hours.
Lots of mid-tier hotels to choose from, including a Radisson, Holiday Inn, a Courtyard by Marriott or a Home2Suites by Hilton. Prices range from $84-$127. That's not too bad for peak summer travel.
Rapid City, South Dakota
It's a long five-hour drive from Bismarck to Rapid City, so you'll be in the car for much of the day. Your reward is the charming town known as the City of Presidents.
There are also five national parks within drives of Rapid City: Badlands National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Park, Minuteman Missile Silo National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Also within reach? Crazy Horse Memorial, the Native American version of Mount Rushmore with the giant face of Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse carved into a mountain in the Black Hills.
You could spend a week based in Rapid City and do day trips to all these national parks and memorials if you have the time. There's also a thriving restaurant scene in the town.
I found midrange hotels for this summer from $85 all the way up to $250 a night. The Hilton Curio Collection Alex Johnson hotel in Downtown Rapid City looked charming, though it is already sold out on many dates this summer.
You're less than a half-hour from Mount Rushmore in Rapid City, so plan on making the town your base.
No trip to the Dakotas would be complete without a stop at Mount Rushmore. It blew me away and was so much more impressive than I expected when I first went a few years ago. It should be on every American's bucket list.
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It's a short drive from Rapid City. Keep your eyes open for mountain goats on your drive to the park.
There's no entrance fee to visit, but there is a parking fee of $10 per vehicle or RV. It's just $5 for senior citizens. It's a bit of a hike from the parking area to walk around the base of the mountain, so keep that in mind. Wheelchairs are available on a first-come, first-serve basis and are free.
Be sure to do the short hike around the monument to really get a sense of the scale and grandeur of the monument.
Deadwood, South Dakota and a drive through Sturgis
On your way from Mount Rushmore, it's worth a stop or even a day or two in nearby Deadwood, South Dakota. It's about an hour and a half from Mount Rushmore on a beautiful drive.
This charming little "Old West" town has lots of little shops and curiosities. It was established as a town in the 1870s during the Black Hills Gold Rush. The whole town is a National Historic Landmark. It's now more famous for another type of gold rush -- gambling has been legal here since 1989.
Related: Voyage to Mt. Rushmore
And if you don't mind absolutely zero social distancing, you can make a stop in Sturgis, South Dakota. If you really want to roll the dice, time your visit to coincide with the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. There's not much to Sturgis aside from lots and lots and lots of bars, but that's the idea of a good time for lots of folks.
Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
It's a 90-minute drive from Deadwood to Devils Tower. This was probably my favorite thing to see in all my Western road trips last summer -- what a spectacular natural wonder. You can spend a few hours on hikes around the massive rock formation. Many people go for either sunrise or sunset here. You can even do rock climbing on the steep face of the butte.
It was the first United States national monument in the country and it was dedicated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. It was also where they filmed a famous scene in the 1977 movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Indeed, it feels other-worldly here.
It's a five-hour drive from Devils Tower to Cody, Wyoming, where you should probably spend the night before heading to Yellowstone. It's just an hour and 15 minutes from Cody to the east entrance of Yellowstone.
There is plenty to do in this rugged Wyoming town of fewer than 10,000 people. I highly recommend the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which includes five museums. Colonel William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody helped found the town in 1896. He was one of the most famous men in the Old West, legendary for his buffalo hunting, cowboy skills and showmanship.
There is a Holiday Inn at Buffalo Bill Village with rates in June around $181/night, or you could use 47,000 IHG Rewards points.
There is also a Hampton Inn & Suites by Hilton that looks pretty basic for about $185/night or 56,000 Hilton Honors points.
Yellowstone National Park
If you stay the night in Cody, it will give you a full day to explore the park. You'll enter via U.S. Highway 14/20 and it's about 53 miles to Yellowstone's East Entrance. The route will take you through the eastern entrance of Yellowstone and around the beautiful Yellowstone Lake.
Related: Complete guide to Yellowstone National Park
You'll have the opportunity to stop at the museum and visitors center near Lake Village and there are plenty of hikes or scene overlooks on the way. Once you're done exploring the Yellowstone Lake area, head on over to Old Faithful. It's a massive geyser that erupts reliably every 60 to 110 minutes. It’s a cone geyser in the Upper Geyser Basin and easily accessible by road, and park rangers can tell you when the next eruption is during the day. Don't worry if you missed an eruption. It happens 20 times a day, and the plume of water and steam can be as high as 180 feet!
Watch for buffalo that are frequently loitering around the area.
If you want to stay the night, you can actually stay right at Old Faithful. I wrote a complete guide to where to stay in Yellowstone. Check it out for ideas, but try one of the very intimate little cabins if your party is not too large.
The road from Old Faithful to West Yellowstone is filled with sites to see and a ton of spectacular geysers and hot springs too. There are hikes and lots of wild animals roaming around to boot.
West Yellowstone, Montana
The final stop on your road trip is West Yellowstone, Montana. You should plan on staying the night here before your long drive back to Bozeman (give yourself two and a half hours).
There’s a decent Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone where last-minute rooms in August start at $370 a night. That’s steep, but if you book early, you can certainly find better rates. A long weekend in September will set you back $306 a night, or you can use 33,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night. I stayed here in 2020, and it was very basic but clean. I'm not sure it's worth $300 a night. I wouldn't pay that much.
Related: Where to stay in and around Yellowstone National Park
There's also the Days Inn by Wyndham West Yellowstone, staring at 15,000 Wyndham points per night. If you have Best Western Rewards points, you could try the Best Western Desert Inn or the Best Western Weston Inn, both from 28,000 points per night.
There's plenty to do in West Yellowstone too without even going back inside the park. The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center comes highly recommended, where you can see live bears and wolves up close. There's also zip-lining and river rafting nearby.
And, check out the visitor information center in the town itself, explore the fun tourist-trap shops lining the streets and be sure to grab some huckleberry ice cream. It will be just one of the many memories you make on your road trip.