My wife and I are planning our first road trip vacation this coming September. A little bit of background info by way of introduction: My wife and I are both 26 and have been married for four years as of this September. We usually try to plan our vacations in September, due to our anniversary and the fact that we both love the fall season. This September will be our third major vacation, with our forays in past years consisting of a week in Mackinaw City and the U.P., and a week in the mountains of Asheville, N.C. Last year we opted to stay local, touring many orchards, cider mills, vineyards, and wineries here in SW MI.
We decided on a road trip this year due to the fact that this will probably be our last vacation prior to having kids. Since kids are probably in our somewhat near-term future, our travels may be somewhat restricted for the next several years and we may not have the opportunity (or the budget) to get far from home. This trip will consist of just us, our Pontiac Vibe, and whatever we deem necessary in terms of luggage. We'll be leaving Sturgis, MI early on Wednesday, 9/10, and will be returning Sunday, 9/21. We have a pretty aggressive itinerary, but we've stretched our available vacation days as far as possible by incorporating two different weekends into the trip.
Day 1 - Wednesday, 9/10
Depart Sturgis at 6 a.m. for Sioux Falls. Google Maps recommends taking I-90 through Chicago, a trip of 712 miles and 11 hours. However, in order to avoid rush hour Chicago traffic as well as the tolls through Chicago (we don't have an I-Zoom and cash tolls are nearly double the I-Zoom rates) I'm planning on bypassing Chicago entirely via I-80 west to I-39, then I-39 north to pick I-90 back up in Rockford. From what I understand, this route will result in only $1 or so in tolls. The higher gas cost due to the greater distance of 766 miles is more or less off-set by the toll savings, and even if it didn't, I'd rather not start off our vacation by combating rush-hour Chicago traffic. We'll be gaining an hour in the shift from EST to CST once we cross from IN to IL. Allowing an hour for stops, this should put us in Sioux Falls around 5 p.m. local time. I already have a hotel booked, so the plan would be to check in then go out to eat for our anniversary dinner. Afterwards, we plan to relax by touring Falls Park around dusk, enjoying the illuminated falls.
Day 2 - Thursday, 9/11
Breakfast at hotel. Depart Sioux Falls at 7 a.m. for the Corn Palace in Mitchell. Should arrive about 8:30, planning about an hour to tour the Corn Palace and to gas up for the next leg of the trip. Depart Mitchell around 9:30 for the Minuteman Missile Historical Site on I-90. Arrive in at MMHS around 11:30 a.m. local time, having gained an hour in the transition from CST to MST on the 3-hour drive. Allow two hours for tour. Depart MMHS and back-track slightly to Badlands National Park. Possibly grab lunch at Cedar Pass Lodge, then tour Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Scope out campsite at Cedar Pass Campground. Tour Badlands in mid-afternoon, hiking any trails that catch our eye. Towards evening, take the Wildlife Loop Rd and visit Roberts Prairie Dog Town.
Day 3 - Friday, 9/12
Pack up camp and hit the road by 7:00 a.m. for Custer. Take Wildlife Loop Rd. again, enjoying morning views of the Badlands. Travel to Custer via I-90 to Rapid City (possibly stop for breakfast and gas), then south on 79 to 36 west, 36 west to Alt 16 west. Should arrive in Custer by 10:30 a.m. Explore Custer local attractions, then head north to tour the Crazy Horse Memorial. After Crazy Horse, head north to Hill City, exploring local attractions and stopping at Prairie Berry Winery for tour and lunch. Head south, travelling Needles Hwy to Custer State Park. Take the Wildlife Loop Rd all the way around the park to Iron Mountain Rd., exploring whatever we have time for and whatever catches our eye. Traverse Iron Mountain Rd. to Mt. Rushmore, timing Mt. Rushmore tour to coincide with lighting ceremony. Depart Mt. Rushmore for lodging in Keystone or in Rapid City (I currently have cancellable reservations in both locations, pending our final decision on this point).
Day 4 - Saturday, 9/13
Breakfast at hotel. Depart Keystone/Rapid City at 7 a.m. for Lead, via 385 through the Black Hills National Forest. Arrive in Lead 8 a.m. Explore local attractions, notably the Broken Boot Gold Mine Tour and gold panning. Leave Lead approximately 10 a.m. and depart for Belle Fourche. Stop in Deadwood if anything catches our eye. Arrive in Belle Fourche 11 a.m. and tour the Geographical Center of the Nation monument, along with the visitor center. Head north out of Belle Fourche approximately 8-10 miles to view the true center of the nation. Depart this location approximately 12:30 p.m. for Vore Buffalo Jump on I-90, trip time 30 minutes. Tour the Buffalo Jump for approximately 1 hour. Depart for Devil's Tower National Monument approximately 2 p.m., arrive 3 p.m. Explore DTNM for approximately two hours. Depart DTNM for Sheridan approximately 5 p.m. Arrive in Sheridan approximately 7:45 p.m. and check in to hotel.
Day 5 - Sunday, 9/14
Breakfast at hotel. Depart Sheridan by 7 a.m. This is where things get a bit convoluted and where I'm seeking the most advice: At some point on this trip, we would like to traverse the following:
-Bighorn Mountain Scenic Byway from Sheridan to Greybull.
-Beartooth Highway from Red Lodge to Silver Gate.
-Paradise Valley from Gardiner to Livingston.
I'm not sure in what order accomplishing all of the above is the most efficient or would best suit our trip. I've considered continuing up I-90 from Sheridan to Livingston, then taking the Paradise Valley drive down to Gardiner and the North entrance into Yellowstone. This would be a trip time of about 4.5-5 hours and would put us at the park entrance around noon. This approach appeals to me inasmuch that I'm a history buff and arriving via the North entrance with it's stone arch seems like the only "right" way to do things for one's first ever entrance to Yellowstone. This approach has the added benefit that we would immediately be in position to tour Mammoth Hot Springs and soak in the Boiling River, two items on our first-day Yellowstone agenda anyway. At this point I hit another cross-roads - Based on the YNP website, 89 south of Mammoth will be closed for the season as of 11 p.m. on 9/14. If there are any highlights along this route that can rival the other top 10-20 attractions of Yellowstone, then we'll probably elect to head south from Mammoth and tour them. If not, we'll probably head east and drive the Lamar Valley in early evening, probably camping in Pebble Creek overnight.
Day 6 - Monday, 9/15
Pack up camp at Pebble Creek and drive the Lamar Valley again early in the morning, looking for wildlife. Explore Tower Falls, Grand Canyon, Lower Falls, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone Lake area. Return to Hayden Valley in early evening for wildlife viewing. Camp in either Fishing Bridge or Grant Village.
Day 7 - Tuesday, 9/16
Pack up camp at Fishing Bridge / Grant Village and head north, back through the Hayden Valley for morning wildlife viewing. Tour geysers in Norris, Lower Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, West Thumb. Exit park south and traverse Grand Teton National Park to Jackson. Check in at resort in Jackson and explore the area.
Day 8 - Wednesday, 9/17
Sleep in day, if so inclined. Also - showers! Breakfast at resort. Tour GTNP, including moderate hikes, horseback rides into mountains or kayaking. Good day for a picnic lunch with the mountains as a backdrop. Try to spot moose in the flats. Relax at resort in the evening.
Day 9 - Thursday, 9/18
Breakfast at resort. Check out and depart Jackson 7 a.m., driving through GTNP in the early morning and hopefully getting some sweet pictures of the mountains. Exit the park via one of the below avenues:
-Exit Yellowstone via the North entrance, taking 89 to I-90 and I-90 to Billings. This is a 7 hour drive and would put us in Billings at 2 p.m. with no stops. We would only consider this route if we had not entered the park this way.
-Exit Yellowstone via the East entrance, passing through Cody and taking 72/310 NE to Billings. This is 5h 30min drive and would put us in Billings at 12:30 p.m.
-Exit Yellowstone via the NE entrance and Beartooth Hwy. This is a 6.5 hour drive which puts us in Billings at 1:30 p.m.
The next item on our agenda is a stop at Pictograph State Park, open from 10-6. Plan one hour here. We may cut this stop if we feel that it doesn't give us enough time to also visit the Little Bighorn National Monument yet in the afternoon, which is open 8-6. The history buff in me wants to allow as much time at Little Bighorn as possible, which makes exiting the East entrance of Yellowstone the most attractive option, as it puts us in Billings the earliest. However, that would mean we are skipping out on one of the three main drives into Yellowstone that I referenced earlier in the post. Either way, we'll be staying the night in Billings, as I have already made reservations.
Day 10 - Friday, 9/19
Breakfast at hotel. Check out at 7 a.m. and depart for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, South Unit. Should arrive around 11 a.m. Hike, drive, and explore the area. If we have time, drive north and tour the North Unit as well. Possible stop at Fort Union Trading Post, though this is somewhat out of the way. If we do head north, we will probably return on Killdeer Mountains Four Bears Scenic Byway. Camp overnight in TRNP.
Day 11 - Saturday, 9/20
Break camp at TRNP 7 a.m. and depart for Mandan, trip time 2 hours. Arrive Mandan around 11 a.m. (lose an hour converting from MST to CST). Tour Fort Abraham Lincoln, Custer's House, and On-A-Slant Indian Village. Optional tour of ND State Railroad Museum. Depart Mandan 2 p.m. for Jamestown, trip time 1h 33min. Arrive 3:30 p.m. Tour Frontier Village and National Buffalo Museum prior to closing at 5 p.m. Depart at closing and travel to Fargo, trip time 1h 30min. Arrive in Fargo at 6:30, check in to hotel and grab something to eat.
Day 12 - Sunday, 9/21
Breakfast at hotel. Depart hotel 7 a.m. en route for Sturgis, MI, again avoiding Chicago via I-39 to I-80. Trip time 12h 30min, will probably take closer to 14 hours with stops for gas, food, and stretching. Arrive home around 9 p.m. (lose another hour traveling CST to EST).
Most of my questions regarding this itinerary involve the Yellowstone portion of the trip. We'd love to travel all three stretches of highway on the approaches to Yellowstone that I referenced, but if we simply can't do it all then we'll have to accept it. At this point we have no plans to hike the back country, and will mostly be sticking to the front country and main attractions due to our limited time in the park. I should also mention that while we may be bringing a small tent, it is more than likely that my wife and I will be camping in the car the two nights in Yellowstone and one night in TRNP. The Vibe has seats that fold completely flat to allow this, and while we haven't done it before, I'll be testing it shortly for feasibility.
Please comment with feedback on any and all portions of the above itinerary, any and all help is welcomed. I'm looking for the most efficient vacation possible in order to maximize time at scheduled stops and to provide the most scenic route and photo opps possible.Edited: 07 April 2014, 23:14