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Itinerary advice Chicago to Denver via Badlands/Black Hills

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Itinerary advice Chicago to Denver via Badlands/Black Hills

Chicago to Denver via Badlands and Black Hills

Driving my daughter to Denver next week to start a new job. We had originally planned to drive straight to Denver through Nebraska, but decided to take a couple of extra days and drive north up through South Dakota and Wyoming to see the Badlands and the Black Hills. Most itinerary questions seem to deal with trips of 5 to 7 days or more. Our time unfortunately is still going to be a little tight, but we’d like to pack in as much as we can in 2-3 days. Won’t be a whole lot of time for hikes, etc. but even being able to drive through some pretty scenery would be worth the extra mileage. Given those restrictions, looking for the advice of the experts to see if the following itinerary makes sense.

Monday: Leave Chicago in the morning—we are in the SW suburbs so I80 is the most convenient and really don’t want to deal with commuter traffic I deal with everyday going north toward I90. Hope to get as far as we can into South Dakota driving 10-12 hours. We expect to at least reach Chamberlain. Any other towns farther west with lodging that we might be able to reach in this timeframe?

Tuesday: Head towards Badlands/Black Hills. If I understand correctly, there is a short scenic driving loop through the Badlands off of I90 from Interior to Wall. Our plan is to drive this loop and make our way to either Hill City or Custer for lodging--any preferences? From here the key things I’d like to be able hit are the Wildlife loop through Custer Park, scenic drives on the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road, Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Is this doable in one day?

Wednesday: Head north and drive Spearfish Canyon scenic drive and then head toward Devils Tower. Any better or more scenic way to go than I90 West? Spend some time at Devil’s Tower and head south toward Denver. Any points of interest between Devil’s Tower and Denver? Given that it is still a 61/2-7 hour drive to Denver from Devils Tower I wouldn’t mind stopping somewhere along the way in Southeast Wyoming—any suggestions?

Thursday: Head toward Denver. If time permits and if accessible given the recent rains would love to do a drive through loop of Rocky Mountain National Park on the way to Denver.

As always any advice would be greatly appreciated!

South Dakota
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1. Re: Itinerary advice Chicago to Denver via Badlands/Black Hills

I can help you with parts of this. Since you prefer I-80, take that all the way to I-29 and then meet up with I-90. Travel tip: The Flying J just south of the intersection of I-29 and 90 has some of the cheapest gas around. I would probably overnight in Chamberlain. West of there, there's Murdo and Wall, but I think the options will be better for you in Chamberlain, and (some posters disagree with this opinion-I guess it depends on where you live and where you were raised) after you cross the Missouri at Chamberlain, it gets rather isolated, so if you're tired at that point, that would be another reason to stay in Chamberlain. The main Badlands Loop takes about 3 hours. It is possible to whip through it in 2 hours if you push it and keep your photo stops brief. I would lodge in either Hill City or Keystone (see Top Question at top right "Where should I stay . . ."). I think trying to see the Badlands, Custer State Park with the three drives and Mt. Rushmore all on Tuesday will be pushing it. The scenic drives take longer than people think due to slow speeds, curves and photo stops. I'm pretty sure you won't have time for Crazy Horse, but you could take a photo from the highway.

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2. Re: Itinerary advice Chicago to Denver via Badlands/Black Hills

I would agree that you will NOT be able to see all of that in one day. Mt Rushmore can take 2-3 hours to visit as well with the museum, movie and Presidential Trail walk up closer to the mountain.

In one full day (not to be included with the day you see the Badlands) you could do Custer State Park with the Wildlife Loop and Needles Hwy, a stop at Sylvan Lake and maybe the Iron Mountain Rd with the pigtail bridges and tunnels that frame the faces. I would also suggest the drive up to Mt Coolidge Fire Lookout Tower in CSP near the Wildlife Loop for more aerial views of the area where you can see the Cathedral Spires of the Needles Hwy as well as the mountain carvings in the distance.

Even with no hiking time, do get out of the car and explore the boardwalks at the Doors/Windows Trail in the Badlands. Awesome experience to get off the beaten path so to speak and view the landscape from sitting on the rocks. Also the walk around Sylvan Lake is worth the short detour of time for the views of this picturesque lake surrounded by rocks (that you climb as well on the walk around).

If you really only have 1 day in the Black Hills then try to go to Custer State Park after the Badlands and then maybe Mt Rushmore in the morning before heading an hour north to Spearfish Canyon. If I had to choose between the scenic drives, I would do Wildlife Loop, Mt Coolidge, Sylvan Lake & Iron Mountain Rd and skip Needles due to time constraints...a lot of people on TA this summer talked about only doing part of Needles as it gets long and the most scenic parts are the Cathedral Spires area and the tunnels....

Edited: 17 September 2013, 18:29
Pitman, New Jersey
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3. Re: Itinerary advice Chicago to Denver via Badlands/Black Hills

Tuesday is way too much for 1 day. You could focus on seeing the Badlands that day (3 hours is a perfect time estimate and fits most people's visits), and then see how time permits. I would guess you might be able to do the Wildlife Loop in the early evening or possibly head to Rushmore, but that will depend on your energy level.

I would typically say that Hill City or Keystone would be the best bases, but you might consider Custer also as it will put you closer to Denver. I will explain in my next paragraph.

As much as I love Spearfish Canyon and Devil's Tower, I'd skip them both and opt for your 2nd day to be used for touring Custer State Park and Crazy Horse. If you stay in Custer, Denver is only about 5-6 hours away. We stayed in Keystone this past summer and made it to Estes Park in about 6.5 hours with stops for gas.

I also agree that you can skip the southern part of the Needles and focus on the northern part where you will find the Needle's Eye and Cathedral Spires. The lower part is not nearly as interesting.

Let us know if we can help further.

4. Re: Itinerary advice Chicago to Denver via Badlands/Black Hills

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