FROM ST. LOUIS, MO IN 10 Days
During pandemic year 2020 we decided to plan our 2021 family vacation. We settled on a driving vacation out west that would get us a lot of bang for our buck. We soon decided to see a few national parks with Yellowstone National Park as our main destination. Our itinerary quickly took shape. We chose to go right before the millions of visitors bombard the area and planned our trip for late June. The most popular time to visit these parks is fourth of July to Labor Day so book your trip before or after these dates. We had great weather and way less crowds.
The possibilities are endless.
Day One: We left St. Louis mid afternoon for a single overnight stay in Kansas City, MO. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn. We were only staying one night, as a means to cut off some of our long drive the next day. They also had a great indoor pool for families with children and an included breakfast. We can’t stop in Kansas City, MO and not partake in some BBQ for dinner. We recommend Jack Stack BBQ!
Day Two: We hit the road for Rapid City, SD and started our 9.5 hour journey. The landscape changed so many times during this drive. We couldn’t keep up with the altering beauty from prairie lands, to red clay scenic hills to rocky terrain. As we approached Rapid City, SD we decided to visit the Wall Drug roadside attraction! This quirky tourist trap became famous for offering free ice water to travelers in the 1930’s and they still own up to that promise today. After enjoying our free water we explored this stop. Boasting restaurants, a multitude of shops, a chapel and smaller attractions I would bet that you could spend hours inside and not see the same thing twice.
Have you ever SEEN a jackalope?
Gold star to anyone that can answer that question! After we checked this off-the-wall attraction from our list we headed to Mount Rushmore. The 1 hour and 22 minute drive from Wall Drug to Mount Rushmore is smooth sailing. The closer we got to the monument we caught glimpses of the presidential mountain face on and off throughout the drive. We were relieved that parking was simple with an easy walk to the memorial.
We thought we knew what to expect at mount rushmore but we were blown away with how impressive it was.
After observing the stone presidents from the traditional view point we broke away from the tourist groups and took the Presidential Trail Loop to get as close as possible to the monument. The trail was worth every step. We were in and out before sunset and loved this stop. The next two nights were spent at Holiday Inn South in Rapid City, SD. Dinner was patio side at Thirsty’s Burgers and Beer in downtown Rapid City, SD. It was pretty cool that every corner of downtown Rapid City has life size bronze statues of our Nations past presidents.
Day Three: Badlands National Park was our main focus today. We chose to hike the Notch Trail due to its length at 1.5 miles and how it promised adventure and views. To get the most out of the trail you must wear appropriate shoes because you will be climbing! If this isn’t your style I suggest the Window Trail. The Notch Trail begins with an easy walk where we explored the landscape, vegetation growth and streams. The trail excitement starts when you reach the ladder (50 rungs) to climb to the next part of the trail.
The ladder was a little scary but that is what made it memorable!
The upper level of the trail was like walking on the moon. We have never experienced that style of landscape before and fell in love with it. The trail had some uneven surfaces throughout but was totally doable. The views at the end were spectacular! We left this trail and headed to the nearest visitors center and drove through the park on Loop Road which takes about 2 hours. We stopped and explored at several places. This was a fun, off the the grid style park that we thoroughly enjoyed exploring. A highlight was visiting the prairie dogs at Roberts Prairie Dog Town inside Badlands National Park. They were super cute and made a chirping sound which was quite loud. For dinner we ate at Murphy’s Pub and Grill in downtown Rapid City, SD.
Day Four: We left Rapid City early and drove 48 minutes to Deadwood, SD. We wanted to see the town and visit the legendary Mount Moriah Cemetery. The cemetery was open to the public early in the morning with a donation box for visitors. They have good parking near the cemetery gates. The cemetery has good walking paths with easy to find graves of James Butler Hickok (a.k.a. Wild Bill Hickok) and Calamity Jane.
the tokens left at these grave sites were so unusual. From bullets to whiskey bottles the mementos were just as interesting as the cemetery.
We enjoyed the history and views of Deadwood from this location. We said goodbye to Deadwood and headed to Yellowstone National Park (7.5 hours). On our way we drove through the BEAUTIFUL Bighorn National Forest. We didn’t know this particular national forest existed or we would have planned for some time to spend here. It’s so beautiful that we stopped along a stream in a picturesque area just to breath it in. This is about where we lost all cell phone service for the next few days! We entered Yellowstone National Park through the East entrance and it was not crowded. Actually, we were quite alone for a lot of this drive. Our jaws dropped as we entered the park.
Vast forests, plunging ravines, waterfalls, streams and a welcoming by several Buffalo was our introduction to yellowstone national park.
We checked into Lake Lodge Cabins that boasted beds, a bathroom, a table, a coffeemaker, a sink and heat with no air conditioning (but we didn’t need it). There are no kitchens, refrigerators, televisions, and no plug in burners allowed. The cabins are in quads with connected porches and individual chairs with table sets. We packed coolers for our stay and a Coleman grill where I made meals outside. We also took advantage of Lake Yellowstone Lodge that had two fire places, washers and dryers, a gift shop, porch seating and a restaurant. The Lodge is the only place you will get cell service which was unreliable at best.
Lake Lodge Cabins are located right off lake yellowstone where many buffalo and elk roam continually. There was never a time buffalo were missing from this area.
After checking in we spent the rest of our daylight hours exploring the mud volcanos like Dragons Mouth Spring and many other mud eruptions along the boardwalk. The Sulphur smell is strong throughout many places in Yellowstone. To get the most out of your stay in Yellowstone my advice would be to utilize Yellowstone National Park lodging and book in advance!
Day Five: We started our day grabbing a great seat to watch Old Faithful erupt. This was magical to see and we all enjoyed it. After we witnessed Old Faithful we walked the Biscuit Basin boardwalk trail to see gorgeous hydrothermal pools and geysers at play. This was enchanting and not crowded! After this walk we drove to see the Grand Prismatic Spring. This colorful and thermal pool is massive and took some effort to get to it.
GRAND PRISMATIC spring was a prism of colors both in the pool and above in mist form. It was mesmerizing.
We stopped at Gibbon Falls, had a packed lunch, and checked out the waterfall. Next we took a turn off onto an original one-way stagecoach road to view Virginia Cascade waterfall. This was a nice retreat and not far from the main road. Because we went to Yellowstone National Park before the busy season we were able to traipse the main loop several times and not be stuck in traffic. June is a wonderful month to go for this reason! Our next stop was short and easy trail to the Brink of Upper Yellowstone.
BRNINK OF UPPER YELLOWSTONE trail ends at the powerful and beautiful yellowstone river where the scale and energy enthrall your senses.
Day Six: We booked a Yellowstone Fishing Carter on Lake Yellowstone for 4 hours in the morning. The 2 hour charter is too short and not recommended if you want to see more of the lake and actually do some fishing. Dress in warm layers! The lake is beautiful and the boats are well kept. We were provided with a guide, Gregor, who was very knowledgeable and had the next step already in motion so we never had to think of a thing. With provided bait, poles and an experienced captain we were able to bring in beautiful trout and so many fun memories. This was a highlight for sure! After our fishing excursion we went back to our cabin to change and have lunch. It wasn’t long before we were headed back to traverse more of Yellowstone National Park. In no time we made it around to the Artist Paint Pots.
This 1.1 mile loop was full of color, thermal pools, and explosive mud pots. the slight elevation gain to take in all of the elemental views is worth it.
After touring the Artist Paint Pots we looped around to Hayden Valley. At the time of our trip the buffalo calves were just weeks old. It was a stroke of luck on our part that we experienced the valley full of buffalo mothers and their babies running, eating and surrounding our vehicle at one point. We couldn’t have been more enamored with the sight of it all. It is a memory we happily revisit often.
Day Seven: Staying close to the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park was intentional because we wanted to take a day trip to visit Grand Teton National Park. The 2 hour drive was easy to navigate and beautiful. Our first destination was Schwabacher’s Landing Trail. This easy looped 1.8 mile hike navigates around Snake River with unobscured views of the Grand Tetons. After the hike we drove 28 miles down the road and hunted for a parking space in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We had lunch and did some shopping. Truthfully, having cell service again was a perk! We enjoyed ice cream at Moo’s Gourmet Ice-Cream and I recommend the local Huckleberry flavor! An afternoon in Jackson, WY must include a quick drink or a visit to the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. Its for ages 21 and over!
When we returned to Yellowstone National Park we drove back to Hayden Valley and took a small hike to an overlook ridge where we had amazing views. On our way back to our cabin we parked and took the short walk down to view the LeHardys Rapids. It was here we enjoyed our last sunset in Yellowstone National Park.
Saying goodbye to yellowstone national park was not easy to do.
Day 8: We left early to get to Cody, WY and enjoy the city. The 1 hour and 45 minute drive was easy out of the east gate. Our first stop in town was to visit Old Trail Town. My historical heart fell in love with the original cabins, western artifacts and family fun displayed here in the most tangible way. ‘The Old West’ is refreshed in a way that brings you so close to the past its palpable. We ate lunch at Our Place Cafe where you will have a short wait but the mom and pop food was worth it! We didn’t have to drive far to our next stop at Buffalo Bill Center for the West.
At the Buffalo Bill Center your ticket grants you access to the Buffalo Bill Experience, the Plains Indian Museum, the Western Art Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, and the Natural History Museum. Tickets are good for two consecutive days!
In addition, they had a chuck wagon cook-out near the parking lot where we were able to experience authentic chuck wagon food, acquire recipes, and learn all about the history of chuck wagon eating. This was a fun way to start our experience at the Buffalo Bill Center. Even though we had a few hours here we didn’t get to see it all. We loved how it was organized and it flowed well. Next, we checked into our clean and spacious cabin at Cody Cowboy Village. Our porch had a view of Heart Mountain and is next door to Old Trail Town and walkable distance by sidewalk to the Rodeo! The Cody Stampede Rodeo is open nightly all summer long and having never attended a rodeo before we made sure to snag tickets. We had dinner on site by taking advantage of the food trucks and purchased some rodeo snacks! It was hot during the day but when the sun went down it was freezing! We stayed in Cody, WY one night.
Day 9: After we got up and checked out of our cabin we drove 21 minutes to Rand Creek Ranch. Here we took a most picturesque 2 hour guided horseback ride through Rand Creek Ranch and into the Shoshone National Forest.
It was so unbelievably beautiful and wild with no buildings or people around us.
After a quick bite at Granny’s Restaurant we officially headed towards home with our first stop in Scottbluff, NE. This was a simple 6 hour drive. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites and went through the local Jimmy Johns for a quick dinner. We stayed in Scottsbluff, NE one night.
Day 10: We had every intention of spending this night in St. Joseph, MO at Whiskey Mansion Inn Bed and Breakfast to break up our drive home but we decided that we will just plow through. After breakfast we headed to get a view of nearby Chimney Rock. This rock formation was a famous symbol to the pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail. I am not going to lie to you. The 12 hour drive was hard but worth having a full day off the next day before returning to work.
I hope this Yellowstone, Badlands, Grand Teton 10 Day Itinerary from St. Louis was helpful to you. The itinerary is easy to expand upon if you have more time than we did!
Wanting more a day trip idea from St. Louis, MO? Check our itinerary for a day in Springfield, IL!