You can do a national park road trip anywhere in the country and almost anywhere around the world. However, the Dakotas are so unique and offer three hugely different landscapes making it the perfect place to do a national park road trip.
This is the perfect trip to do over a long weekend break.
I live in North Dakota so I hopped on I-94 west and eventually hit Medora, ND. Assuming most of you reading this don’t live in the Dakotas, you’ll want to fly into Bismarck, North Dakota, rent a car, pick up grocery supplies and a cooler (because you will be in the middle of absolute nowhere most of the time), and hit the road.
The Road to Medora
Be sure to stop at all the interesting and weird looking things along the side of the interstate. There’s a giant cow statue on a hill in New Salem called Salem Sue that you really can’t miss as you can see her for miles. It is worth the stop to snap a couple of photos.
Farther down the interstate you’ll see signs for the Enchanted Highway. Take the minor detour and check it out!
Stay in either Medora or Dickinson for the night. Medora is a town with a very wild west touristy kind of vibe and hotels are pricey in the summer. Dickinson isn’t quite as touristy and has more of the regular hotel chains if you prefer to stay at one of those.
Read More: 10 Reasons to Visit North Dakota
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
If you chose to stay in Dickinson overnight, get off at Interstate exit 36, Fryburg and follow the road north. It will take you through some stunning land that skirts the edge of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Eventually, you will come in through the unguarded north entrance on a dirt road. It took me about two hours to make it to the park and I didn’t have cell signal at all (be sure to bring an atlas!), but it was so worth it and one of my favorite things I did in western North Dakota.
The national park was named after President Theodore Roosevelt who spent a lot of time in the western portion of North Dakota, and is the perfect place to go bison spotting as they can be seen around every single corner you drive around.
I think the real attraction of the park is the herd of wild horses that you might be lucky enough to see. When I went, I had done the entire park loop without seeing them and I was so disappointed. But just as I came to the final stretch, there they were!
After the park, make sure you stop in Medora for some pizza at Badlands Pizza. The Elkhorn Ranch was delicious. Then head down the street for some ice cream.
Read More: A Driving Tour Near Napoleon, North Dakota
Devil’s Tower National Monument
Next up on your national park road trip is Devil’s Tower. While the National Monument isn’t technically in either of the Dakotas or a national park I had to include it.
The drive through that corner of Montana and Wyoming to get there is absolutely stunning. The entire time I was on that stretch of road I saw maybe 10 cars. After driving it, it is safe to say that it’s now one of my favorite stretches of road in the entire country.
Honestly, I would skip Mount Rushmore. I went a separate time and spent maybe 20 minutes there. Once you make it past the resort town of Keystone, the drive up to the cliff face is gorgeous.
But overall it is a tourist trap.
Your annual national park pass doesn’t even cover the visit even though it is operated by the National Park Service.
Wind Cave National Park
I didn’t know about Wind Cave National Park until I was looking at the map planning on which route I would take to make the most of my time. As soon as I found out about it and discovered they did tours of the cave, I knew I had to go.
Going underground thoroughly freaks me out and I was telling myself the whole walk down the stairs, “Don’t look down, don’t look down, one step at a time, you’ll be fine.” Once we made it to the bottom of the cave, all fears vanished and I was able to appreciate the natural beauty of the cave.
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is a totally different landscape than what you might expect in the Dakotas. And one that you absolutely must see.
I could spend hours wandering around and finding all the animals that call the park home.
Make sure to take all the side roads that wind you through the different areas of the park. And remember, prairie dogs carry the plague, so be mindful of children and pets.
Have you been to the Dakotas? Any of these national parks? Which was your favorite?
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