Epic National Parks Road Trips – The Badlands to the Rockies

LAST UPDATED: 5/23/23 – Parks Road Trip – Badlands to the Rockies

When it comes to travel, there are few things more American than epic road trips and national parks.  Americans have been hitting the open road on their family vacations for decades. And when they do, the most popular destinations are the country’s beautiful national parklands.

In the spirit of both of these American cultural mainstays, I have put together a series of road trip itineraries. These road trips are certain to bring your family together to make memories that will last for a lifetime.

Badlands to the Rockies - Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore National Memorial

In this five-part series, I will lay out a series of road trips for you to explore. These road trips take you thru some of the most stunning national parklands in the country. If you are looking for a mountain adventure, there is an itinerary that will be right up your alley.

For those looking for a desert escape, I have an itinerary that will blow your mind. And for those looking to explore America’s incredible coastline, there is an itinerary you will never forget. The beauty is, there is an itinerary for everyone to enjoy! From the incredible Rockies to the magnificent canyons of Utah, to the coast of Oregon, these have it all.

Check Out My National Park Road Trips Series

The Badlands to the Rockies Road Trip

The first epic national parks road trip in my series covers some of the most well-known and popular national parks and monuments in the United States.  After flying into Rapid City, South Dakota and renting a car, you will start exploring almost immediately. 

With the Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore in the Rapid City area, you will get your first taste of America’s national parks and monuments right at the start.

Once you have explored everything the Rapid City area has to offer, you will head South to explore Wind Cave National Park before heading West towards Devil’s Tower National Monument

Devil’s Tower is a great place to catch a breather before you head further West into the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Parks.  Located only a few hours apart, you will want to spend at least two or three days exploring these parks and the surrounding area.

Badlands to the Rockies - Grand Tetons
Grand Teton National Park.

After exploring the greater Yellowstone region, you will head South into Colorado and some of the magnificent parks that it has to offer.  The first stop will be Rocky Mountain National Park, where you will get to see the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. 

Upon heading further South, you will get to check out the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Great Sand Dunes National Park, which are some of the most underrated parks in the US National Parks System.

Finally, you will head North to Denver, Colorado where your trip will conclude.  But not after having visited the heart of the US National Park System and seen some of the most beautiful landscapes in the United States.

This trip involves roughly 34 hours of driving, which can be chopped up into manageable sections of daily driving if you spread the trip out over a few weeks.  I have laid out an itinerary for a 12-day trip below, but if you have a few extra days to spare you can choose to spend some additional time at one or more parks.


Day 1 – Rapid City, South Dakota

Badlands to the Rockies - Badlands National Park
The Badlands of South Dakota.

You will arrive in Rapid City, South Dakota and rent a car.  When you book your flight, make sure you choose a multi-destination ticket.  You will be flying into Rapid City, but you will be flying home from Denver, Colorado.  The same thing applies to your car rental.  Make sure you specify Rapid City as the pick-up location, but Denver, Colorado as the drop-off destination.

Driving Time:  None

Day 2 – Badlands National Park

Badlands to the Rockies - Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park.

The Badlands is the start of the Rocky Mountains and are as unique and beautiful as the mountains themselves.  You will see some pretty amazing rock formations and forests in the park that are definitely worthy of exploring.

Driving Time:  1 hour from Rapid City to Badlands National Park

Day 3 – Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower National Monument

Badlands to the Rockies - Devil's Tower
Devil’s Tower National Monument.

Mount Rushmore probably needs little introduction, but if you aren’t familiar with this national memorial, it is a large carving of several former US presidents into the rocks of the Badlands near Rapid City, South Dakota.  Devil’s Tower National Monument is a unique and interesting geologically formed rock formation that was prominently featured in the movie “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind”.

Driving Time:  30 minutes to Mount Rushmore and then 2.5 hours to Devil’s Tower

Days 4-6 – Yellowstone National Park

Badlands to the Rockies - Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park.

After reaching the Rocky Mountains, you will spend your first chunk of time exploring Yellowstone National Park, which was the world’s first national park.  You will get to see the amazing geysers, hot springs, canyons, waterfalls, and wildlife in this amazing national park.

Driving Time:  6 hours and 45 minutes from Devil’s Tower to Yellowstone

Day 7 – Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park.

When you have finished exploring Yellowstone National Park, you will travel just South of Yellowstone to visit its sister park and one of America’s most beautiful mountain ranges, the Grand Tetons.  The Grand Tetons have been called the Alps of the United States because of their beauty and Grand Teton National Park has some of the most stunning mountain vistas in the US National Parks System.

Driving Time:  2 hours and 30 minutes from Yellowstone to Grand Teton

Days 8-9 – Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park.

Once you have finished exploring the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, it will be time to head South into Colorado.  The first national park you will explore in Colorado is the Rocky Mountain National Park.  With some of the most majestic mountain passes in the Southern Rocky Mountains, Rocky Mountain National Park is breathtakingly beautiful.  Take a few days to explore this park and all of the activities it has to offer before heading further South to see some of Colorado’s other parks.

Driving Time:  8 hours from the Grand Tetons to Rocky Mountain National Park

Day 10 – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

The next park you will visit in Colorado is arguably the least known national park in Colorado.  The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a beautiful canyon that is home to some of North America’s most renown predatory birds.  If you are into beautiful viewpoints and bird watching, then this park has the perfect mix of those two things for you to enjoy.

Driving Time:  6 hours from Rocky Mountain to Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Day 11 – Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The final national park in Colorado that you will explore is the Great Sand Dunes National Park.  For those who have always wanted to climb enormous sand dunes, then you will be thrilled with this national park.  Home of some of the biggest sand dunes in North America, which in many aspects rival the dunes you see in some of this world’s great deserts, the Great Sand Dunes National Park is an absolutely amazing landscape that you need to see to believe.

Driving Time:  3 hours and 30 minutes from Black Canyon to Great Sand Dunes

Day 12 – Denver, Colorado

Denver, Colorado
Denver, Colorado.

Your trip will end with a drive North from the Great Sand Dunes National Park up to Denver, Colorado.  Here, you will return your car rental and catch your flight home.  If you have some extra time to spare, Denver is an amazing city with a lot to see and do.  I would strongly recommend spending a few days to explore Denver if you have the time.

Driving Time:  4 hours from Great Sand Dunes to Denver

Best Time to Go

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park.

This trip is amazing year-round, but I would strongly suggest that you take this trip in the summer months (July thru September).  You will likely see larger crowds then, but the weather will be much more moderate.  It can get really cold in the Rocky Mountains during the winter months and the weather during the spring is rather unpredictable.  You will be traveling thru some roads at high altitude on this trip and it can be rather dangerous during heavy snowfall.

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Categories: Mountain Parks, Mountain Parks Itineraries, National Parks Itineraries, North America, North America Travel Itineraries, Road Trips, South Dakota, Travel, Travel Itineraries, United States, WyomingTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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