Just over a month ago, while I was still living in Denver for work, my sister and her fiance, Mike, flew out for a summer roadtrip adventure. We had 5 days to see as much as we could (and hit as many states as we could!), so we rented a car from Denver and got on the road. Our first stop was Mount Rushmore.
Day 1: Mount Rushmore
On our first day, we woke up at 7 A.M. and drove about 6 hours from Denver, CO to Custer, SD. Custer is a small Western town just outside of Black Hills, SD where Mount Rushmore is located. We stopped here for lunch, and in true South Dakota fashion, ordered Bison burgers! I don’t usually stray too much from ordering either chicken or a basic burger, but I figured it was the perfect opportunity to try something different! I mean I would have never thought I'd be in South Dakota, so why not?! I'm so glad I tried it because it was so good! *Also, don't try to mistake bison for buffalo...a local will most definitely tell you, it's a bison!
After lunch and walking around in Custer, we headed into the park. There were two routes that we could have taken – Iron Mountain Drive or Needles Highway. Needles highway is a more precarious drive with “needle-point curves,” so we decided to take Iron Mountain Drive, which was still very scenic and as we got closer we could catch glimpses of Mount Rushmore through the trees.
After about a 40-minute drive or so, we got to the prime vantage point of Mount Rushmore. It is without a doubt a popular tourist destination. It was packed with people! We snapped a couple pictures and then headed to an auditorium to watch a short video on the making of Mount Rushmore. Once we completed our visit, we drove over to the Crazy Horse Memorial. This monument, similar to Mount Rushmore, is only partially complete and is an iconic spot to visit while in South Dakota. After visiting both memorials, we got back on the road!
If you’re not short on time, I would not recommend this drive. But because we only had 5 days to see as much as we could of the “West”, we ripped it off like a band-aid and got on our way from South Dakota to Montana. Luckily, we had 3 of us in the car which made the drive a little more bearable and most importantly, kept my sister who was driving awake and alert! I’ll be honest, the drive was pretty brutal and consisted of barren highways of Wyoming with little cell phone service and eerie, empty dim-lit roads. At around midnight, we decided to take the safer option of cutting the drive short and stopping for the night in a town called Billings about 2 hours outside of Bozeman. We stayed there for the night, and early the next morning hopped back on the road to Bozeman.
Day 2: Bozeman, MT
Once we arrived in Bozeman, we got breakfast at a trendy breakfast spot called Jam! located on Main Street in downtown Bozeman. This downtown strip was scattered with several cute boutiques, antique shops, co-op stores, restaurants, and bars! After an amaaazing breakfast at Jam!, we checked out the man-made beach in downtown Bozeman called East Gallatin Rec Area. Since it was a warm summer day, there were tons of people hanging out at the beach. After making a pit stop here, we went to meet some grizzlys at the Montana Grizzly Encounter. We went in knowing that this would be a “kid-friendly” activity (probably not geared for adults), but we were so glad we decided to go! It was so informative and we had a chance to see the grizzlys up-close and personal. We also learned some tips for how to respond if you ever encounter a grizzly in the wild.
It was a short stay in Bozeman, but we had to get back on our way if we wanted to make it to Yellowstone the following day. We decided to book a hotel in Big Sky, Montana, located an hour outside of Yellowstone. Our room at Buck’s T4 Resort was way more affordable than staying in the tourist hot-spots of Yellowstone (no pun intended). Once we arrived at the resort, we were due for some relaxation time, so we brought some wine to the hot tub and had time to unwind. It had just rained so we lucked out with a beautiful rainbow! After vegging out at the hot tub, we had a delicious steak dinner at the hotel restaurant. You never say no to steak or gamey meats out West – it’s all soo good!
Day 3: Yellowstone National Park
On our third day, we couldn’t wait for the opportunity to be out of the car. We had spent several hours cooped up in the car for the two prior days, so this was the perfect day for getting out and about to explore Yellowstone. When we first entered the park through the West entrance, we thought it’d make the most sense to go directly to Old Faithful. Our logic was to get to the most popular spot first. After about 40 minutes of sitting in standstill traffic, we abandoned our initial plan and decided to see the other sites first and end our day at Old Faithful instead!
Our first stop was at the Artists’ Paint Pots. I’d have to say this was my favorite – the colors were so vibrant making it hard to believe that these colored streams were naturally occurring. Next, we headed to the Norris Geyser Basin. Here there were several boardwalks to different geysers and an informative museum with some key facts and information. I remember this stop specifically because it was when the smell of rotten eggs really hit us – the smell of Sulphur was so strong and you could feel the heat of the steam from the geysers. After these two stops, we headed to the Canyon Visitor Center. Here we picked up some souvenirs and got some cheese & snacks for a picnic lunch. From the visitor center, we passed through Hayden Valley where we saw some bison grazing in the fields. We found a picnic area nearby and stopped for a picnic lunch.
Once we finished lunch, we had only a couple more essential stops left – the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Old Faithful! The Grand Canyon was gorgeous, and it really reminded me of the real Grand Canyon in Arizona. Finally, we ended our day at Old Faithful around 6 P.M. We were so glad that we bagged out of sitting in traffic earlier that day because visiting the park’s main attractions in reverse order was actually the best idea! Ending our day at Old Faithful turned out to be the least touristy time to visit, giving us a front and center view. Plus we were able to see an eruption take place!
After a jam-packed day in the park (8.11 mi. to be exact!), we got back on the road and headed down to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where we grabbed a bite to eat and had a night on the town! Jackson Hole was a super cute small town about an hour outside of Yellowstone in the valley of the Grand Tetons. Apparently, Kanye West lived in Jackson Hole for a short time while working on one of his albums, and a few night’s before we got there Sandra Bullock had celebrated her 50th birthday at one of the bars we went to called Million Dollar Cowboy.
Day 4 & 5: Salt Lake City
After a night of letting loose and getting our wild West on in Jackson Hole6, we slept in a bit before hitting the road again for Salt Lake City. Luckily, our last stop was visiting Mike’s family, which made it a bit more comforting knowing we’d be home and not staying in another hotel. When we finally arrived in SLC that afternoon, his sister had a bbq spread ready for us and it was the 4th of July! We had a relaxing day with family playing corn hole in the backyard.
The following day, we did some shopping at the City Creek Center, an up-scale open air shopping mall in downtown SLC, and had some amazing fish tacos at Lone Star Taqueria. After lunch, we took a drive to Snowbird, a popular ski resort just outside of SLC and took their aerial tram to the summit peak. The summit had some pretty awesome views, so we hung out there for a bit at the summit restaurant and tried some local Salt Lake City beers. We loved the beers, so later that evening we headed back downtown and went to Squatters Pub to try some of their other beers. Surprisingly, for the city having such strict drinking laws mandated by the Mormons, they still had a pretty vast selection of craft beer and breweries.
Salt Lake City was our final destination, and since we rented a car from Denver, instead of having to drive all the way back, I booked a one-way flight back home. In total, our 5-day trip consisted of 5 states - Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana & Utah, and a whole lot of driving, but I wouldn't have done it any differently! As an east coast native, it was an amazing experience to explore out west. The landscape is so beautiful with mountains, canyons, valleys, rivers, and more - I can see why people come out here and don't want to leave.
I know this post was a lot, but if you’re thinking about planning a trip out west, I'd love to help you pick where to stay or what to do!