For this itinerary, we wanted to give you a trip through varied parks and multiple states. A real National Parks Road trip. So we decided to make it a loop of a trip from Badlands through Theodore Roosevelt. The closest airport to this loop is Rapid City, South Dakota. But you can start from really anywhere you want (just adjust starting/end points).
Day One: Start your engines! From Minneapolis, it’s 7.5 hours. From Kansas City, it’s 9 hours. If you want the city with an airport closest to the start/end point of this trip, that’s Rapid City, South Dakota, which is only 1 hour from Badlands. Lodging: Campground in Badlands National Park.
Day Two: Spend the day hiking and exploring Badlands NP. Try the Castle and Medicine Trail loop. Catch the sunset falling over the hoodoos and vast scenery. Lodging: Campground in Badlands National Park.
Day Three: Head to Wind Cave (1.5 hours drive) and take a tour. If you plan ahead, you can do the Candlelight tour. Otherwise, you could try to snag them for the Fairgrounds tour on site. The campground in Wind Cave is a great affordable place to spend the night. After your tour, try hiking the Lookout/Centennial Loop or drive up to Rankin Ridge to hike to the highest point of the park (1 mile loop). Lodging: Campground in Wind Cave National Park.
Day Four: Heavy driving today (6 hours) to get to Cody, WY. You’ll have some scenic mountains along the way and are likely to be ready for a shower so book a hotel in Cody. The rodeo in Cody is world-renowned so plan for a western experience in the town. Lodging: Hotel in Cody, WY.
Day Five: The Beartooth Highway. From Cody, head into the Beartooth mountains. This road is stunning, much like a western Blue Ridge Parkway. When we went, the mountains were still covered in snow (mid to late June) but we still loved the day, especially with heated car seats. Stop to hike wherever you want and don’t miss Beartooth Falls (it’s right off the road so that would be hard to do). You’ll retrace your steps back to enter Yellowstone through Cooke City. Lodging: Campground in Yellowstone or hotel in Gardiner.
Day Six: On the first day in Gardiner, try a hike down to Hellroaring Creek. Afterwards, you could wander down to the Tower Region to explore the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone or check out Mammoth Hot Springs. Lodging: Same campground or hotel.
Day Seven: More hiking in Yellowstone! Our favorite hike in the park so far has been up and along Specimen Ridge. If the weather is nice, you can make a full day out of wandering as far as you want and then returning. If you need a break from hiking, you can book a rafting trip through Wild West Rafting or Yellowstone Rafting Company out of Gardiner. Lodging: Same campground or hotel.
Day Eight: Drive south to Jackson Hole. If you head out early enough, you can get a campsite at Signal Mountain campground. The Jenny Lake campground is very popular but not worth the hassle, in my opinion. You could try the Colter Bay campground, which is a little further north and slightly less popular than Signal Mountain. Try a shorter hike or two in the Tetons. Maybe the Taggart Lake Loop or Lunch Hill. You could also drive up Signal Mountain or hike around String Lake. Lodging: Campground in Tetons or Hotel in Jackson Hole.
Day Nine: Take a long hike in the Tetons. A very popular long day hike is out Cascade Canyon to Lake Solitude. A less popular but lovely hike is around Two Ocean Lake (you can make it longer by adding more distance around nearby Matilda lake). We haven’t done this ourselves, but we’ve heard great things about the dinner floats along the Snake River. Lodging: Campground in Tetons or Hotel in Jackson Hole.
Day Ten: Head toward Theodore Roosevelt National Park (South Unit) in North Dakota. This is a long drive (10 hours) but we’ll still recommend you make a brief stop on your drive through Yellowstone. You could try the Grand Prismatic overlook trail (park at Fairy Falls) or you could hike up to the Old Faithful overlook to watch an eruption. The campsites at Theodore Roosevelt are half first-come first-serve and half by reservation. To ease the stress of your late arrival, try to book one ahead of time. Lodging: Cottonwood Campground in Theodore Roosevelt.
Day Eleven: Spend the day hiking in Theodore Roosevelt. Try the Petrified Forest Loop. There are options for mini-hikes through here, too. One of our favorites was out to the old East Entrance. Lodging: Cottonwood Campground in Theodore Roosevelt.
Day Twelve: One more mini-hike for sunrise (maybe at Wind Canyon) and then it’s back to your starting destination and/or home.
Depending on how much you camp and where you stay, you can make this a pretty affordable trip. A National Parks Pass will get you entry to all of the parks and you’ll only need to pay more for tours in Wind Cave. You can camp quite affordably in Badlands, Wind Cave, and Theodore Roosevelt. I’d recommend you plan to camp in either Yellowstone OR Tetons. Hotel lodging in Tetons is going to be pricier but securing campgrounds in Tetons is more stressful because they don’t take reservations. On the other hand, you can make campsite reservations in Yellowstone online but the hotels in Gardiner will be more affordable.
You might notice that Day 10 includes a very long drive from Tetons to Theodore Roosevelt. If you switch some days around and do Yellowstone, then Tetons, then Yellowstone, you can shorten that long drive. The catch to this route is that you are less settled in a hotel or campsite. One option to make driving time more comfortable might be two nights camping in Yellowstone (Nights 5 & 6), two nights in Jackson Hole/Tetons (Nights 7 & 8), and then a night hotel in Gardiner (Night 9).