This year we set out on a grand 4 state, 6 national park, 7 thousand mile adventure to Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and North Dakota. The trip loop itself is nearly 5,000 miles and we added another 2,000 miles of adventuring! Originally, we planned a 6 week trip (our longest so far since we travel part time from our home base), but as you’ll soon learn, we ended up spending an extra week in Glacier National Park.
We know not everybody has the opportunity to travel via RV, so we keep our national park itineraries pretty streamlined and share our longer trip routes in casual travel logs like this.
Here’s a breakdown of our 7 week national park blitz through the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states:
We kicked this week off with a 3-day, 20-hour drive to South Dakota. I had hoped to stop at Iowa 80 Truck Stop, but it was just a few minutes into our third day’s drive, and we like to get on the road and make progress early. We stopped for 2 nights in Sioux Falls, staying at Big Sioux Recreation Area, where we enjoyed the 2 mile bike trail. On our 2nd evening, we took our bikes downtown to the falls. The bike path we intended to use had a construction closure, so we stuck around Falls Park, which I think we would have enjoyed more without the bikes.
We had another overnight partway across South Dakota in Oacoma. This was a beautiful camp spot, but I got horribly sick this evening.
We spent the 2nd half of the week in the Badlands. While we initially planned to boondock outside the national park on public land, the windy afternoon and the storms in the forecast convinced us to grab a site at the only RV park in Drug. Good thing it was still shoulder season! We dodged the bad weather, spending 3 days in Badlands National Park. We also visited Wall Drug and the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands Visitor Center.
Our home base for week 2 was Blue Bell Campground at Custer State Park. This campground was a little more out of the way than some of the other campgrounds in Custer, but we enjoyed the secluded feel even if the drive was a little long at times. We enjoyed 3 scenic drives: Wildlife Loop Road, Iron Mountain Road, and the Needles Highway and visited Wind Cave National Park, Sylvan Lake, and Mount Rushmore. We also drove to the Mt. Coolidge Overlook and got pie at Purple Pie Place in Custer.
We fell into an easy rhythm of work and homeschool until 3:30 and then an evening exploration with a picnic dinner. Our drive through Wildlife Loop was rainy, but we got to see a dozen baby bison right near the road. We also experienced a couple of smoky days here from the Canadian wildfires, so visibility wasn’t always great. It was hazy and cold when we went to Sylvan Lake, and I’m bummed we didn’t get to paddleboard there. It’s the perfect place to explore from the water.
One spot that really surprised us in Custer State Park was the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center. This place is like a mash-up of a children’s museum and a visitor center, and I feel like a lot of guests don’t even know about it! There were several hands on wildlife displays, a cozy log cabin reading room, and fun outdoor areas where you can build, dig, draw, and make music.
We left South Dakota, stopping at the Anna Miller Museum in Wyoming, before driving across this beautiful state. I wish we’d had time to make a pit stop at Devil’s Tower, but we were trying to maximize our time at Grand Teton. We had a beautiful boondocking spot in the middle of Wyoming with views of snow-topped mountains.
And then the next day we had the most beautiful drive. Route 16 from Meadowlark Lake to Ten Sleep starts at the top of a canyon and then drives down through it along Tensleep Creek. That afternoon we stopped in Thermopolis and I enjoyed a relaxing (and free!) dip at the Hot Springs State Park Bath House. We also walked around their hot spring area and across the swinging bridge.
After our lovely road trip across Wyoming, we spent the week exploring Grand Teton National Park, boondocking mostly in the National Forest, but also spending one night without hookups in Colter Bay Campground so we could dump and refill our water.
This park was a dream but unfortunately, the weather was not. We had a day of smoke from Canadian wildfires, daily thunderstorms that left the sky gloomy and gray for hours, and more than one day when the mountain range was completely obscured. The routine that had worked so well at Custer had to be completely reworked and we had to rush out the door whenever the weather looked clear. We made it work and had a wonderful time, once we were able to let go of our schedule expectations.
Our favorite activity here was paddling String Lake to Leigh Lake. The water and mountains are absolutely stunning and it’s a great spot for a calm secluded paddle. I wish we’d packed a lunch in a waterproof bag! It took us about 45 minutes to paddle the length of String Lake, so once we portaged to Leigh Lake, we felt like we only had a few minutes to paddle around, before we had to start heading back. We also got rained on mid-paddle and had to stop and find shelter, so it was an adventure all around!
In Yellowstone National Park, we were constantly on the go! We spent 2 days in Bridge Bay Campground, 2 days in Madison Campground, and 1 night outside the north entrance of the park on BLM. There’s so much to see here and because of the crowds, we kept to a sight-seeing schedule. We hopped in the truck right after breakfast most mornings, exploring the park from 7:30 to 9:30, before heading back to our RV for work and school. Then in the evening, we would head out again between 4 and 5 as most people were leaving the park.
It was a full week, and we were excited to see 7 different geysers, some of those erupting multiple times. We had a couple of family favorites here. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was breathtaking. We also really enjoyed the hike to Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook. And since the kids enjoyed seeing Old Faithful so much the first time, we went back a second time before biking nearby.
The last night, we stayed outside the north entrance of the park and got a feeling for what many guests experience driving in and out of the park every day. And because of it, we shaved half a day off our trip, because I didn’t want to drive in again ‘just’ to do a couple things before leaving.
It really surprised us that Glacier would have warmer weather than Yellowstone. We hadn’t realized the difference in elevation between Yellowstone and Apgar campground, where we’d be staying in Glacier. I was so thankful for the ginormous trees (which blocked our Starlink use), because it was in the low 80s during our trip. That might not sound that hot, but if we’d been parked in the sun, our trailer would have hit 99 inside every day for sure. Instead, it stayed very consistent with the outside temp and cooled down pretty easily in the evenings (which is something we usually struggle with after a hot sunny day).
Glacier is an interesting mash-up of Lake Life vibes (the Apgar Village and Lake MacDonald area) and full-day national park activities. There are only a few roads in the park and only one that goes through the middle (which was currently closed to cars), so the main activities are biking 13 miles of Going to the Sun Road and various hikes. We spent one day biking about 10 miles of Going to the Sun Road (turning around a couple miles before the road closure when our e-bike batteries got close to dying) and doing the 2.3 mile out and back Avalanche Lake hike. Both were absolutely incredible and I would highly recommend them!
Late in the week, we moved to the east side of the park to camp at St. Mary. I was so excited, because friends had told us the views on this side were their favorite. But we quickly hit a few snags. The forecast for the next few days looked very stormy and we had a big problem with our truck.
The truck saga began on Thursday of week 5 and continued all the way through week 6. While the truck was at the mechanic, we hitched a ride on a park employee shuttle to spend an afternoon exploring Many Glacier and rode our bikes around a bit. But unfortunately, we weren’t within walking or biking distance of much, so we mostly just hung out at the campsite and dealt with the truck drama as it continually unfolded.
We finally got our fixed truck back on Saturday and spent the day driving around breaking in the new part before we were ready to leave on Sunday. While we were broken down, Going to the Sun Road opened fully to vehicle traffic, so we were able to drive both directions on Saturday and enjoy a few viewpoints we hadn’t seen yet. We also got a peek at the town of East Glacier and made a quick pit stop at Two Medicine, but unfortunately didn’t have time for any hiking there.
North Dakota & Driving Home
A week later than expected, we finally started heading home! We drove across Montana over 3 days, before arriving at the final national park on our list: Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. We had thought about boondocking nearby but it was mid-June at this point and we were a little nervous about how hot it might get, so we booked a campsite at Sully Creek State Park. Originally, we were planning to spend a few days here and visit Makoshika State Park in Montana as well, but our schedule was all thrown off by this point. Instead, we took a morning drive through Theodore Roosevelt, hitched up, and got right back on the road.
We spent one more night in North Dakota and visited the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. Then we stopped overnight at each side of Minnesota, then a night in Illinois and 1 in Indiana and we were home! We had hoped to stop at Indiana Dunes National Park on the way, but after all our truck problems, we just wanted to get home!
All in all, it was an amazing trip! Our longest yet – 52 nights in the RV!