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Yellowstone/Badlands trip, family of five, help with itinerary?

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Hello,

We are a family of five. After numerous trips to Disney, we're ready to start touring the national parks.

We have 11 days for this trip (I wanted two weeks, but we have a family obligation in Sheboygan, WI, which eats up a couple of our days).

Since I've never seen any of these sites - I'd love to get some idea of time needed to see these places. Also, which you might drop. Our kids will be 10, 10, and 11. One of my girls is a HUGE animal kid.

Preliminary Itinerary - Please hack this up and offer any opinions!:

Day 1: Drive from Sheboygan to Mitchell, SD (Good stopping point?)
Day 2: Drive to/through Badlands. Buy NP passports. Do short hikes? How long would we spend at Badlands? Half a day? Drive to Wall for lunch and Wall Drug? There is also a missile site and a prairie dog town to see? Maybe in the afternoon? Where to spend the night?
Day 3: Mount Rushmore - How long? One day? Half a day? Where to spend the night? Wind Cave? Mammoth Springs (is this where the dig site is?)? Again, where to spend the night?
Maybe Day 3 is Mount Rushmore and Day 4 is Wind Cave and Mammoth Springs? What about Custer state park? And Jewel Cave?
Day 5: Drive to Yellowstone (should we change up the order here - so we can go to Yellowstone through the northeast entrance? We can always hit some things on the way home.
Days 6-8: Yellowstone
Day 9: Grand Tetons?
Day 10-11: drive home to Chicago

I feel like I wish we could get one more day in Yellowstone - but I'm not sure what to cut/what the timing is on some of those "on the way" attractions.

Thank you!

Oh - We're thinking of this summer - 2014, which I realize is late to plan - but I'm still hoping we can get in Yellowstone lodging for those nights.

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    You need to tie down the Yellowstone lodging TODAY if not SOONER!

    I would try for 2 places to stay in Yellowstone - it is a big park. Old Faithful Lodge cabins were where we stayed and in early June there was no traffic in the park so driving wasn't too bad, but later in the summer I understand it can really be slow.

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    First of all, I'll say that you could easily spend this entire vacation in the Black Hills and not run out of things to see and do. But, if you only have 3 days, here are my suggestions:

    1. Plan on anywhere from half-a-day to an overnight stay in the Badlands, depending on your interests. (We enjoy hiking and spent a day-and-a-half here in June.) There are several short hikes you can take; the Visitor's Center has some excellent exhibits; and there is a good-sized prairie dog town (Roberts Prairie Dog town on the gravel road at the end of the park's Loop Road). If you want to tour the Delta 01 Minuteman Launch Control Facility, you would need to be at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor's Center as early as possible to get tickets as they are distributed on a first come/first serve basis. We got there at 9am in June 2013 and the earliest we could get tour tickets was at 1:30 pm. They can only take 6 visitors at a time, so your group would have even more of a problem getting tickets. However, you can always drive over to the Delta 09 missile silo and see a Minuteman Missile. Also, the film at the Visitor's Center is very good. I think it would make more sense to pick up some picnic items and have a picnic in the Badlands rather than going to Wall Drug. If you want to stop at Wall Drug after the Badlands, you can always stop for a snack.

    2. I would plan your day to make one visit to Mount Rushmore. Get there early enough to tour the Visitor's Center (which took us nearly 2 hours), walk the President's Trail, visit Borglum's Studio and then be there for the lighting of the monument at 9pm. There is an excellent program before the lighting. I'd probably recommend getting there around 4 - 5 pm, depending on the open hours of the studio and museum.

    3. If you have a child who loves animals, you do NOT want to miss driving the wildlife loop in Custer State Park. I'd recommend doing it early in the morning when you have a better chance of seeing wildlife close to the road. In the heat of the day, they retreat to the cool of the trees and you might not see any animals. They may come back out toward sunset, but I still think early morning is the best time to go. You will also find wildlife in Wind Cave NP.

    4. Since your main interests seem to be Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park and the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, I think I would recommend accommodations in Custer. You could try to get one of the cabins in Custer State Park or find a vacation rental in/around Custer. Vacation home rentals can be really good for families because it gives everyone more space and you've got a kitchen to prepare picnics, breakfasts and/or simple meals.

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    We are doing The Black Hills/Badlands this year too. We are staying at Sylvan Lake Lodge (cabin) in Custer State Park.

    Just so you know, there are a couple of days worth of things to do between Yellowstone and Black Hills. There is Devil's Tower, Battle of Little Bighorn, Cody Wy, and Bighorn Canyon.

    Personally, I would take The Beartooth Hwy into Yellowstone.

    We did Disneyworld 4 times, cruise 2 times, land 1 time before our daughter was 10(haven't been since). We started doing National Park when she was 10. We've now been to 34 of them. Truly truly so glad we discovered these gems. Much much less money than Disney and far far better, IMOP.
    Yellowstone is my wife and daughters favorite park. We plan on going back in 2015(daughter will be 20 then). The main advice I would offer is to always make your reservations 1 year in advance and really spend some time seeing each place. Some of the oddball places are really good too. For example, I've spent several days backpacking Guadalupe Mountains in Texas. Check out the extras offered, like wild cave tours(you have to be 16 years old to do the ones in Jewel and Wind)-but there are many things to do in each park, you just have to research.


    We stayed 1 night in Old Faithful Inn, 1 night in Roosevelt Lodge, 1 night in Lake Hotel, and 1 night in Cabin at Colter Village in Tetons. Loved all of them. Yellowstone got us really interested in staying at all the Old Historic Lodges. We've now stayed/eaten in just about every one of them. They are quirky/old/rustic and not for everyone, but we think they are great.

    The one thing I regret not doing is getting a National Park Passport Book. Have your kids get one.

    A National Park Pass is currently $80 for a year. This gets you into all parks, monuments, rivers, seashores, historical sights, etc. You will still have to pay for cave tours(usually $5 or so) and occasional small fees.

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    First of all, please keep in mind that your timetable may HAVE to change, due to road construction, weather, etc. - your drive times coming and going are ambitious, to say the least. I would also offer that there is plenty to see/do in Black Hills, without even getting into Yellowstone. Both areas can VERY easily accommodate a week's vacation by themselves.
    Some humble suggestions: If you wish to visit the SD Badlands (and are driving the Interstate coming from the East)the best place to stay would be Wall, SD for a night. The entrance to the park loop is right there & Wall Drug would be available for meals. The town itself is very, very small with Wall Drug Store as it's only tourist trap; they do have motels. We've done the drive-thru loop in 1/2 day, with very short little stops at turnoffs. I would skip the Minuteman Missle feature for time constraints.
    Wall, SD is only about an hour from Rapid City; no reason to stay at Mitchell whatsoever. As far as prairie dogs; they can be seen along the Badlands drive or in Custer State Park - lots of them!
    For your Black Hills stay, I would recommend staying at Custer or Hill City. Nearly everything you want to see is centered in a loop between these two small towns. (We enjoyed the Golden Spike Best Western's 2-room suites in Hill City). Blue Bell Lodge in Custer Park is also popular.
    Day 1: Rise early and take the wildlife loop in Custer State Park, where you'll see bison, prairie dogs, antelope, mules - stop for lunch at one of the lodges along the drive. You could include either Wind Cave or Mammoth Dig Site (enclosed building around a dig site featuring wooly mammoths; self-guided tour with headphones)in the afternoon - each takes a leisurely 1/2 day, including drive time from the park. Jewel Cave is also a short drive from Custer; be sure to call ahead and purchase your tickets so you have them before you venture out for the day at either cave you choose. Finish the day with dinner & a stroll downtown in Custer or Hill City, wherever you stay. (If staying in the park, do campfire activities at one of the lodges).
    Day 2: Mt. Rushmore can obviously be seen anytime - the night lighting is nice if your day is full of other activities. 1/2 a day is plenty, especially for "younger" viewers who may not necessarily want to read all the info in the museum. The Crazy Horse Monument is similar, with his likeness being carved into the side of the mountain and with a large museum. We actually preferred it, because you can take a bus right up to where they're working and get the actual scale of the work. Native American dancers/singers at times - very enjoyable. "The Needles" is also a very scenic, twisty drive that can be done in 1/2 day or less and is next to Custer State Park. There are many other fun things to do & see, but these are the ones you mentioned. I would say they're all interchangeable (1/2 day each)and a short drive from one another.
    If you choose to go to Yellowstone, remember that it's a large area and traffic near & within the park can move VERY slowly - you may not even get to see much before you have to leave, if only there for a day or two. If you do go, you could go by way of Devil's Tower in Wyoming (a hour's drive from SD border) - Custer Battlefield is also in Montana, east of Yellowstone....so much to see, so little time!!!
    Hope this helps!

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    I am just topping here for reference, as it's the best collection of advice for the Badlands. Have never been, would like to.

    Knowing you only have limited time, you obviously cannot spend the week+ that we allocate to Yellowstone. Hopefully, this is a first visit and you can plan return visits. You'll want to factor in a lot of slow/stop & go traffic in Yellowstone.. anytime Bison get on the road, everything stops. I do agree with you that one more day would be a great idea.

    At any rate, make those reservations now. And if there is no availability where you want in the park, keep calling. A lot of people book multiple reservations and let them go. Those may not show up online, so do it the "old fashioned way" and pick up the phone..

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    You have lots of good advice here, but something I added to my website a while ago might give you some ideas. Of course, I'm a little prejudiced and feel you should spend more of your time in Yellowstone. And you must call Xanterra for in-park reservations right away (307-344-7311). Staying in two different places is a good way to cut down on driving over the same road too often. You may need to stay in Cooke City or West Yellowstone for a night or two if Xanterra is already fully booked.

    Take a look at http://www.yellowstonetreasures.com/nuggets/itinerary-for-a-family-trip/ for a hypothetical plan for a family coming from the east, as you will be doing. You may like to look at some of the other nuggets of Yellowstone information on that site, too.

    But mostly, have a wonderful trip!
    Janet Chapple

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    Thanks so, so much, everyone! I appreciate all of your valuable thoughts! I've added a day to the trip, and revised it quite a bit. Our focus is truly on the National Parks.

    Day 1: Drive from Sheboygan to Badlands, NP
    Day 2: Buy NP passports. Spend the morning here. Drive to Mount Rushmore, See Mount Rushmore at night.
    Day 3: Mount Rushmore (morning), Wind Cave National Park (afternoon)
    Day 4: Custer State Park (morning), Mammoth Dig Site Hot Springs (afternoon)
    Day 5: Drive to Yellowstone (should we change up the order here - so we can go to Yellowstone through the northeast entrance?) We can always hit some things on the way home.
    Days 6-9: Yellowstone NP
    Day 10: Grand Teton NP
    Day 11-12 : drive home to Chicago

    This gives us four full days for Yellowstone. Obviously, a week would be better - but then we're giving the whole trip to just Yellowstone - and I'd kind of like to touch on a few other experiences as well. Do you think doing just Yellowstone for the week is preferable?

    Thanks so much!

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    You might add in Crazy Horse and Jewel Cave if time allows. Perhaps just see Mt. Rushmore once. I am having a hard time deciding what time of day I'm doing Rushmore myself.


    Sounds like a good plan though.
    Get your Yellowstone Lodging ASAP!!

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    Spiro, Thank you! You've been so much help to me here (and on previous Grand Canyon loop threads - that trip is still on our "bucket list").

    I've changed the itinerary around enough to get us to Yellowstone one night earlier. Now, we will have 5 nights in the park and nearly 5 full days.

    It's a long haul - but both my husband and I are super excited to begin touring the national parks with our children.

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    Do not despair if bookings in the park are unavailable; you don't have to stay in Yellowstone proper. For example, Gardiner, Montana, is an excellent choice with lots of lodging types and is a short hop from Mammoth and the north end of the park; the village of West Yellowstone is also a good option, a short drive into the main loop of the park. Driving Yellowstone is basically a figure 8, and there are many ways to explore.

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    Sheboygan to Badlands is going to be a long day, just be prepared for that.

    I would recommend you stay either inside the park for Badlands, or right outside in Interior. Wall is not too far from the Pinnacles entrance but if you stay there, you'll be backtracking to see all of the park.

    If you enter at the eastern entrance, fill up with gas at the station right off the interstate. You'll pass by the headquarters for the Minuteman Missile Site. A couple miles past that is a little tourist store with a prairie dog town - the prairie dogs are pretty tame and will come up to you to be fed. Whether you think feeding them is a good idea or not is up to you....

    The one big problem with entering at the east entrance is time of day...the drive from Sheboygan is 12 hours so you'll get there late evening or night unless you get up really early. Not sure how you can get around that issue.

    There aren't a ton of hiking trails in Badlands so just pick a couple short ones. The drive is nicest in the early morning/late evening. If you go west from the Pinnacles Entrance you will see a huge prairie dog town (Roberts) at mile 4 or 5? Then if you continue on the dirt road you'll go through the Sage Creek section which is totally different terrain from the Badlands. You have a great chance of seeing bison on that road, which may or may not be worth it considering you'll see them in Yellowstone as well.

    Personally I think you will have enough time to go to Mount Rushmore in late afternoon or early evening that same day, stay for the lighting and then move on the next morning. I don't see the need to go back for another visit. That frees up a little time for another site.

    If you're taking the same route back through South Dakota, you could very well skip Badlands on the drive out in favor of doing it on the way home, especially if you are just doing a drive through with a couple quick hikes. It would make perfect sense to enter at Pinnacles from the Wall exit, detour to see the Roberts prairie dog town then head east through the park and exit the east entrance. To me, that sounds like a better plan than trying to force it in on day 2 after such a long drive.

    Overnight in Wall, make your way to the Black Hills and visit one of your other sites plus Mount Rushmore on day 2. Save Badlands for the drive home.

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