Leave the hustle and bustle of Chicago behind and hit the truly open roads. South Dakota gives you plenty of reasons to linger around — including those iconic presidential faces carved into the Black Hills — before arriving at the one-and-only Yellowstone National Park, where adventures await around every corner.
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- Total distance: 1,431 mi / 2,303 km
- Total driving time: 23 h
Ready, steady, go — well, maybe not quite yet after all. If you’re not familiar with Chicago, take your time for some big-city sightseeing before departing for Yellowstone.
Survey your reflection in Millennium Park
There’s no shortage of attractions in Millennium Park, a 24.5-acre oasis at the heart of Downtown Chicago. Wander among green lawns, spouting fountains, manicured gardens and enchanting art.
Crown your visit at Chicago’s most famous statue — designed by architect Frank Gehry and consisting of 168 stainless steel plates — Cloud Gate, also known as The Bean. Watch your distorted reflection become one with the skyline on its shiny, bean-shaped surface and snap that essential Chicago selfie.
Absorb the friendly vibe at Navy Pier
Make your way over to Navy Pier, brilliantly shooting 3,300 feet (1,010 m) into Lake Michigan, for the soothing lake views, spectacular skyline vistas and abundance of entertainment options.
For good views and good fun, take a spin with the landmark Centennial Wheel, one of several rides contributing to the high-spirited, family-friendly vibe. When hunger calls, a variety of laid-back eateries have you covered.
Where to stay in Chicago
Hit the sweet spot and stay near Millennium Park and Navy Pier (the itinerary offers enough miles as is). Or stretch your hard-earned dollars by staying outside the downtown area.
- Sable by Hilton – Stay right on Navy Pier.
- Swissotel Chicago – Between Millennium & Navy Pier.
- Hilton Garden Inn – Value by the airport.
2. Sioux Falls
- Driving distance: 574 mi / 924 km
- Driving time: 8 h 30 min
Interstate 90 efficiently takes you from Illinois through Wisconsin and Minnesota to Sioux Falls in eastern South Dakota. Check in at your hotel before stretching the legs at the city’s big-ticket attraction.
Marvel at cascading Falls Park
Visit Falls Park — just north of Downtown, along Big Sioux River — to see the gushing waterfall, South Dakota’s tallest, that Sioux Falls is named after. Each second, on average 7,400 gallons (28,000 l) of water enter its breathtaking 100-foot, multi-drop course.
An array of vantage points elevates the Falls Park experience. Hop between paved riverside trails, a five-story observation tower and the hard-to-resist Falls Overlook Cafe, providing lunch, dinner and ice cream in the front row.
Where to stay in Sioux Falls
While there’s plenty of lodging along the interstate, Sioux Falls’ downtown area lets you enjoy a car-free stay, with restaurants and Falls Park within walking distance.
Corn, corn, corn: Pause after an hour in Mitchell to see the world’s only Corn Palace. Feel “a-maize-ing” as you take in the building decorated with crop murals; the exterior theme changes each year.
3. Badlands National Park
- Driving distance: 280 mi / 451 km
- Driving time: 4 h
Head south from Interstate 90 at Exit 131 to access Badlands National Park through its Northeast Entrance. Within the park, an ancient world of geologic formations await, with the oldest rock layer — Pierre Shale — dating back some 75 million years.
Drive Badlands Loop Road & beyond
Although it’s called a loop, 39-mile (63 km) Badlands Loop Road, actually, is the U-shaped Highway 240. Drive it and discover 12 roadside overlooks showcasing the otherworldly types of rock buttes, spires and pinnacles that define the park.
Add even more scenic vistas, and escape any crowds, by drifting off the loop, exploring the heights of Sage Creek Rim Road. Listen for chirping and barking; aptly named Roberts Prairie Dog Town features a sizable, highly entertaining prairie dog population.
Finally, cruise the last stretch of the loop road, which finishes at the town of Wall, handily situated at Exit 110 of Interstate 90.
Where to stay in Badlands
The accommodation available inside the park is limited to one complex. Consider bedding down in Wall or pushing on for another hour to the bigger and better equipped Rapid City.
- Cedar Pass Lodge – The only in-park lodging.
- BW Plains Motel – Convenient in Wall.
- Holiday Inn – Central in Rapid City.
Experience Wall Drug: Some things seem never to change, and free ice water and 5-cent coffee at old-school Wall Drug are two of them. To build onto those timeless offers, savor a relaxed meal or hunt for a souvenir (or two).
4. Mount Rushmore
- Driving distance: 97 mi / 156 km
- Driving time: 2 h
Welcome to the Black Hills of western South Dakota. First, tick off the must-see Mount Rushmore, then, if time allows, dig deeper into the enchanting area.
Witness the faces of Mount Rushmore
Gaze up at 60-foot-tall granite faces — depicting George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln — carved into the Black Hills. Appreciate the head-on perspective from the Grand View Terrace and, for more angles, walk the 0.6-mile (1 km) loop Presidential Trail.
As you exit — you probably were distracted by the towering rock faces on your way in — inspect the Avenue of Flags closer. It’s lined by 56 swaying flags, one for each state, district, territory and commonwealth of the USA.
Tip: During peak season, typically from late May through September, nightly lighting ceremonies take place. Year round, Mount Rushmore is illuminated in the evening.
Drive through wildlife-filled Custer State Park
Custer State Park entices visitors with some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities in America. In particular, a bison heard consisting of over 1,000 animals make memorable sightings more than likely. To best experience it, drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road (a semi circle) while keeping your eyes open for members of the Animal Kingdom.
Where to stay near Mount Rushmore
Touristy but charming Keystone puts you as close to Mount Rushmore as it gets, only 3 miles (5 km) away. From here, you also get to Custer State Park in 30 minutes.
5. Devils Tower
- Driving distance: 130 mi / 209 km
- Driving time: 2 h 15 min
Eerily shooting 867 feet (264 m) towards the sky from enveloping grassland and pine forest, Devils Tower has an appeal as evident as its formation is mysterious. No one knows exactly how the monolith formed — feel free to speculate, wild theories welcome.
Circumnavigate Devils Tower by foot
As striking as Devils Towers’ almost vertical shape are its hexagonal (six-sided) and polygonal (5-sided) columns. Exploring the five trails around the otherworldly monument, you feel like an alien spaceship could land at any moment.
The most frequented route, intimate Tower Trail circles Devils Tower’s base over a 1.3-mile (2.1 km) course. To zoom out, consider 2.8-mile (4.5 km) Red Beds Trail: While it runs further from the base, some of the best views are from a distance.
Where to stay near Devils Tower
There’s no lodging within Devils Tower National Monument. Instead, bed down just outside the park border or in one of the nearby towns.
- Driving distance: 298 mi / 480 km
- Driving time: 5 h
Lower your car windows to feel Wild West winds blow through your hair as you approach Cody. Buffalo Bill himself founded the town in 1896, and you can feel his spirit to this day.
Go all in at Buffalo Bill Center of the West
Housing five museums under one roof, Buffalo Bill Center of the West is the place to immerse yourself in all things Wild West. Dive into all from colorful cowboy (and cowgirl) stories to the lives of the Plain Indians to the ecosystems that characterize Yellowstone Country.
Experience the Cody Nite Rodeo
Known as the world’s rodeo capital, Cody features nightly summer rodeo. Arrive well in time to soak up the Wild West vibe before watching brave riders compete in a wide range of games such as barrel racing, bareback riding, team roping and bull riding.
Where to stay in Cody
Cody provides amenity-rich accommodation, the best with cozy Western themes.
7. Yellowstone National Park
- Driving distance: 52 mi / 84 km
- Driving time: 1 h 15 min
Cruise what President Theodore called “the most scenic 50 miles in America” to begin your Yellowstone adventure at the park’s East Entrance. Yellowstone is a geothermal hotspot, with over half of the world’s geysers, yet its wildlife watching opportunities are as mesmerizing.
Reflect on the power of Old Faithful
Among all the 500-or-so geysers in Yellowstone, the Old Faithful — averaging an eruption every 90 minutes — is the biggest drawcard. Sit down on a geyser-front bench and gawk as it expels up to 8,400 gallons (32,000 l) of boiling water sometimes as high as 180 feet (55 m) into the air.
Let vivid Grand Prismatic put you under a spell
There’s colorful, and then there’s the Grand Prismatic Spring. Goggle at a hot spring — which by the way is the world’s third largest, at 370 feet (113 m) wide and 121 feet (37 m) deep — with a rainbow spectrum of colors, from blue in the middle to outer layers of red, making it the number-one photo opportunity within Yellowstone.
Be entertained by Hayden and Lamar
Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife as you explore Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley, two wildlife meccas in a park that boasts the biggest density of mammals in the contiguous USA. Popular targets include black bears, brown bears, bison, wolves and elk, but with 67 mammal species calling Yellowstone home, you never know what’s next up.
Where to stay in Yellowstone
Yellowstone is massive: It takes 2.5 hours to traverse the park from north to south (without wildlife jams). Book well ahead to secure a room at one of the complexes inside Yellowstone, keeping the distances down and allowing more time for what you really come for.
- Old Faithful Inn – Walk to big-ticket eruptions.
- Lake Yellowstone Hotel – Lakefront lodging.
- Canyon Lodge & Cabins – Near Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
More info: Where to stay at Yellowstone
Which route back from Yellowstone to Chicago?
It may be time to leave, but the fun is far from over. First, be sure to:
- Exit Yellowstone through the Northeast Entrance and drive Beartooth Highway, featuring iconic switchbacks.
- Pause in friendly Red Lodge, at the base of Beartooth Highway, to refuel and absorb the magnificent surroundings.
Then, either backtrack towards Chicago, or continue through Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota. If you opt for the latter, highlights include:
- Find inspiration where a president did so, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, home to striking badlands and large herds of bison.
- Learn the colorful story of North Dakota as you tour the four galleries at North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck, ND.
- Break off the final leg with a night in a city with all the amenities you might crave for after time away from civilization: Minneapolis, MN.
Frequently asked questions
This ultimate Chicago to Yellowstone road trip is 1,431 miles (2,303 km) long, taking 23 hours. Add extra time for the stops you make along the way.
Explore Sioux Falls, Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, Devils Tower and Cody on your way from Chicago to Yellowstone.
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