Treat Yourself on this National Parks Road Trip

Nothing is more enticing in the middle of an extended road trip than a long soak in some natural hot springs. Fortunately, the hot springs of Thermopolis are right in the middle of what may be one of the most beautiful road trip itineraries in the Rocky Mountain West. Hop on this route from any point—be it Bozeman, Jackson, or Rapid City—and enjoy the open road with the promise of soothing hot springs.


#thisismyroute

Prepared by:
Casey

State: 
Wyoming, South Dakota

Start/End: 
Jackson/Rapid City

Total miles:
770 miles (1,240 km)

Suggested days: 
8–10 days

Suggested season: 
Spring, fall

GETTING STARTED

You can start this route at either end or join it at the nearest point to you. We’ll start in South Dakota and work our way through the bucket list destinations through Wyoming to Montana.

Day 1 Badlands to Crazy Horse

Mount Rushmore on national parks road trip with hot springs

Kick off your vacation in Badlands National Park, where horses and rhinos once roamed and bison and bighorn sheep live today. The dramatic and curious geology and paleontology of the park will have you staring at the landscape in awe. Start at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to learn about the fossils, wildlife, rock formations, and more. Then drive the Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) to watch for wildlife and breathtaking landscapes.

Highway 240 will take you in the direction of your next stop: Mount Rushmore. Spend the night in or near Rapid City before checking out this massive national monument.


Day 2 CARVED ROCKS AND BLACK HILLS

Black Hills Road trip

2 hours, 12 minutes – 65 miles/105 km

Rise early to get some morning views of Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. The memorials are remarkable structures and worth spending some time to learn about, so take your time. Both enormous sculptural works are located in Black Hills National Forest, which is worth exploring after you witness and learn about the memorials. We recommend putting on some hiking shoes to see the Cathedral Spires.

Hot springs are probably sounding pretty nice right about now, and the wait will be worth it! For now, rest your tired feet in Custer to maximize your time adventuring in the Black Hills before you continue to Wyoming.

Day 3 America's First National Monument

Devil's Tower during our Yellowstone Road trip
3 hours – 170 miles/274 km

A two-hour drive will take you to Devil’s Tower, a fascinating and bizarre natural landmark that is also the nation’s first national monument. Nearly 900 feet tall, the looming butte is a geologic wonder. Learn about America’s conservation history, the unusual rock formation that comprises the tower, Native American heritage connected to the area, and the wildlife that live here.

When you’re ready to get back on the road, head into Gillette to enjoy a surprising local foodie scene and a welcoming town in which to rest your head.

Day 4 R&R in Thermopolis

Hot springs in Thermopolis, Wyoming on National Parks road trip itinerary
3 hours, 15 minutes – 193 MILES/311 KM

You’ve been on the road for three long days, so you’ll probably hit snooze on your alarm once, but just know that you’re going to get some time for slow travel and R&R today. The less-than-four-hour drive to Thermpolis includes some highly scenic stretches, so take time to stop, stretch, and take photos.

When you arrive in Thermopolis, take your pick of lodging, but we recommend finding a place with easy access to hot springs—you deserve it!

Before you settle into a pool, get to know the area. Hot Springs State Park is the heart of Thermopolis. Take a short, leisurely stroll from the park entrance to the Swinging Bridge over the Bighorn River, where you can see the Rainbow Terraces. This is a beautiful geological formation where hot mineral water cascades down over colorful rock. Check out the Big Spring, where the turquoise and green spring bubbles up at a piping hot 127 degrees Fahrenheit. This water is what feeds all the other pools and attractions in the park, and interpretive displays nearby will give you a better understanding of the area.

 

Hot Springs pool in Thermopolis, Wyoming

Now that you know all about the geology, culture, history, and wellness benefits of the hot springs, it’s time to slip into the waters and just relax. You can soak for free at the State Bath House in the heart of the state park. The Star Plunge nearby has a water slide and more pools to choose from, and Hellie’s Tepee Pools has a spa in addition to pools and water slides. Take your pick, or try one of each throughout your time in Thermopolis.

Top your day off with a meal at the local brewery, the One Eyed Buffalo.

Day 5 Enjoy Wyoming's HOt Springs

0 hours – 0 miles/0 km

Today, you won’t drive much at all. Since you’ll be sticking close to town, you can hop back into the hot springs at any time between activities!

Start the day off with a float down the Bighorn River. Hire a local guide or raft company to either paddle for you or shuttle you for a peaceful float past dramatic red cliffs, wildlife, and beautiful views. We recommend getting a fishing license and bringing your fly rod with you as you drift downriver. Your chosen rafting or floating experience will likely end right in town, so grab lunch at Nature’s Corner and stroll around Broadway and downtown after lunch.

Whether you’re a kid or a kid-at-heart, the Wyoming Dinosaur Center is something to get excited about. Walk through more than 58 mounted skeletons and hundreds of displays, and picture them walking through this very area. You can even take a 90-minute trip to an active dinosaur dig site or spend a full day digging alongside museum staff!

Before you know it, it will be time for dinner at Las Fuentes or the Safari Club and another dip in the springs.

Day 6 Petroglyphs and scenic drives

1 hour, 35 minutes – 68 miles/110 km

As you relax into your time in Thermopolis, sleep in and linger over breakfast at the Black Bear Cafe. Today will include a short driving loop to warm you up for the rest of your road trip. The first stop is Legend Rock Petroglyph Site. About 20 miles west of town, the site has at least 283 petroglyphs on 92 different sandstone panels. Be sure to get the directions and, depending on the time of year, a key to this remote site.

From Legend Rock, you’ll point your car in the direction of the town of Kirby. This is where Wyoming Whiskey is made. Take a tour of the distillery, followed by a tasting with a knowledgeable staff member. Hot tip: This may be the perfect souvenir to take home for yourself and friends.

As you make your way back into Thermopolis, take Buffalo Pasture Road to see the Hot Springs State Park bison herd. Remember, only view the bison from inside your vehicle at a respectful and safe distance. This is for your safety and theirs.

Grab dinner at your new favorite restaurant, and get in one last soak in the healing waters, because tomorrow morning you’ll be on your way to Yellowstone National Park.

Day 7 Scenic Route to Yellowstone

3 hours, 45 minutes – 215 miles/345 km

Almost the moment you leave the town of Thermopolis, you’ll enter Wind River Canyon, a Scenic Byway that follows the Bighorn River upstream as it changes names to the Wind River and flows from Boysen Reservoir. Keep an eye out for new views at every single turn and signs about the geology you’re driving right through!

After driving through Riverton, you may get the chance to spot one of the bison herds recently reintroduced on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Dubois is a great town to stop and stretch your legs and grab a bite to eat. It’s also your launching point for the second Scenic Byway you’ll drive today. Togwotee Pass over the Continental Divide to the south gate of Yellowstone National Park has numerous trailheads (like the Falls Campground and Turpin Meadows), high likelihood of spotting wildlife, and absolutely stunning views, including your first look at the Teton Mountains.

Make your way into Jackson to get checked into lovely lodging, like the Wort Hotel, then go play in Grand Teton National Park! After you snap pictures of the Tetons, head to Jenny Lake, where you can play on the water or hike right below the park’s namesake.

Overnight in Jackson (don’t miss the Cowboy Bar!) with plans to hit the road early for a full day in Yellowstone National Park.

Day 8 America's First national park

A colorful hot spring in Yellowstone National Park
1 hour, 15 minutes – 60 MILES/97 KM

Rise early, grab breakfast and snacks at The Bunnery, and point the car north to Yellowstone National Park.

Plan for a full day in the park, as this is the grand finale of your travels. Enjoy the wildlife and geothermal attractions from a safe distance, carve out some time for fishing or a picnic, and take a hike to stretch your legs and enjoy the wonders of the nation’s first national park at your own pace. There are plenty of hot springs to see, but none you can soak in, so you may find yourself circling back to Thermopolis before you head home!

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