Illustration by Zohar Lazar
Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Park Bagging

Exploring the jewels of South Dakota and Wyoming

Illustration by Zohar Lazar
Alan Kesselheim

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

NO MATTER YOUR AGE, BOREDOM is not an option on this weeklong trip. The route from Rapid City, South Dakota, to Jackson, Wyoming, begins with giant tortoises and ends with Class III whitewater, packing in more variety than you’ll find anywhere on the sunset side of the Mississippi. In 800 miles of plains and northern Rockies, there are marvels natural and man-made: geysers and grottoes, rodeos and reptile gardens, wolves and Wild West shootouts.

And the devil went down to Wyoming: Devils Tower National Monument And the devil went down to Wyoming: Devils Tower National Monument
Illustration by Zohar Lazar Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Day 1 Rapid City, South Dakota-Wind Cave National Park
Our first stop, Reptile Gardens in Rapid City, is an indulgence for the kids—Eli, ten; Sawyer, eight; and Ruby, six—that ends up seducing the parents. My wife, Marypat, and I find it fascinating, particularly Methuselah, a 600-pound Galapagos tortoise born in 1881. After a glimpse of Mount Rushmore (every American should see the presidential panorama at least once), the afternoon is devoted to more natural wonders, beginning with Custer State Park’s Sylvan Lake. We intend to hike to Harney Peak, at 7,242 feet the highest mountain east of the Rockies, but are pleasantly waylaid by the unbeatable scrambling in thickets of granite spires. We drive south to Wind Cave National Park, where we nab a campsite and a grotto tour.
Day 2 Wind Cave National Park-Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
With bellies full of pancakes from the Elkhorn Cafe in Hot Springs, we check out the Mammoth Site, an excavation of a mud pit full of the beasts. The kids are duly impressed, but after an hour they’ve had enough of big bones, so it’s back north and west to Custer to see the Crazy Horse Memorial, a mountain-size statue of the Indian leader astride his steed. We cross into Wyoming and reach Devils Tower National Monument. The enormous igneous pillars are the core of a volcano that has long since eroded away. With plenty of daylight left, we settle on a campsite and walk the Red Beds Trail, a three-mile saunter.

Day 3 Devils Tower National Monument-Cody
This is the longest driving day, and it marks our transition from the flats to the mountains. After Buffalo, the road turns to two-lane as we enter the Bighorn Mountains. We detour south to The Nature Conservancy’s Tensleep Preserve to picnic and stretch our legs on the two-mile trail to Dedication Point; it seems as if we can see half of Wyoming from the rock perch.

In Cody we pick a motel after two nights’ camping. Our exploration of town starts with dinner at the Irma Hotel (Founder Buffalo Bill named it after his daughter) and a shootout on a side street at 6 p.m. Then we’re off to the rodeo (there’s a show every summer night). It’s real rodeo: bronc riding, clowns, and an event featuring all comers under 12 (including ours) in a chaotic stampede after a little steer with a ribbon on its tail.

Day 4 Cody-Yellowstone National Park
A proposal to tour Cody’s world-class Buffalo Bill Historical Center is strenuously vetoed in favor of Tecumseh’s Miniature Village, a Western-history diorama. Around midmorning Marypat and I distract the kids from the train sets and tiny carved bison and drive north on the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway to the prettiest entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Clarks Fork Canyon—a deep and narrow gorge along the Clarks Fork River—and the Matterhorn-quality silhouettes of Pilot and Index peaks silence the car. We lunch at picnic tables just off the road at the Cary Inn at Crandall, and then head down the Lamar Valley, one of North America’s best wildlife-viewing corridors. The kids start an animal checklist. At the Trout Lake trailhead we make a two-mile loop to the lake, where spawning cutthroat trout jam the inlet and an otter fishes, before driving to Slough Creek Campground, our Yellowstone family favorite thanks to its uncrowded feel.

Day 5 Yellowstone National Park
Following a camp breakfast we make stops at the huge petrified-tree exhibit past Tower Junction and then at Mammoth Terraces, where deposits of white travertine underscore colorful, bubbling pools—it’s one boardwalk worth taking. Our route snakes toward the Artist Paint Pots Trail, a flat walk to some spectacular thermals. At the Firehole Canyon loop road we stop long enough for a swim in a warmish, waterfall-fed pool in the chasm formed by the Firehole River. Next, by popular demand, we join the hordes at Old Faithful for one eruption, followed by ice-cream cones at the snack bar in the Old Faithful Inn. After a lap around the Yellowstone Lake Overlook Trail, we hit the Grant Village campground, one of the few camps where reservations are both recommended and accepted.
Day 6 Yellowstone National Park-Grand Teton National Park
With promises of a swimming pool, we persuade the kids to join us for the five-mile round-trip on the Riddle Lake Trail. Walking the Continental Divide has a certain cachet, and the trail is only moderately strenuous. Then it’s on to the Grand Tetons. We splurge with a stay at the massively elegant Jackson Lake Lodge, with the Tetons in the picture window and the pool, which the children refuse to leave. Nearby are horseback rides, fishing at Colter Bay, and raft trips on the upper Snake River, but none of it has a chance against a pool.

Day 7 Grand Teton National Park-Jackson Hole
We roust the kids for the 8 a.m. boat ride across Jenny Lake to Cascade Canyon (the only departure with a ranger-led tour to Inspiration Point). Then, moving on, we browse Moose Visitor Center before lunch at Dornan’s Pizza Pasta Company—going against the name with big, juicy burgers and fries, which we eat outside with the Tetons in our faces. For the trip finale, we cruise to Jackson for an afternoon raft trip through the heart-thumping Class III rapids of the Snake River Canyon, and then head to Jedediah’s Original House of Sourdough for the signature bread and kid-pleasing dinner fare.

DAY ONE (Rapid City, SD-Wind Cave National Park)
DRIVE TIME: 2.5 hours.
DIRECTIONS: U.S. 16 south to Keystone; South Dakota 244 to Mount Rushmore National Memorial; South Dakota 87 (Needles Highway) south to Wind Cave National Park.
STOPS: Reptile Gardens (800-335-0275;, $10 per adult, $6 per child age 6-12; Mount Rushmore National Monument (605-574-2523;; Custer State Park (605-255-4515; Buy a National Parks Annual Pass for $65 to cover all federal entrance fees.
STAY AT: Elk Mountain Campground at Wind Cave National Park (605-745-4600;, 96 sites, $10 per site (daily cave tours, $8-$20).

DAY TWO (Wind Cave National Park-Devils Tower National Monument, WY)
DRIVE TIME: 3.5 hours.
DIRECTIONS: U.S. 385 south to Hot Springs, backtrack north on 385/89 to Custer; west on U.S. 16 into Wyoming; U.S. 85/585 to I-90 at Sundance. Go west one exit for Devils Tower.
STOPS: Elkhorn Cafe on Chicago Street in Hot Springs; Mammoth Site (605-745-6017,, $6 per adult, $4.25 per child; Crazy Horse Memorial (605-673-4681), $9 per person or $19 per car.
STAY AT: Belle Fourche Campground at Devils Tower National Monument (307-467-5283;, 30 sites with tables and fire grates, $12 per site.

DAY THREE (Devils Tower National Monument-Cody)
DRIVE TIME: 6 hours.
DIRECTIONS: I-90 west to Buffalo; U.S. 16 west (detouring on Wyoming 436 south to the nature preserve east of Ten Sleep) to Worland; north on U.S. 20 to Greybull; west on 16/20 to Cody.
STOPS: The Nature Conservancy’s Tensleep Preserve (307-366-2671;; Irma Hotel/Restaurant (800-745-4762,; Cody Nite Rodeo at 8:30 p.m., $12 per adult, $6 per child age 7-12.
STAY AT: Best Western Sunset Motor Inn (307-587-4265): indoor/outdoor pools, play area, room with two queen beds, $130.

DAY FOUR (Cody-Yellowstone National Park)
DRIVE TIME: 3 hours.
DIRECTIONS: Wyoming 120 north to Wyoming 296 (Chief Joseph Scenic Highway) to U.S. 212; go west to Yellowstone’s northeast entrance. The dirt-road turnoff to Slough Creek campground is four miles east of Tower Junction.
STOPS: Tecumseh’s Miniature Village (307-587-5362), $3; Cary Inn in Crandall for lunch; Yellowstone National Park (307-344-7381;; Trout Lake trailhead, two miles west of Pebble Creek.
STAY AT: Slough Creek Campground, 29 sites, $10 per site.

DAY FIVE (Yellowstone National Park)
DRIVE TIME: 3 hours.
DIRECTIONS: Follow park roads to Tower Junction, Mammoth, Norris, Madison Junction, Old Faithful, and finally West Thumb/Grant Village.
STOPS: Petrified-tree exhibit near Tower Junction; Mammoth Terraces and boardwalk; Firehole Canyon loop road; Old Faithful Inn and geyser; Grant Village/West Thumb (Yellowstone Lake Overlook Trail), east of Old Faithful.
STAY AT: Grant Village Campground (reservations: 307-344-7311), 425 sites with flush toilets, showers, and potable water, $15 per site.

DAY SIX (Yellowstone National Park-Grand Teton National Park)
DRIVE TIME: 1.5 hours.
DIRECTIONS: Take the park road south to Grand Teton National Park and the Jackson Lake Lodge turnoff.
STOPS: Riddle Lake trailhead (open after July 15) south of Grant Village; Grand Teton National Park (307-739-3600;
STAY AT: Jackson Lake Lodge (307-543-3100;, doubles $125-$225 per night.

DAY SEVEN (Grand Teton National Park-Jackson)
DRIVE TIME: 1 hour.
DIRECTIONS: Follow park road south to Jackson Lake Junction, turn right to Jenny Lake and Moose Visitor Center; south on Wyoming 191 to Jackson.
STOPS: Jenny Lake Visitor Center and the shuttle boat to reach Cascade Canyon (every 20 minutes from 8 a.m.-6 p.m.), $6 per adult, $4 per child 7-12; Dornan’s Pizza Pasta Company, before Moose; half-day rafting on the Snake River, Barker-Ewing River Trips (800-448-4202;, $38 per adult, $30 per child 6-12; dinner at Jedediah’s Original House of Sourdough (307-733-5671), off the Jackson square on Broadway.