Best stops between the Windy City and Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is one of the most popular road trip destinations in the United States; people drive to Yellowstone from all corners of the country and for good reason! The incredible geysers, huge canyons, and abundance of wildlife make it a place unlike any other.
Driving from Chicago to Yellowstone may be a big endeavor, but it’s also a trip that’s full of opportunities to explore along the way. Making your way west across the United States, a Chicago to Yellowstone drive uses some of the same routes as the pioneers who first traveled in covered wagons.
Read ahead on this guide to the ultimate Chicago to Yellowstone road trip so you can learn about the fascinating historic landmarks, huge cultural cities, and incredible natural wonders along the way.
- Distance from Chicago to Yellowstone National Park
- How Long Do I Need to Drive from Chicago to Yellowstone?
- Best Time of Year to Drive from Chicago to Yellowstone
- Best Stops On A Chicago To Yellowstone Road Trip
- Des Moines, Iowa
- Sioux Falls, South Dakota
- Badlands National Park, South Dakota
- Rapid City, South Dakota
- any other visitors, you can check out the Red Beds Trail or the Joyner Ridge Trail.
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota
- Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota
- Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
- Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
- Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming
- Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
- Yellowstone East Entrance, Wyoming
- More Tips for Road Tripping from Chicago to Yellowstone National Park
- Further Guide For Road Tripping to Yellowstone
- More Road Trips From Chicago
Distance from Chicago to Yellowstone National Park
The most direct route from Chicago to Yellowstone covers roughly 1,390 miles. This drive takes you on I-80 West from Chicago to Omaha. From Omaha, you cross over to Sioux Falls, then follow 1-90 west to Buffalo, Wyoming. From here, you continue on state roads to reach the East Entrance of Yellowstone.
How Long Do I Need to Drive from Chicago to Yellowstone?
If you were to drive to Yellowstone from Chicago without stopping, it would take about 20 hours, depending on traffic and weather conditions.
To make the most of your Yellowstone National Park road trip, we’d highly recommend planning for a minimum of four days for this scenic route. If you have time, it’s not a bad idea to plan for a week or two to complete the drive so you can stop at more parks and cities along the way!
|Drive||Distance||Estimated Drive Time||Where to Stay|
|Chicago to Des Moines||333 miles||5 hours||Stay in Des Moines|
|Des Moines to Sioux Falls||283 miles||4 hours 10 mins||Stay in Sioux Falls|
|Sioux Falls to Rapid City||346 miles||5 hours||Stay in Rapid City|
|Rapid City to Custer||41 miles||50 minutes||Stay in Custer|
|Custer to Shoshone National Forest||406 miles||8 hours||Camp in Shoshone|
|Shoshone to Yellowstone National Park||45 miles||1 hour 15 mins||Stay in Yellowstone|
Best Time of Year to Drive from Chicago to Yellowstone
Summer is by far the most popular time of year to drive to Yellowstone, thanks to the great opportunities for hiking, swimming, rafting, and other attractions around the park. However, summer is also the season when you’ll need to contend with the most tourists, and temperatures can sometimes become very hot.
The “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall are good picks since the weather is typically mild, and there aren’t quite so many tourists.
Although it’s possible to drive Chicago to Yellowstone National Park in winter, keep in mind that many of the accommodations in the park are closed in this season and driving conditions can be tricky. However, if you’re a skier or winter enthusiast, this may suit you just fine!
Best Stops On A Chicago To Yellowstone Road Trip
Now that you have an idea of what the logistics of a drive from Chicago to Yellowstone entail, here are some of the top places to stop along the way.
Des Moines, Iowa
Driving from Chicago to Des Moines takes between 5 and 6 hours, depending on how many stops you make, so Des Moines is one of the best places to take a leisurely lunch break for early starters or spend your first night on your road trip to Yellowstone.
You’ll find a variety of cool art exhibits at the Des Moines Art Center, which has an impressive collection from artists, including Georgia O’Keefe and Henri Matisse.
Des Moines is also considered to have one of the best farmers’ markets in the country. Farming is a big part of the economy and lifestyle of Iowa, and picking up some fresh snacks or local crafts is a great addition to your Chicago to Yellowstone road trip!
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
The largest city in South Dakota is a great place to spend the night as you drive to Yellowstone. With a great combination of history, natural beauty, and culture, you could spend just an overnight to rest up or spend a few days exploring.
Even if you don’t have much time, you can stop to visit Falls Park in the center of the city, where you can view the impressive waterfalls the city is named after. Wander along the paths or rent a bike if you want to venture further on the 35 miles of bike trail crisscrossing the city.
To experience some of the cultures of the city, the Orpheum Theatre is the place to go. Since 1913 this theatre has been the hub of the city’s jazz and blues scene and performing arts events. Check out what music or theater events are on your time in the city for a special treat!
If you have a little more time in Sioux Falls, you can visit the nearby Palisades State Park, about 30 minutes outside the city. The impressive cliffs, winding rivers, and stunning quartz formations of this park make it a top hiking and swimming location in the state.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The other-worldly landscape of the Badlands is a must-visit spot on a road trip to Yellowstone. At the very minimum, you should stop to take some photographs from one of the lookout points along the drive, but it also shouldn’t be out of the question to spend a night or two!
Covering over 250,000 acres, the Badlands holds stunning opportunities for hiking. Window Trail is a good option for an easy path that’s kid-friendly and doesn’t take too long (but still holds plenty of jaw-dropping views!). Experienced hikers can check out the Cliff Shelf, which, as the name suggests, cuts close to red-rock cliff drops.
In addition to the geological formations, the park is also known for its wildlife, including bison and antelope. Throughout spring and early summer, you’ll be treated to a beautiful array of prairie wildflowers interspersed with tall grasses.
Badlands has an excellent campground if you want to spend a night under the stunning starry sky of South Dakota or there is Cedar Pass Lodge (seasonal, April to October) within the park. Keep in mind that reservations can fill up quickly, so make sure to book in advance!
The other alternative is to continue onward to Rapid City, just 75 miles further west and make this your based for a couple of days exploring in South Dakota.
Rapid City, South Dakota
Rapid City is the gateway to the Black Hills National Forest and a prime home base for exploring some of the nearby attractions like Mount Rushmore.
In the downtown area of Rapid City, there’s a great array of local boutiques and restaurants as well as plenty of accommodation options, so you can spend a day or two here as you drive from Chicago to Yellowstone National Park.
Check out the City of Presidents exhibit, which features bronze replicas of former American presidents around the downtown area. These statues make perfect spots for photographs of your trip and are a fun way to teach young kids about U.S. history!
Nearby, there are lots of options for hiking or other fun outdoor activities like horseback riding tours and rafting down rivers.
any other visitors, you can check out the Red Beds Trail or the Joyner Ridge Trail.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota
The best road trip to Yellowstone across South Dakota must include a visit to Mount Rushmore. One of the most famous national landmarks of the United States, this huge 60-foot-tall carving features the faces of four of the most influential presidents in U.S. history: George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.
There are a few places to appreciate the carving, and the best might be Grand View Terrace, where you’ll get the classic perspective of the monument. Plus, there are also telescopes here for use in case you want to get an even closer look at the artisanship of the carving!
If you have more time than a stop at Grand View Terrace, you can include a walk along the Presidential Trail. This half-mile trail is easy and paved, making it good for families with young kids, and it will bring you closer to the base of the mountain.
Mount Rushmore is a spot you’ll definitely want to have photos of to commemorate your Chicago to Yellowstone road trip!
Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota
Another of the landmarks close to Rapid City you won’t want to pass up is Crazy Horse Memorial. About 16 miles away from Mount Rushmore, it’s easy to visit both of these landmarks in one day during a drive to Yellowstone.
This memorial is still in progress and is being built to commemorate the Lakota Sioux warrior Crazy Horse. Once it’s completed, it will be the largest monument in the world!
From US Highway 16/385, you can pull off into the memorial’s entrance, and from here, there’s a shuttle bus that will take you right to the mountain’s base for an up-close view of the impressive construction in the making.
You can also check out the visitor center with fascinating history on Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, as well as pictures of the progress through the years.
Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Wind Cave National Park is a wonder to behold both above and below ground. Some people even say that opportunities for spotting wildlife which make their home in the mixed-grass prairie of this park rival Yellowstone!
On any trip to Yellowstone, you’re guaranteed to see animals like bison and elk, but Wind Cave has a few other surprises which Yellowstone lacks.
As you may have guessed from the name, the caves of this national park are what set it apart from other sites in the U.S. Keep in mind that to enter the caves, you have to be part of a guided tour. There are a couple of options for tours, most of which last about an hour and are fairly easy. If you’re interested in a more difficult cave excursion, there are longer tours that take you deeper into some of the lesser visited areas of the caves.
Make sure you book any cave tours well in advance since they fill up very quickly, especially in the peak tourist season of summer!
Devil’s Tower, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and Wind Cave National Park are all within driving distance from Rapid City on a day trip, ortry the smaller town of Custer, well located to these key attractions in South Dakota.
Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
If you have time to add an extra loop to your Chicago to Yellowstone National Park road trip, we’d highly recommend stopping at Devils Tower.
This natural formation is sacred to the Native American tribes who inhabited the Dakotas before the formation of the United States, and it remains a protected site that is capable of inspiring wonder in every visitor.
The tower was formed from ancient volcanic activity and rose a stunning 867 feet from the flat plains surrounding it. Unfortunately, there’s no way to get to the top of Devil’s Tower unless you’re a seasoned rock climber with a climbing permit, but the view from the base is more than impressive enough to warrant a visit.
There are a number of hiking trails around Devil’s Monument, the most popular of which is the short 1.3-mile-long Devil’s Tower Trail which is paved and forms a loop around the tower. If you’re looking for a hike without as m
It is a long drive from here to the next few highlights in the north of Wyoming, so be prepared to fuel up and spend a full day on the road.
Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming
If you’re interested in experiencing the stunning landscape of the wild west without the crowds, which are guaranteed to be part of any trip to Yellowstone, then we’d highly recommend planning to stop at the Shoshone National Forest.
You could make it a short afternoon excursion to check out one of the hiking trails, or it would be easy to spend an entire week or more in this wilderness wonderland!
Covering about 2.4 million acres, Shoshone National Forest is full of pristine mountain lakes, the crossroads of three mountain ranges, and the same sort of variety of wildlife you’ll find at Yellowstone.
There are a variety of campsites around Shoshone, some of which are first-come-first-serve and others that require reservations. Amenities at campsites also vary, some with running water and toilets, and others with only latrines. Shoshone also has a few limited cabin options, but there are no lodges or hotels here like there are in and around Yellowstone.
Hiking is one of the most popular attractions of Shoshone. There are easy to moderate trails like Popo Agie Falls Trail, which leads to a beautiful cascading waterfall and swimming hole. More experienced hikers may want to check out the Stough Creek Basin Trail which is a seven-to-eight-hour hike with spectacular mountain views and overlooks over a rushing mountain river.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
A neighboring national park of Yellowstone, Grand Teton is a little bit out of the way for a road trip from Chicago to Yellowstone, but it’s still very manageable to include in your wild west adventure, before or after your Yellowstone visit.
The park gets its name from its tallest mountain peak, Grand Teton, which towers 13,700 feet! Other smaller (but still impressive) mountains cover the park along with grasslands, forests, rivers, and alpine lakes.
Take a boat ride out onto Jenny Lake or hike to one of the numerous waterfalls which are found all around the park, like the famous Hidden Falls.
The Snake River winds its way through the park, and during the summer, it’s a popular spot for kayaking, swimming, river rafting, and jet boating. Other park activities include horseback riding tours, rock climbing, camping, fishing, and skiing in the winter – Jackson Hole being one of the most popular ski resorts in Wyoming.
Yellowstone East Entrance, Wyoming
A drive from Chicago to Yellowstone National Park will take you to the East Entrance. This entrance is the gateway to Yellowstone Lake, which sits at an elevation of 7,733 feet and is an impressive 20 miles long.
The East Entrance of Yellowstone is generally the less busy entrance to the park, but it’s also farther from some of the top attractions like Old Faithful and Yellowstone Canyon.
We’d recommend spending a few nights on the east side of the park to see the lake and some of the smaller geysers, then loop around to the North or West Entrance of Yellowstone to visit some of the other wonders of Yellowstone.
- Lodge bookings within the national park fill up fast over the summer months, as do popular Yellowstone camping spots. Alternatively, close the East Entrance you’ll find accommodation options in Wapiti. If you are driving through the park, close to the West Entrance you’ll find several more motel inn, hotel and lodge options in West Yellowstone.
More Tips for Road Tripping from Chicago to Yellowstone National Park
- Be aware of crossing time zones on this trip; Illinois, Iowa and South Dakota are in CST/CDT, crossing to Wyoming and Montana, you are in MST/MDT – a one hour time difference.
- Pack a variety of clothes; even in the summer, temperatures can drop during the night, so it’s a good idea to have layers.
- Keep in mind that on a drive from Chicago to Yellowstone, there will be several long stretches of road without good stopping points. Check a map to plan for stops to get gas, pick up snacks, or take a rest break – we recommend Road Trippers for this
- Seeing wildlife is one of the best parts of a trip to Yellowstone, but always remember to keep your distance and never try to feed wild animals!
- For latest road conditions on your journey, you may want the Wyoming 511 app, South Dakota 511 or Iowa 511 handy
Further Guide For Road Tripping to Yellowstone
There are many different ways you can approach a road trip to Yellowstone; straddled across three states, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, your nearest major international airports are to the south and west:
- Follow this road trip itinerary from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone, taking in the magic of Grand Teton and Idaho Falls on your way
- From the west, follow this incredible road trip itinerary from Seattle to Yellowstone, taking you through the highlights of Washington State, Idaho and Montana with several detours and route alternatives that can see you in Glacier National Park and Mt Rainier National Park.
- After Yellowstone, why not take the incredibly scenic drive through Montana to Glacier National Park. You could extend this majestic journey even further from Glacier to Banff in Canada or try these Wyoming scenic driving routes.
More Road Trips From Chicago
- Check out these 9 easy day trips and short drives from Chicago
- You can easily tackle some of these scenic drives in Illinois over a weekend
- For another long adventure from Chicago, why not check out our driving itinerary from Chicago to Niagara Falls, or Chicago to New York City
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