Few road trips are as quintessentially American as the drive west, a modern expression of the impulses that fueled conquering expeditions from Lewis and Clark right on through to the pioneers. Drive forward here to travel back—back to the wilderness, to the mythic West, to corny palaces and roadside shills, to history secured by the enshrining of the first national park, and to legacies still under debate, ranging from wolf reintroduction to Native American lands. The glimmering endpoint: Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
The trip begins in Chicago, passes through green and rolling Wisconsin, and irons out by western Minnesota, where I-90 makes a ruler-straight shot, unimpeded by topography. Corn and soybean fields recede as mammoth turbines harvest the winds that sweep down the plains north of Oklahoma. Town names get romantic just when the scenery stops trying: Blue Earth, Welcome, Valley Springs. At Sioux Falls, on the border of South Dakota, you officially enter the Tedium Zone.
Almost the entire length of South Dakota constitutes that somnolent section of the trip in which you will question this quest, resent your spouse’s idiotic Candy Crush compulsion when you can’t indulge yours, and referee a series of back-seat fights among the kids. You’ll be grateful for the volley of old-fashioned, ultracheesy attractions along this desolate stretch.
But hang on for the scalloped landscape of striated sandstone in bands of purple, orange, and gold, a warm but arid netherworld called the Badlands. Next on the horizon, the Black Hills burst from the prairie in dark spruces and towering ponderosa pines that inspired the Lakota to call them Paha Sapa—“hills that are black.” The trees give way to granite buttes stunningly bare—with the exception of the one carved into the busts of four presidents— and the assemblies of stony columns aptly named the Cathedral Spires for the sense of reverence they evoke. Needles Highway, which winds around and tunnels through some of those rock outcroppings, will refresh your enthusiasm for the road. Stay awhile to view herds ofpronghorn and bison and the prairie dog warrens ribboning Custer State Park.
The final push for famously remote Yellowstone National Park commences as you leave the interstate in Wyoming to cross the mountainous Bighorn National Forest and head to Cody, a town founded by bison-hunter-turned-showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Fifty-two miles hence, Yellowstone feels less like the finish line than the gateway to another world: a 2.2-million-acre window into underground forces revealed in mud pots, spewing geysers, and the species interdependence found in the ecology of alpine plateaus.
Beyond Yellowstone’s centerpiece, Old Faithful, the rest of the park surprises with sheer variety, from the rangy Lamar Valley, where wolves recently staged a comeback, to the thunderous falls and chasm walls of the Yellowstone River, the chalky terrace formations created by Mammoth Hot Springs, and the mountain-ringed vistas of Yellowstone Lake. Amply worth the drive, all—as well as the one back home.
Where to Stop Along the Way
|Drink||Kirby Nelson, formerly brewmaster of Capital Brewery, recently opened Wisconsin Brewing Co. (wisconsinbrewingcompany.com) in Verona, a suburb of Madison, featuring tours and six classic beers.|
|Eat||Get your beer cheese soup and fried fish at Madison’s new 608 Restaurant & Bar (608restaurant.com). Caffeinate at the year-old Colectivo Coffee (colectivocoffee.com), a branch of the much-admired Milwaukee roaster that also serves plenty of café fare.|
|Lodge||Five blocks from the Wisconsin State Capitol and its Saturday morning Dane County farmers’ market, the 202-room Edgewater hotel on Lake Mendota (theedgewater.com; rooms from $199) reopens in August after a full renovation, including a new spa and public plaza on the lakefront. On your way to Minnesota, the five-bedroom B&B Heritage Inn (herinn.com; rooms from $95) is walking distance from Main Street in arty Viroqua.|
|Rest||Birders and dog walkers will enjoy the rest area in Dresbach, on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River.|
|See||On the way, you must stop at the Spam Museum (spam.com) in Austin, which exhibits excessive love for the pressed pork product. Further along, stand next to the 55-foot-tall Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, also home to the Green Giant Museum (113 S. Nicollet St., 507-526-2916), devoted to the veggie brand.|
|Lodge||Spend the night at the two-room B&B Historic Dayton House (daytonhouse.org; rooms from $145), which occupies a Victorian mansion built in the town’s prosperous early days as a railroad whistle stop.|
Custer, South Dakota
|See||Instagram was made for this: Corn Palace (cornpalace.com), a community center in Mitchell, was built in 1921 and is decorated annually in murals made of ears of corn. In Wall, you’ll find everything you don’t need, including mounted jackalopes, plus free ice water—the original 1931 come-on that evolved into 76,000 square feet of kitsch—at Wall Drug (walldrug.com).|
||Drive the Badlands State Scenic Byway through Badlands National Park (605-433-5361, nps.gov/badl), featuring ample trails, to steep in the landscape of color-banded sandstone. Just outside the park, the family-run Circle View Guest Ranch in Interior (circleviewranch.com; rooms from $125) offers eight rooms at the main B&B and three cabins on the 3,000-acre spread, including an original 1880 homesteaders’ cabin with no plumbing or electricity that’s a rustic stay for camping fans and history buffs.|
|See||Go to the free 15-minute Sculptor’s Studio Talk to appreciate the mammoth task of carving the four presidential faces into Mount Rushmore National Park Memorial (nps.gov/moru). Located in Keystone, the park now serves ice cream using Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 recipe. At the still-under-construction Crazy Horse Memorial (crazyhorse memorial.org), a Native American mountainside carving, you can hike 6.2 miles to stand atop the warrior’s arm on June 7 and 8 (and again on September 28 and 29).|
|Indulge||Shed your road weariness at the new Akela Spa of Deadwood (akelaspa.com), which offers massages featuring lavender and sage or cedar oil.|
|Lodge||Make your Black Hills base camp at the vintage Sylvan Lake Lodge (custerresorts.com; rooms from $150), built in 1937 in Custer State Park. Stay in one of Sylvan’s rustic cabins, which come stocked with firewood. The lodge dining room serves prairie-native elk and bison.|
|Do||Outdoor fun in Cody abounds. Take 30- to 90-minute hang glider tours at Airborne Over Cody (airborneovercody.com). Bike and hike in the nearby Beartooth Mountains with guides from Absaroka Bikefitters (307-899-7425). Try whitewater kayaking or standup paddle-boarding with Gradient Mountain Sports (gradientmountainsports.net).|
|See||Five museums, with subjects ranging from firearms to Western art and natural history, fill the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (centerofthewest.org). Its new show (through March 2015) features the work of Cody native James Bama, known for his photo-realistic painted portraits of ranchers, Native Americans, and cowboys.|
|Learn||Sign up for a field seminar with Yellowstone Association (yellowstoneassociation.org). Seventy-seven options are offered this year, including a family retreat (July 7 to 11) focused on wildlife watching and animal tracking.|
|Lodge||In June, the historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel (yellowstonenationalparklodges.com; rooms from $149) will unveil a $28.5 million renovation just in time for your Yellowstone explorations.|