USA 2011 – 1. Home to South Dakota then Yellowstone


Following our great US Honeymoon road trip of 2010, we decided to return to the US, and centre a holiday around Yellowstone National Park (wiki link), America’s first National Park and a truly epic place.

We considered what routes we could take, and settled on a loop which started and finished in Denver. We had considered a one-way drive from Denver to Seattle via Yellowstone, but then realised there was a $500 one-way chargeapplied by all hire car companies.

The route we took is shown below, followed by a table listing places we stayed and driving distances / times.

Road trip route (click for larger version)


Road trip plan (click for larger version)

Part 1 – Home to Yellowstone


We needed an interesting route to Yellowstone, so we started off staying with friends in Aurora (since we flew into Denver), then headed up to the Black Hills of South Dakota for a few nights, before crossing Wyoming via Devil’s Tower, Thermopolis and Cody.

All photos from this part of the trip are here.

Day 1 – Home to Aurora, Colorado

We drove from home to Purple Parking at Heathrow, and took the shuttle to Terminal 5. We arrived 3:10 before out flight and weren’t allowed to drop our bags until 3 hours before which was a bit annoying.

We had completed online check-in 24 hours before our flight to try to get the seats we wanted. We couldn’t get the seats we wanted so had window seats above the wings.

Terminal 5 was fine, and we spent some time eating and wandering about until our flight.

View from a quiet part of T5
Our plane

The flight was on time and uneventful. We watched some films and the food was fine.

At arrival in Denver, we were impressed that the chap who was marshalling the lines for immigration was wearing a proper cowboy hat. Passport control / immigration was fine, and as we were heading out of the airport I remembered that I had left a book in the seat pocket on the plane. The first book of a trilogy we had with us ­čÖü

We took the shuttle bus to Thrifty to collect our car. We had pre-paid for the car which included all insurances, but decided to pay extra for breakdown cover. In the UK this would normally be included, but not in the US.

Our car was a Red Mustang Convertible, which fitted our requirements perfectly. After a short drive around the parking lot we headed off to our friend’s house in Aurora. It was an easy drive to the estate of new houses on which they live, but hard to find the exact house due to a lack of street lighting. Naomi walked along with a torch while I drove slowly behind. Luckily nobody was around to see us…

Our friends had a lovely house, cooked us a nice dinner and we had a couple of beers and a chat. We had brought some British chocolate for them, more than they had expected, but we had plenty of bagage allowance. At about 7am UK time, we went to bed and slept soundly.


Day 2 – Aurora to Hot Springs, South Dakota

An early start (US time), as our friends needed to go to work and we had holidaying to do!

Before setting off we played with the roof, and drove off with the roof down. Our friends passed us when we took a wrong turn, but after turning round we were back on track and that was our first and last wrong turn of the holiday!

Mustang on our friends driveway

The drive out of Denver was busy, and soon also became foggy which stayed for much of the morning. We stopped at an Arbys for breakfast, which was quite tasty.

Nebraska was uneventful, apart from seeing trains that were about 1.5 miles long (as measured from the trip meter).

We stopped in Alliance, Nebraska to visit Carhenge, an interesting place for a 15 minute visit.



Carhenge dinosaur

After our brief visit we headed back into Alliance for lunch at a Dairy Queen. It seemed very local, but was fine. After lunch we continued our drive to Hot Springs, South Dakota and the Budget Host Hills Inn.

This was a pleasant little town, and a river flowed along the side of the motel, which we followed to the other end of town before walking back.

Riverside walk through Hot Springs

Having chatted to the very helpful chap in reception at the motel, who helped us plan our route for the next day, we drove into Wind Cave National Park and saw our first Buffalo of the trip.

Lots of Bison
Mustang with roof down

We decided to have an early night and not go for a full dinner out, so picked up some supplier from the local Safeways. The lady on the checkout was very helpful, and gave us a Safeways card so that we could benefit from some useful discounts on our shopping.

Day 3 – Hot Springs to Rapid City, South Dakota

We had a sugary free breakfast in the motel reception and chatted further to the very helpful Polish chap.

Our first stop was Wind Cave National Park, where we were the the only Europeans in the tour of the interesting caves which are one of the largest cave systems in the world and have the finest examples of boxwork in the cave ceilings.


Following an interesting tour, Naomi had her first go at driving the car, which went fine although she doesn’t like automatic cars. We passed some more Bison going out of this park and into Custer State Park.

Bison crossing

We stopped for lunch at Baker’s Cafe in Custer, which had a collection of interested painted bison on the streets.

Painted bison

We went on to visit Crazy Horse, which is an impressve construction slowly taking shape and then drove the Needles Highway to Mount Rushmore, where we could use our Annual pass from last year’s holiday. Mount Rushmore was where we had the only rain of the holiday.

Crazy Horse Memorial
Mount Rushmore Memorial

As it was getting dark we left Mount Rushmore and headed to our hotel, the Big Sky Lodge situated above Rapid City.

We drove into Rapid City, in the rain which was quite difficult as road marking were hard to see, and had dinner at the Mongolian Grill. This was an interesting place. We chose the all you can eat for about $10 and had numerous small bowls which our waitress found amusing. We realised that the approach used by locals was to have the single large bowl (about $1 less), and then fill it as much as possible, which may include pushing down firmly with both hands to compress the contents before adding more. They would then eat lots and get a box for the rest for dinner the next day.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel to sleep soundly.

┬áDay 4 – Ellsworth Air Force Base and Badlands National Park

We had planned a trip to Wall Drug and Badlands, but then found that we could visit the museum and a training Minuteman Missile silo at Ellsworth Air Force Base, just outside Rapid City.

After a free breakfast, I had a quick wander around the hotel, and chatted to a chap about his truck which dwarfed the Jeep Cherokee parked next to it.

Dodge Ram Super Duty vs. Jeep Cherokee. Click for a different view
Big Sky Lodge

The Air Force museum was free, with a good selection of static aircraft and lots of exhibits inside. We paid a few dollars for a trip inside the base run by volunteers to visit the Minuteman training silo. The base was massive, with a list of facilities that exceeds that found in the UK.

B-1 at Ellsworth Air Force Base museum


Top of Minuteman Missile inside silo

After the visit we headed out in the countryside and after seeing hundreds of signs for Wall Drug, stopped to have a look around. There was little that appealed to us. A lot of touristy shops, a lot of tourists and a very busy cafe. There was however a large Jackalope for photo opportunities.

Giant Jackalope

Ater Wall Drug we carried on to Badlands National Park for the 2nd use of our NPS pass. This is a good park for a day visit, with a good visitors centre, a driving loop, and some nice walks.


After a tasty lunch of chilli dogs at the restaurant next to the visitors centre we went for a walk which included a ladder up the side of a canyon which transitioned from walking on it to climbing it when going up, and vica-verse when descending.

Climbing - but the start is shallow and you can walk on it

In Badlands we saw our first Prairie Dog village. They are cute little animals, lazing in the sun, and sometimes doing a warning call, as shown below.

Prairie Dog warning call

We returned to our motel, and then went to the Colonial House restaurant. Despite its good reviews, we were a little dissapointed here. It was ok, but nothing special, and serving 2 long and 2 small green beans with my dinner was a bit odd. There were some nice beers available.

When we returned to our hotel, the moon was rising over Rapid City so I tried some night photography.



Rapid City. Car lights in the foreground.


Day 5 – Rapid City to Thermopolis via Devils Tower

We awoke to another lovely sunny day, and after our free breakfast drove along the scenic Skyline Drive from out hotel to Dinosaur Park. This is a collection of life-size dinosaur sculptures situated on a hillside above Rapid City. It is worth a visit if you are passing through. Sadly we were there too early to buy a Dinosaur Park t-shirt as the small shop had not opened.

"Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal"

We then headed into Wyoming and made our way to Devils Tower National Monument (wiki), the 3rd use for our National parks pass.

This is an impressive monolith rising out of the plains, and a good place for a day or 1/2 day visit.

We parked up, then took the walking route around the base of the tower, which passed through very pretty forest, and gave good views of the tower and its many climbers.

Devil's Tower

The tower viewed from the trail

There was another Prairie Dog town on the road out of the park, so we stopped to observe them for a while.

Prarie Dog

We then drove on towards Thermopolis, passing a new high point for this holiday, but one that would be surpassed by quite a margin later on.

Reasonably high pass

The drive over was pleasant, but it took us a while to find out hotel in Thermopolis as we didn’t realise it was in Hot Springs State Park (wiki).

This was a very impressive little park, with Travertine Terraces, hot pools, some hot springs, and a suspension bridge across the river. The had a pleasant wander around before walking into the very quiet town for dinner, relieved when we found a busy and friendly mexican restaurant. The park and town filled up with deer in the evening, that seemed to enter town from the nearby hills to graze on the lush green grass of the state park and the lawns outside buildings in the town.

Suspension bridge and Terrace


Sunset, with a terrace pool in the foreground

Day 6 – Thermopolis to Cody

We awoke early and went for a sunrise stroll in the park. There were small herds of deer still in the park, and others who were heading over the hills surrounding the park and out into the country.

Deer leaving the park


Hot Spring

After breakfast we went for a short drive through the farther reaches of the park, saw their small herd of buffalo, and the little Smohy Row Settlement cemetery.

We then visitied theWyoming Dinosaur Center (wiki), which was a fascinating place. They have a great collection of fossiles, and a tour that initially passes though lots of the olderst fossils and early life forms before finishing in a very large room with some impressive fossilised dinoaurs assembled, including a full-size mount of a Supersaurus.


The road from Thermopolis to Cody was great. In the UK it would be an ‘A’ road in terms of size, but it was so quiet that I could just put my cruise control at the speed limit (which I think was 65 mph), and enjpy the open road. I didn’t have top turn cruise control off for about 45 miles, when we finally entered another town. During that time we were overtaken 3 times, but never came across a slower driver. You don’t seem to get as many people who like to drive at 40 in a 60 as you do in the UK. And if you did, overtaking would be easy. Part way along I stopped for a rest on a quiet bit of road.


Arriving in Cody, we stopped for lunch at the Irma Hotel (wiki), where we had a tasty buffet lunch in a characterful dining room.

Irma hotel bar / restaurant

We then had a wander round town before buying some fine hats in Wayne’s Boot Shop. I bought an Attwood Hat (the Hereford, although all the Americans pronounced it incorrectly…), and Naomi a Stetson.

We then checked into our hotel, and arriving at reception a chap leaving was impressed / entertained by our arrival in the convertible Mustang wearing cowboy hats, and greeted me as “a cowboy driving a pony”.

The Cody Cowboy Village was a nice hotel and we had a pleasant room. We took the Mustang for its first visit to a Jetwash (which was fun) and then visited the Buffallo Historic centre and decided to return tomorrow. A quick trip to the nearby Wallmart followed, which allowed me to buy a Plaid shirt with pearl buttons ready for the evenings activities, as well as stocking up on some supplies.

In the evening we went to the Cody Cattle Company for their Chuckwagon supper. This was next door to our motel, so it was nice not having to drive. It was a great evening. Hearty food of which I had a couple of helpings. Beef brisket, chicken, friend potatoes, beans, cornbread, and salad (if you wanted salad). It was a buffet, so I had a couple of platefuls. They had really good chocolate brownies for dessert, so I had a few of those too. There was free water / lemonade, but beer cost a few dollars.

The band, Everywhere West (example video) were great and we bought a signed CD afterwards. It was a really enjoyable evening.

Chuckwagon Supper (plate 1)
Everywhere West

┬áDay 7 Partial – Cody to Wyoming

We were up early on a clear-skied and chilly morning and drove down to the Buffalo Bill Historic Centre  (wiki). This is a very large complex. We found the Yellowstone / Natural History section the most interesting, then the section on Buffalo Bill was ok, the Native American section was fine, and the gun section a bit dull. Guns are fine, but this collection of thousands was too much. You would hundreds of similar-looking examples from one manufacturer, then hundreds from another, repeated endlessly..

Wyoming map
Advertising for Buffalo Bill's show

After the museum we left town,taking the road to Yellowstone and stopped at the Buffalo Bill Dam (wiki). Here you park a little way from the dam and walk back to the visitors centre. When we arrived there we saw signs that said we wouldn’t be able to take our photo rucksack. Since we were in a hurry to get to Yellowstone, we decided not to go in the visitors centre so just had a look from the top before driving on.

Buffalo Bill Dam

The road to Yellowstone was pretty, and we stopped on a nice bit of river for Naomi to have a paddle.

Roof down - the normal setting

After a bit more driving we arrived in Yellowstone!

Please see Part 2 – Yellowstone and Grand Tetons