This road trip from Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore was never on my bucket list and yet, last summer, I think I drove it 4 times because I loved it so much. You may want to combine this road trip with our Grand Teton to Yellowstone to Glacier National Park road trip like we did.
Last May, we needed to get to South Dakota to establish residency, as many full time RVers do. I thought we’d be in and out of South Dakota in less than a week. After all, I imagined South Dakota to be a vast wasteland with not much to do, but I was so wrong!
Much to my surprise, I discovered that I love South Dakota, especially the Black Hills, Custer SP, and Spearfish Canyon. The green rolling hills and deep forest reminded me of our travels through Germany.
In our 6 years of full time travel and RV living, Wyoming hadn’t been on our list of destinations. Last summer, when we were searching for wide open spaces in nature, we decided to take our wanderlust to Wyoming and we fell in love!
In our 6 years of full time travel and RV living, Wyoming hadn’t been on our list of destinations. But last summer, after setting up our residency and exploring South Dakota, we were looking for rock climbing destinations in states that were open. We knew that Lander and Ten Sleep had some of the best limestone in the world so we decided to take our wanderlust to Wyoming.
This blog will cover the highlights of what to do on a road trip from Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore To help you plan the details on your Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore road trip, you might want to read these related blogs:
- Yellowstone In 1 Day
- Grand Teton to Yellowstone to Glacier National Parks Road Trip
- How to Hike Middle Teton
- Best Hikes Wyoming
- Things To Do In The Black Hills
- Best Hikes Black Hills
- Things To Do In Custer State Park
- Best Campgrounds Black Hills
- Best Hikes Tetons
Why Take A Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore Road Trip
Before I outline all the beta on how to plan your Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore road trip, I have to #defythenorm and say that the typical itinerary that I see for this on the internet can be boring and stressful.
I’ve seen some very ambitious itineraries out there and while I am all for squeezing in as much adventure as possible to my day, it’s not fun to burn yourself out on vacation.
After traveling to both Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone numerous times, I figure its worth giving my two cents on how I’d design this itinerary.
Yes, you have to see Yellowstone but you don’t need to spend very many days there. Personally, I think One Day in Yellowstone is enough. A majority of Yellowstone involves pulling into a parking lot and walking a crowded boardwalk to see water in different forms & colors. It’s beautiful, but exhausting.
If you have kids, they aren’t going to care about seeing much more than Old Faithful. I mean, a bear would be cool too but not always likely. You do have a good chance though of seeing bison while you are driving though the park.
The Badlands and Devils Tower are not much better either. If you have time and really like driving, then add them in.
But if you:
- like to be active
- search out epic hikes
- don’t love crowds
- and your kids aren’t into staring at rocks they can’t climb or pools of colored water
Then the Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore itineraries for adventurers might be better for you.
Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore Itineraries For Adventurers
These itineraries are geared for summer and fall when all the roads are open in Yellowstone.
From Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore 3-Day Itinerary:
- Day 1 Yellowstone: Grand Prismatic, Old Faithful, Hike Mount Washburn; stay in Cody for the night
- Day 2 Ten Sleep Canyon & Spearfish: Take in the views of Ten Sleep Canyon, have dinner in Spearfish at Sawyer Brewing, stay at Spearfish Canyon Lodge
- Day 3 Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, & Custer: Crazy Horse, Sylvan Lake, Needles Highway, Mount Rushmore, and drive the Wildlife Loop in Custer
Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore 7-Day Itinerary:
- Day 1 Yellowstone: Grand Prismatic, Old Faithful, Hike Mount Washburn; stay in Cody for the night
- Day 2 Ten Sleep Canyon & Spearfish: Hike Lost Twin Lakes in Ten Sleep Canyon, dinner in Spearfish at Sawyer Brewing, stay at Spearfish Canyon Lodge
- Day 3 Rent a razor at Spearfish Canyon Lodge and explore; hike Devil’s Bathtub; stay one more night at the Lodge
- Day 4 Black Hills: see Crazy Horse, go to Sylvan Lake & Hike Black Elk Peak, drive Wildlife Loop in Custer SP, stay in Custer & have dinner at the Custer Wolf
- Day 5 Black Hills: Hike Sunday Gulch at Sylvan Lake, drive Needles Highway, see Mount Rushmore, hike to Hippie Hole, stay in Keystone
- Day 6 Badlands: check out Wall, take in scenic overlooks in Badlands & hike Notch Trail
- Day 7 Devil’s Tower
Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore 10-Day Itinerary:
- Day 1 Yellowstone: Lamar Valley, Madison Hot Springs, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone & Yellowstone Falls, Norris Basin, stay in West Yellowstone
- Day 2 Add in Grand Tetons: Grand Prismatic, Old Faithful, head to the Tetons, take the boat across Jenny Lake and hike Cascade Canyon or hike to Delta Lake, stay in Jackson
- Day 3 Yellowstone: Hike Mount Washburn; stay in Cody for the night
- Day 4 Ten Sleep Canyon & Spearfish: Hike Lost Twin Lakes in Ten Sleep Canyon, dinner in Spearfish at Sawyer Brewing, stay at Spearfish Canyon Lodge
- Day 5 Rent a razor at Spearfish Canyon Lodge and explore; hike Devil’s Bathtub; stay one more night at the Lodge
- Day 6 Black Hills: see Crazy Horse, go to Sylvan Lake & Hike Black Elk Peak, drive Wildlife Loop in Custer SP, stay in Custer & have dinner at the Custer Wolf
- Day 7 Black Hills: visit Wind Cave, Hike Sunday Gulch at Sylvan Lake, stay in Custer again
- Day 8 Black Hills: drive Needles Highway, see Mount Rushmore, hike to Hippie Hole, stay in Deadwood & have dinner at Jacobs
- Day 9 Badlands: check out Wall, take in scenic overlooks in Badlands & hike Notch Trail
- Day 10 Devil’s Tower
Get detailed itineraries and all the beta on the must-dos in this Black Hills Travel Guide.
There are 3 main routes to get in and out of Yellowstone and 3 main routes to get in and out of Mount Rushmore.
Most Direct Way to Drive From Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore
Assuming you are starting from the southeast side of Yellowstone, which is close to Old Faithful and the West Thumb part of Yellowstone Lake, the most direct route to Mt Rushmore is Highway 14 from West Yellowstone towards Cody and then Highway 20 to Worland. Once you get to Worland you’ll drive highway 16 through Ten Sleep which I cover later in this blog.
Note, in my One Day Yellowstone blog, I cover the perfect way to start in West Yellowstone and end near Yellowstone Lake, the starting point for this road trip.
Honestly, I’ve never drove this section of because I am almost always hiking in the Tetons or wanting to drive the Beartooth Highway so I always take the other two routes.
The Southern Route: Yellowstone to Grand Teton to Mt Rushmore
This route actually takes you out of Yellowstone and through the Colter Bay part of Grand Teton NP. This is one of my favorite campgrounds in Wyoming so you may want to read this blog and reserve a campsite at Colter Bay if you can.
You’ll head east from Moran on Highway 26. It’s a very scenic drive through the mountains. If you’re comfortable towing a big rig you’ll have no problem. And even if it’s your first time driving a class C RV, you should be fine. The grades aren’t too steep, the roads are wide, and there is very little traffic.
Pro Tip: We often find free camping along this highway when we drive it.
The Northern Route: Beartooth Highway Scenic Route
If you want the best views, leave Yellowstone from the northeast and drive the Beartooth Highway. This road is extremely windy with numerous switchbacks so you don’t want to drive this with a big rig. In fact, check here for road conditions before driving it.
This isn’t the fastest way by any means but the Beartooth Highway is one of Americans most famous and scenic drives.
If you choose this route, it’s faster to just continue north and hop on the I-90 to South Dakota. Or, take the long detour south and explore Ten Sleep and the Big Horn Mountain range, which I highlight next.
The Middle Route From Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore: The Big Horn Mountains
This is such an underrated part of the USA. If I hadn’t been searching for new rock climbing I never would’ve discovered how amazing the Big Horn mountain range is.
There are 2 ways to go through the Big Horn mountain range- the north route across US-14 or the south route across the US-16. The 14 is steep and windy and I don’t recommend it for RV’s. While the 16 has a mountain to get over, it’s more like a ramp and much more doable for RVs.
You’ll first want to stop in Ten Sleep to see the famous Dirty Sally’s General Store to get ice cream, Ten Sleep rock climbing book, or pick up some unique souvenirs. I love hanging out at the Ten Sleep Brewery and their honey beer mixed with lemonade is so delicious after a hard day of climbing! They often have live music and they offer camping for small RVs or tent campers. Plus, you can pay for a shower here!
Consider taking US-16 through the Big Horn mountain range for a more RV-friendly route compared to the steeper and windier US-14.
The drive from Ten Sleep to Buffalo to goes over the Big Horn mountains. The drive itself is one of the most beautiful drives especially when the leaves begin changing colors in the fall. Heading east, the grade up isn’t too bad but it is a little steep on the descent down to Buffalo. However, I see people double tow over this all the time so most big rigs will do fine with it.
There are a lot of campgrounds along the way and many hikes to choose from if you want to stretch your legs or explore. You could easily spend weeks exploring this area and just enjoying the quiet forest and fresh air here.
Related Blog: Best Hikes Wyoming
Tip: Restock your supplies in Buffalo, Wyoming. Once you drop into Buffalo the drive to South Dakota is pretty boring. If you are heading straight to Mt Rushmore and need food or supplies, I suggest stocking up here since Buffalo is a pretty big city.
Direct Route From Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore Via Custer State Park
Your fastest way, granted only by a few minutes, is by splitting off the I-90 at Moorift and taking highway 16 towards Custer. The nice thing about taking this route is that you can visit Custer SP along the way, which is better than Mt Rushmore in my opinion. If you can get a campsite here, it would be a great home base for exploring Mt Rushmore and the Black Hills from.
Related Blog: 8 Things to do in Custer SP
Slightly Slower Route Through Spearfish and Rapid City
If you choose to stay on the I-90 all the way to Rapid City, you can stop at one of our favorite towns, Spearfish, and explore Spearfish Canyon. Spearfish Canyon KOA is a great campground to stay at and a good jumping off point for exploring the Spearfish Canyon.
If you aren’t in an RV, I highly recommend spending a night or two at the Spearfish Canyon Lodge. The location is very scenic and it’s fun to rent a Polaris and go off-roading.
As far as towing a big RV to Mount Rushmore, either way through Custer SP, Spearfish Canyon, or Rapid City is fairly easy with wide enough roads and not too many grades or sharp turns, as long as you don’t drive Highway 244.
Recommended Detour To Devil’s Tower: It only adds 25 miles to your trip to detour off the I-90 and check out Devil’s Tower. You don’t need much time here, but if you do have the time, there are a few options for hiking around Devil’s Tower that are nice. There are also campgrounds nearby if you want to make this a resting spot on your road trip.
Most Scenic Route To Mount Rushmore Through the Black Hills
Your last option for routes into Mount Rushmore would be to drive through the Black Hills and enter Mount Rushmore from the west.
To take this route, when you get to the town of Custer, go north towards Hill City. You might want to stop at Crazy Horse on the way or get dinner in Hill City. Hill City also has some nice wineries to visit.
Then, for a nice scenic drive, take highway 244. If you turn off Highway 244 there are numerous tunnels with height restrictions, but as long as you stay on the 244, it’s a 2 lane the road with some turns and hills but nothing too crazy (unless you are towing a large trailer). If in doubt, stick with the other 2 routes. Otherwise, be sure to drive the Needles Highway, it’s absolutely a MUST DO! You may also want to detour and visit Deadwood on the way.
Costs of Visiting Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore National Parks
If you will be visiting both park, you’ll probably want to spend the $80 for the America The Beautiful Pass, which you can purchase online and covers entrance fees at ALL national parks. If you plan on visiting Custer State Park, which is a must if you are visiting Mount Rushmore, then you’ll need to buy a Custer State Park pass for $30 and is easier to just purchase when you arrive. It’s good for an entire year.
Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
Since there is so much to do in Yellowstone and in the Black Hills, I think you can do this section from Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore in 3 days. I’d leave Yellowstone by 9 am and drive straight to Ten Sleep, arriving in time to eat lunch and grab a drink at the Ten Sleep brewery, then head up the mountain to set up camp at one of the campgrounds near Meadowlark Lake with enough time to enjoy the campground.
Then, I’d pack up early and drive to the Lost Twin Lakes trailhead. This hike will take about 7 hours to complete so you may want to just enjoy your trip and book 2 nights at the campground so you aren’t rushed. The hike is almost 12 miles but it isn’t too strenuous and the views at the lake are worth the effort.
From Meadowlark Lake area to the town of Custer, it’s only about 4 hours but don’t forget time to restock in Buffalo. If you make it to Custer at dinnertime, we think the Custer Wolf restaurant is amazing!
And of course, you could skip the camping and hiking in the Big Horn Mountains and just hightail it across in 8 hours if you are crunched for time.
If you choose the northern route through the Beartooth Highway and Spearfish, you could still do it in 1 day. I’d leave Red Lodge early and drive the Beartooth Highway at sunrise for the best photos then book a night at the Spearfish Lodge.
So many options…so little time!
Best Things To Do In Yellowstone National Park
You could spend weeks here but since you are researching Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore, you probably are trying to squeeze in as much as possible. These are the top 3 things that I think you can’t miss in Yellowstone.
- Watching Old Faithful Erupt
- Grand Prismatic (preferably at sunrise or sunset
- Walk Norris Geyser Basin
- Bonus: Mammoth Hot Springs and Drive Lamar Valley
Best Things To Do Near Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore itself doesn’t really need more than a few hours (if that). However, the area around it, the Black Hills, could easily entertain you for weeks. Again, if you are short on time, these are the 3 must do’s on your first visit to Mt Rushmore.
- Visit Deadwood
- Hike Sunday Gulch at Sylvan Lake (add in Black Elk Peak if you have time)
- Drive Wildlife Loop in Custer
- Bonus: Drive and check out the waterfalls in Spearfish Canyon