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A Wild West Family Vacation Marathon

10 States in 9 Days

Story & Photos by Matt Bayman

It takes about the same amount of time to reach Mitchell, South Dakota - home of the world famous Corn Palace - as is does to drive from Miami County to Daytona Beach, Florida -- about 13 hours, or 930 miles.

Then, after reaching Mitchell and gazing in awe at the palace, it's only another 200 miles to Badlands National Park, and less than 100 more to the Black Hills region of South Dakota. These are two places everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime and that make great family vacation destinations. (Cont'd below...)

While this may sound like a lot of driving, especially with children in the car, because of how flat the Great Plains are, the drive isn't as exhausting as the one to Florida.  

The scenery is also much different. There are no mountains, but you'll see plenty of corn fields, silos, barns and wind farms -- plus some great small towns and famous rivers in between. Then, from out of nowhere, the horizon transforms into an almost alien landscape as you reach the Badlands and the start of the mountainous and wild West.

The great thing about this area is that there's so much for families to do. Weeks could be spent in the region. The Badlands, alone, offer some of the most unique hiking experiences in the national park system, and days could be spent discovering each of the park's unique trails. The Black Hills are home to Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Devil's Tower National Monument, Sturgis, the Mammoth Site and some of the most beautiful mountains in the United States.

Of course, not everyone has "weeks" to spend on such a trip, but this doesn't mean you shouldn't go.

The following road trip is designed for families looking for a power-packed vacation that passes through 10 states in nine days (Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri), and that visits some of the most famous landmarks and tourist destinations in the world, as well as some great off-the-beaten-path attractions.

While two full days of the trip are spent driving to and from the West (with some really great scenery along the way), the seven days in between will be some of the most memorable of you and your family's lives. After it's all over, you might just need a vacation! 

Here are some of the interesting things you can choose to see on this marathon-style trip:

- Badlands National Park

- Minuteman Missile National Historic Site 

- Custer State Park

- Mount Rushmore Memorial

- Crazy Horse Memorial

- Jewel Cave National Monument

- Wind Cave National Park

- The Midwest's Largest Bicycle Sculpture

- Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

- Estes Park, Colorado

- Rocky Mountain National Park

- the Mighty Mississippi River and the Missouri River

- the Gateway Arch in St. Louis


- Buffalo, mountain goats, prairie dogs, elk, deer, wild turkeys, dozens of species of birds and many more

- Miles of amazing hiking trails and great rock climbing

- Beautiful lakes, nice people, cowboys and much, much more.

DAY 1: Troy, Ohio to Mitchell, South Dakota

Mileage = 930 miles or 13 hours

DIRECTIONS: Take I-70 West to Indianapolis, then I-74 west to I-80 in Davenport. Take I-80 to I-380 North to I-90 West.


Points of Interest

- the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa

- the amazingly nice people of southern Minnesota

- the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota

(It's lit up at night)


DAY 2: Mitchell to Badlands National Park Region

Mileage = 205 miles or 3 hours

DIRECTIONS: I-90 to Route 240 South


Points of Interest

- Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo, South Dakota

- Badlands Petrified Gardens 

- Prarie Homestead Historic Park

- Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Badlands National Park

- Big Badlands Overlook

- Hike the Door Trailhead (this is arguably one of the most unique hiking experiences in the United States and can be enjoyed for an hour or four hours. If you only take one hike while in the Badlands, this is it. It's mostly safe for young children and is like being in another world!)

- Hike the Castle Trail and the Window Trail

- Visit Cedar Pass & the Cliff Shelf

- Yellow Mounds Overlook

- Ancient Hunters Overlook

- Wall Drug Store

- National Grasslands Visitor Center


DAY 3 & 4: Badlands National Park to Custer, S.D.

Mileage = 100 miles or 2 hours

DIRECTIONS: I-90 to Route 16 South


Points of Interest

- Mount Rushmore National Memorial

- Crazy Horse Memorial

- Custer State Park and Wildlife Driving Loop

- Sylvan Lake (inside of Custer State Park)

- Jewel Cave National Monument
- Wind Cave National Park

(If you only have time for one cave, choose Jewel Cave)

- The Midwest's Largest Bicycle Sculpture

- Mammoth Site

- Evan's Plunge Mineral Spring Water Park

- The towns of Custer, Hot Springs, Hill City and Keystone


DAY 5: Custer to Estes Park, Colorado

Mileage = 361 miles or 6 hours

DIRECTIONS: Route 71 south to Crawford, Nebraska. Take Route 20 west to Harrison, Nebraska. Take Route 29 south to Scottsbluff to Route 88 west to Route 85 south to Interstate 25 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Take I-25 to Route 66 in Longmont, Colorado and head in to Estes Park.


Points of Interest

- Warbonnet Monument in Nebraska

- Fort Robinson Museum and State Park, Nebraska

- Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

- The Nebraska Sand Hills

(You're in the middle of giant ancient sand dunes that cover almost half of Nebraska and nobody knows why)

- Chimney Rock National Historic Site

- Lovely Cheyenne, Wyoming


DAY 6 & 7: Rocky Mountain National Park


Points of Interest

- Downtown Estes Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

- Bear Lake

- The Stanley Hotel (Haunted Room available!)

- Cabins instead of hotels in Estes Park (Look on Fall River Road for affordable, but great deals)

- Hike the Lawn Lake Trail

- Hike Timberline Falls


DAY 8: Estes Park to St. Louis

Mileage = 900 miles or 13 hours



Points of Interest

- Denver International Airport

(Especially for those who enjoy conspiracy theories!!!)

- Fort Hays State Historical Site in Kansas

- The Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas & Rock City in Minneapolis, Kansas

- Mark Twain National Forest


DAY 9: St. Louis to Home

Mileage = 365 miles or 6 hours



Points of Interest

- Gateway Arch in St. Louis

- Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site near Janesville, Illinois

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