This road trip from Chicago to Las Vegas has some stops in beautiful National Parks like Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Zion. But, you will also visit some lesser known places. It is a good mix of magnificent nature, wildlife, and city life.
Road trip planning
First of all, although I say we started in Chicago, we actually started this road trip in Des Moines. We started here because we were invited to a wedding and of course we were happy to go. We are happy with every trip to the US. This trip is extra special because we were honored that we could be part of their special day.
I know that most people would prefer a bigger city. So for this, Chicago is perfect: an interesting city that is 5 hours away by car.
I have to admit, it was not easy planning a road trip starting from Des Moines. Our first plan was driving to New York and Washington, but there is not a lot to see along the way. Our second option was doing a round trip back to Des Moines and also do part of the Rocky Mountains, but that would also leave us driving a lot of miles where there is not a lot to see. And then we saw that Yellowstone National Park is not that far. And I remembered from a few colleagues that they went up to Yellowstone National Park when we had a conference in Salt Lake City. So it was decided: go to Yellowstone and Grand Teton and then go South to Las Vegas.
I recently visited Chicago because of a business trip and I completely loved the city. Although I only spent one day there, it was more than enough to see the highlights. If you are interested in seeing some museums, it would be better to stay some extra days. In the part near our hotel, I was walking the street and seeing all these European looking houses and some cute little pubs and restaurants. It reminded me a little bit of Boston.
You can then decide to drive to Des Moines or take a plane like we did. You used to be able to take the Amtrak from Chicago to Des Moines but unfortunately, this line was shut down.
At Des Moines airport we rented our car from Alamo. We booked this through Car Del Mar and had the best prices and service. Our first car didn’t have cruise control, so the boyfriend was like: nope, not doing that. He went back to ask for another car and got one without a problem. Later on, we (and especially my boyfriend) were so happy with cruise control.
Start road trip: Des Moines – Sioux Falls
282 miles – 453 km – 4 h drive
The day after the wedding it was time to really start our road trip after stuffing our car full of food for the road. First stop: Sioux Falls. It was already pretty late in the afternoon when we arrived. It gave us just enough time to visit Falls Park. A small park surrounds the falls of the Big Sioux River. From the observation tower, you have a beautiful view of the falls and the park. The perfect timing for visiting is sundown: perfect lighting (golden hour) + not a lot of people = beautiful pictures.
Sioux Falls – Badlands – Rapid City
363 miles – 585 km – 5,5 h drive
Early in the morning, we are heading to Rapid City with a stop in Badlands National Park. When driving along route 90, you will see a lot of signs for 1880 Town. You must stop and visit this, believe me. It is fun to walk around this Western Town to stretch your legs. And a plus: because of the time difference, you have an extra hour to spend that day.
And another stop before you finally get to Badlands National Park: the prairie dogs. At a little distance from the entrance, there is a little convenience star with a lot of cars. This is the place to be to see some prairie dogs up close. They are a big fan of the peanuts that are conveniently sold in the store. Be patient and you will have the perfect picture (and some dirty pants).
Up front, there was a plan of doing a hike in Badlands National Park, but this plan was soon withdrawn. I am a pussy when it is warm, and it was warm. So, no hike, just driving through the park with the car and stopping every once and awhile for some pictures.
You need a place to sleep, so we drove to Rapid City. And a bonus of staying here: going to Mount Rushmore in the evening. I have to admit that it was not what I expected. Maybe it is because I am not an American but it wasn’t very special.
Our hotel in Rapid City was The Foothills Inn: a motel with a beautiful reception area where you also could get some breakfast. And they have a swimming pool (which we couldn’t enjoy because it was already empty).
Rapid City – Cody
420 miles – 675 km – 7,5 h total
Before completely leaving Rapid City, we stopped at Black Hills National Forest for a short walk. Because up to then, we hadn’t seen a lot of nature or did a lot of walking. Except to and from restaurants. And a big advantage of doing this road trip is the possibility to stop at lesser known places for some unknown hikes away from all the tourists. We decided to do the Buzzard Trail. At the view point, we were lucky enough to see a turkey vulture.
Our next stop was at Bighorn National Forest, for another short hike. Now to go see a waterfall: porcupine falls. This 1.3 km hike will bring you down to the foot of a waterfall. And then you have to go all the way up again to your car. The sunset was amazing driving to Cody.
And then the last miles to our hotel in Cody: Sunrise Motor Inn. One thing I learned from this trip is that it is really difficult to find a place to eat after 9 pm. So after a day in the car or hiking, it was so frustrating to have to drive around for a place to eat. I get hangry, and I was hangry a lot.
Yellowstone National Park
Maybe not the best thing to see in an itinerary but: do not stay at Cody if you want to visit Yellowstone National Park for multiple days. It is a long ride to get into Yellowstone (and to go back to your hotel in the evening). We truly underestimated the distance every day (about 2 hours one-way). Especially because Yellowstone is pretty big and you spend a lot of time in the car already when visiting the park. So my word of advice: look for a hotel closer by or stay in Yellowstone itself.
But, we had an amazing time in Yellowstone National Park: we did some beautiful hikes, saw a moose and a grizzly (luckily on the side of the road and not during a hike), and visited some amazing geological features. But I have to admit because Yellowstone was so big, it didn’t really have an impact on us, not like some other National Parks had in the past.
Grand Teton National Park
To visit Grand Teton National Park, we stayed at Stagecoach Motor Inn in Dubois. We drove up there after another full day in Yellowstone. This hotel was not so bad to discover Grand Teton.
When we were there early Autumn, we already had some snow. We were afraid that we were dressed to light (we didn’t bring winter jackets) but luckily a good sweater and a rain jacket was all we needed. During this trip, all the different seasons passed by Summer in Las Vegas, Spring in Des Moines, Autumn in Yellowstone, and a little bit of Winter in Grand Teton.
Because Autumn season is also bear season we didn’t dare to do hikes in pine forests. Although we bought bear spray, and luckily never had to use it, we were too scared to try some hikes in thse areas. But we still managed to do some beautiful hikes while we were there.
Dubois – Island Park
173 miles – 278 km – 3,5h
For a last drive through Yellowstone, we booked a hotel in Island Park (Sawtelle Mountain Resort). Because this was a shorter drive to go South.
Island Park – Salt Lake City
299 miles – 481 km – 4,5h
We already visited Salt Lake City one time before because I had a conference there. Salt Lake City is often associated with Mormons, mainly because the headquarters are here.
Located in the heart of Salt Lake City, is the most important place of the whole city: Temple Square. The entire square is open to the public except for the Salt Lake Temple, which can only be entered by members of the Church. The world-famous Mormon Tabernacle is also located in Temple Square. The auditorium is dome-shaped and has amazing acoustics. Today it is the home to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
When you are in the city, the view of the surrounding mountains is so beautiful. And it might surprise you, but there are a number of craft breweries here.
Salt Lake City – Cedar City
253 miles – 407 km – 3,5h
Before making our way to Cedar city, we made a small stop for a hike. Just outside the city, you can drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon Road for a small hike to Doughnut Falls. This easy hike (only 2.4 km) is perfect to do with children but you are not the only one who thinks that, especially in the weekends. If you are courageous enough, you can climb onto the rocks to see the actual Doughnut Falls (and not being such a wuss and stay behind, like me 🙂 ).
And before we reached Cedar city, we made another stop: at Dixie National Forest. We did a short but sweet hike with a lot of switchbacks in the beginning. When you go in the afternoon, it can be very hot because there is hardly any shade. So bring plenty of water with you. But the view from the top is amazing.
At Cedar city, we stayed at Knights Inn at Cedar City, a normal little motel, perfect for the night.
Cedar City – Zion National Park – Las Vegas
225 miles – 362 km – 3,5h
When we were planning this road trip, we were so happy that we could go to Zion National Park one more time. I think this is one of my favorite National Parks I have visited thus far ((Yosemite is my number one). We only had time for one hike, but there are a lot of options. If you have the time, I would say to stay here a little bit longer than we did. This National Park is so beautiful and has so much to do.
And the end of our road trip was Las Vegas. For our 3rd !!! time in Las Vegas, we decided to stay at Circus Circus. For me, a hotel in Las Vegas just has to be at the Strip and cheap. Our previous hotels were Stratosphere and Excalibur. These are all perfect, not too expensive but clean hotels. It is unlikely that you will spend a lot of time in your room because there is so much to do there.
And you don’t have to stay in the city: take your car and drive up to Red Rock Canyon for some peace and quiet.
End road trip: going home
Las Vegas was the end of this road trip. Although we had limited time, I think we did a lot. This itinerary is perfect if you want a mix of nature and some interesting cities. Because we were limited in time, we didn’t spend a lot of time in Salt Lake City or at Zion National Park. So I would recommend to spend more time there and maybe less in Yellowstone. But that is just personal.
Did you visit any of these places? And what did you think about it?