Beyond Yellowstone: 5 USA states for an epic road trip

Yellowstone NP may grab the headlines, but the surrounding states have enough wild sights to make up five epic American road trips. All you need is an itinerary and a full tank of gas…

5 mins

1. Idaho

Upper Messa Falls (Shutterstock)

Upper Messa Falls (Shutterstock)

Boise to Henry’s State Park: 616km

Between Idaho’s south-western state border and the fringes of Yellowstone NP to the east lie miles of rugged mountains and landscapes sculpted on a volcanic whim. There are literally millions (3.9 million to be precise) of acres of wilderness here, and driving them is as exhilarating as it sounds.

Begin your trip in state capital Boise, which has good air links and 40km of riverside parkland slicing through the city. South of town, the World Center for Birds of Prey makes for a friendly detour to learn about the efforts taken to protect the state’s raptors, then visit the Morley Nelson Snake River conservation area further south to see them in action. More than 700 raptors nest along Snake River Canyon every spring, with hatchlings taking their first flights in June. Nearby is also Celebration Park, which offers glimpses of petroglyphs dating back 10,000 years, although this time period is a blink of the eye compared with the next stop.

Heading east along Interstate 84 takes you to the new home of Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument at Thousand Springs State Park where displays from its rich seam of finds narrate the prehistory of the state. Next, take the Sawtooth Scenic Byway north of Shoshone, which leads to the plush ski resorts of Sun Valley. Be sure to stop at the Shoshone Ice Caves – subterranean lava tubes bristling with stalactites – before veering east (Route 26) to the most dramatic landscape in the state: Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve.

As you drive up to Craters, you’re greeted by an ocean of lava flows textured with sagebrush and cinder cones. Tube-like caves offer a cool escape from the hot trails, and some 500 caverns scatter the land here. One theory goes that the same geological hot spot that now lies under the Yellowstone caldera lay beneath this area around 10 million years ago. The pressure from it caused the land to rise up before falling away after it migrated. As you leave, follow Route 20 east to sample the modern benefits of all that seismic activity at Heise Hot Springs. Take a soak and relax those bones.

With Yellowstone NP looming closer, there are dozens of wild escapes that fringe the state border. Upper and Lower Mesa Falls, a pair of thundering cascades, are worth the short hike to reach in summer. And while Harriman and Henry’s Lake state parks feed into the wider Yellowstone eco-system, they are attractions in their own right. The former is popular with nordic skiers in winter, whereas Henry’s is one of the region’s great mountain lakes, with hills that erupt in kaleidoscopic carpets of wildflowers in late spring.

2. Montana

Glacier National Park (Shutterstock)

Glacier National Park (Shutterstock)

Glacier NP to Big Sky: 690km

The rugged west of Montana is ripe for exploring, and the 600-plus kilometres of mountain roads, hot springs and ghost towns between Glacier NP and the fringes of Yellowstone NP, which spill over the southern state border, are worthy of any road trip.

Certainly, the star here is Glacier NP. Some 26 slow-moving glaciers (the most in any park in the lower 48 states) decorate its rocky terrain, accompanied by around 1,000km of trails winding alpine lakes, craggy mountain rises and forests where grizzly bears still call the shots. From here, Interstate 15 is the fastest way into the south-west, though a more scenic option is via Flathead Lake. Here you can take a boat to Wild Horse Island, which dates back to the days when the Salish-Kootenai people used to keep their beasts here to stop them from being rustled. There are only a handful of horses now, but it’s a beautiful walk and has peaceful cabin retreats.

In the south-west, get a taste for how life used to be. At Butte, you can drive the Vigilante Trail (, a scenic byway created in 1920 to lure visitors to an area famous for its Old West ways and barely passable wagon trails. It now mostly follows Route 287 down to West Yellowstone, with stops at the twin ghost towns of Virginia City and Nevada City. Back in the 19th century, this area yielded $10 million worth of gold finds in a year, but by 1875 its mining towns were mostly abandoned as the seams dried up.

Take a detour to the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, the largest limestone caves in the region, and stop over in the laid-back town of Bozeman, a rising star with the right mix of hip breweries and old-town dignity. Plus, its Museum of the Rockies is an excellent primer for the region’s geological history.

Beyond lies ‘Big Sky Country’, where the horizon slides over the grasslands like a poker chip across velvet and the ranches take over. Before you hit Yellowstone NP, stop at the 1915-built Lone Mountain Ranch. It offers a quiet retreat between the peaks and the prairies, with horseback rides into Gallatin National Forest letting you feel like you’re out on the trail.

3. Wyoming

Riding through Grand Teton NP (Shutterstock)

Riding through Grand Teton NP (Shutterstock)

Jackson to Devil’s Tower NM: 760km

Around 96% of Yellowstone NP’s 8,991 sq km of parkland lies within the state of Wyoming. You might be forgiven for thinking, what else is left? But the Equality State has plenty more wilderness up its sleeve, especially on a west-to-east road trip.

Start in the mountain-fringed valley of Jackson Hole, with its rather gentrified take on the West. It still has plenty of ranches, horse trekking and a formidable backcountry, but most come here for the plush ski resorts and you’re as likely to spy a tech company CEO as a cowboy. This also has its perks. For all Jackson town has charming old storefronts and saloons, what lies behind them is often high-calibre dining and a buzzing off-piste scene.

Jackson is the perfect jumping-off point for visiting Grand Teton NP, just south of Yellowstone. This was created some 50 years after its neighbour, with much of its land later donated by 20th-century magnate John D Rockefeller – the Memorial Parkway in his name offers a good taster of its charms. On foot, trails ford glacial lakes, soaring peaks (Grand Teton itself tops 4,000m) and alpine meadows through wilderness every bit as dramatic as its cousin to the north.

Looping up around Yellowstone Lake puts you on Route 14 as you follow the north fork of the Shoshone River between the park’s eastern entrance and the town of Cody – a stretch once dubbed the “50 most beautiful miles in America” by Theodore Roosevelt. Cody was founded by the showman Buffalo Bill and wraps itself up in frontier folklore. Its nightly summer rodeos and excellent Center of the West museum owe plenty to its ebullient founder’s lively legacy.

From Cody, continue along Route 14 through Bighorn National Forest. The road turns into the Bighorn Scenic Byway between Shell and Sheridan as canyons, massifs and mesas blur in the rearview mirror. Be sure to pit stop at the city of Buffalo in the eastern foothills before continuing on to the South Dakota border via the Devil’s Tower National Monument. This giant stone monolith (264m) resembles a huge tree stump wrenched from the earth by volcanic caprice 50 million years ago. Its nearby prairie dog colony sits at the extreme other end of the fuzzy-adorable scale, and visits make for a charming finale to the trip, either on foot or by car.  

4. South Dakota

Wind Cave NP (Shutterstock)

Wind Cave NP (Shutterstock)

Deadwood to Rapid City (via Wind Cave NP) to Badlands NP: 315km

While none of Yellowstone NP crosses into South Dakota, the state’s Great Plains share more than a spiritual connection. And west of the Missouri River, where any road trip worth its salt begins, the state’s prairie valleys twist themselves in wild geological knots.

Rapid City makes a great base, nestled between the hoodoos and prairie dogs of Badlands NP and the Black Hills. The latter once filled with prospectors in the 1800s, as gold-rush towns cropped up like small pox. Even today, Deadwood still channels the Old West spirit in its colourful saloons.

History bleeds into the land here. Towns like Crazy Horse and Custer recall key figures of the Black Hills War of 1876 between the US army and the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne. Driving Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Road even shows what the area might have looked like back then as you scan for its 1,300 bison.

Don’t leave without seeing the big sites. Wind Cave NP is one of the USA’s oldest parks and threaded with 240km of tunnels. And you can’t visit the Mount Rushmore State without seeing its namesake monument. The sight of it still takes your breath away.

5. North Dakota

Hoodoos at Theodore Roosevelt NP (Shutterstock)

Hoodoos at Theodore Roosevelt NP (Shutterstock)

Bismarck to Theodore Roosevelt NP (via Enchanted Highway): 320km

Just like its neighbour to the south, the landscape of North Dakota edges into wilder territory as you head west. But there is plenty of history too. West of state capital Bismarck lies North Dakota’s oldest state park, Fort Abraham Lincoln, which resides on the historic territory of the Mandan people. From there, continue on Interstate 94 with a detour south at Gladstone along the Enchanted Highway – 32km of scrap-metal art installations.

After looping back north on Route 84, take a slight detour west to Medora before you hit Theodore Roosevelt NP. This tiny town is best known for the Burning Hills Amphitheatre, home to a neverending outdoor revue show that plays out against a natural backdrop of rolling plains. It’s quite the sight.

Beyond lies North Dakota’s great wilderness. Roosevelt was dubbed the ‘conservation president’ and his legacy included over 900,000 sq km of land set aside for national forests, monuments, parks and preserves. His eponymous national park is no less impressive. The best way to pay your respects is by glimpsing its Painted Canyon or driving a 77km loop around the Little Missouri Badlands.

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