My wife and I are planning our first road trip style vacation this coming September. This trip will consist of just us, our Pontiac Vibe, and whatever we deem necessary in terms of luggage. We'll be leaving Sturgis, MI early on Wednesday, 9/10, and will be returning Sunday, 9/21. We'll be traveling west on I-90 as far as Yellowstone, and will be returning by way of I-94. We'll be exploring the Badlands, Black Hills, Devil's Tower, Yellowstone, Grant Teton National Park, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, among many other minor attractions along the way. Our primary goals for this trip consist of exploring the natural wonders of America, visiting historical sites, and getting some envy-worthy photos of nature and wildlife.
A little bit of background info by way of introduction: My wife and I are both 26 and will have been married for four years as of this September. We usually try to plan our vacations in September, due to our anniversary and the fact that we both love the fall season. This September will be our second significant trip together, with our forays in past years consisting of a week in Mackinaw City and the U.P., and a week in the mountains of Asheville, N.C. Last year we opted to stay local, touring many orchards, cider mills, vineyards, and wineries here in SW MI. We decided on a road trip this year due to the fact that this will probably be our last vacation prior to having kids. Since kids are probably in our somewhat near-term future, our travels may be somewhat restricted for the next several years and we may not have the opportunity (or the budget) to get far from home. My wife has flown to California, and I've been to San Antonio, TX by way of St. Louis, but that's the extent of our experience with the Western U.S.
I should add a disclaimer at this point - I know we've scheduled a pretty aggressive itinerary. However, stretching the trip any further isn't possible due to the limited number of vacation days at our disposal. As it is, we've structured the trip to cover two weekends to give us the maximum amount of time on the road. I fully realize that Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park, and the Black Hills regions could all easily absorb a week's worth of vacation individually. However, we're hoping to cover a lot of ground, picking and choosing which attractions we're particularly interested in and which ones we are not. Pending the outcome of this trip, I'm fairly confident that we'll be returning at some point in the future with kids in tow to revisit these same regions, hopefully in a bit more depth. This is a fairly detailed itinerary but we plan on being pretty flexible once we hit the road, other than our start/stop locations, due to the fact that we have already made the associated reservations.
I'm most interested in feedback on the amount of time to budget for spending at the various attractions I have listed, although feedback of all types is more than welcome. I should mention that I have already perused the Top Questions area of the SD forums, which answered some of my questions. However, I'd still like additional feedback on our proposed itinerary, so here is the plan for the South Dakota portion of our road trip:
Day 1 - Wednesday, 9/10
Depart Sturgis at 6 a.m. for Sioux Falls. Google Maps recommends taking I-90 through Chicago, a trip of 712 miles and 11 hours. However, in order to avoid rush hour Chicago traffic as well as the tolls through Chicago (we don't have an I-Zoom and cash tolls are nearly double the I-Zoom rates) I'm planning on bypassing Chicago entirely via I-80 west to I-39, then I-39 north to pick I-90 back up in Rockford. From what I understand, this route will result in only $1 or so in tolls. The higher gas cost due to the greater distance of 766 miles is more or less off-set by the toll savings, and even if it wasn't, I'd rather not start off our vacation by combating rush-hour Chicago traffic. We'll be gaining an hour in the shift from EST to CST once we cross from IN to IL. Allowing an hour for stops, this should put us in Sioux Falls around 5 p.m. local time. We'll be staying at the Sleep Inn (Airport location), and the plan is to check in then go out to eat for our anniversary dinner. Afterwards, we plan to relax by touring Falls Park around dusk, enjoying the illuminated falls.
Questions: I just read one of the Top Questions for SD, covering Sioux Falls attractions. It mentioned that the evening light show which formerly illuminated the Falls at dusk has been discontinued. Can anyone confirm or deny this?
Any good recommendations on must-visit restaurants, particularly on the northern side of Sioux Falls?
Day 2 - Thursday, 9/11
Breakfast at hotel. Depart Sioux Falls at 7 a.m. for the Corn Palace in Mitchell. Should arrive about 8:30, only planning about an hour to tour the Corn Palace and gas up for the next leg of the trip, as we don't have very high expectations for the Corn Palace. We may not even bother with the interior tour. Depart Mitchell around 9:30 for the Minuteman Missile Historical Site on I-90. Arrive at MMHS around 11:30 a.m. local time, having gained an hour in the transition from CST to MST on the 3-hour drive. Allow two hours for tour. Depart MMHS and enter Badlands National Park. Possibly grab lunch at Cedar Pass Lodge, then tour Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Scope out campsite at Cedar Pass Campground. Tour Badlands in mid-afternoon, hiking any trails that catch our eye. Towards evening, take the Wildlife Loop drive and visit Roberts Prairie Dog Town.
Question: How difficult should I expect it to be to be able to get tickets for the MMHS tour if we arrive at the office around 11:30 a.m.? I've read tickets go fast during peak season, and was wondering what to expect for the shoulder season of mid-Sept.
Day 3 - Friday, 9/12
Pack up camp and hit the road by 7:00 a.m. for Custer. Take Wildlife Loop Rd. again, enjoying morning views of the Badlands. Travel to Custer via I-90 to Rapid City (possibly stop for breakfast and gas), then south on 79 to 36 west, 36 west to Alt 16 west. Should arrive in Custer by 10:30 a.m. Explore whatever Custer local attractions we feel we have time for, then head north to tour the Crazy Horse Memorial. After Crazy Horse, head north to Hill City, exploring local attractions and stopping at Prairie Berry Winery for tour and lunch. Head south, traveling Needles Hwy to Custer State Park. Take the Wildlife Loop Rd all the way around the park to Iron Mountain Rd., exploring whatever we have time for and whatever catches our eye. Traverse Iron Mountain Rd. to Mt. Rushmore, timing our arrival at Mt. Rushmore to allow us to explore the monument for 2 hours or so prior to experiencing the lighting ceremony. Depart Mt. Rushmore for lodging in Keystone at K Bar S Lodge or in Rapid City Sleep Inn & Suites (This decision is yet pending, based on how our final budget for the trip shakes out). This is a very full day. We've consciously chosen to skip the local cave tours, hiking Harney Peak, and stopping at any of the family attractions like the Reptile Gardens.
Questions: Which is better, the Mt. Rushmore lighting ceremony or the laser light show at the Crazy Horse Memorial? Is there a cutoff date at some point in the season for either lighting ceremony, or do they operate year-round?
How long should I allow for driving the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway in its entirety, (Needles Hwy, Loop Rd., Iron Mtn Rd.) stopping only at overlooks and for photo opportunities along the way? Travel estimates for each section would be really helpful.
Day 4 - Saturday, 9/13
Breakfast at hotel. Depart Keystone/Rapid City at 7 a.m. for Lead, via 385 through the Black Hills National Forest. Arrive in Lead 8 a.m. Explore local attractions, notably the Broken Boot Gold Mine Tour and gold panning. Leave Lead approximately 10 a.m. and depart for Belle Fourche. Stop in Deadwood if anything catches our eye, which I don't expect. Arrive in Belle Fourche 11 a.m. and tour the Geographical Center of the Nation monument, along with the visitor center. Head north out of Belle Fourche approximately 8-10 miles to view the true center of the nation. Depart this location approximately 12:30 p.m. for Vore Buffalo Jump on I-90, trip time 30 minutes. Tour the Buffalo Jump for approximately 1 hour. Depart for Devil's Tower National Monument approximately 2 p.m., arrive 3 p.m. Explore DTNM for approximately two hours. Depart DTNM for Sheridan approximately 5 p.m. Arrive in Sheridan approximately 7:45 p.m. and check in to hotel.
Please comment with feedback on any and all portions of the above itinerary, any and all help is welcomed. I'm looking for the most efficient vacation possible in order to maximize time at scheduled stops and to provide the most scenic route and photo opportunities possible.Edited: 2:03 pm, April 10, 2014