Make these seven stops on the way to Yellowstone

A guide to the best kitsch, culture and nature on the journey from Madison to Yellowstone National Park
Make these seven stops on the way to Yellowstone
Devils Tower in Wyoming, as captured during a family vacation in 2002.

Even as a child, I thought there was something compelling about a great American road trip to Yellowstone National Park. As we hurtled down the interstate at seventy miles per hour, the world somehow seemed to slow down for a bit. Perhaps it was the freedom of the 1,200-some miles of open road between the Midwest and Out West. More likely, time lingered as a product of being held idly captive in the backseat.

About seven hours into the trek, open roads devolved to highway hypnosis and trivia card games led to sibling warfare. It was time to pull over. Take it from this unlucky family member stuck in the middle seat: The best part of road trips is getting out of the car. This summer, take the scenic route to Yellowstone. 

Originally built in 1892, “The World’s Only Corn Palace” has been the epitome of campy roadside attractions for more than a hundred years, making it a must-see for those passing through town. Onion domes and minarets are decorated with thousands of ears of corn, in a pattern selected each year by the Corn Palace Festival Committee. Check out this year’s murals, themed “Remember When,” but skip the tour inside. Now used as an arena for sporting events and concerts, the palace is much more fascinating on the exterior. The local pigeons agree: Watch out for birds trying to nibble away at the edible façade.

Hiking in Badlands National Park is the closest experience many of us will ever have to hiking on Mars. The park offers several trails less than one mile long—perfect for a jaunt through the beautiful landscape of otherworldly, rugged buttes. The nearby Roberts Prairie Dog Town is also worth a stop for the kids. The network of tunnels is massive enough that you can easily spot black-tailed prairie dogs.

The iconic Wall Drug is little more than a roadside wonder and a good place to cool off. Home to the famous Wall Drug Dinosaur, this labyrinth of knickknacks originally attracted business by offering free ice water to travelers. Today, Wall Drug is better known for its homemade ice cream, served from an old-fashioned soda fountain near the front of the store. It’s the kind of place everyone should see once, and possibly only once, just to understand what all those bumper stickers and billboards are referencing.

Immortalized on the big screen by Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Mount Rushmore lives up to its cinematic grandeur in person. Juxtaposed against the Black Hills, the impressive faces of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln are worth pulling off the highway for. The Presidential Trail offers stunning views of the colossal monument. Stop in the Visitor’s Center to learn how the giant granite sculpture was made before resuming the drive.

The densest cave system in the world is hidden in the Black Hills. Pull over here for one of the park’s guided tours. Explore the cave by candlelight or, for the more adventurous, make a reservation to crawl and climb through the cave on an extensive four-hour tour. Don’t expect stalagmites and stalactites—the cave is known for its unique honeycomb “boxwork” formations.

Perhaps more impressive than Mount Rushmore is Devils Tower, a giant monolith of rock that juts more than 1,200 feet into the sky. Circle the tower on the brief 1.3-mile Tower Trail and scout for rock climbers on the rock’s vertical ridges. Devils Tower is sacred to many Native American tribes. Legends say sharp bear claws scored the ridges into the tower as bears chased after a group of children hiding out on the top of the rock. While hiking, keep an eye out for bright Native American prayer ties and flags in the trees—a nod to the site’s sacred significance. 

Just an hour outside of Yellowstone National Park, Cody is an ideal place to stop before or after a full stay in the park. Named for William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the small Wyoming town is a testament to the cowboy west. The nightly Cody Nite Rodeo, a two-hour display of roping, wrestling and riding, is the perfect cap to a summer road trip out west.

When you finally reach Yellowstone, park the car and venture off. More than ninety-five percent of the park is untouched by roads and development, according to the National Park Service. I’m sure you won’t mind—you’ve logged enough hours in the car by now.

Emily Rappleye is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.