In October 2020, my dear friend Nayda and I made a plan to visit my aunt in Montana. Due to the pandemic and pricing we decided against flying from Minnesota to Bozeman, and instead opted for an adventure road trip from Minneapolis through South Dakota and then on to Big Sky. To break up the arduous journey through arguably some of the worst bits of America, we made a few stops at some highlights and even camped for a night! Here’s how it all went:
Accommodation – Badlands Interior Motel & Campground
After 7 hours of driving through a windy, barren farmland, we made it to the Badlands. They are impressive landforms,
This campground was great – it had showers and everything you could need and was literally right outside the Interior entrance on the south side of the park. The wind was FIERCE – and was a factor that led us to change our plan and drive to Wyoming the next day instead of staying 2 nights. It was about $20 a night and the owners were super friendly and had firewood to provide, electricity outlets inside a main office, and even an outdoor sink and multiple water spigots.
We had a little tent site with a fire pit and enjoyed making a camp breakfast and s’mores on on our night stay – I’d definitely recommend this spot if you’re traveling to the Badlands with kids and want to camp for a night. Just be sure to get groceries before you arrive, there isn’t much in the tiny town around the park.
Badlands National Park
I’d say the Badlands are worth a visit, but the park isn’t the most impressive National Park that America can boast about. The buttes (the rock formations that comprise the geographical focal points of the park) are quite stunning, especially at sunset. There are some easy hikes to do, and I’d imagine it could be really beautiful in the spring when wildflowers are first blooming. You could take a day to hike around the park or even just drive through on a road trip and make a short stop for a brief walk to stretch your legs.
Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife! We saw lots of deer and cool birds, and a snake that slithered away into the tall grass while we were out on a walk. Be super careful when hiking – rattlesnakes do inhabit these areas and you’ll want to avoid stepping on one at all costs!
Some hikes you can enjoy in the Badlands include the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead, Pinnacle Overlook, Panorama Point, and Castle Trail which is the longest hike in the park. We didn’t complete the entire Castle Trail but we did walk a few good miles on the trail, which is a fairly easy walk but be aware that there is little to no shade for the whole trail.
Wall Drug + Donuts
“It’s an awful place, one of the world’s worst tourist traps, but I loved it and I won’t have a word said against it.”
– Bill Bryson on Wall Drug
I think that quote by one of my favorite writers summarizes everything you need to know about Wall Drug. It’s tacky, some could say it’s awful, but it’s a must if you’re traveling through the Badlands or to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
There are tons of shops selling everything from Native American goods (I’d maybe skip the prices here and try to find something more local and authentic, straight from the crafts-person) to cheap magnets, books, jewelry, and more. The real reason we came here was for the cafe and the donuts! If you like cake donuts – this place has some great ones. They are fat and fluffy and topped with different icing options. We opted for maple and chocolate – it was a lovely way to start the day!
Hulett, Wyoming + Hulett Motel
A tiny town not far from the Wyoming attraction, Devil’s Tower, Hulett feels like you’re on a movie set for an old western. It’s charming, well-worth spending a night if you’re on an adventure to the west and need to break up the trip. You can walk around the whole town in a few minutes, but there’s quite a few great restaurants and bars to check out in addition to lodging options. It’s clearly a tourist spot and the locals were super friendly. The motel was nice – recently redone with comfortable beds, Wi-Fi, and nice bathrooms. It was super clean. My only complaint was that at the time of booking, we didn’t know we’d be supporting something undesireable by staying here. I’ll let you check out the pictures to figure out what that is.
After a long day of windy hikes, driving for hours, and checking into our motel, we wanted a nice dinner to end the day. The Ponderosa Cafe was a top-rated restaurant in Hulett, and it’s easy to see why. The food was awesome, our waitress was so nice, and it was a 2-minute walk from the motel. I had the brisket burnt ends, Nayda had a shrimp Caesar salad (such a deliciously underrated variation of a Caesar!) and for dessert we had a bread pudding special that was awesome. It’s not a super cheap meal, but it’s well worth it for all the flavor and the cool, Wild West atmosphere.
Red Rock Cafe
If you’re going here for breakfast with just one other person – split your entree. Holy crap the food portion sizes were absolutely out of control. I went for biscuits and gravy with a coffee while Nayda had a fried chicken, tater tot, scrambled egg dish. It was all so delicious but I felt horrible wasting so much food since we couldn’t really reheat our meal later on the road. Share an entree and you will still be full.
We came. We saw. We took a photo. We left.
In all seriousness, we did not tour Devil’s Tower so I don’t have much to tell you about it. We were eager to get on the road and get to Big Sky, so it wasn’t a focal point of the day. It’s featured in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so if you love that movie, take the tour!
After this, it was onward to Big Sky, Montana, with a grocery stop in Bozeman. It was another long day of driving but we made it without incident. This was a good way to break up the journey to Big Sky instead of driving 14-hours straight through, and we had a lot of fun and laughs along the way.
Road Trip Tips & Essentials
Pre-Trip Car Clean-out & Maintenance Check
Before embarking on a cross-country driving journey, make sure your car is ready for the wear and tear it’s about to endure. Check the spare tire, check all 4 tires for air pressure and road worthiness, and get an oil change. Thankfully we didn’t have any mechanical problems and this seriously is a huge plus when doing a long drive. And clean out your car before you pack it up and go – strategic cooler placement for retrieving snacks while driving is a must!
Podcasts + Music
Download all the listening entertainment you want before you hit the road, while you still have a Wi-Fi connection! There were many long stretches in our drive with little to zero service, so I was glad to have pre-downloaded this content to listen to. Here are a few podcasts I’d recommend as they are gripping and will make the time pass way faster!
Food & Drinks
My top tips would be to include lots of snacks you love but also lots of healthy snacks too. Veggies cut up with dips in large Tupperware, fruits, pre-made sandwiches, plenty of sparkling and regular water will help make all the difference and keep you hydrated and happy while driving. I “discovered” dill pickle chips on this trip, and no road trip will ever commence without a bag of them in tow.
And that concludes our road trip! It was long, but it was fun with a sidekick who enjoys the same type of podcast content and chatter as I do. We ticked quite a few spots off the list even with just a casual exploration of the Badlands and a tiny bit of Wyoming. It’s a worthwhile journey to get to Montana at least once in your life!