Our favourite places in the Great American West
Cradled in the middle of northern USA lies the Great American West - the five diverse and epic states of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and North Dakota. This is the place to find natural beauty, extraordinary monuments, historic sites, fascinating Native American culture and quirky towns & cities.
With help from our friends in the region, we've picked our favourite sights and experiences that showcase the Great American West.
Our First is a First - Yellowstone National Park
A great place to start is America’s very first national Park. Yellowstone is largely in the state of Wyoming, and borders Idaho and Montana – its sweeping landscapes characteristic of this region. It is possible to see the well-known highlights of this park in a day, but there is so much to explore in this vast park that we usually advise two, three or more days.
One of the world’s largest active volcanoes lies beneath Yellowstone, which means that half of the world hydrothermal features are found in this park. The geysers, hot springs and mud pots are a major draw to the park, including the famous “Old Faithful” geyser. The information centre is close to Old Faithful, so it’s a great place to start, plan your day and then get that picture of Old Faithful spouting into the sky.
Yellowstone is also home to the largest concentration of mammals in the US, including bears, wolves, bison, elk, lynx, moose, fox and antelope. They’ve made their home in the lush forests and dramatic canyons of the park – which you can sometimes spot as you stroll or do a more strenuous hike along one of the many marked trails.
Take a Trip to the Craters of the Moon…in Idaho
This National Monument and Preserve is a vast ocean of lava flows with islands of cinder cones and sagebrush. You can discover this truly unique landscape by driving the parks seven-mile loop road, stopping frequently to explore the trails, caves and scenic overlooks. Head first to the visitor centre to pick up information and maps to help you find the best route for your day. Walking the trails is best planned during the morning hours, with a visit to the cool inside of a cave recommended for the afternoons. Temperatures in the summer usually head up to 30 degrees and the surface of the dark lava rocks can reach up to 75 degrees, so do take plenty of water.
You can find the awesome effects of 15,000 years of lava eruptions throughout the Craters of the Moon. Unique natural features include lava tubes caves such as Indian Tunnel, which is passable for 800 feet; Big Cinder Butte, at 700 feet, one of the largest cinder cones in the world, and the Blue Dragon flow, which is named because of its striking blue colour.
Stargaze The Dark Skies of Idaho
America’s first Gold Tier Dark Sky Preserve was created in Central Idaho in 2017, as this is one of the last large pools of natural nighttime darkness left in the US. You’ll find the 1,416 square mile preserve just west of the Craters of the Moon, so if you’re heading in that direction you can loop it into your road trip. If you’re a star-gazing aficionado, take your binoculars or telescope to scrutinise the night sky, but us standard folk can simply use their eyes to see the Milky Way, planets, meteors, comets and satellites (including the Space Station) in awe-inspiring clarity. There are some great apps you can download to help identify the different constellations and navigate the night sky, and assist you with spotting Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and in August you have the best chance of watching a meteor shower.
Visit TWO Manmade Wonders of the World in ONE Day
On many peoples “must-see list” is Mount Rushmore. This National Memorial is a massive sculpture carved into the mountainside in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The 60 foot high granite faces of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln were completed in 1941. But you don’t just have to stand and look at them, you can take a lovely trail through the ponderosa pine forest, which gives you changing views of Mount Rushmore. You can also visit the Sculptors Studio to learn more about how Gutzon Borglum created this wonder and explore the Lincoln Borglums Visitor Centre to watch a film and view exhibits.
Less well-known but no less impressive is the Crazy Horse Memorial – the world’s largest mountain carving but still very much a work in progress. Started in 1948 it will depict the Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, riding a horse and pointing to his tribal land. There is no timeline for its completion but to give you an idea of the scale of this work, by 2037 it is estimated that the hand, arm, shoulder, hairline, and top of the horse's head may be finished. Similar to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, part of its wonder is seeing this masterpiece as it is in the process to being created rather than in simply the finished article.
Credit: Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation
Explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota
Maybe not so well known to us Europeans, but important enough to have his face immortalised on Mount Rushmore, Theodore Roosevelt was actually the first ever American to win the Nobel Prize for his efforts in brokering the end of the Russo-Japanese War. When he became the 26th US in 1901, he was the youngest in the nation’s history. But before this, in 1883 following the death of his wife and his mother on the same day, he left behind his comfortable New York life to become a rancher in North Dakota. The rugged landscape and strenuous life that he experienced here, went onto shape his conservation policies and an enduring legacy that is the backbone of the US national park system.
Now with this history lesson in your back pocket, you can go and enjoy the pristine wilderness of his national park. Split into three units, the North Unit is a little off the beaten track, a 50 mile drive from Interstate 94, but once here you can enjoy a beautiful hike through the rugged beauty of the Grand Canyon of the Little Missouri. More accessible from the I94 is the South Unit, and you should plan to enjoy two to three hours as you drive along the 48-mile scenic drive through rolling Badlands with fantastic scenery in all directions. Stay in the town of Medora for a couple of nights to get the best from the park, and remember to call in at the Visitor Centre in the town before you set off. The third unit is the Elkhorn Ranch Unit where Theodore Roosevelt had his home ranch - he chose this location because of its remoteness, and whilst you no longer need a horse to get there, it might be too much for your rental car as the road is unpaved and there is no mobile phone signal. It's a beautiful spot but with only the foundation stones of his cabin remaining, we suggest you leave this unit out of your itinerary!
Discover both sides of the story at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Montana
The famous battle where General Custer met his last stand, where you can visit the battlefield to learn about this historic fight between the US Army and Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors in 1876. When you arrive we think the best starting point is the museum where you can watch a video “Triumph & Tragedy along the Little Bighorn”. Then walk down the Deep Ravine trail, onto Custer's Last Stand Hill, and see the 7th Cavalry Monument and Indian Memorial. You can drive the 4.5 mile tour road to Reno - Benteen entrenchment site and visit the Custer National Cemetery where veterans of many of America's wars are buried.
Immerse yourself in historic towns of the Great American West
Deadwood, South Dakota – In 1874 gold nuggets were found in Deadwood Gulch, named after the blackened trees dominating the Black Hills, with the town growing around the subsequent gold rush. A few years later Wild Bill Hickok met his violent end in the town, and is buried here next to that other great character of the Old West – Calamity Jane. Today you can get a great feel for the wild west by visiting Adams Museum, the Broken Boot Gold Mine, and the Days of ’76 Museum, with a lunch stop at the Silverado Franklin Historic Hotel.
Cody, Wyoming - In 1894, the famous William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was visiting Sheridan when he reconnoitred the top of the Big Horn Mountains looking west and saw the potential of creating a town to take advantage of the area’s natural resources. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West has five museums for you to learn all about this fascinating character and the history of wild west. Nearby, and well worth a visit, is the Old Trail Town - a re-created frontier town with 1800s log cabins and a saloon. Through the summer months there are daily western re-enactments for you to see a live gunfighter show and you can also enjoy the Cody Nite Rodeo to get a real flavour of the West. If you’re heading onto Yellowstone from here, then download the Travel Storys audio tour for a listen as you drive the Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway to the East entrance.
Cheyenne, Wyoming - Cheyenne’s beginnings were in 1867, when the Union Pacific Railroad built its route to the West Coast. It became a quintessential railroad town, its traders supplying goods all along the railroad that stretched ever farther west, and it eventually took on the nickname, “The Magic City of the Great Plains.” Today you can visit the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum, with exhibits about early rodeos and artifacts like 19th-century passenger wagons. But a really great way you can experience frontier life is at Cheyenne Frontier Days - the world’s largest outdoor rodeo with roping, riding and non-stop music and fun.
Learn more about the five states of the Great American West click here