Two summers ago, our family of five embarked on a huge Midwest national parks road trip. We started off in New York state in our minivan with three kids. We drove through 15 states and visited six National Parks—for a grand total of about 4,500 miles.
Twelve of our 15 hotel nights were on points or free night certificates. To make it easy for you to envision our route, you can check out this Midwest National Parks Road Trip Hotels and Sites Google Map with pins of every location we visited and stayed.
And if you’d rather listen, check out episode #49 of the THM podcast to hear all about this Midwest National Parks Road Trip.
Throughout our two weeks, we stayed at a number of Marriott Residence Inn, Courtyard, and Fairfield Inn hotels. These were especially welcomed overnight stops on our road trip because of the free breakfast! In order to earn enough points for the trip, my husband and I both opened the Marriott Bonvoy cards and topped up with some Chase Ultimate Rewards where needed. Also, my husband had a small stockpile of Marriott points from traveling for work that we used.
If you were lucky enough to grab the recent Marriott Bonvoy Card offer of five 50k free night certificates, one or two of those cards would make this Midwest National Parks road trip a breeze. If you and your P2 each opened that card, you could cover just about every night of our road trip (as every hotel is in a category that would qualify for using the free night certificate).
Historically, this offer has come around about once a year, so if a road trip is on your bucket list, be sure to snap it up the next time it goes live. (Note: it’s LIVE now.)
To kick off our road trip, we drove from our home in Upstate NY to Cleveland, Ohio. Our first hotel was the Residence Inn Cleveland Avon At Emerald Event Center. We arrived in the evening, checked in, headed to bed, and then enjoyed the hotel’s free breakfast in the morning before heading to our next stop.
From Cleveland, we headed towards Chicago, making a quick stop to visit Notre Dame University before visiting Indiana Dunes National Park.
This U.S. National Park was only recently designated as the 61st national park in 2019. It was previously recognized as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore since 1966. The park runs for about 20 miles on the southern side of Lake Michigan. Wind and waves formed these sand dunes over thousands of years, making some as high as 250 feet!
After leaving Indiana Dunes National Park, we made our way to Chicago. We stayed at the Residence Inn Chicago Downtown/Loop. This hotel was a great location for parking the car and leaving it for our two nights. It also had a great free breakfast each morning.
We went to Giordano’s for some deep-dish pizza for dinner, then spent the next morning in Chicago going to Millenium Park to see the Big Bean and making a quick visit to Navy Pier.
After Chicago, we were on our way to Pepin, Wisconsin. This is the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the home of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. She is the author of Little House on the Prairie.
In preparation for this trip, we read Little House in the Big Woods as a family and watched a few Little House on the Prairie episodes. Pepin has a cute little museum dedicated to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and you can visit her actual birthplace with a reproduction of the Little House in the Big Woods.
Our hotel in Pepin was the Fairfield Inn and Suites Winona. This hotel also had free breakfast and was located in a busy shopping area with lots of options for food or groceries.
Our next stop was a quick overnight in Jamestown, North Dakota. I chose this stop 100% because it was the halfway point between Wisconsin and our next big stop of Teddy Roosevelt National Park. In Jamestown, there is a cute little playground called Frontier Village, and it has the world’s largest buffalo statue! I love a good (silly?) roadside attraction.
Our hotel was the Fairfield Inn & Suites Jamestown. It wasn’t anything super special, but it did have a pool which was a bonus for the kids! We went into Jamestown for dinner and had a yummy meal at the Buffalo Grill.
After a long morning drive across North Dakota, we arrived in Medora, North Dakota. We stayed at the Badlands Motel (cash), however there is a Wyndham in town. While motels aren’t really my travel style anymore, this one was very cute and newly remodeled. The best part was seeing Theodore Roosevelt National Park right outside.
This national park is where the Great Plains meet the Badlands. Fun Fact: This is the only national park named after a single person. There are a number of scenic drives and short/long hikes throughout the park. We saw so much wildlife, including a number of wild horses.
We attended the 5:15 pm Pitchfork Steak Fondue dinner, then the 7:30 pm Medora Musical. If you’re looking for some true small-town Americana, this is the show for you. It’s like a variety act with singing, dancing, live music, magicians, and so much more. We all loved it!
After a few days in North Dakota, we made our way to South Dakota with a detour through Montana to Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. Devil’s Tower was the first U.S. National Monument declared by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Devil’s Tower is a butte (an isolated hill) that stands 1,267 feet tall! During certain times of the year, you can even get a permit to climb it. However, we chose to take a walk around it on the paved path.
If you have more time, you can visit Spearfish Canyon and Deadwood, South Dakota on your way to Rapid City. However, we chose to drive straight there.
Our hotel in Rapid City was the Residence Inn Rapid City, and we stayed there for three nights. Rapid City has many chain hotel options for any points you have – Marriott, IHG, but NO Hyatt. You’ll have lots of choices. This hotel was relatively close to everything we wanted to visit in the area. It was also near virtually every chain restaurant you can imagine.
While stationed in Rapid City, we visited Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Wind Cave National Park, Mammoth site, Wildlife Loop Road, and Needlepoint Highway in Custer State Park. Every one of these was so unique and special. I’m unsure I would even pick one to skip on a return trip. Though, I will say that Mammoth Site was probably the most interesting for the kids (and my husband)! We’d never been to a live dig site like that, so it was super cool to visit.
On our drive to Badlands, we stopped at Dinosaur Park (a free tourist attraction), Storybook Island, Minuteman Missile Silos National Historic Site (nuclear missile arsenal for the Cold War), Wall Drug Store (the 1930s made it famous for free ice water for thirsty travelers, and now it is a big tourist spot—still with free ice water).
Badlands National Park was next up on our road trip. There were lots of great driving routes and a number of family-friendly hikes. We even did Notch Trail with the big log/rope ladder!
Our hotel for Badlands National Park was the Cedar Pass Lodge. This lodge was made of individual cabins. Our cabin had two beds, a full bathroom, air conditioning, comfy Adirondack chairs on the porches, and even a picnic table out the back. We paid cash for this stay as it’s run by the National Park Service. There are limited food options nearby, so I definitely recommend loading up on groceries before heading to the park.
Fun Fact: Badlands National Park has some of the best star gazing of any location in the United States. It’s 244,000 acres with almost no light pollution. I still dream about the clear night skies with millions of stars.
After our two days at Badlands National Park, we drove to Sioux City, Iowa. Along the way, we made a stop at the Corn Palace (Mitchell, South Dakota), Ingalls Homestead South Dakota, and Sioux Falls. Sioux City has a wonderful Lewis and Clark Museum (Interpretive Center).
In Sioux City, we stayed at The Warrior Hotel, Marriott Autograph Collection. This hotel was fancy by our standards. It had an awesome pool, our room was beautifully finished with velvet curtains, the bathroom had a heated toilet seat, and the bathroom also had a TV in the mirror. The girls loved watching cartoons from the bathtub!
On our way to Kansas City, Kansas, we stopped at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters visitor center. This was another very nice Lewis and Clark museum. It made for a great stop to stretch our legs on the long drive.
Once we arrived in Kansas City, we went straight to Slap’s BBQ for dinner. I Googled the best BBQ in Kansas City, and this tiny place came up at the top of a number of lists.
Our hotel in Kansas City was the Residence Inn Kansas City at the Legends. This hotel was located a bit outside of the city, but like a lot of our other hotels, it was near great shopping (i.e., Target) and a number of fast food chains.
On our way to St. Louis, we stopped at Walt Disney’s Hometown Museum in Marceline, Missouri. This is a great stop for any Disney lover. There were so many interesting things to see. They even had a little scavenger hunt for the kids to do while we worked our way through the museum. Another thing to see on the way to St. Louis is the Warm Springs Ranch – Budweiser Clydesdale Center. Here, you can see those famous Budweiser horses you see in all their commercials, and at certain times of the year even visit some babies.
Once we arrived in St. Louis, we checked into our hotel, the Courtyard Marriott St. Louis Brentwood. We had dinner and went to bed.
The next morning, we headed to Gateway Arch National Park for a Mississippi River cruise. The museum under the Gateway Arch is so fun and engaging for everyone. We spent much time checking out all the exhibits before heading up into the arch. You can buy your tickets ahead of time for the tram ride to the top. During the summer, I’d definitely recommend doing that.
You don’t have to be as ambitious (or crazy 🤪) as us. You could easily start this Midwest National Parks road trip from somewhere like Chicago and do a big loop. Or you could fly into a city further west like Rapid City, Minneapolis, or Omaha, and get the same experience as us.
If you have the Southwest Companion Pass or the option of convenient Southwest flights from your home airport, Southwest flies into Minneapolis and Omaha as well.
Here are a few extra tips that helped make our national parks road trip a little cheaper.
Veterans can get a free national park pass each year. You don’t have to be retired either. Any veterans qualify.
Also, the Every Kid Outdoors program provides free national park passes to 4th graders. So if you have a current or upcoming 4th grader, you can visit their website and download a certificate for free entrance to U.S. National Parks.
Not every family wants to take big trips overseas or use their points for flights. So we love sharing how you can also use your points and miles to take amazing family vacations right here in the U.S.A. An active and mildly adventurous Midwest national parks road trip is the perfect way to use your hotel points or free night certificates to see some amazing sites in our country.
Affiliate Disclosure: Travel Mom Squad uses affiliate links. We may receive compensation if you use our links when applying for a credit card at no extra cost to you. This compensation does not impact how or where products appear on this site. We have not reviewed all available credit card offers on this site. Thank you so much if you use our links!
Editorial Note: The editorial content on this site is not provided by credit card issuer. All opinions, reviews, and recommendations are expressed by the author, not the credit card issuer.