Amazing Places To Visit On A Wisconsin to Utah Road Trip

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I’ve done the drive from Wisconsin to Utah a lot. Like, so many times. We counted the other day and since moving to Utah in 2016, we’ve driven across the US 19 times. 19!

They’ve pretty much all been between Wisconsin, Florida, and Utah with varying routes. We like to make stops along the way and have visited lots of national parks and monuments and state parks this way.

Interstate state park wisconsin

And I know there is a lot you could visit on a Wisconsin to Utah road trip but I’ve decided to just pick one rough route that we tend to do the most. I have it starting in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and ending in Moab, Utah.

It will take you through Minnesota, South Dakota, part of Wyoming, and Colorado. But I don’t have any stops in Minnesota included in this, I’m saving it all until South Dakota.

Colorado national monument

I’ve been to almost all of these places, except like, three or four. Wyoming also only has one stop because it’s practically in South Dakota. So basically this is a South Dakota and Colorado road trip.

I’m not including stops in Utah (except Moab, the destination) or Wisconsin because they’re the start and end points and I’m assuming you live in Wisconsin or Minnesota and are just leaving from home. I’m also assuming you’re doing this in the summer, but have included a few winter suggestions, too.

mount rushmore black hills road trip south dakota

Also, this would work from Minnesota or even Iowa or Nebraska you just may need to go north a little if you want to do the South Dakota part of this trip. If you’re more interested in the Utah part of this, you can see some of the best places to go in Utah here.

I also just want to say, I haven’t stayed at all of these hotels (I have stayed at some of them) but they’re all hotels I would stay at in the future. Some are budget friendly, others are more of a splurge.

Wisconsin to Utah road trip map

National Park Pass + Other National Park Deals

Colorado national monument

South Dakota

First up is South Dakota. A place most people think is probably really boring, and maybe some of it is, but it’s also amazing and I love it. The eastern side of the state is, I think, less exciting, but the Black Hills area is incredible.

Corn Palace

We’re starting things off here in South Dakota with a midwest gem: the Corn Palace. This stop may not be for everyone but if you like cheesy roadside attractions, this is perfect for you. This is one of the few places I haven’t been, but someday I’ll go.

badlands national park south dakota

Badlands National Park

Now, the first national park of the trip, the Badlands! I’ve been here like, five times and have only done one short hike and I don’t even think we did the whole thing. I hope you can do more here than me.

The Notch Trail is the one that we did and it feels a little adventurous because you have to climb a log ladder! I would definitely recommend this one. If you want something a little longer, the Medicine Root Loop Trail is perfect.

If you decide to visit Badlands National park in winter, just be prepared for possibly freezing weather, like below. zero. And maybe snow, but it could be a little warmer, too, so just be prepared for anything.

Wall Drug

Wall Drug

Wall Drug is the crown jewel of cheesy midwest tourist attractions. No matter which direction you’re coming from, you’ll see signs for Wall Drug for literally hundreds of miles advertising cheap coffee and free ice water.

It’s basically a giant drugstore mall/museum but it’s still a fun stop if you’re staying in Wall while you’re visiting the Badlands or even if you just want to stretch your legs driving through the area.

Wall hotels

Wall isn’t super exciting but it’s the most convenient place to stay if you want to be close to Badlands National Park. Rapid City is another option with more hotels and food to choose from.

bison in wind cave national park

Wind Cave National Park

Not far from Badlands, you’ll find a lesser-known national park: Wind Cave! It’s also close to the Mammoth Site if you were planning on visiting that, too.

The main draw of the park is obviously the cave and in my two visits here, I still didn’t get to go into it. I think both times the elevator was under repair. But they offer a few types of tours depending on the amount of adventure you want.

If you don’t want to or can’t go into the cave, there is plenty of hiking you can do. Rankin Ridge is a great easy hike to the highest point in the park. It’s also a great park if you like wildlife. There are bison and prairie dogs all over and it’s actually right by the Custer Wildlife Drive!

The needles highway black hills south dakota

Black Hills

The Black Hills area is my favorite place to go in South Dakota and one of my favorite stops on a Wisconsin to Utah road trip. There is so much to do here and I can’t wait to explore even more of it.

You could easily spend weeks here, but with just a day or two, a busy day or two, you can still see a lot. Mount Rushmore is just outside of Keystone, which is where I would recommend staying to explore the area.

There are two great scenic drives that loop through this area: The Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road. I prefer the Needles Highway and think there is more to do along that so if you can only do one, I’d pick that.

Two of those awesome things to do are hiking the Sylvan Lake Loop and the incredible Cathedral Spires Trail. I loved both of these and in the fall, they’re even better with pops of yellow all over.

Sylvan lake south dakota

Keystone hotels

Keystone is a classic tourist town but it’s the most convenient for visiting pretty much all of the Black Hills attractions, hikes, and drives, especially Mount Rushmore.

South Dakota tours

Devils tower wyoming black hills road trip

Wyoming

I only have one stop in Wyoming but it’s just barely over the South Dakota border in Wyoming: Devils Tower. This is super easy to add to a trip to the Black Hills and easy enough to take off of this road trip, too.

Devils Tower

Devils Tower is a massive geologic feature (is this considered a butte?) in eastern Wyoming made of igneous rock. It’s also known as Bear Lodge Butte (I guess it is) and different cultures in the area have different histories of the formation. You can read more about those right here.

There is a hike you can do around the base of it and if you’re really adventurous (and experienced) you can even rock climb here, which is wild to me!

collared lizard colorado

Colorado

Colorado is really where this Wisconsin to Utah road trip starts to take off. I haven’t included every single thing to do in Colorado or place to go, but I have included quite a few. You’ll be able to check off a lot stuff from your national park bucket list here!

I didn’t really include cities/towns other than Denver because I haven’t been to them but Vail, Aspen, Durango, Ouray, and Breckenridge are all places I would want to go in the future.

Rocky mountain national park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Like Badlands, I’ve been to Rocky Mountain National Park and still haven’t done anything, not even one hike! I did get to see elk here though, so I guess that’s exciting. There are a whopping 355 miles of hiking trails here so you’ll be able to stay busy, for sure.

But as far as hikes go that I would like to do, Emerald Lake Trail, Sky Pond, Gem Lake, Dream Lake, and Alberta Falls. This is just a few, but they’re some of the more popular/easier hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and a great place to start on a visit here.

stanley hotel ghost tour

Stanley Hotel

Next up is my favorite, the Stanley Hotel! If you want a really cool place to stay in Estes Park, this would be my choice. I can’t wait to stay here. And you can even stay in the haunted rooms!

If you want to visit but can’t/aren’t staying here, you can do a Stanley Hotel ghost tour. I did this and I loved it so much! We got to learn about the hotels spooky history and it’s ties to Stephen King and The Shining. You can do tours at night or during the day depending on when you’ll be there. I went at night and it was perfect.

Estes Park hotels

If you want to visit both of the above, Estes Park is the perfect place to stay. You won’t have to drive as far as if you were staying closer to Denver and if you’re staying close to downtown Estes Park, then you don’t have to fight traffic if you want to walk around there.

devils backbone hike loveland colorado

Denver

I probably wouldn’t spend tons of time in Denver, but I’m not a big city person (small towns, yes, big cities, less). That said, there are some great things to do in Denver if you do want to spend a day or two there.

The Denver Art Museum, Meow Wolf, breweries for days, 16th Street Mall, MCA Denver (Museum of Contemporary Art), Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and Mount Evens Scenic Byway are just a few things I would love to do there.

Denver hotels

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods

These next two you could either do as day trips from Denver or spend a night in Colorado Springs. First up is Garden of the Gods, probably one of the most popular outdoor places in Colorado. It’s for good reason though.

There are tons of hiking trails here, rock climbing options, and even bike trails. While it’s not every outdoor activity, there are plenty of great things to do here. It is busy, but it’s beautiful.

Pikes Peak

Next up is the scenic drive to the top of Pikes Peak. It’s a 19-mile paved road that takes 2-3 hours with stops (but no hikes). There are hikes you can do along the way, no hiking on the highway, and if you’re really determined and physically prepared for it, you can hike to Pikes Peak via Barr Trail instead.

Garden of the Gods

Colorado Springs hotels

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park

The next national park we’ve got here is Great Sand Dunes National Park kind of in the middle of nowhere. There are, obviously, the sand dunes here which are the main attraction, but there are mountains, too! They’re no Denver area rockies, but they still look great.

While you’re here, be sure to climb the sand dunes. If you want something a little different, you can do some sand boarding or sand sledding! The two highest dunes in the park, Hidden and Star, are tied at 741 feet tall.

High Dune on First Ridge is 693 feet tall and the most common destination from the main parking area. You can climb all over the dunes, just remember, if you go out really far, you have to go all the way back. And in the warmer months, Medano Creek will likely be flowing at the base of the dunes and you can cool off there.

A warning directly form the park service website: “Summer air temperatures are pleasant at this high elevation, but during afternoon hours the sand surface can reach 150F degrees, and dangerous thunderstorms can develop. Plan to hike the dunes in early morning or evening to avoid heat exhaustion, burned feet, or fatal lightning strikes.”

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Alamosa hotels

This is the closest town to Great Sand Dunes National Park. When we visited, we didn’t stay here, we just stopped at the park as we were driving through, I think from Utah to Florida but it’s a good option if you’re spending a whole day here.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is incredible and underrated. I’ve been here three times and love it more every time. But I still haven”t hiked here, either! Except for the really short hikes to overlooks.

This is just one of those parks that is so hard to fathom from pictures, you just have to see it in person. If you do want to hike here, try the Oak Flat Loop Trail, the Exclamation Point Trail, or, if you’re properly prepared and physically capable, the strenuous Gunnison Route Trail.

Just know weather can change here quickly. All three times we visited, it would be cloudy and foggy and we couldn’t see anything, then clear (but not sunny) and it would rain on and off and was windy. Just be prepared for changing weather if you’re doing any hiking.

Colorado national monument

Colorado National Monument

Colorado National Monument is just a short drive from Grand Junction or Fruita. The scenic drive actually has an entrance in Fruita and one in Grand Junction. It’s basically just a nice loop.

It’s a beautiful drive through the park and if you’re there in the spring, you can see the prickly pear cactus blooming! We got to see them and I loved it.

While you’re here, be sure to hike the Coke Ovens Trail and the Devils Kitchen trail. It will be a very culinary day here. I think this is a great way to spend a day in this area and it’s often overlooked by people road tripping through here.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Grand Junction hotels

Grand Junction isn’t my favorite city ever but it’s a good place to base yourself for visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Colorado National Monument. You can easily visit the Trail Through Time on I70 from here or on your way to Moab.

mesa verde colorado

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is like, the best place in the US to go see ancient cliff dwellings. There are easy to get to cliff dwellings, tour-only sites, and pueblo sites on the tops of the mesas that require little to no hiking.

And in the winter, they have a Luminaria where they put lanterns in some of the cliff dwellings and you can drive/walk around to see them glowing in the evening light.

They don’t usually announce this until a few weeks before it’s happening and it can be cancelled because of weather. We tried going in 2021 but snow cancelled it and it wasn’t rescheduled before we moved.

mesa verde colorado

Cortez hotels

If you’re visiting Mesa Verde and want to spend a night nearby, Cortez is definitely going to be your best bet, especially since the drive from the fee booth to anywhere in the park is no less than 30 minutes. You have to go kind of far (relatively) to get to the sights in the park.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Colorado tours

Utah

Moab

Finally, you’ve made it! To the end of this post and to Utah, your final destination. Or at least the beginning of the final destination. I won’t go into tons of detail on Utah itself but you can see all the helpful Utah and national park posts below.

But for Moab, my favorite Moab, get your adventure pants on and hit the trails! While you’re here, be sure to visit Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Dead Horse Point State Park is a good stop on the way to Canyonlands.

In Arches, be sure to hike to at least Delicate Arch and Landscape Arch. If you want a more adventurous hike, Fiery Furnace and Devils Garden Loop are amazing options.

If you like history, you could venture off the beaten path a bit to see tons of rock art in Moab (and nearby). There are dinosaur tracks galore and so many other amazing hikes.

Moab hotels

Moab tours

I hope this was helpful to you if you’re looking for stops on a Wisconsin to Utah Road trip (or a Utah to Wisconsin road trip!) There are so many other amazing place to go and as I visit more of them, I’ll definitely update this. Until then, enjoy your trip!

What to bring on a Wisconsin to Utah road trip

NatGeo National Parks Book – This is one of the best national park guidebooks and I take it on all my park trips.  Plus, it’s got the nice glossy pages.  Buy the book here.

Hiking poles – These will be helpful on longer hikes that are on the steeper side.  They’ll be good if you have bad knees for when you’re going downhill and will give you something to lean on going up the hills.

Snacks – These are more important for long hikes, but you never know when you’ll get hungry!  I like EPIC bars (kind of like beef jerky but different), Sahale nut mix things, and Moon Cheese.  There’s always the good old Clif Bars and trail mix, too.

Water bottle – It’ll be hot and you’ll need to stay hydrated.  Even if it’s not hot you need to stay hydrated.  A Hydro Flask will keep your water ice cold all day long.

Sunscreen – If you plan on being outside, you’ll want sunscreen.  I like the Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch a lot AND it’s reef safe! If you’re sensitive to fragrance though, it’s not a good choice. I also like the same one but specifically for your face.

Hat – You’ll want some kind of hat to keep the sun out of your eyes.  A baseball hat should be fine but a bucket hat or sun hat could help keep the sun off your neck.

Sunglasses – This is a must no matter where you are.  Sunglasses are best paired with a hat on those really bright days.

Light Jacket – Because you just never know.  Weather can change quickly depending on where you are, time of day, and season.  I usually use my rain jacket for this.

Headlamp – I tend to carry my headlamp around all the time when we’re hiking.  This isn’t the exact one I have, but it’s similar and if I needed to replace mine, I’d probably get this one.

Hite Overlook utah

What to bring camping on a Utah to Wisconsin road trip

Tent – I love the REI Passage 2 tent for one or two people.  It’s small and fairly light.  If you need a four-person tent, I’d go with this one, the REI Half DomeYou can check out my tent here.

Sleeping pad – Gotta make the tent comfy!  The one I have isn’t available anymore but this one is similar.  It’s self-inflating and just needs a little help filling all the way.  Buy the sleeping pad here.

Sleeping Bag – I have the Nemo Viola 35 and love it because it’s not as restrictive as the mummy bags.  It has ventilation slits for those warmer nights.  Check out my sleeping bag here.

Puffy quilt – If you’re a really warm sleeper and visiting in the summer, a puffy quilt might be a better option.  I prefer this for hotter nights.  Check out the Rumpl camp quilts here.

Pillow – If you’re just driving, I’d just bring a regular pillow, but if you’re flying then renting a car, you might want a smaller pillow.  This is a good non-inflatible option.  Here is a good inflatable option.

Camp chairs – If you plan on doing a lot of camping outside of this trip, and backpacking especially, the REI Flexlite chairs are great choices.  Check out the camp chairs here.

Lantern – I love having a lantern for in the tent at night, reading in the dark, or going to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  The LuminAID is my favorite and you can charge your phone on it.  Buy the LuminAID lantern here.

Dramamine – this is a must if you get carsick. Buy a three pack here.

wire pass slot canyon Utah

Utah posts you may also like:

Have you done a Wisconsin to Utah road trip before? Where did you go? Do you want to do a Wisconsin to Utah road trip? Is there a road trip you do all the time?

2 thoughts on “Amazing Places To Visit On A Wisconsin to Utah Road Trip

  1. I haven’t done this road trip but, oh my, so many thoughts! Colorado is my favorite state to visit. 🙂
    –obviously I’m biased about the awesomeness of the Black Hills 🙂
    –Devils Tower is technically a “volcanic plug” where lava used to escape (I think it could also be a butte though :))
    –Emerald Lake and Dream Lake are both great hikes that families and “normal people” can definitely do!
    –You HAVE to visit Durango and especially Ouray, it’s my favorite town in Colorado…also, the Million Dollar Highway (Route 550, you can take it between Durango and Ouray) is one of the most amazing drives I’ve ever done! 🙂

    1. Thank you for all of this! We drove through Durango at the end of last season and I would love to spend more time there! I’ve wanted to visit Ouray since 2016 when I first heard of it! And, of course I need to hike RMNP so that is good to know!

      I can’t wait to go back to the Black Hills, too! I know where I’ll find help for that haha 🙂

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