Mount Rushmore, Badlands , and Air Force Museum – Cross Country USA Road Trip (Part 13)

Welcome back to Part 13 of our six week road trip across the United States! In this article, I’ll cover our visit to Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and the National Museum of the US Air Force.

While visiting these parks and attractions, we spent six days driving the 2,200 miles east from Gardiner, Montana back home to Raleigh, North Carolina.  

A brief recap of our trip: we set out from our home in Raleigh in early June and made it back home toward the end of July. In total we spent over six weeks (46 nights!!) on the road and drove 8,200 miles. 

Along the way, we visited 14 national parks and a ton of other interesting places. It was quite a busy trip, since we stayed in 25 different airbnbs or hotels and spent more than 100 hours traveling in the van

To cover the whole trip, I am breaking up the trip summary into thirteen separate blog posts.

Here is a table of contents for our whole trip if you want to check out other parts of our journey:

  1. North Carolina to Kansas via West Virginia and St. Louis
  2. Colorado: Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Frisco
  3. Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde National Parks plus Ouray
  4. Utah: Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park
  5. Utah: Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park
  6. Arizona: Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon, and Hoover Dam
  7. A Week in Las Vegas, Nevada
  8. California: Los Angeles and Long Beach
  9. California: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks
  10. Crossing the Desert in Nevada and Utah: Hawthorne and Bonneville Salt Flats
  11. Salt Lake City, Utah and Idaho Falls, Idaho
  12. Yellowstone National Park
  13. Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and National Museum of the US Air Force

Join me for part 13 of our trip across the country as we explore Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and the National Museum of the US Air Force and make our way back home to Raleigh.


From Gardiner, Montana, we headed east through Gillette, Wyoming, Mt. Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Iowa City, Iowa, Dayton Ohio’s Museum of the US Air Force, and finally back home to Raleigh. 

The Looooong Drive back east to Raleigh 

Once we finished our three day stop in Yellowstone National Park, we were more or less done with the bulk of our road trip to the western United States. 

The drive back home to Raleigh from Gardiner, Montana is 33 hours and 2,200 miles. We decided to break the drive up into five segments of 6 to 8 hours of driving per day, with some sightseeing along the way. 


Driving along the Yellowstone river in Montana


I looked for decent hotel redemption options for the pile of hotel points I have accumulated over the years from travel hacking. 

We ended up staying in these cities on the trip home:

  • Gillette, Wyoming 
  • Oacoma, South Dakota
  • Iowa City, Iowa
  • Dayton, Ohio

We weren’t in any particular hurry, so instead of a series of one night hotel stays, we decided to build in some down time on the trip home. We booked a two night stay in Iowa City, Iowa, and a second two night stay in Dayton, Ohio. 

On the drive from Gillette, Wyoming to Oacoma, South Dakota, we stopped by Mount Rushmore National Monument and the Badlands National Park. 

A couple of days later during our two night stay in Dayton, we visited the National Museum of the US Air Force. 


Long stretches of open road on Interstate 90 in Wyoming. Here is a stretch of road with a reddish tint to the asphalt. The rocks nearby were red, so I assume they used these local red rocks when mixing the asphalt for the freeway pavement.


Mount Rushmore

On the second day of our drive back to Raleigh, we were driving through South Dakota so we decided to detour slightly and visit the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. 

For those holding a National Parks annual pass, be warned that they don’t accept it for entry at Mt. Rushmore. They have a $10 parking fee that everyone pays. I looked into avoiding the parking fee (of course!) and decided it wasn’t worth the effort to save a mere $10. So we paid the fee, parked in the parking deck, and had a short walk up to the main attraction.


The four presidents of Mount Rushmore


I’ll be honest, my expectations for Mount Rushmore were pretty low. Yes, it’s an impressively huge sculpture on the side of the mountain. But that’s it. Once you see it, that’s kind of all there is to see. 

It’s not the kind of place I’d normally visit as a destination in and of itself, but since it wasn’t much of a detour on our drive back east, I figured it would be worthwhile to visit and see it with my own eyes at least once in my life. 

There is a decent amount of touristy stuff around Mt. Rushmore for those that do want to make it a destination. Typical mountain town stuff like souvenir shops, ice cream parlors, and outdoor adventure operators.

We spent half an hour taking in the enormous cliffside sculptures of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln from the viewing gallery. Then we went inside the museum portion of Mt. Rushmore. They have a lot of exhibits showing the construction process and planning for the sculptures on the mountainside.

We took a look around the museum, got our fill, and soon headed back to the car. We had a lot of ground to cover on this day, including a drive through the Badlands National Park.


Badlands National Park

After another hour and a half drive east from Mt. Rushmore, we arrived at the Badlands National Park. On the way there, we passed through the outskirts of Rapid City, South Dakota and refueled the van before continuing east. 

Just before making the turn to the Badlands, we passed by the town of Wall, South Dakota. This is where the famous Wall Drug tourist trap is located. We didn’t have time to stop at Wall Drug, and we don’t really mind missing it! 

Once we arrived in the Badlands, we spent a couple of hours driving along the Badlands Loop Road. The Loop Road weaves through the hills of the badlands for about 25 miles and has at least a dozen overlooks with great views of the iconic colorful hillsides and valleys that the Badlands are known for. 


Badlands National Park



While driving along the Loop Road, we didn’t get out and do any lengthy hikes. However there are some hills to climb for a better view. And a quarter of a mile boardwalk loop with some fossil exhibits on the eastern end of the Loop Road. 

Along the way, we saw a good bit of wildlife including mountain goats and prairie dogs. If you see a bunch of cars stopped on the road ahead of you, there is a good chance they see some cool wildlife. Slow down and take a look too! 


Bighorn sheep grazing in the Badlands


Taking a break in the Badlands. Just. Taking. It. All. In.


The Drive from the Badlands to Dayton, Ohio

After leaving the Badlands, we continued east on Interstate 90 for a couple more hours. Then we stopped for the night in Oacoma, South Dakota right after sunset. 

On the to-do list: unpack, sleep, get up, eat at the hotel breakfast buffet, pack up, and hit the road again for another eight hours of driving. To break up the long drive through South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa, we stopped in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for lunch at a Cambodian restaurant. 

While in Sioux Falls, we stopped by the downtown riverfront park. There are a couple of waterfalls and rapids in the nicely laid out Falls Park. The water level was fairly low in the Big Sioux River flowing through the park, so the falls and rapids weren’t as impressive as we were expecting. 


The Big Sioux River running through the middle of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.


The visitor center has a free observation tower with an elevator. We went up to the top, about 40 feet up, and got a great view of Sioux Falls and the Falls Park. 

Needing to make some more miles before it got too late, we hit the bathroom and returned to the minivan for our onward journey. The destination for the night was our hotel in Iowa City, Iowa. 

We spent two nights in Iowa City. Although we had a full day in Iowa City, we decided to get some take out pizza and relax at the hotel for the day instead of doing anything of touristic value. We had several long travel days bookending the break in Iowa City, so we enjoyed the opportunity to “do nothing” for a day.

After leaving Iowa City, we continued east on a seven hour drive through the Quad Cities, Peoria, Illinois, and Indianapolis, Indiana before arriving at Dayton, Ohio for the evening. 

We had another two day stay booked in Dayton, Ohio. This was the last hotel of our entire trip! 


National Museum of the US Air Force

During our full day in Dayton, we spent several hours visiting the National Museum of the US Air Force. It’s one of the most impressive collections of aviation history that we have seen anywhere in the world. I would definitely put it on par with the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. And like the Smithsonian, the Air Force museum is totally free! 

Inside the Air Force Museum, there are four interconnected hangars full of hundreds of planes, drones, helicopters, missiles, and various other aeronautical devices.  Each successive hangar proceeds in chronological order from the origins of flight up through space exploration. 

The first hangar covers the early years of aviation history and World War II. The next hangar includes planes from Vietnam War and the Korean War. The third hangar covers the Cold War. After the third hangar you’ll find a dozen or so missiles in the Missile Gallery. 


Rockets and missiles in the Missile Gallery


The fourth hangar might be the most interesting. In there, we were able to walk through several planes formerly used to ferry the President of the United States around the country and the world. I learned this cool fact from a tour guide in the museum: The designation “Air Force One” is only used while the president is using that particular plane. When the president’s plane is off duty, it’s not technically Air Force One. 


Waving to my fellow Americans from my personal Air Force One


Also in the fourth hangar is a replica of the space shuttle with a series of controls and instruments displayed from the actual space shuttle. We also saw a ton of huge planes and jets in the “Global Reach” exhibit inside the fourth hangar. 

We toured the hangars in reverse chronological order, starting with the more modern fourth hangar and proceeding back in time toward the early days of aviation history in the first hangar. In total, we spent several hours walking among all the planes on exhibit but still didn’t see it all. It would be easy to spend the entire day here! 


The B-36 “Peacemaker” with a thermonuclear bomb to the left of the plane’s fuselage


After leaving the museum, we stopped by a local Chinese buffet for a late lunch. Once we had our fill (and then ate some more ice cream), we headed back to the hotel for the last night of our big summer 2021 road trip! 


Heading toward home – the drive from Dayton, Ohio to Raleigh, North Carolina

The next day, we expertly completed the morning departure routine one final time. Wake up, dine at the hotel breakfast buffet, pack up, and hit the road. The final destination: home! 

It’s about 8.5 hours from Dayton to Raleigh so we had another solid day of driving ahead of us. As we continued southeast through Ohio and into West Virginia, we eventually returned to the same route we took out west over six weeks earlier. It’s a nice feeling to be back on somewhat familiar roads! 

Over the next couple of hours, we passed through Virginia and then into North Carolina. When I stopped for gas near Mt. Airy, North Carolina, I knew we were almost home when I heard the locals speaking with that distinctive North Carolina drawl. Mah people! 

Another couple of hours from Mt. Airy and we were back in Raleigh. Home sweet home! 



On the final leg of our six week summer road trip, we spent six days driving the 2,200 miles east from Gardiner, Montana back home to Raleigh, North Carolina. Along the way, we visited Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the National Museum of the US Air Force.

Mount Rushmore was a quick stop where we checked out the massive carved stone heads of four former United States Presidents. 

We spent a lot more time touring the Badlands National Park. The colorful rolling hills dotting the landscape were a sight to behold! 

After leaving the Badlands and getting some sleep, we headed east and took a break in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at the Falls Park in downtown. The Big Sioux River bisects the city and produces a series of small waterfalls or rapids as it cascades over the rocks in the riverbed. 

Our final destination of the road trip was the National Museum of the US Air Force. We spent several hours wandering among the massive jets and other military aircraft, missiles, and smaller planes from the last century of aviation history. Whether you’re an aviation junkie or just like cool stuff, this museum has a lot to see for everyone. 


Which of the places that we visited on our road trip would you most like to visit? 


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  1. Coincidentally I am in South Dakota right now! Touring Wind Cave NP, Custer State Park and Badlands NP. The Black Hills area is really pretty this time of year.

  2. This part of the world is my neck of the woods. I was at Falls Park and ate at the Laotian restaurant about a month ago.

    You guys were clearly in a make miles mode. But Mount Rushmore is not the star of the Black Hills nor is Crazy Horse. IMO it’s Custer. So much hiking and nature. Better than many of the national parks.

    Is there a reason you are not campers? Much of this journey seems better suited to camping than hotels and teens can have their own tent.

    1. Yes! South Dakotan friends showed us the wonder of Custer State Park this summer on a cross-country drive (to move to NC coincidently). Even all the bikes from Sturgis couldn’t dampen our appreciation of this gem. While perhaps a little over-developed by National Park standards, the scenery and geology should qualify it for at least an East-of-the-Rockies National Park status. Also, I’ve now driven past Mt Rushmore twice and never stopped. No regrets!

      1. Oh you gotta go to Mt Rushmore at least once! It’s a tourist trap to behold! I just don’t think I’ll ever go again unless someone I’m with wants to visit. I can’t imagine driving 4-5 hours just to go visit Mt Rushmore, but it was worth the 20-30 minute deviation from our route along the interstate (and the scenery around it was nice too!)

    2. I looked at Custer just now and it does look pretty! We’ll have to stop by there if we ever make it to that part of the country again.

      We really were just trying to get home, and wanted to hit some of the more out of the way parks and attractions on the way back east. We had a TON of stuff planned all summer so we just didn’t have time to see everything of interest everywhere we went. It was tough to skip so many beautiful places but we got to see a nice sampling of different geographies and regions of the US along the way.

      We talked about camping a little bit. I’ve camped a ton in my earlier days, but can’t seem to get the rest of the family motivated. High standards for them – private bathrooms with hot showers, comfy beds, and no bugs. 🙂 This led to compromises since we had to find motels or hotels to sleep at night instead of staying in-park in some places where camping would have been more convenient. But it worked out pretty well overall. And we found really decent, but sometimes modest, motels to stay in when visiting the more out of the way national parks.

  3. I used to live in Dayton and worked on the design for the 4th Hangar addition several years ago. Last time we back to Dayton, we told my 8 yo daughter that we got into the museum for free because I worked on the project. Next time you go, you should ask for the Hangar 18 tour.

  4. I’ve enjoyed this blog series from you. I’m getting pointers for my family’s future out west trip. Did you book all your hotel stays prior to the trip?

    1. Yes, I booked ahead of time. Almost all were refundable. I’m glad I did since a lot of places filled up quickly, especially near the national parks.

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