One of the best road trips from Denver: Badlands and Black Hills, Wind Cave NPS, Devils Tower, and more

The Old West capital of Colorado, Denver is the perfect starting point for two or four-wheeled riffs into the outlying region. With a craft beer scene like no other and nightly mischief screened by the rugged Rocky Mountains, Denver is a utopia for unconventional travellers and locals alike. Whether you want artsy coffee mornings in the city or serene camping breaks in the wilderness, Denver and its surroundings are ready to serve you. Our itinerary features a mashup of the best road trips from Denver, starting in the Coloradan capital before mapping north to the neighbouring states of Wyoming and South Dakota. Check it out.

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Photo: Pieter van de Sande

Denver, Colorado

Catering to outdoorsy types with its great weather and mix of recreational opportunities, Denver is an attractive city break for all. Home to a diverse population of laid-back craft beer brewers, Denver has been labelled as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the US and is gradually making a name for itself. Arts, culture and a growing culinary scene span citywide, but it is downtown where the night comes alive with bars and clubs hosting the city’s busy gay events calendar. Denver offers authenticity in spades, whether at hole-in-the-wall eateries or the eclectic bars and night clubs around East Colfax Avenue. When you’re feeling in need of a drink in good company, pick a watering hole on our list of the best gay bars in Denver.

While there are many things to do in Denver – such as vaping legal weed with hunky bearded locals – don’t forget to venture out into the suburbs and mountainous surroundings. Seated in the foothills of the Rockies, Denver is stunning from any angle, with camping, skiing, snowboarding, hiking and fishing all within reach. Hire a rental and explore the city in its entirety, 600 glorious miles in any direction.

Denver | Photo: Cassie Gallegos

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More than just a city of gunslingers on the edge of the plains, Cheyenne is now home to a welcoming art community with great shopping, dining and outdoor adventure to be had

Cheyenne, Wyoming 

The first leg of our road trip takes us cross-state to Cheyenne (2 hours from Denver via I-25 North), the capital city of Wyoming and embodiment of the Old West. The epicentre of American rodeo and railroads, Cheyenne is positively packed with museums, attractions, resorts and ranches all serving Wild West enthusiasts. Book a stay at one to the city’s historic hotels in order to delve deeper into Cheyenne’s appeal. Despite lacking a polished look, Cheyenne will wow you with its windswept ruggedness and good-humoured charm. More than just a city of gunslingers on the edge of the plains, Cheyenne is now home to a welcoming art community with great shopping, dining and outdoor adventure to be had. Choose from swimming, skating, golfing, paddle boating and hiking, or learn more about Western history on a walking tour around the historic district. Alternatively, on a rare bad weather day, check out the Cheyenne Frontier Days’ Old West Museum and the Cheyenne Depot Museum.

Photo: Pieter van de Sande

Photo: Els Fattah

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

From Cheyenne, we rise early to make the epic journey through to South Dakota (4.5 hours via NE-87 North), home of the Badlands National Park. Savour the arid landscape of canyons, spires and buttes on the drive before stopping to rest near the entrance to Badlands, or setting up camp within Cedar Pass or Sage Creek. Wild ones may even want to go it alone by pitching up anywhere in the backcountry. Somewhat secluded, the number of motels within the park is limited, but the boundless wilderness outside more than makes up for it.

The next day sets us loose on the park’s 244,000 acres, accessed via the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway. Marvel at the otherworldly scenery while keeping an eye out for wildlife both dead and alive! Fossil hunting is a pastime in this region where three-toed horses and sabre-toothed big cats have been discovered.

Badlands National Park | Photo: Luke Wass

Wind Cave National Park

From the rolling Badlands to the darker, cooler climes of South Dakota caves, we travel just over 1 hour (via BIA 2 and Riverside Road) to Wind Cave National Park. Boasting more rare boxwork caves than anywhere else in the world, this park is also a wildlife sanctuary spanning over 33,000 acres of pine forest and grass prairie. Stealthy visitors at ground level may catch sight of American bison, deer, elk and prairie dogs, while underground across the 150-mile wind cave trail, you’ll find hexagonal calcite fins and countless minerals embedded in rock. Protected since 1903 and considered sacred by Native Americans, Wind Cave National Park has a terrain that is so diverse as to hold two ecosystems side by side, becoming a refuge for many types of wildlife and plant communities.

If time is short, there’s the option to skip Wind Cave, opting instead to linger on the drive from Mount Rushmore to Badlands National Park or vice versa. This route is one you won’t want to miss, allowing for moving vistas across South Dakota’s dreamlike landscape of plains which merge with prairie before rising into mountains.

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You’ll be spoilt for choice for things to do around Mt Rushmore, as the area caters to around 3 million visitors each year, with numbers peaking in Summer

Mount Rushmore | Photo: Pete Linforth

Mount Rushmore

With a journey time of only 45 minutes from Wind Cave National Park (via US-385 North and US-16 East), visiting Mount Rushmore is a breeze. If the names of the five US presidents engraved into the lofty granite cliffs of Mount Rushmore elude you, then a trip to the memorial will fill you in, detailing how the Borglum masterpiece took 14 years to build using dynamite, chisels and upwards of 400 labourers. As well as the educational visitor centre, museum and audio tour, while away a few extra hours with a walking tour along the Presidential Trail, or check out the Youth Exploration Area and Sculptor’s Studio. You’ll be spoilt for choice for things to do around Mt Rushmore, as the area caters to around 3 million visitors each year, with numbers peaking in Summer. May, September and October are ideal months to visit, as everything remains open and crowds are fewer. Find a café, gift shop and ice cream vendor on-site, or take the 30 miles west into Rapid City, South Dakota’s second city, or go east further into the arms of Black Hills National Forest.

Black Hills

While Mount Rushmore is a part of Black Hills, it is only a very small part of a whopping 1.25 million-acre forest! The Black Hills National Forest in its entirety is best visited between May and September, and a great way to escape the crowds storming Mount Rushmore in summer. Explore the impressive cave systems that run beneath the hills, particularly Jewel Cave which comes plastered in calcite crystals. Out in the open meanwhile, drive along Highway 385’s ‘wine trail’ which will take you between five different wineries to taste grape and native fruit wines such as plum and chokecherry. Beer drinkers also have the option to indulge in a visit to a brewery, either in the Black Hills or Rapid City.

Another local attraction known by climbers and sightseers is the ‘Needles of Black Hills’, a cluster of eroded granite pillars, spires and towers within Custer State Park. Look for Needles Black Hills poking up along the Needles Highway in the Black Hills region.

Photo: Holly Mandarich

Devils Tower, Wyoming

Our final leg takes us to the north-eastern prairies of Wyoming for a Devils Tower visit. A two-hour drive from Black Hills (on the WY-585 North), Devils Tower National Monument is easy to spot. As you approach you’ll be greeted by an 867-foot stone column rising from nowhere, a site of Native American and cultural importance. The pillar itself is made from a large laccolithic butte, formed as part of the Bear Mountains within the Black Hills, despite lying outside of South Dakota. Respect tribal worshipers on your visit, opting to explore the 8 miles of trails winding through the meadows and forests either side of the monument.

While climbing to the top of Devils Tower is reserved for the most fearless crack climbers (outside of June), there are a number of challenging hikes worth attempting. Seek the Circle of Sacred Smoke sculpture or don your salopettes in winter for a leisurely bit of cross country skiing. Those staying longer should drop in on a short ranger talk to learn about the free guided activities running in summer and fall or take a picnic to the Devils Tower campground amphitheatre to enjoy the evening line-up.

Photo: Jordan Mcqueen

Devils Tower | Photo: Todd Trapani

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