My vote goes to Gros Ventre. Your camper is self-contained; the only reason you probably need hookups (every day) is for AC, and you can live just fine without that in Jackson Hole. Gros Ventre is close to Jackson and the whole valley.
Coulter Bay is nice too, but it's a long drive from there to Jackson.
Hwy 16 over the Bighorns is relatively easy. It's a 4-season, wide, 2-lane highway with few sharp curves and no really steep climbs or descents. The mountain driving is between Ten Sleep and Buffalo (about 60 miles). It's a pretty drive with lots of USFS campgrounds (no hookups), or if you need hookups there are commercial campgrounds in Buffalo (and I believe also in Ten Sleep).
I'd highly recommend camping in the Black Hills over the Badlands. One of our favorite spots is Devils Tower, WY, the nation's first national monument. We prefer the campgrounds within the "park's" borders, Belle Fourche River Campground, but if you need hookups, there's a KOA just outside the gate that's also nice.
Both routes have their advantages. I'd recommend 287, simply because it's a more (very) scenic route. It goes over a mountain pass, but it's not a steep grade to get there.
Is it just to Yellowstone and back? If so, take one route headed to Yellowstone and the other returning home.
If you have the time, I'd also recommend seeing the Black Hills and Big Horns coming or going.
No reservation spots in Yellowstone. Our reservation for Canyon Campground is Friday - Sunday night labor day weekend. Does anyone have a feeling for how hard it would be to find a First Come/First Serve or cancelled spot that allows generators on Labor Day and the next day?
I can't answer the question, but I have one for you to ponder: Why do you need a generator for two days? You won't likely need A.C. in Yellowstone unless you plan to spend sunny days in the camper. I've been RVing for decades and never owned a generator. We regularly spend 4-5 days at a spot (with two batteries) and get by fine. That's running the furnace every night to keep it 65 degrees inside. (OAT of 40-45 degrees.)
After Memorial Day most of the roads will be open except the high mountain passes. You'll probably want to enter Yellowstone via the west gate (West Yellowstone, ID). You don't mention how much time you have, but I'd normally leave Yellowstone through the east gate to Cody, maybe plan on a day in Cody, then take Hwy 16 over the Bighorns to Buffalo where you'd pick up I-90 to Rushmore.
If you like FS campgrounds, there are several nice ones in the Bighorns, or if you want hookups, Buffalo has some nice private campgrounds. Devils Tower National Monument, north of Moorcroft, is an interesting side trip and has a nice little park campground inside the monument borders or a good KOA just outside the entrance. From there you're only 2-3 hours from Rushmore and the SD Black Hills.
The Black Hills will be in full swing by then with everything open for the tourist season. I'd recommend at least visiting Custer State Park (incl. the Wildlife Loop), Jewel Cave, Crazy Horse Monument and several others, depending on your interests. Google it for ideas.
Leaving the Black Hills, plan a little side trip to SD Badlands NM an hour east of Rapid City and just off I-90 at Wall, SD. While at Wall, you should plan a stop at Wall Drug for any souvenirs you might want. It's the granddaddy of all tourist traps. I really think it's worth a stop -- breakfast, lunch, snack... whatever. I've found their prices reasonable for Black Hills Jewelry, wallets, even blue jeans, boots, etc., and cheap souvenirs of all kinds.
$80 for all 3 parks plus Rushmore and where ever else we go doesn't seem terrible.
It doesn't help for Rushmore. Rushmore is "free," just like it's always been. But 2-3 decades ago they built a big, new, multi-level parking lot at Rushmore, so now they charge you to park. :R No way to get around it. The parking pass is good for a year, so if you go during the day and decide you want to return for an evening lighting, at least they don't charge you again to park.
The Park pass will be good for Devils Tower, YNP, GTNP, Glacier, SD Badlands. I always bought one until I qualified for the old fogey pass.
I owned/drove a 2000 F250 with the camper special for 14+ years (just traded it off 2 months ago). I owned 3 different 5th wheels in that time, but none of them were anywhere near the weight you're talking about, and I wouldn't have considered it safe towing/hauling that much.
I'm not a mechanic, but I believe you could increase the safe carrying capacity quite a bit with new rims and tires. I had heavier-duty tires on mine -- the biggest I could go with the original rims. I did that for a little extra margin of safety but still kept my weights under the factory specs. HOWEVER, the only thing I'd consider as an adequate upgrade for that size 5th wheel would be to convert your F250 to a dually. A neighbor of mine did that. He found a wrecked F350 dually and switched axels, springs, rear end, wheels, tires and the bed (w/fenders), so he basically converted it to an F350 dually.
The west entrance doesn't open until Late April. Generally all training and orientation is done at the North Entrance that time of the year. That is probably where they will need to be if they are to report in early April.
The road between West Yellowstone and Madison is slated to open the same day as from Mammoth to Old Faithful and Norris to Canyon -- April 17. Of course that can change, but that's the current plan.
It's a flat and fairly straight highway from West Yellowstone to Madison as it follows the Madison River most of the way, on one side of the road or the other. It's the easiest road to Madison Campground -- by far.
So they'll probably want you to enter at Mammoth. :B
BTW, CloudDriver & geotex1, which route did you take? Using googlemaps it takes me through I80 W through IN and then I94 W the rest of the way. Is this the most direct route?
I'd stay on I-80 through Iowa. At the west edge of IA you'd take I-580 to I-29. (I-80 swings south at this point to Council Bluffs, IA and would add 40-50 miles to your trip.) I-29 follows the Missouri River Valley north through Sioux City, then on to Sioux Falls where you'd pick up I-90 west.
You could head up to I-90 just past Chicago, but the last time I was across Minnesota on I-90 the road was really rough. My wife came back from a trip to NJ with her son once and had to take that route because of flooding on I-80. She didn't like it at all, even after they finally found their way out of Chicago! ;)
EDIT: I agree wholeheartedly with everything stated above by CloudDriver.
My late wife was from Bergen County -- Westwood. She moved to Wyoming in 1992 and loved, loved, loved it! She had never before been west of Iowa and liked to relate how she'd moved to Wyoming because she'd heard there was a good-looking cowboy behind every tree. "Now imagine how I felt when I finally got here and there were no trees!"
She said she cried when she first saw the Missouri River crossing on I-90. She said it was the most beautiful sight she'd ever witnessed. And she marveled at our clear skies, both day and night -- clouds during the day and the stars at night. One cold winter day she came running into the house, grabbed me and tugged me outside. "What's that?!" she shrieked as she pointed to the moon. I looked at her quizzically and asked if she meant the moon. "It can't be the moon in the middle of the day! Can it?" Yes, in Wyoming it certainly can be. ;) I hope you enjoy your trip to the Mountain West.
If you have the time, try to spend at least a couple days in the SD Badlands and Black Hills. It's a great area for families and kids the ages of yours. Highlights would be Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse Monument, Custer State Park Wildlife Loop (bring carrots for the wild burros), Jewel Cave (especially on a rainy day), Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, and Devils Tower in the Wyoming Black Hills.
Other privately owned attractions that my family enjoyed include Bear Country USA, Reptile Gardens, gold panning (Lead or Hill City - can't recall which) and Trout Haven (fishing for the kids). Oh, and you've gotta stop at the granddaddy of all tourist traps, Wall Drug. It's unique. It's so bad, it's good! Find it just outside the west gate of Badlands National Monument in the tiny town of Wall.
Those are just a few of the most popular spots, but there are dozens more. It's the destination for roughly half the vacationers headed across I-90 in SD. Most of the others spend a day or two seeing a few highlights in the Hills, then continue on to Yellowstone. Naturally, those like you who are coming from a long distance want to see Yellowstone, whereas visitors from nearby are more apt to head back home after a week in the Black Hills.
I suggest you let your kids Google for attractions in the Black Hills and each pick one they want to see. In fact, let them do it for the whole route. They'll start looking forward to the trip and probably study a little about what they're going to see before you ever leave the house. It'll make it more fun and a better learning experience.
Hwy 14 would be much better. 14A is pretty steep and winding -- not recommended for towing much of anything. As mentioned above, Hwy 16 out of Buffalo would be a little easier than either one. Some will suggest going through Billings; I wouldn't unless mountain driving scares the bejesus out of you. It's much longer, and Hwy 16 is pretty easy -- a nice scenic mountain drive on a good highway. I've also been over Hwy 14 several times. I don't consider it a bad road at all, but mountain driving doesn't bother me. I enjoy it and have been driving mountains for most of 50 years.
Unless you take special steps to keep your weight down, you're sure to be over your "maximum" cargo weight. Empty the 5er's pin is 2045. AT LEAST 20% of its carrying capacity of 2380 (480 lbs) will go onto your hitch (which itself will be ~200 lbs.). That would put your truck 150 lbs. over its capacity right there, then add people and whatnot and you'd be well overweight.
Depending on the weight of your family and how much weight you'll put into the 5th wheel, it probably wouldn't be a rolling hazard, but it wouldn't be ideal either.
It's not the length of your truck, just its limited carrying capacity. It's an older truck, and payload capacity back in 2001 wasn't much compared to today's trucks.
Since you have kids... the Black Hills is really great for them.
Might I suggest that you let the kids do a little Googling of Glacier, Yellowstone and Black Hills. Let them help plan the vacation. They'll be more interested in it and get more out of it if they help plan it. As for how much time, I'd hate to say. For lots of vacationers it's the destination point. A week there wouldn't be unusual at all.
I'm sure you can order (free) vacation guides for Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota that will come packed with lots of popular tourist attractions including Yellowstone, Glacier and the Black Hills.
...Would it be better if we went to Utah and then up to Glacier?
That would be a much better plan, all else equal. Yellowstone, Teton NP, etc. would also be prime in June, but Glacier needs some time to get itself ready for July.
For several years I made an annual fishing trip to Glacier -- always the third week in July. I was also a VP for a couple businesses in the Flathead Valley, so it's not like I wasn't there other times of the year. But late July just seems perfect -- streams are down enough for fishing, up enough for floating, and have that mystical, milky-green glacial look to them. Plus that's when the bull trout were running on the Middle Fork. ;)
Sorry had brain freeze. Gillette not Cody. Southern route as in I70, i 74, i 80? I'll take a look thanks!
Well, assuming you stick with your plans for I-90 heading west, I'd suggest staying in Buffalo rather than Gillette.
I live in Gillette. It's a fine little city, but it's got nothing for campgrounds. The ones it has are usually nearly filled with full-timers doing construction work, etc. I hate to say this about the city I've spent most of my life in, but Buffalo has much nicer campgrounds.
Or take a slight excursion from Interstate driving and stay at the KOA at Devils Tower. It's just over an hour east of Gillette and would allow you to enjoy the nation's first national monument, then the first national park, all in the same week.
But if you don't plan to visit the Black Hills or Badlands during the trip, I-80 might make more sense.
I also hate to suggest that, because the Black Hills and Big Horn Mountains are both worthy of a visit, but I understand how we must budget our time. :) It's just unfortunate that vacations can't be 50 weeks long!
Day 14: I'd suggest taking Hwy 14 west from Sundance to Devils Tower, then return from the tower on 14 to Moorcroft (and I-90). It'll save you a few miles, and it's a nice drive. The only thing you'd miss, and probably not something you'd stop for anyway, is a dig at a bison jump just east of Beulah. Refuel at the truck stop in Moorcroft. It's usually the cheapest fuel in the region, especially if you can pay with cash (and MAYBE debit cards).
Devils Tower is a nice place to stop for the night. We usually stay at the park service campground (Belle Fourche River Campground), but the KOA is nice too. We stay there if it's extra hot and we want electric hookups.
It sounds like a great trip!
X2 on Belle Fourche River Campground. It's one of our favorite campgrounds. No hookups, but it's shady, quiet, cheap and beautiful. Each site has a picnic table and charcoal/wood grill, and most, if not all, are large enough for your coach. I'm thinking they're all pull-throughs.
...My suggestion would be to reverse the sequence to head west across TX to AZ and UT and work your way north to arrive in Yellowstone at the end of May to early June....
Late May to early June is a great time to be in Yellowstone. It will still be cool and some roads may still be closed, but most will be open. Better weather will be later, but it won't be getting crowded until late June. Early June is really a beautiful time of year in Yellowstone with lots of baby elk, etc. The main roads going into the park don't usually open until mid-April, if even then.