If you follow me on social media, you know that my family and I took a crazy road trip in July across the country. Many folks remarked "how awesome" it was to follow via social media, and also wondered how we pulled it off with 2 kids in tow. A former co-worker in September told me that she was inspired and wanted to do a similar trip with her family. However, she had lots of questions and concerns about how to pull it off. This topic was inspired from that conversation. This blog post will be long but provides plenty of great information on where to stay, what to eat, where to visit, and how we made it all the way back home with a 7- and 3-year old.
We had the pleasure of traveling from the Northern Woods of Wisconsin all the way back to the Pacific Northwest. In our 8-day journey, we travelled through 8 different states (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington). We had the pleasure of visiting 2 National Parks (Badlands and Yellowstone/Grand Tetons), 2 National Monuments (Mount Rushmore and Devil's Tower), and 2 South Dakota state parks (Newton Hills State Park and Custer State Park). We spent three nights camping, and also spent a night in a teepee, cabin, dude ranch, and hotel. We drove 2600 miles total, listened to 4 E-books (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Danny the Champion of the World, Beezus & Ramona, and A Wrinkle in Time), lots of Sirius XM stations (Sia and Sean Paul's Cheap Thrill, Justin Timberlake's "Cant stop the feeling," and Coldplay's "Hymn for the Weekend" were on constant rotation), and my family had a blast.
Logistical Issues -
One of the issues faced was wanting to camp, but camping requires a lot of things - tent, sleeping bags, mattress pads, hammocks, grill, propane tanks, and more. (For an extensive list of things for camping, please refer to the REI checklist here.) This logistical issue presented a challenge as it also affected how I was going to make it to Wisconsin in the 1st place. There were 3 different ways that I could make it there: 1) Driving, 2) Flying, or 3) Train. Driving or taking the train would help as it would allow me to transport all of our camping gear. The downside would be driving (28 hours) or taking the train (34 hours) solo. Shipping all of this stuff by plane would be cost prohibitive.
Thankfully, when I dropped my family off at Amtrak the week before, I ran into a very nice Amtrak employee who told me about Amtrak Express - he goes camping often, and ships his things so he doesn't have to drive long distances to camp. He could fly to a location, have all of his camping gear available, and ship it back. All of our camping stuff fit in 4 boxes (180 lbs) and shipped for $113 from King Street Station, Seattle and delivered to St. Paul, Minnesota in 2 days. Shipping via Amtrak Express was the best option as it saved me lots of time and effort. I decided to fly into Minneapolis and had to spend the night using AirB&B due to my late arrival. In the morning, took a Lyft to the rental car facility, drove to the St. Paul train station and then made my way to Minocqua, Wisconsin for 2 days before taking a family trip to remember.
Another issue was a one-way rental car reservation - looking at renting a car from an airport and returning to SeaTac was running $1200-1500 one-way. I looked at flying into Minneapolis, Milwaukee, or Chicago. Taking a cab/Lyft/Uber to another rental car station can save you lots of money. What originally cost $1500 (Milwaukee was the most expensive) ended up costing $568 because I traveled to a non-airport location. A similar situation happened before flying into Tampa airport where a week-long reservation was running $700, but going off-site costs $200. Yes, it's a pain to go off-site but the savings can be huge.
Day 1 (07/11/2016)- Minocqua, Wisconsin to Canton, South Dakota
To spend adequate time in destinations further down the road, we had to make a large dent the first day. Our goal was to make it to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 8 hours away. Looking at options, my wife found a state park outside Sioux Falls where we could spend a night in a cabin. We ate lunch at an A&W outside of Minneapolis, MN and entered the NW corner of Iowa before making it to Newton Hills State Park in Canton South Dakota. We swam in Lake Lakota that evening, and cooked dinner. We were very thankful for the air condition in our cabin as it was quite warm and muggy. Day 1 down, 526 miles in the books.
Day 2 (07/12/2016) - Canton, South Dakota to the Badlands
After making breakfast, we quickly went on 2 walks in Newton Hill State Park. Initially our goal was to make it to Mount Rushmore to camp for the night. We found out that South Dakota is a very large state.
Our first stop was to Sioux Falls, SD to see the beautiful Falls Park and had lunch at the Falls Overlook Cafe. Afterwards, we stopped at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD. For an early dinner, we ate broasted chicken at this cute restaurant in Murdo, South Dakota called Murdo Drive-In, and decided to drive through the Badlands National Park. This park was beautiful, stunning, and out of this world. Pictures do not do it justice - you really must go visit this national park.
After driving through the upper portion of the park, it was getting late and we had to make a decision about either setting up a tent in the dark near Mount Rushmore, or staying at a free campground in the Badlands. Setting up a tent in the dark is no fun, so we decided to go to the free campground in the Badlands. There is one free campground at the Badlands located in the Sage Creek Valley area. We showed up and many people had the same idea. We set up our tent and watched the sun set on an a beautiful summer evening. Bison normally roam through the campground but no luck for us (not yet at least). The stars were amazing, and during the night we heard several coyotes howling to each other). Day 2 down, 357 miles in the books.
Day 3 (07/13/2016) - Badlands -> Mount Rushmore -> Devil's Tower
We had to make up some ground on Day 3 as we did not make it to Mount Rushmore. However, the benefit was we got to spend some extra time in the Badlands (blessing in disguise). On our way out, we got to see a number of prairie dogs in Robert's Prairie Dog Town and also got to see a herd of bison roaming through the less visited portion of the park along Sage Creek Rim Road. We definitely want to come back and spend more time in this beautiful park.
Our first stop of the day was at Wall Drug (right outside of Badlands National Park) in Wall, South Dakota. We had to stop after seeing multiple highway signs for hundreds of miles publicizing free iced water, 5-cent coffee, and delicious donuts. Afterward, we headed to Rapid City, South Dakota with our goal of traveling the Needles Highway (a 14 mile drive through beautiful terrain ) in Custer State Park, before going to see Mount Rushmore. After driving the Needles Highway, we decided to have lunch in Hill City and ate at Bumpin Buffalo Bar & Grill before making our way up to Mount Rushmore,
Mount Rushmore was a beautiful sight to see with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt chiseled on the mountain-side. However, two things irked us: 1) $11 to park (you can come back during the year in the same vehicle - we had a rental car so that wasn't going to work, and 2) it felt like an amusement park with $6.00 ice cream cones and lots of souvenirs. Besides those two things, I did enjoy this wonderful piece of American history
Afterwards, we made the trek to Devil's Tower and finally made it out of the state of South Dakota and entered Wyoming. South Dakota was a huge and beautiful state and we were relieved to make it into Wyoming. Our destination was Devil's Tower Tipi Camping, a beautiful place 2-3 miles away from the Devil's Tower. We spent the night in a 14' foot teepee with 3 beds, a stove, and more (semi-camping). Seeing the Devil's Tower from Devil's Canyon (at the edge of the property) was amazing and surreal. We cooked dinner and called it a night. Day 3 complete, 277 miles in the books.
Day 4 (07/14/2016) - Devil's Tower -> Bill Cody Ranch
We woke up relatively early, made a quick breakfast, packed the car and said goodbye to our lovely host Juliana from Devil's Tower Tipi Camping, Our next stop was the Devil's Tower National Monument. It is truly a sight to see - as Louis Armstrong sang, "what a wonderful world." The scenery was surreal and mysterious - a patch of rock about the size of a football field thrusted almost 900 feet into the sky surrounded by plains and valleys. We did a hike around the base - the nice and easy Tower Trail, 1.3 miles in distance. My wife and son climbed up and over the rocks to the base where you need a permit to climb higher.
On we drove to Bill Cody Ranch outside of Cody, Wyoming. and had the pleasure of driving through the beautiful state of Wyoming. Our first stop was in Gillette, Wyoming at the Coop Rotisserie Restaurant for yummy tacos and rotisserie chicken. We hit the road and kept driving through the Bighorn National Forest on the Cloud Peak Skyway, through Ten Sleep Canyon. Unfortunately, this would be another place to go visit again as the drive through Ten Sleep Canyon was breath-taking.
We were so excited and relieved to make it to Bill Cody Ranch. After 4 days of driving in a car and 3 nights in a cabin, tent, and a tee-pee, we were all beginning to feel/smell a bit ripe. We were able to freshen up and take a hot shower and have a delicious meal. Day 4 was a great success with 325 miles in the books.
Day 5 (07/15/2016) - Bill Cody Ranch -> Yellowstone National Park
After feeling refreshed, we woke up and had a delicious breakfast and then Danielle and Matteo took a 2-hour horse-ride while Mina got to take a 30-minute pony ride. Afterwards, we made our way into Yellowstone National Park. Due to our entering the park on Friday, we ran the risk of not finding a campsite. Our initial plan was to drive through and camp in Grand Tetons National Park and spend some time in both parks. Unfortunately, we arrived too late and were thankful to find an camping site between both parks at Flagg Ranch. The campsite was $35.00 per night but includes restrooms and showers. A great place to camp if you plan on spending time in both parks, but was a bit far to do the upper portion of Yellowstone.
After setting up our campsite, it was about 3:45 in the afternoon and we were trying to find something fun to do. I went over to Flagg Ranch and asked a couple of staff members of a good place to go swimming or fishing. The staff person told me we had two choices for swimming - the Snake River or we could go hike to a hot spring. We chose the latter option and ended up taking a short hike to Polecat Hot Springs. There we were soaking in hot springs with a creek passing by with a beautiful meadow across from us and the Grand Tetons off in the distance - pictures can't do it justice. I recommend bringing sandals as you do have to cross the creek but was a great find for our trip. Afterwards, we cooked dinner and called it a night. The next 2 days were all about Yellowstone. Day 5 complete.
Day 6 (07/16/2016) - Yellowstone National Park
There are not enough adjectives in the English dictionary to describe Yellowstone National Park. What is both exhilarating and terrifying is the fact that while you are enjoying the amenities of this park, you are sitting on a super-volcano (no big deal!!!). The abundance of wild-life - grizzly bears (we did not see one :( although I would prefer to see from afar), moose (we saw one large moose), bison (way too many-to-count with our favorite as we entered Yellowstone on the side of the road basically welcoming us to the park) and more. Then throw in the geysers, hot springs, and mudpots. Clearly, this place is large and massive and you need to spend a week checking it out. The national park website does a great job of describing things to do in the park, check it out here.
We traveled the loop around clockwise from Flagg Ranch, to Old Faithful and the upper geyser basin, Artists Paint Pots, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Mud Volcano, and back to Flagg Ranch. So many sights to see and not enough time. One highlight of the trip was the coffee stand at Old Faithful Inn. Located upstairs on the 2nd floor, this was the first time in a week that we had good coffee. The latte was yummy and this is a must-stop destination (the geysers and the rest of the park are clearly not a priority ;) in my book).
Darwin Award - As an aside, one issue I have with tourists are the people who are potential Darwin Award winners. All throughout the park, the National Park Service clearly advertises that everyone should be mindful while enjoying this beautiful park. While viewing the geysers and mudpots, we had a life-lock grip on our children's hands. A month prior to our trip, this article in the Washington Post came out which described the 2nd fatal event from the thermal features for 2016. "Signs litter such areas throughout the park, warning visitors to remain on boardwalks and keep pets away. Yet there’s something about the technicolor springs that lures otherwise rational observers toward their magnetic depths." The best potential award recipients are the people who take pictures of animals from a very-close range. Yes, the pictures may be amazing but we place the animals and ourselves at risk. There were a couple taking photographs in the middle of the meadow about 20 yards away from a bison. Just don't do it.
Overall, we were left with a feeling of awe - we were able to experience so much of this beautiful and majestic park, but at the same time know we were just barely scratching at the surface. My wife and I agreed we will need to come back and spend a week here next time. We cooked dinner, had a nice fire, and went to bed knowing that in the morning, we would be packing up and getting closer to home.
Day 7 (07/17/2016) - Leaving Yellowstone National Park and driving to Missoula, Montana
We were 12 hours and 37 minutes away from Seattle and had to split this drive in half. We decided our best place to crash for the night was in Missoula, Montana. So we packed up our camping stuff, reorganized our stuff into the car and hit the road. On the way out, we stopped at the coffee stand at Old Faithful Inn (always have to stop for good coffee), and make the trek out. Right before our exit out of Madison, we were stopped by a herd of bison.
As we drove west out of the park, we entered the state of Montana and began to get hungry for lunch. The first town out of Yellowstone is appropriately named "West Yellowstone." We stopped at Beartooth BBQ - the pulled pork sandwich was very tasty. It was a quick stop as we had 2 days to drive back to Seattle ~ 746 miles to go. Montana is called Big Sky Country due to it's lack of population and large buildings, you can see for miles and miles. Our goal for the day was to make it Missoula, Montana. My wife found a Wingate by Wyndham which had a water park inside and also served continental breakfast. We arrived and surprised the kids with a water park for being such great sports over the past 7 days. We all had fun going down the slides, ordered pizza and called it a night.
Day 8 (07/18/2016) - Missoula, Montana back to the Emerald City
The last day of the trip was exciting but also challenging as we had 477 miles to go ~ 7 hours. We woke up and enjoyed the continental breakfast. My children were in awe of the various offerings at a continental breakfast. It made me realize that we rarely stay in hotels. My son remarked how "everything" was the best thing ever. We went back into the waterpark for an hour, packed up the car and hit the road with the 1st goal of reaching Spokane, Washington. We stopped at Picabu Bistro - the garlic chicken melt was delicious. Afterwards, got a latte as we were back in Washington state, and hit the road (286 miles to go).
This was our second time on the eastern side of Washington state (our first was going to Moses Lake for the Grant County Fair and staying at Cave B Inn on the Columbia River Gorge in 2013 when Mina was an infant). The best feeling of the trip was when we went over the Cascade Mountains and reached Snoqualmie Pass. We went from dry and warm to cloudy and cool. It felt great to be back in Western Washington, 60 miles from our house. As for timing, we entered Seattle at rush hour but made it back home by 6 PM.
Final thoughts on the trip
This was a wonderful experience overall.
Prior to this trip, the largest trip we have taken as a family was to Cannon Beach (about 4 hours away). This was going to be a daunting trip with multiple 5+ hour days. Keeping the kids engaged was a must with audiobooks, treats, drinks, and patience as tiny bladders need to be relieved often.
So many fun memories were had by our children - we camped, spent the night in a teepee, swam in a lake and hotspring, and ate yummy food. Our only issue was we wish we had more time to enjoy the sights and scenery. We definitely want to do another trip like this again - perhaps travel from Southern California back up to Seattle going up along the coast near Big Sur, Yosemite, Crater Lake, and work our way back to the Emerald City. We also would like to go back to the Badlands (3-4 days) and Yellowstone/Grand Tetons (1 week)
So, in conclusion - don't be afraid to challenge yourself, especially if you have children. This trip felt daunting, but with some good preparation, we were able to make it happen and became closer as a family. Truly, it was a trip to remember!!!
Angel Planells MS, RDN CD is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist residing in Seattle, Washington. He specializes in lifecycle nutrition, sports nutrition, and weight management.