When you are in the midst of child rearing you find it hard to believe the day will come when you will be free to indulge yourself in all the things you dream about. I grew up in a camping family but we tended to stay east of the Mississippi. In one of our trips we traveled from Chicago to Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and the Bay of Fundy; an epic trip for city kids. My parents dragged seven kids in the family wagon to some far out places but we never did the classic American road trip to see our most visited National Parks. With my youngest out of high school and working a full time summer job this is finally the summer that mom gets to take off.
Planning a four week road trip is something you must dig into early in the winter. I didn’t have to work hard at convincing my friend Mary to join me. Each of us planned to pull our own trailers on the four week trip. Because both of our husbands still work full time, the plan was that we would drive to the big destination and they would fly out and join us once we were there. In any big adventure you need a starting point and we started with determining our ultimate National Park and for this trip, Yellowstone was the winner!! Once there we would also visit the Tetons and Glacier National Parks. We would work our trip backwards to our starting point of New Jersey and figure out how long it would take us to get there and what we wanted to do along the way.
As we planned we were developing a formula for the way we wanted to travel. We wanted to have a “journey” rather than a “get there” mindset but we also didn’t want to spend too much time in our own neck of the woods. When planning a trip with a friend it’s a good idea to make sure you are on the same page about what you want out of the trip. Mary and I frequently travel together and I know that if I see a point of interest along the way that we didn’t see in our research that she will be on board for stopping and vice versa. A ‘go with the flow’ travel partner makes any trip better.
Our trip planning started with determining the number of miles for the trip and then dividing that by the number of hours we were willing to drive each day. From there we determined that we needed at least four weeks for this epic adventure. We both agreed that keeping it to a maximum of six hours of driving a day would make the trip less physically taxing but also allow room for stopping and smelling the roses along the way. Our first travel day was a six hour drive to our first stop at Beaver Creek State Park in East Liverpool, Ohio. We often camp there with many Ohio Girl Campers and we planned to stay there for three days and visit our friend Gail Bable* who is the Camp Host there. When we arrived we were thrilled to discover that Gail had planned a surprise camp out with a dozen of our Ohio Girl Camping buddies to give us a good send off on our grand adventure. We had a great few days catching up with old friends, sharing stories around the fire and getting tips from friends who had already traveled our route. One of the best things about having camping friends around the country is the knowledge we gain from their experiences. We left there with a few new stops on our list including the famous Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota, a tourist “must see” that did not disappoint.
From our stop in Ohio we made the 5 ½ hour drive to Elkhart, Indiana and the home of the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum. I stop there every time I am in Elkhart. The museum has a large collection of vintage trailers beautifully displayed including a trailer once used by Mae West. It is hard to pick a favorite among them but I always love looking at the original touring vehicles from the early 1920’s when seeing our National Parks by car and camping along the way was first done. Strolling through the museum and seeing the evolution of the travel trailer and motorhome industry and choosing a favorite era never gets old for me. Included in the museum is a wonderful display on the history of the RV and manufactured home industries as well as a resource library that Mary used to find information on her vintage 1953 King trailer. After a stop at the great gift shop we headed to our campground to rest up for a long drive the next day.
One of the things we accepted in the beginning of our planning was that it would not be possible to stop at all of the things we wanted to see. Two of the things we had to pass on for now were the childhood homes of Ronald Reagan and Laura Ingalls Wilder. We vowed to try and get them on the way home. Our other commitment was to try as many state parks as possible along the way and we used Wilson Island State Park in Coralville Lake, Iowa as our overnight stop before we turned north for Badlands National Park, our first park on the national parks tour. Wilson Island was off the beaten path for sure but I am so glad we went there. The park was nearly empty on the Tuesday night we were there and we got to enjoy sweeping views and a good ole Iowa thunderstorm. The park is nicely laid out with level sites and electric. No sewer or water at the campsites. The bathrooms were whistle clean and although we didn’t get to take advantage of the water rights we were told by fellow campers that is a great place to fish and boat. We had one more long driving day before we reached the Badlands where our stops between parks would be reduced to 2-3 hours of driving a day.
When researching this trip many RV bloggers and travel writers suggested that Badlands National Park could be done by simply pulling in and driving the scenic route without actually staying at the park. I am so glad that we did not do that! When we first pulled into the park on our eighth day on the road we felt transported to another world. The change in climate and geography was so profound. I pulled over at the first scenic overlook and Mary pulled in behind me. We took in the site before us and we both began crying! We were so happy to be there, so in awe of what we were looking at and just a little bit proud of ourselves for doing it alone! It’s a stunning drive through multi colored rock formations down to the floor of the park where the campground is. Each turn produces a new gasp at the beauty and grandeur of nature. I loved the campground where tents and motorhomes and travel trailers all mixed with ease. We chatted with our neighbors and watched a beautiful sunset while eating a late dinner. I had a site with no hookups and fell asleep with all the windows open watching distant lightning light up the night sky. I woke up at 2 AM flooded in moonlight from the full moon overhead. It was a perfect camping night and the following day we took the long lingering scenic ride out of the park stopping at all the overlooks and vowing to return to this wonder of nature.
Our next stop was the Blue Bell Campground at Custer State Park. This would be our launch site to Mt. Rushmore. What we did not realize when we booked the sites was that Blue Bell Campground was a nine mile drive up the mountain at Custer State Park. We went from the barren beauty of the Badlands to the lushest forest I’ve ever seen. The Black Hills are green and seem polka dotted with strategically placed evergreens that make it look almost like a movie set. In an effort to curb the spread of an invasive beetle that is killing trees the park service has been clearing the forest floor of the fallen diseased trees. Because so much sun light reaches the forest floor it looks carpeted with high green grass almost like an animation created forest. We set up and headed into the town of Custer for a bison burger before heading to the Crazy Horse monument on our way to Mt. Rushmore. Still a work in progress, the monument will depict the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse on his horse and pointing to a distant spot. I really enjoyed learning about the life and family of the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski. It is the largest mountain carving in the world and has been under construction using only private funds for 69 years. It was $28 per car load to get in and the museum contained many beautiful Native Indian artifacts and had a great look out patio to view the Crazy Horse sculpture.
From Crazy Horse we headed to Mt Rushmore for the evening lighting ceremony. It’s fair to characterize me as a sentimental patriot. I keep a playlist on my phone of all my favorite patriotic tunes from God Bless America to Take Me Out to the Ball Game. The evening ceremony at Mt. Rushmore includes a short documentary on the history and construction of the site as well as the biographical information on the four presidents depicted there and their devotion and dedication to the formation of this country. By the time the crowd rose to sing the National Anthem and the four figures were ceremoniously lit against the barely dark night sky I was not the only one there shedding tears of gratitude and pride. The veterans in the audience were honored and it was a somewhat hushed crowd that made its way to the parking lot when leaving. I was walking behind a little boy who was holding his grandfather’s hand. He kept saying, “Grandpa, you’re a veteran! You’re a veteran!” There was no reply from Grandpa and the little boy was too young to really know what his grandfather’s sacrifice meant. Perhaps one day he will be at Rushmore again and when they ask the veterans to stand and be honored he will know a little more clearly why they were asked to stand and be counted among the patriots who helped make this country what it is.
Tips for Planning a Bucket List Adventure
- Start early. We booked our reservations for the National Parks in January. July is the month in which the northern parks have their highest number of visitors.
- Apps, Maps and More. Take advantage of all the digital material out there but also get an old fashioned road map of each state you will travel to and trace your journey looking for those little known roadside stops that can make the experience so much richer.
- Decide what style of camping you want to do. Resort campgrounds or state parks each offer different things and it’s good to know ahead of time what kind of vacation you want to have and choose your campsites accordingly.
- Download the Apps you want to use ahead of time. There is very limited wifi services in most parks.
- Study the parks and points of interest before you go so you will know what you want to do when you get there, what the cost is and what kind of crowds to expect.