Welcome back! If you need to catch up on the background of this road trip across America, be sure to check out Trip Report: Part 1 which covers general details about the trip plus lots of preparation and planning tips as well.
This post will lay out our entire itinerary plus the details of each stop for the first week. I have written and re-written this post so many times because I’m trying to not overwhelm you, but also give you all the information you may want in planning your own trip someday. Ultimately, I decided to give an outline of the entire trip for those who just want a map, so to speak, and then lay out the details of just the first week. The next post will cover week two, and then week three, etc. In between, I will still be posting recipes and other goodies, so be sure to check those out. I just posted a delicious pork recipe that has been a hit with everyone in my house – and other guinea pigs as well! Be sure to try this one. It’s super easy!
Our exact route across the country and back has been a huge topic of interest to many people, and deservedly so. We really could have gone just about anywhere. We weren’t tied to airports or rental car agencies or even hotels. We were only limited by time. Consequently, this was absolutely one of the biggest tasks in planning the entire trip. We knew we wanted to get to Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, but we literally had the entire country between those places and our home in North Carolina so nailing down the route was a big undertaking. My priorities won’t necessarily be your priorities, but I’ll tell you what we did and why and hopefully that will help you should you want to plan such an adventure.
For those of you who just want to know where our stops were, here’s the outline:
July 2 – Raleigh, NC to Smoky Mountain National Park
July 3 – Hike in Smoky Mountains then drive to Mammoth Cave, KY
July 4 – Tour Mammoth Cave then drive to St. Louis, MO
July 5 – Morning at City Museum in St. Louis then drive to Springfield, IL to tour Lincoln home
July 6 – Drive to De Smet, SD with stopover for lunch in Kansas City, MO and ice cream in Omaha, NE
July 7 – Morning touring De Smet and all the Little House on the Prairie sites then drive to Lead, SD (Badlands/Black Hills area)
July 8-9 – Spent days touring Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Spearfish Falls, Lead/Deadwood, SD
July 10 – Drive to Grand Tetons National Park, specifically, we stayed in Wilson, WY, which is considered part of the Jackson Hole area
July 11-13 – Touring Grand Tetons National Park. Lots of hiking and picture taking!
July 14-16 – Touring Yellowstone National Park
July 17 – Drive to Whitefish, MT, on the outskirts of Glacier National Park
July 18-19 – Touring Glacier National Park
July 20 – Drive to Teddy Roosevelt National Park in Medora, ND
July 21 – Touring Teddy Roosevelt National Park and Medora
July 22 – Drive to Walnut Grove, MN to see more Little House on the Prairie sites.
July 23 – Saw the Little House sites in the morning then drove to Chicago. Toured around Chicago a bit that evening.
July 24 – Spent the morning along Lakeshore Drive, Millennium Park and Michigan Avenue. Then drove to Holland, MI where we camped for the night.
July 25 – Toured Windmill Gardens in Holland, MI and visited one of the beaches in the area. Then drove to Pittsburgh, PA.
July 26 – Left Pittsburgh in AM and drove to Williamsburg, VA. Spent the evening at Busch Gardens.
July 27 – All day at Busch Gardens
July 28 – Morning at Busch Gardens and then we very sadly drove home
And now for the long version if that interests you (it should 😉).
We set out from home on July 2nd. We chose this date because it was a Monday and we wanted one last Sunday at church before our trip. That’s it. Nothing super significant. We just had to pick a date and that’s why we chose July 2nd.
Day 1 – We left Raleigh and headed to Smoky Mountain National Park. We spent the night at Greenbrier Campground, which was located right by one of the entrances to the park. We set up camp, set off to do a little hiking then settled back into camp for the night. I will say that this particular location was not super close to the more popular hiking spots in the Smokies, but that was a-okay with us. We found a fairly secluded hike that meandered along a stream and some old homesteads (just rock foundations, steps and chimneys). That sort of historical stuff always intrigues me. I like to imagine the people who once lived there. Who were they? What was their life like?
Greenbrier Campground was pretty awesome. It is my experience that most (all) campgrounds are really geared toward RV campers, (not tent campers) and we are tent campers. So there will be about 90% or more of the available space dedicated to those big RVs. This particular campground was no different. The tent area was actually fairly set apart from the RV area on what they called an island. This was nice because it was quieter and the tent spots were right beside a stream so it was beautiful. The downside was that we could not drive to our campsite. We had to park and use wagons to load and unload all our stuff. If you’ve ever car camped, you know that it takes a lot of stuff. So that was mildly inconvenient. Everything else was great. The camp was beautiful and the bathrooms were the best I’ve ever seen (this is the true yardstick of all campgrounds for me). Each stall was private! With a shower, sink and toilet all in one. My home bathroom is not as nice. Just saying.
Sometimes you get lucky, and the campground has some awesome amenities. This particular place had so many games and activities for families to enjoy. With just staying one night, we didn’t have much time to take advantage of all the fun, but the kids did manage to get their work done quickly so they could squeeze in some classic video games (any other 80s children out there remember Atari?).
Day 2 – For this trip, every morning in the campground went like this: I always work up first and promptly my coffee started. My son would then quickly follow out of the tent (he’s an early riser like me). Then my daughter and husband would slowly and begrudgingly get out of bed. Once the gang was all up, I would get breakfast started while the kids packed up all the sleeping bags and pads and my husband took a shower. We would then eat breakfast, and while they finished taking down the tent and loading that in the car, I would do the dishes and take a quick shower. The kids are at the age now where they can be very helpful in the camping process. It made a huge difference on this trip and we’re very thankful. Camping is still a lot of work, but it’s something all four of us thoroughly enjoy. This whole process actually went so smoothly that we are pretty likely to travel this way in the future.
Once all packed up, we headed to the Sugarlands visitor center for information and then set off on another hike. The highlight here was a bear cub playing around in the grass right on the shoulder so we got a great view of him. We also found a lovely picnic spot, but our hike was not great. There were signs about bear activity and we were the only people on the trail. We hiked about a half mile and then I got pretty uncomfortable so we headed back. All the picnic tables were full so we just fixed our food to eat in the car and set off for Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.
I had written down all the addresses of the places we were staying so I’d have that in case we didn’t have a cell signal for directions. This was a great idea except that our campground for this night had a big notice on their website stating that GPS would be wrong and to follow their written directions. After about an hour of driving out of our way, we finally made it to Singing Hills Campground. I expected it to be cool and not humid, but the heat wave was in full effect here. Our campsite had zero shade (it was lovely, but no shade), the sun was blaring and we were dying just trying to set up the tent. Wonderful husband to the rescue! He set up the canopy to give us a little shade while I got dinner going and he and the kids got the tent and beds ready. After we ate, we headed out to see if we could find Mammoth Cave since it seemed to us that all GPS directions in this area were not accurate. The owner of the campground suggested we check out a local fudge shop so we definitely did that! About this time, the sky opened up and it poured for about 20 minutes, but we just hung out around the fudge and enjoyed chatting with the lovely lady there. She gave us a lot of information on the history of Mammoth Cave, which was an unexpected treat. And after rain comes rainbows!
We managed to find Mammoth Cave so we would know where we were going the next morning and thankfully, it was only about 15 minutes from our campsite. We headed back “home,” got ready for bed and planned to watch the fireworks from our campground, which the fudge lady told us would be possible. Unfortunately, there were just too many trees in just the wrong places, making it impossible to see the sparklers. It was fine with me though because it was still super hot and humid and I was just ready to call it a night.
Day 3 – Same morning routine as above. We had reserved tickets for a tour at Mammoth Cave at 9:30, but we were all up really early because of the heat and thankfully, we were able to exchange our tickets for an earlier tour. Dad and kids did the Domes and Dripstones tour. I tried to do it, but I am extremely claustrophobic and I just could not go in. The park rangers in charge of our tour could not have been more kind and understanding. They called me a bus so I could get a ride back to the visitors center. Thankfully, there is something called the Historic Entrance at Mammoth Cave and the ranger there let me go in since I had already purchased a ticked for a different tour. The historic entrance is just a big opening in the cave and there are signs and a couple rangers in there for a self-guided tour. I walked in happily because it was 100 degrees outside and super humid and it was 52 degrees in the cave. I knew I could turn around and walk out anytime I wanted and there were only two other people in there with me, which made this a totally bearable experience. Afterward, I met up with the family in the visitors center and my lovely husband confirmed that I had made the right choice in skipping their tour. I will say that going inside a cave was a novel experience and I’m very glad I found a way to do it, but I have zero interest in ever doing it again.
I realize these pictures are dark, but they are in a cave so I’m thankful they came out at all. I wanted to give you some idea of what you might see on this tour and how cramped it was in some places.
I walked in a great big opening and it was fairly non-claustrophic feeling inside the whole way.
We said goodby to Mammoth Cave and then drove on to St. Louis. This was July 4th so we were excited to be in a big city for the celebration. We stopped for a picnic lunch along the Ohio River in Owensboro, KY. There was an amazing waterfront park there with great big swings, an awesome playground and water splash area for kids. If I lived there, I would be at that park all the time. As long as it wasn’t 100 degrees. Did I mention it was hot? It was hot. Really, really hot. Like over 100 degrees hot.
We stayed at a Home to Home Suites in St. Louis, which I think was on the wrong side of the tracks. I loved the suite with practically a full kitchen, but was slightly frightened by our surroundings! We observed a lot of unsavory activity, but there was also a pretty active police presence so I guess it was ok?
After we unloaded the car, we drove downtown, ate dinner at a restaurant (woo hoo!) and then settled in at the Arch to watch the fireworks. We could have probably arrived much later, but we were happy to have a spot to camp out. There was an air show with some stunt planes, then parachuters. There was good people watching too! According to my daughter, the only downside was lots of smokers and lots of inappropriate clothing. She was right!! The fireworks show was amazing and even though I confess to being a little grouchy about having to wait so long in the heat, it was a good show and made my husband very happy. We high-tailed it out of there after the show. I was slightly frightened. St. Louis didn’t strike me as the safest city. It was a long day and we all slept like babies.
Day 4 – Morning in St. Louis – we visited the City Museum. All I can say is that this is not a museum like most people think of museums. It’s part playground, part fun house. All four of us had a blast! If you go, I suggest you wear pants and definitely don’t let your kids roam without you. There are many places where you can get lost. Tons of slides and many where from the top, you have no idea where the bottom is!
This picture is from the bottom of the 10 story slide. You climb up and up and up and up some more. I couldn’t go all the way because it got really tight, lots of people and dark and there was no clear exit. Those are no-nos for me! But my family did it several times.
See all that wire mesh looking stuff? You climb in and on and through all of that. It’s crazy!!!We had to tear ourselves away from all the fun to drive to Springfield, IL (this drive took us on Route 66, which was really cool). We arrived in town in time to squeeze in a tour of the Lincoln home and associated buildings in Springfield. We also visited the Lincoln grave site.
This is Mary Todd Lincoln’s bedroom, complete with one of her dresses laid out on the bed and many of her own furnishings.
This is Mrs. Lincoln’s stove! The very stove she cooked on while they lived in this house. I bet they had a fairly Paleo diet back then!
This is my very own road-side attraction. The martini-drinking pink elephant is pretty cute too.
We camped outside Springfield at the Double J Campground. We were the only tenters that night so had the whole tent area to ourselves. It was nice to be able to spread out a bit. But see how we’re right next to a cornfield? We were actually surrounded by cornfields. Something came running out of that field in the middle of the night with an enormous crash. I did not get a lot of sleep!
This campground also had a lot of stuff for the kids to do, including this giant-sized checker board. Those heavy buckets looked like too much work to me! Oh, and this place had really nice bathrooms too.
Day 5 – We packed up camp early and started our first very long drive – all the way to De Smet, SD – about 10 hours of drive time. We stopped in Kansas City, MO for a nice BBQ lunch, then drove into Kansas City, Kansas just to say we went to Kansas too. Then we stopped in Omaha, Nebraska in the afternoon for some keto ice cream! Our route actually took us right along the border of Nebraska, but my husband is trying to conquer all 50 states, so being that close to one, we had to go in. And I don’t like to do something without a purpose, so I made ice cream the purpose. 😊
Then we drove and drove some more! We went through Iowa, more Missouri and finally made it to South Dakota. Most of this drive took us along the Missouri River and the terrain was beautiful. Lots of rolling green and corn fields. You might be wondering what in the world is in De Smet, SD. Well, I’ll gladly tell you! It is the home of the Ingalls family homestead. You know, the Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie. If you only know the TV show, then you are missing out on a real treasure of the book series. Little Town on the Prairie, By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter are all set in De Smet, SD. We were able to camp on the prairie – the actual land that the Ingalls family staked their claim on in the 1800s. It was magical. Really, truly, this was an awesome experience. Even my boys were pretty impressed.
It got REALLY windy overnight, so I was up bright and early. My son got up with me and we ran around taking pictures of the sunrise. Can you see the tree beside the covered wagon? That is not a Dr. Seuss tree. It’s just really windy. It was breathtaking out there in the morning. So cool and crisp. If you are someone who “needs space,” it’s in De Smet, South Dakota. Seriously, this place makes you want to take a great big deep breath and take off running.
Day 6 – We spent the morning exploring the prairie and all the buildings there. They had the original shanty the Ingalls family inhabited on their claim, they had a replica sod house, a replica of the house Pa built and many more buildings. We LOVED this place. Then we went into town and saw the Surveyor’s house and Laura and Almonzo’s house and one of the school buildings in which Laura taught for a while. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please read the Little House books! As much as we loved this place, we had another medium sized drive over to the Badlands area of South Dakota so we tore ourselves away about lunch time.
This is the “claim shanty.” Can you imagine six people living in there? This map shows all the buildings and gives descriptions of what’s on the prairie. What the map doesn’t show is all the kittens that were roaming around. Made one little girl very happy. This is the inside of the sod dugout. Yes, it is literally dug out of the hillside and the walls are made of stacked sod. This is the outside of the dugout. Don’t you think this would make the perfect little girl’s play house? Only, it was the real house for six people! So apparently, this land used to be completely devoid of trees. When the Ingalls family arrived, there were absolutely no trees. Growing up in North Carolina, where we have trees all around us, that is hard for me to imagine. So Pa went someplace (I can’t remember where) and brought back one baby cottonwood tree for each of his girls and planted them right here. Yes, we are standing in front of the trees that Pa planted!
Between Little House land and the Badlands, we had to stop and see the Corn Palace and Wall Drug. These were quick stops, but we simply could not be in the area and not go! We arrived in Lead, SD around dinner time, checked into our hotel, which happened to be the Town Hall back in the gold boom days, then went out to dinner.
Day 7 – We took off early to explore Badlands National Park. I did not realize that the hotel I chose was two hours from Badlands. We drove right past it yesterday to get to this hotel! I thought Badlands, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse were all really close together, but they are not. My husband is the best sport in the world, so he said it was fine and never complained about all the driving. We ended up spending one very long day at Badlands because they were having an astronomy festival at night that he wanted to see.
The Badlands seriously look like something from another planet. I’m sure some episodes of Star Trek were filmed here! One of the cool things about this park, is that you can climb anywhere and everywhere. This does, of course, require some common sense, but if you possess some of that, it’s safe and a really nifty experience. (side note: apparently I said “nifty” too often on this trip and my son banned me from saying it anymore! Kids can be so bossy.)
After touring all of the National Park, we exited the park for another visit to Wall Drug. We were just killing time until dark when the astronomy festival began. We got a nice snack of homemade ice cream and wandered around this gigantic store. There were lots of historic photographs of the area, which were very interesting. Then we drove into Rapid City for dinner at Talley’s Silver Spoon. Then back to Badlands. We enjoyed the astronomy festival, getting to observe the Milky Way, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, some other galaxies besides the Milky Way, and a deteriorating star (I can’t remember the name for this.) The really cool thing about these festivals is that they are run by volunteers who just happen to love astronomy, so they’re very knowledgeable and love sharing their knowledge. We left for the drive back to the hotel around 11:00, making it back around 1 AM. My dear husband drove about eight hours that day and I am very thankful. One thing about driving in South Dakota – there are a lot of bugs! We were hitting so many bugs on our drive back that night that it sounded like rain. Disgusting!
Stay tuned for week 2 where we reach what I believe must be some of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth! Here’s a sneak peek: