Wild West Road Trip {Days 30-35}


After two and a half years of planning and saving, we finally took our big Wild West Road Trip in July! We drove 8,775 miles over 35 days, spent 203 hours in the van, stayed in 26 different hotels/cabins/Airbnbs, and visited 12 national parks, 1 national historic site, 4 national monuments, 2 tribal parks, and 16 states! It was a crazy awesome trip - of course there were a few rough patches here and there, but overall it was amazing to spend so much uninterrupted time with my favorite people and having such gorgeous views made it even better!

I'll eventually get through blogging the whole trip, because so many people have asked for details, but it's going to take a while to get through it all! By the way, some of these photos I'm posting were taken by my husband - he has a great eye and he took a TON of photos! 

If you want to see more of the story, start here for Day 1!

Select landscape prints are available here

Day 30

We left Gardiner, Montana fairly early in the morning and drove to Rockerville, South Dakota with a stop at Devils Tower. The drive through Montana and northeast Wyoming was beautiful, but for some reason I didn't take any photos of it. Kind of regretting that now.

Devils Tower was a really interesting place. There are several different legends about how it was formed, all involving bears. You can read about them here if you're interested. The name Devils Tower actually came from a bad translation - the Lakota call it Mato Tipila, which means "Bear Lodge" but it was somehow translated as "bad god's tower" and the name stuck. It's actually a pretty interesting story and you can read more about it here.

The area is considered sacred to several different Native American tribes. Those are prayer cloths in the trees and there are signs saying to not disturb them.

Devils Tower was much bigger than I expected and the kids and Daniel had a blast climbing up the boulders to the base of the tower. The photo above left was taken from the top of the boulder field.

We saw a bunch of prairie dogs in a field near the entrance and we stopped to watch them for a while. They were pretty cute!

Day 31

The next day was Sunday, so we started with church. We went to one of those huge churches with a worship service that felt more like a concert. The music was fine, the sermon was good, but we learned that we definitely prefer smaller churches!

We had lunch at Sickie's Garage in Rapid City. We had to wait quite a while for a table, but it was worth it. They had over 50 different burgers on the menu. I don't remember which ones we got, but it was delicious. I highly recommend this place!

Next up was a quick stop at Crazy Horse Memorial. It was kind of cool, but maybe not worth the cost of admission. We checked out the visitor center and snapped a few photos, but we didn't stay too long. We got a cool rock there though! They have a big bin of them in the visitor center and I don't remember if there was a price or just a donation box, but we got a really cool rock for just a couple of dollars. It's rock from blasting out the mountain for the sculpture and it has these cool shiny flecks in it.

After Crazy Horse we went to Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. We originally planned to do the Sunday Gulch Trail, but decided to just walk around the lake instead. I think we ended up doing a small portion of the trail at one end of the lake, but not the part I really wanted to see.

There were lots of people swimming in the lake, but the trail didn't seem crowded.

Up next was a drive on Needles Highway. I didn't tell Daniel much about this road before we went. I knew he'd love it and I wanted him to be surprised. He did love it, of course - there were awesome views, pigtail bridges, and several tunnels. At the end of one of the tunnels there's a really cool view of Mount Rushmore, but I wasn't prepared to get a photo and there was nowhere to turn around to try again. But it was cool. Some of the tunnels were so narrow that you could reach out the window and touch the rock, and the Needles Eye Tunnel is so narrow that I was actually worried that the van wouldn't fit through it.

Mount Rushmore was really cool. I don't think I would make it an actual destination, but as a stop along the way to somewhere else it was definitely worth seeing. Our first stop after getting our National Park Passports stamped was getting some ice cream. They sell vanilla ice cream based on Thomas Jefferson's original recipe, and it was literally the best ice cream I've ever had - and I've had a lot of ice cream, it's my favorite food!  Daniel didn't realize that only the vanilla was the original recipe so he got strawberry and was disappointed. We walked the Presidential Trail, which has signs with information about the presidents chosen for the sculpture and different views of the sculpture. After that we rushed back for the lighting ceremony. Every night they have a talk by a ranger, recognize veterans, and as the crowd sings The Star Spangled Banner, they light the sculpture. I don't think the kids were super impressed, but I had goosebumps.

Notice Daniel's "Broosevelt" shirt in that photo!

Day 32

The next day, we had a long drive ahead of us to get from the Black Hills to Bloomington, Minnesota. Our first stop was Wall Drug. This store started out as a drug store back in the Great Depression, and the owners were struggling to get business. They had the great idea to post signs along the road advertising free ice water, which was not a common thing back then. It worked, and it's grown much bigger since then. It takes up a whole block and is has several different gift shops and restaurants in the building and a cool backyard with photo ops, various attractions, and of course a water fountain. You could easily spend several hours here but we tried to be quick!

Badlands National Park wasn't a place I ever really thought about going, but when a national park is literally directly on the route you're going to be taking anyway, you stop! It was so much prettier than I expected and I wish we had more time here, but we literally just drove through, stopping just for a picnic, a few photos (few meaning about 200), and a stop at the visitor center to stamp our books. I wanted to to a short trail, but Abbie didn't feel good that day so we skipped it.

The rest of our day was spent driving. After leaving Badlands we still had about 8 hours of driving before stopping for the night in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Day 33

We finished off our month of seeing America's natural wonders with a bit of American consumerism. Yup, we spent the whole day at the Mall of America. Fifteen hours, to be exact. We got there shortly after they opening, shopped until they closed, then ate supper and watched a movie in the theater there (which I slept through - the seats reclined and I was tired!). This was one of my least favorite days (I hate shopping) but the kids loved it. Jack and Jonah saved up most of their money for the Lego Store, and we bought all the kids back to school clothes here. We figured we had to buy them anyway so we might as well make it a fun experience, and thanks to back to school sales and Minnesota's no sales tax on clothes and shoes policy, we found some pretty good deals.

We ate lunch at Wahlburgers and it was pretty good. We had to get a photo of Daniel with the cutout because Abbie's best friend Kayle calls him Mark because she says he looks just like Mark Wahlberg. I don't see it, but she swears he does.

There's a little amusement park in the middle of the mall! Abbie and Jonah were the only ones interested, so I took them to ride a few rides.

Day 34

The next day, we had about a seven hour drive to Chicago. When we started to load the van up, we realized that we didn't have room for the stuff we had bought at the mall. Since we were almost home anyway, we emptied out the coolers (we were mostly down to a few drinks by that point anyway) and packed their new clothes in the coolers on the back of the van. Maybe a little weird, but it worked!

We couldn't drive through Wisconsin without stopping for some cheese!

Just a cool truck I liked on the highway - check out the back.

Due to sitting in traffic for well over an hour in Chicago, it was sunset by the time we made it to Navy Pier. They shoot off fireworks there every Wednesday and Saturday all summer, so we made sure to plan to be there on Wednesday because we thought that would be a great way to end the trip. We've been there for fireworks before and always watch them from the pier, but this time we decided to take a boat ride to watch them from the lake. It was really cool. It was hard to take a good photo of the fireworks on a moving boat, but hey - photos aren't everything.

We ate at Giordano's at Navy Pier for a late supper and it was amazing as always.

Day 35

The next morning we walked from our hotel over to the lake for a few photos. We've made a trip to Lake Michigan every year since 2012 and this is the first year that we didn't actually get in. We thought about stopping at a beach, but by this point everyone was just kind of ready to get home - especially Abbie, because the Back to School Dance was that night. So we just took a few photos, then drove to the sign at the start of Route 66, then headed home.

We originally planned to make a few more stops in Chicago, but it's a good thing we didn't. When we were just barely out of the city, our alternator went out! Everything was fine, then the battery light came on, then things stopped working within a couple of minutes. Luckily, we were only a few miles from an Auto Zone, so we managed to get there and Daniel changed it in a parking lot! I was very thankful that he always packs some tools when we go on trips and he only had to buy the part and one tool. The kids and I walked to get some lunch and then when he said he needed more time we walked to a park. It wasn't a great end to the trip, but I'm so thankful that we had the money to pay for it and that it didn't happen in Death Valley where it was unbearably hot or in the middle of Chicago where he wouldn't have the space to fix it himself.

We made it home a little later than we hoped due to the whole alternator thing, but Abbie made it to the dance! We were all happy to be home and we all slept in super late the next day! This trip was amazing, but pretty darn exhausting!

This was 6 month ago, and just yesterday I asked Daniel and the kids what their favorite parts were. Maybe their answers would have been different right after the trip, but after having some time to reflect on it, this is what they said.

Favorite place we stayed 
Daniel - Three-way tie between the house in Moab, the caboose in Williams, and the Wigwam.
Me - The house in Moab was the most comfortable, but the Rigdon House in Cambria, California was the cutest.
Joey - The house in Moab.
Abbie - The hotel in LA.
Jack - Tie between the houses in Moab and Vegas.
Jonah - The house in Vegas.

Favorite City
Daniel - San Francisco
Me - Santa Fe
Joey - LA (I think he was the only one that really liked it!)
Abbie - Santa Fe
Jack - Santa Fe
Jonah - Santa Fe

Looks like we need to go back to Santa Fe sometime!

Favorite Park
Daniel - Yosemite
Me - Yosemite was the prettiest, but I enjoyed the experience more at Grand Teton.
Joey - Grand Teton
Abbie - Yosemite
Jack - Zion
Jonah - Yellowstone

Favorite Trail 
Daniel - The Narrows at Zion
Me - The Mist Trail at Yosemite
Joey - The Mist Trail
Jack - The Narrows
Jonah - The Narrows

Favorite Food
Daniel - Sickie's Garage in Rapid City
Me - Green chile cheeseburger in Santa Fe or huckleberry ice cream.
Joey - no answer (I probably shouldn't have waited 6 months to ask!)
Abbie - Rolled ice cream in San Francisco
Jack - Fitz's in St. Louis.
Jonah - Chicken nuggets at Sno Cap in Seligman, Arizona. He was on a mission to find the best chicken nuggets in the country, and he picked those. I swear they were just Tyson nuggets, but they made him happy!

Favorite Experience
Daniel - Route 66, PCH, and the Narrows
Me - Church on the beach, sunrise at Mono Lake, and watching the sun set and the fog roll in in San Francisco.
Joey - Seeing the Grand Canyon
Abbie - Watching the sunset over the mountains as we were leaving Yosemite.
Jack - Whitewater rafting.
Jonah - Canoeing.

Overall, this trip was amazing, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, the kids all said they loved it but they don't want to be gone that long again. But that's ok, Daniel and I are already talking about doing it again after all the kids move out - but maybe in a Mustang instead of a minivan!

The only thing I didn't love, other than the traffic and crowds in LA, was how rushed we were. I don't really see any way around that though - I don't know what we would have cut out to be able to slow down, and it was a struggle to plan and pay for 5 weeks, so I don't think we could have made it any longer. But now we know what places we love and can maybe go back to some of them later and stay longer.

So that's it! If you're thinking of taking a long trip and/or visiting any of these places I'd be happy to answer any questions you have! Leave a comment or email me at amy@amyfoltz.net.

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