Sunday, August 2, 2015

Our Great Big Western USA Roadtrip

On the road with a bug splattered windshield

After years of planning, it's done. Our great big roadtrip to see the scenic wonders of the Western USA. The seed was planted ages ago in 2006 when we came up with our 10 year plan of summer vacations, and Yellowstone National Park made the list of places to take our kids before they grew up. The first attempt to visit in 2010 was thwarted when I discovered that the Old Faithful hotels book up a full year ahead of time for the peak summer season. In 2011, I had to cancel our reservations for lodging when we moved to Malaysia, an event which opened us up traveling all over the world, not just the USA. 2015 was the year when we finally succeeded.

A lot has happened in the last five years since that first attempt. My youngest child is now 10 years old and can walk for miles. What a difference that makes! I was worried that being global travelers would somehow diminish the experience of not needing a passport for our trip. How would the USA compare to walking on the Great Wall of China, hiking around Australia's Uluru/Ayer's Rock, or seeing the ruins of Pompeii?

Yellowstone was the main reason for our trip, but as I stared at the roadmap, our journey grew and grew until it encompassed five states. We started in eastern South Dakota and made our way westward, like the pioneers, and watched the passing landscape change from rolling prairies to high mountain passes and alpine meadows. Along the way, I met a variety of folks who are making a living doing what they love -- rock climbing, river rafting, and selling toys. When it was all said and done, here's where we ended up going.

Day 1: Sioux Falls, South Dakota

We flew in to Sioux Falls since it was the biggest commercial airport nearest to the easternmost place I wanted to see. Admittedly, I knew nothing at all about Sioux Falls and didn't research it at all, only planning to rest my head there for the night. Is it weird that I was surprised to find a waterfall in the middle of downtown? I guess that's where the city got its name.

South Dakota
The waterfall which gave Sioux Falls its name.

Day 2: De Smet, South Dakota

As a big fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder books when I was a kid, De Smet where On the Shores of Silver Lake, Little Town on the Prairie, and The First Four Years all take place has loomed large in my imagination. I thought it would be a shame to skip it since we were already "so close." My husband claimed that an extra 5 hours of driving didn't count as close, but I prevailed by declaring I would do it with or without the rest of the family.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, De Smet, South Dakota
Fangirl visit to the childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Day 3: Minuteman Missile Site and Wall Drug

The Minuteman Missile site showcases the now deactivated nuclear warheads pointed at the USSR during the Cold War. Tickets for the underground bunker control center are gone soon after the Visitors Center opens at 8AM. We got there at 4PM, so all I got to do was stare down the missile silo right off the major highway and contemplate the threat of mutual destruction.

A bigger hit with the kids was our visit to Wall Drug. You can't miss it as there are signs along the road for miles and miles. Kitschy souvenirs, a soda fountain, free water and room to play made it an excellent place to take a break from hours of driving.

Rapid City served as our base for Days 3-6. We stayed at the historic and haunted Hotel Alex Johnson which is located next to the Town Square with lots of shops, restaurants, and presidential statues in walking distance. Be sure to take a few minutes to explore the surprisingly urban Art Alley.

jackelope, Wall, South Dakota, roadside attraction
Riding the jackelope at Wall Drug

Day 4: Badlands National Park

After reading so many books set in the Badlands, I didn't want to look at too many pictures beforehand. I wanted to come upon the Badlands suddenly and marvel at that unexpected, wandering rift in the earth that has enthralled people for centuries.

Related posts:
Badlands Door Trail - A Short Hike with a Big View
A Great Day in the Badlands

South Dakota, US National Park Service
Good time in the Badlands

Day 5: Needles Highway and Mammoth Site

The Needles Highway in the Black Hills of South Dakota takes you along a winding road full of rock spires, tunnels so narrow that a tour bus barely fits through it, and the Eye of the Needle Rock formation.

July is prime time to visit the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota because that's when all the excavations occur. Professional and volunteer paleontologist unearth so many fossils during this one month that they spend the rest of the year prepping and analyzing their finds. 

paleontology, mammoth fossile, Hot Springs, South Dakota
Can you spot the mammoth fossil? This is the real thing, not a faux Dino dig.

Day 6: Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse

If some big bad enemy of the USA wants to prove their might, defacing Mount Rushmore is one of the popular ways to do it in comics, TV shows and movies. The Crazy Horse Memorial is the Native American's response to the symbol of white imperialism just up the road. It's a work-in-progress that will be the world's largest stone carving when it's done. With only seven people currently working on it, it will be generations before it's complete, if ever. Despite that, the memorial receives over a million visitors each year.

South Dakota, US National Parks Service
Saying hello to George and Abe while Tom and Teddy hide.

Day 7: Devils Tower, Wyoming

Ever since I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind when I was a kid, I've been both scared and intrigued by Devils Tower. I was so excited to see it on the map between Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore and knew that we had to spend the night there. Alas, no alien mother ships made an appearance.

Wyoming, US National Parks Service
Devils Tower rises above its surroundings.

Day 8: Cody, Wyoming

Master showman Buffalo Bill Cody spread the image of America's Wild West around the USA and Europe with his traveling show featuring cowboys, Native Americans, sharp shooters and trick riders. Even Queen Victoria was said to be a fan. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West is a top notch museum that manages to educated both adults and kids without boring them. The Cody Nite Rodeo which takes place at 8PM every day in June, July and August is another can't-miss event in town.

Days 9-11: Yellowstone National Park

This is America's first National Park and the place where all our trip dreaming started. With waterfalls and canyons, geysers and hot springs, bison and grizzlies, Yellowstone is nature at its best. We hit the 45th Parallel, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole just so that we could check Montana off our list. Bonus: I got to see Old Faithful blow on my birthday. Old and faithful... that's me. (Note that reservations for the Old Faithful Inn fill up a year ahead of time for peak season, summer bookings.)

Artist Point, Yellowstone, US National Park Service
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as seen from Artist Point

Testing the hot springs with my infrared thermometer. Highest temp measured was 151F (66C).

Days 12-13: Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole

Located immediately south of Yellowstone, Grand Teton is a natural extension of the roadtrip. Beautiful in its own way, the Teton mountains rising up behind the area lakes is a gorgeous sight to behold. We went horseback riding up buttes, floating down the Snake River in a raft, hiking through the park, and up an aerial tram to the top of a mountain resort. Jackson was such an expensive town that I joked the exchange rate was 2:1 compared to the average American town.

Jackson Hole, Teton Mountains
Our first sight of the Teton Mountains across Jackson Lake

Day 14: Idaho and Salt Lake City

We made our way through Idaho barely intersecting with the Oregon Trail for a bit. We all got through without catching dysentery. Our trip ended in Salt Lake City. (I had considered flying out of Jackson, but the airfare was almost double.) We took the opportunity to visit the Mormons and their Tabernacle where their famous choir and organ performs. The Temple Square was a collection of architecturally interesting buildings from the acoustic wonder of the Tabernacle to the soaring spires of the temple. 

LDS, Salt Lake City, Mormons
Salt Lake City Temple, home of the Church of Latter Day Saints

Day 15: Fly Home

All good things must end. I felt blessed to get this chance to explore some of the best scenic wonders in America. They hold their own against all the other Must See places around the world.

Pin this Post for Later

It’s Your Turn, Link Up Your Newest Travel Inspiration!

I've joined up as one of the co-hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration.
  1. Link one of your inspirational travel photos or stories to this post by adding your info.
  2. Copy and paste our badge and a link to this page.
  3. Visit some of the other wonderful travel bloggers, read their posts, and leave a comment.  It would be great if you could comment on 2-3 posts.
  4. Tweet it and include this hashtag. #wkendtravelinspiration .
  5. Follow all the hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration who are working hard to spread the word on what wonderful work travel bloggers are doing.
  6. Don’t forget to check out my amazing co-hosts and their pages: Reflections EnrouteThe Crowded PlanetContentedTravellerAlbom AdventuresSafari 254, and FamiliesGo.

I've also joined with the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. What a great trip - you saw so much in such a short period of time! I loved Laura Ingalls growing up and would have loved to see DeSmet. I bet the kids had a blast at Wall Drug. That place is a riot.

  2. Loved this road trip you took us on in the Western USA! I have often had those same reservations before setting out 'close to home' and wonder if the country can meet or beat other places we've been to -- and every time, I am reminded just how fun this country is to explore. Loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder stop!

  3. That is one amazing trip! I want to do the east coast to west coast trip one day! For the time being I managed to to the Pacific Coast Highway trip from LA to SF (with a detour to Sequoia National Park)!

  4. What a wonderful trip. We are doing one later this year, so will be fun too

  5. What an awesome road trip! I visited western South Dakota last fall for a week and could have spent another week at least. Some day I want to do the voluntourism excavation at the Mammoth Site.

  6. There are so many things I like the look of on this trip. Sioux falls, Badlands, The river in the Grand Canyon from Artist Point and Lake Jackson.

  7. Sounds like a wonderful trip. We talk about doing a USA road trip someday all the time. You've definitely given me some more for m dream list. I love your kids liked Wall Drug so much. All the kitchy stops along the southwest were some of the highlights of our summer road trips when I was a kid.

  8. Wow what a road trip! Badlands looks like it belongs on a planet in outer space and Yellowstone National Park looks divine. I once travelled to Yosemite National Park when we were staying in San Francisco and that was pretty awesome.

  9. It's really cool how they have made a tourist experience out of an excavation site - something really a bit different to see.

  10. What an incredible road trip - so much to see along the way! Every family needs at least one big road trip. We drove from Alice Springs to Darwin and Kakadu when our oldest daughter was 3 (she's now almost 18)....but we haven't done anything of that magnitude since the youngest was born. I think I'll have to put that on the agenda!

  11. We have been to many of these places on various holidays - thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  12. Fantastic! When I first started reading this I was thinking I had never been to South Dakota, then Wall Drugs and that jackalope outside - and my childhood memories came flooding back. I think I have a similar photo of myself over 40 years ago, and it looks the same - at least in my memory. What a fantastic trip and series of them.

  13. Going for a road trip is very cool and enjoyable thing. Cheap car rentals from

  14. Awesome trip, Michele! My husband spent two months traveling out west when he was younger; my son spent a month last summer with camp. I'm the only one who hasn't seen these American gems! Pinned, for when I convince them to go again!

  15. What an epic trip! I'm so glad your family was finally able to see Yellowstone and you were able to add some great American attractions. We'd love to do a road trip like this. We only made it to Yellowstone, Grand Teton and SLC on this list. My kids are dying to go see Mt. Rushmore. Love the photos and following along.

  16. Are you planning on doing individual posts for some of the places you visited? Looks like you had an awesome trip.

  17. A road trip through the US is on my bucket list! Thanks for the tips! Looks cool!


  18. Wow, that was a pretty epic road trip! So many great sites along the way - what fun you and the family must have had. Now how are you going to top this trip? BTW: "old and faithful" made me literally LOL - love it!

  19. What an amazing trip! I would follow your exact itinerary since I find appealing all the spots you visited. I hope to do two additional road trips this year (not as long as yours). Hope one of those is around Utah and Arizona.

  20. My kids are much older than yours but we did a Yellowstone/West trip about 5 years ago and it was so fantastic.One of our most memorable trips ever. I loved seeing your itinerary to see where you went that was different and the same. Can't wait to hear about it!

  21. Wow, what an excellent road trip Michelle, I would love to do something exactly like this some day!

  22. What an epic road trip Michelle! I have never done a road trip before but have always imagined I would want to go come to the USA to do my first one and this itinerary sounds amazing! The scenery near Jackson lake and the Devils Tower look particularly breathtaking ☺

  23. Hi Michele! What a great trip. I don't blame you for not missing Laura's house! We missed you at Travel Photo Thursday last week. I hope you'll find your way to us this week :)


I read each and every comment. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Comment moderation is on, so your comment may not appear immediately.

Web Analytics