Summer Adventure Road Trip
Updated: Jul 22, 2019
Two weeks on the road pulling our 19 ft. Shasta camper Daisy Lou, several National Parks and Monuments, logging almost 5,000 miles...it all sounds ambitious, right!?! Well, we did it this summer. And more importantly, we had FUN along the way!
Our daughters have reached an age, upper elementary, where we felt like we could embark on a road trip of this scale without the dreaded phrases of "I'm bored!" and "Are we there yet?" on repeat. Beyond our favorite podcasts, library books, Kindles and music, we've found several tools and activities to keep things interesting and anything but boring while heading out West. For example, we printed out US maps for our girls to mark as we entered each new state. This helped them visualize our journey and reference where we've been and where we were heading. Our family also spent plenty of time filling in silly Madlibs stories (as a former elementary teacher, I love how Madlibs reinforces the parts of speech along with assisting in building a strong vocabulary). For us, the sillier the story, the better. We also had activity books that kept our backseat passengers engaged on long stretches of travel. Pulling our camper added an extra layer of convenience when any in the group needed a bathroom break or a snack. We prepared many meals and snacks ahead of time to grab and reheat while we were heading out to our first main stop, Grand Tetons National Park.
A really big unexpected hit was packing the girls' Instax polaroid cameras. Talk about a boredom buster! The girls really enjoyed capturing images of new scenes and wildlife. The cameras were even tucked into hiking bags each day in case the budding photographers came across anything notable they wanted to memorialize in a photograph. They also were able to practice using our bigger digital camera and recording with our GoPro. Once we returned home, the girls were able to compile all of their photos and video to create digital home movies to share. It's been a real treat reviewing our summer road trip from their point of view.
Arriving to our first designated destination, Grand Tetons National Park, allowed for a picturesque spot for our family to stretch out and explore. Wyoming's landscape is breathtaking, and it's an absolutely pleasant place to beat the blistering summer heat we often experience in Tennessee. Our kids loved exploring Jackson Hole and finding the perfect keepsakes and souvenirs.
One of the best ways the girls documented their road trip experiences was through writing postcards. They enjoyed finding the perfect postcards for friends and family and sharing the adventures we had thus far. While the girls addressed their postcards, I was able to catch up on laundry at our campground (two weeks on the road means access to a laundry room is a must). Fun fact, most national parks have post offices on site. It's neat to send a postcard and have it stamped from that location! We've enjoyed hearing from excited friends and loved ones who have received their cards from the girls.
Grand Tetons National Park spans over 96,000 acres and includes the Teton range along with six glacial lakes.We observed a plethora of wildlife during our time in the park. Grand Teton, as part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is one of the world's largest ecological systems. The park's wildlife roam in a landscape that's experienced very little change in 10,000 years. Some of our favorite animals to see were the bison, moose and a black bear cub - all from a safe distance of course.
During our time in the Grand Tetons, we were able to enjoy a float trip on the Snake River. What a memorable way to take in the history and beauty of the area. We observed several bald eagles, moose and prong horn deer during our three hour trip.
Cruising along the river, it's easy to see why Ansel Adams would be drawn to capturing the stunning scenery in his famous photograph. The majestic mountains behind the sparkling river was a lot to behold in person. Our oldest kept commenting that it smelled like Christmas from all those beautiful evergreen trees.
In addition to our float trip, we enjoyed some hiking and picnicking around popular Jenny Lake. We envied the visitors kayaking and boating on the picturesque lake. The trails weren't too steep or strenuous for our younger hikers. Stopping along the way for water breaks and to observe wildlife like non-venomous snakes and birds kept the girls from getting restless.
Inside their hiking bags, the girls were responsible for their own sunglasses, hats, wallets, cameras, water bottles, etc. They, of course, included their favorite snacks like granola, trail mix and fruit leather along with trinkets they may need while adventuring.
Our next road trip destination was our nation's very first national park,Yellowstone National Park. At over 2.2 million acres, Yellowstone is a park you want to devote some time to exploring. We built in several days there to truly take in all the sites we were interested in seeing. Yellowstone is known as a sleeping giant. It is home to a supervolcano, which feeds the world's largest group of hydrothermal features. Hot springs, geysers, mud pots, travertine terraces and fumaroles can all be found at Yellowstone.
During our national park visits, we took advantage of the Junior Ranger programs. We were given activity booklets for the girls to complete dealing with history, wildlife and geology specific to each park. Upon completion of the booklet, the girls returned to the ranger station where they would talk about their experiences with a ranger and take a pledge to preserve, protect and educate others about the importance of our national parks. The girls would then receive a collectible badge or patch from that park. We cannot say enough great things about the Junior Ranger program. The booklets are sectioned into age appropriate activities and require the kids to put on their thinking caps to complete the tasks. We were so impressed with how eager our girls were to complete their booklets. They were engaged and wanting to attend ranger talks and specific activities to complete the tasks required of them. Each park's booklets were different and unique to what that particular park had to offer. We highly recommend checking out the program when your family visits one of the over 400 national sites found in the US. The program is geared towards kids between the ages of 5-13 but can be completed with assistance if younger. The program is typically free, but there is a small fee to participate at Yellowstone.
In addition to the Junior Ranger Program, we learned Yellowstone also offers a Young Scientist Program. Luckily, we got to Old Faithful early one morning and were able to check out a backpack full of necessary science tools to complete the science experiments before they were all gone for the day. Our girls were certainly challenged by some of the activities, but they really enjoyed the science scavenger hunt and comparing the hydrothermal temps before and after Old Faithful's eruption Again, once they completed the science activities, they brought their science gear and activity booklet back to the ranger station and received a science badge.
It's extremely difficult to do Yellowstone justice in pictures and words. There are so many different terrains, various elevations, landforms and wildlife to observe there. Our typical day would be something like this - wake up and have breakfast at our campsite, pack our hiking bags and layer up based of the day's forecast. Although the national parks typically offer plenty of food options, we opt to pack our own picnic meals to avoid the crowds, which are plenty during the summer. We would spend the entire day, sun up to sun down exploring Yellowstone. Sometimes we would pull off to fly fish (Yellowstone requires a separate fishing license) or just skip rocks in a creek or stream. We even enjoyed the friendliest yellow-bellied marmot family during one of our little excursions in the park. Once it got dark, we would head back to our campsite to eat dinner and prepare for the next day's adventure.
Yellowstone is home to a wide range of animals. We drove past a grizzly bear pack with new cubs, observed hundreds of bison out on the range and even had some elk walk extremely close to us near some mud pots (much larger and quieter in person that we thought). We hoped to catch sight of wolves in the Lamar Valley area, but we were unsuccessful in spotting them early in the day.
After a few magical days in Yellowstone, it was hard to pack up and say goodbye to such a beautiful place. We exited the park from the East Entrance and took the Chief Joseph scenic highway on our way to Devils Tower, the first U.S. national monument. The route was beautiful and offered crazy cool views from the high elevation. Approaching Devils Tower was pretty neat. It's literally this huge landform in the middle of flatland. Over 50 million years ago, Devils Tower was formed from molten magma to create the formation we see today. The girls completed the Junior Ranger Program there and had a great conversation with a park ranger about the habits of the adorable prairie dogs we saw. Again, we can't say enough great things about the Junior Ranger program. No doubt part of what made our stops at all of these sites such a big hit is due in large part to our girls participating in these programs. The park rangers were so patient and happily interested in answering the kids' questions and making their experiences memorable. A million kudos to this program!
The KOA at Devils Tower was probably our favorite campground during our trip. The proximity to the monument made you feel like you were camping AT Devils Tower. You can't beat this beautiful location. KOA campgrounds offer plenty of activities and amenities to enrich your camping experience. Cooling off in the pool and watching "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"with Devils Tower in the background were memorable highlights of our stay there.
For our family, national monuments haven't required more than a day to explore. From Devils Tower, we traveled east toward Mount Rushmore. The summer heat we're accustomed to greeted us in South Dakota, so we said goodbye to our layers and returned to our standard summer uniforms of tanks and shorts.
The girls completed another fabulous Junior Ranger program, and our family enjoyed the biggest and yummiest ice cream treats while at Mt. Rushmore. A big highlight of our time there was meeting the last living Mount Rushmore carver! He happened to be in the gift shop answering questions and taking photos with visitors as he celebrated his 98th birthday.
After our Mt. Rushmore visit, we continued our drive. That afternoon, we visited Badlands National Park. It was HOT. Like walk outside and your face melts off heat. Sadly, no junior ranger books completed there, folks. The kids refused. Viewing the landscape with all its jagged peaks and steep drop offs, it is easy to see why this area was so intimidating to early settlers. Badlands was beautiful in way very different from Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. The terrain felt like a scene from a sci-fi movie on a different planet. It would be great to go back and explore the area during a different season when the temperatures are milder.
Following our visit to Badlands National Park, it was time to head home. We stopped off in St. Louis for the World's Best Ice Cream at Ted Drewes, again the summer heat was real. Just a few more hours and our group of travelers made it safely home.
People ask us how we were able to road trip and pleasantly coexist in the smaller quarters of our camper for two weeks. Planning ahead and using space wisely is key for us. For instance, through experience, I've learned to pack smartly for easy access and functionality. I repurposed a plastic pencil box to house all of our capped toothbrushes/toothpastes/floss. This way they're all in one spot for easy access and they're not strewn all about the counter space. I've also found placing all of our shoes in a small laundry basket makes it easy to retrieve them and prevent them from piling up in the camper. We've also added hooks for caps and bags in hidden spaces to remove clutter from the living space. Using space saving packing cubes also makes our personal bags easier to navigate. Sleepwear in one cube, swimwear in another - easy peasy organization and time saver. Meal prepping and planning has been another way we've streamlined our traveling needs.
We truly had the best time on our summer road trip adventure. It showed us just how fun a big trip can be. Our family is already looking ahead to plan where we'll explore next!