Just finished up with our summer vacation and PCS trip. Please forgive me for the length of this post. I didn’t have a chance to write any updates throughout the trip.
Before I get to it, though, let me point out a few things about the trip. First, we decided to drive both cars for several reasons. Shipping the Maxima was too expensive, we didn’t have the time or money for me to drive it to WA and then fly back to KS, and it still has enough utility in it that we didn’t want to sell. To help with the two-car experience, my parents loaned us a couple hand-held radios for inter-car communication.
Second, both the boys would ride with me. The F-150 is bigger, the car seats sit higher (so the boys can sightsee), the DVD player is already set up in my car… I have to pause. As I’m sure any mother reading this has already deduced, this plan didn’t survive first contact. The kids were split one and one after our first stop.
Third, our plan was to get on the road by 9:00 AM every day. This way we wouldn’t have to rush through breakfast, we could have a PB&J lunch (read: cheap) on the road, and we’d get to our next stop after quiet time every day. We stuck to my parents 3/300 rule. Get off the road every day by 3:00 PM and never drive more than 300 miles. Believe it or not, we stuck to this schedule for the entire trip with the exception of our departure from Yellowstone, but more on that later.
With that, here is our trip broken down by camping location.
MITCHELL, SD: We stayed in the Lake Mitchell Campground in Mitchell, SD. Lake Mitchell Campground was a little gem. You can find the campground’s website here. I can’t remember who found this spot, Laura or my dad, but whoever did deserves great kudos. A great little playground occupied Andrew and Christopher and about 1200 other kids. Nice little trails wound through the woods and down to the lake. The campground was even beautiful enough to serve as the location for wedding while we were there. Perhaps the best feature of the campground was the strong trees surrounding our site. This became very important at about 2:30 AM when a major thunderstorm rolled through. Laura and I were awoken by the sounds of the storm, immediately followed by the sirens of a cop car at the entrance of the campground. I don’t know if that cop was just trying to get somewhere fast or if he was trying to wake the sleeping campers up, but we quickly got up. We ran to the truck with the boys and nervously watched the trees for two hours. The boys slept through it all in their car seats.
BADLANDS NP, SD: Before getting into the National Park, we stopped at the Minuteman II NHS. It was interesting as long as you weren’t 4 or 2 years-old and hadn’t spent the last 3 hours in a car. We left quickly for the NP. We camped outside the NP at the White River/Badlands KOA. Very nice campground (see deep though #1 below). As soon as we set up the site, though, we left for the NP. The ranger at the entrance recommended a group of trails near the north entrance. We took the Notch Trail (the unpaved trail with a higher difficulty rating) and it was totally worth it. It was a great experience for the whole family with lots of beautiful vistas. We tried to head to another trail, but we changed our mind when the National Weather Service warning for severe thunderstorms (again) forced us back to the camper. The storm barely missed us and we had a nice evening of put-put golf and a campfire. The boys had s’mores and Laura and I had wine. The next morning, we finished out our time in Badlands NP by taking the Fossil Trail and the scenic drive with lots of beautiful vistas and wildlife (including Pronghorn).
MOUNT RUSHMORE NM, SD. Our favorite location of the trip (I know, not Yellowstone, more on that later). The drive to our campground took us through the mountains and evergreens until, seemingly out of nowhere, the memorial just appeared in front of us. It was wonderful. We were awestruck again when we got to the KOA. It had a huge stable (maybe 80 horses), a waterslide, a pool, several playgrounds, and the list goes on. Additionally, the severe thunderstorm that missed us in Badlands hit Rushmore hard (golf-ball-sized hail had shattered almost all the exposed plastic on almost all the campers), so it was only half-full after RVers left to repair their rigs. We set up camp and immediately left for the Memorial. What a great place. It was so amazing to see the mountain, the machinery used to carve it, and a special person, too. We bumped in to Miss North Dakota (she was down to see the crowning of Miss South Dakota). What a lovely woman. She was fun and engaging with the boys. We then headed down to Keystone, SD to take a special train ride.
We got to Keystone a little early (or so we thought), so we visited one of those old time photograph places. Christopher had so much fun and did not want to take the outfit off. After that, we moseyed on over to the train station … to realize we were at the wrong one. It was 20 minutes before the train was scheduled to depart from another train station 20 miles away. I may not have obeyed all the speed limits through the mountains to get to the other station, but we made it on time. The boys took the 20 minutes to take a nap.
The train ride was one of the best that we’ve ever been on. You can find their site here. It was part of the line bringing gold miners, their supplies, etc. to the Black Hills during the late 19th century. We wound through the mountains, seeing beautiful mountain streams, wildlife, and some great views of Harney Peak (the tallest mountain between the Rockies and the Alps). Perhaps the most fun part of the train ride was the cops and robbers show that they put on. Several fake robbers held the train up and even tried to take Christopher’s Gatorade. Christopher told the robber that he could have it as long as he didn’t give it to the bad guys. The expression on his face when the robber said, “We’re the bad guys” was priceless. Fortunately, the law showed up and ran the robbers off the train and then gunned them down in an adjacent field.
When we got back to the campground, we had hot dogs for dinner, went swimming in the pool, and then tried to hit the hay. Again, we were woken up in the middle of the night due to thunder. We ran to the car and then watched in amazement as a huge lightning storm went right by us. The boys slept through it. While I broke camp, Laura took the boys out and found a huge playground with Tonka trucks and a bouncy thing. We then got smoothies and coffee from the shop near the stables. Unfortunately the boys were too young (you have to be 6) to ride the horses. That being said, after this experience we’re sold on KOAs as the optimal camping locations with young boys. On the way out, we stopped at the Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, SD for some fun.
DEVILS TOWER NM, WY: This KOA wasn’t as nice as the one at Mt Rushmore, but still wonderful. Our site had a glorious view of the tower. Sunset was particularly beautiful. Before that, though, we headed up and took the trail around the base of the tower. It was very interesting to learn about the history and myths about the tower. For example, the interpreter for the man who discovered the tower mispronounced the original name, ‘Bear Lodge Tower,’ so that it sounded like ‘Bad God Tower.’ The Federal Government then further changed the name to Devils (no apostrophe) Tower. When we got back to the campsite, the boys wanted to go swimming again. I tried to go with them, but the pool was maybe 70 degrees and too cold for me. The boys didn’t mind, though. The real nice thing about this KOA was a community fire pit with a cowboy singing old country songs. It was real nice ambiance for the boys to fall asleep to (and for us, as well).
LITTLE BIG HORN NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD: The road to our next campsite was narrow and paralleled the interstate on one side and train tracks on the other. We were a little nervous until we entered the check-in site and two horses sprinted playfully by us. 7th Ranch RV Park is a super nice location. The host checks you in and then escorts you to your site and assists with parking the rig. This wasn’t necessary for the little pop-up, but it was endearing to Laura and me nonetheless. In addition, our site was a short distance from a great playground (with Tonka trucks) and a view of the trains in the distance. This stop definitely served as a respite to the non-stop haste of the previous days.
We took a quick trip over to the Little Bighorn National Battlefield after set up. The boys were tired of being in the car and didn’t really want to listen to the talks (they didn’t seem child appropriate anyways), so our visit was short. It was still very impressive to see all the markers of the places where Custer’s soldiers fell. I got a little annoyed that the new monuments to the Indian combatants overshadowed the older and smaller monuments to the U.S. Soldiers, but I guess that’s just a sign of the times. Too tired to cook, we stopped by the Little Big Horn Trading Post for dinner. Not worth it (see Deep Thought #2 below). When we got back, the boys played in the park until bedtime with some nice teenage girls. They’re so much calmer (and listen better) with girls around. When we asked the boys what the girls names were, Andrew responded that they were “Christopher’s girlfriends.”
YELLOWSTONE NP: What we were planning to be the highlight of the trip rapidly devolved into a less than stellar camping experience. We stayed in a hotel the first night after the drive in so that could get up early the next morning. It paid off as Laura got us the best site in the Mammoth Campground. Absolutely beautiful, spacious, and near a bathroom and water spigot. Only one problem, the battery on the camper has no charge. Zip. The roof won’t budge. However much I love Jayco, I do fault them for not adding a manual lift backup for the roof. I had to use my cordless drill, a 1/8” bit, and every extension I could find to raise the roof to about ¾ mast. That’s when two things happened. First, I dropped the bit extension inside the access port. Fortunately, my wife had recently purchased a telescoping magnet for her sewing machine so we recovered the extension somewhat easily. Second, the battery for my cordless drill died. I was not, as they put it, a happy camper. Via phone, my dad recommended I hook the jumper cables from my truck to the pop-up battery. That worked to get the roof up and we’d use it again to get the roof down in a few days.
Shortly after set-up we left for Bunson Peak. My family has a nice history with Bunson Peak. My mom, dad, brother, sister, and I took a picture on the summit in 1988. My brother took another picture with his wife and kids on the summit a few years ago. This year, Laura, the boys and I got our own to add to the collection. Andrew was a trooper and walked the whole way from the base to the summit. He even made it almost all the way back down. Christopher rode in the old kiddie backpack. We ate lunch at the summit.
We should have been a little concerned when Chris complained about a headache once we got back in the car. We thought it could have been dehydration, so we gave him a couple juice boxes and then toured for a little in the truck. When we got back to the camper, he was still complaining so we took his temperature. He had a mild fever, but that could have been simple overheating from the unseasonably hot weather. We gave him some Tylenol and sent him to bed.
We woke up the next morning to two lovely surprises. First, Chris’ temperature has gone up to 102 and he subsequently threw up three times. Afterwards he demands a pulled pork sandwich from his mother (What?!). Second, Andrew now has a fever of 101 (which he won’t accept as truth because he is camping). Laura and I both decided that it was a day for sightseeing from the car. We alternated Tylenol and Ibuprofen while we drove. Andrew took a quick walk around some geysers. The boys were too sick to stay for Old Faithful (they saw a little the eruption as we put them back in the car). We figured we might as well see some more of the park so we headed south from Old Faithful and begin to drive the grand loop. We realized this was a bad decision when we were by Yellowstone Lake, literally as far from our campsite as possible while remaining in the confines of the park. Both the boys’ fevers would not subside. They were achy and nauseous to boot. About halfway back (still over an hour out from the North Gate) we decided that we need to get a hotel for the night. We headed for the Super 8. Christopher woke up in the middle of the night speaking incoherently about butterflies. We took his temperature and it was 103.2. The closest emergency room was in Livingston, MT which was 52 minutes away. Laura called the TRICARE emergency nurse line while I filled a lukewarm bath. The nurse told us not to go to the emergency room, but stayed on the phone with us until we got Chris’ temperature down a little.
The next day, we were all exhausted. We tried to take it easy and headed to the Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor’s Center. Andrew barely sat through a Ranger talk so that he could get his Junior Ranger badge. Even sitting outside was too much. We made the wise but unfortunate decision to bag it until next time. As I packed up the camper at 11:00 AM, it was already 93 degrees outside. I left the truck running to give the boys A/C and the camper enough power to lower the roof. The rest of the trip to WA was hotels only.
Overall, the trip was fantastic. The whole family loved it. If I could go back, I would only change two things. First, we would stay longer than one night at all the locations except Little Big Horn. We didn’t even scratch the surface of what the NPs had to show us. Also, setting up the camper for a one night stay with young kids is a bit arduous. Second, we would have left Bunson Peak for a later day at Yellowstone. It nags Laura and I that the high altitude on the first day may have contributed to the boy’s illness.
If you want to see more photos from our trip, please go to my Google+ page. If you can’t see them, then you’re not part of my circles. Just let me know and I’ll add you. Next posts will be more from the trips from 2013/2014.
Deep Thought #1: I don’t know why I had the impression that KOAs were gross before this trip. Maybe it was some past experience camping with my family that I don’t remember. Maybe word of mouth from a time before they were clean. I don’t know. We stayed at three KOAs this trip and had wonderful experiences in all of them. Everyone was friendly, there were tons of kids and kid-oriented activities, the bathrooms were clean, there were no mobile homes, and the price was reasonable. The Rushmore KOA was particularly fabulous!
Deep Thought #2: All of the commercial tourist traps (Murdo Drive In, Wall Drug, Little Big Horn Trading Post, etc.) that we visited along the way were disappointing. They were all over-priced, had poor service, were crowded, and just generally distracted from the rest of the trip. The Little Big Horn Trading Post even had awful Indian chanting blaring across the speakers to accompany the overpriced food. We would have been better off cooking in the camper and sticking to rest stops for our breaks. A memo for next time: if it is overly advertised along the highway and you’re not quite sure what it is, that is a good indication not to stop.