Crossing the Country One Stop At A Time

By james rada, Jr.

In 2019, my family and I took our biggest vacation to date. We traveled more than 5,800 miles through 15 states, with 52 stops in 15 days. Yes, the driving was long and tiring, but the sites we saw were well worth it. This was the trip of a lifetime.

We had planned out the major stops we wanted to see along our trip west to Yellowstone, but the fun part was using travel sites on the internet while we were driving to find some quick stops along the way that would break up the long stretches on the road.

Since it would probably take too much space to hit all the stops we made, I’ll tell you about some of my favorites.

Indiana Dunes National Park

My wife picked this one out. I had never heard of it. It only became a national park earlier in 2019. It runs along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. I wasn’t too impressed at first, then I saw this large sand dune that had covered a large portion of a visitor parking lot. The ranger told us that the sand dunes are actually moving about four feet a year away from the lake.

We crossed over the dune to the lake. It was like being at the ocean. I couldn’t see the opposite shore and there were waves. The only difference was it wasn’t saltwater. It was freshwater.

Badlands National Park

This park wasn’t even on our radar. I’m not sure why, but when we saw signs on the interstate for it as we were driving along, we decided to check it out. I felt like the car must have launched into space and landed on a different planet. That is how different the terrain made me feel with all its canyons and outcroppings of rock. There was even a lightning storm while we were there to add to the extraterrestrial feel. I seem to remember a ranger saying that the park used to be the bottom of a prehistoric ocean.

Devil’s Tower

This was a fun, short stop in Wyoming. The striking thing about Devil’s Tower is that it just suddenly sticks up from the ground. The ground around it is flat, and then there is suddenly this flat-topped monolith of stone. My wife and I walked the trail around the base.

I found it interesting that people were allowed to climb it. Devil’s Tower is so huge, you can’t see those people unless you are close to the tower or looking at it with binoculars. We must have seen at least a dozen people on the sides. By the way, there is no trail to the top. You have to climb 867 feet up if you want to get up there.

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore is an American icon, located in South Dakota. It was smaller than I imagined but still very impressive. We walked the trail that allows you to get relatively close to the monument, at least close enough to see some of the drill holes and chisel marks.

I kept wanting to go on the other side of the monument to see if there was some hidden entrance to an underground city there, like in National Treasure II.

I was much more impressed with Mount Rushmore than I was with the Crazy Horse Monument. The monument still isn’t finished after 73 years. You also can’t get very close to it unless you pay a lot for a special tour. I did like the museum of Native American life there, though.

Yellowstone National Park

This was my favorite stop. I would have loved to have spent more time there. It is an immense park of 2.2 million acres. Buffalo walked next to our car. In one of the visitor center areas, rangers were out keeping people away from the elk that walked into the tourist area and laid down under a shady tree. I got to see Old Faithful erupt and another geyser that wasn’t as regular but was taller than Old Faithful. I hiked to the Grand Prismatic Springs, salt flats, and different waterfalls. It was an absolutely gorgeous park.

However, when I go back, I will stay at one of the resorts in the park. We stayed in a hotel in Cody, Wyoming, which looked close to the park. However, it was an hour drive from our hotel to the park’s border, and then another hour drive from the border to the park’s loop road! That was four hours of driving each day, and that meant less time that we got to spend in the park.

Rocky Mountain National Park

We made a short stop outside Rocky Mountain National Park to visit the hotel that was featured in the movie The Shining. As if that wasn’t spooky enough, the hotel has its own ghost stories that could make its own movie.

The impressive thing about this park was how high it is. We went to a visitor center and hiked up to a spot that was more than 12,500 feet above sea level. I had a bit of a scare here. I could not catch my breath. It wasn’t the hike. I’d been hiking parks all during the trip. The thin air at this elevation affected me. Yet, even after reaching the peak and resting for 15 minutes, I couldn’t catch my breath until we were back down in the parking lot.

The sites were nice, but after Yellowstone, it was a letdown. I was surprised to see lots of snow on the ground in the middle of July.

St. Louis Arch

On the way home, we stopped to see the St. Louis Arch. The underground visitors center was nice to walk through. However, the ride to the top of the arch was a curious mix of technologies since you have to rise in a diagonal direction.

After our visit to the top of the arch, we stumbled on a place called the City Museum. It was located in an old shoe factory. It is four stories tall and contains a mix of exhibits and fun things for kids to do, like a four-story-tall sliding board and various multi-level mazes. The only thing I didn’t like about it was the noise. You had to stand right next to someone to hear them talking.

Short Stops

Some of the short stops we made that I really enjoyed were Matchstick Marvels, Field of Dreams, Sioux Falls, and the Corn Palace. Matchstick Marvels was amazing. The sculptor uses hundreds of thousands matchsticks to create highly detailed models. The Corn Palace uses around 600,000 ears of corns to create murals, both inside and out of the building.

Field of Dreams is the actual baseball field that was built for the movie. It is out in the middle of nowhere and still attracts professional baseball players who come to play games on the field. The movie’s line, “If you build it, they will come” actually came true. I bought a baseball and played catch with my wife on the field.

Sioux Falls was a letdown, but that was because it was raining. We got to the falls and made a mad dash to the observation platform to get pictures. Then, we ran back to the car to try to dry off.

Other Stops

I’ve mentioned a few of the many places we stopped. Some I haven’t mentioned include the Wizard of Oz Museum, Effigy Mounds National Park, New River Gorge, Exhibition Coal Mine, Monticello, Mammoth Caves, and Kentucky Horse Park.

They were all nice, but Yellowstone set the bar high for me. I still enjoyed exploring these places, in particular Exhibition Mine, because I do a lot of writing about coal mining.

I loved this trip. We got to see so much. I would like to do a similar trip through the south and southwest at some point.

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