Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming in 10-days time? Sure, why not. In 2013, we took our annual road trip westward.
For this trip, we flew into Denver airport in the early afternoon. After finding our luggage and picking up the rental car, the drive was only about an hour and a half northwest to Estes Park. We rested our heads at the Saddle and Surrey Motel while there. The owners were very friendly and helpful in navigating the local area. (We didn’t know elevation sickness was a thing. Apparently, it is.) Besides being clean and comfortable, this motel was only minutes away from the center of town. After visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, we stopped at Estes Park to stroll the streets, shop, and enjoy some ice cream.
Now, we have “mountains” in northern New Jersey, but that term took on a whole new meaning when we ventured to Colorado. The mountains out there make ours seem like molehills. When entering Rocky Mountain National Park, we drove through tall green grasses and towering mountains surrounding us. There were plenty of pull-offs to stop, walk around, and marvel at the miles of untouched land. It took us all day to make our way along the Trail Ridge Road, but it was worth every second. Many of the reviews suggested activities we’d researched beforehand said to keep an eye out for wildlife. We were fortunate enough to see bighorn sheep navigating the rocky terrain, a few moose snacking on leaves, a roaming elk herd, and marmots skittering around boulders.
Driving in Rocky Mountain can be a little tricky. This park gets a lot of visitors in the summer months. A lot of the paved roads that took us to
the higher elevations were certainly busy. Our horseback tour took riders across one of the more traveled roads in the valley as well. And sometimes wildlife tends to ignore the painted crosswalks and will unexpectedly traverse the road right in front of your car. And then there’s the Old Falls River Road. This is a one-way, dirt road that takes you up to the Fall River Pass. There are times when your car is driving right along the precipice, switchbacking your way up the mountain. But the amazing views and experience are well-worth the expedition.
After leaving the high elevations of Colorado, we made our way over to the Cornhusker State. The general consensus when saying you’re going to vacation in Nebraska is, “Uh, why would you go there? It’s just flat cornfields.” (Sorry Nebraskans) While yes, this state doesn’t stretch to high elevations and it does provide a large portion of the corn for our country, Nebraska took us a little by surprise.
Found in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Scotts Bluff was our first stop. There are a number of steep hills serving as landmarks for those who traveled along the Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail. First, we stopped at the visitor’s center to learn about the history of the area. Then, we drove to the top of Scotts Bluff and looked out on miles and miles of flat, flat land. It seemed as though it went on forever.
Our next pit stop was Chimney Rock National Historic Site. This was another landmark for Native Americans and Oregon Trail followers. You could easily see it in the far distance while standing atop Scotts Bluff. It certainly stood out from the rest of the landscape. There are no other sharp, jutting formations around. Everything else was smooth.
Now we’re not ones for cheesy roadside attractions, but Carhenge wasn’t too far out of the way…And why not? It’s pretty much exactly how you’d think it’d be – a circle of cars resembling Stonehenge’s layout and design. If you’re nearby, sure, make the stop. But I wouldn’t go out of my way. We walked around the outdoor monument and the car art gallery before moving on. Because of its oddity and our eye-brow raising, this is one of the first things we mention and laugh about when we talk about this road trip.
Our last stop in Nebraska was a little further north, closer to the South Dakota border. We made our way to Toadstool Geological Park in the Oglala National Grasslands. Talk about the middle of nowhere! Many of the rock formations look like toadstools, thus its name. It was definitely different scenery than the miles of cornfields we had just driven through. It’s a small park and there weren’t a lot of other tourists. It was calming and peaceful to walk through. There were a few paths and some dinosaur fossils to check out. The landscape resembled the badlands of the Dakotas – the next leg of our road trip.
Custer was one of the best state park’s we’ve been to. There’s a long, relaxing drive on
Wildlife Loop Road where we weren’t disappointed. We saw buffalo, pronghorn and prairie dogs. These prairie dogs…You see the first one or two and say, “Look! There’s a prairie dog! How cute! He’s jumping in his little hole.” Then by the time you see the thousandth prairie dog 2 miles down the road, the novelty has kind of worn off. They’re everywhere! (But hey, it was still fun to spot them.) One of the best parts of our time in this park was the buffalo herd that crossed the road as we were driving by. They kind of roamed slowly, in no rush and stopped right in front of cars. You could have easily rolled down your window to touch a buffalo. They are huge animals and I do not recommend doing that! If you happen to visit Custer, we stayed at the amazing Rocket Motel. It was the best place we stayed at during this whole road trip!
After a drive through wildlife, we moved on to Wind Cave National Park. This was one of the longer tours we’d been on but was informative and well worth it. Our guide was entertaining with a great sense of humor and very knowledgeable about the park. We saw formations we had not previously seen in other caves.
Like most tourists going to South Dakota, we went to see Mount Rushmore and nearby Crazy Horse monuments. Mount Rushmore looks just as it does in any photo you’ve seen of it. We took the walking path around to get right close under George Washington’s nose and look up to the portraits. On part of our walk, we were joined by a curious little white mountain goat. Maybe he was there to blog about his trip too. It was very interesting to learn about how they went about designing and carving the monument out of stone. If you make it to Mount Rushmore, try to stop by twice – once during the day and then again at night for the lighting ceremony. Crazy Horse is a nearby monument honoring the heritage of North American Indians. The project was started in 1948 and is still in progress. Again we visited this site during the day to tour museums and then at night to see the laser light show.
Next, we took a break from national parks to visit the Minuteman Missile Silo in Phillip. It was certainly in the middle of nowhere. We probably would have liked to stay a little longer to check it out, but the mosquitos were terrible. They were excited to have some fresh meat and swarmed around any exposed skin we had. After a speed-walking exploration of this historical site, we quickly got back to the car and went on our way.
Our last stop in South Dakota was Badlands National Park. The natural landscape here was one of the best parts of our road trip. It’s totally different from anything we’d seen before. We drove the Loop Road through and were amazed at the incredible scenery. There was a lot of brown and red in numerous layers, smoothed out and stretching for miles.
As a side note, we did stop at Wall Drug and it was a waste. There are billboards advertising all over the area, so I was expecting something great. We pretty much walked through, saw the myriad of chaotic, jam-packed shops, then walked out the other side. I don’t get it.
The main point of our drive to North Dakota was to visit Teddy Roosevelt National Park to see the badlands (Yes, there are badlands in South Dakota too, but they’re both totally different). Teddy Roosevelt – a man’s man, protector of wildlife, and my favorite president – came to this area when he was younger to hunt bison. He could see the effects that overgrazing and humans were having on the natural lands and sought a way to stop the damage. After becoming president, Roosevelt created the United States Forest Service and the American Antiquities Act to protect our country’s parks, forests, and monuments. What would the U.S. be without those amazing sites to see? Thank you, Mr. Roosevelt.
Our drive around the southern part of Teddy Roosevelt National Park was peaceful. We seemed to have the entire place to ourselves. With spectacular views, bison, and wild horses, I didn’t know which side of the car to look out of. These badlands were more colorful than the ones found in South Dakota due to the green grasses. If you plan on going to this park, stop in Medora and eat at the Elkhorn Cafe. The hilarious staff and good food made us come back more than once!
The last state we were hitting up on this road trip! Since we were on the eastern side of Wyoming, we needed to see Devil’s Tower. You can start spotting this amazing site when there are still miles to drive to even get close to it. There are flat prairie lands and ranches, then BAM! Giganticigneouss rock butte shoots up out of nowhere. The Native American tales about Devil’s Tower were interesting to learn about too. We were amazed at the mountain climbers that dared to make their way to the top of this stone structure.
One of the more interesting parts of our time in Wyoming was a hotel we stayed at. Our plans didn’t have a reservation for the night after Devil’s Tower. We were on our way back to Denver to fly home and figured we’d drive as far as we could, then just find a hotel somewhere along the way. Exits and places to rest were few and far between. The travelers were growing tired. Seeing a sign for a hotel that didn’t have terrible reviews and no other options close by, we pulled over and booked the night. Well, let me tell you. The room had one full sized bed that was shaped like a V and sunk in the middle. The other bed was a bunk bed, with a twin bed on top and “full” bed underneath (it was a futon). There were a little fridge and microwave shoved in the corner with enough space to shimmy. The bathroom was not much better. When you sat on the toilet, you could have easy chipped a tooth on the sink since it was so close. The shower had decorative glass tiles, but of course, a few were missing. And there was a little window you could peek out if you wanted to watch people walking by as you were showering. This night was something we still laugh about until this day but aren’t eager to experience again.
We’ll be back to do Yellowstone on the western side of this state this summer!
Side Note: Being football fans, we did catch a preseason Broncos game when we returned to Denver. It was definitely different from the NY Giants games we’d been to numerous times. There were fireworks and parachuters and horses and cheerleaders and foot stomping and “in-com-pleeeet” cheering. It was a lot to take in, but we’re so glad we did!
Like most of our adventures, this was a whirlwind trip. We did a lot in a short amount of time while enjoying it all. This road trip still remains one of our favorites. We’d definitely be willing to go again (hint hint).
Any suggestions on what else to do in these states? Where should we go next? Let me know in the comments below!