It was the strangest feeling to go from driving eastward (away from our Pacific Northwest home) for so long to suddenly switch and come back westward. It put us all in a chill/let’s make the most of this/we’re almost done/slower pace and it was a really great way to finish up the road trip.
We also felt pretty confident in our decision making, our restaurant selecting and our ability to adjust the itinerary on a whim.
Long ago, when we first starting brainstorming where we’d like to visit, we asked the photographer and stylist from Better Homes + Gardens magazine (who were at our house shooting it for the Christmas issue – see all about that right here) where they would suggest visiting in their hometown of Des Moines, Iowa. Without hesitation, they both answered Living History Farms. And so, from that moment, our plan was to visit Des Moines and see what farming was like long ago.
But then we got to Des Moines and didn’t really feel like going to a sight-seeing, history type of thing and instead quickly shifted our plans. Someone on instagram mentioned a salvage shop downtown and that sounded right up our alley and like just the right activity for our day.
My goodness, it was the best choice ever.
West End Architectural Salvage is this huge four story warehouse jam-packed with salvaged building materials, antique finds, custom furniture, typography … and a million other things.
We spent at least two hours walking from floor to floor looking at everything. The kids were totally entertained (they may take after their mom and dad!) and Ryan and I wanted to walk out with many, many things.
I was especially dying to tie this metal dresser to the roof of the Airstream:
We love a good salvage shop and had so much fun looking at everything and getting inspired for new house projects.
After the salvage shop, we drove over to a cute part of town with a few more shops (Porch Light was a favorite!) and then stopped for a late lunch at Zombie Burger where they make the craziest cereal-inspired milkshakes.
Our day in Des Moines was so enjoyable. We didn’t do what we planned, but it was even better that way. The kids met friends at the campground, we spent time lounging and enjoying the beautiful scenery.
The next day, we continued westward to Omaha. In our research, we discovered that Omaha boasts one of the very best zoos in the nation.
We arrived in the mid morning and spent the entire (very hot!) day playing at Henry Doorly Zoo + Aquarium.
It was, in fact, an excellent zoo with every animal you could wish for. Our very favorite was the baby orangutang who was the most adorable little acrobat showing off his clumsy skills.
Our cheeks hurt from smiling – that little baby was just so cute.
After Omaha, we continued on to South Dakota. We made another last minute adjustment, canceling our overnight in Badlands and adding an extra day to the Black Hills area (see below). We didn’t want to miss out on Badlands National Park, though, so we stopped on the way for a couple of hours.
This area of the country is beautiful.
With never-ending grasslands on one side and strange canyon-ish mountains on the other, the views are spectacular.
As are the sunsets.
The Badlands also boast large populations of Prairie Dogs and so of course we had to check them out.
They are not shy. They make the funniest squeak noises. They pop up out of their underground holes and there are hundreds of them.
I was squatting down low to take the photo of Ryan with the little critters and then they turned toward me and came running.
Eeek! They kinda freaked me out.
We drove that night out of Badlands area on to Hill City, South Dakota during a massive lightning storm that put on the most amazing show for us. We arrived late that night at the second largest KOA in the country. It was quite the place! Restaurants, coffee shop, pancake breakfast, two pools, activities for the kids, horse back riding and so many campsites. There are families that spend a week there on vacation and I can totally see why.
Just a few minutes from the campground is Mount Rushmore which was so much better in real life than we ever could have imagined.
We visited in the mid-morning on a gorgeous day and were literally blown away from how special the carved granite mountain is.
In our research and from reviews I had read that you really only need a few minutes to walk to the entrance, snap a photo and be on your way. Instead, we found that the best views were all the way beyond the row of flags at the visitors center where you get an upfront view of the sculpture as well as a fantastic museum, information video and friendly rangers who once again proved to us how wonderful the National Parks system is.
Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (on of the largest gatherings of motorcyclists in the world) was happening nearby just a few days after our visit so we saw lots and lots of bikers!
Because our summer was filled with so much learning about the first presidents, about early America, about the Civil War; because we visited both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s homes; because our tour of the country made us appreciate how big and beautiful and strong and fragile it all is – this monument felt like the perfect tribute to wrap it all up.
We were in awe of the actual carving of the sculpture. It took 14 years and 400 workers to turn a craggy rock face into the faces of four of our most beloved leaders.
The kids wanted to do the Junior Ranger book.
(This surprised us every time – that they actually wanted to do the workbooks! My kids are smart little things, but the fact that they enjoyed the books says more about the content and quality of the books than anything else. They are fun and informative and made every visit to a national park more meaningful because the kids were able to engage with the history and details of each park.).
Our favorite activity in the workbook was a page where the kids had to draw a face from Mount Rushmore. For over 30 minutes we sat out in the amphitheater taking in the view while the kids did their art. The crowds were all behind us and so it was quiet and peaceful and such a cool experience to really take in the monument.
To top it all off, the little artists created the best pictures! Total keepsakes, for sure.
As we drove back to our campground, there is a quick pull-off where you can catch this unique view:
On another day in the Black Hills, we all went on a trail ride. A horseback ride was something we were hoping to do and it worked out great that there were horses right at our campground.
Ryan and I are riding novices and this was the first time for all four kids. Our horses were slow and it was just right for our first family trail ride.
When we returned, the kids all decided we should get a horse. Someday, children. Someday.
We didn’t know quite what to expect for this part of the road trip and I can honestly say it was some of the best days we had. Thanks Des Moines, Omaha and South Dakota for being wonderful.
We live in Des Moines. You could have stayed with us! I grew up visiting the Black Hills often because my grandmother lived just over the Wyoming border. I am so glad you went against reviews and stayed longer at Mt Rushmore. Even though I have seen it countless times, it is still beautiful!!
My husband and I had our first date at that zoo. It was a 2.5 hour drive from where we were going to college so by the time we were done we figured we were going to end up getting married or things were going to end before they began! ;) 18 years later …
Ahhh … that’s a fun date!
That photo of the prairie sunset looks straight out of Little House on the Prairie.
Now I want to visit that campground.
Our fam loves Mount Rushmore, too! I thought it was just going to be a photo op, but there’s something about it that’s so special. We’ve been there 3 times so far, and I’d go again :)
I love reading about your adventures across our great country! What awesome memories and experiences for you all. We live in the Pacific Northwest too and I’m sure we’ll never get to see all the places you’ve been -so thank you for sharing! God bless.
We loved having you along!
I have followed along the whole way and must say you did an excellent job of documenting everything and providing wonderful insights for those of us who hope to do similar trips. Thank you for sharing your trip and your wonderful family with us.
Thanks for sharing, I am from Singapore and wish I could do road trips like this. Come visit us, we have summer all year round. Cheers!!
You’ve made us all feel like part of your adventure! I especially like the out-of-the-places that you have mentioned. Thanks for sharing and letting us see and know about places we might never go to. Love this country!!!
I’m enjoying your cross-country travels so much, Emily. Your blog is one of the few that I really read and don’t just look at the photos. Your posts on your family’s adventure across this great nation have been very enlightening and entertaining. Safe travels home!
Thank you so much Claudia!
I love that your road trip happened to coincide with the National Parks 100 year anniversary! I’ve noticed that your family went to several of them and generally had great things to say about all of them. How many national parks did you go to all together?
Next time you are in Des.Moines make a trip to Found Things off of 15th and Walnut. It is a fabulous funky antique store.
Loved reading about your family adventure and the Prairie Dogs are adorable. Thank you for sharing. Pictures are all beautiful!
Read to your children, The Great Fuzz Frenzy by Susan Stevens Crummel. It’s funny story with Prairie Dogs as the main characters! You’ll love it!!!
So glad you got to see the Henry Doorly Zoo as well as Mt Rushmore. The zoo is truly one of the best in the country. You are right about Mt Rushmore – you can’t be prepared for how it looks in person and the sky is always so blue!
When I opened my email and saw that you were in my very own hometown of Des Moines, I had to stop everything and read this post! So many other little nuggets I would have loved to show you!! the East Village is full of fabulous shops and restaurants! The River Walk along the Des Moines River makes for a beautiful stroll on a summer day/evening, as well as Grey’s Lake just around the bend from BHG offices. The Pappajohn sculpture park is a gorgeous 4.5 green space with 22 pieces of artwork by world renowned artists. Our gorgeous state capital building with it’s gold leaf dome is definitely worth a stop. Tacopocylypse for funky Korean fusion tacos/burritos, head over the river to Fong’s Pizza for crab rangoon pizza (believe me you will be dreaming of it for weeks) and another great salvage shop Found Things! Oh my I could go on and on! Next time your in town, I’ld love to show you around ;)
So glad you traveled through my state of Iowa, I enjoyed reading about your adventures!
So glad to hear you stopped in our hometown of Des Moines – and glad to hear your favorable review. We are such an underrated and surprising city. Love the West End Salvage and definitely would have advised eating at Zombie Burgers – especially with kids. I hope you also checked out Ray Gun in the East Village – they claim to be the best store in the Universe!
Henry Doorley Zoo IS the best! Did you guys check out the new Splash Pad? Incredible! We were just there this past weekend! LOVE it!
We were there with our kids the week of Sturgis Rally. I highly recommend visiting the area. And if you aren’t camping Sturgis week is totally fun. All the bike rally people aren’t interested in doing the family focused activities like Cave hikes. Multiple spots told us it was the season’s slow week for them.
Amazing things to see Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Custer Park, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are all fantastic!
Having lived my entire life in South Dakota I thank you for the kind and generous review of our wonderful state. I grew up in the Black Hills (now live in Sioux Falls) and it truly does take your breath away every single time you see Mount Rushmore and experience the hills. Your family travels have been a true inspiration and one my husband and I might replicate when he retires in a few years. Thanks for your lovely blog – you are an inspiration Lex family!
South Dakota reader here and love that you visited our state and enjoyed some of the things we are the most proud of. We live in Terry Redlin’s home town and would have loved to welcome you here, too.
My favorite photo is seeing you reading a magazine featuring a southern home in my hometown that I get to drive by on a regular basis. I can only dream of experiencing such a fabulous vacation with my family and I have thoroughly enjoyed taking peeks at your vacation through my computer. Thank you for sharing it with us.
So glad you enjoyed your time in the Midwest (I live in Des Moines)! We get overlooked at times and always want people to realize how special it is here :)
I was hoping you’d taken a bit more time in Omaha – a GREAT city with soooo much to do and see, worth another trip! Thanks for sharing!