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.