Our creative director, Greg Miller and his family took the road trip of a lifetime to Yellowstone National Park this summer and brought Lap Around America along for the ride. In this first post in the series about their amazing family vacation, the Millers discover South Dakota and spend a day at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
We, like many families this year, had plans for a fun beach vacation scheduled in May. And then the world changed, so we had to as well. As our rental properties started cancelling due to COVID-19, we cancelled our trip truly believing that we would reschedule before the summer ended. And then the summer dragged on and on. Our family is blessed with the opportunity for both of us parents to work from home. But that comes with its own challenges, not the least of which is an extreme desire to get outside and away from the four walls of the house. In talking about potential trips, we had to consider that many places throughout the country are closing or still closed, travel is challenging, and activities are limited. The idea of a road trip was floated but wasn’t something that we’d ever really done before, so logistics were tricky. Enter Lap Around America! We worked with the team to get prepared for the idea of an RV road trip and started gearing up. There were many YouTube videos watched, lots of Google searches and multiple early morning awakenings to “What did we get ourselves into?!” anxiety. Vacation was scheduled, supplies purchased and before we knew it- we hit the road!
In planning the trip, we mapped out our ultimate ‘destination’, which was more of a turnaround point on the road trip. We were ambitions (especially considering our rookie status) in our daily travel plans. Our first day we left home heading north and drove through Missouri to Lewis and Clark State Park in Onawa, IA. It is the only non-KOA location we scheduled for the trip and it was a gem. We found our site, had a first successful setup of the camper and had plenty of time to explore before having our first campground dinner. Part of trip planning included meal planning and pre-cooking for the trip. We brought along a lot of our favorite foods including ramen, mac and cheese, pulled BBQ chicken, sloppy joes and fixings for chili dogs. After dinner we were able to hang out outside until the bugs forced us inside. We learned a quick lesson that night to not leave the lights on outside the camper at night and then open the door!
After a cold night (that AC is powerful!) in the camper, we woke up excited for another big day on the road. We packed up, unhooked and pulled out of the campsite. Heading north along the Missouri River, we hit Sioux Falls, SD and stopped for a quick bite of lunch. The South Dakota Air National Guard entertained us with an unexpected mini-air show as they were doing fly-bys over our lunch stop. Leaving Sioux Falls, we took a hard left to start our long drive across the width of South Dakota. This was the first trip to SD for all of us and we were blown away. We saw rolling hills and wide-open grasslands, but the sunflowers as far as the eye could see were our favorites. As we fought the crosswinds that really make all the windmills we passed useful, we finally arrived in the Black Hills. The Black Hills are a small, isolated mountain range in southwest South Dakota and if you’ve never been—start planning your trip now! We gasped around every corner as the scenery got better and better with each curve. The best curve was the one that revealed Mount Rushmore right outside our window! We didn’t realize you could see it from the road and big kudos are due to our dad-driver for keeping us on the road while we oooh’d and ahhhh’d.
We splurged a bit on a deluxe campsite at the Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch in Hill City, SD. We were right on the main ‘street’ of the campground only 2 minutes from the stables/coffee shop/ice cream shop in one direction and the Fun Zone in the other direction. The kids discovered there was a water slide, did a quick change and off they went! They slid for what seemed like forever while the adults enjoyed a Native American Hoop Dancing presentation at the stage nearby. There were so many things to do that there is no way we could have fit them all in. They had outdoor movies in the evening, activities at the pavilion each day that included marshmallow guns, root beer floats, tie-dye t-shirts, chalk art and family bingo. We could choose from cornhole, basketball, volleyball, swimming, horseback riding (more to come there!) and bike riding. We have described this KOA, which is the third largest in the country, as “Summer Camp for Families”!
Mount Rushmore National Monument is free to visit, but it does cost $10 to park your vehicle. We arrived mid-morning before it got too crowded and parked in the parking garage. It is the shortest walk up a few stairs, and you are right inside the gates. As you walk through the gates, you look up and see the perfect view of the monument through the avenue of flags. Each state/territory is represented with its flag. Naturally, we had to find our Arkansas flag and take a picture of the kids in front of it. Greg found his Indiana flag and Emily found her Oklahoma flag. We also snapped a quick pic of the Texas flag for family. We decided to walk the Presidential Trail around the grounds, and it was beautiful. You can see the sculptures from every angle as you walk the trail. We remembered to bring a couple of pairs of binoculars and that just made the whole experience even cooler. There are so many things to see around the grounds- from the sculptor’s studio to the museum where we learned about the baseball team formed by the workers during their time creating the monument- the Memorial Team. So much history to learn- it isn’t just about seeing heads on a mountain. A must-do while you are there is the TJ Vanilla ice cream. Made from Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe from 1780 it was delicious and received high praise from our own personal vanilla ice cream connoisseur.
We took a final look at Mount Rushmore as we pulled out of the area and headed over to the Crazy Horse Memorial. The Crazy Horse Memorial has been under construction for 70+ years and is not near completion at this point. We made a point, in the interest of time, to not enter the actual memorial space. There is a pull-off on the highway where you can get a perfect view of the memorial and we took advantage of that. We used our handy dandy binoculars again and were able to view the memorial and get an idea of the scale. It is enormous- it is hard to imagine what it will look like if/when it ever gets finished. From there, we headed to Custer State Park. We had read about the wildlife loop and were really looking forward to seeing some wildlife on our drive. We didn’t even make it to the actual loop before we ran in to a herd of bison in a field. That was fun to see, but then we turned the corner near the lodge and found ourselves in a bison jam on the road. It was so cool to see these huge animals just making their way at their own pace in between the vehicles and off into the distance.
Stay tuned for more family adventure fun from the Millers as they make their way to Yellowstone!