Week 2: Minnesota – South Dakota


After leaving Madison we headed northwest to the Mississippi River. I had heard that the northern section of the river was quite beautiful and I wanted to drive along it to make our way to Minneapolis. We stopped for lunch at Perrot State Park in Wisconsin which has trails going up along the bluffs, offering a fantastic view of the river and Minnesota on the other side. Later we stopped in Wabasha, MN at the National Eagle Center, an eagle sanctuary that has some rehabilitated bald eagles and exhibits about the bird, along with great views of the Mississippi. We wanted to stop for dinner in Red Wing but it happened to be a holiday, the 4th of July, and almost everything was closed. We kept driving to Minneapolis instead and checked into our room, a one bedroom suite downtown in Embassy Suites, Minneapolis, free with Hilton certificates. The room was nice and big with a dining table, sectional sleeper sofa, and bedroom with a king size bed. This part of the city also seemed pretty dead, so we ordered take out and went to bed.

The next morning we decided to walk over to the sculpture garden to see the famous spoon and cherry sculpture. The hotel normally offers free breakfast but because of staffing shortages all they had was some hard boiled eggs and yogurt, which the kids did not want. We told them we would eat breakfast out after our walk. The walk to the gardens was not far but it was very hot, about 96 degrees before noon! The sculptures were great and luckily they had some mist spraying so we could cool off. We decided to get brunch at a local place, Eggy’s, on the way home, and the wait was an hour for a table. We went over to a local game shop and bought a family version of Cards Against Humanity and played that while we waited. Once we got our table we still had to wait in line to order at the counter! The food was worth the wait however. It was really good and very filling. We were extremely full as we walked back to the hotel, stopping at the Mary Tyler Moore statue so I could do my best impersonation.

Since it was so hot out we spent the rest of the afternoon in the hotel, swimming in their pool and resting. That evening we drove over to Minnehaha park, which is a park in the city that has a gorgeous waterfall and trails along the river. It was the day after the 4th of July so it was a holiday, and lots of families were there picknicking and hanging out by the river. Afterwards we drove over to the Lyn Lakes neighborhood for some Vietnamese food and gourmet ice cream.

The next day was rainy and I had wanted to visit some of the local fabric shops. My husband and the kids wanted to see Mall Of America so they took an Uber out there. I found some amazing pieces of fabric and had fun exploring the various neighborhoods. They enjoyed seeing the largest mall in the world, although my husband said, “I don’t need to go back there.” We wanted to try some African food for dinner since there is a large Somali population in Minneapolis. We ended up getting some great Ethiopian food from Grubhub and called it a night.

We started the next leg of our journey heading towards Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where Laura Ingalls Wilder spent some of her childhood and the Little House on the Prairie series was set. Along the way, as we drove through rural Minnesota, my youngest son’s stomach was upset, and unfortunately he threw up all over the car. It turns out he wasn’t sick, he just had a bad reaction to the bagel with butter and orange juice he had for breakfast. After getting him cleaned up we continued and made it to the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum. It is small and has some artifacts and a lot of replicas of the time period, but as a fan of her books and the TV show, I enjoyed it.

The rest of the day we spent driving across South Dakota, stopping in Sioux Falls for lunch. They had a great food co-op where we stocked up on food for camping. We made it to our next destination, Badlands National Park, around dinner time. The scenery was amazing and we had a campsite in the park. The problem was there were 20 mph winds whipping across the prairie, which made setting up camp a little rough! After dinner we went to bed but the winds kept going and practically blew the tents down on top of us. Then it started thunderstorming! The kids and I got so freaked out we spent part of the night in the car. It reminded me of our first night camping in Zion NP through a crazy thunderstorm. Things finally calmed down and we got a little sleep, but not much.

The next morning we headed to the trails early to try to beat the heat. It was going to be in the high 90s in the park. We went and did the Window, Door, and Notch trails which are short trails that take you through the mud buttes and to some great views of the Badlands. We even spied some longhorn sheep. You are also allowed to hike off trail at Badlands so we had some fun exploring around the buttes.

After some time on the trails we stopped at the visitor center. This was our first encounter with the huge National Park crowds of 2021. They had a cool exhibit about the park but it was shoulder to shoulder with people. They also had a fossil room with specimens found in the park and a few scientists working on fossils who you could talk to about their work. Badlands has tons of fossils of post-dinosaur animals, such as the first horses. Visitors find them all the time and if you find a fossil you are asked to report it to the park service.

After lunch we decided to do the driving loop trail but we stopped to hike Saddle Pass and the small Fossil trail. It started getting really hot so we spent the rest of the time in the car stopping at overlooks to see the amazing vistas. We made our way into the town of Wall to visit the famous Wall drug, which was totally packed and kind of cheesy, but they did have a camping store where we picked up some supplies we were needing. We also stopped in the Buffalo National Grasslands visitor center which has some nice exhibits about the prairie if you need to escape from Wall drug. We started getting some weather warnings on our phone that a bad thunderstorm was going to be moving through the area with golf ball side hail 😳 and we started freaking out about being in tents through it. We headed back to camp and watched the weather, and luckily the storm passed us by. When it got dark we walked over to the ranger program about the night sky. They had telescopes out for us to use.

Unfortunately, after we went to bed, the wind and rain started again. My youngest son was so freaked out he came into the tent with me. We did not need to sleep in the car but we had another night with little sleep.

The next morning we wearily packed up camp and headed west into the Black Hills of South Dakota. About 90 minutes from Badlands is Mt. Rushmore. It was pretty cool to enter the Black Hills and see the landscape change from yellow, brown, and flat, to mountainous with green trees. The towns around Mt. Rushmore are very touristy and we drove straight to the park. The National Monument is free but there are huge parking decks around it and they charge $10 to park. It was incredibly crowded but the monument is so big you can still get a great view. We were a little freaked out by the size of the crowds so we decided to skip the museum and headed out.

We drove over to Custer State Park, which I had heard was amazing. I wanted to camp there but their campsites book as soon as they are released. We ended up at Sylvan Lake, which it turns out is one of the “Crown Jewels” of the park. It is a damned up river and a beautiful small lake surrounded by huge granite rocks. Many people were out swimming, picknicking, and walking around the lake. We hiked the trail around the lake which takes you up and over some of the large boulders and gives some great views. They also have a lodge on the lake and kayaks and paddle boards to rent.

We left the park and headed over to our campsite past the town of Custer in the Black Hills National Forest. We were watching the forecast and saw that it was going to thunderstorm that evening. We were so tired after camping through two thunderstorms in Badlands we couldn’t stomach the thought of another sleepless and scary night. I checked what rooms were available in Custer and luckily I was able to book a room at the Holiday Inn using IHG points. We still checked in at the campground and set up our tents. Afterwards we decided to drive the Needles highway through Custer State Park, which is a scenic highway that goes through some of the largest granite rock formations, with one lane tunnels through some of them. You ready do feel like you are driving through the eye of a needle! It was incredible and we stopped at some of the lookouts over the Black Hills. At one we saw a mountain goat and her kid!

We had dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Custer and then went to bed, as we were going to wake up super early the next day to get cave tour tickets at Wind Cave National Park.

We arrived at the park around 6:15am and were the 2nd ones in line but people started coming. For this park you cannot reserve the tour tickets online and must line up at the visitor center to buy them when they open. I read online that people get there at 8am when it opens and the line is already 200 people long! I didn’t think it was that bad but getting there early did allow us to get our choice of tour so we got tickets for the Fairgrounds tour at 11am. We obviously had some time after that so we ate breakfast and had some coffee at a picnic area of the park and explored the visitor’s center. Our tour was awesome; about 90 minutes through Wind Cave, a dry cave with some interesting “boxwork” and “popcorn” formations.

After the tour we had lunch in Custer and got some groceries and then we headed back to Custer State Park. This time we decided to drive the Wildlife route in the park in the hopes of seeing some bison, as the park does have a herd. The drive was beautiful but we did not spy any bison. We did see wild burros that live in the park and are very people friendly. We also stopped at the visitor center. This park is huge and well funded, it is on par with many of the national parks and it would have been fun to camp there.

We headed over to our campsite, made dinner, and had a nice evening around the campfire. It did not thunderstorm but it did get rather chilly at night, and we worried a little that we would be cold while camping in Yellowstone.

The next morning we broke down camp and headed northwest to Devil’s Tower National Monument, which was about a 90 minute drive away. Along the way we stopped in Sundance, WY, because a friend of mine from college happened to be on a road trip out there and wanted to say hi. We got to Devil’s Tower around 3 and could see the huge rock formation rising up in the distance out of the flat prairie. It was pretty amazing to finally see in person what we had seen for years in pictures and movies, of course the most famous being Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

When we got to the park it was really crowded, but we did the hike around the huge tower, staring up at it in awe the whole time. It was amazing to see the naturally formed rock columns up close and to learn about how they were formed. We also got to see some rock climbers ascending and we learned how the Indigenous people saw this sacred space, which they called, Bear (something). We left around 5 and drove for many hours across Wyoming, stopping in Casper for dinner. We finally made it to Riverton, WY, where I had booked a Hampton Inn on points. The hotel was actually really nice and had a great breakfast including home fries with steak!

This leg of the trip was not without its trials but overall was pretty cool. Looking back we would have spent less time in Minneapolis. Badlands National Park was amazing and the Black Hills were an awesome surprise, especially Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. I would highly recommend a visit to this area and if you can camp at Custer State Park, it would be worth it to spend some time there. Devil’s Tower was mind-blowing and also worth the drive, and could easily be worked into a trip to the Black Hills.

Week 1: Cleveland – Chicago – Madison


We left home pretty early on a Sunday and made it to Cleveland around 2pm. We first headed over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the waterfront. It was cool to see the artifacts from the artists, especially their costumes. It was really busy and one of our first experiences post-Covid in a space with a lot of people, so we all felt pretty anxious. After we left we headed down to the waterfront and almost got caught in a pop-up thunderstorm. We then checked into our hotel, Metropolitan at the 9, which we got for free with Marriott free night certificates. It was a nice big room with a sofa and wall fireplace. For dinner we walked down to Masthead brewery to meet my travel-hacking friend Jason. We tried some great wood fired pizza and local beers. After dinner my husband and I had an after dinner cocktail at the rooftop hotel bar and walked around a bit more.

The next morning my husband had some work calls so the boys and I drove out to the Tremont neighborhood and had breakfast at Grumpy’s. Afterwards we walked about 15 minutes to the Christmas Story House museum and bought tickets for the 10am tour. I should mention that it was crazy hot and humid! The tour was pretty interesting and gave a lot of information about the film, A Christmas Story. Only some scenes were filmed in that house and others were filmed in Canada, which was good because it didn’t snow in Cleveland for the whole time they filmed. They had to make do with foam and instant mashed potatoes! You are able to play around with all of the objects in the home as they are not the real artifacts, so the kids and I had fun recreating some of our favorite scenes.

Next we headed back to the hotel to pick up my husband and then we drove down to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, our first national park of the trip! We had read this national park is a little underwhelming as it is kind of woven throughout the suburbs of the Cuyahoga Valley between Cleveland and Akron. We went to the visitor’s center and talked to the ranger about some hikes we could do. It was super hot and extremely humid, so we weren’t sure how much hiking we had in us. We visited a little general store that is part of the park and tried some Ohio Buckeye candy. We drove first to Brandywine Falls, which was nice, but actually not as impressive as a lot of the waterfalls near where we live in Central NY. I suppose we are a little spoiled! We did a loop hike here and got pretty hot and cranky. Next we drove over to The Ledges, which is supposed to be a cool iconic hike through some rock gorges. It thunderstormed right as we got to the parking lot so we waited in the car until it stopped and then headed out. Thank goodness it rained and cut the heat and humidity a bit! The hike was pretty cool as the rock formations got pretty massive towards the end. The geology and landscape was actually very similar to where we live though, so it seemed like a fairly typical hike for us. Afterwards we headed back towards Cleveland and had an awesome German dinner at Das Schnitzel Haus!

Did I mention that my oldest son developed a cold on the first day of our trip? The kids have not been sick for 18 months between mask-wearing and social-distancing, and he got sick on day one. I was really worried he would give it to the rest of us, and of course, my other son caught it from him and was sick by day 3. So that morning he decided to rest in the hotel with my husband, and I took my oldest son, who was feeling better, back to the national park to ride bikes on the Ohio and Erie Canalway, which runs partly through the national park but also some state and local parks. On some days you can catch the railroad and do a bike and ride, but unfortunately the train wasn’t running that day. It was still incredibly hot and humid but did feel a little cooler in the shaded forest that we rode through on the canal towpath. We rode down to a cool beaver marsh and turned around. On the way back my son’s brakes locked up, throwing him off the bike. Luckily some strangers stopped to help us get the bike in good enough shape to ride back. We made it back and had lunch at a local chain, Winking Lizard.

We headed back to the city and all four of us walked through the city over to the Cleveland aquarium. It was cool to see some more of the city along the way. The aquarium was small but they have a really long tunnel with sharks! That evening we decided to get tacos from a place by the hotel, but unfortunately there was an Indians game and the place was packed! My husband and I waited at the bar and secured the food, which was really good. Then we packed up to head out in the morning.

The next day we started driving west to Indiana. It rained a lot along the way and we were really nervous our day trip to Indiana Dunes National Park would be rained out. By the time we got there the rain did stop and after a trip to the visitor center we headed over to Indiana Dunes state park which is kind of in the middle of the national park. We wanted to attempt the “3 Dune Challenge” hike. It was really cool to hike on sand dunes through the forest and peak at the top of the 3 dunes. You could see Lake Michigan. By the 3rd dune we started to feel some raindrops and it began to rain. We made it down to the campground and car and drove over to one of the beaches on Lake Michigan before heading to Chicago.

We arrived in Chicago around dinner time and just ordered food in. We stayed at the Residence Inn in the North River neighborhood on Marriott free night certificates. The kids were exhausted so once it got dark my husband and I went for an evening walk. We went down to the Chicago river and so many of the buildings were lit up in rainbow for Pride month. It was beautiful and I immediately fell in love with the city.

The next day we checked off many Chicago boxes: Millennium park and the cloud gate (bean) sculpture, the Field Museum, the Shedd aquarium, a water taxi to Navy Pier, and an architecture boat tour. Plus Chicago dogs for lunch and deep dish pizza for dinner! Everything was awesome! The Field Museum had an exhibit on one of my heroes, Jane Goodall. I read her biography last summer so it was really cool to see some personal artifacts. The aquarium was great, especially the beluga whales. I loved the architecture tour and would highly recommend this as a must-do for a first time visit to Chicago. I thought the Chicago dogs were surprisingly good and the deep dish pizza was ok, although I could only eat one slice. That night was watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the classic Chicago-based 80’s film.

The next day I had some morning meetings and so the boys took a walk along the Riverwalk and found an awesome Cuban coffee shop. Once I was done I met them at the Willis (Sears) Tower so we could go up to the top. The line was a bit long but the view was amazing. Plus we got to stand where Ferris, Cameron, and Sloan did from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. We waited in line to go to the plexiglass boxes that jut out from the building. I went on for about 10 seconds before I felt nauseous and got off, but the kids had fun playing around on them.

After we left the sky deck we walked over to the Art Institute of Chicago. Luckily for us they had the Obama Presidential portraits on exhibit! It was so exciting to see them in person! The AIC is huge but we wanted to see as much of it as we could, so we spent the rest of the afternoon there. By the time we left in the early evening, our feet were killing us, but we really wanted to leave the Loop and check out one of the outlying neighborhoods for dinner. We chose Andersonville which was historically Swedish but now is the LBGTQ neighborhood. We took the L there and it was a great choice. Nice, pleasant streets and a main drag with some cool shops and restaurants. We are dinner at am Irish pub, Lady Gregory’s, and got dessert at an Argentine gelato shop before heading back to the hotel.

The next morning we left early and started the 2 hour drive to Madison, Wisconsin. We got there just in time for the Saturday farmers market that is set up around the capital building. We grabbed some delicious iced coffees and then some lunch at a Venezuelan food truck (arepas), which was awesome. We walked around the market and state street and sampled and bought some Wisconsin cheese! Next we took a short drive over to the the free mustard museum in the neighboring town of Middleton. It was a cute place and we got to do a mustard tasting. Afterwards we headed back to Madison to check out the zoo, which is free! It was a great zoo with lots of exhibits. Finally we checked into the hotel, a Springhill Suites which was free on points, and enjoyed a swim in the pool. For dinner that evening we went to a local diner and then drove over to one of the parks on one of the lakes to watch the sunset. I really loved Madison! It was so pleasant and seemed like a great place to live! There were bike paths, lakes, and lots of free things to do and outdoor spaces. I would love to go back as we only spent one day there. That rounded out our first week of the trip!