Week 4: North Dakota, Minnesota, & Michigan

The next morning we decided to try to get breakfast in the town of Gardener, right outside the northern entrance. Unfortunately as it was Sunday, all of the breakfast places were packed. We decided to continue on to Livingston Montana and get breakfast there. When we arrived, excited to a try a cool brunch place that we found online, we learned they weren’t taking any new customers and had a two hour wait! It turns out every restaurant had the same issue. We encountered a lot of this type of thing on the trip, due to the labor shortage and the high volume of people in the parks. We had to settle for McDonald’s which even took about 30 minutes!

Finally we made our way to Bozeman, MT, where we were going to visit with friends that evening. It was about 100 degrees in Bozeman so we were not going to do anything outside. We decided to check out the Museum of the Rockies on the Montana State campus. Fortunately, we got in for free with the membership I had purchased for the Field Museum in Chicago! I had a hard time booking the time slotted appointments for the museum without a membership so I purchased a family membership knowing that I would get reciprocal membership at various science museums around the world for the next year. The museum had a great exhibit on the history of Yellowstone and a huge dinosaur fossil collection, including the largest complete T-Rex skeleton in the world and the largest collection of Triceratops specimens. Apparently Montana is ground zero for finding Triceratops fossils, and they showed a lot of pictures and videos of the scientists uncovering them in the field. We also watched a show in their planetarium and then it was finally time to check into our hotel, a Residence Inn that I had secured on points. Unfortunately, because of the labor shortage they were so short staffed that rooms weren’t ready yet and there were several groups of people waiting in the lobby to check in. We finally were able to and we headed into the hotel pool to cool down.

At dinner time we headed over to my good friend’s house where her parents and boyfriend had also gathered and they made us a home cooked meal, which was so delicious and wonderful after several weeks of not having one! We had a fun night visiting with them.

The next morning we started a long drive through Montana to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is just over the border in Medora, North Dakota. I figured we would get in that evening so I booked us a room (on points) at the AmericInn. I realized that in all this time in cattle country I still had not had a steak, so for dinner we went to the next little town over to a steakhouse for dinner. I did get a deliciously cooked T-bone for dinner. We were also eyeing the forecast for the next day because we were going to camp at TRNP, which is first-come, first-serve camping. But the next day it was going to be over a 100 degrees F with 20 mph winds! We were worried about having a repeat of our camping experience at Badlands so I quickly booked a 2nd night at the hotel (on points, of course).

The next morning we got to the park early to try to get a hike in before it got to hot. We wanted to check out the Petrified Forest trail, which can be done as a 10 mile loop or 3 miles out and back into the Petrified Forest. The views of the buttes in the prairie were beautiful as we made our way into the ancient petrified forest. When we arrived there were petrified tree segments everywhere. We spent time walking around exploring them in awe and then headed up the trail a little, only to find a lone bison chillin on the prairie. We made our way back stopping at the forest section again, and everyone was in agreement it was awesome.

Next we headed into the park to drive through and do some short overlook hikes along the way. Almost immediately we came across bison herds right in the road. We also passed through prairie dog towns and beautiful vistas where we saw wild horses that also live in the park. It was definitely hot and incredibly windy, which made us glad we didn’t camp. We did stop at the campground section for a picnic lunch before heading to the visitor center where we got to see some cool exhibits on the park and Theodore Roosevelt, whose Maltese Cross cabin was moved to behind the visitor center. This whole stretch of land was where he had his ranch.

After a cool off swim at the hotel we went to town for dinner at Medora Uncork’d, a wine bar that featured homemade pizzas and flatbreads. Afterward we headed back over to the park to see a sunset at Wind Canyon. At around 9 that evening we went to the campground to listen to a ranger talk on the animals of the park. We all agreed that Theodore Roosevelt National Park was a hidden gem and we wished we could spend more time there!

The next morning we continued east and stopped at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. This is where several Native American Villages once were, and this is where Pocahontas was from. They have a nice Visitor’s Center and a recreated Earth Lodge. We hiked to the river to see the site of the original villages. We got back on the road to drive through the geographic center of North America (did not stop at the marker) and made it to Bismarck, ND where we got a quick oil change at Jiffy Lube. From a Yelp search I found that a Puerto Rican bakery was nearby so we stopped there for some pastries and then discovered a food truck next door in the Home Depot parking lot. We were starving so we decided to give it a try and we found out that the owner was a chef in San Luis Obisbo, CA but his wife was from Bismarck and they moved here over the pandemic to have her family help with their 3 young kids. The food was amazing as were the Puerto Rican pastries. In fact, all of the food we had gotten so far in ND was excellent – who would have thought! We finally made it to Fargo around 6 but we ate lunch so late we decided to cook our own light dinner in the kitchen of our suite at Staybridge Suites; which I had gotten on points. We enjoyed relaxing in the room and the next morning we made our way over to downtown Fargo to get a take away lunch order from BernBaum’s, a Scandinavian/Jewish deli with vegan options. It was so good, we ordered half of the store including bagels with lox, gourmet knish, rugelach, and matzoh granola. Our awesome food in North Dakota streak continued! We also checked out some of the shops in downtown Fargo before heading back in the car for the long drive ahead of us through Minnesota.

We decided to break up the drive by stopping at Itasca State Park, which has the headwaters of the Mississippi! It was a short walk from the visitor center over to the headwaters, and it was really cool to cross the Mississippi on foot! We had our BernBaum’s lunch in the park and then continued our very long drive all the way up to International Falls, which is almost to Canada.

We made it to our next hotel in Rainier, MN, which was called The Cantilever Inn. It is a new boutique hotel and a distillery with a bar and restaurant. They were super busy and had a live band, but fortunately the restaurant across the street had a table open and we had a great dinner there – I got to try my first Walleye! After dinner we got the kids situated in the room and my husband and I went to our hotel’s bar to try some of their cocktails made with their homemade liquor and listen to the band. The crowd thinned out and the bar closed up around 10 and we got to bed.

The next morning we drove over to the Voyageurs National Park Visitor Center for our first boat tour of the park. As the park is 40% water there are few hiking trails and I figured the best way to see it was from the water, so I booked both boat tours that the park service offered that day. The first one was a tour of Rainy Lake that lasted about 2 hours. During the tour the park ranger spoke about the history of the area, including the French Voyageurs who came from Canada and paddled all through the lakes to trap beaver. There were also several mines and a small mining boom after gold was discovered in the native quartz. Unfortunately it was such a labor intensive process to extract the gold that it never yielded much profit, so the miners headed west and abandoned the mines. We also spotted many bald eagles and the ranger taught us about them and their habitat.

After the boat tour we only had 30 minutes before the next one, so we had to eat quickly in the parking lot. This tour took us by boat over to Little American Island, which was the site of one of the mines. This was not as interesting and we agreed it could have been skipped. It was starting to get really hot so after the tour we hung out in the visitor center and then headed back to the small town of Rainier where we were staying to go for a swim in the town beach. Unfortunately it started thunderstorming right as we got in! We took shelter in our room and waited for the storm to pass and then the kids and my husband took a walk around town while I took a short nap. Finally at 7 we had dinner at the distillery and then watched the sunset from the docks.

The next morning we headed east and made a quick stop in Duluth. I always wanted to check out Duluth trading company and I found some bargains in the store. We took a quick walk on the lakefront of Lake Superior and then got back in the car to drive over to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Along the way we drove through Wisconsin and I wanted to stop at Culver’s, which I had never heard of before this trip but is a local fast food chain with a little higher end burgers and custard! We were lucky to stop at one that was right on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore! The food was awesome and we got to see a little secret beach on Lake Superior behind the Culver’s. We kept driving until we finally reached our destination of Houghton, Michigan. We have friends who live there on Portage Lake and own a boutique hotel downtown in a historic bank. The hotel was full that night so we stayed in a cabin on the lake that was only a few houses down from our friends. We got to go for a swim and then head over to their house to hang out for a bit, and they took us on a boat tour where we could see Houghton from the water. They wrote out a great itinerary for us for sightseeing for the next day.

The next morning my husband and I took a quick kayak trip on the lake before we packed up and headed out for the day. We drove across the bridge in Houghton to the Keneenaw peninsula which is like the upper most peninsula of the upper peninsula, and juts out into Lake Superior. At one point there were several copper mines in the area and you can tour them, but we wanted to explore some of the outdoor scenery. We stopped in the historic mining town of Calumet and got some great coffee and snacks at Keneenaw coffee company. Then we continued on our journey east, stopping at a few waterfalls along the way and seeing the amazing views of Lake Superior. We drove all the way up Brockaway Mountain where we had incredible 270 degree views of the lake and the forests below. We then headed back down through some of the historic harbors and had a great lunch at a little restaurant on the beach, Fitzgerald’s. After lunch the kids went for a swim in the lake and then we started heading back into town.

We checked into our friends’ hotel the Vault which was super cool and beautifully decorated. We relaxed for a while and then my husband and I took a little walk around downtown Houghton. A lot was closed because it was Sunday but we got the kids and decided to have dinner at a seafood restaurant.

The next morning we woke up early to go to a local Finnish restaurant called Suomi. The kids and I tried their Pannukakku which are baked, custardy pancakes with a berry sauce. They were delicious! We stopped at the Isle Royale Visitor Center. Even though we did not take the Ranger III for the 6 hour rough sail up to the park, we poked around a bit and did collect some stamps for our National Park passbooks. Next we drove west and stopped at a little rest stop which had a 10 minute hike out to a waterfall. It was really pretty and reminded us a lot of the landscape where we live which had similar waterfalls. We continued driving to Munising, MI, which is a little beach town that borders Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. For lunch we went to Muldoon’s pasty shop and got to try some Upper Peninsula pasties! They were really good and definitely filled us up for our next adventure.

After lunch we parked at Pictured Rocks Kayaking and checked in for the 2:30 tour. They take you on a large boat that stores about 30 tandem kayaks on top, and take you about 30 minutes out to the most beautiful sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and launch you in small groups of about 6 kayaks and a guide. The guide took us on a 5 mile paddling tour along the Lakeshore, which was truly breathtaking. The water was so clear you could see the rocks perfectly at the bottom. The color was as turquoise as the Caribbean. And jutting up from the water were 50 foot cliffs of orange, yellow and red sandstone. We were able to kayak into little caves and through natural tunnels. It was an amazing experience. Exhausted but feeling accomplished, after the tour we drove out to our campground which was near the national park. It was a small, privately owned campground that only had about 12 wooded sites and was mostly tent campers. Our site was large, wooded, and private. The only problem was there were people in a camper across from us who were running their generator, despite the fact that it was 8pm and you were not allowed to have them on past 6. We kept thinking eventually they would turn it off, but unfortunately they kept it running all night! Otherwise it was a perfectly lovely site. We overheard the owner talking to them the next morning about moving to a place that had hook-ups. There was also a mile thunderstorm that night, which was not bad but after our experience in Badlands it scared my youngest son enough that he came in to sleep with me, so between that and the generator I did not get a great nights sleep.

The next morning we packed up and headed out. We spent some more time at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and then drove down to catch the 3pm ferry to Mackinac Island. When we landed on the island the main drag was so packed with people it was very off-putting, plus we still hadn’t eaten lunch and were starving. We went to a restaurant and ate a basic burger and fries lunch, and then decided to walk into the State Park section to escape the crowds. It was definitely much less crowded in the park and we walked to Skull Cave and then the Arch, which was quite beautiful over Lake Superior. The kids kept asking to swim so we went over to a beach area on a lawn with a bu ch if Adirondack chairs and let them swim in the lake for about 45 minutes. We were nervous to catch the ferry back because we had a 4 hour drive to our hotel, so we had then dry off and headed back into town, stopping at a fudge shop to get some famous Mackinac Island fudge. We made the 7 pm ferry and then drove over the huge Mackinac bridge into the other side of Michigan. We drove straight to the Ann Arbor area where we had a reservation at a holiday inn (on points) and crashed about 11:30 am. The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel and started our long 7 hour drive back home!

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