Week 4: North Dakota, Minnesota, & Michigan

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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!

Week 3: Wyoming

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After getting some extra blankets and warm clothes from Wal-Mart in Riverton, we started driving to Jackson, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park. We drove through the eastern entrance of the park to get to town and right away spotted some Bison grazing! This was super exciting, as was seeing the Teton Mountain range in the distance. The sky was a but hazy from fires in the Pacific Northwest, but we could still see the huge, snow-capped mountains rising right out of the plains.

We drove into town and checked into the SpringHill suites, which I reserved on points. They had a nice outdoor pool and patio area which we were grateful to use to relax a little. I had wanted to eat at a nice restaurant for dinner in Jackson with my husband, but between the crowds and labor shortage, it was almost impossible to get a reservation anywhere. I was able to get 2 seats at the bar at 5:15 at a farm to table restaurant called Trio, so my husband and I left the kids in the hotel and headed over there for a fancy meal. It was pretty delicious (and expensive) and afterwards we walked around the town for a bit and browsed in some of the tourist shops.

We went back and got the kids something to eat and then walked around town a bit more. On our way back to the hotel we heard some music and walked across the street to check it out. We happened to be next to the Jackson Arts Center, and a band was playing, Midnight North. We settled in on the grass and listened to their show and people-watched. They were a great Western, jam-band style band and even did some Grateful Dead covers.

The next morning I had to take my son to the Urgent Care in Jackson as his ear had been hurting him and we were concerned he had an infection. It turns out he did and was prescribed some antibiotics. Luckily the urgent care and pharmacy didn’t take very long so once we were done we headed into the park. Unfortunately by the time we got there all of the popular areas were over-crowded with people. The Jenny Lake parking lots were full and people were parked on the side of the road for miles. We decided to keep heading north to some of the less popular spots and ended up in the Colter Bay Area. We did the short lake view hike around some of the bays with views of the mountains in the distance. As we headed back down south it was later in the afternoon so we were able to easily get a parking spot in the Jenny Lake area. We took the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake over to the trailhead for Cascade Falls and Inspiration Point. The trails were packed even at this time so I can’t imagine how busy they were earlier in the day. Cascade falls was beautiful as was the hike up to Inspiration Point. My husband and I wanted to hike around the canyon a bit more but the kids were nervous about the hike back. Rather than wait for the shuttle we decided to hike back the 2.5 miles around the lake to the visitor center. It was a beautiful hike and away from the crowds. When we got back to Jackson we were excited to try Big Hole BBQ which had some awesome ribs.

The next morning my husband had a meeting and the kids were tired, so I rented a bike and rode out to the bike trail that goes next to the National Elk preserve and along the park. Unfortunately the skies were so hazy from the fires you could barely see the Tetons! But the ride was pretty great anyway. It was cool to watch the planes land right next to the mountains into Jackson Hole airport.

That afternoon we enjoyed the pool. walked around town a bit more and got some tacos and some amazing gourmet ice cream at Moo’s. That evening there was a Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Arts center next to our hotel. We spent the evening watching that (it was great!) and then went to bed early as we had an early morning planned.

That morning we left Jackson at 5:30am in order to get to Yellowstone early enough to beat some of the crowds. We drove up John D. Rockefeller highway up through Grand Teton National Park and into Yellowstone National Park. As we got closer to Old Faithful we could see columns of steam rising through the trees. I couldn’t believe how other-worldly this looked. When we arrived at Old Faithful we learned it had just erupted so we had about 90 minutes to walk around and explore the geysers and hot springs in the area. Of course I knew that these are the most famous features of Yellowstone, but nothing can prepare you for seeing them in person. It’s like walking on top of a beautiful, primeval, volcanic hellscape, with sulphuric springs bubbling up almost everywhere you turn. As it got to be the time for OF to erupt, a huge crowd had gathered and sat on the benches around it to watch the show. It was pretty incredible when it finally went off, but odd with the stadium style seating and everyone clapping.

Afterwards we checked out the Old Faithful Inn, one of the most famous national park lodges and the one that the Wilderness Lodge in Walt Disney World is modeled after. It was pretty cool. Next we drove up to the fairy falls trail to hike up to the lookout for Grand Prismatic Spring. It was amazing to see the whole thing from a distance. We wanted to go to see the spring up close next, but cars were lined up on the side of the road for miles around the parking lot and we decided it was worth the crowds. We spent the rest of the day stopping at various sights along the main road, seeing too many waterfalls, hot springs, and other crazy natural wonders. Towards the end of the day we went over to the Norris Geyser basin. There was a little bit of a line to wait to get a parking spot, but it was so worth it to see this incredible part of the caldera. The pools and geysers in this part of the park are supposed to be the hottest and most sulphuric of anywhere else. It really did seem like you had entered the gates of Hell as you walked around it. We spent a while hiking through both sections of the Norris Geyser basin and then started making our way to our campsite at Mammoth.

When I had first planned this trip I missed the opening date for booking campsites at Yellowstone. Because of the pandemic the NPS had changed some of the reservation windows. I also knew that there were about 6 first-come first-serve campgrounds in the park, although I was nervous about getting to them early enough to secure a site, since the park is so massive and they were expecting record-breaking crowds this summer. At one point I booked us a room in a hotel in West Yellowstone, but at $350 a night it was going to cost us over $1000 for 3 days! I then signed up for an online service called “campnab.” For $30 a month you can enter what campgrounds you want it to search for what dates, and as soon as there is a cancellation you will get a text. I signed up for Yellowstone for our dates and I did receive many tests in the preceding two months before our trip, however you need to respond to the text and book the sites immediately, or they will be booked in under 10 seconds. Fortunately when we were in Chicago I received a text that a site was open in Mammoth campground for our dates, and I was able to book it!

When we arrived in the Mammoth hot springs area, it seemed magical. You could see the hot springs rise up as you drove into the village, and when we arrived into the area with the hotel there was a herd of Elk all over the grounds. We made it to our campsite which did not have much free space but did offer a view of the mountains to the north. There was a tent platform but it was only big enough for one of our tents so we had to set up the other one in a little green space between the parking spot and the road.

After a decent night of sleeping in the tents we decided to head into the Lamar Valley section to see some wildlife and go for a hike. It did not take long before we had to stop to allow a herd of Bison to cross the road. We spent some time taking pictures of them and then hiked for about a mile up the specimen ridge trail where we got some great views of the Yellowstone River. We were all nervous to go further as we did not have bear spray, so we headed back and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Lamar Valley and the wildlife. Back at Mammoth we spent the early evening exploring the upper and lower sections of Mammoth Hot Springs, complete with elk spread out around the springs.

The next day we decided to head back into the Caldera section and make our way down to hike out to Lone Star geyser. It took a while to get down there as we stopped at various spots we hadn’t seen yet. Finally we got to Kepler Cascades where we parked and ate lunch, and then started the two mile hike along a river to the geyser. It was really nice to get off the beaten path and away from the crowds for a bit. When we got to the geyser within about 5 minutes it started erupting. There were about 8 other people there watching the eruption which lasted about 20 minutes. It was awesome to see a geyser in more of it’s natural state, away from the boardwalks and stadium seating of Old Faithful. Rejuvenated, we hiked back and made our way over to the Eastern side of the park, where we visited the West Thumb Geyser Basin on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. It was awesome to see some of the geysers actually in the lake itself. After that we headed over to the Tower/Fall section and went to the lower falls view point to see the massive waterfall up close. Next we stopped in at the campground area in this part to get dinner. They had a huge cafeteria style restaurant. One one side you could order home cooking type food such as pot roast and chicken, and on the other side was an Asian stir-fry theme where you could choose what meat, vegetables, and sauce you wanted stir-fried with rice or noodles. Luckily we still had a few hours of sunlight so after dinner we went over to the upper falls viewpoints and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It was the golden hour which made the view even more spectacular! Finally we started the long drive back to Mammoth, made even longer because the road from Tower to Mammoth was closed. It was starting to get dark when we got to camp, but the kids wanted us to do the hike up from the campground into the village and then up another hill to see the view, as they had done by themselves the night before. We made our way up and were able to see the sunset over Mammoth. We learned that we took the old Stage coach road down where the visitors used to come in from the North entrance via stage coach. Finally we slept in Yellowstone for one last night.

Week 2: Minnesota – South Dakota

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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

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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!

Wild, wild (mid)West 2.0: The Packing

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33 days in a Toyota Highlander with 5-8 nights of camping. How do you pack for that?

When we did our last out West road trip in 2018, we flew to Las Vegas and rented an SUV. We put all of our car camping gear in four (free) checked bags, evenly distributed so we had 50 lbs of gear per bag. Our clothes and toiletries were in our carry-ons. Once we get to Vegas, we were upgraded to an Audi Q7 and that was the car we used for the whole trip. We actually found it quite comfortable and had everything we needed for lots of car camping. The Q7 is actually the same size as our Toyota Highlander, so I knew I could make the same thing work this time.

All the gear. Semi-thorough list below!

Of course now I had the luxury of packing up the car at home. I have watched some youtube videos on Van and SUV conversions, and I got some good ideas. For example I got these cheap plastic drawers from Target and put them in the trunk so we could have easier access to a lot of our smaller supplies. I put the drawers towards the trunk door, and added two thin, plastic bins from the dollar bin at Target on the sides. I also added our trusty Trader Joe’s cooler bag. This served as our cooler for our last out West trip, and it worked great!

Organization is exciting!

Each drawer is organized thematically. Drawer one has general supplies such as first aid, headlamps, laundry supplies, batteries, and mosquito repellant lanterns. Below that, drawer two that has stuff you will want in the tent: a broom, pillows, small lanterns, and also propane for stoves. Drawer three has plates, bowls, cutlery, and reusable plastic bags, and drawer four has our camping pots and pans, a one-burner stove, and some camping food such as ramen and pasta. Between the drawers are snacks, paper towels, and paper plates. To the left is a bin with sunscreen, bug spray, and a spot for umbrellas. To the right is a large frying pan, an axe, and some other random things.

Behind the drawers is a significant amount of space. We were were able to fit a 2 burner Coleman stove (we couldn’t find ours that we have had for at least 16 years 😢 so we borrowed one from a friend) and our sleeping bags. We also put a large tote that has all of our clothes in packing cubes. Each person gets their own color. There is also a packing cube with towels and a couple reusable shopping bags. On top of that are our camelbacks, and to the side is a bag with our shoes. Trekking poles are under the seat.

Finally, in the backseat we have a plug-in cooler (it has both an AC and car adapter), and a Jackery power bank that is fully charged and so will be back up power. I also bought seat back organizers for the kids and made sure to clip in extra USB ports for their devices. On top of the car we did add our soft-top carrier, where we stored our tents, air mattresses, camp chairs, and a tarp. I have no idea how we got all this stuff in the trunk of the Q7 last time!

So there you have it! For reference sake, here is a list of the things we have with us in the Highlander:

  • 2 tents
  • 4 air mattresses
  • 4 sleeping bags
  • 4 camping chairs
  • tarp
  • 2 burner Coleman stove
  • 1 burner propane stove
  • 2 small propane tanks
  • french press
  • camping pots and pans
  • camping plates, bowls, and cutlery
  • plug in cooler
  • soft cooler
  • camp pillows
  • small LED lanterns
  • Jackery power source
  • 3 sets of trekking poles
  • 4 camel backs
  • water bottles
  • collapsible water jug
  • paper towels
  • paper plates
  • non-perishable food
  • snack food
  • bug spray
  • sunscreen
  • laundry line
  • laundry detergent strips
  • fabric softener
  • headlamps
  • mosquito lamps
  • rain ponchos
  • clothing
  • hiking shoes and sandals
  • step stool
  • hammock
  • Various charging cords
  • Toiletries
  • Yeti coffee cups
  • Probably some other stuff I am forgetting!

St. John, US Virgin Islands

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The planning

I have been intrigued by St. John, the Caribbean island that is mostly a National Park, for years. Back in January 2020, before the pandemic hit, I booked us a week long trip for the Christmas-New Years break to St. Thomas, at a condo near the Red Hook ferry to St. John. I couldn’t find any reasonable Airbnbs on St. John and figured we could take the ferry over a few times. Well by October 2020 it was pretty clear the pandemic was getting worse and we didn’t want to travel at that time. We were able to easily cancel our Airbnb and airline tickets.

For the original trip our airline tickets to St. Thomas were booked using a LOT of AA miles since it was the Christmas-New Years break, plus a voucher I had earned and gotten refunded (more on that later). Since I had booked the trip pre-COVID and canceled it because of the pandemic, AA redeposited all of the miles without any fees. In October I looked up tickets to St. Thomas for the end of May, hoping by then the pandemic will have calmed down and we would be vaccinated. The cash price for the tickets was only $250 for non-stop, round-trip flights out of Philadelphia! I was able to use my voucher to cover 3 of our tickets and just paid cash for the 4th, so we got 4 round-trip tickets for a total of $250!

The voucher was one I had received for $800 for volunteering my seat on an over-booked flight way back in 2018. I used it once to book two of our return flights from Belize in 2019, but we ended up canceling those flights and returning home early due to a water main break on the island we were staying on. AA redeposited the voucher and I used it to pay for one of the flights to St. Thomas for the original Christmas break trip (because that’s how expensive the tickets were then). When I canceled that flight due to Covid, they refunded the voucher again and this time I was able to use it to cover 3 round-trip tickets because they were so cheap! Not a bad deal for taking a later flight to DC one time.

When I re-booked this trip for the end of May, I decided to try my luck again finding an Airbnb on St. John, since I knew that was where we would want to spend most of our time. Luckily I found a really affordable one in a condo complex with a pool and great reviews!

The trip

Since our flights were out of Philadelphia on a Tuesday morning, when the kids got out of school Monday we drove down to the Hampton Inn Philadelphia where I got a park and fly deal for $132. The next morning we shuttled over to the airport early and the kids and my husband got to go to the Centurion Lounge without me. I have had an American Express Platinum card for years which would have gotten me in but over the pandemic I cancelled it since I couldn’t justify paying the fee when I wasn’t using most of the perks. My husband was targeted for the 100,000 point bonus offer about 6 months prior, so he did open his own Amex Platinum, which means he could get himself and 2 guests (the kids) in for free. We could have paid $50 for me to get in but even though the food is awesome it wasn’t worth it for me so I stayed out. Meanwhile I ended up paying $24 for a cappuccino and some avocado toast with egg at an airport stand, so maybe it would have been worth it after all!

We had seats in the bulkhead thanks to another Amex perk that covers airline incidentals. I used this to upgrade all of our seats to main cabin extra. Luckily the flight was only about 50% full, which eased some of our Covid-anxiety. Everyone stayed masked and the flight was great, except my seat, a window seat, had dried up orange goo all over the window, window shade, and tray table! I chose to believe a baby sat there and got baby food every where, but I had to laugh when AA did their intro video showing the “enhanced cleaning” process with some actress spraying down all of these surfaces with antimicrobial spray. “Um…AA…you missed a spot!” I didn’t feel like causing a fuss so I used my own antibacterial wipes to clean it off, followed by a lot of hand sanitizing.

Travel is back!

We got into St. Thomas early and took a cab to the Red Hook ferry over to St. John, only a 15 minute ride. The main port, Cruz Bay, was busy and hot. We walked up to our rental car place and picked up our jeep. I was really glad I was able to get one because I waited until 2 months before our trip and every other rental place on St. John was totally booked! Currently St. John is a bit overwhelmed with tourists because it’s a tropical destination where Americans can travel to. We ate a late lunch at the famous “Woody’s” while we waited for our Airbnb to be ready. After we checked in my husband and I went to the store for groceries and then we swam in the pool, had a light dinner, and went to bed. Our Airbnb was an awesome one bedroom apartment with a pullout sofa and a back patio overlooking the water, steps away from the shared pool.

For our first day we headed over to the Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center in the morning. It wasn’t super impressive as far as NP visitor centers go, but we did get stamps in our NP passbooks. Then we headed up the windy north shore road to Maho Bay beach, where we heard the sea turtles are. After parking and setting up our stuff we donned our snorkeling gear and headed straight for the water. I swam around for about 10 minutes looking for turtles when all of a sudden I looked to my left and shouted “Holy s%*t!!!” into my snorkel. I was flanked by two sea turtles, one directly under me and one over me and right to my left. They were about 6 inches from me and seemed to be joining me for my swim. We continued to snorkel for a few hours, seeing several more turtles and some rays.

The next day we hatched a plan to hike up to Caneel Hill from the spur trail next to our Airbnb, then hike down to Solomon beach and back home. We packed all of our gear with us and hiked a little ways up hill to an amazing lookout. We then hiked down for about a mile, eventually reaching an almost deserted beach, Solomon beach. It was so pretty but there was some loud construction noise from a building next door. I think the construction project was to rebuild the famous Caneel Bay Resort which was destroyed in Hurricanes Irma and Maira. We hung out there for a while and then hiked over to the next beach, Honeymoon Beach. Also beautiful but more crowded.

I was pretty nervous about the steep hike back up in the sun, but we had no other options. We packed our things and headed back. It was pretty brutal. I had just hiked a high peak in the Adirondacks the weekend before, but this hike in the sun and humidity made me feel like I was going to pass out. We took lots of breaks and drank lots of water and finally made it back! We spend the rest of the evening recovering in the pool.

Solomon’s Beach. All to ourselves!

The following day we had booked a boat tour which left from the opposite side of the island in Coral Bay. We left a little early to check out that part of the island and stopped to have a picnic lunch at Salt Pond Bay. After this we caught our boat, which was a double-decker pontoon boat with a slide! The captain took us to some cool snorkeling spots, including a shipwreck, a WWII anchor, and snorkeling next to mangroves. Despite the weather report predicting sun, we caught in a rain shower that lasted about an hour. It was kind of nice not to have the sun beat down on us so hard as we had all gotten pretty crispy in the sun the past few days.

That evening we went home and the kids ate dinner while we went out to an anniversary dinner at a Spanish restaurant called La Tapa. We love having Spanish food for our anniversary as we went to Spain on our honeymoon. It was delicious!

The next morning we picked up some local food – patès (like Jamaican patties) and fried chicken and ate it picnic style at Peace Hill, overlooking Hawknest and Trunk Bays. The food was delicious and the views were incredible!

Afterwards we headed over to the Annaberg historic district to see the ruins of a sugar mill. We found a little path nearby and decided to take it and do some snorkeling from the beach. This was some of the best snorkeling of the trip and it turns out this was Leinster Bay. Next we spent the late afternoon at Trunk Bay and found out why this beach is so popular. Powder white sand and gorgeous blue water, and they they the famous snorkeling trail with signs underwater about some of the aspects of the coral reef. My son and I saw two rays and lots of other fish. 

The next day we headed over to the other side of the island to check out Hansen Bay. Although all beaches are open to the public in the Virgin Islands, the lady who owns the strip of land between the beach and the road asks for a donation to park there and use their paddle boards, kayaks, and chairs. It was great to be able to paddle around and they also had great snorkeling where we saw some Caribbean reef squid. Because it was Memorial Day Weekend they had a local caterer come by and grill lobsters on the beach. We bought one to try and it was so good! That night my husband and I had reservations for a new restaurant in Cruz Bay called Shaibu’s garden oasis which had received some great reviews and had vegan food for my husband. It was delicious!

The next day we tried Hawksnest bay in the morning and went back over to Maho bay in the afternoon. We needed more sea turtle action and they did not disappoint! We had several more sightings. 

For our last full day we woke up early and drove back over to the other side of the island to do the iconic Ram Head hike. I highly recommend this 2.4 mile out and back hike to a peak lookout. It’s not too strenuous, has incredible views and really cool cacti.

After the hike we cooled off in Salt Pond bay for our last beach swim and then headed back stopping at a bar/restaurant called Shambles for lunch. We worked on packing and cleaning up the Airbnb and then we took the kids back to Shaibu’s for our last dinner.

The next day we got on the ferry, headed over to the airport, and waited for our flight, which took off on time, and bonus, I got a whole row to myself. One of my kids came and sat with me so we all got to spread out between two rows of three.

Our first trip in 17 months and it was damn near perfect. We LOVED St. John! We are huge national park fans so the fact that most of the island is a National Park with hiking trails and natural beaches was so nice. It was great exploring one or two beaches each day and seeing how they are all different. The snorkeling was some of the best I have ever done. Swimming with sea turtles at Maho bay was pretty magical. In fact, although we liked the boat trip, I don’t think it was necessary as there was so much great snorkeling right off the beaches. I have been to so many places where you really need to take a boat out to the good reefs, but St. John is not one of those places. 

Our Airbnb was awesome. We loved having the pool right there and even though it was for the whole condo complex most of the time we had it to ourselves. The food in St John was expensive but that’s pretty typical for islands. The town of Cruz Bay was small and there wasn’t a lot to do there, but that was totally fine with us, more beach time! I’m also really glad I switched our plans from staying on St Thomas and taking the car ferry over to St John a few times to just staying on St John. This is a place I for sure would like to come back to one day!

Wild wild (mid)west 2.0: The Planning

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It’s time for another epic road trip out west! In 2018 we took advantage of the Every Kid in a Park program to do a 3 week long road trip to visit National Parks in the Southwest USA. In 2021 when our other son was in 4th grade we decided to do a 2nd road trip to visit a bunch of national parks, this time through the Great Lakes and northern mid-west region.

For this trip, we decided to use our own car, a 201x Toyota Highlander to drive around the Great Lakes, out to Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, and back through North Dakota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We had dozens of free hotel nights due to credit card perks, so the goal is to stay for free at every hotel throughout the trip and camp some nights too.

The plan

This itinerary is actually a week longer than our last trip, for a total of 4 weeks! We plan on using the same camping gear we used last time, since it worked pretty well for us and fit in an SUV similar in size to the Highlander. I will make another post later with our gear and how we pack the car. Our itinerary is below.

Day 1-3: Syracuse – Cleveland. We plan on driving to Cleveland and staying at the Metropolitan hotel for 3 nights (Marriott certificates). We will explore the city and spend a day and a half at Cuyahoga National Park.

Day 4: Cleveland – Sand Dunes National Park. We will drive to this newer national park and spend the day.

Days 5-7: Chicago: We will stay for two days and three nights in the Windy City and do some sightseeing. Hotel will be free with Marriott certidicates.

Day 7: Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve always wanted to visit Madison because I’ve heard such good things about it. We will stay one night in a hotel using a Marriott certificate.

Day 8: Madison – Minneapolis-St. Paul: we will drive up along the northern Mississippi River, stopping at sites along the way, and end up in Minneapolis.

Days 9-10: Minneapolis-St. Paul. We will spend a few days exploring the twin cities. The hotel will be free using Hilton free night certificates.

Days 11-12: Badlands National Park. We will drive out to South Dakota and stay at our first campground at Badlands National Park.

Days 13-14: Black Hills, South Dakota. We will continue camping and exploring this area including Mt. Rushmore, Missile silo national monument, and Wind Cave National Park

Day 15: Devil’s Tower National Monument. As a huge Close Encounters fan, I can’t wait to visit this alien landing platform 😁. We’ll stay the night in Riverton, WY (hotel free with points).

Days 16-18: Grand Teton National Park. We’ll drive out to Jackson, WY where we will stay at Springhill Suites for free with points.

Days 19-21: Yellowstone National Park. We’ll camp for 3 nights at this iconic national park.

Day 22: Bozeman, MT: we’ll visit a friend who lives here and stay one night in a hotel with a Marriott certificate.

Day 23-24: Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We’ll drive to North Dakota and spend a day and a half at this park. We will spend one night in a hotel using Chase Ultimate Rewards points and one night camping.

Day 25: Fargo. We’ll drive out to Fargo and spend the night, staying in a hotel using a free IHG night certificate.

Day 26-27: Voyageurs National Park. We’ll drive up to this National Park in Northern Minnesota and stay two nights at a hotel booked using Chase Ultimate Rewards Points.

Day 28: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. We’ll start to explore the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and camp one night.

Days 29-30: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We will continue to explore the UP and camp another two nights.

Day 31: Mackinac Island and Ann Arbor. We’ll stop at Mackinac Island on our way home and stay overnight at a Holiday Inn using an IHG free night certificate.

Day 32: Drive home!

Belize!

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We lucked out this year because the kids’ holiday break from school was 2 full weeks. That meant we could squeeze in another adventure style trip. Belize had been on my list for a while and 9 days seemed to be enough time to explore both the interior, rainforest area and one of the islands.

The planning

Similar to last year’s trip to Costa Rica, because we were going to be traveling over the Holiday break, flights were going to be expensive, even with points. Flights from Newark to Belize on AA leaving the day after Christmas were 37,500 miles each, one way. I booked those, spending a total of 150,000 AA miles. Yes that is a lot of miles, but when you want flights to a tropical destination on one of the busiest days of the year, you bite the bullet and spend the points.

After that I was out of miles, however I did have a $750 AA voucher from volunteering to give up my seat and take a later flight on a work trip to DC a few months prior. I used that to book mine and one of my kid’s flights home (plus $98 to make up the difference). I then bought the two other return tickets through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel site using about 56,000 Ultimate Rewards Points.

I bought these tickets around February 2019 and a month or so later my husband was chosen to receive free Platinum Pro status from AA for 4 months. They do this about once a year, where they choose some AAdvantage members and give them status temporarily, hoping to entice them to book enough flights to keep their status for the rest of the year. Since I had received this the before, I knew that we could go into our flights online and upgrade our seat assignments to “main cabin extra,” for free because of his status. These are the seats in the front of economy and they come with priority boarding, a designated carry-on spot for your luggage, and free booze on the flight. So we did that and were able to snag those seats for free. Pro tip – if you do this while you have PP status, the seats will stay there even once your status expires.

For the flights home since we were on 2 separate tickets only my husband and son received the premium seating. However this fall my husband upgraded his Hilton Honors card to the Aspire for a 150,000 point bonus. This card comes with a $250 a year airline credit. You choose your preferred airline and then use the credit to pay for things like seat assignments and checked luggage fees. We needed to spend the $250 by the end of the year so I made his preferred airline AA and I purchased seats in main cabin extra for about $80 each for my son and I so we could be closer to the other two. These fees were then reimbursed by Amex for the credit.

For the lodging, I chose a small local hotel in San Ignacio called the Rainforest Haven Inn. Standard rooms were about $60 a night, so I chose a 2 bedroom apartment for $75 a night! That way we would have more space and the boys could have their own room. In my research on this part of Belize it seemed like there were some swank but pricey jungle lodges away from town or these inexpensive, but nice local hotels in town. I liked the idea of staying in town so we could walk to things, so I chose the inexpensive, in-town option.

For Caye Caulker, I chose a 2 bedroom Airbnb cabana that got good reviews that had a small pool shared with a few other cabanas. For more about how to book Airbnbs and not get scammed, check out this article I wrote for FinanceBuzz.

The trip

Our flight left Newark, NJ at 6am, which meant we needed to get to the airport around 4 or earlier. I chose to get there earlier because we couldn’t check in online since we were traveling internationally with kids. I also had a bag to check full of donations for kids in Belize through the Pack for a Purpose program.

We took an Uber from my mom’s house at 3am and got to the airport at 3:45. When we checked in, the AA rep asked for the kids’ birth certificates. Luckily I had them! This is really important to know if you are bringing kids to Belize and something I only knew through the many travel online groups I am in. Each country has different requirements for this and Belize is very strict that you prove your kids are yours, or that they have permission to travel with you, because at one point there were a lot of child abductions from the US to Belize. This is especially important if your kids have a different last name than you. I have heard stories of people being stopped from boarding their flight because they didn’t bring documentation such as birth certificates.

Luckily check in was smooth and with TSA precheck we got through the security line in 5 minutes. Our flight to Miami was on time and we landed early. Our layover was short but fortunately the Centurion Lounge at Miami airport was right across from our gate. Since my husband has cancelled his Amex platinum card and you can only guest 2 people in per card, I took the kids over there for a quick breakfast. It was so ridiculously crowded though! We could barely find a place to sit to eat our food. In fact the table only had one chair and I had to stand and eat. These lounges have becoming more and more crowded over the years as people get more into credit card points and miles. We quickly ate and went back to the gate where we boarded our flight and took off.

My husband still had about $48 to spend for his recently acquired American Express Hilton Honors Aspire Card airline credit after we paid $30 to check the bag with the donations. In order to use up the credit we bought a bunch of snacks on the plane to bring with us to San Ignacio.

We landed in Belize on time and spent about 45 mins going through immigration and customs. I had set up a shuttle service through our hotel in San Ignacio and the driver was a very nice Dutch guy who has lived in Belize for 11 years. It was a 2 hour drive to San Ignacio but we got to see some of the countryside. We got to town around 3:30 and checked into our room/apt. It was nice and spacious.

We had no idea that the Belizeans celebrate Boxing Day on 12/26, so most shops and restaurants were closed. Belize has an interesting mix of British and American influence. For example they drive on the right, and they use pounds, miles, and Fahrenheit. But then they maintain some British traditions such as this. Luckily there were a couple restaurants open so we got some dinner and headed back to our apt to get to bed early since we had been up since 2:30am.

The next day after breakfast we started our first tour which was a trip to the Belize zoo and then cave tubing. We went to the zoo first. It is very well done and features most of the native animals of Belize in the natural habitat. We got to see spider and howler monkeys, tapirs, peccaries, leopards, pumas, ocelots, margays, pelicans, a scarlet macaw, a toucan, and more. One of the zookeepers hung out with us and brought meat for some of the cats so we could see them up close while he fed him. And we got to hold a boa constrictor at the end!

After this our guide took us to a local restaurant where we had a traditional Belizean lunch of rice and beans, stewed chicken, and potato salad. Plus we got to try soursop juice (a local fruit) and their local beer, Belikin.

Next we headed over to the cave tubing place which is in a national park. We geared up with our life vests, helmets, and tubes and did a 45 minute hike through the jungle while our guide told us about the various fauna.

Pro-tip: our guide told us never to do this activity on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday because that’s when the cruise ships come in and they take people on excursions to go cave tubing. He said it is so busy the river becomes like a freeway of people in tubes. It was already pretty busy given that it was high season so I imagine had there been a cruise excursion it would have really impacted the experience in a negative way.

The river and jungle were beautiful and we splashed around at the mouth of the cave while our guide hooked our tubes together and waited for a time to go in where there were less people. As we floated through the cave he told us about how the Mayans used to use the caves for ceremonies and sacrifices and they would smash their clay pots when they were done as part of the ritual. The stalactites and stalagmites were so cool and you could see lots of shimmering crystals on them.

About halfway through he pulled us over to a spot where we got out of our rafts to go on a little spelunking adventure. We walked in the dark with our headlamps through the cave and walked over to an open ring with stairs. He pointed out some ancient petroglyphs carved into the stalagmites – a spooky face!

He then took us to a spot where the guides had brought over some shards of ancient Mayan pottery and we got to pick them up and look at them closely. The next part was our favorite. We swam back to where the tubes were in the dark river of the cave. He took us to a little semi-enclosed grotto and had us turn our headlamps off for the full experience. It was pretty epic!

We got back to the tubes and floated out of the cave and then down the river through the jungle for a bit, seeing orange iguanas along the way. The kids hopped out of their tubes and swam along side of us. When we were done we got some fresh coconuts from a guy selling them at the entrance and mom got a little rum in hers 😊

We headed back to San Ignacio and had a nice dinner at a really good restaurant in town, Cenaida’s. We were pretty tired after all the day’s adventures so we went back to the room and chilled out.

The next morning we decided to do a cooking class at our hotel. The person leading it took us over to the San Ignacio market. Saturday was their busiest day and it was buzzing with activity. He showed us some of the native fruits, vegetables, and spices and talked about how they use them in their cooking. We also got some freshly made pupusas and soursop ice cream!

Afterwards we walked back to the hotel and started class. We spent the morning learning to make the classic Belizean dishes of stew chicken, rice and beans (cooked in coconut milk), potato salad, fried plantains, fry jacks, and bread pudding. Then we got to eat it all for lunch and try various hot sauces. The company that makes a lot of the hot sauce here is called “Marie Sharp’s” and the hotel sells all of their products. The food was delicious and the kids had a blast learning how to make it. My husband even got to practice his kneading technique from watching the Great British Baking Show on Netflix.

We needed to rest after that huge meal but after that we walked uphill to a fancy hotel that houses the Green Iguana Project – an iguana sanctuary. The guide taught us about their work trying to help the Iguana population that gets hurt when hunters hunt pregnant mothers, and then we got to feed some iguanas in their enclosure.

After this we trekked uphill some more to the Cahal Pech Mayan ruins. The park was very quiet with only a handful of people but the ruins were pretty large and we had fun exploring and climbing all around them, trying to imagine what they used each structure for.

Later that evening my husband and I walked 20 feet across from our room where the hotel does rum tastings. Unfortunately about 10, very inebriated twenty-somethings joined us for the tasting. We still had fun and our host didn’t charge us since he said they usually like to offer a better experience.

The next morning we got up super early to meet our tour group for a day trip into Guatemala to see the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikal. We took a 15 minute bus ride to the border where we had to wait in line for about an hour to pay the exit fees to leave Belize and enter Guatemala. After that we took an hour and 45 minute bus ride up to Tikal. It was cool to see the Guatemalan countryside as went. It was very lush and green and we passed by a large, beautiful lake called Peten Itza.

At Tikal we met our local guide who took us through the site and taught us about the ruins. Tikal is pretty extensive. They started uncovering in about 1955 and they believe it was built around 300 BC. It is currently a UNESCO world heritage site.

I liked that for some of the structures you could climb they put up wooden stairs so you didn’t have to try to climb the original Mayan stone steps. It seems like that will preserve them more and also the guide said too many people were falling off the steps. It was fairly crowded, probably because it was the holiday week. However they also really limited the vending, unlike the large site, Chichen Itza, which is overrun with hawkers.

We spent about 3 hours exploring the ruins and then on the way back stopped for lunch in a small town nearby. We were starving after all that walking and climbing! We headed back to Belize and getting through the border took another hour.

After buying our hot sauce souvenirs from the hotel we decided to do a street food dinner. We got tacos, salbutes, tamales, and stuffed jacks for four people, all for $7 USD! Plus they were delicious!

Caye Caulker

The next morning we got up early for our 8am ride back to Belize City to catch the 10:30am water taxi. The taxi took off on time and we were all excited for the island part of our trip. When we landed in Caye Caulker we were hungry and tired, and the sun was very hot. We walked with our luggage in the heat about 15 minutes to our Airbnb. When we arrived, there was a large family there with about 4 kids, drinking and partying around the pool. The Airbnb was made up of 4 cabanas around a shared pool and patio area. The housekeepers were getting our cabana ready and told us it would be about 2-3 hours before it was ready. We decided to go for some lunch while we waited and we asked them where we could drop off our laundry. The housekeeper then told us there was no water but it would be back on around 5 or 6. We figured this may have been a routine thing, and didn’t think too much of it. After all, the water main by our house breaks about once every year in the summer, and we are used to being without water for 3-4 hours while they fix it.

We dropped off our laundry at a local woman’s house who also told us to check back around 5 or 6 when the water would come back on. We walked back to the middle of town and found a restaurant to eat lunch. It took forever to get our food but we tried to stay in a good mood. After lunch we walked up to the area called “The Split,” where I had heard most people go swimming and snorkeling. At this point I was starting to sour a little on Caye Caulker. The split was not what I had imagined. It was mostly taken over by a beach bar with a loud DJ and it seemed like in order to hang out there you had to order food and drinks from them. Plus it wasn’t really a beach, just a concrete area with sand on it with no shade, and you had to climb down a ladder, like into a pool, to go into the water. We walked around a little more and didn’t see any other promising areas for beach swimming.

Back at our Airbnb the cleaners were almost done and we talked to them a bit more. They told us the kids of the other family were really loud and that they were also staying through the end of the week. Great. They had left for the afternoon though, so we got on our bathing suits and took a dip in the pool. A little while later the cleaners told us that they had heard that the water pump for the entire island’s water supply was broken, and they needed a part from the States, which would not arrive until at least the end of the week. “So we may not have water for a week?” I asked the cleaning lady. She nodded. At this point I started to freak out. No water at all on an island for a week did not seem like a good idea. At the same time the owner of the Airbnb, who was off site, sent us a copy of the notification that the Belize Water Service had sent him, confirming that they were waiting for a part from the U.S. that wouldn’t come until the end of the week but they would try to fill the tank with some emergency water in the meantime.

I started panicking and thinking about how we could leave but my husband tried to keep me calm and that maybe we could wait it out. We went to the store and bought some extra water. The cleaning people gave us buckets to fill with the pool water to flush the toilet. I started to think about what the pool would be like after a few days with all these people who can’t shower using it and no fresh water to replenish it. I also read in the host’s guidebook that the only beach-like areas, were the Split, which we had seen, and another place north of the Split called Koko King, which was another beach club that you could use if you purchased food and drink. It said they had a sort of manufactured beach and they would ferry you across the split in their boat. At this point I was not thrilled that our only options for swimming were spending money at a beach club (likely lots of money as they are always over-priced), or crammed in a small pool with our boisterous neighbors. I looked up one way flights on AA (the airline we were using to fly home), and they were over $1000 each. This situation was bad but there was no way we were going to spend over $4000 to get home. It seemed like our best option was to wait it out and hope for the best.

We decided to head out for dinner and I tried to calm my anxiety and not think of all the Mad Max scenarios playing in my head about what this place would be like after 3 days with no water. We walked around the town a bit more. It was crowded and I didn’t feel the “laid back vibe” I had read about this place. Also I had heard Belize didn’t really have beaches but I figured they would at least have somewhere nice to swim. It wasn’t looking that way.

We made our way back to our Airbnb and found our neighbors on the patio in full-on party mode. This was not exactly the relaxing vacation we had hoped for. Inside the house I texted my friend who has traveled extensively to tell him about the water situation and ask his advice. He was pretty clear: “Get out. These things never go well. If you can leave do it.”

I went back on google flights to see what we could get to fly home. United had a one-way, nonstop flight back to Newark the next day for about $400. That wasn’t too bad. I checked what they were charging in miles. It was only 20k miles per ticket plus about $65 in taxes and fees. That was a really good deal. I looked at flights for the 1st and 2nd of January and they were over 40k miles each and had connections. If we were going to get out it had to be the next day. I only had about 2,000 United miles in my account, but Chase Ultimate Rewards will transfer to United at a 1:1 ratio and will post instantly. I had plenty of these points to transfer over to United to buy the tickets with miles.

I called my husband in from hanging out with the neighbors and we discussed our options. I even called my friend to talk it though. In the end we decided flushing the toilet with pool water, sharing this space with very nice but very loud neighbors, with a pool that was bound to get disgusting and no good beach to swim in, was just not worth it. We pulled the trigger and booked the flights for the next day.

The kids were very upset and we tried to explain that it wasn’t safe to be in a place without water for that long. We explained that at the restaurants they would not be able to wash dishes and food properly and there was a good chance we could get sick.

I also let our Airbnb host know we were leaving and I cancelled the one snorkeling excursion we had planned. Luckily that company refunded me because I canceled before 24 hours. I was pretty bummed to miss this because it seemed amazing and honestly the only reason to visit this area, but at this point it seemed like the right call.

I had difficulty sleeping because of the noisy neighbors and my nerves, and at one point in the middle of the night I got up to go to the bathroom and tried the faucet and some water came out. Now I was extra upset. Had they fixed it already? I just spent 80k miles on our plane tickets that could have been used for something else! I woke up my husband and showed him but he convinced me we should still leave. He said this was likely the emergency water they brought over to fill the reserve tank a little, but that would likely run out again soon as well.

The next morning we packed everything up and it started pouring rain, making the sandy roads filled with big grey puddles. We caught a golf cart taxi to the center of town and had breakfast a famous “stuffed jack” place. It was pretty good. We took some pictures of the island and then boarded the water taxi back to Belize City. Once there we took a cab for the airport and had a relatively easy time getting on our flight to Newark. We had a lot of Belizean dollars left but we spent a lot of them on the cab ride, lunch at the airport, some drinks, and some more hot sauce to take home.

Our impressions of Belize

We loved our time in San Ignacio. There were so many fun, adventure activities to do there, including exploring caves and ancient ruins. We also thought the people were nice, the food was good, and the town was very affordable.

We did not like Caye Caulker much at all. There is no beach for swimming or snorkeling and to hang out at the two beach-like areas you would have to spend money at the beach clubs. The food was also over-priced in much of the island. We had heard this was one of the nicest Cayes in Belize because of the “laid back vibe” with golf-carts and bicycles instead of cars. Well we didn’t think the vibe was laid back at all! Granted this was the busiest tourist week of the year so our impression could be skewed. But we also kept comparing it to another small, golf-cart island that we have been to several times –  Isla Mujeres, in Mexico. Isla  has gotten more crowded in recent years, but is still much nicer with a gorgeous beach and great, affordable food and lodging. In our opinion, they are similar locations, but Caye Caulker can’t hold a candle to Isla. It seems like Caye Caulker is best as a jumping off point for snorkeling and diving excursions out to the reef, rather than a tropical island destination in its own right. After doing some more reading, I found out that Caye Caulker, like so many places these days, has fallen prey to over-tourism. Apparently the Split used to be nicer until the bar took it over and started over-charging people for food and drinks.

Looking back, even if the water main break hadn’t happened, we would have liked to stay longer in the interior of the country. We probably would have done 4 days in San Ignacio and maybe 3 days in Guatemala near Tikal so we could do more than just a day trip there. Than we could have stayed 2 nights in Caye Caulker, just enough to have one full day for a boat trip snorkeling excursion before leaving the island. Hindsight is 20/20 but hopefully we can help someone else out who might be reading this when planning their trip to Belize.

We were definitely bummed that our trip took a t