Guest post written by Danielle Smith

The Adventure Begins

Traveling and road trips fuel my soul – pretty much anything within 24 hours was “driving distance” for me and anyone willing to come along. AL to MN for a 3-day weekend – ALL IN! Unplanned detour to Chicago on the return trip – oops!

As a military spouse, this perspective of “driving distance” has served me well. We would drive through the night from DC to AL to be welcomed at my MawMaw’s house with a full breakfast of biscuits, gravy, eggs, and anything else she could cook that we didn’t know we wanted.

That mindset didn’t really change much after kids. During our PCS from KS to the east coast, we took the scenic trip with a stop in AL and SC “on the way.”

Tent camping at Lake of the Ozarks with an 18mo old, a goldfish in a tank, and 2 dogs is normal, right?

On a 2 year assignment in the midwest, we had a free summer – why not travel when you are “driving distance” from some of the most beautiful national parks!?

We drafted a loop of 40 hours and roughly 2,400 miles with 7 major stops. The best transportation option for a newly potty trained 2 year old (and his 2 wiggly well-hydrated sisters) has an on-board potty and sleeping arrangements.

ROSIE was her name – the perfect RV for our adventure!

The Plans

We solidified campsite arrangements for Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, and left the rest open and flexible. Our kids truly are “good travelers” when viewed through this flexible lens.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”― Lao Tzu

A short 3 hour leg and the Omaha zoo to kick off the trip gave us time to load Rosie that morning without a rush. It was fun to roam the zoo with no specific timeline – just to enjoy what the kids wanted to see. Ending with an air-conditioned aquarium and ice cream was just what we all needed.

That night we discovered the ONE thing Rosie was not equipped for: HEAT & HUMIDITY. Without an AC, we had no escape from the 90*+ temps and 90%+ humidity. A dip in the warm river water was fun, though!

The Second Leg

The second leg was north and west for about 7 hours. Wouldn’t you know about halfway into our drive we encountered a once in a lifetime chance to visit the World’s only Corn Palace?!?!

It was the perfect stop to let the kids out to run around a bit and enjoy the “corny” little attraction and send a postcard.

Once we arrived at the Badlands, we waited for the two youngest to finish their naps before getting dinner and finding a place to set up for the night. We knew there were “boondocking” opportunities – places to simply pull the RV into an area and set up camp for the night with no hook-ups.

I had no idea just how amazing it would be to pull over at the edge of the Badlands and set up for the night with almost zero light pollution in addition to goats and free-range cattle sharing the field with us. It was more amazing than any other camping experience I’ve ever had. As my kids biked around the vehicle path, we watched the sunset and marveled at the beauty of the landscape.

The next morning, a herd of cattle surrounded our RV and greeted us with “moos!” at sunrise. With the back doors and windows open, we laid in our beds and watched the sky turn from light blue to pink and blazing orange as it crept over the canyons.

More Exploring

We explored the area and its spectacular views for the morning. The kids caught some huge grasshoppers and rode their bikes. As other travelers emerged from tents and campers, we connected over stories and coffee.

Wall Drug Store signs beckoned us for lunch as we exited the park. The girls left with cowgirl outfits and our son got some overalls. They were SO excited!

Our next stop was Mt. Rushmore – where the bugs were pretty intense. When park rangers hand out fly swatters, it gets your attention. It was a quick trip, and we used those fly swatters for the rest of the trip!

Before setting up camp for the evening, we made a stop at the Crazy Horse monument, where the kids really engaged with the education center. It was truly fascinating to learn about the process of creating the monument. They loved getting to donate money and pick out their own ROCK!

As much as I enjoyed the boon docking experience, it was nice to be able to set up camp, do laundry, and allow the kids to play in a pool and on a playground at the campsite.

Day 4 was the longest leg of our outbound trip – 8ish hours to Yellowstone! We debated on including Devils Tower – and when we were up and ready by breakfast, we decided the 40 minute detour would be worth a stop. It definitely was!

The kids love hiking and climbing and that’s what Devils Tower offered. All of us climbed, explored, and asked the Rangers 1,386 questions. This was the perfect opportunity to get lots of wiggles out before the 8 hour drive.

With my husband behind the wheel and me serving as chef, potty assistant, snack fetcher, referee, clean up crew, and entertainer, we made the trip to Yellowstone just in time to catch the sun set over Yellowstone Lake. We were so excited to set up camp for 3 nights!

Our first day in Yellowstone was beautiful! We scrambled eggs on the griddle, and enjoyed the campsite for a restful morning. Then we ventured to the waterfalls and to get some more information on family friendly hikes.

During our 3 days there, we completed the 142 mile Grand Loop, visiting waterfalls, rainbow pools, mudpots, Old Faithful, and hiking trails. We even played in a river! We captured moments of fear and moments of pure bliss. We saw Elk and Bison up close (maybe a little too close). And the girls earned Junior Ranger badges!

Next Stop – Wyoming

We headed south to Jackson, Wyoming for our last stop of the trip. Our first activity after a quick stop in town was a wagon corral dinner! The kids donned their new cowgirl and cowboy attire with pride and joy and so much cuteness! The horses and the “scary robbers” forced us to pull over and then fed us dinner with a show.

Day 8, we found a back country lake and just spent the day relaxing and swimming and talking with locals – soaking up summer adventure. The mountain views were endless and captivating as we watched a rainstorm come in.

Our final day, we went to the hot springs where this adventure began back in February 2008. My 23 year old traveler heart sought a new adventure and moved from Alabama to Wyoming with high school friends. My best friend flew out from his east coast Army assignment to visit. I was unprepared for his plan – he proposed to me at the most beautiful waterfall at the base of the hot springs.

A Lifetime of Memories

Coming full circle to that very waterfall – sitting with my kids on the same rock where my best friend asked me to join him on this journey – offered a flood of reflection. It reminded me to release my expectations and limited visions…because something greater than my imagination can conjure could be in store.

We found two more boondocking sites on our direct route back home. It was an amazing adventure for our family. As “good travelers” we have many more journeys in our future!

Danielle Smith is a military spouse of 14 years and mom to 3 amazing human souls. Born and raised in southern Alabama, her childhood was spent climbing trees, making mud pies, and playing ball. She loves the gulf coast and its white sands and calming tides, though the mountains captivate her with their majestic embrace – forever torn by the pull of nature.

She is a Mindset & Movement coach with a passion for cultivating relationships and facilitating growth. After a 2021 PCS, she embraced a career pivot and launched her coaching company, Elemental Delta. Her mindset coaching moves clients through the overwhelm of change to mental clarity through personal ownership of the elements of their lives.

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Looking for a military-friendly real estate agent in your area to buy or sell a home? Click here to fill out our Military Real Estate Questionnaire and we will help find you an agent that is a great fit or send a us a message.