Something I've been wanting to do since our return from The Most Amazing Summer Road Trip Ever is to put together a list of our favorite spots/sights/cities/states/parks/drives, etc. We did not see everything we wanted to on this trip. There is so much more in the Western United States worth visiting. Below are the highlights (and a few lowlights) from our 40-day adventure!
I hadn't driven all the way through SD in many years and I'd forgotten how beautiful it is! The further west we drove, the more rolling and beautiful the hills became. It was so much fun to see the signs along the interstate leading up to Wall Drug. Sammy kept asking if this was the place where drugs were on the walls? We walked through the main drag, bought a few souvenirs, visited the famous bench statues and had donuts and coffee at the cafe. You absolutely cannot drive through South Dakota without stopping at Wall Drug!
As we pulled out of Wall Drug, we realized that we had absentmindedly missed the opportunity to take the scenic route through the Badlands. We hadn't necessarily planned to drive through them, but suddenly felt the urge to check them out while we were "in the neighborhood." We paid the fee to drive a few miles in and it was so worth the time and money. It was more beautiful than we ever could have imagined. It was the first moment of the trip when we felt awestruck by our country's beauty.
We rushed a bit (ha!) to Mount Rushmore after making our unexpected stop at the Badlands. It was Fourth of July weekend so the road leading up to Rushmore was PACKED. And SLOW. It took us forrrreevvvvveeerrrr to get inside. We were all tired and crabby, including the dog, so overall it was not the most enjoyable experience. Once we walked up to the majestic carved chunk of stone, though, the anxiety faded. Whoa. History whispered in my ear as I gazed up at this incredible monument. It was so worth the effort to get there.
Drive from Mt Rushmore to Deadwood
The drive from Mount Rushmore to Deadwood was a memorable one. The scenery was tree-lined and scattered with water and hills and beauty. It was the first time we maneuvered our RV through mountainous terrain, and WOW was it beautiful. Deadwood was also hilly, tree-filled and beautiful and I'd highly recommend a stop in the area. It is such a unique neck of the woods with tons of history and very dead trees.
Montana's breathtaking beauty was one of the most surprising parts of the trip for me. Every part of the state we drove through became even prettier, but in a different way than the last. The southern part of the state is green and rolling and dotted with a variety of unexpected colors. The green rolling hills lead into foothills with giant mountains as a backdrop. Even though this is where the door broke off its hinges and flew off our refrigerator while driving, we found much serenity in southern Montana. And the sunsets are incredible!
We decided we couldn't leave Montana without cruising through Beartooth Pass. It was doable in our RV, but treacherous (and exciting!) at times. It was the first taste of really twisty winding roads we got on our trip. The scenery was absolutely jaw-dropping incredible. The mountains were huge and glorious. We WOWed through the entire drive up and back down. There are plenty of places to pull over for scenic views or places to park and absorb the surroundings.
Yellowstone National Park
We had planned to bypass Yellowstone due to lack of time, but then we learned that we could get the best view of it if we went up and over to the other side of Beartooth Pass. Perfect! We found a great place to park our RV for a quick lunch overlooking Yellowstone. It was gorgeous, of course, and glad we got a small taste. Next time we'll dive in deeper.
The campground we stayed at near Flathead Lake turned out to be one of our favorites from the entire trip. The KOA in Polson had some of the best views, it was kid-friendly, dog-friendly and clean. When we talk about our trip, this is one of the top campgrounds that comes to mind for all of us. It's also within a 20ish-mile drive of Glacier National Park and Lake McDonald. Boat and paddle board rentals are available at various places around the lake and if you go during the right season, fresh cherry stands litter the sides of the roads (SO good).
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park was one of our must-see places when we set out on this adventure. Honestly, it was a challenge getting our RV through the roads that surround Lake McDonald and we weren't even allowed on most of them. There were only two spots to comfortably park an RV so we could get out and explore. But those two spots were incredible! Elijah found a unique moment of total peace as he sat and gazed out over the lake and Sammy clung to a dead tree trunk and refused to budge. If we did the trip again, I'd rent a car in order to explore the area further and I'd plan to spend much more time here.
Out of every place we saw, Western Montana is my second pick for being most surprisingly beautiful. It had a much more intimate feel than the grand mountains of Beartooth Pass and that somehow made it even more beautiful and special. I felt like we should maybe keep turning around and just driving back and forth through the western part of the state over and over and over. It was peaceful, beautiful, serene, quiet, unique and somewhere I can see having a home one day (big words coming from my mouth).
We didn't make a stop in Idaho, but drove through the very upper part of the state which allowed us to grab quick glances of the beautiful Coeur d'Alene. This is on our list of places to go back to and explore.
I wrestled about whether or not to add Soap Lake to this list because we didn't fall in love with it. The lake was beautiful, but not accessible due to the squishy mud that sucks your feet in like quicksand. The campground we stayed at was JAM-PACKED with humans who did not speak English and we felt very out of place. We departed a day early because it wasn't our style. But! There were some good points. The beauty of the area was definitely unique and we discovered after some research that the mud in the lake contains mysterious healing properties, which made me glad I had purchased a bar of soap made with said mud.
Our stop in Seattle was unexpected. We had planned to mostly avoid urban areas, but when our stay at Soap Lake brought disappointment we quickly made plans to visit my uncle and his wife in Seattle. We are SO GLAD it worked out this way because it was one of the highlights of our entire trip. Our time together was quick, but special. On our way out of town my uncle encouraged us to see the Space Needle. It would have been nearly impossible to navigate our motorhome through the streets of Seattle, so we parked just outside the city and took a cab to the Space Needle (so worth it). We ate brunch at the restaurant at the top and we all loved the food and the view. The boys loved that it takes exactly 48 minutes to make one full loop and Sammy kept insisting that the WALL was moving, NOT THE RESTAURANT. An interesting part of traveling in an RV is that any time we separated ourselves from our RV and put ourselves back into civilization we felt out of place. I think we all felt a little bit strange at the Space Needle for this reason, but we were all glad we went.
We weren't sure what to expect at Long Beach because neither Dan nor I had ever been there or heard anything about it. We had made reservations at an RV park right on the ocean, but when we pulled in the ocean was nowhere in sight. We were disappointed. After getting settled, we took a short walk over a grassy hill and when the beautiful ocean came into view all of our disappointment vanished. WOW! The beach was pristine and private and BEAUTIFUL. The magnitude of the ocean is always breathtaking, especially when hoards of people are not involved. We loved our time at Andersen's RV Park! The boys made good memories playing in the sand and ocean. Buddy was able to run around without a leash. The sunsets were unforgettable. We basically had the place to ourselves. It was lovely.
Drive through Umpqua National Forest
Driving through Umpqua in Oregon wasn't something we set out to do. It was merely a means of getting to Dan's cousin's house in southern Oregon. This drive is one of those hidden gems that we discovered not everyone knew about, including Oregon residents. When we turned off the interstate, we very quickly became struck by some of the most intimate beauty of our entire trip. If you ever find yourself in Oregon, make time for the drive through Umpqua National Forest on Hwy 138. It. Is. BEAUTIFUL. The glimpses of the river alongside the road reveal colors so turqoisey and pristine that you'll feel like you're dreaming. The trees are enormous and sooo pretty. We stayed at a campground called Umpqua's Last Resort and it had probably the best views of any campground we visited. This area is at the top of our Places To Go Back To (without young kids) list.
Hands down, Crater Lake was THE most surprisingly beautiful place we visited. I had not been feeling well that day and didn't want to get out of the RV when Dan pulled off at an overlook. My boys had gone ahead to peek at it and came back to get me. I reluctantly followed them up a hill as Sammy said, "Mom. Get ready. You are about to see the PRETTIEST thing you've ever seen in your life." When I opened my eyes I could hardly believe what I was seeing. It was so far beyond anything I could have dreamed up in my head. All four of us sat and gazed quietly for what seemed like forever. Dan and I were totally speechless and nearly brought to tears by the depth of the blue color and the absolutely perfect scene in front of us. We stopped at nearly every overlook on our drive around the lake and every time we had to leave it was hardgetting back into the RV.
After Crater Lake we felt somewhat warped and like nothing could ever compare to that degree of beauty. If we had seen Lake Tahoe before Crater Lake, I know we would have been so much more awestruck. Still though, Lake Tahoe is gorgeous! The only downside was that it seemed to be heavily populated with tourists and people wanting to be close to the lake. Which is a good indication that there's a lot to do there!
Drive along the PCH in Central CA
We went out of our way to catch the Pacific Coast Highway in Central California. We had our moments of wondering if we had made the right decision, but once we caught sight of the majestic ocean from the PCH it was all worth it. This was another stretch that wasn't always easy or comfortable to navigate in a 32-foot motorhome, but we managed just fine. With a car it would have been much easier to pull over and appreciate the beauty and to make random stops along the way. We literally drove without stopping because we were afraid we wouldn't be able to get back out. One thing I'll always remember about this stretch is that Buddy LOVED sitting on my lap in the passenger seat, head hanging out the window while breathing in the fresh ocean air.
Playa del Rey
I love Southern California. It holds a special place in my heart having lived there for a few years as a kid. The palm trees, the ocean, the action, it all brings back good childhood memories. I was excited to enter So-Cal until we ran into the crazy L.A. traffic. We soon found that navigating our RV was not fun anywhere in the vicinity of the ocean. The RV park we stayed at was literally RIGHT on the beach and that was very cool since we could hop over to the beach/ocean at any time. BUT. The masses of people were overwhelming and draining. The RV park, although located perfectly, provided basically nothing else aside from the bare essentials. The beach we had access to was way more populated than the one we visited at Long Beach in Washington. The ocean is the ocean, though, and we didn't pass up an opportunity to appreciate its beauty.
Santa Monica Pier
We figured we couldn't be so close to the Santa Monica Pier without visiting. It was the second time we took a cab on the trip and it was worthwhile. We visited on a weekday, but the crowds were a chaotic mess. We waited nearly an hour for hamburgers and fries. Prices of everything were astounding. Clean restrooms were impossible to find. Even so, I would recommend experiencing it once. The solar-powered ferris wheel was a highlight for all of us. Looking down on the crowded beaches from the pier was fun. We were happy we went, but we were so unbelievably excited to get back to our cozy RV.
We did not have the greatest experience with the good ol' desert, but we never should have attempted going through it in the summer. I so badly wanted to see my mom in Palm Springs and a couple friends in Phoenix and pushed through for them (they were worth it). The desert is beautiful and unique, but save it for a winter trip. The heat in the summer is so stifling and depleting and apparently brings on Shingles. Dan and I have repeated about a thousand times since being there, "NEVER again in the summer."
I visited Sedona many years ago and have always carried with me images of its beauty. This was another one of the places that I absolutely wanted to visit on this trip because I knew Dan would find it just as beautiful as I did. We Oooooed and Ahhhhhed over the deep red color of the uniquely-shaped rocks. The downtown area is quaint and cute and worth a visit. It was still pretty scorching hot during our time in Sedona, but we were able to find a good campground with shade and grass and those two variables make ALL the difference in the world when camping in a hot climate.
I think most people would agree that the Grand Canyon should be at the very top of every To-See list. This was my first time seeing it and WOW. We sat along the edge gazing into the beautiful, colorful abyss of various labyrinths, wondering how anything like this ever could have formed. It is a GRAND sight to behold and one that will stay in my mind forever. We stayed at a KOA campground in nearby Williams, Arizona, and rode a train to the Grand Canyon. It was the first train ride ever for three of the four of us and it was such an overall cool experience. It came with entertainment and great scenery, too!
I didn't know what to expect in Utah. We stayed at a campground called Goulding's Lodge in the very southern part of the state and we were blown away by the scenery. Red, beautiful rocks surround the campground on all sides. There were hiking trails just a few feet from our RV that we hiked on multiple times/day and that were even doable for our boys. Not many people were on the trails, so we were able to steal some cherished moments of peace that will never be forgotten. The sunrises from our RV were totally breathtaking and unforgettable and we're so glad we found this hidden gem of a place.
Eastern Utah (Arches National Park)
As we traveled up through the eastern part of Utah we were amazed by the diversity of the colors and landscape. It seemed to change drastically every couple of minutes. It was one of the most unique stretches of road we encountered on the entire trip. We went through Arches National Park at the last minute and we're glad we made that detour. Some of the rock formations in that park are so crazy that we felt like we were maybe on another planet.
Ahhhh Colorado, my favorite state. Just being in Colorado makes me feel peaceful and happy. The mountains are both intimate and majestic, with tons of trees and rivers everywhere. No other state has a wider range of colors and shapes. The drive through Colorado on I-71 fills me with a peace that I can't explain in words. After driving on some pretty treacherous roads the first part of our journey, these mountain roads were a piece of cake in our RV. Just like in Western Montana, I could drive back and forth through this stretch of the country over and over and never get bored.
We wanted to stay somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, but due to lack of planning toward the tail end of our trip we had a hard time finding a spot at the last minute. Note: It is wise to book early when camping in Colorado in the summer! We found an opening at a campground south of Denver near the Royal Gorge. Even though we hadn't initially planned to go so far south, we ended up loving our Gorge adventure. Visiting the famous bridge was a highlight of our trip. The boys loved the bridge and magic show, while Dan and I found the history interesting and the zip line ride going across the Gorge was breathtaking!
We saw so many amazingly unique and beautiful places on our trip. The Western U.S. contains some diverse and incredible sights. Some of the Western places we wanted to see but didn't get to are: North Dakota (just kidding), a more in-depth peek at Yellowstone, Twin Falls, ID (ask Dan about this), Coeur d'Alene, Mt. Rainier, Redwood National Park, San Francisco, Yosemite, Bryce Canyon/Zion Parks in Utah, Salt Lake City, the Four Corners and much more of the Colorado Rockies. Is there anywhere noteworthy that I'm missing?
I hope you find this list helpful in your upcoming travels! Please always feel free to leave a comment with additional thoughts or places/campgrounds/cities/states worth visiting in the Western United States!