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Our Roadtrip from IL to Yellowstone

An account of our travels out west in the Summer of 2021

I know this isn't a home décor topic but my family is a typical family and by documenting our most recent adventure, I hope t0 provide you with some insight in case you embark on your own trip to Yellowstone for the first time.

Yellowstone was not our first pick for a trip this summer but originally we were to join another family. They had to cancel their trip but we kept our plans because neither my husband nor I had been to Yellowstone and this seemed like a good a year as any to go. Owing to our last minute planning, we were not able to find cheap flights or car rentals around Yellowstone so we decided we would road trip out west. We already had one successful road trip from Illinois to Florida under our belt in 2021 so what was another?

I'm usually a planner and I like to know what we're doing and when. This time around I planned none. I had been busy with other things and planning out this vacation didn't quite make the priority list. I figured we had some freedom since we were going to be on the road and also plenty of hours on the road to look up things on the way. What we did plan was where we were going to stay so we could plan for how much driving we would need to do each day at the very least.

For our 7 night road trip we were going to leave Naperville and make it to Sioux Falls for the first night, then onward to Rapid City for the second and finally to West Yellowstone for three nights. On the way back we knew we wanted to see Mt. Rushmore so we planned to stay in Deadwood for two nights before a long drive home on our final day.

Because I knew where we'd be spending each night, I devised a method for packing suitcases for the five of us so we wouldn't be lugging several bags and suitcases for each night stop. I may lose some of you here but I'm hoping there are some vacation packing nerds out there that are like me and may enjoy this nugget :)

For the five of us, two adults and three boys aged 3, 6 and 9 here's how I packed. Each child had their own backpack that contained their favorite stuffed animal, their headphones and their device for in car entertainment. I, of course, carried my purse and my husband brought his work backpack with him. This is where it gets cool (haha) - for the hotel stays I grouped our luggage into 3, one child size suitcase (Pokémon themed duh!) with clothes for us all for the first 2 nights before we got to Yellowstone, a larger suitcase with clothes for the 3 nights at Yellowstone and another child size suitcase with clothes for all for the 2 nights after Yellowstone at Mt. Rushmore. I then had one carryon suitcase filled with the "common things" i.e. everything we would need no matter which hotel we were at. This included our toiletries, my hair styling tools and makeup pouch, flipflops, swimwear and sweatshirts. So at every stop we only needed to take in the kids backpacks, the common carryon and one of the other suitcases depending on which end of the trip we were on. Genius right??? Okay maybe not but it sure made taking things into the hotel and repacking once we were leaving easier since we only had enough for that leg of the trip. I used packing cubes to keep our clothes organized by person within the suitcases and it all worked out great! I was really proud of it - can you tell? :)

Ok enough about packing. Let's get to the trip and what we experienced. So for our last roadtrip and for this one, we enabled the WiFi in the car. You have to love technology. To me this is huge because it means I don't have to worry about downloading content for the kids to watch before the trip and it means they are self sufficient to entertain themselves when we're on the road. Believe me the last thing I want to do before leaving on vacation is download 9847984 episodes of goodness knows what. Ya feel me?! On these long road trips I don't police TV time. They are free to watch as long as they want but when we get to our stop, the devices get put away and they to need appreciate the destination - which they did.

Our first driving day was easy - we left at about 8:30am, drove almost continuously for 4 hours, stopped for lunch and then drove another 4 and we were in Sioux Falls just in time for some sightseeing before dinner. We stayed at Hyatt Place Sioux Falls South which had an indoor swimming pool. Once the kids knew about the pool there was no way around it and we had to let them swim before doing anything else. We agreed on a half hour at the pool and they had the biggest smiles. They were in canon-balling and splashing heaven. Right after we headed out to see the falls after which the town is named and Sioux Falls did not disappoint. I love any kind of waterfall really but this was really pretty.

Sioux Falls has a cute downtown area that I had previously seen on a work trip but with the kids, we decided to eat at Chevy's away from downtown. Those vegetarian enchiladas really did hit the spot.

The next morning, after grabbing a quick bite at our hotel, we all got in the car and headed further west to the Badlands. Now, several people that I had talked to about our road trip kept mentioning the Badlands but I for one had never heard of it before. Once I looked it up, I knew we couldn't miss it so we made a day out of it. It was an easy 4 hour drive and we were at the national park right after lunch time.

The Badlands are like nothing I've ever seen before. It completely blew my mind. The rock formations were stunning. Once you enter the park, there are various overlooks throughout the park making it easy to see different sites. It was the first time the kids saw bison and we were all amazed by the sheer number of prairie dogs just scurrying past their mounds.

Once we had spent a couple hours in the park, we decided it was time to drive to our next hotel in Rapid City. It was a hot day and the kids were tired from the sun and heat and luckily we only had an hour's drive to the hotel. On the way, we saw signs for Wall Drug. We all needed some refreshments so we took a little detour to explore this roadside attraction. With gift stores and eateries, it seemed like a good spot to get some souvenirs and some ice cream. The stores were filled with handicrafts and beautiful art and after perusing we found a spot with some cool refreshments.

Once we had stocked up on water bottles, we hit the road again but took the scenic route to the hotel so our littlest one could get his nap in. In Rapid City, we arrived at a Home2Suites by Hilton which happened to be connected to an indoor water park. Of course the kids wanted to go but it was an additional cost and we decided to pass. Instead we looked up restaurants for dinner and a Nepalese restaurant with rave reviews piqued our interest. The menu at the Kathmandu Bistro was familiar and once we got there, the food did not disappoint. We got some Himalayan Chai and it was like a warm hug from within. Just the thing we needed before we called it a night.

The next morning we all geared up for a long day on the road. The plan was to leave Rapid City and head to West Yellowstone. That's where we had reserved a cabin for three nights. We set out west excited to finally get to our main destination. Very quickly on our drive we realized we were going to be in a dead zone, no cell service or car WiFi for the kids and no maps! We mentally prepped for a few hours of "I'm bored" and "Are we there yet?" but more than being off the grid, the rest stops and restrooms were few and FAR between. We made it through the four hours (insert eye roll here LOL) and finally we were on I-90W and all normalcy was restored. We all immediately checked our cell phones and my husband decided it was prudent to call our cabin to make sure they were prepared for our late arrival. That conversation went south real fast. They told us that our cabin had water damage and was uninhabitable and that we had no place to stay. They apparently had tried to get a hold of us when we were unreachable but of course we missed their call!

We were half way to West Yellowstone with no idea if we would even find any lodging for the three nights we were meant to be there. While we had connectivity, we quickly scoured Expedia for options, prepared to stay each night in a different spot if we had to. We decided then to search for a one night stay somewhere in between our location at the time and West Yellowstone and the Dreamcatcher Hotel popped up in our search as available. They were available for JUST ONE NIGHT which means someone else likely canceled and they had availability. This well rated hotel was a group of tipis (yes tents) so guests could sleep under the stars! What?! The first thought in my head was "I am not prepared to camp" but my husband who is always up for new experiences convinced me it would be great and that it would be a great memory for the kids and us alike. So we reserved it and mapped it into our navigation system and we were thankful to have a spot for the night.

For the next two nights we were able to book a different cabin close to West Yellowstone which had great reviews. This was certainly a wrench in our original plans but in hindsight I'm so glad things happened as they did. We continued driving through Billings and Livingston, stopping for lunch. As we sorted through the hotel issue and reservations had some backtracking to do but finally 5 hours later we made it to our hotel. I had been nervous about the tents and bugs and bears but as we drove up to the Dreamcatcher Tipi Hotel we all gleamed with excitement. From the parking lot you can see about 20 tipis. The sight is nothing short of magical. We headed to the main tent to check in and once we were assigned a tipi (#5) we headed to see it. We opened the tipi's double zipper and crouched inside. We were amazed at how comfortable it was. There was a king size bed in the middle and a twin bed with a trundle on the left and an armchair on the right. The tent came with enough towels for all of us, LED lanterns to walk around the campground after dark, a fan and a heater.

Once we got our luggage and settled in a little, we went outside where we saw an area to play bags and a spot in the center for a campfire. Every evening, the hotel does smores and beverages for the guests at sunset and it is amazing. It's the perfect end to a long day at the park or after driving to just unwind, mingle with other guests and let the kids be kids. They toasted their marshmallows, competed with other boys on how quickly they could burn one, ran around, played tag and football and it made my heart so happy. It really did feel like a getaway.

We hung out outside eating way too many smores and staying up way past all our bedtimes (especially my 3 year old's) but once we were on our beds, we all slept like babies. I'm pretty sure as I drifted off to sleep, there were deer right outside our tent and wolves howling in the distance. Rest assured I checked for the possibility of bugs entering our tent but each tipi actually sits on a concrete slab and there's a mesh all along the bottom so no critters can get in. Camping with assurances! My kind.

The next morning, we all made our way one by one to get showered. Right by the check-in tent are bathrooms with showers and so spacious and clean that we really didn't miss a hotel with a private bathroom in our room. The hotel provides breakfast for all guests in the morning and we enjoyed an assortment of oatmeal, fruit, yoghurt and of course coffee!

After breakfast it was finally time to head into Yellowstone! We entered the park through the North Entrance with a goal to see Old Faithful before the end of the day. Yellowstone was a place I knew to be beautiful but to see that beauty in person was another level. I could describe what we saw but to experience this national treasure through my account would not do the park justice. I will leave you with pictures from our first day in Yellowstone to do the talking.

Once we were done with day 1 at the park, we drove to our cabin. It was a house by the woods, with more than enough room for us and another family of 5. It was nice to have room to sprawl out. The littlest things make all the difference. When we walked in, the cabin had a little play kitchen for kids and just that completely altered my youngest's mood. As soon as we entered, he saw that kitchen and started playing and was completely a different kid than the tired, cranky one in the car. We all rested a little, then I looked up the closest restaurant that would have vegetarian food (not an easy find out there) and we found a pizza place about 10 minutes away. After our meal, we stopped at a local grocery store and got some breakfast supplies before calling it a day.

The next morning, the husband woke up early and was busy in the kitchen making us all breakfast. The coffee was brewing, the kids were walking around the cabin exploring - it was a good day. We needed a day with a slower pace because every day up to that point was either long hours of driving or walking. We took it easy in the morning, devised a plan for what we wanted to see that day and then headed out. Our plan was to first go to Lake Yellowstone and see all the sites along the way. I felt like I hit the jackpot because a few minutes into the park we saw cars stopped ahead of us. Whenever there were cars stopped in Yellowstone, I realized, meant that there was an animal sighted. I instantly told every person in the car to keep their eyes peeled for a bear. I could feel it! Sure enough, there was Mama Bear with two cubs trying to make her way through the trees not 30 feet away from our car. We all got out of our car and headed with the crowd after the bear. Yep! Here I was, carrying my 3 year old and running after the bear to get a better view. There was no time for pictures - this was a once in a lifetime thing for me - a bucket list item and I wasn't going to miss it! Once all the bear excitement died down we continued driving and again cars were stopped ahead of us. This time it was elk, right by the road. So close you could touch them if you tried. No, no I didn't try :).

We took our pictures and then proceeded on to the lake. The lake was beautiful and serene. Our stomachs, though, were less than happy and growling. We went into the historic hotel by the lake and grabbed a quick bite to eat. It was the first time I saw my 6 year old scarf down a salad - with spinach that too! This vacation sure was life changing. After lunch our goal was to get to Lamar Valley. This was the spot where more wildlife could be seen. After seeing that one bear, I was determined to find more and wolves and all the animals possible. As we drove north we came across the Upper Falls. As we approached the parking lot, in the distance there was a crowd forming and there was another bear! I only caught a glimpse of black-brown before there was nothing. We continued on the trail to take in the sight of the falls and it was worth it. The hike was hard on all of us except my husband who had my youngest on his shoulders and was breezing by everyone.

The rest of us were so tired that we didn't want to get out of the car until we got to Lamar Valley. We drove out there but aside from bison and elk we didn't see much else. I was grateful for the sightings earlier in the day and wasn't disappointed one bit. We had a long drive back so we stopped in Norris for a bite before heading back to the cabin. It was our last day at Yellowstone and it felt too short. Being surrounded by nature's beauty helps you regain some perspective. Makes you remember that you are not but a speck in the universe. It was a good reset for our family.

We had one more destination to go before heading home - Mount Rushmore. We left after breakfast from our cabin and drove around the national park to get to the highway. Our next hotel was in Deadwood over 8 hours away. We were careful this time to stay on the interstate so we had access to rest areas and, of course, could stay connected. We got to our hotel around 7pm or so and as soon as the kids heard that there was a pool at the hotel they wanted to do nothing else but splash and swim. Once they were done, they were famished but there weren't many dining options close by. We ate at the restaurant onsite and called it a night. The next day after breakfast we headed to see good ol' Mount Rushmore.

I was finally at the site that I had seen numerous times on TV and it was so worth it. It was a really hot day so we alternated between outdoor time and getting a little shade indoors where they had a 15 minute movie on how the faces were carved into stone. After making our way through the gift shop we headed into town for lunch. Right by our restaurant they had an amusement park with ziplining and mountain slides and the kids had a blast. That was the final to do on the list and our vacation was complete.

The next day we geared up for our longest driving day of 14 hours and drove all the way home. When we walked through the door at home, the appreciation on everyone's faces was palpable. My kids wanted to snuggle in their own beds and I couldn't wait to take a shower in my own bathroom. I have spent a little over a year transforming our house, corner by corner, into a home I love and being away from it for a week made me realize how much I have to be grateful for.

If you made it this far, thank you for reading. I hope you experienced a little of our vacation through my words and pictures and that it inspired you to explore new places any chance you get!

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Godha Sreenath
Godha Sreenath
Sep 26, 2021

Thoroughly enjoyed! Loved your packing skills.


Nagraj Acharya
Nagraj Acharya
Jul 21, 2021

Beautifully written. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Liked the details about packing for the trip. Great idea .

Hi There!

Hi! I'm Neeta and I have been designing and updating spaces in my homes since 2008 from simple DIYs to entire basement builds. I am now updating spaces in our current home elevating both design and function and I hope you will join me as I hone in on my DIY skills and share my journey!


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