What is the Wyoming/South Dakota area? The west? The mid-west? Anyone know? I’m pretty sure I decided with someone that South Dakota is the mid-west and Wyoming is the start of the west….sure. We’ll go with that.
ANYWAY. This part of the country was not ever on my “to-see” list. In fact, it was probably high on my “never-need-to-go-there” list. But my sister moved there about two years ago, so I knew it was inevitable. I found a cheap ticket to Denver (the closest airport to them), bought it, talked my brother into going, and that’s exactly how Knupp Decade Trip (just made that name up) happened.
Y’all. Put this part of the country on your “must-see” list if you haven’t already. It. Is. Stunning. No landscape I’ve seen before compares to it. The rolling hills had me picturing Ireland, the Badlands look unearthly, the mountains were majestic…and there was just so much freaking sky.
I’m SO glad I went out there, and I’m SO glad I got to go and spend time with my siblings! I think it’s be important to note that I did not take my kids (or husband) on this trip. Doing so would have been cool, cause they would have loved it. But it would also have increased my anxiety and decreased my spontaneity a little bit. I want my kids to be well traveled. But there’s also a great experience in traveling without your kids, and I think that’s important to remember.
not a travel guide
I realize the title of this is Travel Guide….but it’s not a travel guide, per se. I’m a big believer in not putting out a “travel guide” if you’re not pretty much an expert in an area. I spent 4 days out west (mid-west). That does not make me an expert. Really I want to share and recap our trip, show our photos, and convince you to go out there. And tell you the coffee shops to stop at. BUT THAT’S IT.
Truly, though, I think the beauty of these random road trips is just going. Of course we had major places we wanted to see, but we booked hotel rooms the night before and googled restaurants night of. I’m a planner by nature, but it was fun to chill a little bit. Our only stipulation was no chain restaurants- just see and enjoy what the local (read: tiny) towns have to offer!
where to go
K let’s just get the heavy hitter out of the way here, shall we? Where the heck do you go out west (mid-west)?
Without offending anyone in Casper, I’m not sure I would qualify this place as a “must-visit.” But again, my sister lives here, and if you’re coming that way from Denver, you pretty much have to go through it. It is gorgeous, though. You’re just driving through nowhere and then BAM. There’s Casper. My sister took us to a beautiful waterfall, a lookout to oversee the whole city (town), and to Acadia Reservoir which was gorgeous.
We hiked a trail called Dinosaur Fossil Trail (Oliver would have loved it). This was freaking hard, ha! I may not be in the greatest shape, but it was definitely UP. More than worth it (although I don’t know if my brother would say that after having to run back up when I forgot my phone…soooorry).
But mostly we just got to drive through. There is a ton of land called BLM land, which is owned by the government but it’s just…there. For anyone to use for anything. We passed a dirtbiker, there was tons of cattle, you can hike, camp, whaaatever. It’s amazing. So I would definitely say it is worth it to go through Casper, if you happen to be passing by that particular dot on the map!
I’ve seen the photos and it was cool. Again, never on my must see list. But it’s so cool! You’re just driving up a winding road full of rocks and then BAM. Four giant faces. It’s crazy. This is definitely a tourist place (obviously), but letting you know in anticipation to expect crowds! It was busy, and there was a semi line to get a photo with (in front of?) the monument.
I would, however, definitely recommend doing the walk closer to the monument. It was a lot of steps, but it really wasn’t that strenuous. And seeing this up close- the detail, the depth, the realism- is insane. I mean, it’s literally people’s faces carved into ROCKS! And they look so much like them.
There is, of course, a gift shop and cafe nearby, so you can spend some time here. Overall, though, we were maybe there for an hour or two and then moved on. I felt like that was plenty of time to appreciate it, but then, uh, go.
custer state park
Mount Rushmore is technically in Custer State Park, so you’ll drive through some of it on your way. We spent a large chunk of an afternoon and morning here, and I still feel like we barely scratched the surface. You can spend some tiiiime here, y’all. It is GORGEOUS and there is just so much.
It’s home to a highway called Needles Highway. You literally drive through tunnels of stone. On one of these, you can park along the road, get out, and just climb. You can just climb everywhere and anywhere, and it is so fun. It’s like a playground for adults. My brother scared my sister and I a few times with his efforts, but to his credit- the views were incredible. This is one of those things that would have been decidedly less fun with kids as there was great potential for injury. But kid free, it was a blast.
They also have several lakes. We only saw one, but there was a cool hike all around it that was really fun. Again, lots of climbing potential. But amazing views, a beautiful setting sun, and we saw people fishing, if that’s your thing.
Wildlife. We saw a HUGE herd of bison here. Literally (how many times can I say that in a post??) stopping traffic from crossing the road. But these things are huge, could easily damage your car, and you just don’t want to mess with them.
So. much. hiking. We didn’t even touch the top of the surface. We did one hike on our final morning, and it was gorgeous. Definitely a heck of a hike, but it took us to this beautiful valley where you could see so many rock formations called the Cathedral Spires. Again- so. much. climbing. But this time we saw actual rock climbers going up the spires, so it put us in our place a little bit.
This was also the best spot to try out a little night photography! This is way out of my wheel house, but it is SO dark out there and so much sky is visible- I had to give it a try!
Basically if you plan a trip here, just know that you could spend a solid week at Custer State Park and still not be bored. It is gorgeous and huge and I kinda want to go back.
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park. Oh m goodness. This place is just. Crazy. I have truly never seen a landscape like this in all of my life. It was nothing short of breathtaking. I could go into how it was formed….but I didn’t pay that much attention to the available plaques. Something that it used to be an ocean like 65 million years ago and these dirt/sediment mounds are leftover…and that’s where I’m out.
This park is massive. It is so large. You can drive through it and get out at various (read: a lot) of stopping points. Every view looks so different, so I’m grateful for my brother and sister not giving me a hard time about stopping for almost every one. This is another one I’m glad the kids weren’t there. There were a lot of stops that had boardwalks and guardrails and were totally fine. But the fun ones and the good ones, you could walk out over these formations. Some of these were very narrow, it’s essentially loose dirt, and there was a lot of wind. Would have definitely been a basket case if the kids were there. But, since they weren’t, I loved being a little adventurous, venturing out to some overlooks, and looking down while feeling like I wanted to throw up. (Heights and I are totally fine.)
I hope the photos do this a little justice (they don’t) because it’s just truly one of those places you have to see. Add. It. To. Your. List. These are in South Dakota, so we had to cross over the Black Forest Hills were is SUCH a cool forest area. We stayed in Rapid City that night, and honestly- seems like a great city! I never would have thought a city in South Dakota would be that interesting (sorry, SD natives), but I feel like it’d be cool to go back and spend some time there!
So this was back in Wyoming on our circle back. This is just a crazy formation, essentially the cone of a volcano. The outside slowly got stripped away, and what’s left is the part that held molten lava. nbd.
This just rose out of the plains of Wyoming like crazy. The closer you got, the more you could see just how big it was. There’s a walk that goes around the whole monument so you can get great views, and we saw lots of rock climbers (both climbing and heading out). We overheard a climber say that they had started at 4:30/5am, and they didn’t get to the top until 11am. Overall it took them 11 hours to go up and down. Just a lil perspective on how big it is.
I’d say this is not an all day event. I think we were maybe here about an hour or so. Definitely something to see, but won’t take up too much time. Unless you feel like climbing it.
bonus- Wind Cave National Park
Oooook. Story time.
Once upon a time, my sister really wanted to go see Wind Cave National Park, which is caves. Cool. So we plug it into our GPS and we follow the signs. And then we’re in the middle of actual nowhere. On a dirt road with only car behind us that I may or may not have thought was a serial killer. We ended up deciding to take a break, take a chance on letting the serial killer come up on us (spoiler alert- not a serial killer), and stopped. Admittedly this was a photo break…there was a tree and a road and…well, just look at the photo. Do you blame me?!
But y’all. This ended up being one of the most gorgeous places we saw. In the middle of nowhere. Herds of bison just grazing. Stillness and quiet and gorgeous light. It was so beautiful. This is also the dirt road where we later had to navigate between a herd of bison, but it was just so amazing to see. I never see open spaces like that on the East Coast, and there are just no words for even me to describe it.
PS- we never found the Wind Caves. We drove around so much. Pretty sure they don’t exist. We did find out that even if we had found them, they were closed for elevator repair, so THAT’s cool, but if you ever make your way to these caves…take a photo and tag me, because I still maintain they’re a myth. (Though we did get an awesome sunset right by the “entrance.”)
My point to story time is this- just the scenery of this area if unreal. You go from plains and plateaus to rolling hills to mountains to forest to crazy rock formations….and that’s in the matter of a few miles. Roadtrip to these different areas, and I promise, even though 4 hours sounds like a long time in a car…you won’t regret it (especially if you have a rockin’ road trip playlist, which I so happened to have).
Saved the best for last! COFFEE! Obviously it was my mission everyday to get coffee (because, #duh), and hotel coffee was not going to cut it. (I may be a high maintenance coffee drinker.) In Casper where we started our journey, we went to City Brew. I got a pumpkin pie latte, and while I can’t compare to Starbucks because I’ve never had it….this was pretty darn good. Wasn’t too sweet, but tasted like fall. It was perfect.
In Rapid City, we stopped at Essence of Coffee. I wish I had words for the place. It was like…a dream. An amazing menu (think: crepes), a WONDERFUL iced latte, and the cutest atmosphere ever. So good. Almost worth a trip back just for that place.
In Custer, we stopped at Miner’s Cup. This place is just drive through/walk up, but again- so good. Firstly, they had mini donuts. I could stop right there, enough said. But their pumpkin latte was also delicious. I just really appreciate when people don’t make those drinks too sweet. They also had other amazing sounding breakfast sandwiches, so I’d call this a must-go place foooor sure.
when to go
A little tip here. We went at the beginning of September, and I’m dubbing that the perfect time. During the summer, the crowds get a little crazier because a lot of people are vacationing. Winter starts about the end of September/October. My sister visited some of these places in Winter and said it’s cool because no one is there. I’m sure it’s gorgeous, but, uh, no. I don’t do that cold. They also literally shut down the highways when it snows, so if you do choose to go in the winter- have flexible travel arrangements.
I really think when we went is the best time, if you can make it work! The weather was great. There were people, but nothing was crazy (honestly it was mostly older people). I’ve only been during this time of year, but I think it’s the only time I’d go!
where to shop
Wall Drug. Just look it up. It’s basically a whole strip mall they converted into one large shopping center. Very touristy, all the obnoxious tourist souvenirs, but so cool to see. This place is nice because you can things that represent all of that national parks and monuments around it. They also have a cafe place to eat, so it’s definitely a must-stop when you’re driving around!
visit this place
For as many photos as I took on this trip, I definitely found myself spending a lot of time just taking it in. This place is GORGEOUS. There is nothing even comparable on the east coast. Definitely worth a visit, but be forewarned, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to go back! If you’ve been out here, I’d love to know what your favorite place/activity is!
If you’re looking for a trip a little closer to the east coast, make sure to check out my Savannah travel guide!