Could it be done? Could we travel 3,000 miles in 3 weeks with two kids while also working remotely? After RV camping a dozen times close to home in the last 2 years, we wanted to challenge ourselves with a longer loop. However, with two kids in tow—and my husband needing to remotely work most days—we knew full-day drives were out of the question.
Our daily mileage limit would have to be a maximum of 200 to 400 miles. It took precise planning to put us in desirable locations for each stop along the route. My husband needed good internet access and my kids needed to be entertained. The trip would be a 17-day Midwest adventure that began in Texas and included stops in Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri.
After a 5-hour drive pulling the RV, the Wellington KOA Holiday campground in Kansas made for a great place to stop for the night. The staff was friendly and even gave the kids free fuzzy yellow and black KOA koozies and coloring sheets. That evening, the kids burned off some pent-up energy at the pool and play area.
The next morning it was raining, but that didn’t stop us from getting out and doing a little geocaching in the area. Geocaching is one of my favorite go-tos for kiddo travel entertainment; it’s a basically a scavenger hunt with players hiding little “treasures” around the world. My kids love the thrill of the hunt and get excited about the little trinkets they find. We always keep a few knick knacks in the camper to leave behind for others.
On the second night, we pulled right off Interstate 80 at the Mormon Island State Recreation Area in Nebraska. Despite being located next to the highway, the campground still felt peaceful. It doesn’t offer full hookups, but that wasn’t a problem for a 1-night stay. The overnight fee was one of the lowest we encountered on the trip and it included water, electricity, a large pull-through site, and plenty of activities for the kids. We enjoyed the beach, another geocaching adventure, hiking, and catching lightning bugs.
We arrived at the no frills Riverside Campground in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, late the next afternoon for a 3-night stay. This campsite was very basic, but half the price of any other campground in the area and easy access to all of the activities we had planned. The Riverwalk that leads into town and the wild bunnies that roam the grounds were the highlights of this quiet campground.
In addition to watching fireworks every night from our campground, we walked to town for Belle Fourche’s annual Fourth of July parade, carnival, and Black Hills Rodeo Round Up. It was exciting to see cowboys from our home states, Texas and Louisiana, competing so far away from home.
One morning, our walk along the river landed us smack dab in the middle of the U.S. Belle Fourche boasts its position as the Geographical Center of the Nation with a monument. Complete with a large decorative pedestal and flags from every state, this spot makes for the perfect photo opportunity. It creates a moment to reflect on the diversity of the U.S. and the vein of patriotism that connects us all.
Deadwood, another fun town in the area, is only about a 30-to-40-minute drive south of Belle Fourche. This Old West town offers historic hotels and a cemetery where notable figures such as Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Seth Bullock are buried. Here we explored casinos, souvenir shops, restaurants, and free cowboy reenactments. My daughter even played a card game with the Deadwood Alive gunslinger actors between shows.
On our final day in town, we toured the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, which features several waterfalls and great views. Spearfish Canyon is also the location of several scenic shots from the 1990 movie Dances with Wolves.
The main attraction
After a long weekend in Belle Fourche, it was time to move on to our next location, the Mount Rushmore KOA Resort at Palmer Gulch in Hill City, South Dakota. This campground was the complete opposite of our no-frills stay in Belle Fourche. Amenities included a waterslide, pool, hot tub, basketball court, inflatables, numerous outdoor recreation games, a stable of horses for trail rides, restaurants, live music, golf cart rental, and scheduled activities throughout the day.
Our entire 17-day Midwest trip was born from our desire to visit Mount Rushmore. We debated whether or not we should go during the day or in the evening. In the evenings, spectators can see Mount Rushmore’s evening lighting ceremony. A recording of “America the Beautiful” is played, followed by lighting the mountain. I heard the lighting is quite magnificent, but we opted for a day time visit so that we could see the monument more clearly.
Next, we visited the fascinating Crazy Horse Monument and museum. The history behind the mountain carving and the future plans for the massive sculpture are both incredibly interesting.
Our final adventure in the area was to visit the 71,000-acre Custer State Park. It sits in the Black Hills and boasts five beautiful lakes. Based on photographs, I was expecting to see interesting wildlife around every corner, including buffalo surrounding our car. Sadly, the buffalo were not out that day and the only wildlife we saw was a group of very tame and friendly donkeys. The donkeys were cute and the scenery of the Black Hills National Forest was absolutely gorgeous, still making the 2-hour drive worth it.
At this point in our road trip, it was time to make our way south toward Branson, Missouri. We would need one more overnight stop in South Dakota before leaving what was quickly becoming my favorite state. We camped one night at the Mitchell KOA. There’s a playground, miniature golf, and a swimming pool. Those facilities could use some updating, but the park was clean, right off the highway, and the large pull-through sites made it easy to get in and out.
When we woke the next morning, my husband needed to work for a few hours so the kids and I took this opportunity to visit the town’s main tourist attraction, The World’s Only Corn Palace. The exterior of the building is covered with 325,000 multicolored ears of corn individually cut in half and arranged into scenic works of art that change every year. During our visit, the corn murals portrayed images of iconic South Dakota points of interest such as Crazy Horse and Sturgis. Inside we saw historical images of the corn palace, souvenirs, and a plethora of corn treats.
Rolling the dice, I was really stressed about our weekend stop, because we didn’t have reservations. Most of the sites are first come, first served at Ponca State Park except for half of the electrical campsites. We were more than 700 miles from home and the over-planner in me had a hard time with the uncertainty. All of the reservable sites were booked up for our dates but 2 days before our reservation, a spot opened and we grabbed it.
We’ve traveled to several state parks in the U.S., and before this trip Gulf State Park was at the top of my list for amenities—Ponca easily overtook it. In addition to the campground basics of restrooms, a fishing pond, and hiking trails, it also hosts activities such as golf, horseback riding, archery, and even has a water park.
Leaving Ponca to make our way to Branson, Missouri, sent us through Kansas again. This time we stopped in Kansas City where we experienced our first urban park, the Walnut Grove RV Park. We chose this park due to its excellent WiFi. It’s a small, no-frills park with friendly employees.
We needed something new and fun to do during this 1-night stop. We had already done other fun summer activities like hiking nature trails and visiting historic landmarks, but we wanted something a little different to do with the kids. We settled on America’s Incredible Pizza Company, where we played games, rode rides, and enjoyed a surprisingly robust buffet.
Our trip ended with a 5-night stay in Branson. Upon arrival we were greeted by extravagant buildings, including an upside-down house, a building with a giant King Kong hanging from it, and one shaped like the Titanic with water spraying the front. Branson feels like a family-friendly version of Las Vegas, minus the gambling. We camped at the Branson KOA Holiday. In the hot afternoons, the pool and waterslide kept the kiddos occupied while I enjoyed the adults-only hot tub.
On day 17, it was time to return home to Texas. During the trip, we stood in the center of the U.S., awed at the magnificence of Mount Rushmore, explored the natural beauty of state and national parks, and rode a roller coaster through the Ozarks. We learned how to master a work-life balance by carving out space for adventures between long drives and work commitments. We also learned that we can spend 3 weeks in a camper together and not be miserable by the end of it—family RV travel can be a bonding experience.
Some people use kids as an excuse not to travel, but I encourage parents to see children as a reason to travel. They’re only young for a short while—fill that time with as many special moments (instead of things) as possible. As Dr. Seuss wrote, “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”