Some people have reading goals. Others have fitness goals. My goal in 2021 was to visit at least five places I’d never been to before. Earlier in the year, I took my dog Callie on a “test run” weekend road trip 2.5 hours north to Omaha, Nebraska, to see if she would make a good travel companion. She passed the road trip check with only one note: Don’t feed her before driving.
Instead of easing my dog into a slightly longer trip or trying out camping, I planned a 5-day car camping road trip through five states: South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas. I’d never taken a solo road trip that long nor had I camped before. What could go wrong?
A deflated air mattress (and ego)
The first 2.5 days of the trip were dedicated to South Dakota, but I could have spent all 5 days exploring the state. We visited Falls Park in Sioux Falls and car camped for the first (and last) time at a campground 40 minutes west of the city. Finally settled in for the night, my air mattress slowly deflated as I stared at the stars through my moonroof. I was disappointed at my first attempt at car camping. Not to be defeated, I placed an order at Walmart to pick up the next day in Rapid City.
The second day of the trip had a jam-packed itinerary. I stopped at Corn Palace, Dignity Statue, and the Badlands before entering Rapid City. Besides feeling transported to another planet in the Badlands, I saw wild prairie dogs at a gas station just outside the park entrance.
Once in Rapid City, the dog and I visited Dinosaur Park before heading to Walmart to pick up my new tent, air mattress, and tarp. Since I couldn’t sleep the night before, I researched “how to tent camp” and “easy tent for beginners.”
The day didn’t end at the Rapid City Walmart though. We made our way to Crazy Horse Memorial where the front gate attendant was kind enough to let me enter and park by the entrance. Callie and I walked a service road until I heard a snake move through the grass.
I spent the final part of the day figuring out how to tent camp in a campground just outside of Custer. After 45 minutes of struggling, the tent was up. However, it was another stressful night as strong gusts of wind whipped the tent around and the pine trees swayed above me. Eventually the wind and coyote howls lulled me to sleep.
On the third day, we ventured through Iron Mountain Road to see Mount Rushmore framed by a mountain tunnel. From there, we headed to the town of Deadwood and walked around the Old Western streets. The drive through the Black Hills reminded me of my childhood home in Northern California. The mountain roads lined with tall trees were so nostalgic, I drove in silence for that hour. The last stop in South Dakota was Spearfish before I headed into Wyoming.
Settling on the Great Plains
I wanted to visit Wyoming to see the Devils Tower. The drive from Spearfish to Devils Tower felt long because of the amount of driving I’d done up to this point. I honestly didn’t even make it all the way up to the monument. I stopped at one of the scenic overlooks and took a few pictures before heading back in the other direction. It was really cool seeing a small dot slowly grow larger on the road, but I needed to get to my campground in Nebraska.
My favorite kind of roads are rural, two-lane highways and the drive from Devils Tower to Agate Fossil Bed National Monument was just that. The landscape made me feel like I was a settler on the Oregon Trail, without the hardships.
The road at the end of Agate Fossil Bed National Monument turned to gravel where my campsite—Pavement Ends Campgrounds—was located. The site had just two RVs and my tent, with 50 yards between us. The RVers were hunters who were kind enough to wave at me as I successfully set up my tent. The combination of darkness, lack of wind, and the safety of the hunters’ presence allowed us to pass out quickly.
The next morning, Callie and I walked around the fossil beds in crisp 35-degree weather. We watched the sunrise and the dew fall before heading back out on the road to Denver, Colorado. I made one short detour to Scotts Bluff for a final Great Plains moment.
I’d never been to Denver before, but I made it a point to dedicate at least one stop to Callie. After being on the road and leashed or crated for the past 4 days, we stopped at a dog park. I let her run around before we continued our journey to the last big sightseeing stop: Garden of the Gods.
The park was absolutely packed—I made the rookie mistake of arriving at 1 p.m. on a Saturday. Instead of parking and fighting the crowds, I decided to drive through. After following a train of cars and admiring the other-worldly landscape, I spotted a free parking space near a trailhead. But the trailhead ended up being a horse trail—horses are one of Callie’s fears, so back to the car we went.
I spent the final night of the trip in Calhan, Colorado, on a property next to a field of cows. I put the tent up with ease and watched the wind test my handy work. We walked around the perimeter of the land and four calves followed us along their side of the fence. Utterly exhausted, I called it an early night and we finally had a full night of rest.
I spent my entire Sunday driving us back home from Colorado through Kansas. Callie was so exhausted that she flipped her bed over herself in the backseat as a makeshift den. I had one stop planned—a dog park in Salina, Kansas—but the heat was too much so we didn’t stay long.
As I watched the rural landscape evolve into the city I call home, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief, accomplishment, and anticipation for our next big road trip adventure—I might even bring the tent along, too.