History Class, Photos, Travel, Uncategorized, Writer's Life

Road Trip!!! From Washington to Wisconsin

Our travel route- roughly. 🙂 Map image courtesy Wikimedia commons: links here. I added the red arrow.

Five people. One minivan. 2,300(ish) miles.

It had been three years since my children had seen their Wisconsin relatives. Two since they’d had a visit from the Minnesota side of the family. They had cousins they’d never met, and my youngest’s memories of her grandparent’s house were fuzzy.

My husband and I debated travel options—the events of the last year or two certainly haven’t made it easy. Flying sounded rather unappealing at present, not to mention expensive!

In the end, we decided that it was time for a road trip.

As this meant traversing 2,300+ miles, we also decided that this couldn’t be a rushed drive. It would be a chance show our kids some of the country, to explore some of the history and the natural wonders of the U.S.A.

With new tires and fresh oil in the van, lots of snacks and water readied, and my trusty, tattered road atlas in hand, we set off East down I-90!

From the Mountains to the Great Plains

The scenery through Washington, Idaho and Montana is spectacular, and I wish that I had more pictures to share as words can’t really capture the scenery adequately—first the deep green evergreen forests of the Cascade mountains, then the scrubby rolling hills and golden wheat fields of eastern Washington, then the forests of Idaho and the pass up the Bitterroot Mountain range where our van almost quit. Mercifully, she revived and we made it down into Montana, only to ascend the Rocky Mountains and then down into the dry rolling hills of eastern Montana and the northeast corner of Wyoming. These were folded in soft wrinkles of peaks and valleys that looked like the texture of a well-washed blanket. Each mountain range and prairie region had its own character and color, and we enjoyed spotting antelope and deer and counting horses along the way.

Our first major stop wasn’t really planned, but as we headed south on I-90 through Montana toward Wyoming, we passed a sign for Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. For those not familiar with the significance of the site, NPS website sums it up well:

This area memorializes the US Army’s 7th Cavalry and the Lakotas and Cheyennes in one of the Indian’s last armed efforts to preserve their way of life. Here on June 25 and 26 of 1876, 263 soldiers, including Lt. Col. George A. Custer and attached personnel of the US Army, died fighting several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.

From the National Park Service website page: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

The monument site includes a nicely laid out museum in the Visitor’s Center which goes over the causes of the battle, the history of the area, and the aftermath. There is a monument to the 7th Cavalry as well as the Indian Memorial (both pictured below in the slideshow.) It also includes a 4.5 mile driving tour of the battlefield with interpretive signs at stopping points. Custer National Cemetery is also on the site, in which are buried Indian scouts, known and unknown veterans, Medal of Honor recipients, and settlers including women and children from isolated frontier posts. It was a fascinating and sobering place to walk through.

Looking over the battlefield. Grave markers for some members of the 7th Cavalry. General Custer’s has the black design on it, though he is no longer buried here.


Enroute to Mount Rushmore we made a quick stop in Deadwood, SD. When asked what they wanted to do on the trip, my son had immediately said he’d like to pan for gold. While there were more “authentic” excursions available (for a price!) Deadwood offered a quick family-friendly gold panning experience at the Broken Boot Gold Mine. We were also given free mine tour tickets by a nice family from Alabama, but as they were the candlelight “ghost tour” and our family doesn’t fit the “12 and over” age requirements, we had to pass.

Besides being part of the South Dakota gold rush in the 1870s, Deadwood is famous as the place where “Wild Bill” Hickock died. He is buried in Mount Moriah cemetery along with other Old West figures like Calamity Jane. We didn’t manage a visit on this trip, though I toured it with my parents years ago.

File:Wild Bill Hickok by Gurney & Son, 1873.jpg
“Wild Bill” Hickok. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

From Deadwood we headed to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, passing a group of five or six female big horn sheep hanging out by the side of the road.

While this visit to Rushmore was a quick one—we were all getting tired—it was still well worth the drive up the winding highway. The first view of the monument is always striking, and the monument’s museum is excellent.

Designed by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the carving of the Mount Rushmore monument took from 1927 to 1941 and employed than 400 people. The National Park Service’s website shares some of the story of the monument’s construction, including how the workers got a little extra pay on the side from eager tourists!

Mount Rushmore

As I was the only member of our family to have done any subterranean exploration, we decided that Wind Cave National Park, just south of Mount Rushmore, was a must see for our next stop. We braved the line—it extended out the door of the Visitor’s Center twelve minutes after the doors opened—and got tickets to the Natural Entrance tour.

Wind Cave was so named because of the way the cave “breathes” as air passes through its over 149 miles of passageways. (Those are only the miles that are “known.” Our guide shared that they believe there is much more of the cave to be explored.)

Of course, Wind Cave’s history goes back before the National Park Service—in fact, Wind Cave is part of the mythology of the native Lakota tribe. It’s also one of the older national parks, established in 1903, and it owes some of its development to the Depression-era CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps.) The building that houses the elevator bringing visitors up out of the cave was a CCC project, though we were told that the elevator itself has been updated (whew!) and is the fastest one in the state.

It wasn’t only size and history that earned the cave National Park status. The winding labyrinth of passages is decorated with a rare cave formation called “box work”—narrow fins of crystal formations laid out in roughly square shaped patterns. The walls are decorated with “cave popcorn” and “frostwork.” The dimly lit, narrow passages didn’t photograph easily, but below are a few images we brought out with us. The descent of over 300 stairs was well worth it!

The cave is not the only feature of the park. Like Rushmore, it sits in the Black Hills of South Dakota which are a beautiful mixture of rocky pinnacles and rolling hills, evergreen forests and prairie land. It is a fantastic area to view wildlife.

Right next door to Wind Cave National Park is Custer State Park. We followed the scenic loop through both parks and were treated to views of prairie dogs, antelope and bison.

The prairie dogs were a family favorite. Though they are not canines—they’re related to squirrels and chipmunks—they earned their name from early settlers with the “barks” they use to communicate. Fun fact: the Lewis and Clark expedition sent a live prairie dog back to Thomas Jefferson along with other specimens. While a couple of the little fellas were quite friendly and looked ready to follow the kids home, the only ones that returned to Washington were of the stuffed animal variety.

From Custer we returned to the highway and pushed on to Minnesota, then to Wisconsin for a week with family and local friends (including a lovely visit with my dear school friend, author Jean Lee!)

The first leg of the journey was done, and a success. We’d crossed 6 states. We’d seen tons of wildlife and beautiful scenery and spotted license plates for 42 out of 50 states—including Alaska! We were grateful to stretch our legs, and tried not to think too much about the return drive while we enjoyed Wisconsin delicacies like cheese curds and fresh sweet corn.

Still, we had some exciting things planned for the road home including a unique piece of Civil War history in rural MN, a visit to Plum Creek, the South Dakota Badlands, and viewing fabulous fossils in Montana’s Museum of the Rockies. I’ll save those for next time!

Thanks so much for stopping by today! Have any of you visited these sites? What did you think? I hope you’re all having a happy, healthy summer, whether travelling or no!

25 thoughts on “Road Trip!!! From Washington to Wisconsin”

  1. What a grand trip! How close to Racine, Wisconsin were you?
    We toured the Little Big Horn site a couple of years ago. Impressed by the respectful treatment for all those who fought there.
    In addition to Rushmore, we visited the Crazy Horse monument, a stunning work in itself.
    Glad you enjoyed the trip. Hope the van holds up on the way home.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It really was!!
      The family is mostly in the Oshkosh (b’gosh?) area. It was so nice to see open fields and fireflies again, though the kids were NOT fans of the Midwest mosquitos! 🙂
      Little Big Horn really is impressive, isn’t it?
      I think we visited Crazy Horse years ago- probably 20+ years now. I recall it being an impressive endeavor but there wasn’t much done on it yet at the time- it would be neat to see how it has progressed!
      And thank you- Mercifully the van ‘excitement’ (including mountain troubles, some leaking radiator fluid, and someone trying to take our bumper off while parked at Wall Drug) all happened on the way too WI- the homeward journey was tame!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. From Racine to Oshkosh is about one hundred miles, less than two hours. We were that close by!
        Crazy Horse remains a work in progress, but the museum and displays are worth the visit.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love a road trip! What an awesome way to see the country with family. And it looks like you did it right with a mix of entertaining and important stops along the way.
    My wife and I were planning big Route 66 trip when the country shut down, now we’re thinking 2022 or so? The northern route west (your route) is on the bucket list too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Our last was Yellowstone, 9 years ago- I’d forgotten how fun it was just to hit the road!

      Oooh Route 66 would be a great one- so much history! I90 served us well and there is so much to see (and the option of I94 and the North Dakota badlands one direction to change things up- we didn’t this time.) The only problem is that after those wide open SD roads, driving anywhere else feels so. Slow. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not just SD roads. During the shut down things were nuts; I-94 cuts through here too, and I think everyone took the route number for the speed limit. Now it’s tough slowing back down!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the road trip! We did Rushmore a few years ago after driving across the “top of Nebraska,” so came in from the south through Hot Springs, where we stayed overnight. Guy has a great grandfather buried at the National Cemetery there, a Civil War veteran with lung trouble. My “souvenir” from Hot Springs was “Undaunted Courage” by Ambrose!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh nice! We slept on Hot Springs so the we could get to Wind Cave early- it looked like such a neat town, what I saw of it anyway as we rolled in after dark. (That happened a lot- it seemed like every drive took about 2 hours longer than I hoped it would! 😆) What an interesting family connection!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Anne, this reminds me of a similar trip my wife, daughter, son-in-law, and I took two years ago along the southern route. We rented a large SUV and drove from NC through SW VA, TN, AR, OK, TX, NM, AZ, UT, and CO, flying back out of Denver. We had several planned stops, all of which were memorable, but the most interesting was a serendipitous stop at Fort Reno. Although the museum itself was closed that day, we did a self-guided tour of the area and the buildings there. The big discovery, however, was a graveyard in which not only several Indian scouts were buried but also many WW2 POWs who were members of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s infamous Afrika Korps! That has led me to do quite a bit of research on the Korps, the POW experience here in the States, and (of special interest to me) the murder of one of their own by the Nazi-fanaticized soldiers of the Korps for “cooperating” with the American captors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What an interesting piece of history! I didn’t know that any of the Korps had been sent over here. Gotta love those ‘accidental’ history finds that turn into new things to learn about!

      That sounds like an excellent road trip- the southwest is the only US region I haven’t made it to yet (except Alaska.)


  5. Nope 😦 I haven’t been to ONE of those sites! Your pictures are great and make me want to go, too…. especially to Mt. Rushmore, and the cemetery. I’m looking forward to the report on the return trip!

    Liked by 1 person

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