Category Archives: Road Trip

Road Trip: Home Movie

One last entry about our big, family road trip: the videos! Yes, I couldn’t be satisfied taking over 500 photos of our travels — I had to record a bunch of video of our trip as well. I have a little over 48 minutes saved below, if you’d like to see a some of the fun things we did on our travels.

Note: for some reason, YouTube has “flagged” this multiple times for violating their “community guidelines” in some unspecified way. If you can’t see, it try again later.


Video highlights from our trip

Road Trip Day 7: Smith Falls & the Long Road Home

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Smith Falls

We spent the last bit of our road trip in Valentine, Nebraska, where we got up early and went off to Smith Falls State Park. This was a place we’d visited years earlier on one of our friend Jenny’s many camping trips, but somehow Vivian had never realized that we could access the state’s tallest waterfall by any means other than canoe (or inner tube).

We walked the kids down through the park and across the 110 year old Verdigre Bridge to get to a short boardwalk leading up to the falls. It was warm and humid on this side of the state, so it wasn’t long before the kids and I were down at the foot of the falls getting thoroughly wet and cool in the constant spray of water. I hadn’t brought any swim trunks, of course, but that hardly seemed to matter as Aaron splashed about and Hannah climbed on the rocks seeing how close she could get to the falls. I eventually went all in and got a brief shower under the torrents of water — which was honestly quite refreshing.

IMG_4190We headed on back to the car, but not before Vivian spent a few extra minutes finding Hannah a “gooey.” Hannah had been hoping on the entirety of our trip to encounter a small frog like she had on our camping trip to Two Rivers a year ago.

Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be too many frogs hopping around places like Lake McConaughy, Roubaix Lake, or the Pactola Reservoir. Vivian found one right along the Niobrara, though, so we let Hannah hold it for a minute before heading home.

And a long trip home it was — a little over five hours of driving, plus at least another hour for lunch, dinner, and bathroom breaks. The kids handled it all quite well, though we did manage to provide a tablet and handheld video game to keep them occupied during the drive. Hannah also wanted to see Harold the guinea pig at my parents’ house before we even returned home, who had been keeping busy doing work, exercise, and playing Scrabble while we’d been away.

And thus ends the grand 2020 Johnson Family Road Trip! It was a long, fun adventure, and a chance to “unplug” from the “real world,” particularly since we had zero cell phone coverage west of Lincoln. I hope it was a week Vivian and the kids will look back on fondly for years to come.

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Welcome home!

Road Trip Day 6: Storybook Island, Wall Drug, & the Badlands

On Thursday morning, we said goodbye to our lovely campsite with a big breakfast of spam and eggs before packing things up. We then headed down to Rapid City, where I let the kids have some quality playtime at Storybook Island while I got the Highlander a quick oil change.

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Storybook Island is an adorable little amusement park on the west side of town, and completely free (with donations requested) thanks to the local Rotary Club. They have dozens of little playground exhibits modeled after various fairy tales and nursery rhymes (with an extra heavy Disney influence, of course). Hannah and Aaron got to ride a train, go on some swings and slides, ride a carousel or two, and explore just about every exhibit, from Pinocchio to Cat in the Hat. It was a nice little place to let the kids explore before heading off on I-90 for a while, and I’m glad we stumbled upon it.

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We drove east for an hour and made a stop at Wall Drug (passing about fifty billboards for it along the way). Got filled up on free water and let the kids play in the sprayground and on the jackalope and bucking bronco for a bit. We also waited about ten minutes to hear a dinosaur roar and got a photo next to a cowboy Vivian had met eleven years ago. I was somewhat surprised to find an actual pharmacy among all the souvenirs and T-shirts, and I got a commemorative shirt before we left for the day.

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Our next leg of the trip took us through the Badlands, a detour that cost $30 at the gate but included a large amount of scenery and wildlife. We took a wrong turn and wound up at a vista overlooking miles of sandy, rocky terrain. At the very top of it all was a goat perched precariously on one of the peaks. (We’d passed a few of these creatures moments before thinking they might be antelope or mountain goats, but I can’t be sure of its exact species.) Hannah brought out her camera as well for several pictures, and I found it hard not to stop at nearly every scenic overlook we drove past, of which there were several.

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Our wrong turn took us to “Prairie Dog Town” next, where we all got to get a good, close-up look at these little critters. They didn’t do much actual parking, but there were dozens of them popping out of their little holes to get a look at us, some of which came right up to within a few feet of Hannah and Aaron. Then, right across the road, was a small herd of grazing buffalo. I kept my distance but snapped several pictures of them, thinking all the while of the song “Home on the range,” and wondering if we’d get to see some deer and antelope playing next.

We didn’t see any deer or antelope, but we did drive through an hour or two of winding roads through beautiful hills, painted in yellow or with red stripes through their various layers of sediment. We stopped a few more times for pictures but eventually had to hurry on back to I-90, where we had an extra hour or two of driving as we eventually left the state and headed south.

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So long, South Dakota!

Road Trip Day 5: Wonderland Cave, Sturgis, and Swimming

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On Wednesday, we got up with the sun and had a lovely breakfast of bacon, potatoes, and pancakes cooked over hot coals. Every morning waking up in the forest has been lovely, with the sun streaming through the trees the smell of pine in the air. The kids — when we pry away their electronic toys — have also been enjoying exploring the area around our campsite, finding mushrooms, bugs, and especially unusual rocks, which Hannah seems to be collecting.

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After breakfast, we headed a ways down the road to Wonderland Cave, a place advertised with enough signs on the highways that it nearly rivals Wall Drug. The cave is located much further away from our campsite than all the signs would imply, much of which had to be traveled via unpaved roads winding up into the steep hills.

The cave itself was first mined back in the 30s in hopes of finding gold. Instead, it contains many layers of damp limestone and “flow rock” that have dribbled into stalagmites, stalactites, and columns over the centuries (into formations that looks quite a bit like snot). It was a lovely 47 degrees down in the mine after we headed down 100+ stairs (which Aaron counted), and we got a good look around via our helpful tour guide before eventually heading back to the surface.

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Upon checking the map, we discovered we were just a few miles away from Sturgis, which was a few days’ away from kicking off its 80th annual biker rally, so we decided to stop on by just to say we’d made the trip (encountering a stray cow along the way). It was a surprisingly small town with several main streets decked out with shops and stands preparing for an influx of bikers with swag and merchandise.

We were tempted to stop and get T-shirts but instead grabbed lunch at Taco John’s and borrowed their WiFi long enough to find a place to change the oil in my dad’s Highlander, which had announced to us that it needed one.

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We headed back down I-90, 44, and 385 to get to Pactola Reservoir, where we spent a little time in the water with the kids. It was much quieter than Sylvan Lake, and much, much larger (albeit with no rocks to climb on). The lake bottom was all rocks, however, so we put on a few water shoes before going on. We also blew up the kids’ flotation devices so they could float about on the water together. We also encountered a couple ducks who were none to shy about getting close and begging for Cheetos. I brought along my waterproof camera to snap some photos in the water, and Aaron decided to try it out to get some photos of his own before we were done.

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Back at the campsite, we walked down to Roubaix Lake to swim a bit more before changing out of our swimsuits. Vivian had some special Camping T-shirts for the kids to wear, which they both changed into once we were done in the water. Then we cooked some hot dogs together over the fire, along with some s’mores before going to bed one last time in our tent together.

Road Trip Day 4: Mount Rushmore, Wax Museum, Sylvan Lake, & Needles Highway

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No trip to the Black Hills would be complete without an obligatory visit to Mount Rushmore, one of the most iconic American monuments in history. I’d visited twice before, once as a youngster and once again with Vivian on our one-year anniversary trip, but it’s always breathtaking to see the mountain-carved sculpture with my naked eyes. The kids seemed a little less impressed as we viewed the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln up close and personal, but we did get plenty of photos with them. We also stuck around for some ice cream, featuring vanilla allegedly made from Thomas Jefferson’s own recipe.

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Afterward, we continued our Presidential kick down at the Presidential Wax Museum, nestled in the heart of the giant Tourist Trap known as Keystone. We got to see the faces of all 45 Presidents, as well as other historic figures. We couldn’t interact with any of them as we had with Madame Tussaud’s back in 2011, but we did get to see several famous moments of Presidential history, including the Lincoln-Douglas debate, Grover Cleveland’s wedding, the moon landing, the JFK assassination, and the 9/11 aftermath.

My favorite part of the visit was the mock Presidential press conference podium, where all four of us got the chance to play POTUS to no one in particular. The kids’ favorite part, however, was the bin of colorful rocks we let them dig through before heading out. Hannah in particular seemed to enjoy collecting rocks on our trip, continuing to find more and more to take with her at every stop.

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We drove on down (through a tunnel) to Sylvan Lake along the Needles Highway to have a little lunch and then get our feet wet. This particular lake was featured in the movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and Hannah and I got to climb on some of the same rocks traversed by Nicolas Cage and the cast of the film (from this scene, specifically). Aaron did some digging in the sand, but since none of us has brought swimming suits, we couldn’t get too wet before we left.

The lake itself was ridiculously crowded as well, for reasons I couldn’t quite understand, as there were plenty of other lakes nearby in the Black Hills. None of them featured the same fantastic rocks, however, one of which became a diving board for some people who didn’t seem worried about failing to clear the rocks below when jumping off.

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We took the long road back to camp, winding our way around the scenic Needles Highway. We got to see plenty of the tall, pointed peaks that give the road its name, and we also had to squeeze through a narrow called the “Needle’s Eye,” a bit of a difficult feat as there was only room for one car at a time and nobody around to direct traffic. On our way back down the mountain, we got to see some spectacular views of the hills and valleys below, and it was hard not to stop at every one to snap photos as we headed back down to the main highway.

On the way back to camp, we passed by the Crazy Horse Memorial, which we could clearly see from Highway 385. Vivian and I had visited it back in 2009, and I could barely tell if anything had changed since then, so we didn’t bother paying $30 to drive inside for a slightly closer look.

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We made some foil-wrapped chicken and potatoes for dinner back at the campsite, which we baked right in the fire. Aaron created a kind of story with a collection of toys using our tent’s windows as “panels” of a comic strip. Then we had some more s’mores by the fire before calling it a night.

Road Trip Day 3: Toadstools and Black Hills

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On day three, we hit the road to see Toadstool Geological Park up in the very northwest corner of Nebraska. It was like being dropped from an endless, grassy prairie into the middle of a strange, desert landscape. We followed a series of numbered posts through the various rocky structure that looked a bit like another planet, and it was hard to keep the kids from using every sloped rock as a giant, sandy slide. In addition to the strange, mushroom-like rock formations, we also found some 30 million year old rhino tracks, which were embedded into the rock.

The weather was around ninety degrees, but so dry that it barely registered, and when we were done with our little hike, we got to take a bit of the sand hills with us on our way out. If you ever make the same trip, be sure to top off your tank in Chadron. We were driving on fumes all the way to Hot Springs without a gas station in sight.

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Before long, the landscape changed again into vast rolling hills covered with pine trees as we entered the Black Hills. We stocked up on some food before heading to our campsite at Roubaix Lake, a lovely little campground about 40 minutes north of Mount Rushmore. We grilled up some burgers for dinner before letting the kids walk down to the lake to wade a bit and look for frogs. There were a bunch of tiny purple daisies blooming along the paths as well, which Hannah picked for all of us (and her stuffed toys). The weather was mostly perfect, though a thunderstorm managed to roll by just as we were finishing up our s’mores for the evening. Fortunately, we were ready for bed anyway, and our tent proved to be dry and water-tight, which made falling asleep to the pitter-patter of raindrops even easier.

One other note: the Black Hills are definitely “Trump country.” Everywhere we went we found little pop-up “Trump shops,” which may have opened just for the President’s visit to Mount Rushmore last month, but were still sticking around with Trump memorabilia for sale.

Road Trip Day 2: Scottsbluff & Carhenge

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The next day took us down Highway 26 and along some scenic rocks and vistas, including Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock, as well as iconic Chimney Rock. We also came across a historical marker for Mormon pioneer and martyr Narcissa Whitman, whose journey west started in Bellevue of all places. We made a quick stop in Oshkosh for some Krispy Krunchy Chicken (and a bathroom break) and nabbed pictures of an abandoned but colorful old motel along the way.

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Before long, we made it to the Scotts Bluff National Monument, a giant (and gradually deteriorating) bluffs in the panhandle that Vivian and I had visited once before but didn’t know we could go to the top of. It was quick drive through a few tunnels around the side to get to the summit, and then we had a few paths to walk around to see spectacular views overlooking miles and miles of the world below (far enough to see Chimney Rock from over 26 miles away).

The steep drop-offs and signs warning about falling made it a little nerve-wracking walking with the kids, but they stuck close along the path, venturing only far enough to snap photos of the views and some wild cacti growing along the path. We also got to see a plaque for the “Scott” the whole area is named after, among other things before our trip back down.

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We made a trip next to Scottsbluff (the town), where we got some Mexican food for lunch at a place called San Pedro and let the kids play a bit at Pioneer Park around the corner. This park had a few interesting features along with the playground. One was a stone structure that was apparently built rock-by-rock by a Mexican farm worker who carried the rocks himself during his daily 20-mile walk to work, hoping to use it as a kind of proof-of-concept piece / resume to get into stone masonry. There was also replica of the Statue of Liberty, erected by a troop of Boy Scouts back in 1950.

During our brief picnic, I got to meet up with fellow web comic artist and historian Mat Rhys, who told us about these and other stories, including folks from Alliance literally stealing a building from Hemingford they hoped to use to win them role of County Seat of Box Butte County, and settlers from Gering moving their entire houses to Scottsbluff when they got tired of waiting for the railroad line to make it to their town.

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We made a stop at Carhenge on our trip north of Chadron, spending an hour with the kids at one of the panhandle’s best-known, albeit bizarre attractions. The kids got a good, close-up look at the various cars strewn about in the form of Britain’s famous rock structure, and there was even one car off to the side that we were allowed to “auto-graph” before we left. A few of the cars seemed to be memorials as well, one for WWII veterans and another for the domestic auto industry.

We headed on through the Nebraska national forest, giving us a brief change of scenery and a glimpse of what was in store in the black hills as wide-open prairie gave way to a few rolling hills of trees on our way to Chadron. Then we had a quiet evening of pizza and TV shows (via tablet) before one more night of sleeping in beds (and jumping on them) before a few days of camping.

Road Trip Day 1: Lake McConaughy

The Johnson Family just got back from an intense, week-long road trip vacation, which took us all the way to the Black Hills and back. It was a vacation with many “good views” and photo-worthy sights, but mostly it was a chance to unplug from the world — partly because we had next to zero cell phone coverage during the entire trip.

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We kicked things off with a five-hour drive along I-80 heading west. This would be the longest our kids have ever spent cooped in the car, but they were great little passengers, spending time drawing in their notebooks and playing with each other along the way. We stopped for lunch at Windmill State Park, giving us all some much-needed leg-stretching time before having lunch and hitting the road again.

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We spent the evening in Ogallala and swimming down at Martin Bay in Lake McConaughy. Vivian and I had glimpsed the lake just once back on our one-year anniversary trip, but this was our first time swimming there. It was nice, albeit cold, and most of the folks down there seemed more interested in boating than swimming. Hannah also got to try out her sculpting skills on the sand.

We crossed a time zone and gained an extra hour to have a Runza down by the shore before calling it a night (and getting chocolate ice cream). This stop turned out to be one of Hannah’s favorites, specifically because we all got to have breakfast together at the Super 8 the next morning.