Western Trip: Side Adventures

Our 2015 trip out west was ambitious. We were always on the move and didn’t have many rest days to explore. However, we did manage to include a few fun side trips into our itinerary.

Little Devil’s Tower; Custer State Park, SD:

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota.
Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota.

The trail head for this hike in Custer State Park (see trail map) originates at Sylvan Lake. We did not finish this hike because of time constraints – we had to make sure we got back to our campsite before dark. We really enjoyed the hike and wish we had planned our time better. Multiple trails leave the confines of Custer State Park and enter the Black Elk Wilderness. What was really unusual compared to other parks is that pets were allowed on the trails, but had to be leashed. It was a nice experience being able to take Penny and Chewie with us. We also had Ergo as Alex’s carrier; he was getting to heavy to be able to hike long distances comfortably in this carrier.

On the Little Devil's Tower trail.
On the Little Devil’s Tower trail.

Mount Rushmore, SD:

View of Mount Rushmore down the Avenue of Flags.
View of Mount Rushmore down the Avenue of Flags.

Conceived by South Dakota historian Doane Robinson, carving likenesses of famous people in the Black Hills region was done to increase tourism. The sculptures were done by Danish-American Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum. The elder Borglum was instrumental in the selection of Mount Rushmore (the original site, the Needles, had poor quality granite and was opposed by Native Americans) as well as selecting the presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln) to be carved in the mountain.

A close-up of George Washington from the Presidential Trail.
A close-up of George Washington from the Presidential Trail.

Initially, the presidents were supposed to be depicted from head to waist, but poor quality rock and a lack of funding resulted in the monument we are familiar with today. Construction began in 1927 and ended in 1941, notably with no fatalities.

We walked the trail with Alex, starting down the Presidential Trail towards the Sculptor’s studio. This path wound around and took us under the sculptures. This route had numerous steps, which tired Alex out quite nicely. We completed our loop and returned to the Avenue of Flags; the remainder of the trail after the sculptures was handicap accessible. We ended our visit with vanilla ice cream made following Thomas Jefferson’s recipe.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad; Durango, CO

View of the gorge that the narrow gauge tracks run along.

Built starting in the fall of 1881, the line was constructed to haul silver and gold ore from the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway. The line was completed by July of 1882 and began to haul passengers and freight. The narrow gauge was selected by William Jackson Palmer, a former Union General and experienced railroad man, as it would be well suited to the mountainous country and would have lower construction costs.

Alex at Handlebars Restaurant & Saloon.

We took the bus from Durango to Silverton and rode the train back. We kenneled the dogs at Durango Pet Resort. Parking the RV was a bit tricky and we were very lucky to make the bus up to Silverton. Our tour guide was knowledgeable and the bus ride flew by. We ate lunch at Handlebars Restaurant & Saloon; their burgers were pretty good. If our memory serves, they brewed their own beer and it was meh.

Durango & Silverton engine.
Durango & Silverton engine.

The ride back became more of an adventure than we expected. One of the engines broke down bringing a train up to Silverton and the 12:30 train was delayed so the engine could take the 2:30 train back to Durango as well. Needless to say, the double length train did not move very quickly (train ride back took 5 hours). We were not prepared for the extended trip and had not packed enough diapers or food for Alex. Additionally, the train still made all the stops at various trail heads to drop off and pick people up. A really neat option, but it was frustrating after a long day. We didn’t get back to Durango until after the kennel closed, but they had an after hours pick up option and we were able to retrieve Penny, Chewie, and Buster.

Part of our double length train.
Part of our double length train.

It was a beautiful trip.

Garden of the Gods; Colorado Springs, CO

Abby at Garden of the Gods.

Our timing for this visit was poor. We arrived soon after Alex fell asleep. He was not in the mood to go on a long walk through the Garden of the Gods. It was also a hot, sunny day, so we took the dogs with us (allowed); they did not make the circus easier to manage.

We took a short hike and then returned to Abby for lunch and to push on North.

Formation at Garden of the Gods.
Formation at Garden of the Gods.

Carousel of Happiness; Nederland, CO

The Carousel of Happiness was built by a Marine Vietnam veteran, Scott Harrison. The frame was from the Saltair Park carousel that had its animals removed.  Over the course of 26 years, Mr. Harrison hand carved 50 animals for the carousel, of which, 35 can be ridden.

Alex seemed a bit uncertain about his first ride on the carousel. The carousel is beautiful and is worth the visit.

Western Trip Summary

We started our first long RV adventure on June 27, 2015. We had made the decision just three weeks prior to move to California so Jess could enroll in the UC Davis Extension Master Brewers Program; we knew that when we returned we would have to kick things into high gear to prepare the house for sale (we had our floors refinished while we were gone). Looking back, it is hard to believe we got it all done. And it is still rather surreal that a year later we are packing up our California rental to move to Colorado.

Since it has been so long since our trip, the format for posts will be different from our California move. This summary post will be followed by posts focusing on our favorite/least favorite campgrounds, side trips made along the way, and anything else that may require a stand alone post. These stand alone posts will likely be due excessive length as a result of our poor self-editing skills. Some of our notes (including total gallons of diesel and mileage) have been misplaced in a cross-country move.

2015 Summer Trip
2015 Summer Trip

The trip was approximately 5200 miles, including side trips. We used about 345 gallons of diesel, averaging right around 15 miles per gallon.

We started our trip on June 27, 2015 and were back July 16, 2015. Just shy of 3 full weeks and resulting in an average of 273 miles traveled per day.

Family selfie just before leaving the driveway.
Family selfie just before leaving the driveway.

The trip started out on a rainy, mechanical break down note with Abby’s turbo resonator failing, but after our first day hiccup, it was smooth sailing. We had a great time visiting family and friends along our route. And they were always very kind in giving us a place to park, do laundry, and shower in a full size bathroom!

The whirlwind trip took us to four national parks, a national monument, a national recreation area, two national forests, and seven state parks. We definitely erred in wedged too many sights into our trip schedule; we learned from our errors on this trip and corrected them for future trips.


  1. Great River Bluffs State Park, MN – overnight rest stop only
  2. Palisades State Park, SD – 2 night stop, rest day

    Palisades State Park in South Dakota
    Palisades State Park in South Dakota
  3. Custer State Park, SD – 2 night stop (Grace Coolidge, Sylvan Lake)
  4. Yellowstone National Park, WY – overnight (Fishing Creek)
  5. Grand Teton National Park, WY – overnight (Lizard Creek)
  6. Bridger-Teton National Forest, WY – overnight (East Table)
  7. Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, UT – overnight
  8. San Juan National Forest, CO – 2 night stop (Junction Creek)
  9. Mueller State Park, CO – overnight

    View of Pike’s Peak (under cloud cover) from Mueller State Park.
  10. Rocky Mountain National Park, CO – 2 night stop (Olive Ridge – technically just outside the park)
  11. Mormon Island State Recreation Area, NE – overnight
  12. Starved Rock State Park, IL – overnight
  13. West Branch State Park, OH – overnight

    View for our campsite in West Branch State Park, OH. Our last night on the road.