How do you condense 4,000 miles into one blog post? Not well, I assure you. But I’ll do my best, nonetheless. We spent 12 days road tripping through Colorado, South Dakota, and Wyoming during the middle of a pandemic. It wasn’t our original summer destination but when COVID hit we opted for plan B. In fact, nothing about this summer was as expected. Our trip fell in the middle of broken plans and broken hearts. Plan B turned out to be such a gift. It was a reminder that joy and goodness can be found in even the most unexpected places and that God’s plans are never broken or mislaid.
Halfway through 2020, and like most of you, I felt like I had already gone 10 rounds with Connor McGreggor. Months of isolation and disappointments had left my heart in a sorry shape.
Our first major stop was at the Badlands National Park. Named for its inability to grow crops and plants, at first glance it looked a lot like my heart at the beginning of the trip: barren. There is nothing leading up to the Badlands, literally nothing. We traveled for miles on a dirt road through a dusty plain with not a landmark in sight. I asked Jimmy over and over, “Do you think we are going the right way?” And then all of a sudden, you see it -towers of reds and pinks come out of nowhere. The Badlands have a free hiking policy, meaning you aren’t limited to the trails, instead, you are encouraged to climb as your wanderlust leads you. It didn’t take long for me to find God’s fingerprints in those badlands. Baby barn swallows near the entrance. Giggles from my kids as they climbed. The different shades of pinks in each rock. With each one I saw, I felt the cobwebs around my heart start to shake off. I know those same fingerprints cover my daily life at home – it’s just that sometimes I forget to look.
From the Badlands, we traveled west to Mount Rushmore. I wanted my kids to see the famous monument and to learn the history between each of those men and our country. I want them to know the framework of our nation. I know we live in a very tumultuous time, where the mistakes our country and it’s leaders have been brought to center stage. I don’t want to make light of those mistakes, but I also don’t want those mistakes to negate the good that is our country either. My brother said it best on his Instagram recently,
“Derived from two Greek words, “democracy” literally means the strength of the common people—the acknowledgment that “just powers” are derived solely and completely from the “consent of the governed.” It turns out in practice, that idea is more complicated than it is easy. In an era of so much noise and so little refined discourse, I, myself, have sometimes lost sight of the fact that every single person in the United States government works for us. Such a system, of course, grants us a weighty power. Even so, when our forebears first laid down our country’s core principles in a governing text, they spoke of working toward a “more perfect Union.” In my view, this humble idea—the acknowledgment that all we know and all we’ve done is in some way imperfect—is what makes our country extraordinary. Put differently, I am absolutely obsessed with the framework of this place. The substance, on the other hand, needs work—as it always has. But that work is ours—the People’s—to do. So all this is to say: pay attention. Register to vote. Fulfill your civic duties with thoughtfulness, compassion, and strength. Not out of blind patriotism, but out of responsibility to your fellow Americans. Because the problems in this country are not stuck in the purview of some remote dictator sitting on a golden throne; they are ours to fix. They are yours to fix. As the son and grandson of people who came from a place in a time when that wasn’t the case, all I can say is I’m grateful to be an American alongside each of you today, and I welcome the opportunity to work with you toward a better nation.”
After a few more pitstops we found ourselves in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is incredible because around every corner is something new. You might start the day in a valley with luscious foliage and a flowing river and end in the salt terraces, which I assume is similar to what Mars looks like. In between, you have geysers full of shooting mud and ones full of blues that seem only possible in photoshop. One of the hardest parts of 2020 has been all the change. I don’t like change. Well, I should rephrase: I don’t like change that I don’t implement. If Yellowstone taught me anything, it’s that change can hold more beauty than I thought possible. Again, it requires this discipline of stopping and looking. In taking inventory of all the goodness, instead of focusing on the seemingly lost.
A short drive south leads you into Grand Teton National Park. I’ve tried to find the right words to put to the Tetons, and I’ve landed on they were breathtakingly magnificent. And yet that still comes up short. Even my pictures couldn’t capture it. Beauty was so obvious here, from the mountain tops to its lakes of glass, the picture-perfect spots were innumerable. If you’ve never been, stop what you are doing and add it to your bucket list right now. Although I hate to play favorites, if you MADE me choose, this would be my favorite location of the trip. The best part for me was that all my people gathered together at this stop. My parents and both my brothers and their wives joined us in Yellowstone and we traveled together into the Tetons. We spent our mornings in quaint little coffee shops, hiked our afternoons away in the mountains, and filled our evenings with games, laughter, and dance parties. My heart left fuller than it arrived and it had less to do with the mountains and more to do with the people.
From there, we said our goodbyes and headed southeast back to Colorado. Our final National Park of the trip was Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ll be honest, after coming from the Tetons, the Rockies pale in comparison. At first glance at least. In all actuality, my most favorite hike ended up being in the Rockies. We explored serene ponds, crystal lakes, fields of flowers, and caverns of snow. We crossed streams on logs, shared our snacks with the chipmunks, and climbed to the top of the rocks for the most amazing views. I was reminded once again, that comparison can be the thief of joy. I was ready to toss the Rockies to the side because they didn’t appear to be like the Tetons. They weren’t like the Tetons. They were never designed to be like the Tetons. The Rockies sing a different song and tell a different story. How often is it the same with us, why are we looking for everyone to sing in the same tone? A flower does not think of comparing itself with the flower next to it. Instead, it just blooms. They don’t rival each other, they complement each other, And the result: well that’s where you stumble upon fields of wildflowers with so many different colors it culminates into one spectacular sight.
Our last stop of the trip was to Colorado Springs. We visited the Cliff Dwellings of Manitou Springs, where we learned all about the Anasazi people and their way of life. I’m trying my best to show my kids God’s handiwork through different kinds of people, cultures, and ways of life. Looking at different people is like looking at different layers of the rainbow -each one beautiful in its own right, but when humanity comes together: brilliant. I don’t want them to miss God’s incredible craftsmanship by staying in their bubble.
We had a late flight on our final day and opted to spend our final moments exploring the Garden of the Gods. It started well but quickly ended in disaster. Cameron fell 10 feet while free climbing and injured his arm. Thankfully, there was a doctor climbing who assessed Cam. He ruled out broken bones or dislocation but advised he knocked it pretty hard and it would take a little bit to heal and gain full motion again. We built a subpar sling from my camera strap and the bandana from my hair and set out on the trail again. Minutes in, Addi got a killer headache (a combination of the heat and being over-tired) and broke down in tears. We tried to press on and explore as much as we could, but with two kids in tears, it was less than fun. We opted to leave and get brunch instead. Again, my first reaction was to be bitter that our final moments were ruined. But when does life go exactly as we plan? If bitterness is my first reaction, I rob myself of the joy that still exists in the moment. I want my kids to learn that we can’t control our circumstances but we can always control our response. Brunch turned out to be full of sweetness as we took a quiet moment to reflect on the whole trip. We laughed as we relived our mishaps and savored our favorite memories. My mom used to say, “Choose joy or choose your room”. While it annoyed me (endlessly) at the time, the truth still resonates in my heart – choose joy or miss out on some of the hidden treasures life has to offer.
One of my favorite stories is one of Marie Antoinette. She was asked once, what she would buy if she had all the money in the world. Her response: “more time.” Same, girl, same. I’d love nothing but more time. More time to explore and wonder with my kids. More time to get it right because I often get it wrong the first time. More time to find the beauty in each moment.
I’m so thankful for this plan B trip. I’m so thankful for time away from all the noise of the world, time to quiet my heart and sit a moment in God’s faithfulness. While his faithfulness never wanes, often I’m too blinded to notice it. Trips like these, help me find my way back to His goodness and grace, which flows ever abundantly both near and far to home.
Below you will find our actual itinerary and my top 5 tips for hitting these spectacular destinations.
12 Day Out West Itinerary:
Day 1: Denver to Rapid City, South Dakota
- Oregon Trail Ruts
- Register Cliff
- Wind Cave National Park
- Custer State Park
Day 2: Rapid City to Buffalo, Wyoming
- Badlands National Park
- Wall Drug, Wall, South Dakota
- Mount Rushmore National Monument
- Crazy Horse Memorial
- Deadwood, South Dakota
Day 3: Buffalo to West Yellowstone
- Cody, Wyoming: Old Town Trail
- Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
- Brink of the Upper Falls Trail
Day 4: Yellowstone National Park
- Grizzly Bear & Wolf Discovery Center
- Paint Pots
- Upper and Lower Salt Terraces
- Mammoth Hot Springs
Day 5: Yellowstone National Park
- Grand Prismatic Spring
- Old Faithful
- Morning Glory Pool
Day 6: Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park
- Black Pool
- Jenny Lake Ferry Boat
- Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point Trail
Day 7: Grand Teton National Park
- Taggert Lake Trail
- Jackson, Wyoming
- Arial Tram @ Jackson Hole Lodge
Day 8: Grand Teton National Park
- Jackson, Wyoming
- Rafting on Snake River
Day 9: Grand Teton to Rocky Mountain National Park
- Rock Springs, Wyoming (Western Wyoming Natural History Museum)
- Laramie, Wyoming (Wyoming Territorial Prison Historic Site)
Day 10: Rocky Mountain National Park
- Emerald Lake Trail
- Estes Park, Colorado
Day 11: Estes Park to Colorado Springs, Colorado
- Dinosaur Ridge
- Manitou Cliff Dwellings
Day 12: Colorado Springs to Denver, Colorado
- Garden of the Gods
Tip 1: Book in advance. Many of the hotels and Airbnb’s around some of these locations are booked up to a year in advance. Even campsites were sold out. Make sure you have reservations for your must-do spots.
Tip 2: Check COVID changes. Many of these locations altered their standard procedures to accommodate cleaning/social distancing. We missed out on a few spots because we didn’t know we needed reservations. Many museums changed their ours or required reservations to enter. Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, is currently working on a reservation system, you have to claim a time slot to enter the park. We knew to book ahead here and were able to enter, but many people were being turned away at the gate.
Tip 3: Bring your own food. Snacks and stores are limited in the National Park. Often we found ourselves driving for hours without a sign of civilization in sight. We stocked up on snacks and packed our own lunch so we could eat when and where we wanted.
Tip 4: Use the Gypsy Guide! This is a paid app, but well worth it. You receive a narrated tour as you drive through the National Parks. Your guide provides you history and tips for seeing the park. Often, he would tell us to pull off and direct us to a little-known wonder. We used it in Yellowstone, Tetons, and Rocky Mountain National Park and will definitely use it in the future.
Tip 5: Be flexible. Weather, crowds, procedure all can get in the way of your perfectly laid plans. Be flexible and ready to make the most out of whatever moment you are presented.
Adventure on friends,