Our Driving Trip Out West: Carved Rocks, Gem-filled Rocks, and The Rockies

Our Driving Trip Out West: Carved Rocks, Gem-filled Rocks, and The Rockies

Our Driving Trip Out West: Carved Rocks, Gem-filled Rocks, and The Rockies


Before I get down to business, here’s a quick reminder: You have 2 days to get your friends to sign-up for you and them to win delicious, chocolate treats!

Winners will be announced on Wednesday.



Last week we visited the beautiful Black Hills area in South Dakota as well as Vail Colorado. Here’s how it went down.

We set out on the morning of the 4 th, and drove 13 hours straight to South Dakota all in one fell swoop. Well, minus EIGHT bathroom breaks for Spence.

Parts of southern Minnesota were beautifully reminiscent of the verdant Teletubby hills.




Frankly, most of our days during the week were sprinkled with rain. Some merely light showers that we dealt with, some angry “red” blotches on the radar map that we tried our best to avoid. A storm approached as we drove by a South Dakota farm, and there was nowhere to hide. In the safety of my office back home once more, I can appreciate its magnificence. Not so much, though, on the open road.




Our first stop was the Badlands, where it was 93 degrees and hazy at 8:00 at night. The vastness of this landmass is overwhelming. Wind and water have eroded the limestone over time until the rock formations mimic the lifeless topography of the moon.






The minute we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by this sign. Here I thought I had left our backyard snake, Brother Jeremy, behind, only to potentially come face to fang with his deadly cousin.








Driving along the 25-mile Badlands scenic loop, we saw mountain goats, a motorcycle collision involving an RV, which amazingly seemed to result in no serious injuries, and a field of prairie dogs popping up and down, in and out of their holes like real life Whack-a-moles.

The prairie dogs live in little burrowed out mounds like this one.




I’ve decided that I’m not particularly fond of them. They stink slightly of skunk, and are a pack of killjoys peeping each other secret warnings from the safety of their holes that big, bad humans with cameras are coming, so take cover!  Getting a photo of them is nearly impossible since they’re up and down quicker than the blink of an eye. The shot is blurry, but I caught one of the little rascals in the photo below.


Untitled design-6


The next morning we awoke bright and early, grabbed some chow and drove a short distance to Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills. Apparently, the Black Hills are becoming less and less black due to a bug that’s killing off the pine trees, similar to the emerald ash borer’s disease that has plagued the eastern half of the country. We had hoped to catch a 4th of July fireworks display over the monument, because, really, how much more patriotic can you get? However, due to the hundreds of thousands of dried pine corpses lying around, they no longer hold the fireworks there upon orders from Smokey the Bear. The area is still gorgeous, nonetheless.




I’ve seen Mount Rushmore several times before, but its majesty never ceases to amaze me at first sight. You round the bend in the road, and suddenly, there it is proudly jutting out of the mountains up above! There’s actually a lot more room to add additional presidents. Who’s missing?






Did you know that 90% of the monument sculpting was done with explosives? The rest of the work was completed by men in leather harnesses hanging hundreds of feet up in the air for hours on end.




Continuing our trek, we drove deep into Wyoming’s endless, green vastness. If I were to make a movie about Wyoming, which has zero chance of ever happening, I’d call it “Fifty Shades of Green.”  Chartreuse, Kelly, and sage colored fields abound for endless miles, while there aren’t any buildings, people, animals or even significant trees anywhere in sight. It’s a phenomenon everyone should experience at one point in their lives, particularly sardine-packed urbanites. We are but tiny, individual specks of life in the scope of the big, wide world. Or something like that.




We drove through a small Wyoming town called Lusk that’s just west of nowhere, and is plagued with poverty. Adding insult to injury, they suffered from a colossal flood earlier in June that completely wiped out the main bridge in town, thus necessitating a detour past the side of town through which I imagine they’d rather not parade potential tourists. Burnt-out trailers, hoodless cars being slowly consumed by rust, and boarded up windows abounded. One piece of plywood displayed a spray painted message of encouragement; “We may be down, but we’ll be back.”

At times, it’s way too easy to forget about all of the impoverished people right here in our own country.

We zoomed in and quickly out of Lost Springs, WY, population: 4, which was inched out down the road a piece by Shawnee, population: 5. If you added them both together on your hands, you’d still have a finger to spare.

Then it was up, up, and up some more as we approached Colorado’s Rockies, peaking at nearly 11,000 feet in the Vail Pass, almost level with the snowcapped spires. My heart was racing. My head was dizzy. My imaginary passenger side break foot was getting a real workout.




And where the peaks proved too steep to climb, we drove right through the mountain, entering, enduring, and exiting the almost 2-mile-long Johnson tunnel.




At this point, no light from outside can be seen in either direction.




And finally, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.




At long last, we reached our final destination. The beautiful mountain resort towns of Vail, Avon, and Beaver Creek, Colorado, where a rushing stream ran right beside our hotel.






I thought I was mighty brave to ride in a glass-walled gondola as we clicked and bumped our way 1,500 up the mountain. Until, that is, my boys decided to zipline 1,500 feet down the mountain.

To put the size of Vail Mountain in perspective for those of you from Chicago, take a look at this map below. We ran into a worker there who was from Highland Park, IL, and was familiar with Wilmot – a ski mountain to Chicagoans and Wisconsinites, but mostly only in a relative sense. She showed us where Wilmot would top out compared to Vail on this map. See that red line? Yep, that’s where the tippy top of Wilmot would reach. Will you ever feel right about calling it a mountain again?


Tippy Top of Wilmot Mountain


Wilmot “Mountain” is 800 feet above sea level at the base, and 1,030 feet high at the top. Vail mountain is 8,000 feet above sea level at the base, and 10,500 high at the top. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

Once on top, we saw awe-inspiring views as well as death-defying young lads racing down switchback dirt trails on their mountain bikes.




I’m trying to smile despite my fear. No one was allowed to move the entire way up lest they rock the boat – Mom’s rules. Same goes for ferris wheels. FYI.




A view from the top of the world.




Strapped into leather harnesses, Logan and Spencer jumped on a chairlift that, as if we weren’t high enough already, climbed even higher up to the zip-line platform . . .




Although his face belies it in the photo below, Spence was the one pushing for this experience.




And once in place, they were suddenly released, and went flying 1,500 feet down the side of the mountain. The lighter you are, the faster you fly. Spence zipped past Loge immediately.




Once back on the ground, we explored Vail.

Crazy about geology and rocks in general, the boys cracked open a geode at a mineral shop with a contraption that looked like a spiked bike chain and was wrapped around the rock. Spence cranked a handle, and sure enough after a few turns, the geode busted wide open, exposing a tiny cave filled with sparkling gems.






Beaver Creek was a lovely Alpine get-away across from our hotel that looked like a hilly Christmas village minus the snow.






If it looks like a place where you’d like to live, get ready to shell out $9 million clams for a mountain home such as the one below. And, just your luck, this very one happens to be for sale! Click here to see the listing.




I love planning vacations. I love the exhilaration of taking off down the road on the first morning. I love seeing beautiful vistas and learning and experiencing things that we don’t get to see during our everyday lives, but, in the end, I love going home just as much.

Goodbye Rockies.

Until next time!








Written by Becky


  • Debbie says:

    Great pictures of such beauty. I love Spencer’s expression on the gondola! Those memories as a family are so precious and so glad you all enjoyed the “journey.” It makes me wax nostalgic at trips with my boys and those memories and how quickly they grow up and are doing their own magic carpet ride without me on it! Darn! I hate it when they grow up!

    • Becky says:

      I know exactly what you mean, Deb. We rush them through school and one activity and another, and then, when we finally get a moment to take a breath, they’re off on their own following their own agendas and we’re left scratching our heads,wondering how that came to pass.It really hit me when Logan reiterated that he was interested in trying to become an astronaut. Talk about letting go of the apron strings and relying on trust and prayer!

  • Mary Lou Sandvik says:

    Becky…what can I possibly add? The Rockies are my favorite part of this gorgeous country of ours! But for the fact that all of you (my children) as well as all of my grandchildren (except one) live in Illinois, I would have migrated to the Rockies years ago. Your trip sounds like a perfect change from Illinois regardless of rain or storms. Soooo glad you’re home safe now and that you used that brake pedal to help Jim drive!! YLM

    • Becky says:

      That’s funny. I told Jame the same thing when we were leaving the mountains – that you would have moved there in a second if the circumstances had been right.

  • Cyndi Smith says:

    Thanks for ‘taking’ us along! This is a trip I’ve always wanted to make. Did Tia go with?

    • Becky says:

      No, Cyndi, after her stint in jail last time we vacationed, we left her at home. She’s always on my mind when we’re away, though. It kind of feels like leaving a small child. I’m sure you understand!

  • Patty from MMC says:

    My family did the Mount Rushmore trip twice. Each time, I was amazed at the majesty and the creativity of the sculptures. The Crazy Horse Monument is even more inspiring – who knows when it will be done!!! It’s “down the road apiece” from Rushmore. We also went to Custer State Park (the same “apiece”) where the prairie dogs were much friendlier – even came face to face with a then-young Dan and even younger Brad, begging for whatever food they could get. (We also have prairie dog colonies at the Omaha Zoo – out amongst the people, thriving, and eager to pose for pictures with your family.) Love ski country in the summer – so green! We spent most of the time at Breckenridge, where there was an Alpine Slide that we all loved and where Dan broke the door off our RV refrigerator by hanging on it (memorable, but for the wrong reasons). Glad you had such a great time – and that none of Jeremy’s cousins showed up for a photo op!

    • Becky says:

      Yep, we’ve done Custer State Park as well, and have loved it! Feeding the wild burros out of the palms of our hands.

  • Heather Martin says:

    I loved this post! It made me feel like I was on vacation with you. And I agree…no matter how many times I see Mount Rushmore, it’s still so amazing, unbelievable, emotional, inspiring and beautiful. I also agree about no rocking the boat on anything, especially ferris wheels! Thanks for giving me a vacation on this rainy Monday morning. 🙂

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Post Comment

About Me:

Hi! My name is Becky. I’m a mom, a wife, a friend, a writer, and a compulsive thinker. Don't invite me to a spa or to shop the day away, but rather, make me laugh, engage me in interesting conversation, play a game with me, or give me a cappuccino and homemade vanilla bean flan and I’m yours ‘til the cows come home.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Your email address will not be shared with anyone else.