If you’re reading these posts as I’m publishing them, you’ve probably figured out that I may never get fully caught up on this blog! (I swear I’m trying!) I was in the middle of writing about our Breckenridge adventures, but then we took a road trip to Mesa Verde and a month later, one to Black Hills, South Dakota. The problem is the further removed I get from our adventures, the harder it is to blog about them and truly capture the experience as it happened. And that IS the point of this blog for me. I like to go back and relive the moments through my words and photos. So I want to at least document the experience from our last trip as quickly as I can. Then I’ll go back and fill you all in on what’s been happening this summer. Because we’ve been busy. You don’t even want to see my blog to-do list. It’s ridiculous.

So let’s get on with it.

As I mentioned above, we trekked to Mesa Verde National Park in early July, and it was our first real road trip as a family where we weren’t on a mission to visit someone or reach a big destination for a complicated, well-planned out vacation. We had a few days free, and we originally intended to go camping (which we’ve never done with just the five of us.) But the lack of rain in Colorado meant we had a burn ban, and the kids were less than thrilled to go camping when we couldn’t have a campfire! So we cancelled our reservations, did some crazy fast research, and decided to make the seven hour drive down to Cortez, CO to visit the national park. We stayed in a hotel for two nights, and we fit as much fun as we could into our short stay. (And I promise I will totally blog about all of this soon because it was pretty great!)

After that trip, we realized how much fun little excursions are! There is no stress involved, none of us minds time in the van, and there is SO much to do within half a day’s drive of Denver. As we were making our way home, we were already planning out our next road trip.

So a month later, in early August, we headed up north to South Dakota for our first real solo camping trip. It originally started out as a plan to visit Mount Rushmore. But then we realized how much there is to do in the area. It is jam-packed with amazing experiences! And spoiler alert, we’re already planning to go back because we couldn’t even accomplish it all over a four day weekend. Black Hills National Forest (and the surrounding area) is one of the best places I’ve never heard of.

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We decided to stay at a KOA because it was easy to book and it seemed to have plenty of amenities should our camping experience go south. (I have been pretty anti-camping since I was a little girl because the weather ALWAYS seems to be miserable. So while I was excited about our adventure, I was dreading the tenting part. And the gross bathrooms part. Blech.)

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Well, I’m happy to tell you up front that my opinion of camping was completely transformed by this experience. Completely. (Like, the day after we got home we’d already booked our next trip!) The Mount Rushmore KOA Resort was exactly what I needed with pretty, grass-covered lots and super clean bathrooms.  This was the inside of Comfort Station No. 2. (I did hear that No. 1 wasn’t quite as nice…)

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We arrived at the campground Thursday evening and checked in. We’d stopped in Wyoming at Devils Tower on the way (which was totally not really on the way), so we didn’t get in until 6:30 and we were really panicking about the impending sunset given the fact that we were setting up a brand new tent. Thankfully, after a quick check-in process, they escorted us to our site and we were able to get to work immediately.

Our campsite was 303 which was perfect because James and I were both born on the third and it’s our favorite number. I was still hesitant about the whole thing, but I took that as a good sign.

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I really would like to give a shout out to the kids because even after spending 8 hours in the car, they were ready and willing to help us set up camp before we ate dinner. This guy scared me a bit with the mallet. His face screams more “I want to murder you” than “I want to help!” Ha.

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The tent went up in no time with the kids’ help. It’s good too because there is no cell service in the area, so we couldn’t even use Google to help if we needed it! (They do have WiFi hotspots within the resort but we weren’t close enough to one for it to work reliably.)Black Hills05

This is the REI Kingdom 8 before we added the rainfly and garage. We also purchased the footprint (extra expensive but cut-to-size tarp) which you can’t see because it’s under the tent. This is not a cheap set-up, but we were able to snag it during REI’s anniversary sale which greatly reduced the price. And I decided if we couldn’t afford an RV (and we can’t), we’d get the best tent we could find. I don’t have a whole lot to compare it to, but this tent is really very great. And I don’t regret our purchase of the garage at all. It attaches to the front and allows us to have an enclosed porch of sorts which protects us from rain or wind before we enter the tent. It also gives us an area to store water, chairs, and shoes which is nice because we always woke up with a ton of moisture on everything. I’m incredibly happy with our decision to purchase this, and REI’s return policy is pretty much the best which gave us the confidence to invest in the package.

(As a side note, in the photo below you can sort of see these super cheap LED lights that hang from the ceiling which was perfect at night!)
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The photo below shows you the rainfly and front garage (plus a kid with his shovel). He was so bummed that we had grass everywhere because there was nowhere to dig!

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The tent itself has two areas that can be sectioned off with zippable flaps. We didn’t use that though and instead slept all together. One of my favorite parts about the tent is that you can stand up in it (well, we can at least, but we’re a short family). In addition, there are pockets that line both sides. They’re perfect for storing small things like glasses, headphones and phones. I didn’t capture a photo of our whole layout, but James and I purchased a self-inflating queen size air mattress that worked really well. It did get cold at night though, so that was our biggest complaint about sleeping on an air mattress.

We picked up new sleeping bags for the kids, and they were snug as a bug in those things. We got both the air mattress and sleeping bags on sale at Dick’s Sporting Goods, but these sleeping bags on Amazon seem to be rated for similar weather and have good reviews.

As you can see, the kids had plenty of room to flail around and not feel cramped in their space. In the other half of the tent, we placed our own bedding and everyone’s bags. That still gave us plenty of room to move around so the kids weren’t stepping over our belongings to get to their beds. I’ll try to snap a photo on our next trip though.Black Hills08

This wasn’t meant to be a leisurely camping experience, so James and I got up nice and early each day to boil water for our coffee. When we backpacked the Kalalau and went camping with friends in Hawaii, we used instant coffee because we didn’t know there were other options.

(Side note – we purchased this Coleman stove.)
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Well consider our life changed. My friend Erica had previously professed her love to us for the French Press, so I bought one from Amazon. I figured it was worth a try, and they had a coffee place on-site that we could hit if it didn’t go well.

But it did! It was insanely easy and the coffee was delicious. So very impressed. (And a little mad that we suffered through the instant coffee before.)Black Hills11

Beyond doing research about the surrounding area before we left, we didn’t really have a plan for the weekend. We spent our mornings figuring out what we’d do each day. (You can find the below books here and here. I’m not sure how good they are just yet, but I’m excited to read them!)
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We spent three nights at the campground, but our days were packed and exhausting. (See the bottom of the post for what we did!) So when we did have time to hang out and relax, we tried to enjoy ourselves.

Shockingly enough, Austin’s favorite part was making the fire. (However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Audra helped start the fire on the first night and she was quite proud of it.)

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We did love sitting by the fire, and learning how to use our pie irons was a hilarious process. Pro tip – make sure the paraffin wax coating has been removed before you go camping. That’s not necessarily a quick job.
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Also, make sure the fire is hot enough so you don’t spend 45 minutes cooking a tiny biscuit-crust-pizza.

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This guy was perfectly content though. He had a blast. (We all did.)Black Hills15

Once we got it all figured out, we did have some great fires and we ate quite well. And we’re learning for the future!

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The resort was gorgeous so I spent some time walking around and taking photos. These views were all seen from our campsite. Incredible, right?

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Although our adventures were amazing, we did have a little mishap. On our way back to the campground on the last full day, we blew out our tire. It’s never happened before, and I hope it doesn’t happen again! But thankfully, a state trooper pulled up behind us within 90 seconds. I barely had time to ask, “What do we do now?” He had a jack we were able to use and he stayed with us until we got the spare on.

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When we woke up the next morning, we were able to see the damage. It was not good. The scariest part is that this tire was only 8 months old! We know it could have been so much worse. We were the only people on the road, we were going slow, and James was able to pull over immediately.Black Hills24

But since it was our last morning and we didn’t have any real plans for the day, we decided to take it easy and enjoy our morning. We made pancakes and eggs, and we didn’t stress about tearing down our tent. We even had time for the morning dew to mostly evaporate before we packed it up.

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After checking out, we spent some time trying to figure out what to do about the tire. Being the procrastinators we are, we decided instead to go and have some fun at The National Presidential Wax Museum since admission was free with our KOA receipt.

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Yep – Aidan seems like a great fit right there!
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I will spare you the photos of the wax figures, but I was actually quite impressed with how lifelike they were! With the exception of my guy Barack – he looked a little creepy. But overall, it was a nice and educational experience. And we couldn’t beat the cost!Black Hills28

Once we ate some lunch and couldn’t delay it any longer, we finally ended up at Firestone. Although our tires are under warranty with another company, there were no locations nearby that could help us. I am seriously so thankful to the team at the Rapid City Firestone, because they had us in and out in under 30 minutes and we only paid $115. Right when it happened, I was at a complete loss because we are not mechanically-inclined, it was a Saturday night, and who wants to deal with a car issue hundreds of miles from home? But between the help of the state trooper and staff at Firestone, it honestly didn’t affect our trip much at all.

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So overall, this camping experience was a huge success and I haven’t even yet told you about all of the fun adventures we had while we were there! In just two full days and and a portion of the first driving day, we did a ton of stuff. I’ll add the links below as I write the posts, and maybe I’ll actually get them all done before we head out on our next road trip! Fingers crossed. But here’s what we did:

Devils Tower in Wyoming
Jewel Cave
Custer State Park
Mount Rushmore
Badlands National Park

Crazy, right?! I took 1200 photos, so….be prepared. 😉

(Update! Got them all posted and it only took me two weeks. Score!)

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Devils Tower National Monument
Adventuring in Breckenridge