39-Day Great American Road Trip

What does a 39-day American road trip of 7,600 miles look like? The call to go to Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park and the Black Hills of South Dakota and everywhere in between was too loud to be denied. I wrote recently about the "how" of the trip, so now I'd like to include you in on the details of Part I - North Carolina to Kansas - where we camped, places we stopped, and things we saw. Hope you enjoy the ride and let it inspire you to make your own road trip adventure!

GPS:
CATEGORY:
Travel

Day 1:  Natural Tunnel State Park Campground, Duffield, Virginia

Hungry Mother State Park, Marion, VA

The day finally arrived for our first lengthy road trip (see our camping tips)- none too soon- I couldn't bear to review the packing list one more time. The girls (15, 12, 10, and 9 y/o) and I left early to avoid rush hour traffic out of town. Our first stop was lunch at Hungry Mother State Park, Virginia, where we found a pileated woodpecker and several crows. The crows patiently waited for us to drop crumbs, but we knew better and left a clean table. While we were sitting at our picnic table, a number of motorcyclists began their ride on the winding 32-mile Back of the Dragon scenic road (Hwy 16). With activities such as hiking, paddling, swimming, and fishing, we made notes to add the hidden gem Hungry Mother State Park to our must-return list.

Natural Tunnel State Park, Duffield, VA

We arrived at Natural Tunnel State Park, Virginia, to light rain. The campground included a swimming complex with a 5,400 sq ft pool, 100-foot slide, snack bar, and bathhouse. At registration we asked if there were any programs offered - happily, it turned out that night was the Ranger Owl Prowl hike. Although there were no owls on the hike, the rangers were informative and entertaining. A gorgeous sunset ended the first day of our adventure.

Natural Tunnel State Park is named after the 850-foot long natural tunnel that runs through Purchase Ridge. A railroad takes advantage of this formation, and if you are fortunate, you'll catch one of the daily coal trains coming through. The tunnel opens into an expansive basin with 400-foot cliffs. You can access the tunnel by either a short, but steep trail, or purchase round trip chair-lift tickets. For the best of both worlds - hike down and take the chair lift back up.

Things to Know

  • Check in: 4pm
  • Active railroad - remain on viewing platform
  • Facilities: pool, hot showers, flush toilets, laundry, camp store
  • Numerous ranger programs offered throughout the year

Day 2: Kentucky Horse Park Campground, Lexington, Kentucky

Kentucky Artisan Center, Berea, KY

Waking to the sound of pouring rain, we groaned and waited in our tent for the rain to slow. Then, we quickly packed up and regretfully decided not to hike to the tunnel as planned, but rather to make an early start to Kentucky. As we put the miles behind us, the weather cleared and we stopped in Berea, Kentucky, the Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky, for a picnic outside the Kentucky Artisan Center. This turned out to be a great stop for shopping and admiring authentic Kentucky handcrafts before resuming the drive to our destination - the Kentucky Horse Park Campground.

Kentucky Horse Park Campground, Lexington, KY

Kentucky Horse Park Campground is definitely designed for the RV camper rather than the tent. However, two factors weighed in its favor: convenience - the Kentucky Horse Park is next door, and financial - discounted tickets and free parking pass for all campers.

Things to Know: 

  • Check in: 2pm
  • Facilities: pool, hot showers, flush toilets, laundry, camp store
  • Open year round - advance reservations recommended for the summer season
  • Purchase your discounted Kentucky Horse Park tickets with a free parking pass at the Campground Store
  • Cons: Both days the bathroom floors and sinks were dirty; loud campground

Day 3: Kentucky Horse Park Campground, Lexington, Kentucky

Keeneland Race Track, Versailles, KY

Woke up early so that we could get to the Keeneland race track, a National Historic Landmark, to watch the horses train. Located in Versailles (pronounced ver sales), Kentucky, it took us about twenty minutes to drive from the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. We easily found parking at the race track at 7am. Keeneland allowed spectators to enjoy these morning training sessions free of charge. Leaning on the fence, we watched these amazingly powerful horses pound their way around the track. A great start to the day for my horse-loving girls!

Things to Know:

  • Training session: no admission or parking fee; hours 6-9am
  • Guided Tours: $15/person; free for children 12 and under

Kentucky Horse Park, Lexington, KY

It was a gorgeous day - perfect for spending time at the Kentucky Horse Park. We stopped by the Visitor Center to get a map which included the times and places for exhibitions and demonstrations.

This day was all about the majestic horse, so we made sure to arrive at the Kentucky Horse Park when it opened. With map and schedule in hand, we explored the Mounted Police Barn and Kids Barn, rode on the horse trolley, visited the extensive collections at the International Museum of the Horse, watched the Parade of Breeds and Hall of Champions presentations, and even groomed the miniature horse, Starbucks.

After the Hall of Champions show, we spoke with the charming Gene Carter (92 y/o), the last living link to legendary racehorse Man o' War.  You can read more about Gene Carter's experience in the racing world here in the Lexington Herald Leader. Don't forget to pay your respects at Man o' War's burial place near the entrance to the Kentucky Horse Park. 

In the late afternoon, we stopped at the Victorian carriage race competition and the lady running the event graciously took the time to explain the rules to us.

Shout Out: We are greeted throughout the day by friendly Kentucky Horse Park employees that go out of their way to engage the kids and make this park one of the highlights of our trip. Also worth mentioning - the grounds were well-groomed and immaculate.

Things to Know:

  • Hours: 9am-5pm (summer) 9am-5pm (winter; closed Mon & Tue)
  • Admission: $20/adult; $10/6-12 yo (summer April - early November); $12/adult; $6/6-12 (winter season)
  • Winter season has limited activities
  • Discounted tickets available to military, Kentucky state employees, seniors, Kentucky Horse Park campers
  • Tickets are good for two days
  • Need two days if you participate in all the activities and explore the museums; one full day if activities only
  • Pet friendly

Day 4: Pere Marquette State Park, Grafton, Illinois

Saint Meinrad Archabbey, Saint Meinrad, IN

We woke up bright and early since this day was one of our long travel days (~400 miles). Thankfully, months of practice made packing a quick job, and it turned out to be another glorious weather day. For us, it was easier to drive long distances if we broke it up with stops along the way.

Our first stop was at the lovely Saint Meinrad Archabbey, a Benedictine Monastery, founded in 1850 by Swiss monks in southern Indiana. Saint Meinrad Archabbey is one of only two archabbeys in the United States and home to approximately eighty monks. After a warm welcome at the Visitor Center and an invitation to Mass, we strolled through the grounds. In our fast paced world, it was good to stop and experience a sense of tranquility in this sacred space.

Things to Know:

  • Guided Tours: Saturday, 1:30 Central Time
  • Self-guided tours anytime- pick up a Visitor's Guide map at the Archabbey Guest House & Retreat Center

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Collinsville, IL

An easy drive on I-64 west, we headed toward our next stop of the day just east of St. Louis - Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico and one of only twenty-three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States. In order to orient yourselves, we suggest first spending time learning background information at the Interpretive Center and watching the introductory film.

We learned that the city of Cahokia began around 700 AD, and peaked at a population of around 20,000 between the years 1100 - 1200 AD, but within a couple centuries, they mysteriously disappeared. Known as "Mound Builders," the Cahokian city consisted of 190 mounds - 72 survive - in a grid pattern. We decided to hike the the massive Monk's Mound, the largest mound of Cahokia at 100 feet high.

With the heat, no shade, and a schedule to keep, we opted to drive from the Interpretive Center over to the small parking lot located by Monk's Mound. After a steep climb, we were rewarded with a panoramic view of the nearby mounds as well as the far off iconic St Louis Gateway Arch.

Things to Know: 

  • Hours: Interpretive Center Wed-Sun, 9am-5pm; CLOSED Mon/Tue but grounds open dawn to dusk
  • Admission Fees: Free, but donations encouraged
  • Guided Tours (June- August): Wed-Sat 10:30am, 2:30pm; Sun 12:30pm, 2:30pm
  • Guided Tours (April, May, Sept, Oct): Sat & Sun 2:30pm
  • If hiking, we recommend water, sunscreen, hats, insect repellant, and comfortable shoes

Pere Marquette State Park Campground, Grafton, IL

We departed Cahokia and an hour later we reached Pere Marquette State Park, Illinois' largest state park with over 8,000 acres and named for the Jesuit priest Father (Pere) Jacques Marquette who along with the French explorer Louis Joliet mapped the northern portion of the Mississippi River. Should you come here January through the first week of March, hundreds of bald eagles make Pere Marquette State Park their winter home.

Tired from traveling, we chose to set up camp and then headed over to the Pere Marquette State Park Lodge for dinner.  With the massive timber beams and the stone fireplace, the girls imagined that we were dining in a Viking hall. Not quite as old as that – the lodge was hand built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930's.

We drove the scenic drive which had some lovely overlooks, but a few of them were overgrown with bushes and trees and thereby obstructing the views. Back at camp, we discovered that the campground water tasted like paint so bottled water for us!

Things to Know: 

  • Check in: 3pm
  • Facilities: hot showers, flush toilets, electric/water available
  • Cons: Bathrooms were tired looking and drinking water tasted terrible

Day 5: Pere Marquette State Park, Grafton, Illinois

Saint Louis Zoo

Mixing city stops with nature ones, we left a day to enjoy the Gateway to the West, St Louis. Although an hour away from the campground, we arrived in St Louis by 7:45am and snagged free parking by the Saint Louis Zoo on Wells Street. With 90 acres devoted to the Saint Louis Zoo complex and over 16,000 animals, there was plenty to enjoy at this budget-friendly attraction (aka free!). Since the carousel, stingray touch tank, and children's zoo attractions have no charge the first hour of the zoo opening, we made our way to those areas first. Afterwards, we leisurely explored the rest of the zoo.

Our family favorite areas: The Red Rocks zone (big cats and hoofed beasts), the herpetarium (reptiles & amphibians), and insectarium.

Things to Know:

  • Hours: Summer Mon- Thur 8am-5pm; Fri-Sun 8am-7pm; otherwise 9am-5pm
  • Admission Fees: Free (fees for some attractions)
  • Tip: Children's zoo, carousel, and stingray touch tank are free the first hour of the zoo opening

Pappy's Smokehouse

Although most of the trip we self-catered our meals, occasionally we sought out special regional food (or when I got tired of cooking). How could we go to St Louis and not try their barbecue? We're from North Carolina, home of Eastern barbecue – think pork with vinegar-and pepper-based sauce. Now was our chance to try the wood-smoked Memphis-style (tomato) barbecue. Research led us to Pappy's Smokehouse. We called in our order – E-Z Carryout Combo #4 (feeds 6-8) with choice of two kinds of meat (we chose beef brisket & pork), buns, two kinds of sides (we chose applesauce & baked beans), plus sauces. There were no leftovers –we five hungry travelers devoured every. last. delicious. bite.

Things to Know: 

  • Hours: Mon-Sat 11am-8'ish; Sun 11am-4'ish (they close when they sell out of items)
  • Address: 3106 Olive St., St. Louis, MO 63103
  • Phone: 314.535.4340 

Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis

Having met our physical needs, we addressed the spiritual and headed over to the gorgeous Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis for our 2pm guided tour. Our knowledgeable guide clearly loves his Church, St Louis (the city and the saint), and story-telling. Go on the tour and find out why in the mosaic of St Patrick, he wears a robe of red instead of green.

Just as the East meets the West in the city of St Louis, so the Cathedral reflects this union in its architectural design - a Romanesque exterior (Western) united with a Byzantine interior (Eastern). The mosaics are indeed stunningly beautiful - exquisite craftsmanship with 41.5 million sparkling tessera that captivates the eye and uplifts the soul.  With one of the largest collections of mosaics in the world, this is a must see stop!

Things to Know:

  • Active house of worship - respect the silence, men remove hats, no photography during Mass
  • No food, drink, or smoking
  • Guided tours available: 10am-4pm (call ahead to arrange 314-373-8241)
  • Donations encouraged to support and preserve this historic religious landmark
St Louis Arch in St Louis, MO

We drove by the St Louis Gateway Arch. There was not enough time to stop, but we intend to return one day–St Louis was a home run for a vacation stop and there was so much more that we could have done.

Hot and tired, we returned to the Pere Marquette State Park campground to find out that the water had been shut off to the bathroom and showers. Then, to top it off, we heard the rumbling of distant thunderstorms. We checked the weather radar often and saw that the worst of the storm would pass around us, but that rain was definitely coming.

Day 6 & 7: Atchison, Kansas

Day 6: We hastily packed up our drenched tent and hit the road by 6:45am. We decided to avoid the I-70 truck traffic and instead went north through Hannibal, Missouri, to pick up US-36 west. Our original plan was to explore Historic Hannibal for the morning, but the dreary weather discouraged us so instead we chose to cheer ourselves up with pastries and coffee at the adorable Java Jive Deli & Bakery and pushed on toward Kansas.

As we drove, the weather shifted from grey clouds to blue skies, and our spirits improved. We were fascinated by the trucks carrying wind turbine blades - not something we've ever seen in North Carolina.

Day 7: Mostly a day to relax and enjoy the company of friends (and dry out our tent). We made time to tour Benedictine College campus and stopped by Amelia Earhart’s childhood home.  After a week of sleeping in a tent, comfy beds and hot showers were real treats.

Expenses:

Day 1: Natural Tunnel SP, Virginia

  • One night: $45
  • Dryer load: $1

Day 2-3: Kentucky Horse Park, Kentucky

  • 2 nights: $81.50
  • Washer & dryer load total: $3.50
  • Wood bundle: $6.35
  • Ice: $2
  • Gas: $68
  • Kentucky Horse Park passes for 5: $55
  • Restaurant: $39

Day 4-5: Pere Marquette SP, Illinois

  • 2 nights: $45
  • Gas: $69
  • Restaurants: $132
  • Donation: $20
  • Ice: $3.50 (for 2 bags)

Day 6-7: Kansas (friends)

  • Restaurant: $7.17
  • Groceries: $11
  • Gas: $23

Total Expenses: $612 (of course, the first week I packed food from home & spent time with friends)

Feel free to ask us questions about the campgrounds or places we visited. We'd love to hear from you!

Next up - Part 2: South Dakota!

Cades Cove Trading Company

Located adjacent to the Cades Cove Campground, the authorized concessioner Cades Cove Trading Company runs a cafe, camp store, and bike rental.

  • The cafe menu includes burgers and sandwiches, ice cream, and a grab-n-go items.
  • The camp store offers essentials such as ice and firewood plus souvenirs and gifts.
  • The bike shop offers first come, first serve rentals. Arrive early to assure a stocked inventory.

Cades Cove Riding Stables

Also near Cades Cove, Cades Cove Riding Stables, a park-authorized vendor, offers a variety of horse-related activities from March through November, depending on weather and trail conditions:

  • Guided Trail Rides: One hour length with limit of nine riders per group. No reservations.
  • Guided Carriage Rides: 30-45 minutes in length; six passengers. No reservations.
  • Guided Hayrides: Last 1 ½-3 hours, depending on loop traffic. 2-65 passengers per hayride.

Cades Cove Campground

Camping at Cades Cove Campground gives you easy access to an adventure-rich outdoor experiences in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, most of which is within 10 miles of your campsite.

Tips to Know:

  • Open all year for Loop C; reservations May through October
  • Loop B: generator use allowed 8am through 8pm
  • Loop C: no generators allowed except when Loop B is closed for season.

Two Loops, B & C. Loop B genera

Flush toilets; no showers; dish washing station

Watch for poison ivy

Open year round - reservations May through October; off season walk-up only except for a few spots in Loop C

Nearby Waterfall Trails with Minimal Crowds

Spruce Flat Falls

Not on the official park trail map, Spruce Flat Falls gives you a scenic, tiered waterfall and a chance to cool off in the water, but with minimal crowds. Less than 10 miles from Cades Cove, park at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and get your last chance for a rest room break (flush toilets). If confused about the location of the trailhead, the friendly volunteers in the gift shop will give helpful instructions.

At the back of the parking lot, go up the gravel road and take a left just ahead of the dormitory building.   Continue to follow the signs that say "Falls" or "Falls Trail."

Easily under 2 miles roundtrip, the hike difficulty lies in the substantial amount of rocks and roots along the way. It took us about 1.5-2 hours to complete the hike including splash time in the water.

Middle Prong Trail: 3 Waterfalls

Middle Prong Trail, another gorgeous hike in Tremont, features three waterfalls: Lynn Camp Prong Cascades, Lynn Camp Falls, Indian Flat Falls.

If you are looking for an easy stroll, hike this former logging railroad to Lynn Camp Prong Cascades. A wide, smooth path and a total distance of 1.2 miles round trip makes for a leisurely hour stroll. Take time to sit at the bench and watch the cascades.

On the other hand, this hike can be made more substantial. For a total of 8 miles round trip, you gain two more waterfalls plus a small side trail that leads to an old Cadillac.

To get to the Middle Prong Trail, drive past the Great Smoky Mountains Institute and then go another three miles on a gravel road with a few single car bridges. A small parking area, arrive early on peak weekends, as Middle Prong Trail continues to grow in its popularity. Walk across the footbridge and go left at the fork in the path - you'll be following along the river.

Nearest restroom is at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute or Cades Cove Picnic Area.

Things to Know for Hikes:

  • No pets or bicycles on either trail; horses allowed on Middle Prong Trail.
  • Wear appropriate footwear - flip flops and sandals are not suitable.
  • Watch out for poison ivy.
  • Bring plenty of drinking water.
  • Be bear aware.
  • Pack your trash out.

Sugarlands Visitor Center: 

Early in your Smokies vacation, stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center for an introduction to this amazing national park. Leave yourself at least an hour since there is quite a lot to do here - which makes it a great rainy day option.

  • Watch the fascinating 20-minute film about the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its biodiversity.
  • Buy a Junior Ranger booklet or bring back the completed one to earn a badge.
  • Get the scavenger hunt for the kids to help get the most out of the extensive natural history exhibits
  • Purchase park maps or souvenirs at the well-stocked bookshop.
  • Ask questions of the knowledgable rangers at the information desk who will graciously help you with your hiking itinerary. In fact, there are three trailheads that leave from the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
  • Be prepared to circle the large parking lot a few times during peak season.
  • Vending machines and rest room facilities available.

Visitor Center Hours:

  • June-Aug, 8am-7:30pm; Sept-Oct, 8am-6:30pm; Apr-May, 8am-6pm; Mar & Nov 8am-5pm; Dec-Feb, 8am-4:30pm
  • Open daily except Christmas Day

Trails from Visitor Center:

  • Cataract Falls:  Suitable for families with young children; a 3/4-mile round trip to a 25-foot waterfall.
  • Fighting Creek Nature Trail: Family-friendly hike, a 1.2-mile loop, takes you past a couple historic cabins.
  • Gatlinburg Trail: one of only two trails that allows dogs and bicycles, this 1.9 mile-long shaded path leads to Gatlinburg and follows the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.

Townsend Wye Swimming Hole:  Picnic Lunch

We  needed a convenient place to refuel - the car and supplies - and headed into the quiet town of Townsend and stopped at the IGA Market which has gas, groceries, and picnic items.  

Heading back into the Smokies and you'll notice a parking lot on the left to the Townsend Wye swimming hole. We slipped into the last open spot in a rather small parking area. Not only a great lunch setting, but an awesome place for wading, swimming, and tubing.

Warning: We did notice a couple of northern water snakes (non-venomous, but startling).

Newfound Gap

Located on US 441 on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, the Newfound Gap with an elevation of 5,046 feet, is the lowest drivable pass in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A stop here for a restroom break and a chance to straddle both states at the same time. The weather was significantly cooler than Cades Cove, so out came our fleece jackets.

TIP: Great place to catch a sunrise - either from the parking lot or the nearby viewing area.

Charles Bunion Trailhead (8.1 miles roundtrip) starts at the Newfound Gap parking lot near the restrooms. This trail offers the opportunity to trek a portion of the fabled Appalachian Trail as well as a reward of a spectacular summit view.

Clingmans Dome

Our next stop after Newfound Gap was to drive the 7-mile Clingmans Dome Road to the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet elevation. As we drove we noticed the increasing cloudiness, and by the time we arrived at the Forney Ridge Parking area, we were encased in clouds. Our plan had been to hike the steep half-mile paved path to the famous concrete observation tower, but we weren't willing to invest that much work for obscured views. It just means a return trip to the Great Smokies!

Rest room facilities available at Clingmans Dome parking area.

Andrew Bald Trailhead (3.5 mile roundtrip) originates from the parking area. A popular trail so start early to avoid crowds.

Like our content? Pick a Pin!

Elevation
icon for elevation
Check-in/out
icon for check in and check out time
Cost/Night*
icon cost per night to camp
Showers
icon for camp showers
Restroom
campsite telephone number icon
Max People / Vehicles
icon of camp visitors center
Visitors Center
icon of camp visitors center
Camp Hosts
icon for camp hosts
Best Site
icon for best camp site
# Sites
icon for best camp site
Open Year Round
icon for best camp site
Laundry
icon for best camp site
*Tent campsites only; accurate at time of publication
No items found.
Go Up