Updated: 7 days ago
This was our first big, multi state camping trip. We stayed in 6 states, adding 5 new states visited to our list. Planning a camping trip with multiple stops is not easy. You have to balance a lot of different things like travel time between stops, check in times at campgrounds, activities in each area. I tried to limit our drive time to 7 hours, and pick campgrounds that offer at least electricity, full hookups when possible.
We learned that a road trip camping vacation is much different than setting up in one place for a week. I planned out meals for each day, yet we came back with a lot of leftover food. There was a heat wave that hit the country while we were gone, bringing temperatures to around 100 degrees everywhere we went, and the humidity levels were in the 90s. There was a lot of road construction, and traffic affected our drives considerably, especially between Indiana and Kentucky. There is an app that shows the best RV routes, which we may consider using next time. We are at the mercy of Google Maps, and when it detours you to save time, you often end up on sketchy roads with no shoulder, pulling a 30' trailer and causing a train of cars to form behind you. Not ideal, but luckily, we didn't get detoured anywhere with a low bridge.
We worked Friday, and hit the road late afternoon, leaving around 3:30pm. Our first stop was at William G. Lunney Lake Farm County Park in Madison, WI. We arrived here just after 8:30. We visit Wisconsin often, so we didn't plan anything in the area, and camped here just as a break in driving on our way to the next destination. The campground itself was nice, very much a typical RV park with little privacy. Our site was a pull through, and each site has a picnic table and fire ring, plus electric hookups. We didn't even fully unhook here, so we slept and left after breakfast the next morning.
Saturday, we stayed at Lakeshore RV Resort and Campground in Portage, IN. Our drive here was just under 4 hours, but with traffic and construction through the Chicago area, it took us just over 4 hours. We arrived around 1:30pm, and check in time wasn't until 3. Luckily this campground allows you to check in early for a fee of $5/hour. This was not our favorite campground. When booking, I did plan on staying at RV campgrounds for more amenities and easier stops, knowing we were just here to sleep, even though I prefer more wooded camping. This one however was beyond a typical pull in RV camp. There was a mix of permanent campers and trailers, and a handful of daily campers here. The place was packed, and set up relatively well, but maneuvering in here was difficult pulling a camper. The resort has a private lake, which allows you to fish without a license, a couple pools, game rooms, laundry, showers and restrooms sprinkled throughout, and full hookups. Our site was on the end, right next to the main road, which helped when we parked because we just drove through the grass from the road and didn't have to back in around trees, fire hydrants and other vehicles. We had full hook ups here, but the concrete pad where we parked was cracked and sinking, and the site in general was extremely uneven, so we didn't hook up the sewer. Even with leveling our camper and lifting up one side quite a bit, we were lower than the sewer hookup. We chose to just use the dump station when we left.
After we got everything set up and leveled, we had a quick lunch and headed out to Indiana Dunes National Park. It was extremely hot out, and this park was packed. So much so that parking lots were closed and marked full. Traffic was insane. We found a pull off area with 15-minute parking and walked down to the beach in this area. The water was gorgeous bright blue/green. The beach was busy and we regretted not bringing our bathing suites with to enjoy the water.
After walking and admiring the lake for a few minutes, we went back to the car and routed ourselves to the visitor center, which we never made it to, but did find signs for the Indiana Dunes State Park along the way. The road into the entrance here was backed up so far it took us over an hour to get in. The cost was $12 for nonresidents, and you had access for the day. There were park rangers waving you through a roundabout just past the pay booth, and we blindly followed to a large beach parking area. There was a pretty massive dune just off the parking lot that people were climbing and gliding down and a beach as far as you could see. There were tents, grills, chairs and tables set up everywhere. Music blasting all around and just a fun party vibe, but family friendly with lots of kids. We walked the beach for a few minutes and went to a large building to check out what was here. There was a general store, restaurant and a lifeguard station, nothing of interest to us at the moment.
Next, we went back to the roundabout and the ranger frantically waving vehicles into the beach parking and asked if we could go the other way. He confirmed that we could which brought us to a much quieter area of the park. Here there was a campground, visitor center (which closed at 4 so we couldn't go in) and the 3 Dune Challenge trailhead. When I researched what to do here this was one of the main things that came up, so we had always planned to do the challenge.
The challenge is not easy. I don't regret doing it, but if I would have known how hard it would be I might have decided to skip it. On the inside I feel like I am active and 20 years old. In reality, I am 42 and sit most of my life. I love the experience, but my body hates me afterward. The trail is only 1.5 miles, but it is up and down 3 separate dunes and 552 vertical feet of climbing.
Somehow, we looked at the map upside down, so thought we were starting at one Dune but actually going the complete opposite way. By the time we reached the first dune, I thought we were on our second, but the markers on the top of each clued us into our mistake pretty quickly.
The first dune is Mt. Jackson, reaching 176' with a 31-degree slope angle. When we reached Mt. Jackson, I was sure it was the second dune and almost cried when we saw it wasn't. I started to convince myself it must be the last dune if it wasn't the second, because we already climbed two. Climbing in sand is a specific kind of torture. It takes forever as you step and slide backward. My calves burned so bad it felt like they were splitting open. We rested for a few minutes at the top and got some pictures of the views here, then walked on.
The second dune was Mt. Holden sitting at 184' with a slope angle of 32 degrees. This one was hardest on me. My calves were screaming, my heart was racing, the sun blazing on us had me sweating and my head was throbbing. I tried walking slowly but every step hurt my calves so bad the speed was irrelevant. I tried walking with my feet sideways pointing out (like a crab walk maybe?), attempted walking sideways, and backwards. Walking backwards relieved the burning of my calves but I felt like I wasn't moving up the dune at all. About halfway up I dropped to all 4 and just crawled up the dune. Pathetic I know, and other than the video my daughter so kindly recorded, no one had to know, but I feel no shame. This was hard, and I'm ok admitting how much of a baby I was on this trail. When we finally reached the top of this dune, the views were amazing. You could see the lake here. I sat contemplating how I was going to get through the last half of the trail.
We rested, took in the views and I decided that I was going to take a cut through trail back to the visitor center and Matthew and Whitney could continue on and meet me at the truck when they were done. Of course, they refused that suggestion saying they would cut across with me, and I felt guilted into completing the entire trail.
My stubbornness fueled me and when I began to climb the next sand hill I walked at a slow steady pace and made it up without incident. This hill was not the next dune, but it was still steep and difficult. The trail became easier, because it was a stretch of mild inclines and declines in elevation. Finally, we came to stairs. I can't express the relief I felt when those stairs came into view. Mt. Tom is 192 feet of elevation and around 100 steps, which are difficult after walking the trail, but much easier than the sand. There is a platform at the top of the dune where you can see the lake again, and there are signs explaining the history of the dunes.
From here you can take a trail to the beach or continue on the trail to go to the campground and back to the visitor center. If we had bathing suites, I would have gone to the beach to rinse off the sand and sweat I accumulated on this short but tedious trail, but since we didn't, we continued on and went back to our vehicle. After we completed the challenge, I will admit that I am glad I finished it. It was not easy, but I didn't quit even when I thought I might not be able to continue. I wish the visitor center was open because you can get souvenirs, but we did go online and order from their official website, so we will have something to show for our efforts.
After we completed the 3 Dune Challenge, we were done in the Indiana Dune's Parks so we headed back to our campsite and had dinner. We showered, played games and watched a movie, then to bed.
On Sunday morning we hooked up our camper and started our drive to Kentucky. This was the worst drive of our trip. We estimated it would take us around 5 1/2 hours, but it ended up taking us over 7 hours. The traffic was awful with a lot of congestion as well as construction pretty consistently along our route.
We were staying two nights at Cave Country RV Campground in Cave City, KY. We had a cave tour booked for Monday, so Sunday was mostly just a travel day. We arrived at our campground right around 4pm. This resort had pull through sites, full hook ups, fire pits and picnic tables. At the main building there are showers and restrooms, a pool and a game room. It was a decent place to stay with the only complaint being that the sewer hook ups for our neighbors were pretty close to our fire pit. With how hot it was we only had a fire to cook hotdogs for lunch, and there were no issues, it was just knowing that their tank was emptying so close to us.
Something that was consistent at most of the campgrounds we stayed is there are not cooking grates on the fire rings. This surprised us as we usually cook some of our meals over the fire when camping. I assume it is because we mostly stayed at RV resorts and not the traditional campgrounds that we are used to. The heat on this trip had us cooking quick meals and we rarely had a fire at all so it ended up not being an issue, but it was something we will keep in mind for future trip planning.
Sunday evening, we had dinner, showered, played a few games, watched some movies and went to bed. This was our typical evening on this trip. Normally when camping we like to sit around a fire and relax outside in the evening, but the A/C was very much welcomed this time.
Monday morning, we had breakfast and left camp at 7:30am. We decided that we wanted to visit Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park before our cave tour. The visitor center here opened at 9am, and it was a 40-minute drive from our campsite. There is a time zone change which is what enabled us to squeeze this in, arriving at 9:15am EST 8:15am CST.
We started at the visitor center. We had around 45 minutes to explore here so we purchased a few souvenirs and then walked to the monument, which was the highlight of the park. There is a replica of the cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born within the monument. The monument itself is beautiful so we took a few pictures from the steps leading up to it. There are several cabins and an historic inn located on the property, which we admired from afar as we walked back to our vehicle as we left. There is a lot more in the area that we would have liked to visit if we had more time.
Next, we went to Mammoth Cave National Park. Our tour was booked for 10:30am. I had wanted to do the Niagara Falls Tour, but it wasn't offered because of some maintenance being done in this cave. The one I booked was actually not part of Mammoth Cave and I didn't realize when I booked it so was a little disappointed, but it was still an awesome cave to see. Our tour was called the Wondering Woods Tour. We took a short bus ride from the visitor center to this cave. Mammoth Cave is a cold, dry cave. The Wondering Woods Cave is a cold, wet cave. This means we saw a beautiful display of stalagmites and stalactites. The ranger did a nice job of talking about the cave, the history of the cave and cave systems in Mammoth Cave National Park, the history of the park itself and the ecosystem.
When we got back to the visitor center, we had to walk across a pad with soapy water to clean our shoes. This is to help stop the spread of White-Nose Syndrome, which is a fungus that affects bats and is actually fatal for them. It doesn't affect humans or most other creatures but is extremely dangerous for bats. White-Nose Syndrome is confirmed to be present at Mammoth Cave. I remember hearing of the risk to bats when we visited Lava Beds National Monument, but there we had to fill out a questionnaire and they talked about how to ensure you don't spread the fungus. We didn't have to do this at Mammoth Cave which is interesting with how much busier it is, but may be because Lava Beds does not have White-Nose Syndrome present, so they are more cautious to ensure it doesn't spread there.
I had several trails planned for our afternoon. I can't emphasize enough how hot and miserable the weather was for us on this trip. It was over 100 degrees this day and humid. I had 3 trails planned, but we decided we would just pick one to do, which was located just behind the visitor center. The trail was only 1/2 mile long, and it was a very easy walk on a paved walkway initially, then a gravel trail. The walk there was all downhill, so anticipating the walk back up was constantly in my head. When we arrived at the point of interest on the trail, Sunset Point, it was closed off for maintenance. So, we didn't see anything cool here, and we opted to walk back up to the visitor center and head out rather than add to our uphill walk back.
On our way back to our camper we stopped at several little souvenir shops, some pretty creepy actually like what you'd see in a horror movie, none had anything that we wanted to purchase.
It was still early when we got back to camp. We had lunch and then Whitney decided to stay at the camper and enjoy the air conditioning while Matthew and I went out in search of Kentucky souvenirs and to visit Fort Williams Civil War Battlefield in Glasgow.
Glasgow was a 20-minute drive from our campground. We followed GPS to the battlefield and found what looked like a typical cemetery. There were old areas and new, but we didn't see anything signifying that it was a historical battlefield. We drove around to find souvenir shops and we didn't have any luck! I have a tradition of getting a magnet and coffee mug everywhere we travel. I like to get one of the state or cities we visit, plus at least a magnet from any tourist attractions we chose to do. We also add a sticker to our camper to document our travels, usually of the campground if we can find one but sometimes of the state or city instead if there isn't a specific campground sticker available. This trip proved hard to find anything. Kentucky being the hardest. After driving to Glasgow and not finding any shops we headed back toward Cave City.
We stopped at Crystal Cave on our way back, still looking to see if we could find any fun Kentucky souvenirs. We didn't tour the cave but did walk around and snap a few pictures of the quirky items here, like aliens and animals. The souvenirs here were all Crystal Cave, nothing of just Kentucky, so we walked around and then left.
We stopped at a travel center to fuel up and did find a magnet here, so we were satisfied enough to give up and go back to camp for the night. Once again, we played games, watched movies, ate dinner and went to bed.
The next morning, we stayed until checkout at 11. Our drive this day was less than 2 hours, and check in time wasn't until 3pm at our next stop. We had breakfast burritos and took our time packing up. Traffic wasn't as bad leaving Kentucky, but road construction was still present. I tried calling our campground to see if we could check in early but didn't reach anyone, so we crossed our fingers and just went. Pulling a camper, it is hard to know where you can pull off and explore so we didn't want to risk getting in a sticky situation.
I booked a site at Anderson Road Campground in Nashville, TN for Tuesday and Wednesday night. The campground is literally right in a residential area, next to condos that overlook the lake. When we arrived at the guard shack at the entrance, there was no one there and the sign showed that they are not on site on Tuesdays. Lucky us, as we were 2 hours early and no one was there to tell us we couldn't set up early!
The sites here were actually really nice. Even though there are residential properties just on the other side of a fence, all around us was wooded and we had nice views of J Percy Priest Reservoir. The site itself had electric and water hookups (which was a nice surprise because when I booked it only showed electric), a picnic table, a fire ring with a cooking grate, and a charcoal grill. There is a boat launch, a shower and restroom house and a dump station. There were sites that appeared to be host sites, but we never saw a host or anywhere to buy ice or wood.
It was still ridiculously hot, so we set up camp, and started a fire to grill hotdogs with the plan to cool off in the lake after lunch. While Matthew started the fire, I inflated a couple of floaties for Whitney and me to use. The fire took forever to start, likely due to the humidity, or possibly the lack of effort we put forth in the heat. Regardless, Whitney and I went swimming while we waited for the wood to burn enough to cook over.
The lake, or reservoir, was rocky and the water was warm. Warm enough that Matthew wouldn't go in. It wasn't the cool refreshing relief we had hoped for, but still nice to rinse off and it did cool you off slightly. We floated for a while and had a family of ducks join us before we got out of the water.
After we ate, we sat outside under our canopy and just relaxed. It was a nice low-key afternoon. For dinner this night we made cavatappi with pine nuts and asparagus. One of my favorite meals, to celebrate the fact that it was Matthew and my 3-year anniversary.
The sunset here was really pretty. Whitney walked down to the water and fed the ducks, and we enjoyed the beautiful sky.
The next day we headed into Nashville. We booked a hop on hop off tour with Old Town Trolleys, which is my favorite way to see a city. I had been to Nashville before this, but Matthew and Whitney had never been. We started our tour at the 10th stop, which was the Belmont Mansion. I chose this location so we weren't in downtown and with the assumption parking would be easier, which it was relatively easy so I will say I was right.
The Belmont Mansion was gorgeous, and the Belmont University grounds were as well. After wandering for a bit, we hopped on our trolley. The trolleys here are set up perfectly for sightseeing. They have stadium seating so you can see from anywhere you end up sitting. The tour has 13 stops where you can choose to get off or you can keep riding. With the heat advisory, the breeze while riding on the trolley was a really nice relief. We rode the trolley until stop 13, where we got off at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Bridgestone Arena is across the street as well as the Walk of Fame Park. We strolled for a while and then walked to Broadway.
It was extremely hot and muggy, and Whitney couldn't go into the bars even with the time of day because she isn't 21. Both Matthew and Whitney were a little irritable with the heat, so neither of them had any opinion of what they'd like to do. We stopped for ice cream for Whitney and then went into the National Museum of African American Music. We had planned to walk through the museum, but it would have cost almost $100 for the three of us, so we looked at the gift shop and then left. Just across the street was stop #2 for the trolley tour at the back side of the Ryman Auditorium. We waited here and got back on the trolley since no one had anything they wanted to do in the area.
We rode the trolley taking pictures of the different areas of Nashville and listening to the guide talk about the history and celebrities that frequented the streets.
We got off again at stop 5, The Farmers' Market. Here we walked over to the Tennessee State Museum. This museum is free and is really interesting to walk through, plus it was very well air conditioned. There are several exhibits here that flow into the next, which is set up in a way that you are walking through the history of Tennessee. Starting with the First Peoples exhibit, walking through the Civil War, Industrial Era, Great Depression, etc. It was a really fun museum to walk through.
Next, we walked to the Farmers' Market and went into the restaurant area. Here Matthew tried Nashville Hot Chicken from Lilly's Hot Chicken and I had a beef crepe and a dessert crepe. After lunch, we hopped back on the trolley.
We hopped back off at stop 7 Marathon Motor Works, walked through a gift shop and then right back on a trolley that was waiting at the curb when we got out. We stayed on the trolley until we reach stop 10 again, where we got off and went to our truck. It wasn't very late by the time we finished our Nashville tour, so we drove to the Grand Ole Opry.
At the Opry we took a few pictures of the historic area but decided against walking over to the hotel. The hotel is magnificent to see, which I have on a previous trip, but it is also a bit of a walk, and everyone was too hot.
We went back to our campground after we saw the Opry and enjoyed a relaxing evening. We did sit outside for a while, under the canopy of the camper, and then played games and watched movies.
Thursday morning, we left around 9am and started our drive to Missouri. I had a campsite booked at Hawn State Park in New Offenburg, MO and it took us around 6 hours to get here. This was a nice campground, and we were surprised to find you don't need a state park pass to visit anywhere in Missouri. The campground had electric hookups, a shower and restroom building, and the hosts sold firewood and ice. The sites were large with some shade, fire rings with grates and picnic tables. Just behind our site there was a trail to the amphitheater which we walk, and I sang to Whitney and Matthew while they laughed at me and took video.
We decided to eat and then shower before we went to St. Louis. I had a 6:40pm reservation to take the tram to the top of the arch at Gateway Arch National Park. The traffic in St. Louis was crazy because there was a Cardinals game at the same time we were going to the park. The park itself is set behind an industrial area with really awesome graffiti work along the route.
Being up close to the arch is pretty spectacular. I've seen it in the past from a distance but being right under it was a whole different experience. We took pictures from outside, then rushed to get to the tram entrance.
Going up in the tram is interesting. You are in a small pod that seats 5 people very close to each other, and it is not a smooth ride. Whitney was pretty anxious going up but it is a quick 4 minute ride so not terrible.
You have around 10 minutes once you get out at the top. The views from here are incredible. You get amazing skyline scenes on one side and the river on the other. We could see into the Cardinal's stadium and the game that was in progress.
Once our tour was done, we had 15 minutes to visit the gift shop and buy some goodies. Since we hadn't had the best luck with souvenirs so far, we purchased shirts, a magnet and coffee mug here. Whitney also got a bracelet, which is what she buys wherever she can on our vacations. Then we walked back down to our vehicle, snapping a few more pictures on our way.
The Gateway Arch National Park is about 40 minutes from where we camped, and after the long day of driving, I was exhausted on our way back. We had a few snacks, played a game and then crashed. We planned to leave early the next day for Iowa, our longest drive of the trip.
We did not leave early Friday morning. It was around 8:30 before we pulled out of our campsite. Our estimated drive this day was 6 hours, plus stops for gas and restroom. We arrived at the Waterloo KOA right around 4pm. The KOA had a lake, showers and restrooms, a gas station with convenience store which also sold hot food to order (like burgers and hotdogs, cheese curds, etc.). The staff was not happy to be working is the vibe we got. They were not friendly and borderline rude.
Our site had full hookups, a fire ring and picnic table. The temperature was over 100 and we were under a thunderstorm watch. After setting up we tried to cool down in the camper, which took forever for the A/C to take the humidity out of the air. Because we were so hot and miserable, we opted to order dinner from the store on site.
About an hour after we were set up, the thunderstorm watch turned into a thunderstorm warning, with a brief blip of a tornado warning as well. The sky was gray and ominous, heightening our anxiety levels. Luckily, it did pass relatively quickly with only scary clouds and some rain, thunder and lightning.
After the rain stopped, we walked around the campground admiring the amazing sky and sunset snapping a few pictures.
We spent the rest of the evening playing games and watching movies.
Saturday morning, we were heading home. We had around a 4-hour drive and slept in a little, leaving around 10am. We decided we would stop at a travel plaza on the way home to have breakfast so did add some time to our trip. We were home before 4pm. This was a great trip and pretty smooth considering it was the first camping road trip I had planned. We did discuss planning our vacations in the spring and fall vs right in the heart of summer. The heat wave we endured the entire trip made exploring less appealing, but overall, we had a wonderful adventure.
Camp at William G. Lunney Lake Farm County Park in Madison, WI.
Camp at Lakeshore RV Resort in Portage, IN
Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes State Park
3 Dune Challenge
Camp at Cave Country RV Campground in Cave City, KY
Camp at Cave Country RV Campground in Cave City, KY
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park
Mammoth Cave National Park
Camp at Anderson Road Campground in Nashville, TN
Camp at Anderson Road Campground in Nashville, TN
Hop on/Hop off Trolley Nashville
Grand Ole Opry
Camp at Hawn State Park Campground in New Offenburg, MO
Gateway Arch National Park
Camp at Waterloo KOA in Waterloo, IA