Theodore Roosevelt NP
First new state we cross into is North Dakota, where we plan to visit the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, named after the president who was the first one to take the initiative to preserve nature through the National Parks. This is the place where he had a ranch of his own, and where he found peace when he lost is wife and mom on the same day, before going back to New York and becoming the president of the United States. He was a fan of the outdoors and through the time he spent in this region pushed for conservation, which is much of his legacy today.
The National Park consists of 2 sections, north and south, of which we tackle the south side. There is a scenic loop drive through the park, but due to landslides part of the loop is under construction so we have to go out and back. Sven decides to ride the road on his bike, while we drive to several short hikes and viewpoints. One of the loop hikes is the Coal Vein trail, which explains about the different layers of the earth and the underground fire of the coal layer in the 50’s through the 70’s (26 years long!) which resulted in the ground sinking. Very interesting and a fun short hike in the heat of the summerday.
On the way back we climb Buck hill and take the short Wind Canyon loop with great views across the badlands and the riverbed with bison on the horizon. We meet up with Sven at the Cottonwood picnic site for a nice omelet lunch, and just as Sven is taking a shower and we are putting everything back in the RV, we get surprised by a bison herd coming through the picnic site! While you can debate if a bison is not just a big cow, we can assure you when a big male bison gets close, you want to get into your car quickly! They are beautiful animals, and we enjoy watching them and their calves passing through. The drive onward is along the interstate and then taking a turn to the north to the small town of Stanton where we find a town campground for the night along the river.
Knife River Indian Villages NHS & a long drive…
With some banana pancakes under our belt we drive to the historic site around the corner of the campground; Knife River Indian Villages NHS. This is a small scale site which elaborates on the Hidatsa tribe and its way of living, which in summer would have been on the riverbanks here in large earthlodges that could last up to ten years. In winter the tribe would move to a temporary location where they could shelter from the winter storms in more temporary dwellings. The visitor center has a good movie that shows their way of living and combined with the exhibition we learn a lot through the Junior Ranger booklets of the boys.
The highlight however is the reconstructed earthlodge outside, which is a really cool experience to roam through and imagine what life must have been like. The tribe was a farming tribe which also means big vegetable gardens that are also there to enjoy. After the visit we have a VERY long drive ahead of us, driving out of our 24th state North Dakota into our 25th (and thus hitting half of the states, whoot whoot!); Minnesota. No time today to enjoy it yet, dashing along the interstate to the eastern side of the state for a stay at an alpaca farm, getting ready for some kayaking on it’s famous rivers.
St Croix & Mississippi river adventures
At the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin you find 2 rivers: The St Croix and the Mississippi. We decided to take both on in a 2-day kayaking adventure. First we tackle the St Croix, which is a fun and slow river that ends in the Mississippi, but we take on a part north of that. The visitor center is fun with lots of activity for the boys and a movie about he area and what wildlife to expect as we paddle down. Paddling the main wildlife we see however is of the human kind, with dozens of people using the Saturday to pour on to the river and paddle their way down.
It does not take away from the fun, but is a different experience than we are used to, so greet everybody we come by and have some fun water based conversations. The paddle itself is easy enough and very scenic, and at the end of it the boys have an hour to play and swim while Sven goes back to get the RV. It is a short drive to the edge of Minneapolis where we have found a host for the night through Boondockers Welcome, a lovely couple with a large grassy back yard where the boys can let off the final bits of steam with their 2 sweet dogs.
The 2nd day we drive off after saying goodbye to our hosts and little Gizmo and Oliver, and drive into the heart of Minneapolis. First we visit the St Anthony Falls lock, which has been closed for boat traffic since 2015 but is still open to visit through the National Parks Service. The ranger on site gives us an interesting explanation about the different ground layers along the Mississippi here, and we take in the information for the paddle adventure we want to have today – 10 miles of it! We again drive to the place we leave a bike; Boom island, where they are setting up for a festival today, and then drive on to the Coon Rapids Dam to offload the kayak.
On this stretch of the Mississippi the NPS actually has a paddle share system in place, much like the bike share systems you see in big cities. You reserve a kayak, get a lock code and then pull the kayak out of the lockers that are set up along the river. Once done, you drop the kayak back at the return station, which is a really fun and convenient way to experience the city from the water. Of course we have our own, so after inflating that we set off and spend several hours on the water seeing plenty of birds including bald eagles – we though they were sea birds? – having regular dips in the water – very nice temperature! – and seeing the city rise up in front of us towards the end. A very nice day with beautiful weather and with another hour spend at the festival while Sven bikes back to the RV, we say goodbye to Minneapolis and head south.
Great River Road & Effigy Mounds NM
Heading south is a joy as we follow the flow of the Mississippi along the Great River Road, a scenic byway that takes you through rolling hills, pretty little towns and gorgeous views of the big river. The drive is thus very relaxed and with a grocery/oil change stop in Onalaska we make good progress all along. The end destination is the Effigy Mounds National Monument. We learn there that on the eastern side of the US there are many Native American tribes that would build mounds in the shape of animals like birds and bears. Some to bury the dead, others for ceremonial purposes. The National Monument here protects an example of these mounds, and the hike through the forests up the hills along the Mississippi is a nice scavenger hunt for these mounds.
We also find plenty of small wildlife and some really funky looking fungi along the way, as there has been quite a bit of rain recently. The ranger at the visitor center is especially excited about a tiny mushroom we photographed, the boys did very well in their search :-). We drive another hour along the river to a rest stop for the night where we play some frisbee and have a great pancake dinner. While we are there, we run into Larry, another kind American offering to help us the next day and have a look at a sound our steering wheel is making, so we agree to come to his place the next day to check it out.
The town of Delevan is 2 hours in the direction we were going, and when we arrive Larry is ready to show us around and take a look at the RV. While Sven helps out to see what’s up, we stroll through the town and play in the parks. It is a hot day out, so we finish up with some ice cream (superman and blue bubblegum flavor, yikes) and head back to Larry. He helped figure out the problem, thankfully it is nothing major and we should be able to continue our drive with no issues. That is good to know, and always a relief, so we say our goodbyes and head in the direction of Chicago, for a good night sleep in a nature trail parking lot.
While the reviews of the city of Chicago are a bit mixed, we can not pass by and not visit, so we find a spot to park the RV and do what we do best; explore the city by bike! The joy of Chicago is its location on Lake Michigan, and with that the lake bike trail that goes along the coast for miles and miles. Where we parked we get on the trail easily and ride towards the city center, starting with a visit to Navy Pier. Not as quirky as the Santa Monica Pier in California, but sleek and touristy and still worthy of a stroll to the tip. After this we roll a small part along the river before turning left into downtown again to the other end of the famous route that ended at that Pier in California; Route 66.
The sign is not very impressive, but a fun photo-op nonetheless! Now there are plenty of culinary highlights to take on when traveling, but Chicago’s deep dish pizza’s surely made it onto that list of things to try. So for lunch we go to Gino’s to give this treat a try, ordering 2 small pizzas with 4 different flavors. Interestingly we could not resist the ‘burger & fries’ version, but for the others we opted for more traditional pizza toppings. They for sure do not disappoint, we are all stuffed and even later at night the dinner only barely goes down – phew! We bike back to the RV through the Millenium Park and along the coast again, a beautiful ride and still the best way to hit cities in our opinion.
We have one more Chicago-based destination on the books; Pullman National Monument. This National Monument is signed of by the Obama-administration (National Parks need agreement in many political layers, but National Monuments can be signed off by the president himself), as Michelle Obama has ancestors who were porters for the Pullman company. It is a rail car building company that grew immensely, and mr Pullman had a vision of creating a fully functioning town for its employees that would keep them happy and productive. A large part of the town and some of the producing facilities are still there, and turned into a very cool interactive Visitor Center explaining the rise and fall of the Pullman vision.
While the debate is still open – was Pullman a well-willing visionary or a money-hungry opportunist – the whole endeavor is impressive to say the least. What he probably did not envision was the fact that a massive strike breaking out at his facilities in the 1893 recession would cause a nationwide strike and movement for labor rights. As we connect the dots of our travel – There was a Pullman cart in the train museum in Asuncion, Paraguay, and the labor rights work for the colored porters coincided later with the civil rights work we learned about in Memphis – we enjoy a stroll along the buildings and street art murals found here.
All in all a great day in Chicago and surroundings. As we roll out of the city towards the Indiana Dunes, we leave the state of Illinois and get into Indiana, our 29th state. We pick up a JR booklet at the visitor center and drive towards the campground where we will spend 2 nights relaxing and showering :-).
Next week: Crossing through Michigan, back to Canada!