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This post is a little different from my regular form recipe posts or even our travel posts. We recently did an epic summer road trip covering over 5,500 miles with more than 83 hours of driving from California where we live across the U.S. to Michigan and back. We went through 13 states and saw a lot over the four weeks we were gone. I thought I would share some of the highlights!

If you are just here for the food, you might want to check out my American Eats series where I cover some of the most popular foods and flavors of each state, one state at a time. One of the reasons for this trip was to explore the foods of some of the states I hadn’t ever visited before and I cannot wait to share some of the recipes we sampled from Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Michigan especially!

A mother, father, and two daughters in front of the world's largest buffalo statue in Jamestown, North Dakota.

Why do a family road trip?

It’s an American tradition!

Both Paul and I grew up doing family road trips. My family moved a frecuently, but always within the continental U.S., so we would pilgrimage from wherever we were living at the time (Nebraska, Missouri, California, Utah) to Idaho every summer to visit my grandparents.

Paul loves to tell me about the adventures he had road tripping through the American Southwest as a kid, hiking the Grand Canyon with his dad and brothers or visiting other areas in Southern Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

We have done big trips with our kids out of the country and even roadtripped through Europe, but it was high time we did a good old-fashioned American road trip!

A child sitting in a car on a road trip with cucumber slices on her eyes.

Family bonding time!

Even though the car rides often felt long and boring, sometimes involving carsickness and fights with siblings, and we didn’t have tablets and phones to entertain us, we have great memories of reading books as a family, playing car games, and just watching the scenery roll by as we drove on mile after mile.

For me, I loved the changing light and weather of the great plains. Although there are so many sites to see across the U.S., nothing really quite compares with the giant clouds and how they change throughout the day, whether it’s the pink softness of early morning light, the shadows that ripple across the fields, or the vibrant reds and oranges as the sunset gives way to nighttime blues and purples as we rolled into town approaching our destination.

Of all the terribleness the pandemic has brought on, I’m grateful for the opportunity it gave us to do this road trip and have this experience with our kids while they are still young (9 and 6) before they are moody teenagers who don’t want to talk or play car games with us.

While it wasn’t all fun and there were definitely squabbles and occasional short tempers, we enjoyed listening to audiobooks as a family, engaging the girls in conversation and listening to their chatter (some of the time), car dancing to music, and connecting while we drove.

Education & broadening our horizons

We talked about geography, history, and culture, and feel like it was such a great learning experience for all of us. I feel like this kind of trip helps us teach them to be patriotic and appreciate the great land we live in!

Summer road trip equals hilarious memories

Those random road trip memories are priceless. Like when we pulled over at the “Welcome to South Dakota” sign to take a picture, then decided to cross the road (we crossed on a smaller highway rather than one of the main interstate roads) to get a photo with the Wyoming sign. It was blazing hot outside and our youngest daughter (age 6) wailed with all the pathos only a 1st grader possesses, “Are you SERIOUS? We have to WALK to another state?!”

Roadtrips are always filled with these kinds of gems that make every “are we there yet?” worth it (for the most part).

We are already planning our next big family road trip to other parts of the U.S. that we didn’t make it to when we were kids as well as others to revisit some of the stops we remember as highlights from our own childhoods!

First stop: Utah to visit cousins, grandparents, aunts & uncles

People balancing on a log floating in a reservoir.

Neither of us grew up in Utah, but during college and law school, both of our families ended up moving there and now that’s where most of our siblings live. I mean, what’s a road trip without a stop to visit relatives?

Our kids are really familiar with the 11-hour drive from our house in California to Utah, so this part was pretty easy with the reward of having people to actually hug and see when we got there, which was amazing after four months of social distancing!

On to South Dakota!

Lines of flags leading up to Mt. Rushmore.

From Utah, we drove through Wyoming to Custer City in the South Dakota Black Hills where we got to experience a crazy thunderstorm, see Mt. Rushmore, and enjoy some of the best pie of my life at the Purple Pie Place. Next time we go (and there will be a next time!) we want to visit Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, both of which were closed while we were there because of the coronavirus.

A mother and daughters in front of Mt. Rushmore.

We also drove through Badlands National Park, which was fascinating to me as a kid when I visited once as a kid when I got to go stay with my best friend who had moved to South Dakota. My imagination ran wild with thoughts of the outlaws and cattle thieves in the Old West who would escape to the badlands to getaway from the law!

Plus, the scenery is so strange, with the flat prairie grasslands seeming to sink in on themselves as though the land there had wasted away and left its bones and withered carcass behind. Our pictures from the middle of the day definitely don’t do it justice.

A child in a red shirt looking over a valley in Badlands National Park.

For even more about South Dakota, I found this post very helpful!

Experiencing farm life in North Dakota

A mother and daughters in front of the Welcome to North Dakota sign.

The drive from South Dakota to North Dakota is absolutely beautiful with wide open skies and fields of soybeans and haybales for miles and miles. And the sloughs (low spots in the land where water collects) all over North Dakota were so pretty reflecting the big clouds above!

Cattails in front of silos in North Dakota.

One of the big reasons for our road trip was to visit our friends who are commercial honey farmers and live part of the year in North Dakota where it is cooler for the bees. They live in Gackle, a small town of around 300 people that is a quite a drive from any larger cities, and after hearing about it for years, we were excited to finally visit!

The Freez restaurant in Gackle, North Dakota.

The highlight for everybody was when we got to go out to a huge farm that is owned by a family that our friend Jason grew up with. He called them up and asked if he could bring his friends from California to see their farm and they pulled out their enormous tractors and let each of the kids (and grown-ups!) have turns driving them around a big fallow field (with their supervision from within the cab, of course).

Children on a red tractor.

We also got to suit up and go out in the bees one afternoon to help Jason move some hives around. We’ve done this with him a couple of other times and it’s always such a cool and interesting experience!

If you want to see more about our week in small town America, I’ve written a whole post about it over here!

Three people in bee suits holding a frame of honeycomb with bees on it.

Jucy Lucy Burgers & Minnehaha Falls

From North Dakota we drove through Minnesota on our way to Wisconsin. We made a pit stop for jucy Lucy burgers at Matt’s Bar in Minneapolis. One thing we like to do when we are visiting a new state but not staying for long it look up popular foods or check out places that have been featured on shows like Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives and pick one to stop at. Sometimes they are a hit and sometimes they are a miss, but it’s almost always a fun and interesting experience.

A dad and daughter eating Jucy Lucy burgers and fries.

We worked off our burgers and fries with a quick walk to see Minnehaha Falls, which is a waterfall right in the middle of the city. It’s so unusual to see this kind of natural feature in an urban setting and a nice way to stretch our legs.

A family in front of Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Cherry Spitting and Fish Boils in Door County, Wisconsin

Two young girls in front of a Cherry Pit Spit sign in Door County, Wisconsin.

After our short stop in Minnesota, we drove over to Wisconsin to visit Door County, which is close to Green Bay. The whole county is a peninsula in Lake Michigan and it’s easily one of the prettiest places I have ever been to in my life. We absolutely fell in love and would happily return and spend a slow week here, enjoying the lake life.

A lighthouse in Door County, Wisconsin.

The beautiful barns and farms were so picturesque that we had to pull over more than once to get out and snap photos.

A red barn in Door County, Wisconsin.

We ate lots of cherry pie, enjoyed the beautiful sunsets over the lake, and stopped at beautiful barns just to take pictures. At one point, 95% of the cherries grown in the U.S. were grown in Door County, Wisconsin (according to a pamphlet I picked up somewhere along the way), and we got to go to an orchard where a cherry pit spitting contest is held every year and give it a try ourselves.

My 18 foot effort was a far cry from the women’s record of 44 feet, but I’m still pretty pleased with my performance! This was a fun activity for the kids and grown-ups alike, and we picked up all sorts of cherry goodies like cherry donuts and a cherry kringle that will definitely be making an appearance on the blog at some point.

Cherries growing on a cherry tree.

To see even more, be sure to see our post about what we did in Door County, Wisconsin.

Mackinac Island, Michigan

If you have never heard of Mackinac (pronounced Mack-i-naw) Island, this place needs to be on your bucket list! It’s an island in Lake Huron where no cars are allowed, only horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. It feels like stepping back in time!

The highlight of our trip was staying in the Grand Hotel, which is a massive old wooden hotel built in just over 90 days in 1887 by the railroads as a means of enticing easterners to travel and escape the summer heat of the bigger cities. It’s a stunningly beautiful structure with the largest front porch in the world and it just oozes charm and civility and summer relaxation.

The front porch of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.
The Grand Hotel and front lawn on Mackinac Island.

The island itself offers plenty to do despite it’s small size. You can rent bicycles and ride all the way around the island in just a couple of hours. Or hike to a natural rock arch formation. There is an old military fort that was built here to protect the interests in the fur trade.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the darling main street that is lined with fudge shops. Seriously, there are probably a dozen fudge shops and we stopped in them all, sampling as many flavors as we could handle and buying our favorites like toffee, turtle, and double dark chocolate.

A father and two daughters on the main street on Mackinac Island.

Pit-stop in Chicago before the drive back home

Our plans for the return journey home got shortened a bit thanks to the coronavirus either shutting things down or making it feel too risky for us to do some of what we might have otherwise done. So we breezed through Indiana and just did a quick stop to see the Cloud Gate in downtown Chicago and eat some deep dish pizza.

A mother and two daughters in front of the Chicago Bean.

The long drive home

But all good things must come to an end. The most exhausting part of our trip was the long, LONG drive back to California. By this point we had been traveling for four weeks and weren’t too interested in exploring Iowa or Nebraska much, even though that’s where I grew up and would have happily played tour guide for my family.

We saw cornfields and did a quick 15 minute drive through of North Platte, Nebraska where I graduated high school. But then we decided to press on and get home! One of the best parts of a long road trip like this is finally getting to sleep in your own bed again!

Two girls in front of a corn field.

Planning logistics for a road trip

We were working within the constraints of travel during the time of a pandemic and trying to be extra careful about what we did, so we skipped much of what we would have done given other circumstances. Also, my husband worked the entire time we were on this trip, so we were strategic in when and how we did the actual driving part.

We are both early risers so we often got up and on the road before the sun with him driving for the first part of the day while we were in earlier time zones than California. Then once his “work day” started, we would switch drivers and he could do a lot of his work remotely using a mobile hotspot. The only time this was an issue was driving through the Upper Peninsula in Michigan when we had to make an unplanned stop so he had the consistent coverage he needed to jump on a conference call.

We had both been nervous about how this aspect of travel would work out for him since previously all of our trips have been involving vacation time and he hasn’t attempted to work during them. In fact, he had booked a ticket to fly home a week earlier than me and the girls before we started the trip. But he has major FOMO and things were going so well with him working remotely that he decided to cancel his plane ticket and finish out the whole trip with us.

Given the current state of the world and the fact that he has been able to work remotely for a while now, our Great American Summer Road Trip went better than we expected, all things considered. We are already planning our next one for sometime in 2021!

A family in front of Mt. Rushmore.

Love travel? You might want to check out some of our other travel posts!

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