I admit it. I’ve been swept up in the #VanLife fantasy. You’ve probably seen the aesthetically pleasing photos on Instagram but I wanted to know what it would really be like. So my boyfriend Glenn and I rented a camper van for a 10-day long road trip out west over Independence Day. I had never been anywhere in between Minnesota and Las Vegas and what better way to see it than from the road!
We found a company specializing in custom-built vans right here in Minneapolis and went for it. Pre-booking most of our campsites, we had a rough idea of what we wanted to see along the way but we also wanted to keep things fluid and take detours whenever we felt like it. Most of the time we were without cell service anyway so winging it was the only option.
It’s taken me quite a while to pull together this post because we experienced SO MUCH on this trip. It’ll be impossible to share every detail and this is already going to be a long one, so let’s get into it!
Day 1: Minneapolis to Sioux Falls
We picked up our converted Ford Transit with a full size bed that took up the entire back end. There was slide out storage underneath the bed that was accessible from the rear and side doors. One of my favorite features was the built-in fan that ran on a separate battery from the van. We were able to leave the fan on and crack the windows to create circulation whenever we needed to leave my dog Audi or while we slept at night.
We started the trip by driving 4 hours from Minneapolis to just passed Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We arrived at Lake Vermillion Recreation Area as it was getting dark so we couldn’t really see much but we woke up to an incredible view of the lake. It was a very nice campground and most of the camp sites on the east side of the park are steps from the water.
Day 2: Corn Palace to Badlands National Park
We reluctantly left our lovely spot by Lake Vermillion and continued to drive. Stopping in Mitchell, South Dakota to see the “World’s Only Corn Palace” and then continuing on to Badlands National Park passing roughly ten thousand Wall Drug billboards along the way.
In the Badlands, we had booked a primitive campsite within Cedar Pass Campground but the spot was completely flooded. Thankfully, the camp host told us to head over to the group camping area. It was so nice of them to offer us an alternative spot and the best part was that we were the only ones in the group site 99% of the time.
That evening we rushed to reach Pinnacles Overlook in time for sunset. It was incredible albeit a little crowded for my liking but we were able to spot some bighorn sheep as they made their ascent to the tops of the hills for the night.
Day 3: Badlands National Park and Wall Drug
The next day, we planned on driving and hiking through the Badlands but the forecast called for a temps nearing 100ºF and I was a little too nervous to leave Audi in the van even with the fan. Instead, we took one short hike in the morning and then drove through the park, hopping out at points of interest.
The main road through Badlands National Park runs from the Pinnacles Entrance to the Northeast Entrance but we also took a drive on Sage Creek Rim Road. It’s a well-groomed dirt road and perfect for spotting bison and prairie dogs out in their element.
Proving that advertising works, we had dinner at the world famous Wall Drug and returned to our campsite to watch the sun set on our last night in the Badlands.
Day 4: Mt Rushmore, Black Hills and Custer State Park
On Day 4, we continued west to Mount Rushmore. We arrived at the monument before 10am and the crowds weren’t too bad.
There was so much time left in the day that we decided to make our way to Custer State Park and unknowingly took our first scenic drive through the Black Hills. Apparently, we were on Iron Mountain Road because as we were going through a tunnel and saw Mount Rushmore from the perfect angle, we realized this drive was something special.
We entered Custer State Park and spent some time driving around with our eyes peeled for wildlife. We didn’t see much and decided to stop and do a short hike up a trail we had spotted from the road. It worked! We immediately came upon a huge group of bison. We would’ve kept our distance anyway (because I hate nothing more than people who don’t respect nature) but this time of year the herd had their babies with them so we were especially careful.
As we observed them from a distance, a few more full grown bison walked up behind us and scared the living crap out of me. We got out of there pretty quick after that.
We spent the night in Grizzly Creek Primitive Campground in the Black Hills. It rained most of the night but was a nice change from the heat of the Badlands.
Day 5: Devil’s Tower and Our Van Life Fail
On our way out of the Black Hills, we decided to take the other scenic drive along Needles Highway. We also stopped to hiked to the actual Needles which are eroded granite pillars that are called needles because of their unique shape.
Our next destination was Devils Tower. It was a couple hour drive from the Back Hills to reach Devils Towers National Monument and by the time we got there and saw the giant rock we made the decision to forgo entering the park area and just continue driving.
We drove and drove until we couldn’t drive no more. Sheesh, Wyoming is BIG! We tried to stop at Boysen State Park but it was after-hours and there was no campground host to be found, just a swarm of mosquitos.
Instead, we had our first and only Van Life fail of the trip. We stopped at a Comfort Inn. Most of our campsites throughout the week were rustic and had no showers so it was a refreshing night out of the van with free ice for our coolers and continental breakfast in the morning. No regrets.
Day 6: Grand Teton
The next day, we continued our drive to Grand Teton with a stop in the adorable town of Driggs, Idaho for lunch. Our campsite wasn’t within the actual National Park because the spots fill up so early but we were in a National Forest in Teton Canyon Campground. It was the perfect alternative and much less touristy.
Upon arriving, the campground host informed us that a grizzly bear had passed directly through the campground about two weeks early. He suggested we not go too far without bear spray. We took his suggestion very seriously and also kept a knife handy and Audi on a leash at all times. There were bear boxes at each site so we didn’t have to worry about sleeping with our food in the car.
Teton Canyon Campground is also the trailhead for a number of hiking trails into the forest and another bonus of being in the National Forest is that trails are dog friendly. That evening, we did a short hike to see a seasonal waterfall created by the snowmelt from the mountaintops and cooked dinner over the fire.
Day 7: Yellowstone
We woke up the next morning to learn that THE SAME BEAR that passed through a few weeks ago HAD COME BACK. Thankfully he stayed away from our site but he gave a few other campers a fright.
We did the long drive to Yellowstone National Park and spent the entire day driving through the park and seeing all of the crazy natural phenomena. Towards the end of the day we made our way around to Old Faithful.
Unfortunately, our campground was a pretty far drive from Yellowstone. We had a dark, rainy and scary drive back but thankfully made it there in one piece.
Day 8: Grand Teton to Bighorn National Forest
Today, it was time to start heading back east. But first, we had to drive through Grand Teton National Park.
We stopped in Colter Bay for a short hike and we could not have been in a better place at a better time. Within 10 minutes of walking we came upon a ranger that was keeping an eye out on a baby bear near the trail. We watched him dig around for grub from a safe distance.
We through Grand Teton and back into Yellowstone to start our trek back east. Our next destination was Bighorn National Forest. We entered the forest on the northwest side and pushed the van to its limit as we rose higher and higher into the mountains. Oh boy, were we up in it! Photos don’t do it justice and this is one place I know that I have to go back to.
We didn’t have a campsite booked for the night and there was zero chance of getting cell service so we stopped at the only place of business we came across, a gas station/bar/restaurant/RV park and asked for directions. Most of the campgrounds were full and as we drove around looking for vacancy we saw herds of caribou and a mama moose with her baby. Not having a plan definitely paid off.
Thankfully, we found a site before dark but unlike in Grand Teton, this campground didn’t provide bear boxes. Not willing to risk sleeping in the van with all of our food, we slung it into a tree using hammock ropes and prayed that we weren’t just setting out bait for any hungry bears.
Day 9: North Dakota
I had a restless night’s sleep, constantly listening for the sound of a bear gorging on graham crackers and dog food but as the sun came up, our food was still safely hanging in the tree.
It was a rainy drive out of the mountains and we made our way to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Our campsite was in Sully Creek State Park. It was one of my favorite sites of the trip because it was very private and backed up against a creek and rocky hill. The campground was a five minute drive from the small cowboy-themed town of Medora and the entrance to the National Park.
We enjoyed dinner and ice cream in Medora and spent our last night of the trip around our campfire.
Day 10: More North Dakota
In the morning, we drove through Theodore Roosevelt National Park and were lucky enough to see bison, prairie dogs and a wild horse.
It was bittersweet as we left the park and started the sprint across North Dakota to get back to Minneapolis. We pushed through our last day on the road so we could give ourselves enough time to unpack the van and return it by the following morning.
As we gave the van it’s final parking spot, it was covered in dirt, bugs and dog hair. A sign of a truly good time.
I saw so much of our incredible country on this trip and have a renewed appreciation for how precious and unique it is. Most of what you’ve seen in this post (if you made it this far…hi mom!) are just the cliff notes. If I took you down every road or mentioned every time we said, “Wow, this is wild!”…we’d be here until next year.
If you’re thinking of testing out a camper van or van life, I can confidently tell you that you won’t be disappointed. The “worst case scenario” in most cases really isn’t that bad and it usually makes for a pretty good story!
I’ll leave you with a photo of what most of the trip looked like. Dirty. Windblown. And a dog drooling on my shoulder.