Heading North, part 2: North Carolina

While we weren’t the least bit tired of traveling or being on the road, we were a little tired of being tourists. The weather, though it had stopped raining, had turned colder and we weren’t inspired to head to any of South Carolina’s beaches. We also decided not to head in to Charleston but instead chose a leisurely morning at the campground and then got back on I95 heading north. We reasoned that the East Coast is a lot easier for us to come back to if we want to see anything that we missed.

We had a nice day, but little of it is blog-worthy. Nice conversations in the car, taking our time over lunch at a rest stop, not feeling hurried or pressured to see and do all that can be seen and done.

The increasingly colder weather was helping us process the change of seasons happening for us as well as in the world around us, and the hours in the car gave us plenty of time to start talking about what comes next.

Year-round campgrounds got harder to find as we headed north, but we found a KOA in Enfield, North Carolina that was still open and we stopped for the night. It was a bit drizzly and cold cooking dinner outside, and we woke up to the first frost we’d seen since Yellowstone. And, though we didn’t know it at the time, this was our last night in Home Sweet Pop-up.

Campground Review Enfield/Rocky Mount KOA:
Price: I forgot to note how much we paid, but the website shows a rate of about $35-$40 per night for a pop-up the size of ours.
Location: There isn’t much locally, but it is convenient to I95 and according to the website they are the only KOA between Fredriksburg, VA and Point South (where we’d stayed the night before). I imagine most of their business is overnight stays as people travel up and down I95.
Facilities: This one one of the smaller KOAs we’d stayed at. The pool was closed for the season. Use of the kitchen cost extra, so we braved the weather with our camp stove. The bathrooms and showers were fine.
Site-description: Grassy-field style.
Neighborhood: Practically deserted on a cold weekday in the off-season.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/enfield/
Comments: The “free wifi” was time limited (an hour, I believe) and restricted by a code to one device, so no getting on with both a smart phone and a laptop. I hope that they have since changed this policy.

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A beautiful but cold morning waking up in North Carolina

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Dayton Beach KOA – Campground Review

Since our friends were in a housing transition and staying with family, it was important to us to be able to visit with our friends at our campsite rather than expect them to host us. The Daytona Beach KOA gave us a great location to be able to do that. Here’s our campground review (spoiler alert: it’s a good one)

Price: $70 for 2 nights (not including KOA member discount)
Location: convenient to most Daytona Beach attractions. It’s not walking distance to the beach, but according to the website, it’s the closest campground to the beach.
Facilities: Great playground and a good laundry room. Bathroom and shower facilities were nothing special but perfectly adequate.
Site-description: Grassy sites with plenty of trees. The sites were also larger than what we experienced at many KOAs.
Neighborhood: November is obviously far from peak season, but on the weekend there were still a number of other campers in a variety of ages with a variety of camping styles.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/daytona-beach/
Comments: Fire rings are not included in the cost of the site, but cost $1 per day to rent.

Funny story about the fire rings: A couple that was tent camping on a neighboring site had read ahead of time that fire rings had to be rented for an additional fee. So they decided to buy their own fire ring to take with them. Once they had assembled it and used it for the weekend (literally 2 fires on 2 nights), they realized that they couldn’t fit the assembled ring back into their car to take it home with them. So they gave it to us and we happily accepted it. But for them, I’m pretty sure that renting for $2 would have been a better deal.

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Remember the Alamo!

The problem is I didn’t. Remember the Alamo, that is. I remembered that we’re supposed to remember the Alamo, but I couldn’t remember why. As we crossed Texas, we spent a night at the San Antonio KOA and decided to spend part of the day checking out the Alamo before heading on to Houston.

In between the time of our visit and when I’m actually writing this, I’ll admit that I’ve forgotten most of it again. I’ve had to “ask Mr. Google” for help with some of the details in order to be able to write a good post. Maybe the reason they have to tell everyone to “Remember the Alamo” is because otherwise it seems to be somewhat forgettable. Or maybe it’s just me. I’ve heard that one shouldn’t mess with Texas, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

There is certainly an appeal in the “heroic struggle against impossible odds” (as the official website thealamo.org puts it) and I can appreciate the sacrifice of people laying down their lives for something they believe in. I suppose as a non-Texan, it’s hard for me to understand the importance of a “Shrine of Texas Liberty” when Texas was independent for a relatively short time (9 years) before joining the United States, where it’s been a part of the Union for about 170 years now (thanks Mr. Google). My impressions from watching the video in the visitor center and touring the area is that it was a tragic loss of life by some passionate and potentially influential young men (including the legendary David Crockett), cause by some poor decisions, bad strategy and with perhaps just a bit of arrogance and pride added to the mix. I confess myself unimpressed by the Alamo, and I don’t know that I would recommend anyone to go out of their way to visit.

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The old Spanish mission buildings have pretty architecture

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Inside the “Shrine” area

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This tree may be the coolest part of the whole place!

It’s free to visit, though parking in the area is neither free nor readily available. The environment is an interesting contrast, as on the one hand there are strict rules for treating the area and its facilities as a Shrine. On the other hand, there is quite a commercial and over-developed gift shop, and the line to get in is slowed down by requiring everyone to pose for photos on the way in so that they can offer you a wide range of personalized souvenir options on the way out. Out of respect for the fallen heroes? Although the profits from the gift shop sales help keep it free to visit so it’s not all bad. Perhaps I’m just being cynical, but our visit to the Alamo didn’t exactly move and inspire us.

Our stay at the San Antonio KOA, however, was much less disappointing. Here’s a review:

Campground Review: San Antonio KOA
Price: $30/night
Location: located only about 5 miles from the Alamo and other downtown attractions, and convenient to I-35, this campground has a great location
Facilities: lots of facilities for the money, although we didn’t stay long enough to take advantage of most of them. One particularly nice feature is that the campground is adjacent to a paved walking/biking trail the follows a creek. I took a very nice little twilight jog after the kids were asleep. Bathroom facilities were modern and well-maintained.
Site-description: Grassy sites, well-shaded.
Neighborhood: Lots of kids, including school groups and scout troops at the time we were there. It’s definitely a family-friendly campground.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/san-antonio/
Comments: We were pleasantly surprised by the natural surroundings considering how centrally located it is in a city. Just be aware that all those beautiful trees, grass, and creek areas are also home to quite a number of 6-legged friends, so plan accordingly.

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Viva Las Vegas

A little known fact about Las Vegas: there is a campground on “the Strip”. There’s a wall around most of it for security and sound-dampening, so if you’re not looking for it, you probably wouldn’t see it. But nevertheless, there is a large parking lot behind Circus Circus, and it’s run by KOA.

Really there’s very little about camping on the Strip that would usually be described as camping, outside of the fact that we lived in our camper. There is no grass, dirt, trees, or anything else that can be described as natural. When we tell people that we camped on the Vegas Strip, most of them laugh and seem slightly confused.

IMG_2597Our “campsite” with Circus Circus in the background
IMG_2599Pop-up campers were not so common here. Most of our neighbors were in RVs. 

But camp we did, for two nights. I had read somewhere that Vegas had been trying to redo its image into more of a family destination, and that there was therefore lots of family-friendly stuff to do. We had lists. They were outdated. Apparently the “family friendly” image didn’t work out so well, so Vegas is back to selling itself as an adult playground. I suppose if you’re good at something, it’s best to stick to that.

Not that there weren’t families there, and not that we didn’t find fun things that were family-friendly. We walked the Strip during the day (when the casinos don’t have strippers dancing in cages that are visible from the sidewalk), down to the Bellagio and saw the fountain show and their indoor gardens. Classy. If I were ever forced to stay in a hotel in Vegas, I’d chose the Bellagio (though I doubt I could afford it).IMG_2575

The fountain shows are impressive!

IMG_2576Emelie loved it except she didn’t want to stand too close because she didn’t like the sounds it made as it shot the water up into the air. If you look closely, she’s wearing her “ballerina skirt” over her sundress. A girl on the Strip has to dress up!

IMG_2591Indoor gardens with live classical music. Classy.

We drove a bit off the Strip to the Silverton Hotel and Casino to see their mermaid show. This was a hit with the girl-child, that’s for sure.

IMG_2551Even mermaids have to decorate for Halloween!
IMG_2560There were breathing stations scattered throughout the aquarium so the poor girl could breathe every now and then. Here she caught one of the fish in her hands and is showing it to the kids… and tickling it? IMG_2566Blowing kisses to Emelie. We tried to get a picture of Emelie and the mermaid that has Emelie’s face in it. The mermaid even posed for us. Emelie would not take her eyes off the mermaid to turn and look at the camera.IMG_2567 IMG_2571That face says it all. The poor thing cried when the mermaid went away!

The M&M store had a free 3-D movie starring Red and Yellow, which turned out to have a bit of a Halloween feel to it and the sound effects in those 10 minutes gave poor Emelie nightmares for a few days. Oops.

IMG_3158She loved the glasses. And she was so funny trying to catch the things coming at her when the movie first started (before the scary sounds came).

But just experiencing Vegas during the day seemed to us to be missing 90% of what Vegas is. So in the two nights we were there, we each got a chance to go out and explore after dark, while the other stayed at “home” with the kids. I was more than a little bit nervous about going out on a Friday night by myself. A woman alone in the dark in Sin City? But the alternative was to miss it. So out I went. The first thing I realized was that it is never dark in Las Vegas. The light changes from natural to artificial, but it isn’t dark. The other thing is that no one looks twice at someone walking around in a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers. Not when all the other women walk around dressed like they’re going to the prom, drinking neon beverages out of enormous Eiffel Tower cups that make them unable to walk in their stilettos. I walked through a few casinos, and even gambled a few dollars here and there, mostly to have an excuse to sit down when I got tired of walking.

IMG_3156The Strip at night. It was so crowded it was hard to walk or even move sometimes. 

I felt completely out of place, and probably looked it too. Being there just made me sad, especially to realize how quickly money disappears into those machines and at those tables. And yet people sit there for hours. And the casinos are full. All of them. And there are plenty of them. All around me were people throwing their hard-earned money away, not to mention their dignity and self-respect. No, I am simply not comfortable in a place whose economy is based on gambling, sex and alcohol. And I’m ok with that.

On Sunday morning we went to church at Central Christian Church, a large church with a focus on ministry to people who are lost in that mess somewhere. It wasn’t my favorite church we visited, but I have enormous respect for their ministry to the people are around them who are struggling and hurting. We were much happier to put our money in their offering plate than into a draw poker machine.

There are few places that we visited along our trip where we felt finished when we left. So many times, as we got in the car to leave, we said, “When we come back here someday…”. But Las Vegas is one of the places that we “finished”. We saw what we wanted to see, we satisfied our curiosity, we had the experience.

Campground Review: Las Vegas KOA

Price: $97 for 2 nights. Not cheap. But cheaper than any of the hotels around us for sure.
Location: Right on the Strip, for better and for worse. Convenient to walk, although it’s a bit far to walk to the north end of the Strip. And not exactly quiet at night, as you can imagine.
Facilities: All the standard KOA facilities. A nice pool/hot tub area which we enjoyed. A good playground. Bathrooms were fine. They had laundry, though we didn’t use it, and good wifi connections.
Site-description: Paved, paved, paved. It’s literally a parking lot with large enough spaces for an RV, and water spigots/electrical outlets between sites.
Neighborhood: Diverse doesn’t begin to cover it.
Websitehttp://koa.com/campgrounds/las-vegas/
Comments: If you adjust your expectations to a “campground” on the Vegas Strip, you won’t be disappointed. This isn’t a visit to a national park and it doesn’t really feel like “camping” but it’s convenient. Besides, it’s all a part of the experience!

Hits and Misses in the California High Desert

(Fear not, loyal reader… after a brief hiatus when celebrating Christmas and the New Year with our families took priority over blogging, we’re back. We WILL continue sharing our trip and we’ll hopefully finish before memories start to fade. Thanks for sticking with us and for your patience!)

Our last night spent in California was a stop at the KOA in Barstow, in the high desert enroute to Nevada. The scenery was beautiful and despite the desert climate, the campground has successfully kept shade trees alive in each of the campsites. Much to Emelie’s delight, the pool was still open, though even she was quick to admit that the water was a bit cold for swimming. To her credit, she stayed in a lot longer than the rest of us wanted to.

IMG_2493That’s right ladies! He cooks, too!

IMG_2492The trees add both shade and a bit of privacy. Functional and pretty!

IMG_2491Beautiful desert sunset
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The campground was a short distance from the Calico Ghost Town. After having driven past several similar “ghost towns” and judging them to be tourist traps and not worth the price of admission, we decided to give this one a chance. We were leaving California, after all, and it seemed reasonable to spend a little time exploring the remains of one of the mining towns that brought civilization to this fair state.

So we braced ourselves for a tourist trap and were prepared to pay the price of admission that was listed in the brochure. We headed there right at opening time in the morning, since we planned to drive from there to Las Vegas later in the day. What we’d failed to anticipate was that we were visiting a ghost town in mid-October… and Halloween is apparently their favorite holiday. Go figure.

We were there on a Friday morning just before their big Halloween Festival weekend. Since the festival officially began on Friday, the admission prices were increased. With a deep sigh, we paid the price of admission and headed in. Most of the place and most of the employees were fully occupied with festival preparations. Ordinary buildings and exhibits were transformed into haunted houses. Emelie still gets scared and refuses to watch most animated movies. There was no way we were taking her into a haunted house. And besides, what we wanted to see were the preserved mines and buildings, and they weren’t going to be visible anyway. The only places that really were open were the stores, of course, selling all manner of overpriced useless items. There was a little train that you could ride, which of course cost extra, but we had to do something while we were there and the kids loved it.

IMG_2495Largest silver mining camp in California, 1881-1896

IMG_2507We climbed up the hill and got this overview of the town

IMG_2499One of the few “exhibits” that was open, the old fire hall with this old fire truckIMG_2501They were also prepared for a bucket line in case of fire. I guess when you’re mining in the desert you can’t be too prepared.

IMG_2503Because no tourist trap is complete without things to put your face in to take pictures. I think my favorite thing about this picture is that her knees are sticking out where the hand holes are.

IMG_2517Apparently decorating for the festival is primarily comprised of covering everything in a weird net-thing and tying skeletons to every post. Are old looking nets scary? Or do they throw them on the guests later after dark? That would be scary.

IMG_2519 Here I come to save the day! Trains are always fun!

IMG_2520An unusual kind of train car. But there we are!

All of this to say that we were a bit disappointed with our visit to Calico Ghost Town. It may be a better family experience at other times of the year, and even the Halloween Festival may be more fun when it’s in full swing. (They kept saying that it would be crowded and lots of fun later if we would stay longer.) But there is fun to be had just about anywhere when you’re on an adventure with the people you love.

Campground Review: Barstow/Calico KOA

Price: $32/night
Location: Beautiful location, but not close to anything except Calico Ghost Town. A reasonable distance to break up the drive from San Diego to Las Vegas.
Facilities: Great pool (though cold in October) and playground facilities, bathrooms adequate, but over air conditioned and freezing cold inside.
Site-description: Desert sand and gravel, shaded with trees
Neighborhood: Predominantly the retired RVer crowd, but a few other families when we were there
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/barstow/ 
Comments: There aren’t many options for camping in this area. Calico Ghost Town also has a campground, but it costs more than the KOA and doesn’t look nearly as nice… no trees, for example. If you find yourself at the KOA watch out of the cacti. There was a decorative cactus garden near the bathroom, and despite our warnings, Emelie’s curiosity got the better of her. That evening was spent with tweezers, a headlamp and a very unhappy girl. She kept complaining about how much it hurt, even after we cleaned her up, so Staffan decided to go touch the same cactus to see if she was exaggerating. He decided she wasn’t.

Monterey

Our next stop in California was along the coast between Santa Cruz and Monterey, at the Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA (creative name, I know). At over $50 per night (before our member discount) for the most basic campsite, this was by far the most expensive campground we’d stayed in yet. In fact, we chose to stay an extra night in San Francisco because the weekend rate for the same site was over $70.

On the road again…

Not a bad place to pullover to change a diaper and have a little snack!

Banana time!

It is a popular area to visit, and nearly every campground we were able to find ahead of time was $45+ for basic electricity and water hookups. The KOA boasted some great extra features, so we chose to go there. In fact, as I was checking in, I overheard a conversation between and employee and a man who came in. He was upset by how much it cost and she said, “Sir, some campgrounds are places where you sleep while you spend your days doing other things. We are ourselves a destination. The site you are interested in goes for over $100 per night in the summer and it is never empty.” Wow. Aside from this little bit of attitude, we really liked this place. But I’m not sure I liked it enough to pay $100+ a night to camp there.

They had a nice pool that was temperature-controlled, and a hot tub. They had a “beach area” with lots of sand, a giant trampoline-like “jumper” for kids, and probably a lot more when it’s peak season. It was also a 20-30 minute walk to a state beach. We were there for two nights, and during the full day that we spent there we enjoyed all those things – the beach, the pool and hot tub, and the jumpy-thing. The weather was great, though a little too cool for swimming, even in the warm-ish pool and certainly in the Pacific. But we had a nice time.

 

Mermaid Emelie

Can I have the camera please?

Queen of the Sand!

On the day we left, we stopped on our way south and spent a little time walking around Monterey. There’s a really nice walking/jogging/biking path that follows the water, so we walked on that for a while. It goes all the way down to the aquarium and some other somewhat well-known activities, but we didn’t plan to go to all of those and in the end decided not to walk that far. We explored the Old Fisherman’s Wharf for a little while, which is not all that exciting to be honest. It’s mostly overpriced souvenir shops and seafood restaurants. We saw a few pelicans, and there were a few sea lions, but not nearly as many as we saw in Crescent City, and to get anywhere near them you had to pay a shop owner $2 a person to go down his steps. We walked along the water, enjoyed the nice weather, and ate a picnic lunch. Before getting back on the road, we visited the Denis the Menace playground. It’s a free public park that has one of the best playgrounds I’ve ever seen.

Sleepy Pelican

Sailboats at the Wharf

Sea lions are fun!

One of the best playgrounds around! 

A drink from the lions mouth

We could not believe how long she could hold her own weight on this thing!

Hello!

The big kids weren’t letting her have a turn on this slide so she tried to slide down on the side. It didn’t work so well, poor thing.

Finally she was willing to ask them to let her have a turn on the cool roller slide!

Peter’s not about to be left out of the action!

So many great new things to try here!

Here’s a campground review:

Price: $93 for 2 nights, after KOA member discount, taxes, and “resort fees”
Location: It’s about a 30 min drive north of Monterey and about 15 min south of Santa Cruz. As mentioned, it’s close to the coast and state beach access is an easy walk that takes about 20-30 min. There is parking available at the beach for those who choose to drive, but there is a parking fee.
Facilities: Abundant. A great playground, pool, hot tub, coin laundry, dish-washing sink, and the list goes on. The bathrooms and showers were fine, but far from the nicest we’ve encountered along our way. I guess it surprised me because everything else was so top-notch (and had the price to match).
Site description: Sandy grass-ish site with a decent picnic table and some trees along the back that offered a bit of shade. Slightly larger than the average KOA sardine-sites.
Neighborhood: Very varied, though we encountered more non-American tourists here than anywhere else. There were a lot of rented RVs and a wide variety of languages to be heard.
Websitehttp://koa.com/campgrounds/santa-cruz/
Comments: On the second morning when we woke up, there was no power in the whole area, including the KOA. This meant not only no power but no water either. No flushing toilets or showers or drinking water. We made do because we had filled our water jug the night before and we were leaving that morning anyway. But the employees said it happens there often – circumstances outside their control- but still something to be aware of (keep your water jugs full!). There was talk of KOA getting it’s own generator to avoid this in the future, so hopefully it won’t be an issue for anyone else. I’d also like to comment that the employees were very helpful when our car battery was dead (again) on the morning we were leaving, and they helped get us on the road again.

We forgot to take pictures before we packed up the camper.

Another angle on the empty campsite 

Sleeping in Seattle: Seattle KOA Campground Review

Often when we visit friends, we are able to set up the camper in their driveway or yard. But since our friends in Seattle live in an apartment, we needed to find a campground. There weren’t a lot of options available, and because the Seattle KOA is actually located in Kent where our friends live, we chose the KOA. It worked, but it certainly wasn’t our favorite campground. Here’s our review:

Price: $42/night, after KOA member discount. Thus far one of our most expensive.
Location: Well, that’s why we stayed there. Easy access to Seattle and for us, close to our friends.
Facilities: Bathrooms were nice and clean, but the showers had very poor water pressure. And by very poor, I mean it probably would have been easier to use the water fountain to get the shampoo out of my hair. The playground looked like it was a great one, but we didn’t actually use it.
Site Description: Grass and gravel, literally 1 pop-up + 1 minivan + 1 picnic table wide. A pull-through site, approximately 1 pop-up camper in length. There was not a whole lot of wiggle room here. If we didn’t park the minivan in just the right spot, we either couldn’t open the van door because of the picnic table or we couldn’t open the camper door because of the minivan. One of the tiniest campsites I’ve ever seen. And while this wasn’t true of all sites, our site was very close to a major road where there was considerable traffic noise all night.
Neighborhood: The usual mix of retired RV-ers, families, etc. Also a group of bikers who liked to make noise (both themselves and their motorcycles) late at night. Not my favorite neighbors.
Comments: It was the right choice for us all things considered, and if I had to do it over again, I’d probably make the same choice. But we did decide to leave after 2 nights instead of staying for 3, mostly because the quality we received didn’t really match the price we were paying.

Learning to pronounce “Butte”

After Yellowstone, our next real destination was to visit our friends in the Seattle area. But it was much too far for us to drive straight there, so we broke the trip up into three legs with two “en route” nights in between.

Our long day-trip to the Tetons turned into a late night, which meant a sluggish morning getting packed up to leave Yellowstone. But with no specific destination in mind for that night, we decided to get as far as we could across Montana then find someplace to stop and spend the night.

We stopped in the little town of Three Forks to use a gas station bathroom and eat the picnic lunch we’d packed. But something (we still don’t quite know what) happened in the car while we were there and we blew a fuse. At the time we didn’t know for sure if that’s what it was, but none of the dashboard instruments worked, and neither did the turn signals. Some kind neighbors in Three Forks came out to see if we needed tools, and one even brought us a few tomatoes from his garden. That part was fun! Apparently this small town doesn’t get many tourists.

We were about 60 miles from Butte and had no choice but to drive without turn signals, speedometer, fuel gauge, etc to Butte to find an auto parts store. At this point we figured we’d better check how one should pronounce the name of this city, since we’d been calling it “Butt” among ourselves but we were pretty sure that wasn’t it. (It’s pronounced “Byoot” for those who, like us, are a little weak on Montana geography.)

Thankfully it turned out to be a quick and inexpensive fix. We had indeed blown a fuse, and after buying a fuse tester (to figure out which one) and a box of fuses, we were back on the road. But we had lost a lot of time. There were options to camp in the Butte area, but we opted to get another hour or so down the road and stopped at a KOA in Deer Lodge, Montana.

Campground Review: Deer Lodge KOA

Price: $32 after KOA discount.
Location: Deer Lodge isn’t really close to anything. Location-wise, this campground’s main draw is being about halfway between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. It’s not really a destination in itself.
Facilities: Reasonable. Family-style bathrooms, hot showers. Laundry facilities were on the expensive side, but everything worked fine when we did laundry there. A nice bonus was the Kamp Kitchen, which we hadn’t encountered before. We saved our propane and used a more efficient propane stove, had a big sink area for washing dishes, and were able to microwave Peter’s baby food. The playground was far from the nicest we’ve seen, but it was sufficient to stretch little legs after a long day in the car.
Site description: Grassy and river-adjacent. A very pretty site.
Neighborhood: The neighbors we met were very friendly. They let Emelie pet their dog, and in the morning were willing to give us a jump when our car wouldn’t start. (Dead battery. Possibly connected to the blown fuse the day before… or to Emelie finding the automatic door open/close button. Maybe both. Those buttons are disabled now just in case.)

Pretty campsite by the river

Sunset over the river with mountains in the background. Beautiful.

Weekend in Billings, Montana

Why Billings? Because with just a short detour off of our planned route, we were able to visit with friends that we hadn’t seen for years. We met their kids, introduced them to ours, and had a really nice time catching up.

We met Julia when we were all working at Kirkwood together in 2000. The next year, when she married Justin, we drove out to Kansas to be a part of their wedding. But living in different parts of the country, and later in different countries, made it difficult to keep in touch. So I was really excited when Julia saw our route posted here on the blog and asked if we could find a way to meet.

Their kids love the Chuck E. Cheese in Billings, so we met there and let the kids play while we had a chance to talk. Then we had a nice lunch and did a bit of secondhand shopping together.

Me and Julia outside the restaurant where we had lunch

We stayed in Billings on Sunday and went to church at King of Glory Lutheran church, which we found on the internet. Staffan was interested in worshiping in a Lutheran church in the U.S. since he never had. We happened to be there on the Sunday that they were having confirmation, so it was also interesting to be a part of that. After church we had lunch and then just a laid back afternoon, getting a little rest, catching up on some laundry, taking a walk and hanging out at the playground. Building downtime like this into our itinerary is so vitally important, and also something that we could do much better.

Our home for the weekend was the Billings KOA, which was the very first KOA campground. As we looked online ahead of time, we realized that KOA was having an anniversary special on that specific weekend. KOA members who stayed Friday night got Saturday night for free. Since the cost of a membership is $24, and staying the night for free would save us at least $30, becoming members was a no-brainer. It paid for itself immediately and has continued to save us 10% every time we’ve stayed in KOA campgrounds since then. Beside getting a good deal, we really liked the Billings KOA. Here’s our review:

Billings KOA
Price: With KOA membership card and special anniversary weekend deal, $60 for 3 nights
Location: Relatively close to central Billings and the interstate without having much road noise or other issues.
Facilities: Great. Small and narrow campsites, like all the KOA’s we’ve been to so far, but it wasn’t crowded so we didn’t have neighbors within a couple of sites on either side. All the bathrooms were “family style”, meaning the toilet, sink, and shower were all in one room. This is so, so helpful when you camp with kids! The pool was closed for the season, but the hot tub was still open, and there were even 2 nights when our kids went to sleep early enough that we could take a dip for a half hour or so before it closed. The playground was very good too. Coin operated laundry room.
Site Description: Grass/dirt. Plenty of shade trees (and fall leaves). There was an embankment behind us (between the campground and a river) that was just dirt which Emelie thought made an excellent sliding board.
Neighborhood: Pretty mixed, but not many families with kids. Mostly larger RVs, but I suppose it’s not strange that pop-up and tent campers start to slack off when the weather starts getting colder.
Comments: We would definitely go back to this KOA, especially if we could get the amazing prices we got this time! Sorry we forgot to take a picture of it.

Madison KOA

Needing a bit of respite from our campground experience outside of Chicago, we were willing to pay a little bit more to have a few extra amenities the next time. What we found was a Kampground of America (KOA) in Madison, Wisconsin, en route to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area of Minnesota.

It was just an overnight stay. A chance to shower, clean out the car and trailer a bit, and do some much needed laundry. It didn’t hurt that they had a pool to splash around in with the kids.

They were pretty crowded for Labor Day, and the campsites were a bit too close together for our taste. But it served its purpose. Here’s our campground review:

Madison KOA

Price: At $39 and something, almost our most expensive campground by just a few cents. In general, more than we’re willing to pay.
Location: Just off the interstate, so it was easy to find, but not exactly filled with beautiful nature. Since we just used it as a stopping place, I can’t comment on proximity to Madison or any area attractions.
Facilities: pool, showers, coin laundry, dish washing sink (after too many times trying to wash dishes in tiny bathroom sinks with water that doesn’t stay on, we’ve started to view this as an amenity), free wifi, good playground
SIte Description: Tiny, grass and gravel sites that are pretty close together. Few trees, and  very little shade. Not bad, but nothing special.
Neighborhood: KOA has its own culture (kulture?) that we’ve yet to understand. Most of our neighbors were loyal KOAers and the neighborhood had more campers out for longer, multi-stop trips like ours than families out for the weekend.
Comments: It was just fine for an overnight, and probably just what we needed at the time. I’m not sure I’d choose it for a longer stay, though.

We left on Monday (Labor Day) and headed for what turned out to be our favorite campground so far where we spent most of that week: Lake Elmo, Minnesota.