North Carolina to Kansas – Cross Country USA Road Trip (Part 1)

We had a blast on our summer 2021 road trip across the United States. We set out from our home in Raleigh in early June and made it back home toward the end of July. In total we spent over six weeks (46 nights!!) on the road and drove 8,200 miles. 

Along the way, we visited 14 national parks and a ton of other interesting places. It was quite a busy trip, since we stayed in 25 different airbnbs or hotels and spent more than 100 hours traveling in the van

To cover the whole trip, I am breaking up the trip summary into thirteen separate blog posts plus a bonus article covering the trip logistics for a six week road trip for a family of five.

Here is a table of contents for our whole trip if you want to check out other parts of our journey (once those other blog posts go live!):

  1. North Carolina to Kansas via West Virginia and St. Louis
  2. Colorado: Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Frisco
  3. Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde National Parks plus Ouray
  4. Utah: Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park
  5. Utah: Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park
  6. Arizona: Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon, and Hoover Dam
  7. Las Vegas, Nevada
  8. California: Los Angeles and Long Beach
  9. California: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks
  10. Crossing the Desert in Nevada and Utah: Hawthorne and Bonneville Salt Flats
  11. Salt Lake City, Utah and Idaho Falls, Idaho
  12. Yellowstone National Park
  13. Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and National Museum of the US Air Force
  14. Road Trip Logistics

Join me for our trip across the country!

 

First Stop: Charleston, West Virginia

When planning this big summer adventure, we wanted to see parts of the country we haven’t visited in the past. So we decided to take the scenic route through the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia before turning west for the long drive across the country. We normally wouldn’t plan a trip to West Virginia as a destination, so it was nice to pass through here on our way out west. 

We had a six hour drive from our home in Raleigh to our hotel in Ashland, Kentucky. Along the way we stopped for a couple of hours in downtown Charleston, West Virginia. 

Charleston is the state capital of West Virginia. The capitol building sits on the northern bank of the Kanawha River. There was a nice paved walking path along the river for those that enjoy the waterfront. 

 

We walked through the downtown area along the Kanawha River. On the right is the golden dome of the West Virginia State Capitol Building.

 

We tried to tour the capitol building but it was closed due to the pandemic. The first of several pandemic-related closures we encountered throughout our trip. We walked around the building, taking in the view of the gilded dome adorning the classical building. 

Next door to the capitol is the West Virginia State Museum showcasing the history and culture of the state. We didn’t plan on visiting the museum initially. But after having some extra time due to the capitol being closed for the pandemic (and renovations as well), we decided to take a peep in the history museum. If nothing else, we could enjoy the blasting AC on this swelteringly hot summer day in West Virginia. 

Alas, they were closing right as we arrived. We did take advantage of their indoor benches and clean bathrooms at least. We took a quick look at the exhibits in the lobby before heading back outside along the tree-lined sidewalks toward our parked car. 

After departing Charleston, we drove the last hour or so to our first hotel of the trip. We checked in then headed out for a bite to eat. Then headed back to the hotel to get some rest before our long drive the next day. 

 

Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis (and surrounding area)

We quickly packed up then departed Ashland, Kentucky and continued our drive west. Our destination for the night was in western St. Louis, Missouri, about a seven hour drive. 

On the way, we planned two sightseeing stops. The first stop was the Cahokia Mounds on the eastern edge of St. Louis. After that we visited the Gateway Arch National Park in the heart of downtown St. Louis and adjacent to the Mississippi River. 

 

Cahokia Mounds

The Cahokia Mounds look like grassy hills dotting the landscape, with the largest mound Monk’s Mound, rising about 100 feet above the ground. 

We climbed Monk’s Mound and enjoyed a beautiful view of the landscape around St. Louis. 

 

The view from the top of the Monk Mound, the main earthen mound at the Cahokia Mounds Park. In the distance we could see the skyline of downtown St. Louis along with the Gateway Arch.

 

I don’t expect the Cahokia Mounds will be on many tourists’ itineraries. However, I noticed it along our travel route and recalled reading about its significance when reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (a great book, by the way). Our oldest daughter had also learned about the Cahokia Mounds in her history class. 

It was one of those serendipitous places that we wouldn’t normally travel 700 miles to visit. But in this case, it was a 10 minute detour off the interstate to see a cool historical site.

 

The Cahokia Mounds – view from the parking lot. It looks like a natural grass-covered hill. But in reality, these massive earthen mounds were built over hundreds of years using (most likely) primitive tools and lots and lots of human labor. The tiny specks along the slope of the hill silhouetted against the sunny clouds are people hiking to the top.

 

What are the Cahokia Mounds? A Native American empire founded a city over 1,000 years ago and slowly built up these earthen mounds in their center of power along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. The tribe controlled the region for hundreds of miles around. The mounds themselves are one of the largest and most notable archaeological sites in the United States. 

Archaeologists determined that the mounds were in a perpetual state of construction and enlargement with more than a dozen additions over hundreds of years to bring the site to its ultimate size. 

Since the civilization collapsed about 700 years ago, most of the buildings and infrastructure have decayed. There are some recreated stockade structures outdoors and of course the huge grass-covered mounds themselves. There is a visitor center but it was closed on the day we visited. 

 

Gateway Arch National Park

Just a few minutes west of the Cahokia Mounds, we arrived at our next stop. We parked about a half mile from the Gateway Arch on the east side of the Mississippi River. We didn’t just visit the Arch, we also enjoyed what was supposed to be a nice quiet scenic walk across the Mississippi River over the Eads Bridge. 

As it turned out, there were about fifty million small slow flying insects that decided to join us on top of the bridge. Fortunately the insects weren’t of the vicious biting variety. After running the gauntlet at the beginning of the bridge, we enjoyed a more peaceful and bug-free remainder of our walk across the Mississippi to the western bank of the river.

 

The view of Gateway Arch National Park from atop the Eads Bridge. When viewed from the side, the curvature of the Arch disappears and it appears to be a monolithic obelisk.

 

We arrived at the Gateway Arch National Park entrance about ten minutes later. The grounds around the Arch are well maintained and manicured. A great place to sit for a minute and take in the grand scale of the Mississippi slowly flowing south toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Since St. Louis was the end of our drive for the day, and we visited Cahokia Mounds first, it was getting close to sunset by the time we got to the Arch itself. As a result, we didn’t get to go up the elevators in the Arch to the top. But we got a nice view of downtown from the bridge and got to explore around the Arch for a bit. 

By this point we were pretty worn out from our long drive and all the walking and sightseeing, so we began the trek back over the river to our parking spot on the opposite bank. 

 

Sunset over the Mississippi as we looked out over the St. Louis Arch. What a great way to mark the end of a long day of traveling and sightseeing!

 

We stayed on the western edge of St. Louis, so the remainder of our day’s drive was a relatively short cruise through the city. Some nighttime construction work delayed us briefly but we made it to the hotel about 30 minutes after dark. 

 

Oh No! A Brief Delay to Fix the Car

One of the “oh no!” moments on our trip happened when something small and hard smashed into our windshield while on the interstate somewhere in Indiana or Illinois en route to St. Louis. I’m not really sure what it was but it left a 1.25 inch wide crack in the windshield.

I contacted a couple of glass repair companies in St. Louis where we were spending the night to no avail. One place didn’t repair chips and cracks at all. The other was booked solid for the next week due to a recent hailstorm destroying a ton of windshields in the area.

As a result, I turned to youtube and DIY windshield repair videos. After polling my friends, many told me it was pretty simple to repair small cracks with a cheap kit from Walmart or the auto parts store. I found two kits at the local auto parts place just a few minutes from my hotel. We were fortunate to have a very light travel day of about four hours of driving, so I had plenty of time to fix the windshield myself in the morning.

I requested a late checkout of 1 pm and got to work in the shade cast by the hotel. A couple hours later after several periods of sitting and waiting, the crack looked a lot better but not flawless. 

7,000+ miles later, the crack hasn’t expanded any so I think my repair job was “good enough”. The total cost for the two repair kits was $33. I bought two kits because there were two impact marks close together. I wanted to inject the epoxy into each impact mark to hopefully increase the odds that I would get the epoxy into all the cracks. 

In spite of the high cost, I was ready to drop $150-180 for a professional crack repair. But once I hit a roadblock of getting an immediate appointment, I decided to hedge my risk and DIY it so I could guarantee it would get done quickly. Otherwise I might have spent all morning calling different auto glass repair shops instead of actually fixing the problem.

Once the repair was complete, we packed up and hit the road for a five hour drive that would bring us through Kansas City to Topeka, Kansas where we spent the next night. 

 

Kansas City and Topeka

On the way to Topeka we stopped on the eastern edge of Kansas City for an early dinner. For those not familiar with the area, Kansas City is known for its barbeque.

I looked for a hole-in-the-wall barbeque restaurant and ended up settling on the Three Pigs food truck. They picked a great location in front of a thrift shop and auto parts store. This was a perfect “no frills” barbeque restaurant. We got three huge takeout plates. Just the meat, please. No fixings or sides required. We had some fruits, veggies, and chips in the van that were just as good as the sides on the menu at the BBQ food truck. 

 

Sometimes eating local food IS the destination. Like this local Kansas City barbeque we enjoyed.

 

The food truck didn’t have any seating so we googled up a nearby park in the neighborhood next to the food truck where we could mingle with the locals. We pigged out on pulled pork barbeque, burnt ends, and brisket while we watched the neighborhood kids take tennis lessons at the park. 

That was it for our sightseeing in Kansas City. On to Topeka for a swim in the hotel pool and a good night’s sleep! 

 

Summary

When planning our big summer road trip in the Western United States, we considered flying straight to Denver and starting our adventures there in the rocky Mountains. Or should we drive across the Midwest and stop to see whatever we can along the way?

We chose the latter route. Our family took a few extra days to explore parts of the country that we might not necessarily visit as destinations in and of themselves.

We spent three days driving across the country to Topeka, Kansas. Along the way, we stopped for sightseeing in Charleston, West Virginia and St. Louis. We also got some great barbeque in Kansas City! 

While in St. Louis, we discovered a crack in the windshield. I managed to repair our cracked windshield without messing up our remaining travel schedule.  

 

Have you ever visited any of these destinations we went to? What did we miss along the way?

 


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30 comments

  1. You chose well taking the West Virginia-Kentucky route. We did a round trip this summer. The route that goes through Tennessee had really significant construction delays of many hours. We did the return along the route you took. Much better.

    1. Glad we missed it then! Google maps flip flopped back and forth between TN route and KY/WV route (probably because of the construction!). Only downside with the WV route is the $12 in tolls (but I figured out how to dodge $4 of them for just a few minutes of scenic detours!)

  2. Looking forward to the other trip reports. How about your wife and kids write a portion of the travelogue? Or at least grab some thoughts from them to include in your writing.

    My dad kept a diary for about 60 years which was mainly farm & weather related. My mom wrote in his diary sometimes. It was interesting to read her tales of a baby being up at night and things that went on in the house.

  3. About ten years ago, I lived in KC for two years and you should have spend more time in KC than heading straight to Topeka! The Midwest is so underrated and KC is just such a great place. Maybe next time?

    1. We were thinking about doing some stuff in KC but the stuff we wanted to see was closed because of covid. It’s a nice decent place though, for sure! Topeka was only a pit stop – we didn’t actually do anything there other than get some sleep and head out the next morning 🙂

    1. Travel expenses can be tricky.

      I intend to count as expenses those ordinary and necessary business expenses that are common and accepted in my business and helpful and appropriate for my business per IRS regulations and guidelines and relevant sections of the Internal Revenue Code. 🙂 Of course purely vacation or recreational activities cannot be counted as business expenses.

  4. I grew up in St. Louis. It can be nice weather in the Spring and Fall, but hot and humid in the Summer and cold and cloudy in the Winter. There are some nice parks and museums there; and the zoo and botanical gardens are good. However, I am happy to live in Colorado now.

    1. Maybe it was because we were out and about later in the day in STL, but it didn’t really feel that much hotter in St Louis than it felt in Denver. Less humidity but it was still HOT!

  5. You ended up in my neck of the woods. Cahokia mounds is 5 min down the road. A lot of people go there and run the mounds for a workout. Looking forward to the rest of your trip posts.

      1. Reminds of one of the rare times I ran a marathon. Was trundling along thinking “What an accomplishment, but where’s a restroom?” when a guy passed me carrying a giant truck tire on his shoulders. He finished the race, too. Unbelievable.

        1. Yes – exactly! It was really hot (late afternoon, June, humid and sunny) and we were worn out by the time we got to the top. Then this guy was hauling heavy metal chains around his neck!

  6. I also live just 20 minutes away from Cahokia Mounds. Small world !

    I’ve been following your blog for years now. I really enjoy it. Thanks for all you do Justin.

  7. It’s so exciting that you saw Cahokia Mounds, and visited St. Louis! I grew up in a small town nearby; those were places we always went on school trips. Cahokia is one of the largest structures built by Native Americans in North America prior to European arrival. The Gateway Arch also has a fantastic indoor museum with exhibits detailing history of the region. It’s really insightful as visually interesting. Check it out the next time COVID allows the doors open.

    Justin, whenever I read your blog, I appreciate the thoughtful mix of life descriptions, financial principles and implementation details. There just isn’t a specific trigger for me to comment personally, so I’m glad you passed through this region and made me feel it’s time to break the ice.

  8. is there an expenses sheet you did for this trip? I was hoping to learn how you travel for 46 days cheaply.

    We did a 8 or 9 trip this past summer to Vegas, Arizona and Utah and spent 6,000-7,000 and we had a blast just looking to do it on a budget next time.

    1. Nothing much except some summaries in the Monthly Early Retirement Updates (April-July specifically). I hope to get something pulled together in Part 14 of this travel series though. Stay tuned!

  9. I know just where that Three Pigs barbeque truck parks, it’s right in my neck of the woods. Definitely not the best barbeque in the city, but for a truck it’s really not bad by KC standards. If you ever have another road trip though the midwest, consider a longer stop in KC. It’s home to good food beyond barbeque and a couple world class museums in WW1 and Nelson-Atkins Art Museum. Both of which are inexpensive or free if you plan your days carefully. I’ve lived here for 11 years and I find it has almost everything a big city has without the associated high cost of living. Not a bad thing in my book.

    If you ever go through St. Louis again and if we ever get over the covid hump, City Museum is bucket list worthy and indescribable. I’d plan a trip just for that.

    Glad you had a good trip and thanks for showing us all that the dream can be achieved. Hope to walk your path one day.

    1. I was struggling to find the “best” bbq in town. I’ve been to a couple of the name brand touristy places that most recommend and I’d say they were on par or maybe not quite as good as this bbq truck. Still great overall though! And a nice touch of “Americana” to grab the food and enjoy a picnic at a busy neighborhood park 🙂

      You are right – so much to see and do along the way. Cities like St. Louis and KC are hidden gems that have much of the same amenities found in larger cities without the higher cost of living to go with it. A nice house in either of those places isn’t a million bucks, for example.

  10. I live in Ashland, KY. Wish I knew you were passing through, I could have given you a local tour and bought you dinner 🙂

  11. This reminds me of our 6,000 mile Alaska to Wilmington move this summer, though our three kids are considerably younger than yours. We stopped at New River Gorge NP in WV, though it is so new the signs and brochures don’t have the new name. We were also camping, which was great until we hit the humidity of the Southeast. Something to get used to, but the weather is finally nice here in NC!

  12. Bummer you missed going up in the arch. It’s a fun ride and a great view! I still can’t believe they elevated the former Nation Monument to National Park status, that’s kind of a joke in my opinion. Nice lobbying by the MO congressional delegation!

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