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

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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!

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. 

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. 

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! 

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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