US-101 Vacation – Part I

The (ongoing) pandemic forced us to make some adjustments to vacation plans, where 2020 was supposed to be a trip to Yellowstone, but was unfortunately cancelled, leading us to instead head to some Missouri State Parks near Ironton, MO. We were able to do Yellowstone last year, then, which is actually fortunate for us because had we tried doing that this year, we would have been shut down again because a metric ton of rain ended up hitting the park, causing them to close practically the north half of the park for the foreseeable future.

Luckily, then, we just had to shift things by one year, putting us on track for the next destination on the list: Disney(something). Brooke and I both went to Disney World in our youth (decades ago…, we’re old….), and that experience becomes a whole thing when you look into costs (indeed, we decided we’d rather spend the money on plane flights to Puerto Rico than spend it on a week at Disney in Florida…).

Now, Disneyland, though, that sounded more reasonable: it’s a smaller park, it has fewer “sections” (there’s no Epcot or Animal Kingdom, for example), and lodging is far more reasonable and way closer, so parking is less of an issue.

So, Disneyland became the target: the question was what else we do to make it align with the “spirit” of our other vacations (e.g. mountains, driving, beaches….an experience). Well, as we tend to do, we just decided to do all the things!

We made the call to do the Pacific Coast Highway, which goes by a few names depending on which section you’re on. US-101 starts up near Seattle, WA and continues down to California, where eventually CA-1 takes over as the “PCH,” which then returns to meet US-101 again further South. Eventually, US-101 ends as it merges with I-5, effectively at Los Angeles, CA.

Obviously, this was going to take a lot of time, but thankfully, Brooke’s job now affords a bit more flexibility so she can be gone for a ridiculously long vacation. She got some books and plotted out the basics of how far we’d go each day, what the lunch/hotel strategy should be, and we did our best to book it to and from the West Coast, and then spend more time on US-101 where possible, including 3 days at a house overlooking the beach.

So on June 3, Brooke worked the morning while the kids and I finished prepping the house and loading some stuff up. We left just after noon that day with a goal of getting to Sioux Falls, ND. Had Brooke worked more that day, we probably would have just stopped at Sioux City, IA, but with timing, we opted to go further, get in later, but then have a bit more time the next day in South Dakota. After nearly 8 hours and over 400 miles, and a stop for dinner at an overcrowded Pizza Ranch, we made it to Sioux Falls right around 9:30 pm.

And then we promptly crashed for the night, only to get up and do it all again!

However, this time, we were going to stop at a few icons of a classic road trip experience to help break up the day a bit. The goal this time was to get to Billings, MT, as that would set us up where we could get to (or near) Seattle the next day so we could begin the real vacation.

We drove for about an hour before we got to Mitchell, SD, so we could see the Corn Palace. This is a place Brooke and I both experienced growing up in various capacities, so really, we were only subjecting our children to it because that’s what happened to us. I’m not sure they really “got it,” so much, but it was an odd distraction that they can hopefully look back on and think, “you know, I don’t really know why we went to that weird corn place.”

We then hopped back in the car (after getting me some more coffee and talking to a rando at the coffee shop about how expensive farming is now….his idea, not mine) and headed to Wall, SD to visit the infamous Wall Drug, another experience Brooke and I had decades ago. This one didn’t really live up to Brooke’s memory of the place, though, so she was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t much to do except walk through it and buy things we didn’t need. The kids got to sit on a jackalope though, so there’s that.

We ate lunch out of the back of the car (which was the intent – we borrowed Mom and Dad’s smaller, but good, cooler and tried to pare down what we’d actually eat and what we actually needed to keep cold). A brief aside, we used the cartop carrier, as always, but Brooke had us all pack as light as we could, so shockingly, we were able to see out of the back of the car nearly the entire time! This is a first for us.

The next leg was a 2 hr drive to Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. This one took us off I-90 a bit, but it was worth the trip. Brooke had been there before, but I’d never seen it. I think the kids were ready to be done driving for the day, so while I think they “liked it,” part of their attitude smelled of “why are we here again?” There were a lot of people there hiking around the Tower, many of which had been in Yellowstone, so we saw a lot of t-shirts (and I was, coincidentally, wearing mine from last year’s trip). I think we hoped there’d be a bit more of a National Park Service presence there to see some exhibits, but it was a pretty small operation and there were a lot of people, so we didn’t stay more than an hour.

On the ride out from Devil’s Tower, we had our first real experience with “late afternoon rain.” Nearly every day we were in the Northwest, rain hit, and to the point where it was difficult to see where we were driving. We weren’t on I-90 yet, but we could see plenty of dark clouds off in the distance. Calvin had been complaining about his loose tooth for a few days now, so he had a granola bar for a snack. Of course, on a two-lane road with threatening thunderstorms, he lost it 🤦‍♂️. We pulled off in the parking lot of a remote Reservation casino so he could spit it out onto the ground and look for the tooth. Brooke decided to not do that, so she handed him a dollar and we kept driving.

Ultimately, we made it to Billings, MT right around 8:00 pm MDT. We went to an Applebee’s for dinner to use a gift card Brooke had from Christmas, which actually was pretty solid because all four of us could easily find something to eat and not complain about it. Night #2 where we got to the hotel after 9:00 pm. At least this time we got beers and margaritas before bed…

The next day was June 5th….and we did nothing but drive. 12.5 hrs of driving. 853 miles. We were tired, but made it to Lacey, WA, which is just south of Seattle by (you guessed it) just after 9:00 pm PDT. That night, we went to Wendy’s so we could all get Frostys.

Another brief aside: this whole trip, Meg branched out in her eating quite a bit. She actually had a quesadilla and didn’t complain about it! She had chicken tenders and didn’t complain (much) about it! She went to Jersey Mike’s and had a veggie sandwich…and didn’t complain about it! So proud.

So, now we were on June 66h, and the goal was to make it around the northwestern part of Washington, as pictured below:

So obviously, we didn’t have to do that. We could have just cut to the West from where we stayed in Lacey that night. But that’s not what US-101 does, and if we’re doing the whole thing, then we need to do. The. Whole. Thing.

It took us 7 hours to make that trip, though we did stop at a few spots along the way, including Olympic National Park.

Honestly, there wasn’t much to see there? It was an oddly laid out park, in that some parts of it were a decent distance away from the main visitor center office. It’s like it was laid out in patches near Port Angeles, WA. Still, we hiked up to a water fall and experienced some shockingly cool weather, compared with the 95 F that Missouri was experiencing around that time (we missed out on a nearly 2 week long heat wave in Missouri. Our plants all survived).

We drove awhile until we got to Ruby Beach, which is one of many state parks along the Pacific to keep the beaches public. It was the first time the kids saw the Pacific Ocean! They also noted how cold the water is. We wanted to stop a few times like this to make sure they notice how the beaches change as we make our way down the Coast, so it seemed as good a place as any to stop.

Lastly, we arrived in Aberdeen, WA, where we stayed at an AirBNB. Part of this calculus was because our destination in Washington that we were originally going to stay at for 3 days ended up getting sold a month before we left, so our reservations weren’t necessarily guaranteed. That place had laundry services available, but the place Brooke had to replace it with didn’t, so we weren’t going to make it with the 6 changes of clothes each of us brought along for the trip. She found a house in Aberdeen that had a hot tub and a washer/dryer available, so we took the opportunity to just do that and spread ourselves out a bit for a night. We also went to Breakwater Seafoods & Chowder for dinner that night, which was quite good.

The next day featured a 6 hour drive! But we’ll save that for Part II.