When given the option of where in the U.S. we’d like to road trip, my brother, sister and I unanimously agreed on the West. We’d never been out that way and since we grew up on the flat Florida coast, landlocked plains and snow-capped Rocky Mountain peaks would be a whole new world for us. Keeping an eye out for quirky roadside attractions and sweeping landscapes, we mapped out a flexible route so we could go off course to check out any cool points of interest along the way.
We charted a course beginning in Denver and arrived ready to explore, learn and just bond. It was a ton of driving, but with so many fun stops and photo opportunities factored in, it never felt like we were in the car for too long.
Day #1 | Denver, CO, to Cheyenne, WY
There’s only one way to kick off a road trip out West – by checking out the life and times of Buffalo Bill and his traveling Wild West Show up on Lookout Mountain. Not only can you learn about buffalo hunting and Mr. Cody’s way of life from 1846-1917, there’s a little café and a gorgeous lookout, as the name suggests.
With hundreds of dinosaur tracks, a quarry of dinosaur bones and curious geologic features, hikers with 1-2 hours to spare can take in some of the country’s coolest dinosaur scenery. We didn’t have time for the whole hike, so we snapped photos and picked up a hitchhiker.
The Welcome to Wyoming Sign
Heading north on I-25, you’ll come across the iconic welcome sign, but watch out! It really sneaks up on you. Keep your eyes peeled if you’d like to pull over and snap a photo. We missed it the first time and it was a good 15-minute U-turn bonanza to get back to it.
Cheyenne Big Boots
In Wyoming’s capital city of Cheyenne, you’ll find heaps of 8-foot tall cowboy boots, painted by local artists, that showcase the area’s history. If you have time you can go on a scavenger hunt and find them all. Maps are available in the Visitors Center, but you can also take a cell phone audio tour to listen to the artists reflect on their contributions to the project.
Leaving Cheyenne, head west on I-80 toward Laramie. This is where the town names get to be very familiar to most Millennials, because of the Oregon Trail computer game we all played as kids.
Day #2 | Cheyenne to Rawlins, WY
The Ames Monument
Exit 329 sure seems like a stop that goes nowhere, but after the exit it’s just 2 miles to the Ames Monument, a large pyramid dedicated to brothers Oakes and Oliver Ames, Jr., the Union Pacific Railroad financiers credited with connecting east and west by rail by completing the Transcontinental Railroad. The Ames Monument once marked the highest point on the railroad at 8,247 feet, but the tracks have since been relocated, leaving nothing but a monument on a quiet plain.
President Abraham Lincoln’s giant bronze head is one of the most recognizable landmarks you’ll find along I-80. The sculpture commemorates his 150th birthday and is a brilliant place for a presidential selfie. The Visitor’s Center, open May-October, also has unbelievably delicious free cookies.
Snowy Range Scenic Byway
Just out of Laramie, it’s time to take a detour off of I-80 for a stunning scenic jaunt through the mountains via the Snowy Range Scenic Byway. First you’ll drive through the little town of Centennial, population 270. The 29 mile byway is only open from May to November due to weather. Crossing the Medicine Bow Mountain Range, the road rises from 8,000 ft. on the valley floor to a height of 10,847 ft.
It’ll definitely take longer to take the scenic route versus the highway – roughly an hour if you go straight through without stopping and longer if you stop for a summertime snowball fight like we did.
After snowball fights in the mountains, a dip in the Hobo Pool is a must. We stopped by the natural hot pool on the bank of the Platte River, a site where Indian tribes would lay down their weapons to partake of water’s healing powers. The pool is open 24 hours a day, year round, and ranges from 108 to 119 degrees. The best part, it’s free and it’s a nice place to meet other road trippers!
Stop at one of the Saratoga spas or in nearby Rawlins on I-80 for the night.
Day #3 | Rawlins, WY, to Pocatello, ID
Stop at the Welcome to Idaho sign if you like en route to the National Oregon California Trail Center in Montpelier. The center features an entertaining interpretive re-enactment simulating the wagon train experience of the 1850s. A cast of pioneers bring the Oregon Trail experience to life. Shows run all day. It’s a fun way to go back in time and since my brother and I grew up playing Oregon Trail, so it was a little like childhood coming to life. (And luckily, none of our oxen died fording the river!)
Fans of the 2004 cult classic Napoleon Dynamite will appreciate a stop in the small town of Preston, site of the film. We dressed as some of the characters and took goofy photos and videos all over town. It’s a bit off-track and only worth making the journey if you’re into quoting Napoleon, Deb, Pedro and Uncle Rico, but we loved it.
(If you happen to have more time or lack of interest in Napoleon’s high school exploits, this is a great point in the trip to head north to Yellowstone National Park! Something we’ll absolutely be doing on our next visit.)
Spend the night in Pocatello, about 60 miles from Preston.
Day #4 | Pocatello to Boise, ID
Welcome to the Craters of the Moon National Monument, an otherworldly charred landscape that stretches 618 square miles. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge designated the area as a national monument, and then in the 60s and 70s, NASA trained astronauts for the Apollo missions here.
Craters of the Moon is pretty much what you expect it to be – a dark, craggy, desolate moonscape in the middle of nowhere. But that’s what makes it so interesting! The entrance fee is $8 per car and that gives you access to drive around the 7-mile park loop, do a bit of hiking and visit the caves.
The Perrine Bridge
The Perrine Bridge at Twin Falls towers 486 feet over the Snake River Canyon. In 1927, it was the highest bridge in the world, and today, it’s the only man-made structure in the U.S. where BASE jumping is allowed without a permit. We skipped that activity but did find a delicious local diner across the bridge.
You made it to Boise! Give yourself ample time to explore this artsy and outdoorsy city. Rent a bike and experience the 25-mile riverfront Greenbelt, or grab a raft and float the Boise River right through the business center. It’s the perfect place to wrap up a quick road trip… or use it as a base to explore the nearby Hells Canyon Dam, Idaho Wine Country or Lake Cascade.
It was such an eye-opening experience to explore the vastness of the West. As a Florida girl, I’m used to a very different landscape, so driving through Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho was nothing short of a treat. I can’t wait to do it again!
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