Expert Tips for an All-American Road Trip, According to a 'Midwest Living' Editor
Now in its second year, the Midwest Living Road Rally is on a mission to uncover new and exciting destinations in a Midwestern state.
This past week, the editors at Midwest Living took a five-day road trip across South Dakota, navigating through the dramatic landscape of the Badlands, the towering peaks of the Black Hills, and every picturesque national park in between. They partnered with South Dakota Tourism to ensure that they hit every aspect of South Dakota’s landscapes, while learning the history of what makes the land so sacred to its people.
Trevor Meers, the head of editorial content for Midwest Living, shared his top picks when visiting South Dakota, as well as some pertinent travel tips to assure making the most of your road trip with friends and family, wherever you choose to roam.
Travel + Leisure: Tell me about the Midwest Living Road Rally.
Trevor Meers: “We partner with a state tourism office and we do a road trip through their state for five days. We get branded vehicles and create a unique logo for each road rally state that we’re going to be in. So for South Dakota, we’ve integrated Mount Rushmore imagery into that logo. We work with the state to put together an itinerary that we think showcases either the best of that place — or maybe a hidden side of that place — and the result will be the live tour. With South Dakota, the theme is “Chasing Legends,” so for this particular trip, we’re going to the Black Hills area of South Dakota — an area that is one of the all-American road trips.”
What makes South Dakota ideal spot to road trip?
“It’s the diversity ... You’ve got prairie, you've got Badlands, you’ve got pine forest and mountains — all within an hour, you can hit all of those landscapes. And the history, that’s what I love most about it. The Black Hills were a sacred place for Native Americans. So, to go there, you know you’re in a place that meant so much to them. It’s a conflicted history, obviously, but it meant so much to them and now it’s kind of a tourism destination ... One of the places we’re going to go is Bear Butte, which is a sacred place, and a Native American gentlemen is going to meet us out there, and give us a tour of Bear Butte and tell us what the landscape meant for people who lived there for millenia.”
“There’s all kinds of classic family, kitschy road-trip stuff, too. It’s just got such a diverse mix. You’ve got all these landscapes, you’ve got all this history, and you’ve got this kind of kitschy family road trip, and you can pick and choose.”
What would you say are your best tips for taking a road trip?
“Always start with who’s going on the trip. What are the ages of the people who are going? Do these people want to do active things, or more scenic things? How important are the arts to you? The outdoors? The food? And if the answer is all of it, then you can build an itinerary, so I certainly look at that.
“I’m also a big believer in managing how much time you spend in the car. We’ve all been on trips where we felt like we were in the car 90% of the time we were on the vacation, and you never want to do that. So I try to figure out how to build an itinerary so that maybe it will take some time to get to our destination, but once we’re there, we’re never in the car more than 30 or 40 minutes at a time ... I also tend not to stay in the same lodging the entire time, either, because if it’s a big area, you don’t want to stay in one area and drive several hours to get somewhere, then drive back to your hotel.”
What are some ways to de-stress and decompress when you’re on a road trip with other people?
“Not spending too much time in the car is probably a good start! I think music goes so far, and you can’t underestimate a good road trip playlist. I’m doing the Midwest Living Road Rally with a group of people who are business colleagues. It’s a mix of people who all get along but we’re not a group of people who ‘hang out’ together often. I think music goes a long way toward lightening the mood and making it feel like you’re on vacation. You’re not on this road trip to talk about health insurance! Try to keep it light, and get that mood flowing in the right direction.”
What should you always pack for a road trip?
“A few healthy snacks — not because you necessarily want to stay healthy, but because you want to make sure you feel good. We all know how hard it is to eat at a gas station, and when you’re on the road, junk food is, of course, part of the deal. But just having enough decent food to eat helps.
“I’m also a big fan of keeping folding lawn chairs in your car, because you never know when you’re going to pull off and find a place and think to yourself, ‘That would be a great spot to sit and read a book for an hour.’ So being kind of portable — that’s the way I like to travel. It’s about being spontaneous. If we see something that looks like it could be fun, we have enough stuff with us so we can make that happen. So, when you think about leaving in the morning from the hotel or wherever you’re staying, take as much stuff to prepare for contingencies. If we decide to go to the beach, we’ve got the towels and the swimsuits. If we decide to hike, we threw in the hiking shoes.”
What are some things that should be taken care of before hitting the road?
“Some of it depends on how many vehicles you’re going to have. If you’re going to have more than one vehicle, then that should go into the planning aspect. Are we going to stick together the whole time, or are we going to split up and do our own thing during the day? And if so, where do we meet up? Will we have lunch together, are we going to be on our own until we all get back to the house we’re renting? That kind of communication is important.
“I really like to plan meals in advance, too, because that can be really tiring. If you’re going to be cooking, you don’t want to spend the first four hours going to the grocery store, trying to decide what to cook for everybody. That’s a buzzkill. Cooking on vacation can be fun, but it depends on how much time you want to spend on it. If that’s a big part of your experience and you want to have big meals every night, you can definitely have fun with it. But if you want to minimize the amount of time you’re spending on cooking, plan in advance and plan meals that are quick and easy.”
What do you think people should know about visiting national parks?
“Do a bit of homework before you go visit a national park. So many of our parks have gotten really busy in the last couple of years, which, for the most part, is a great thing, but it can become a challenge when you want to visit. Plan ahead to try and figure out the certain times of day that are better.
“There are also great ranger programs at most parks, and they typically have calendars on their websites, which can totally elevate your trip. A lot of people go to the park and can see that it’s beautiful but not fully understand what they're looking at. If you go with a ranger, they can explain the wildlife, the trees, the grasses. They’ll take you out at night to see stars and constellations. They’ll help you look for fossils in the rock faces, those kinds of things. The park rangers are there for a reason, and they’re in this field because they love the place. They love nature and they love exposing people to it, so ask them questions.
“It’s nice to know the backstory of the place you’re going to as well. How did this place become a park? Who are the people who first recognized why this should be a national park? It helps you plug into the heritage of the place. And whether you’re a kid or an adult, we need to understand that it takes work to preserve these places.”
What's the benefit of a road trip vs. flying somewhere?
“I think there’s certainly a unique spirit to driving to a destination. I’m not anti-flying — I fly all the time — but there is a certain disconnect from it, in that you walk into an airport, you walk into a metal tube, and then you walk out of an airport somewhere else. There’s something about the mindset of setting out, driving, and spending a few hours getting to a destination that helps you really get in the spirit of that road trip. And it could be a really important time with the people you take along, depending on who you’re with. You’re going to have a few hours to chat with each other, and you can chat on the way home about the experiences you just had together. I think that’s something that’s a little bit harder to get with air travel.
“I look back to the early 1920s when cars were finally something the average person can have. How liberating that people could take trips in a car now, when that used to be something that only the wealthy could do. All of a sudden, the average American can go out and have an adventure in their car, and I think there’s still some romance to that.”
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length. Midwest Living's parent company, Meredith, is also Travel + Leisure's.