Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- Midwest

This is part two of my compilation of itineraries for first-timers coming to the United States. You can find part one here, Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- East Coast. As a bit of background, I consider myself a pretty well-traveled American who has been to all but 8 of the states in the US, in addition to travel outside the US. Many of the states I have not been to yet are in the midwest part of the US, but I’ll do my best to present what I think are the “best” choices here. In case you’re not sure, the Midwest states are Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Minnesota.

Here are some of my recommendations for a week-long itinerary in the United States, midwest only. If you have more than a week, add on days to either or both destination, according to your interests.

1). For city-lovers and foodies:  Chicago, Illinois. Chicago is such a fun city with something for everyone. There are great museums including two of my favorites, the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, Skydeck, The Art Institute of Chicago, Millenium Park, and many tours including boat tours. Chicago is famous for their insanely huge pizzas and “Chicago style” hot dogs, both of which you have to try when you visit, but there are also many other fantastic restaurants in the city. I don’t personally recommend going to Chicago during the winter months, which are known to get quite frigid. Public transportation and walking are the best ways to get around Chicago, as is the case in most big cities in the United States.

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Field Museum in Chicago- I love this place!

If you want to tack on another 2 or 3 days, take a rental car out of the city and drive up to Lake Geneva or Milwaukee, both in Wisconsin, and both are about 1 1/2 hour’s drive from Chicago. I’ve been to both places during the summer months and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Milwaukee (I also enjoyed Lake Geneva of course). Fifty miles southeast of Chicago lies Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the adjacent Indiana Dunes State Park where you’ll find woodlands, wetlands and some sand dunes rising 200 feet high along 15 miles of beaches on Lake Michigan’s southern shores.

2). For the nature-lover:  South Dakota. Choose Rapid City, South Dakota as your home base and take day trips from here. Thirty miles from Rapid City is Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone. Once you’ve had your fill of walking around the memorial and toured the Lincoln Borglum Museum, drive 15 miles for your next stop, Crazy Horse Memorial. Crazy Horse is the world’s largest in-progress sculpture carving, as well as the longest ongoing, having begun in 1948. When the sculpture is complete it will not only feature the Oglala Lakota warrior known as Crazy Horse but also his horse and will be 27 feet taller than Mount Rushmore.

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Mount Rushmore

For your next day trip, drive an hour south to visit Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. If you go to Jewel Cave first and end with Wind Cave, the drive back to Rapid City is more direct. I highly recommend making reservations for a tour online ahead of time at both places or you may get there only to be disappointed the tour you really wanted to do is booked for the day. Although Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave on Earth, you definitely want to go to both caves because they are very different experiences.

Custer State Park, about 45 minutes south of Rapid City, is the largest state park in South Dakota. The park is full of approximately 1,300 bison, bighorn sheep, burros, prairie dogs, and mule deer. Drive the scenic Wildlife Loop Road through the park but also get out and explore the park’s trails. On your way back to Rapid City, take Needles Highway (SD-87). This National Scenic Byway is gorgeous and you’ll see the famous Needles Eye Tunnel. Stop and look around at the panoramic views, and then find the trailhead for the Cathedral Spires Trail. It’s only 1.6 miles long but offers some incredible views.

About an hour from Rapid City is one of my favorite places in South Dakota, Badlands National Park. This national park is 244,000 acres and has one of the most unique landscapes I’ve seen. In addition to buffalo, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, prairie dogs and numerous birds that you’ll see in the park, fossil hunting is allowed as long as you leave everything where you found it, and there are of course many trails you can explore.

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Badlands National Park

If you want to see a Wild West town, Deadwood is a fun place and is about an hour’s drive from Rapid City. You can go to the Black Hills Mining Museum, Adams Museum to learn about the history of the Black Hills, tour the Broken Boot Gold Mine, and go to the 1876 Dinner Theater. You can also find a casino, breweries and wineries, and many types of tours.

3). For a relaxing vacation on the water:  Traverse City, Michigan. Although you’re going to fly into Detroit, Michigan, you’re going to pick up a rental car and drive north up to Traverse City, about 4 hours away. You can of course fly to Traverse City but it will be much cheaper to fly directly into Detroit. If you take a bus or combination of bus and train, it will take more than double the transport time so by all means rent a car if at all possible. Traverse City is a lovely area on the shores of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay full of wineries, many recreational areas and trails, and quaint shops and restaurants. The National Cherry Festival is held in early July and is full of all things cherry-related. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is only about 40 minutes away and is a beautiful area and a fun and unique way to spend the day.

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Sleeping Bear Dunes

You could spend 3 or 4 days in Traverse City before driving north about 2 1/2 hours to Mackinac Island to spend the rest of your time. Interstate I-75 brings you to the ferry docks of both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Access to Mackinac Island can be made from both of these cities. Mackinac Island is serviced from both of these cities by two ferry companies: Shepler’s Ferry and Star Line Ferry. You can bike around the island, explore Fort Mackinac and Fort Holmes, take a boat tour, rent a kayak, play golf, or just relax and take in the scenery. Both Traverse City and Mackinac Island are laid-back, relaxing places with beautiful water views.

Those are my top midwest destinations for first-timers to the United States. What places have I missed? Any others that you would recommend?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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Five of my Favorite Places for Racecations

To me, an ideal racecation is a place where not only is the race a good one that’s a nice course and is well-organized but also has plenty of fun things to do after the race either in the same town or within driving distance. I’ve only ran races in the United States and so far have ran in 40 states, so although I haven’t been to every single state, I’ve been to most of what I would call the more popular states, with the exception of Alaska, which I plan on running next summer. Here are some of my favorite racecation places so far, in no particular order.

1).  I thoroughly loved Vermont and even though the course was pretty challenging I even loved the Covered Bridges Half Marathon. The 27th annual Covered Bridges Half Marathon will be June 3, 2018, so obviously it’s been around for a while for a reason.  I see there’s still a big hill in the course around mile 8, but don’t let that deter you. I’m not a big fan of hills unless they’re going down and I still loved this course when I ran it. You can find the race website here.

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There is a race cap of 2300 runners and the race typically fills up within minutes of opening registration. After the race, you can tour maple syrup and cheese farms, and of course see the Quechee Gorge. There are tons of cute little Bed & Breakfasts where you can stay, most of which are in Woodstock.

2).  Another place I highly recommend for a racecation is South Dakota. The Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon was one of my favorite races and I remember feeling so lucky to be running on such a beautiful course. Part of the reason this race holds a special place in my heart is probably because I also set a PR on the course, not something I would expect to do during a race in July. It is truly a downhill course with no big uphills to off-set going downhill, so that helped. It’s also not so steep that your legs are trashed by the end. Link to race website here.

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After the race, there are plenty of things to do especially if you’re an outdoor enthusiast. South Dakota is home to the Black Hills, Badlands National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, the Missouri River, Historic Deadwood, and Mount Rushmore (all of which my family and I visited and recommend). Travel South Dakota link

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3). Hawaii is one of those states that people always ask “Have you ran a race in Hawaii?” when I tell them I’m running a half marathon in all 50 states. Not only have I ran one there, it was one of the first half marathons I ever ran. The Kona Half Marathon is a race I still fondly remember even though it was many years ago. The 25th annual race (website here) will be held June 16, 2018 so it’s almost been around as long as the Covered Bridges Half Marathon in Vermont. The marathon starts at 5:30 am and the half starts at 6:00 am so you at least have a good chance to be off the course before things really start to heat up. Being Hawaii, however, there always seems to be a cool breeze so it’s never unbearably hot.

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For things to do on the Big Island, there’s something for everyone. If you just want to relax on the beach, there are plenty of gorgeous beaches to choose from. You can go snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, biking, and even bike down from Mauna Kea Summit after watching the sunrise over the volcano. One of my favorite US national parks is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which is large enough you could spend a couple of days here.

4). Rhode Island is a state many people may not think of when they’re deciding where to go on a vacation, which is a shame really. Although it’s the smallest state in the United States, Rhode Island is full of beauty and things to do. Further, the Newport Half Marathon is a great race that I highly recommend and I’m not the only one raving about it. The 2016 Amica Newport Marathon was voted as the “Best Half Marathon” and “Best Race Swag” in the Northeast by Competitor MagazineHere is the website for the race.

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After the race, you can tour one of many mansions in Newport and walk along Cliff Walk to take in views of the ocean. Rhode Island is small enough that you can take several day trips to other quaint little towns from Newport. If you’re a history buff, you can tour Fort Adams. For the outdoors-lover, there are all kinds of trails and 400 miles of coastline to explore. Discover Newport site

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5). The Kiawah Island Half Marathon is a race that came recommended to me early in my running days. It was my 4th state for running a half marathon and despite strong winds that day I was finally able to break the sub-2 hour barrier for the first time. The course is pancake flat, as you might imagine, based on the fact it is a barrier island in South Carolina, 25 miles from Charleston, and takes you past golf course communities and beaches. Most of the course goes through a private gated community so while you can’t see the course before the race, you feel like you get an insider’s view of an area you normally wouldn’t be able to see when you’re running on race day.

You can arrange for a variety of accommodations through the race website, ranging from the 5 star luxury hotel, The Sanctuary Hotel to villas and private homes. Of course you can also arrange your own accommodations either through Airbnb or at the Charleston Kiawah Island/Andell Inn. After the race, you can drive the short 45 minutes to Charleston and take in the sights and more importantly the delicious food in this hugely popular city. You can read about my family’s recent stay in Charleston here and here. If you’d rather go further south (about 2 hours), Savannah, Georgia is also a fun city with tons to do and some great restaurants that will satisfy any serious foodie.

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There you have it- my top racecation destinations! Did any of them surprise you? Are you surprised I didn’t mention a place? What are your favorite places for racecations?

Happy running!

Donna

 

 

My Top 10 Favorite Places in the United States and Why I Love Them

I thought it would be fun to compile a list of my favorite places I’ve been to. At first I wasn’t going to separate out places in the United States from international places, but then I thought there’s no way I could limit them to just ten places. Most of my travels within the United States have been planned with the goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states.  So far I’ve been to 43 states and have ran a half marathon in 40 states.

So here goes, my choice for number 10:  Glacier National Park in Montana. My family and I went here after my half marathon in Missoula. I thought Missoula was beautiful but GNP was even more beautiful.  We hiked many trails and especially loved hiking trails around Lake McDonald. I also enjoyed just driving along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

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Number 9:  Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. This was another place where my family and I went after I ran a half marathon, only this time in Boulder, undoubtedly one of the hardest races I’ve ever ran because of the high elevation. We drove to RMNP from Boulder and were blown away by the mountains and scenery. Boulder is at the base of the really big mountains such as those in RMNP. Even though we went there in June, there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground at the highest elevations. The park’s tallest mountain, Long’s Peak is stunning with an elevation of 14,259. Similar to the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana, the drive along Trail Ridge Road is beautiful.

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Number 8:  Badlands National Park in South Dakota (notice a trend here?). We went here after one of my favorite half marathons, in Spearfish, SD. On this trip we also went to Mount Rushmore but I found the Badlands to be much more beautiful. I absolutely loved the different colored rock formations, the Buttes, and spires. We spotted some big horn sheep, bison, and tons of prairie dogs.

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Number 7: San Juan Islands in Washington. I absolutely loved Seattle, but I loved the San Juan Islands, and the ferry ride there even more than Seattle. We went to Friday Harbour and stayed in a cabin overlooking a beautiful field where deer liked to graze in the mornings and at dusk. I ran a half marathon here, which turned out to be a pretty small but scenic race. We toured a lavender farm and spent a lot of time in the retail section smelling all of the lavender-infused products and tasting the tea. My daughter wanted to buy one of everything.  The lavender tea was delicious. We also went whale-watching just off the coast and saw a bunch of orcas and dolphins. My daughter even got to steer the boat during our tour! Hiking in Lime Kiln State Park was also a highlight of our time on the island.

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Number 6:  Charleston, South Carolina. I wrote a couple of posts about Charleston last summer, so it should be no surprise to see it on my list here. I love so much about this city from the beaches to the architecture to the food. I could go on and on about the food alone. I’ve never had a bad meal here, ever. I’ve been going to Charleston for vacations many times over the years and it just seems to get better every time. There’s so much history here if you’re a history buff you’ll love all of the museums and walking tours. I find Charleston to be the quintessential southern city full of charm, friendly people, and some of the best food you’ll ever eat.

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Number 5:  Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah (can you tell I’m a big fan of national parks?). We went here earlier this year in late winter and I found it to be truly magical. I don’t use that word lightly either. Also, I hate winter. I moved south to get away from the cold weather as an adult. However, the snow on the hoodoos was beautiful and I had so much fun hiking the trails at Bryce Canyon while it was snowing. It snowed off and on but was never a blizzard or anything crazy. The light snowfall just added to the experience and made it even more special. Even though I loved Zion National Park, I loved Bryce Canyon even more, which surprised me, honestly. Plan your next vacation there with the help of my previous posts and this website.

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Number 4:  Acadia National Park in Maine. Before I went to Maine, I had heard great things about the state and hoped that it would live up to the hype. Maine did not disappoint. It was every bit as beautiful as I imagined and the food was every bit as good as you hear it is. We dined on fresh lobster and other fresh fish dishes including clam chowder and had some incredible meals on our trip to Maine. A highlight of the trip was hiking in Acadia National Park and I was glad we had allotted a few days here. We also discovered popovers at Jordan Pond House and that was a real treat. And yes, I also ran a half marathon here.

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Number 3:  Kona, Hawaii. I first went to Hawaii many years ago and ran a half marathon in Kona, which turned out to be my second state for half marathons, even though I didn’t have the goal then of one in every state. I just thought it would be fun (it was) and cool to run along a portion of the same course as the Ironman triathlon. Kona is what I think of when I think of Hawaii:  black sandy beaches, volcanos, palm trees, and incredible snorkeling. Not surprisingly I loved Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It was like nowhere else in the world and walking through the Thurston Lava Tube was very cool. When I later went back to Kona many years after that first trip, it was every bit as great as I remembered. I’ve since then wanted to go back again but haven’t made it (yet!).

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Number 2:  San Francisco, California. I left my heart in San Francisco. Just kidding. I think that famous song does strike a chord with many people, however. San Francisco is such a fun and vibrant city it’s no surprise it’s become the most expensive city to live in the United States. Where there’s demand, prices will go up accordingly. While I have no desire to live in San Francisco, I love to visit there. In fact, when I was planning my family’s trip to New Zealand, I was happy to include a day-long layover in San Francisco both before and after our flights to New Zealand. I’m always looking for an excuse to go back. Why do I love San Francisco? Well, it’s hard to describe, honestly. There’s so much to do here and the area is beautiful especially around the water. I just love the Golden Gate Bridge and had a blast on the multiple boat tours I took that went around and under the bridge. I love the crazy hilly streets and architecture. The food is great, even the super-touristy chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Speaking of touristy, I even love the wharf area despite how crowded it can get.

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Number 1:  San Diego, California. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll remember how many posts I wrote about San Diego. In fact, some of you were probably sick of hearing me go on about the city. It’s absolutely stunning, though. You hear about places being called “breathtaking” all the time and I feel that term is completely over-used but I will say San Diego was honestly breathtaking to me. When I first saw Sunset Cliffs, I was speechless, took a second to get my breath, then looked at my daughter (who also had the same reaction), and just said, “Wow!” It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. There’s also so much to do in San Diego, from hiking, to the touristy but still interesting Old Town, the world famous zoo, many museums, parks, and shopping. There are several places where you can get some fantastic tacos and Liberty Public Market has some delicious local fresh food and other unique things for sale. Coronado Beach with its golden-flecked sand and the iconic Hotel del Coronado is my favorite beach in the area. I could go on and on about San Diego. I guess I left my heart in San Diego.

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What are some of your favorite places in the United States? Does anyone else love these places as much as I do?

Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon, South Dakota- 34th state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. South Dakota was my 34th state.

When researching half marathons for my race in South Dakota, I’ll admit I wasn’t really looking forward to running a race in the state after finding North Dakota so plain and unexciting; see Bismarck Marathon, North Dakota-16th state.  Fairly quickly into my research, I found out just how different two adjacent states can be.  South Dakota is home to the Black Hills, Badlands National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, the Missouri River, Historic Deadwood, and Mount Rushmore (all of which my family and I visited and recommend). Travel South Dakota link

South Dakota is an outdoors lover’s paradise and my family and I loved every minute of our vacation here before and after the race.  I also loved this race and highly recommend it. As far as getting to Spearfish Canyon, the easiest way to get here if you’re flying is to fly into Rapid City and pick up a rental car.  It’s about an hour’s drive from Rapid City to Spearfish Canyon.  We stayed the night before the race at the Spearfish Canyon Lodge in the Berry Patch Cabin and it was awesome.  Rapid City is also a great place to stay if you’re exploring the area, since it’s less than an hour by car to the majority of places I listed in the previous paragraph.

The Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon is an annual fundraiser which benefits the abused and neglected children through the Northern Hills Area Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Program.  Pre-packet pickup was about the most sparse I’ve ever seen in all of my races.  It is at the CASA office in Spearfish and there was only one person there handing out shirts (technical, unisex short-sleeve) and bibs.  That’s it.  Nothing else.  No expo.  No bag filled with junk you didn’t really want anyway.  I like it.  Don’t come here for the bling, though, or you will be disappointed.

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At 7 am on race day, the course begins at the top of the beautiful Spearfish Canyon in Savoy in the northernmost section of South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest and finishes at the bottom in Spearfish City Park.  When I was running the race I remember constantly telling myself how lucky I was to be able to run through this gorgeous canyon. Although the course is net downhill starting around 5,000 feet above seal level and dropping about 1,300 feet by the finish, it doesn’t feel too steep on your quads.  The race is held in July every year and while you can expect it to be hot, because the race goes through a canyon surrounded by mountains, it is a bit cooler and there is abundant shade.

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I actually set a PR (personal record) for myself on this course.  I was a bit concerned about running at 5,000 feet above sea level but I didn’t feel any more out of breath than I normally would at a race or have any other elevation-related side effects.  In fact, I remember checking my watch throughout the race and being surprised that I was able to sustain the pace I was and yet I felt great!

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From my post-race notes:  “Started at the top of a canyon and went downhill into the town of Spearfish.  It was a high elevation course and was very hot (70’s at the start, mid 80’s at finish) but was one of the most scenic races I’ve ever ran.  Virtually no spectators and just a few aid stations, but that wasn’t an issue.  Shirt was plain as was the medal.  Usual food at finish.  Passed a lot of people especially last few miles.  Finished in 1:55:28, which is my fastest finish time to date!”

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Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon & 5K