We woke up on the morning of September 24th at Woodenfrog Campground near Voyageurs National Park in Northern Minnesota and made the 5-hour drive to our stop for that night — 4e Winery, a Harvest Host in eastern North Dakota. If you’re unfamiliar with Harvest Hosts, check out their website here, and if you’re interested in signing up, use this link to receive 20% off your membership before 12/31/20, or 15% thereafter. Harvest Hosts are a great way to save some money as you travel!
This Harvest Hosts is a particularly popular one, and we were thankful they had room for us. Even though the winery was closed on the day of our stay, Lisa allowed us, along with three other RVs, to stay and opened the tasting room for us. We made sure to thank her for her hospitality by purchasing a bottle of wine. They have a large, level open field for RVs to park in, and besides the hundreds (thousands?) of crickets jumping around, it was a very peaceful evening.
When we woke up the next morning, we had no idea that we had just spent our last night on the road for the year. We still had almost 750 miles to go until we got back to Bozeman. However, the weather the next few days wasn’t looking promising for safe driving due to forecasted high winds, so we decided to start early and keep on driving as far as we felt like we could.
The winery is located in Mapleton, North Dakota, which is barely over the eastern border of the state from Minnesota. Our route would take us entirely along I-94 until it met up with I-90 in Billings, Montana. Anyone who has driven in this area knows that driving across North Dakota from one end to the other is not the most exciting — sorry, North Dakota. However, there are some nice/quirky places to stop along the way. I don’t know if North Dakota is trying to compensate for something, but this route is home to three ‘World’s Largest’ statues: Dakota Thunder, the World’s Largest Buffalo in Jamestown, ND; Sandy, the World’s Largest Sandhill Crane in Steele, ND; and Salem Sue, the World’s Largest Holstein Cow in New Salem, ND. (DO NOT attempt to tow a trailer up to see Salem Sue.) We made sure to also incorporate getting gas, eating, stretching our legs, and ‘freshening up’ during these stops.
When you continue west along I-94, almost to the western border of North Dakota, you’ll eventually come to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, which is a national park visitor center and rest area all in one. From here, you get panoramic views of the Park’s badlands and have access to hiking trails. Of course, there are also restrooms, picnic shelters, and vending machines, as well as visitor center things like park info, exhibits, and a gift shop/bookstore. It’s a great place to stop for a bit, even if you don’t have time to go into the park and explore (which we were able to do last year).
Once we crossed the border into Montana, we decided we could make it the rest of the way to Bozeman and kept on trucking. Seeing as we had been without hookups the previous two nights, we stopped at Cabela’s in Billings to dump our tanks, which took way too long because someone parked too close to the dump station. From there, it should’ve taken us a little more than two hours to get home, but thanks to wind, rain, darkness and traversing Bozeman Pass in the wind, rain, and darkness, it took almost three.
We finally pulled into our parking lot at about 9:15pm (more than 14 hours after leaving Mapleton), spent 30-40 minutes unloading the important stuff, grabbed some food, showered, and went to bed. It was a very, very long day that we never want to experience again, but at least we now know that we can make a lot of ground if needed.
We again found ourselves in Billings over the July 4th holiday, and Travis again had to make a trip to the Midwest for work. We arrived on a Sunday to check in for our two-week stay, and the woman behind the desk told me they didn’t have us checking in until the next day. I’ve never made that mistake before (reserving a site for the wrong day(s)), but luckily they had a site for the night that would accommodate the Airstream. They put us in a spacious water and electric site that backed up to the fishing pond. The next day, we moved to our new site, but stopped at the dump station first to empty our tanks. The site we had reserved was also only water and electric, which meant we were going to have to rely on the public restrooms and showers in order to make it through the two weeks without a sewer hookup.
We were assigned site 121, which is a narrow pull thru with water, electric, a picnic table, and a good amount of shade. The site was plenty long for our 28 foot trailer and truck, but the surrounding fifth wheels barely fit in the neighboring sites, with some of them having to park their tow vehicles perpendicular to their trailers or on the grass in their sites. When we first hooked up our electric, our surge protector had an ‘open ground’ error. Thinking it was a fluke, we flipped the power off, unplugged the surge protector, plugged it back in, and then flipped the power back on, this time with no error. Everything worked fine until that night, when at 2am-ish, I woke up and realized we didn’t have power. I went outside and performed the same process I had done earlier in the day, and power was restored; however, we now knew there was something up with the power at this site. An open ground means that the safety path is open, or incomplete, which can result in fire, shock, or electrocution. This is why a surge protector is so important, as it alerts you to any unsafe conditions and will cut the power to the trailer if an unsafe condition should arise. The next day I reported the power issues to the office and an employee came over right away to check things out. He opened the electric box and tightened all of the connections after finding one a little loose. We had no more issues for the next nine days.
On day nine, which was a very hot Wednesday that found Travis in Wisconsin, I started having issues with the power kicking off and the surge protector reading ‘open ground’ again. I spent about 15 minutes flipping the power on and off and unplugging and re-plugging the power cord back in, but nothing was working — I kept getting the error. I went to the office again with my issue and they sent someone over again. He opened the box, checked all the connections, and couldn’t find an issue. I went back into the office to see if we could move to a new site. The guy behind the counter, who seemed to be some type of manager, said the power issue was probably because of our surge protector and that, most likely, there was nothing wrong with the power being supplied to the box. I respectfully disagreed and returned to the Airstream. He came over to the site and along with two other employees, tested the electric box with a volt meter, which read normal. I explained that just because the right amount of power is coming through the box doesn’t mean that the power is grounded properly. I also explained that in our almost 550 consecutive nights in our trailer, we have never had an issue anywhere else. He said there’s no way of knowing if there was an issue with the power cord or with our trailer as opposed to the electric box. I explained that the site we stayed at there our first night gave us no issues and the site we stayed at there the year prior gave us no issues. He again tried to blame the use of a surge protector as the culprit, saying they only have issues with power with people who use them. I said of course that’s the case, a person without a surge protector won’t know if there’s an issue with the power unless something serious happens. I told him I’d plug in without my surge protector if he would sign something saying that they would be responsible for any damage caused by faulty power — he didn’t go for that. I showed him how both of our surge protectors (we had recently bought a new one) were giving the ‘open ground’ error even before we plugged the power cord from the trailer in, meaning the issue had to be with the electric box and not the trailer or power cord. They plugged both of our surge protectors into electric boxes at other sites and did not get the ‘open ground’ error. Finally, without admitting something was wrong with the power, the guy said he could move us to a different site, two sites down from where we currently were.
This was both great and terrifying at the same time. Obviously, I wanted to be at a site where I didn’t have to worry about the power kicking off on a 90°+ day, but I have NEVER hitched the trailer up and moved it by myself — neither of us have. Travis and I each have our own tasks that we do during arrivals and departures, and hitching up is always his thing. Also, I’ve only towed the trailer once, and that was on a wide-open highway, not within a campground with narrow streets, tight turns, narrow sites, and kids running around everywhere. I didn’t really have any other option, so I had to bury my apprehension deep down inside of me and just get it done. My neighbor put the very heavy hitch on the truck while I got everything else ready and then he directed me while I backed up the truck to hitch up. I very slowly pulled out of our site, drove through the campground, and pulled into the new site where, again, the neighbor let me know when I was positioned properly. All in all, it was an uneventful, quick move that gave me the confidence of knowing that if the occasion were to ever arise again where I needed to bug out solo, I’ll be able to do it.
I’m happy to report that we had no issues at our new site for the rest of the stay. I’m dismayed to report that the KOA put someone else in our old site immediately, though I did notice an electrician van at the site the morning after we moved.
After our second stay here, these are our takeaways:
Close to downtown, which has good restaurants, a grocery store, and gas stations.
Close to the airport, which is super easy to get in and out of.
There’s a lot of turnover. Most people seemed to stay only one night as they were making their way to somewhere else. The positive of this is that for a large chunk of the day, many sites are empty and the place is fairly quiet. The negatives are that people are up and leaving early, making some noise as they do so. Also, a lot of people arrive fairly late, again making noise as they do so.
We never ate the dinner that is offered, but we did eat breakfast a few times, and it’s pretty decent.
The family-style bathrooms are pretty nice. They’re very busy in the morning when people are trying to get showers in before they leave. The bathrooms are cleaned about 11am, so if you wait until about noon, you can shower in a freshly cleaned bathroom.
The maintenance wasn’t as pristine as it was during our visit a year ago. During our two-week stay, the water at one of the dump stations had an out of order sign the entire time. There was always as least one restroom with an out of order sign, but usually at least two. About half of both the washers and dryers had out of order signs. During our first day, the grass was mowed at most of the sites, but not ours. We kept waiting for them to come back and finish the job, but they never did. After more than a week of waiting and when our grass had gotten pretty long (which is annoying when you have a dog and it rains a lot, which it did), I went into the office to request that they mow the grass. They did mow it, fairly quickly, and then mowed all of the other sites in our row that had been missed as well.
The staff is pretty great and accommodating, minus the one guy who seemed to think I was overreacting when we kept losing power.
There’s another RV park right down the road. We drove through it out of curiosity and found that the sites are even tighter than the KOA and after looking it up online, it’s more expensive than the KOA. It looks really nice from the road, though.
Cottonwood trees. While we were super thankful for the shade the cottonwoods provided us, they were losing their ‘cotton’ during this time and it’s quite a mess. It attaches to everything — window screens, awnings, chairs, clothes, dog, etc. and it’s difficult not to track it into the trailer or truck. We haven’t cleaned it up yet, but a serious vacuuming of the awnings and screens is needed, as well as checking to make sure it didn’t clog up any vents or the air conditioner.
While in Billings, we visited Pompeys Pillar National Monument, which is a half hour drive from the KOA. The only remaining evidence of the Lewis & Clark Expedition can be found at Pompeys Pillar, located on the Yellowstone River 25 miles northeast of Billings. Amongst an abundance of Native American petroglyphs and early pioneers’s initials, William Clark carved his name and the date into sandstone. He documented the deed in the expedition journals and named the rock formation Pompy’s Pillar (the E was added later) after the son of expedition member Sacagawea, whom he had nicknamed Pompy. Unlike any other national monument we’ve been to, dogs are allowed here. However, no dogs are allowed in the Interpretive Center (which is pretty great) or on the stairs leading to the signature and top of the pillar.
Would we stay here again? Last year I would have said yes. This year my answer would be only for a night if we were on our way to somewhere else. This isn’t necessarily because of the KOA, but more so about the city itself. We noticed a drastic increase in the number of sketchy people, most likely drug abusers, around the downtown area. Apparently, violent crimes related to meth have increased dramatically in recent years in Billings and with a few interactions we had with some residents, it’s very obvious there’s a drug problem. While there is definitely more to Billings than downtown and safer areas elsewhere, it’s the part of the city that’s closest to the KOA. Because of this, I didn’t feel comfortable venturing out on my own very often while Travis was gone, and that’s a sign to us that we should just keep on driving.
The most difficult part of route planning for us is when Travis has to fly somewhere for work. The business trips aren’t usually last-minute trips, so that helps, but sometimes we find ourselves in places that we wouldn’t otherwise be in. However, Billings is not one of those places (a place we wouldn’t otherwise be in, that is). When we started planning our route back west from our extended stay in Wisconsin in May, we knew we wanted to spend some time in Montana. We also knew that Travis would need to fly to Minneapolis during this time and that the trip would be during the week of the Fourth of July holiday. Before settling on Billings, we first made a list of all the commercial airports in the approximate area we’d be in — Wyoming and Montana. We then searched to see which ones have direct flights to Minneapolis, because who wants a layover when you’re not flying very far? Then, we had to find a safe place to stay with availability for the holiday week, not too far from the airport. I say a safe place because Travis never wants to leave me (and Max) in a questionable location, obviously. Taking all of that into consideration, we landed on the Billings KOA.
This has been our method of operation since we hit the road full time back in January. Travis has had to make a business trip once a month, so these trips have somewhat determined our route. With each booked business trip, we’ll have a specific date and location we need to be. We also throw some personal date/location combos in there too to make it even more interesting — Crater Lake Rim Run in August, our friends’ October wedding in San Diego, and the Joshua Tree half marathon in November. It forces us to plan ahead, which suits our personalities just fine. We just aren’t go-with-the-flow type of people when it comes to trip planning. Twice we’ve had gaps of a night or two in our route where we were just going to wing it and see where we end up and both times we caved and booked something last minute.
I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, we don’t like long travel days and not knowing your destination may make your day longer. Two hours is great, three hours is fine, but when we get into four to five hours, we get crabby. We can’t comprehend how some people travel eight to ten hours a day — that just sounds miserable to us and like a waste of a day. If you don’t NEED to be somewhere fast, what’s the hurry? Secondly, this has been a hot, hot summer. After boondocking Memorial Day weekend, we learned that we want and need an electric hookup. We have a 13.5-year-old dog that we want to keep comfortable and we’ve had to work some very long days, so having electricity is essential. Yes, we have a generator, but many places have limitations on generator use and when it’s really hot, we burn through gas like crazy. Also, we would never leave our generator running unattended, so we’d become prisoners to the Airstream — and that’s not fun!
Before we hit the road, we had these romantic ideas, like so many tend to, that we’d boondock nonstop and wake up next to the ocean one day, and in the mountains the next, and so on, without another human in sight. And while there are plenty of Airstreamers and RVers that do just that, we’ve determined we’re not those people. We like electricity and showering every day and doing laundry once a week (or at least every two weeks) and strong cell signals and eating great food at restaurants and exploring cities along with our country’s natural wonders. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that we’ve learned what type of full timers we are over these last six months. On the full-timer spectrum with off-the-grid boondockers on one end and snowbirds that only move twice a year on the other, I think we fall right in the middle.
Back to Billings.
We settled on Billings and I’m glad we did. We stayed from a Saturday to a Saturday (I’m actually writing this the day before we leave). KOAs are notoriously expensive and this one is no different. I don’t know if they jacked their prices because of the holiday, but our water and electric site (no sewer hookup) was $75 a night, $67.50 with our KOA membership. Thus far, the most expensive place we’ve stayed. That being said, this is such a nice KOA. It’s the first in the country and the current owners have owned it since the 70s. There’s a huge staff that meticulously maintains it and the amenities are great. There’s a decent-sized, albeit cold, swimming pool. There’s a nice little mini golf course that Travis destroyed me on. The bathrooms and showers are so, so nice — probably the nicest we’ve ever seen. We’ve used the showers a few times because we don’t have a sewer hookup and don’t want to be so concerned with the grey tank level. The onsite store is well equipped. Breakfast and dinner are offered every morning and evening (for a price). Our site is super long, allowing us to park our truck at either end of the trailer. We have a nice patio with a picnic table, porch swing, and fire pit. Now, amenities like this are definitely NOT a requirement for us, but if we’re going to pay this much, they’re nice to have.
There’s more to this KOA than just the amenities, however. The location is fantastic! It’s not far off I-90 making it extremely accessible for those that are just passing through. Downtown Billings is literally 5 minutes away. We have had some great meals here; we’d recommend Walkers and The Fieldhouse specifically. And one of the best parts — the airport is 13 minutes away! We usually have to drive 45 minutes to get to an airport, so the short drive is really a nice change.
All in all, our stay in Billings has been great. It was a little loud the night of the Fourth (I hate you, fireworks), but other than that, no issues. With the next business trip tentatively scheduled for October, we’re looking forward to moving on to Bozeman, Missoula and Coram to explore more of Montana.