I wanted to get into the mountains this summer, but tackling the Tetons with toddlers seemed daunting. We’d heard great things about Medicine Bow National Forest and the Snowy Mountain Range (just a 10 hour drive from Des Moines, Iowa) and made southeastern Wyoming our destination for our first summer adventure vacation as a little family.
It turned out to be a wonderful trip to take with a 4 and not-quite-2-year old, capped off with a stop to view the total eclipse in Nebraska on our return. The highlights for me were our outdoor experiences (short hikes but big views), but there was really some fun family bonding, too. Eileen is in that parrot stage of learning speech, and she and Emmett played well together.
Tto be honest, those giddy moments – like getting to eat Fruit Loops, swim in a hotel pool and extra cuddles – are probably the memories of the trip for the kids.
We loaded up on DVDs and books at the library, filled a giant tote with snacks and stayed at Joe’s parents in Council Bluffs to shorten our first big driving day to 8 hours. The drive from CB to Centennial took about 12 hours, total, with long stops at the Archway Museum in Kearney, NE (which totally made me grateful I was making the trek in our Chrysler Town & Country versus a covered wagon) and in Cheyenne, WY for dinner.
Where we stayed
The first two nights, we stayed in an Airbnb-style little log cabin at J4Brehm’s Ranch, just outside of Centennial, WY. It was absolutely perfect for our family, and we wished we’d been able to reserve it through the weekend.
The cabin is listed as sleeping 6, which might be tight, but felt roomy for our two adults and two littles. The kids loved climbing up to the loft to horse around during the day, and it was nice to have a little kitchen and separate sleeping and living area.
The first morning, three of the horses came up to the fenceline just beyond our cabin and we got to pet them and see some of the other livestock on the other side of the ranch. The second night, Joe and I set up the baby monitor and had a mini date in the cabin’s private hot tub after the kids fell asleep. The sky was huge and the Milky Way was aglow. (They also have more primitive cabins for 4 and a cabin that sleeps 12 in some big lofts. I could see returning with cousins to take over the big cabin.)
We stayed in Laramie the other two nights, and then overnighted in Grand Island, NE, after the eclipse.
Where we hiked
Out first day, we drove the Snowy Range Scenic Byway and hopped out at Libby Flats, an observation tower that provides 360 degree mountain views, took a mini hike at Lake Marie, visited the natural hot springs in Saratoga and then returned for some hammock time at Lake Marie, which was totally dreamy.
Our second day, we headed to the Lewis Lake Trail Head (per some suggestions) to see if we could summit Medicine Bow Peak as a family. We borrowed an amazing Osprey hiking backpack from friends and it was easy to take Eileen along.
It got pretty windy and the rock scrambling became precarious right around lunchtime, so we didn’t get up to the tippy top. But I was really proud of how far Emmett climbed and we got in some incredible views. The glacial lakes that dot the landscape are stunning.
The morning after our first night in Laramie, we drove east about 20 minutes to Vedawoo National Forest, which has breathtaking rock formations.
The kids were not feeling hardcore hiking, but we did explore the simple trails just off the parking lot had incredible scenery. I’d love to camp here some day.
What we ate
We stopped for dinner in Cheyenne and wished we’d discovered the Accomplice Beer Company brewpub before we’d eaten. They have a full menu, but we just had a beer flight from their cool serve-yourself station. It’s in the old depot and the patio is right along the train yard.
My friend Chelsea goes to Centennial every year to visit family, and she recommended breakfast at Mountain View Hotel, which did not disappoint. I had a lovely omelette and latte (they roast their own coffee) and it was so filling we mostly just snacked for lunch, and then hit Bear Tree Tavern & Cafe for pizza and beers on our way back down from the mountains.
Another friend who lived in Laramie suggested Sweet Melissa Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant which was a funky and delicious lunch stop. We also picked up some provisions from the downtown co-op and had local brews and desserts at Coal Creek Tap, and dessert from Big Dipper Ice Cream Shop.
We gave ourselves two days to drive home, and it just so happened that our return route took us through the path of totality for the solar eclipse. We got up at 3 a.m. to arrive just in time to watch from the Stuhr Museum, which showcases prairie pioneer life with a museum and living history village.
All in all, the trip was without any major meltdowns or mishaps! This felt like a family milestone, for sure. I think we did just the right amount of planning ahead but allowing for wiggle room, and it was fun to collaborate with Joe and creating a memorable adventure for us all.
If you’re in Iowa and looking for a kind of “training wheels” mountain adventure with small kids, I highly recommend Medicine Bow. It was a budget-friendly trip, and my guess is it’s also far less crowded than the Colorado Rockies and other National Parks at this time of year, too.