In July 2018 our family of four kids and two adults hit the road to do 4500 + miles (2750 km) in 15-days. We had a blast, but we also learned what not to do on such a trip!
We started off our trip on the right foot, although it wasn’t planned: to make up for a previous car rental snafu in France, the Denver Budget office upgraded our minivan to a brand new 8-passenger Chevy Suburban.
I cannot imagine how we would have survived a smaller vehicle, as we fell in love with the Suburban.Bonus: thanks to an “eco-drive” it miraculously gets about 23 miles to the gallon!
I start this tale with the car as, without it, I don’t think we could have survived our executed trip with nearly as much fun or enjoyment as we did.
Planning several months in advance, we’d decided we wanted to hit a few key places, such as Yellowstone National Park, Seattle, the Redwoods, HWY 101, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon. We’d also been hoping to catch a few friends and family: Bozeman, MT; Olympia, WA, a handful in the Bay Area, my Aunt in northern Utah, and my brother in southern CO.
We started out by heading North on I-25 from Denver into Wyoming, where we cut across to Yellowstone, spent a night on either side and rolled into Bozeman, MT.
From Bozeman, we headed towards Seattle, and from Seattle to Olympia and then down HWY 101 to the Redwoods through San Francisco into Santa Cruz and then on to LA.
From LA we headed east to Las Vegas, where we continued on to Flagstaff, AZ and the Grand Canyon. From the Grand Canyon we hit Cortez in SW Colorado, before heading north back into Utah and Dinosaur Nat’l Monument.
We only stayed in each location for a single night (except Olympia & Las Vegas), we had some amazing visits with friends, and we missed a few friends. We never did make it to my brother in southern, CO — by day 15 we were fried (particularly the driver).
What not to do…
Technically, our road trip was a HUGE success because we traveled with four kids who managed to avoid arguing and vomiting; basically, a feat unheard when it comes to family road-trips.
It’s never happened to us before and who knows if it will ever happen again!
Mistake #1: Moving Too Often
The biggest mistake we made was to only give ourselves enough time to stay in each location for one night. Except for LA, we managed to snag super sleeping spots (Booking; Airbnb; KOA Campgrounds; and friends) and we would have loved to stay in each spot for at least a few nights, if not a week.
Of course, this also kept everyone on their toes, avoided boredom or getting too settled and is perhaps the reason we managed without any arguments!
On the flipside, we now have about a dozen future vacations planned of places that we want to visit and we already know where to stay and how to get there!
Mistake #2: Driving Too Far
Driving 4500 miles in 15 days basically means an average of 350 miles per day. As we didn’t drive every day (just most) our average daily trips were 400 to 600+ miles which is doable, if not a tad uncomfortable, if you are on VACATION.
We generally chose to follow roads with slower speeds for the scenery and of course with four kids we had to plan not only for scenic stops but to eat and use the toilet.
On driving days we did a minimum of 5 hours in the car; our longest day was 12 + hours. This was the only day the driver and I had an argument. I set the itinerary, so his palatable frustration was more than understandable. Ahem.
What we learned is that if you are doing a road trip to get from A to Z; you can make a contest out of how far you can drive in a day. However, if you are driving for fun and to see the sights, you’ll want to keep your driving days to about 6 hours; with a leisurely lunch stop in the middle!
The days that we did this, we were able to enjoy breakfast and local scenery in the morning; and then arrive in time to enjoy the local scenery and a pleasant dinner in the afternoon. We did this really well between Colorado and Seattle, the place we failed was the entire coastal route from Olympia to LA. And then again driving back to Colorado.
The last place you want to feel rushed is driving through the Redwoods or along HWY 101! California and the west coast are MUCH bigger than you think or than they look on a map. We’ve learned to plan accordingly!
Mistake #3: Not Planning Where to Eat
I knew that neither our budget nor our sleep was worth risking not planning where to sleep, so I reserved all our sleeping spots well ahead of time. For the most part this worked out fantastic.
However, outside of preparing to have picnic breakfasts and picnic lunches, I left our dinners to be determined upon arrival. Sadly, this mostly met hopping from place to place, trying to find someplace open or that pleased everyone, and often ended up in yucky tasteless and too expensive for what it was dinners.
The only place we lucked out on dinner was eating delicious home-cooked food with friends and our dinner out in LA (which is good, since that is the one place our Airbnb was a flop).
This mostly makes me really sad, because I know that we went through some areas that have amazing local restaurants, but they were not findable or feasible last minute. Next time I will do some foodie research before we hit the road!
Mistake #4: Assuming Cellular Networks & Google Work
Old School: Plan Yellowstone Itinerary Before You Go
The first place we discovered we could rely on Google and our cell phones was on Day 2 of our trip in Yellowstone. Yellowstone is a wifi and cell-free zone. The good news is it made sure the kids work looking out the window, not so good for “googling” what to do.
Old School: Plan HWY 101 Itinerary Before You Go
One of the primary reasons we had trouble finding good places to eat, particularly along HWY 101 is that in many places there are ZERO cell towers.
On the day of our long drive, the driver decided he wanted a Chinese Buffet. We were still in Oregon when I searched Google, only to get a report back that Google Maps found the nearest Chinese restaurant to be in LA.
Obviously false, I tried searching restaurants up and down the coast during the short passes through little towns in which we actually got a signal (we were traveling with both Verizon and AT&T) and got just about zilch.
Finally about 9 PM (in the dark) we passed a Chinese restaurant that I saw out of the corner of my eye. They kindly let me order to go if I paid cash, as they were technically closed.
If I were to travel this route ahead of time I would identify several options for food and rest stops and give ourselves at least two to three days to travel the coast from WA to CA.
What Went Really Well
In my early 20s I worked in hotels, and I am a bit of a clean freak, which means that I am really picky about where I lay my head at night. I also adore camping and sleeping outdoors, but although I may have been overly ambitious with our route, I was clever enough to realize that actual camping (and setting/breaking camp daily, would have been too much!
My solution? Glamping.
I did a search on Airbnb for “glamping” and was pleasantly surprised to find old western canvas tents and RVs. I found two RVs, a canvas tent and a historic cabin.
In Montana, we stayed at the historic tiny town of De Borgia, a little hunters village with tents, cabins, horses, a big rec room and beautiful scenery. Our Canvas ‘pup tent’ was outfitted to the T with the most amazing gas stove, cast iron cookware set, solar shower, composting toilet, campfire, and luxury quality bedding.
We could have stayed in De Borgia for a week, hiking, riding horses, exploring, roasting marshmallows and telling campfire stories, but alas, we had a single night in this little paradise, before hitting the road again.
Retro Trailer (not so good)
In LA we got a retro trailer that the videographer owner had managed to make look twice as big in the pictures. It turned out to be tiny, rickety, the door didn’t lock, the neighbor’s floodlight kept turning on, there was no running water nor a bathroom…except in their house which was a bit awkward. The only good news is that we did sleep 6 in LA on clean sheets for only $100 bucks!
Outside of Flagstaff, we lucked out again, with a brand new RV on a little plot of land hosted by a young homesteading family. They provided us with pancake mix and fresh ground coffee, and freshly collected chicken eggs. The RV had water and a proper toilet, a beautiful view, and a functioning kitchen.
We chose this RV for its proximity to the Grand Canyon, but again the area was so beautiful, we could have stayed longer, both hiking around the camper and spending more time exploring Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon.
Updated Historic Cabin
Outside of Cortez I found us a historic wooden cabin, built originally by our host’s grandfather as a spot to sleep with his hunting buddies. It had a Coleman cookstove and a funky 50% modern/50% historic sink, a wifi-repeater, and wood burning stove.
He’d also added in running water, a shower and a proper toilet, so this spot was again the epitome of glamping and we could have easily stayed a week!
The Best Parts
The best parts of our trip were our days visiting friends. Scenery is lovely, but there is something about that time spent cooking, eating, hiking and generally doing things with other human beings that are part of your tribe, even if we are normally separated by miles and miles.
In Bozeman, MT we connected with our friend Jim and his family. We had an amazing BBQ with ribs made by his brother and plenty of local microbrews. The next morning he took us on a hike to a gorgeous waterfall on a hike that was just steep enough and just long enough that it challenged our littles but was enjoyed by all.
In Olympia, WA we connected with my friend Daisha and her family. We enjoyed cooking together, wandering Olympia and another hike to waterfall and swimming hole. Our kids were thrilled as were our grownups.
The morning we left was the final game of the 2018 Football (Soccer) World Cup and they happened to have some neighbors who were half French, so we joined them for an early morning World Cup viewing party “Vive la France” before hitting the road once again.
A few of the things that made the trip a success were the small investments I put into our time on the road. These centered around comfy kids (pillows, blankets, lovies) and picnic gear.
Our two oldest kids were ages 11 and 14. They both had ipads with permission to watch movies for 1 to 2 hours per day; they also had books, their lovies, and their personal pillows and blankets.
Our two youngest kids were ages 2 and 3; I bought them sleep rolls off of Etsy that they could use both in the car and anywhere we stopped for a quick nap or a secure night’s rest.
On Etsy I also ordered us a picnic blanket with stakes that could be packed compactly and setup in a minute.
On Amazon, I ordered us stainless steel eating ware (easy to wash, unbreakable) and hot/cold stainless steel cups that we could use for water, coffee, and wine!
These stainless wine glass/coffee cups (see Amazon affiliate link below) made me happy EVERY DAY. Before we left I’d bought 16oz versions for the adults and 12oz versions for the kids. We used them for coffee, water, hot cocoa, margaritas, instant oatmeal, and wine. My only regret is that I left them in Colorado and did not pack them to take with us to Madagascar!
We also had a super cooler, and Tupperware. Each day I made sure we had healthy snacks (carrots, celery, fruit, nuts, cheese etcetera). All the kids had a personal water bottle and we kept the driver stocked with Redbull (I did limit him to 2 per day).
Day trips in big cities — when you roll in for the day and need to find parking, Seattle, San Francisco, and even LA lose their charm. These are all cities that I’ve previously enjoyed as a single person staying in a downtown hotel. However, visiting as a family on a road trip, the cities just felt dirty, crowded, expensive with not very good food.
We loved all the natural parks, hikes and moments spent in nature. We did not love the big cities. But that said, by the time we made it back to Colorado we had to cut our itinerary short. We’d hoped to visit my brother in Pueblo and Mesa Verde, but we were cooked, so we headed back to my parents house and didn’t move for two or three days!
Maybe road-trips are meant for camping, hiking and appreciating mother nature?