I’ve had a lot of people ask where we went and what we did on our most recent road trip. I find that in conversation it’s surprisingly difficult to give the whole itinerary without seeing people’s eyes gloss over and jaws go slack. It must be because I’m a better writer than speaker (or they are only asking to be polite). In an effort to be more entertaining about how trip, here is my itinerary with a brief explanation of the highlights of that day. Our trip ended up lasting 17 days, but I don’t feel like I spent quite enough time at any of the National Parks.
Day 1 – Sacramento, CA to Twin Falls, ID
This was our departure day. We left Sacramento as early as possible with four kids, getting on the road around 6:00am. I set a big goal for our first day to make it all the way to Twin Falls, Idaho. The nearly 600 mile drive (which Google said would take 8-9 hours) took us over 12 hours. We only stopped for gas and lunch but somehow it just took a long time. Unfortunately, there wasn’t really anywhere to stop and stay the night along the way, unless you count Winnemucca, Nevada, which was where we stopped for lunch. The kids were champs about pushing through the long drive; this was where the road trip binders I’d put together before leaving came in very handy.
Day 2 – Twin Falls, ID to Craters of the Moon, ID.
My plan for this trip was to avoid long drives as much as possible by stopping at cool places along the way and staying the night whenever possible. Camping at Craters of the Moon National Park was one of those cool, off-the-beaten-path stops. It took us a couple hours to get to the park, and it was incredibly worth it! This National Park is unlike anywhere I’ve ever seen with 2000 year old lava fields stretching in all directions and a night sky that satisfied the deepest longings of my heart.
Day 3 – Craters of the Moon, ID to West Yellowstone, MT
Getting to Yellowstone was my ultimate goal for the first major visit on our trip. By breaking the drive up into several days, we had time to see some of the sights along the way without feeling rushed. We stopped at Bear World for a couple hours around late-lunch time and rolled into West Yellowstone around 4:00. This gave us time to see the Imax movie about the park and walk around town for a bit before dinner. I had hoped to go to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center but since it closed at 5:00 we missed it. This left us with a tough decision to make: skip the educational opportunity to learn about grizzlies and wolves to possibly get a campsite, or see the grizzlies and wolves giving up any chance of getting a campsite …
Day 4 – Yellowstone
As it turned out, our decision to stay in town and learn about the grizzlies, wolves, birds of prey, and river otters was the right one. The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center was wonderful. The girls learned a lot about how bears are tracked, where they live, what they look like up close (through stuffed specimens) as well as learning about all sorts of other animals that live in and around Yellowstone. It’s not very often you get to see a bald eagle up close or watch a river otter below water as well as above water.
We ended up leaving West Yellowstone around 11:00 after making a quick quick quick trip into the grocery store to get some perishables in case we camped. All the camp grounds were full when we drove by them, so we made our way north through the park. Our first “major” stop in the park was the Porcelain Basin. We also stopped at Gibson Falls and Mammoth Hot Springs. Unfortunately, we were pulling a trailer which kept us from seeing a lot of other cool sights due to parking limitations. Many of the trail heads have signs at the roadway prohibiting trailers and RVs. We still had a great day and were happy to make our way up to Gardiner, MT (where the iconic Yellowstone Arch is located). The kids had as much fun climbing the walls of the arch and walking around town as they did seeing any of the sights within the park.
Day 5 – Yellowstone Wildlife Guided Tour
Worth every penny! Chris was our guide and did a phenomenal job of keeping the kids’ interest. https://www.yellowstoneguidelines.com/ Tell him Colleen and her four kids sent you!
Day 6 – Yellowstone Hot Springs & Geysers
After our wild life tour, we went back to West Yellowstone and stayed in the same hotel we had on day 4. At this point it felt like we’d spent a lot of time crisscrossing the park, so this was our final day to find a campsite or start heading south to the Grand Tetons. Most of the first-come-first-serve camp grounds were full by 7:30am, including the ones in the far reaches of the park. Our last chance was Lewis Lake Campground in the southern park of the park, which wasn’t full until 11:00 most days. We got down there around 10:30 (because getting up and moving with four kids and one adult is not something that happens in the wink of an eye) and missed the last campsite by 2 minutes. Literally two minutes!
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I offered to buy the campsite from the people who beat us to it. Fortunately, they declined but offered to share the site with us (may God bless Nick and Anna!) Their generosity allowed us to stay in the park for another day and see the geothermal features. Grand Prismatic, Old Faithful (so overrated! Don’t waste your time!), Biscuit Basin, Mud pots – plus they learned about why the hot springs are different colors and what makes geysers erupt.
Day 7 – Yellowstone Waterfalls and Lake District
After spending a windy and rainy night camping, it was a relief to get back in our nice warm car for the day. The weather definitely took a turn for the worse which make it challenging to go sight seeing since we had to put on jackets every time we got out of the car (doesn’t seem like such a big deal but imagine keeping track of jackets for 4 kids who take them off at every opportunity and swear they are hot until they are actually freezing). We headed north from our campground and saw the Upper and Lower Falls, grabbing lunch at Canyon Village in between. The Lower Falls were definitely more impressive than the Upper Falls but the hike the see them was a bit strenuous. We made a game as we hiked back up of counting the people we passed (120+) and the number of switchbacks (there was some debate whether it was 9 or 11).
Our last stop this day was again at Biscuit Basin trailhead to find the Morning Glory Pool. As we headed off on the 1 mile trail, the clouds grew darker and the wind picked up. About half way along the trail it started to hail/snow. Having experienced this type of weather in the mountains in the past, I immediately turned us around and went back to the car rather than try to wait it out under the trees. I’m glad I did because the snow/hail only became stronger. We headed back to camp and made the difficult decision to give up our hard-won campsite in order to drive to Jackson, WY for a warm hotel.
Day 8 – On the Road Again: Jackson, WY to Glenwood Springs, CO
Hotels in Jackson, WY on a Saturday night were not to be found (a.n.y.w.h.e.r.e!). We ended up sleeping in the back of our Sequoia in a church parking lot. Since we woke up on a Sunday morning, I decided to hit the road early before the church staff showed up. I would have loved to stay for the Sunday service, but after the last 3 days we smelled, our hair was cray-zee, and our clothes were dirty; we’d hastily thrown everything from the car into the trailer, so the chances of finding clean clothes, hair brush, or toothbrushes were slim to none.
My GPS was set to Fastest Route which apparently did not include major freeways. Indeed, taking the freeway would have added an additional hour of driving to our day. The drive south through Wyoming was absolutely breathtaking! Because I had a picnic basket of food, it didn’t matter that we didn’t go through any towns bigger than a postage stamp. Had we not had food, it would have been a kid-trip disaster based on the lack of services we encountered – gas station snacks can only take you so far.
When we hit the Wyoming/Colorado border, our lovely rural road turned into a dirt road for the next 20+ miles. Irish Canyon was a beautiful area to drive through, but definitely not what we’d expected!
Day 9 – Glenwood Springs, CO
We spent two nights in Hotel Glenwood Springs so we could thoroughly enjoy a full day at Glenwood Caverns Amusement Park. We had a blast riding the alpine coaster and doing the Canyon Swing over and over and over. The Fairy Cave was super cool to see. Laser Tag was a highlight. The hotel was right at the base of the gondola and had a waterslide at the indoor pool.
Day 10 – Glenwood Springs, CO to Parker, CO
My sister lives in Parker, CO, and we decided to pop in for a surprise visit. My brother-in-law was not surprised at all (he knows me better than my sister!) but my sister and nieces/nephew were totally surprised. It was very fun to just show up on the doorstep!
Day 11 to Day 14 – Parker, CO and surrounding area
While we stayed at my sister’s house, we explored some fun activities within a two hour drive. We went to Red Rocks Amphitheater and Cabela’s Denver on Day 11 (after spending the morning cleaning out the car and trailer). Day 12 we went to Castle Rock Adventure Park and thoroughly explored the Ropes Course and Ninja Course. There was also several cool free playgrounds near the paid activities. Day 13 we went to Colorado Springs to spend the day at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Day 14 we hung out around the house repacking the camp gear and then crashed a neighbor girl’s birthday party.
Day 15 – Parker, CO to Goblin Valley State Park, UT
We left Parker in the wee hours of the morning and made the long drive to Goblin Valley State Park. The only reason I knew about this place was from the recommendation of Nick and Anna who generously shared their campsite with us in Yellowstone. I’m sure glad they told us about it because Arch’s National Park’s campgrounds were full. So were Goblin Valley’s for that matter, but the Bureau of Land Management (the original BLM) controls the area just outside the park and their camping is free (no facilities, of course).
Day 16 – Arches National Park
It was more of a drive than I liked from Goblin Valley over to Arches and we ended up getting there after they started doing intermittent entry. We sat in line at the entrance station for half an hour, but once we got into the park we could move freely about. We saw a couple of the Must-See’s like Park Avenue and Balanced Rock, but we skipped the most popular arches in favor of a remote hike to Tower Arche. When we got there, we had the place to ourselves for quite a while. It was a washboard dirt road to get to the trailhead, but it was worth every moment!
Day 17/18 – Goblin Valley, UT to Sacramento, CA
We spent our last morning packing up the campsite and going on one last hike. Just behind our campsite there was a gorgeous canyon. We hiked through a dry river bed to a slot canyon that opened up into spectacular scenery. We learned on our way back that there was a feature called The Window but we missed it in our ramblings.
My original plan was to drive from Arches to Great Basin National Park, NV, but after two and a half weeks on the road we were ready to get home. I allowed the kids to make the ultimate decision whether or not we’d make a 12.5 hour drive in one shot or break it up with another night of camping. They decided they missed their dad and would willingly endure the long drive on the Loneliest Highway (Hwy 50 through Nevada). If you ever decide to drive this route, be advised that it is a long long way between gas stations, but still gorgeous, mountainous, uncrowded, and worth it.
Day 18 – Home again!
We arrived home in the wee wee hours of the morning on day 18. I stopped and slept for a while at a truck stop when I got too sleepy to continue driving. The kids slept nearly the whole night while I listened to audiobooks. It was so wonderful to be home and fall into my own bed after such a long day.
Where to next?
We had such a great time that I’m itching to get back on the road again (we’ve been home for less than a week!). Please leave your suggestions in the comments.