Sac-SLC-Denver road trip with a five-year-old
May 13, 2013 11:34 AM   Subscribe

We're road-tripping from Sacramento to Salt Lake City to Denver with our five-year-old, and are looking for tips on routes and places to stop.

This is our son’s second major road trip, but our first on this particular route. Our current plan is to leave Sac in the morning, spend the night in Salt Lake City, move on to Denver the next day, then do the reverse a week later. Some questions we have:

1. We realize Sac to Salt Lake City is going to be a long day of driving, so any good scenic viewpoints, rest stops, restaurants, parks or any other place that’s good to get out and stretch the legs or run off some energy would be good. Do you have any favorites?

2. Is Dinosaur National Monument worth the side trip? As soon as we mentioned “dinosaur bones” our son’s face lit up. According to Google Maps, the quickest way to Denver would then be US 40 and I-70. Is that a decent drive?

3. For the trip back, which is more interesting or has more places to stop between Salt Lake City and Denver: I-80 or I-70?

Any other tips would be appreciated. Thanks!
posted by DakotaPaul to Travel & Transportation (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
2. Is Dinosaur National Monument worth the side trip? As soon as we mentioned “dinosaur bones” our son’s face lit up.

I came into the question to tell you to stop at Dinosaur and am pleased to see you're already considering it. My family took a trip out west when I was 7 and my brother was 4, and to be completely honest I don't remember much about it (and I haven't been there since). But I remember that I loved it. There was a huge wall of dinosaur bones and I remember standing on something that my dad said was a brontosaurus femur but knowing what I know about dinosaur bones now I'm pretty sure that's not what it was. Anyway, there were big dinosaurs constructed outside and bones that were HUGE and also some that were really small which surprised me when I was a kid and I got a t-shirt with a dinosaur on it that I still wear to this day. Because Dinosaurs.

If your kid's face lit up when you mentioned it, I'd say make the trip. Dinosaurs are fun and he's at the best dinosaur-absorbing age right now.
posted by phunniemee at 11:48 AM on May 13, 2013

Sacramento to Denver is a mostly boring drive. We went went I-80 on the way to Denver and I have to say that Wyoming feels endless. It was stunning at first but then it kept going. And going. And going. So taking 40 through Dinosaur National Monument might not be a bad idea.

We took I-70 from Denver to SLC on the way home and that was more interesting, but I'm glad we saved it for the way back. I don't think I could have suffered through Wyoming again (no offense to any Wyomingans).

Nevada feels similarly endless. I've never been so happy to see Reno in my life.

When are you going? Actually never mind. You're from here so that means I don't have to tell you to mind the hot weather. ;)
posted by elsietheeel at 11:51 AM on May 13, 2013

Yes, I neglected to mention that the trip is just after Memorial Weekend. We've driven the seemingly endless stretch of Nevada before, too, so it sounds like I-70 might be the way to go for the trip back. Endless Wyoming + endless Nevada doesn't sound good.
posted by DakotaPaul at 12:01 PM on May 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not much by way of stops in NV. The salt flats just east to of the NV/UT border are interesting, but at that point you are only about 90 miles outside of SLC. The museum of natural history just opened up about a year ago in SLC. It is a worldclass building and museum, and if you have the time it would be a great stop. There is also something a little closer to the freeway, the dino museum at Thanksgiving Point if you are running short on time.

I-70 is definitely more scenic and better drive. In my mind, well worth the extra time. The Wyoming stretch of I-80 is painful. Also, in my experience, SLC->DEN is faster to take 80. It might be faster if you are bypassing SLC to take 70 (I-50 thru NV to I-70).
posted by blueplasticfish at 12:05 PM on May 13, 2013

I grew up in Vernal which is the main stopping point for people going to visit Dinosaur National Monument. Most of the really good stuff is probably going to be too far out of the way if you are just passing through. The new museum is merely okay, but the Monument visitor center is pretty solid.

If you don't mind going an hour or so out of the way, there is a hike that will take you to what they call the dinosaur trackway which is hundreds of tracks on the shore of a pretty nice lake. If you want your kid to get the real "field paleontologist" experience, this is it. The road to this hike connects Highway 40 and I-80 and passes through the Uinta National Forest and Flaming Gorge, which is incredibly beautiful, if that helps you decide.

I now live out in SLC, and it's kind of the same story - anything really interesting will take you off the freeway. As someone said above, the salt flats are worth stopping for a few pictures. Depending on which road you take in/out of town, you will pass a scenic vista here or there. Otherwise, not a lot near the road :(
posted by _DB_ at 12:43 PM on May 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

A smaller scale than the monument, but the Dinosaur Museum in Price UT (on the SLC-Denver road) is a nice stop. Not huge, but interesting.
posted by LonnieK at 2:29 PM on May 13, 2013

If you can wait until Winnemucca for lunch, I would recommend the Martin Hotel (no longer a hotel, just an excellent Basque restaurant). Disclosure: Owned by my cousin. (Lunch menu)

If you actually think you have time to stop in Elko when you're trying to do Sac-SLC in one day, then the Northeastern Nevada Museum is surprisingly—no, amazingly—good for a small town museum.

Gas up in Wells, not Wendover.

Nthing the Dinosaur Monument. It was awesome when I was a kid, and it was just as awesome when I took my kids. And going to Denver through Vernal is definitely prettier. Wyoming is a beautiful state, it's too bad (or maybe not) that 80 does not go through the best parts. If you do go 80, consider taking 287 south from Laramie instead of 25 from Cheyenne.
posted by bricoleur at 6:35 PM on May 13, 2013

Go to the Glenwood Hot Springs on I-70 on the way back. Good stop about halfway there.
posted by trbrts at 2:57 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

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