Road trip with my family across the US for 5 weeks - travel suggestions?
July 25, 2013 8:37 AM   Subscribe

I've got a 5 week sabbatical next June/July and was thinking of taking my family (wife;3 kids) to see some of the national parks here in the US. I'm starting in Boston, and would like to spend time at the following: * Mount Rushmore * Yellowstone * Grand Teton * Yosemite * Grand Canyon * other I'm looking for feedback on the pros and cons of travel methods from place to place. Planes? Car rental? RV rental? Train? What are your experiences doing this?
posted by GernBlandston to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This AskMe about sites in Utah might be of interest to you if you want to hit Bryce/Zion along the way.
posted by Dansaman at 8:50 AM on July 25, 2013

This is a very broad question.

What is your budget? How much of the 5 weeks are going to be pinned for traveling? Do you like driving? Long distances? Do you pack heavy or travel light? Camping ok or 'must have clean sheets!' type of family? What are your interests? How old are the kids? Does it need to be round trip or is one way then fly home ok?

Regarding RV rentals, specifically in Yellowstone, I replied to this question just a few days ago... TL;DR - I don't like them for most situations/users.

If you decide to go to Yellowstone let me know what the, as detailed as possible, specifics are. I've memailed people and made several comments on my summers working/adventuring there because I think it should be on everyones Must See list, doubly so if a trip is already in the makings... but I'm not going to go into detail and potentially waste my time, and yours, without enough information to be useful.

My research indicates trains are going to be hard to do. I'd love to do a AMTRACK Railpass sorta thing but it just never works out as actually feasible. YMMV.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:05 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know if you have family/friends you might want to visit between where you are and roughly the Dakotas. If not, I'd suggest flying or training everyone out at least that far and then maybe renting a car to hit some of the other spots. That part of the trip is nearly two days and it's not that interesting. That said, I love road trips and driving, so my preferences might not be yours. RV rental is pricey and unless you are really sure that everyone's going to enjoy it (all sleeping in the same general room, driving a big boat of a vehicle, terrible gas mileage) it's a big investment. With car rental, you need to make sure that you can go all the places that you want to go, but you can get decent deals on Priceline and you could get something that is big enough for a cooler (snacks on the road) and your luggage and some hiking gear.

I guess a lot of this for me would depend on

- Ages of the kids - are they old enough to remember this as a grand vacation or tiny enough that you need to make sure you make frequent stops? Can they occupy themselves in a car somewhat? How are they on planes? Similarly would it be a benefit to be able to make a lot of meals together (RV, or hotel room with kitchenette) or do people like the road food experience?
- Budget - if money is no object I sort of like the big Amtrak experience especially to/around the Grand Canyon but it's not super flexible and trains can sometimes be very seriously late.
- Flexibility - are people relaxed and happy travelers or do people like having schedules and routines? Renting a car or RV gives you the most control and ability to change plans. Sticking to train/plane schedules can mean less impulsive decisions. This may not be a problem for you.
- Camping - do you want to do any camping? Are motels okay?

I have criss-crossed the country many times using all of those methods and while my favorite was having our own (not renting) an RV, my second favorite was just having my own car with my own stuff and getting to be a little more freewheeling with my schedule. It has the most controllable variables and the cost is reasonable. I also like staying in weird little motels and this allowed me to visit more places not served with public transpo
posted by jessamyn at 9:10 AM on July 25, 2013

Your kids are the same age as ours were back in the day when we did a similar trip from Vegas by van--the perfect ages for this trip. We didn't do Mt. Rushmore or Yosemite but did travel to the Northern Rim of the Grand Canyon (much quieter yet just as awesome as the South Rim--definitely worth the long diversion), Yellowstone (Old Faithful Inn is a must--the geyser's right outside the door), the Tetons, and Bryce Canyon. We had such an memorable time.

In all four of those places, we stayed at the lodges right in the parks. Doing so means you can take short hikes in the later afternoon after all the buses have left, and everything is hushed and magical. The heritage lodges are so wonderful and definitely worth whatever extra they might cost. (Watch some of Ken Burns' series on the national parks. Many of lodges are featured.) You need to make reservations . . . yesterday, but maybe there's time.

The long drives were stunning, plus we had audio books we all still remember. Indian in the Cupboard, The Giver (everybody in van sobbing). Oh, happy days. You might think about whether trying to get to Yosemite is pushing it too far, awesome as it is. Others may have comments on that. If I had the length of time you have, Arches would fit into a non-Yosemite driving plan.

Oops, I just realized I was referring to the kids' ages in the linked Askme, since you didn't mention your children's ages. I would say ages 8-13 is ideal. Again, if you stay in the lodges and have little ones, one parent can stay back while the older ones go out with the other.
posted by Elsie at 9:22 AM on July 25, 2013

We did this when I was 5; my siblings were 7, 13, and 16. We did three weeks, driving. I think we went Virginia -> Michigan -> Milwaukee -> South Dakota -> Montana -> Wyoming -> Colorado -> Kansas -> Missouri -> Ohio -> Virginia. Might've done it the other way, but I know we hit those states.

Things I remember as a 5-year-old: the corn palace (they rebuild it every year?). ponies. the durango/silverton railroad. a rainbow in kansas. snowing in yellowstone on the first day of summer. the badlands. mt. rushmore. ponies. the murphy bed in one of the hotels. glacier national park. cowboys. how flat kansas was. the lake in michigan - starts with a K, and my mom spent a lot of time there as a kid. learning how to swim in a hotel pool. a restaurant in milwaukee that you had to get to through a hidden bookshelf and was creepy.

Well, there was more, but those are the big ones.

We drove in a minivan and stayed in hotels. I know we stayed in Yellowstone itself, but I don't remember about the others.

I threw up pretty much every day in the car. Bring a bucket.

I know my parents spent a ton of money on this. I remember planning discussions around the dinner table from the time I was probably 3. This is the only "big trip" we did as a family of 6 and is referred to as "the trip out west." The next year my oldest sister had surgery and then went away to school. We ate dinner out most nights, breakfast and lunch were packed. We ate a lot of salmon somewhere it was cheap.

All in all, it was fantastic. Highly recommend. Even if your kids decide they don't want to go, make them. My siblings still make fun of me for some things based on that trip.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 9:41 AM on July 25, 2013

I just stumbled upon this comic while reminiscing about the park and the people and the dilemma. One of the more important points I try to make to people considering making a trip to YNP actually.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:10 AM on July 25, 2013

Funny - I just did San Jose to Grand Teton, Badlands & Mt Rushmore on the way to Toronto and then back through St Louis (the arch!), Moab/Arches, Great Basin NP and back to San Jose. It was myself, my wife, our two kids and our dog (long story).

We rented a minivan. Hertz has good rates for longer-term rentals - with my company's rate it was about $1500 for a Chrysler Town&Country for a month, which seems OK to me. Mileage is so much better with a minivan than an RV - we were averaging about 27-ish MPG I believe. We did mostly hotels with some camping in the parks. The back of the van was pretty full. Three kids would be tricky because then you have to have the third row partially up.

Camping is a personal preference I guess - we liked it but in addition to a tent & sleeping bags you have to pack food and a stove and it all adds up. I suppose you could go really crazy and put a roof rack on a minivan or something and then you'd have a bunch of extra cargo space.

RVs are really popular - I saw what seems like a million of them on the roads. I assume they're hard on gas which in addition to the rental fees probably makes them not that much cheaper than staying in hotels. The third child is probably the wildcard here - hotel rooms are all set up to handle a family of four easily, but 5 requires a cot or something and the costs are possibly higher. But clearly there's something to them. My suggestion is that they're great to sleep in but crap to drive, so you want to drive them as little as possible and mostly use them as a hotel room in the woods. Doing Yellowstone + Grand Canyon in a single trip in an RV would be far, far too much.

Anyway on the parks themselves:

Mt Rushmore - as a bunch of Canadians living in America we only did this at my son's insistence and to my surprise it was actually pretty tastefully done, at least at the actual park. Nearby are some interesting things like a cave and Devil's Tower which are neat. There's a lot of tourist trap crap near Mt Rushmore which I'd avoid - it was like some sort of Appalachian Atlantic City that combined the worst of each.

Grand Teton - Beautiful! Cold early in the season. I'd say you could easily budget a week alone for both Grand Teton & Yellowstone, there's so much to see. That might be good for a RV rental if you just drive it out, camp out for a week and then go back. But IMO tenting would be just as good in that situation. But seriously, unbelievable beauty in these parks. Try swimming in the lake in Grand Teton :)

Yosemite - we stayed in Housekeeping Camp one for a week and it was really great. Housekeeping Camp is more rustic but IMO just as nice vs cabins and it's certainly a lot nicer than tents. Be warned that you have to reserve campground in Yosemite many months ahead - ideally on the day the spots become available. I find it very challenging. Again I'd spend several days there as there's a lot to see and do. I have only stayed in the valley but the campgrounds in Tioga pass are also quite nice.

If you're going to Grand Canyon then all the Utah parks are not far - Arches, Caynonlands, Zion, Bryce plus nearby monuments and state parks. We stayed in Moab and went to Arches and it was again really amazing. I don't suggest camping out here since many campgrounds are unshaded and it's really crazy hot. Maybe that's good for you. A hotel or resort might be better with day trips around.

Finally, driving. We spent a lot of time in the car. Driving to Yellowstone is really, really far. You have to have a plan for just being in the vehicle and what you're going to do. Our rental had satellite radio which was great. Bring an ipod. Get some books on CD or from itunes or Audible or whatever. I'm not a fan of watching DVDs in cars but audiobooks are great.

It's only somewhat possible to do all the things you've listed in a single trip - it would be easily 8000 miles of driving like I just did. And believe me, that's a lot of driving. I would pick a shorter trip plan and just see things that are closer together and spend more time at each one.

Finally, if you're going on I-90... Wall Drug. Definitely not to be missed.
posted by GuyZero at 10:23 AM on July 25, 2013

You could fly to SFO, rent a van or other vehicle there, and then make a big loop around the Western US.

If you like hiking, I would recommend also checking out Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

I have stayed in the Yosemite Housekeeping camp -- it is a beautiful location right on the Merced river and the units are farther away than in Camp Curry Tent City :) -- you have your own fire ring and everything. The units do look a little like cell blocks (concrete block structures).
posted by elmay at 11:01 AM on July 25, 2013

On flying to SFO and driving to western parks - it's still 2 days of driving from the bay area to get to Grand teton or the parks in Utah. And it's two days of driving across the empty wasteland that is most of Nevada (sorry Nevada). Certainly it's less driving than coming straight from Boston, but until you've done it it's actually really hard to comprehend how much emptier the western US is than the east.
posted by GuyZero at 11:28 AM on July 25, 2013

I'd do it as a grand adventure road trip. I would suggest renting a mini-van. We did a 5 person road trip in a Town and Country and the folks we went with liked it so much, they went out and BOUGHT a mini-van!

The Vans have entertainment packages, and you can do movies for the kids and satellite radio for you.

Try not to be on the road for more than 6 hours a day, and have one weird stop daily. Pea Soup Andersen's, Wall Drug, Casa De Fruta, etc. Roadside America is a good resource for this.

I'd do a loop from Las Vegas (do a night or two at one of the Casino/Resorts, or even Sam's Town. Do kitchy stuff there, or just loll around the pool. Go through the Grand Canyon park starting in Las Vegas and coming out in Arizona. Or just drive down to 40 and do it that way. Then spend a day or two in Sedona. Do Slide Rock, check out the Red Rocks, get your aura read.

It's in the middle of nowhere, but don't miss Carlsbad Caverns. It is awesome in about 3000 ways! Bats!!!!

We did these trips when I was a kid in the 1960's. Before there was FM radio, entertainment systems, air conditioning and I still remember them fondly.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:44 PM on July 25, 2013

For staying at lodges in the parks or camping, make the reservations far, far in advance.
posted by yohko at 1:22 PM on July 25, 2013

I am an experienced traveler.

My main advice to you would be: do less. go slow. smell the roses.
Don't plan a trip where to are rushing from place to place trying to hit everything.

If I were doing your trip - this is how I would do it.
Select three locations as a base. You would 4 flights total. Then rent a car from each location, and day trip.

For example.
Part 1. Fly Boston to Deadwood, SD. Rent a car and a condo in Deadwood. Day trip to the Rushmore and the Badlands. Just spend a relaxing week in Black Hills area.

Part 2. Fly Deadwood to Jackson Hole, WY. Rent a car and condo again. Day trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Spend a relaxing two weeks in that area.

Part 3. Fly from Jackson Hole to Southern Utah. Maybe stay near Zion National Park. Again rent a car and a condo. Day trip to Zion and Bryce. Maybe even Arches. You can also over night trip to the Grand Canyon from there. But mostly spend a relaxing two weeks in the area.

Also, the best way to see the Grand Canyon is to get a cabin rent on the North Rim in the park. To do that, you have to reserve like a year in advance. They might all be gone already for next June. If you want to stay inside Grand Canyon national park, you need to be making your reservation RIGHT NOW. Here is the link to North Rim cabins.
posted by Flood at 6:27 PM on July 25, 2013

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