Seeing (Parts of) America: Managing and Enjoying Our Big Road Trip
April 22, 2008 9:42 AM   Subscribe

We actually want to spend 15-20 days this summer driving around America, buying gas and seeing stuff. The questions are, how to get to the stuff from the east coast, and what stuff?

My spouse and children (5ish and 12ish) have not seen the vast majority of America, and we would like to expand our horizons. We look to have a little more than 2 weeks on our hands, and a station wagon, and a starting and ending point in the mid-Atlantic. It is probably indispensable to the trip's success to take in California. So here are the questions:

1. How do we get there and back? My original idea had been to drive from the east to the west coast and choose a different route back (e.g., go out along the south, and return through the Dakotas). But this probably chews up more time than we have. Our other thought is to fly out to Vegas or some such place, rent a car, do a loop, and return the car to Vegas (avoiding a one-way dropoff fee). Does anyone have any other clever ideas about how to manage this feat? I am conscious that the mini-loop winds up sacrificing lots that I would like to show them in mid-America, but the best may be the enemy of the halfway feasible.

2. What are some of the indispensables? My kids would like to see LA, SF, Vegas; I would like them to see some national parks and monuments and vistas, like the Grand Canyon, the redwoods, Rushmore, Yosemite, the Rockies, etc. I would love to have your input on a top ten of reasonably compatible highlights. FWIW, one of my concepts is to take in things that they are unlikely to otherwise stumble across, so bonus points for great sites that would be less likely for later destination travel.

3. Any smart travel tips? Such as, join the Holiday Inn Frequent Sleeper Club, get the combo portable DVD player/taser, etc.?

P.S. I have seen some other posts, like the best of Route 1 and Alabama to Seattle, but none have been on point, particularly as to travel with kids. Thanks!
posted by Clyde Mnestra to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I would rent a car. That's a lot of wear to put on your car, no matter where you're going. For that matter, you might want to rent one whether you're flying out there or not.

I would also stick to less of one region - two weeks isn't a lot of time for taht sort of trip.
posted by waylaid at 9:46 AM on April 22, 2008

I just went on a road trip across the country with my brother, although out of necessity (moving his car to California) rather than leisure. So while I cant tell you much about sites to see, I can give you some driving and lodging tips.

To find cheap places to stay, my bro and I would stop at a McDonalds in the town we wanted to stay in and pick up one of those penny saver free magazine things. They have really great hotel/motel deals in them. Also if you have AAA (and you probably should) you can stop at one of their offices before you leave on your trip and get free guidebooks from them for any region you'll be traveling to. They aren't great guidebooks but they do have listings of all the hotels and motels that take AAA discounts.

We had a GPS device and it was great for many reasons, one of which is that you can plug in your destination and it will tell you when you would get there if you drove without stopping. This way, we could figure out how far we could get before sundown.

We did get to stop at a few great places, one of which was White Sands New Mexico. Really beautiful but also fun for kids to run around in. Also, Carlsbad Caverns was amaaaaazing. Get the audio guide.

Dont know if any of this will apply to your trip, but have a great time!
posted by minicloud at 9:53 AM on April 22, 2008

Having done Detroit-Memphis-LosAngeles-Seattle-Detroit myself, I've got a bit of first-hand experience in this. But that was by myself when I was mid-20s, able and willing to drive 16-18 hours in a day. With spouse and kids, obviously much different.

What is the family's tolerance for distance? How far can you drive without killing each other? That's your number one limiting factor. Whoever has the least tolerance will determine your total distance you can travel. Figure out how far you can travel, and set that as the absolute limit of your trip. Make your schedule flexible so you can adjust as necessary. Nothing's worse than feeling you absolutely have to leave this neat place you're at now in order to reach the next neat place at the scheduled time.

Aside from the few you mentioned, the scenery in New Mexico was stunning. Arizona, not so much. I don't know that there's really a big difference between the two, but for some reason I preferred the former greatly. Do a little for everyone, and be prepared for side trips to unexpected areas.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 9:55 AM on April 22, 2008

Fly out to the west coast, rent a car and just tour the NM-AZ-NV-CA-OR-WA region. If you try to tour the entire country in two weeks it's just going to be a Cannonball Run-- the extent of your tourism will be watching things whizz by on the interstate as you rush to get to the next destination before the hotel closes for the night.

There is more than enough stuff on the west coast to keep you busy for two weeks, and the slower pace would enable you to actually enjoy the trip.
posted by Ziggy Zaga at 9:59 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

One of the best times in my life was spending 2 months driving 11,000 miles all over the US. Go do it!

My best advice is to be sure to avoid the Interstate. The more two lane highways you take, the more interesting your trip will be. Interstates bypass the places, lonely highways go through them. Try not to plan too much driving. 200-300 miles a day was the most I would be happy doing in a day if I wanted to see anything else.

Your idea of flying to the west sounds wise. Honestly there's two halves to the US; the open lonely west and the settled east. And while there's some nice things in the middle, there aren't a lot, and it's a lot of road to cover. If you want to make California part of the trip then fly into Las Vegas, Denver, Phoenix, or Salt Lake City and start from there.

Honestly, I'd skip the Grand Canyon. It's a long way from anywhere to get there and unless you're prepared to spend two days going down into the canyon and back out, it's not that interesting to just drive to the rim, look down, and say "yep". Consider instead some of the other amazing National Parks in Southern Utah or Colorado. Canyonlands is great for a very out-of-the-way experience. Mesa Verde is beautiful and easy to get to, Zion is beautiful, so is Bryce Canyon. And in California, the Yosemite Valley is fantastic.

For places to stay, I found it usually was worth going with a nationally branded motel chain like Super 8, Best Western, etc. Half the local mom-and-pop motels I stayed in were scary, the chains enforce a minimum standard of quality.

For places to eat, make a point of not going to any nationally branded restaurants. No McDonalds, no Applebee's. Roadfood is a good guide to interesting local places on the byways.
posted by Nelson at 10:06 AM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I would suggest flying out and renting a car for the drive back. You may pay more to rent one way (although I've had very good luck with this in the past), but you save everyone from having to cram in long days staring at interstate medians in order to drive both ways. And only doing a small loop out west misses so much of the country that it seems a shame to do it that way. So I'm suggesting spending a bit more (tickets plus one-way rental), but seeing more of the country.

For the indispensables, I would suggest a mix of the biggies (eg Grand Canyon), purely kid stuff (eg water parks, even if they are the same as the one near their house), and the funky (eg biggest ball of twine, chicken head museum, zombie fairgrounds). Not too many purely adult things (depends on your kids; often means things like art museums and garden tours).

No more than one thing per day, and not too many 14 hour days in the car. At least a few meals should be fun for the kids (what that means will depend on your kids, of course). Camping is cheaper, but then you have to carry a lot more stuff, and setting up/packing up can take a long time with kids if they aren't used to the routine. The books and maps from AAA are really useful -- if the navigator has those books and a cellphone, you can find restaurants and hotels a few hours ahead instead of relying on interstate billboards, and the book will often mention cool things in the area, like cavers, state parks, museums, or other attractions.
posted by Forktine at 10:14 AM on April 22, 2008

I've driven across the U.S. twice, from Boston to Oregon and further south, twice, but not since 1970. For me, an American who grew up in Massachusetts, there is something very exciting about crossing the Mississippi, the Prairie, and the Great Divide, stuff like that, that makes the East to West journey particularly compelling. There is enough to see in both directions that you can very profitably drive out on a northern route and return on a more southerly route.

That being said, you might consider starting in Chicago or St. Louis, or flying into Chicago and flying out of St. Louis.

In general, the National Parks are great for kids, with terrific fireside chats conducted by park rangers.
posted by thomas144 at 10:16 AM on April 22, 2008

For the second time today: Philip Greenspun's page on Great North American Road Trips has been around for nearly fifteen years now, and it's still my point of reference on the subject.

As I said elsethread for someone planning a Cannonball Run from coast to coast, do think in terms of 150 miles a day -- 250 absolute tops and only if you're on relatively featureless roads. That runs to roughly 2500-3000 miles. (Seattle to San Diego is about 1300 miles. East coast to west is about twice that distance.)

In short, do what Ziggy Zaga said. I'd be tempted to start or end in Seattle, include the west coast drive down to LA, then an AZ-NM-UT-NV loop. A one-way rental is worth the cost because it maximises the new sights while not forcing you to spend more time in the car than out of it.
posted by holgate at 10:20 AM on April 22, 2008

I would limit your ambition and give more time to fewer sites.
Do either:
desert southwest and really give it some time,
or fly to Vegas, spend three+ days there and include some time in the desert near there, then to SF, spend three+ days there (see the Exploratorium if nothing else), then take your time and drive north along the coast, see the Redwoods, mountains, other parks etc.
or do Vegas and San Diego (great zoo etc) and cross into Mexico for an afternoon.

The most remarkable thing to people from the east coast is going to be the desert. Be sure you give it enough time for the alienness to really sink in. Pick a place where the mountains really LOOM, which is another thing east coasterners miss out on.

Getting to see the Pacific for the first time is pretty cool too.

Rushmore and Grand Canyon are far from other attractions.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:50 AM on April 22, 2008

Exploratorium. If you make it to SF, then go to The Exploratorium. (Essentially a science museum that is 100% interactive - usually thoroughly enjoyed by kids.)

The Gateway Arch is good for a couple of hours, if you're passing that way. Cahokia Mounds is in the neighborhood, too.

The Enchanted Highway in ND, if you're going that route, can add some variety to the miles and miles of flat land.

The national parks are fantastic, but the kid experience of them can vary. Identifying animal tracks/scat can be fun for some. At Wind Cave, you can go crawling through the cave. (Don't know if they allow 5 year olds.) Goblin Valley (and other places) in Utah is a trip.

That's a long drive. Do you like punch buggy? Think you could get more time off?
posted by coffeefilter at 10:51 AM on April 22, 2008

I grew up in Ohio and really wanted to see the country. I once took a 15000 mile solo road trip around North America, and I have driven across the country many times. Most of it is boring for someone like me who grew up in Ohio. Here were my exceptions, which I would recommend for you and your family:

New Orleans to Memphis
Maine (and the maritime Canadian provinces)
All of the Pacific timezone
Every National Park
Coastal North Carolina
All of Utah
North Dakota (seriously)

With young kids you really don't want to drive across the country. I also recommend renting a car, and Las Vegas seems like a great place to do so.

Vegas - Yosemite - San Francisco - Highway 1 - LA - Grand Canyon is a pretty fantastic loop. Go there. Save Kansas and Oregon for other trips.
posted by billtron at 11:11 AM on April 22, 2008

I'll disagree with Nelson. The Grand Canyon is worth the trip. If I were coming from the west, I'd go through Vegas, then stop at the Hoover Dam, and then take old Route 66 (Arizona has the longest intact stretch of it left, and it gets well away from the interstate) to Seligman, and then I-40 to Williams. (On old 66, if the Grand Canyon Caverns are open, it's a neat tour. And on the way through Seligman, if the Snow Cap Drive In is open, stop in for a bite. Trust me - you can't miss the place.) Williams is a good place to overnight, because you can head to the Grand Canyon in the morning. When you go to the Grand Canyon, give yourself half a day or so. Stop at the visitor center, and then after you're done migling with the crowd there, drive the east rim drive. You'll get better views, and smaller crowds, at the vista overlooks there. The east rim drive will take you out of the park. Then you can take 89 north to Page, stay overnight, and see the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell (which is freakin' gorgeous.) If you have enough day left once you're done there, you can make your way to Cortez, CO and stop at Four Corners on the way there. East of Cortez is Mesa Verde National Park. It will take a good day (and lots of water and some energy) to explore, but it is one of the most fascinating places you'll visit, in my opinion. The next day, you can drive out of Cortez to Dolores, and do the San Juan Scenic Byway. This will be a 200+ mile trip and take you a whole day, but you'll be rewarded with some of the best views in the country. You'll follow along rivers, be driving though the Rockies, and cross four 10,000 foot passes. It's a beautiful drive. It'll take you to Telluride, Ouray, Silverton, and finally Durango. You can overnight there... and I'll let someone else take it from here. I've rambled too long.

Oh, and if you're going to be visiting national parks and monuments, you might want to get a National Parks Pass. It's $0, I believe, but it can pay for itself pretty damn quick.
posted by azpenguin at 11:29 AM on April 22, 2008

Encourage your kids to pick up free "attractions" brochures wherever you stop, and to buy postcards (one to send to someone, one to keep for their own). If they are anything like I was as a kid, they will remember things better with some form of travel journal, and at five, a rubberbanded wad of brochures and postcards was ideal.

We'd get a page of address stickers to put on our postcards, each prepared with a stamp and an address our friends and family wrote in before we left. We'd sometimes mail cards to ourselves. It was great to go home and find a postcard, even if it was just a tally of how many times Dad farted in the car.

Get the kids to read a bit about where you're going so they have a framework in mind. Give them each a paperback road atlas and your itinerary. Now's the perfect time to inoculate the family against "are we there yet?" by showing them the odometer, the speed limit, the road signs, and the map. The little one might like to put stickers on the places you've been.

Your older child could make some pages of travel bingo to play with the little sibling. Did you see a red car with a dog in it? Did you see cows? A license plate with your initial?

Take your bathing suits. Always stay in a place with a pool. Always check the bathtub in the morning so you don't forget your swimsuit.

Avoid the interstate unless you're pulling a trailer. They may look like straight lines, but they are filled with bluehairs, RVs, big trucks, and crazy people who want to get there first. Secondary highways have fewer of those things, hardly any billboards, less roadkill, fewer chain restaurants, and more scenery.

Do your kids have digital cameras? They're cheap used, and used photo cell phones are practically free. Fisher-Price makes one that is practically bulletproof.

Tell your children about the international legislation that permits jumping on the bed when staying at a motel.

Motels with free breakfast rule. They often let you get yourself an apple and a granola bar for the road. If you don't stay at one of those, pick up a box of cereal and some plastic bowls at a store, and you can breakfast in your room.

Cheap chain hotels in small towns are luxurious, but in large cities, they are kind of like the remand centre. Bars on the front desk wicket? No dial tone? A SHEET DEPOSIT? Super 8, you demean us both.

Don't take a DVD player. Who wants to remember 20 days of Scooby Doo, regardless of what it may teach you about real estate speculation and property values down by the old mill?
posted by Sallyfur at 11:49 AM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is a question that I asked earlier, you might be able to grab some info from that.

I think flying to LV or SF and driving the loop is the best.

CA -> LV -> Grand Canyon -> NM -> Zion, UT -> Moab, UT -> (if possible Colorado Spring and Rockies, if not omit this leg) -> Yellowstone -> Glacier NP -> WA -> OR -> Drive along the coast back to CA -> Yosemite NP -> SF

- Get AAA
- Take a GPS. AAA Road atlas and printouts of directs on your major route
- Laptop (It's better to back up photos to HD or even online)
- Don't ever let the gas tank go below half
posted by WizKid at 11:58 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

The next day, you can drive out of Cortez to Dolores, and do the San Juan Scenic Byway.

Wow, I was just coming here to recommend Dolores, Colorado. Also, maybe take a butterfly net and some jars.
posted by mattbucher at 12:41 PM on April 22, 2008

Whatever you do, don't miss The Corn Palace, Wall Drug, Dinosaur National Monument, Devil's Tower, or any opportunity to acquire a Jackelope head.

There was also some crazed Reptile World-type of roadside attraction we stopped on one of our many road trips to Seattle (ORD-SEA, ATL-SEA), but for the live of me, I can't remember the name or location. Only that it had a geodesic dome that you went into, and the creatures were all running amok within. They also had a piano-playing chicken.

Ah, endless days in the back of the family LTD II station wagon. Lime green with fake wood applique and a total of 5 8-tracks: Neil Diamond, Anne Murray, The Four Seasons, Kenny Rogers and the soundtrack to American Graffiti. If I drive anywhere now with a big sky, "Forever in Blue Jeans" automatically starts up in my head.

And the pools out west, my God! All day in the sun and the water would be 85 degrees at night. Heaven after a full day of looking out the window, completing "YES/NO" books and leafing through a stack of Mad magazines, one of the aforementioned 8-tracks or perhaps Paul Harvey droning in the background. All you can eat smorgasborgs, Super 8, Motel 6 and Thrifty Scot motels, being cautioned not to do Indian war-whoops while driving through reservations, massive collections of brochures for roadside attractions and rest-areas that had signs reading "CAUTION: RATTLESNAKE HAZARD".

Good times, and I will be sharing them with our own kids soon enough.
posted by jquinby at 12:49 PM on April 22, 2008

get one of the national parks passport things. totally worth if if you're cruising around to multiple national parks. it looks like the current revision of it is at
posted by rmd1023 at 12:50 PM on April 22, 2008

I tried to do a West coast version of a road trip last May. We spent 11 days doing California alone. Originally I wanted to also fit in Las Vegas, Utah, and Arizona, Oregon, and Seattle, but I'm so glad we didn't. Even after much research, I vastly under calculated how spread out things are in the West.

For California alone: flew into Los Angles and picked up the car there. We covered San Diego (1 day) , Los Angeles (4 days) , up the pacific coast rt 1 drive stopping at little places along the way, San Francisco (3 days) , spent one day at Muir Woods about a 1 hr drive North of San Francisco I believe where they have redwood trees. Followed by eastward into Yosemite (1 day), then back down to Los Angeles to return the car. We returned the car in Los Angeles, for the sake of a roundtrip ticket being cheaper for flights and not having to pay a one way fee for the car rental. We felt like we were rushing the whole time which was unfortunate.

For the pacific coast route 1 drive we did the whole 8 hour or so drive in one day. I reallywish we stopped for a night in the middle because the whole way we were counting down how many hours until the sunset and it got all scary on the windy road before we could make it to San Francisco. People in Los Angeles thought we were nuts to drive up to San Francisco, but I think this had to do with the whole if it's your backyard you really don't care to do it cause it's always there thinking.

This May we're spending 7 days to do a loop covering the Southwest: picking the car up in Las Vegas and spending the day (1 day) , Zion National Park in Utah (1 day), Bryce National Park in Utah (1 day), Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, Antelope Canyon, and Monument Valley (1 day), the Grand Canyon (1 day), Las Vegas (2 days). I don't know how else to compress this without sacrificing enjoyment to be leisurely at each site. Even though a day each isn't considered enough to experience each site by some people. In July we're planning on spending about 5 or 6 days. Starting off in Seattle, taking an Amtrak train up to Vancouver for a day, two days in Seattle, then two days in Oregon.

Since you're in the Mid-Atlantic, I always thought that was a great starting point for an East Coast road trip. Williamsburg Virginia(?), Washington DC, Philadelphia, Manhattan, Newport RI, Boston MA, Portsmouth NH, Maine are all spread out quite nicely 2 or 3 hours from each other versus the vastly spread out West Coast. I'm originally from Hawaii where road trips aren't really possible. Since I've moved to the mainland I've been passionate about traveling around to see all the different states. Good luck.
posted by Jimmie at 7:26 PM on April 22, 2008

Thanks very much for the input. It sounds like the fly out, rent, and then fly back (perhaps from the same place, perhaps not) is the best option. Highlights and smart travel tips still most welcome.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 9:32 AM on April 23, 2008

Last summer we went west as well with a 9 and 10 year old. I would highly recommend NOT driving across the country with your children, especially if the important stuff they want to see is in and around California.

We flew to Las Vegas (my nine year old thought it was BETTER than Disneyland!) then drove to and through Yosemite, then to Gilroy for the garlic festival (mid July or so) then onto San Francisco. We took ten days. So your two weeks will be eaten up a lot by driving if you choose to drive across the US of A.

We wanted to go to the Grand Canyon too but found that it's a five hour drive in the opposite direction from California where we were going. So we put that off for another trip and substituted Yosemite. You could go to LV and drive through Sequoia National Park.

BTW, since we stated in LV and ended up in SF we had to pay for a one way car rental (about twice as much as if we returned it to LV). But it was worth it.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 10:16 AM on April 23, 2008

If your only reason for returning the car at the same city you rent is to save on the fees, don't do it. You'll end up paying more for gas, and taking time away from the things you want to see.

Use google maps to see how long it will take you to drive various routes. I can drive from where I live in NM to the California coast in a day. A 12 to 14 hour day. People I've known from the east coast think this is crazy, but where I live this (or an even 16 to 18 hours) is what people mean when they say you can drive somewhere in a day. Half a day is 6 to 8 hours. Driving all the way across the US will probably take a good 4 to 5 days of solid driving. This won't be fun for a 5 year old.

Plan ahead and find towns with interesting local parks to stop in for lunch. Make a stop at a supermarket deli for picnic supplies and spread out with a blanket. This is a much better break for the kids than sitting in a restraunt, and it's always interesting to see people in different towns.

Do take the highways instead of the interstates, it's more interesting and also much less wearing on you (during the day) as a driver. At night try to avoid curvy roads, and roads with lots of deer or elk. The interstates will be faster if you are just trying to make time or driving after dark. Trade off often with your spouse on driving. If you do plan to drive a 14+ hour day, don't do 7 hours each, switch every couple of hours.

If you don't have time to see the Grand Canyon south rim, there's an overlook with a glass bridge on the reservation southeast of Las Vegas. I'd definitly see the Grand Canyon in some way.

If you make it out to southern NM, check out Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands National Monument. In northern NM, I recommend the fantastic scenery in the Jemez mountains. The Sangre de Christos are also lovely. In Albuquerque, the city is at about 5000 feet and you can take a tram or drive up to about 10,000 feet and see the view, which might be interesting if you don't see mountains that size much. I'd avoid the 4 corners monument unless the kids are really fascinated by the idea, it's just some concrete with the state boundaries marked on it, not worth the admission fee. The rockies in NM are fairly boring unless you want to go hiking, they are relativly flat here -- Colorado has some that are more impressive.
posted by yohko at 12:59 PM on April 27, 2008

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