Anyone watch National Lampoon's Vacation and then want to do a big American road trip like the Griswolds - antics and all?
I always did! And when COVID-19 came along and interrupted our original summer plans, we scrambled to find a Plan B. We devised a last minute option, pulled out of the hat in an attempt to salvage the spring break we didn't have and the summer vacation we were still uncertain of.
Our itinerary eventually took us 6,000 plus miles, across 17 states, and visiting many new sites we hadn't seen together as a family. Our goal was to hit a handful of National Parks, but also to take our time to get there, and getting to see states we didn't always have a reason to go to. We knew the time spent in each place would be limited, but our visits were meant to be an appetizer, not the main course. And we decided if we fell in love with any place, we could always come back at a later time for more.
What did we do? How did we do it? And why? Just know that these decisions are very much based on us and our travel style, and could & should be customized to you.
We started with our road trip essentials - this is at least the grounding for any trip via highways we plan on, no matter how big or small!
Car or RV?
We opted for a car - our personal car for that matter - to do this trip. A RV would give us lodging and transportation in one, but we faced a few obstacles with that.
1. This trip was so last minute, we didn't know if we'd be able to find a RV to rent, a spot in RV parks to camp in, and where even start looking.
2. As you can see, we're not RV versed; we've never even driven one, so we decided taking one cross country for the first time may not be the smartest idea.
So we opted to take our car, which has always been in healthy condition and with low mileage. We took it in for a routine oil change and check-up before traveling and now that we're back, we'll take it in again to see if any maintenance is needed (we know that at the very least it will need an oil change). Best of all, we have a trusted auto shop doing it all - if you need a recommendation.
My dad manages a shop here in Orlando (Universal Service Center), and I highly recommend him for anyone looking in the area - whether you're a local needing a place or a visitor wanting to get a quick tune-up before heading home. Best of all, he's right in the tourist corridor (behind Universal Orlando), so he's fairly accessible to anyone.
In either case, you will be spending on gas - but what a better time! Many states were under $2/gallon, so filling up was cheap. We also tried to save on gas prices in other ways:
Hotel or Rental?
Now that the RV is out, we'd need a place to stay. We prefer hotels over rentals to begin with because there's an element of surprise that's eliminated when booking a hotel.
You have a preferred brand? You know what to expect.
You're a loyal guest? You can and likely will get upgraded.
You have an issue with your room? You can ask to be moved, which you can't do in a rental - you're stuck with what you've booked.
We also had two asks during this time that we knew we could depend on hotels for - cleanliness standards being upheld and flexibility with our booking. Corporations have a lot on the line right now with making sure they're meeting regulations and ensuring guests feel safe, so we knew that brand standards would be even more dependable than an independent operator. And let me tell you, they were! Every place we stayed at did a great job of making sure that we, and all other guests, were comfortable while still operating a service-based business. I applaud them all for their efforts to adapt and improve standards during this time.
Below is a listing of the chains that we booked with and information from their own websites on how they are reassuring guests about their new protocols.
We also wanted the most flexibility in changing plans - in case we ran into an issue of wanting/needing to change our route. And many of the top chains are offering generous cancellation policies right now. See again the chains we stayed at and their current booking policies (but always check rates and policies at booking as they're subject to change).
When booking a hotel, though location was always key, our second factor was if breakfast was included. We try to book places where breakfast is included in the rate, because its soooo much easier in the morning with always hungry kids. And though each chain is handling their meal service in a different manner right now, all that offer breakfast in their rate still had it available with modifications (how it was offered varied between brand and location).
We also made sure that a few hotels we booked had self-service laundry available for our use. We packed light - one week but were on the road for two, and knew we'd have to cycle through cloths possibly a few times (especially with hikes and kids). Let me tell you, this made all the difference traveling and was a huge convenience! If you're considering this, I recommend bringing your own laundry detergent and maybe a few dryer sheets - it will save you on purchasing it from the hotel. Just make sure you buy powder vs liquid as all the machines we used utilized that.
We packed lots of snacks! Everyone got a box of their snack of choice and had little snack packs rationed for the day.
If breakfast wasn't available at our hotel, it was the easiest go to meal at a grocery store, with breakfast bars, Pop Tarts, cereal and LOTS of fruit stocked up on.
The number one thing have on hand is water. We grabbed (at least) a gallon at each stop to have with us on the road, in case of emergency or for prepping for our hikes. We also brought reusable water bottles for all and refilled as we went - you'll encounter higher altitudes and drier conditions where being hydrated is essential. Since we were caring for our own things, we also brought a small bottle of dish soap and a sponge, so we were able to clean our bottles daily to ensure we were staying clean.
While eating on the go, we also had fun with it, especially if the plan was to eat out of the car. So where we weren't eating from grocery store stops, we utilized this list of the best fast food in every state (or neighboring state, in some cases) and tried to eat like the locals did! And we found some really great spots we'll recommend as we go along!
Other Must Haves
So here's the fun part, our full itinerary! We'll tell you where we went, what we did, and any additional notes below to help plan!
Note, all our suggestions are based off what we did and what we intended to do. We didn't get to do it all, because our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, but we also loved every bit of our trip! Flexibility is key so customize your schedule as you see fit for you and yours! Just make sure that you do the non-negotiables so you're not disappointed. I'll also mention alternate plans we had in mind so you can make a schedule for yourself.
Like we mentioned before, we prefer hotels over rentals. We also don't have a preferred brand, and booked based off reviews/recommendations. But things could change, so always call ahead and double check - and make alternate plans as needed.
We ate off recommendations and limited how many sit down meals we had. Though we did eat out every so often because it is good for your sanity to be around others and help the service industry serve (they were so appreciative of us being there every single time). We also found that many places offered an order ahead option online, so as we were approaching our destination or getting hungry, we'd create an order for pick up.
We had a rain plan for every stop, just in case - some of them were not necessary because we were willing to get dirty. Most of our rain plans involved what we could do for free. We're Orlando Science Center members, and so we made a list of the reciprocal locations available via the ASTC Travel Passport Program (labeled here as ASTC) so we could utilize our perks. If you have the same available, look into it - usually available with a zoo, children' museum, or other annual pass program. Once again, call ahead to see how they are handling their particular program and honoring reciprocal visitors - we didn't use ours, but many places were requiring timed reservations so we would need to speak to the facility itself to arrange.
Day 1 Orlando, FL to Atlanta, GA (6 hours and 15 minutes)
We made this stop to visit some close friends, so our plans aren't your typical greater Atlanta plans - but they were a perfect kick-off for us! We went peach picking at Gregg Farms, because while in Georgia - and their peach ice cream was also the best thing I've ever tasted (for someone who only likes chocolate).
We had initially discussed going (and staying) out at Stone Mountain, so we could social distance hike. That would be our top recommendation for the area if wanting to stay outdoors.
If you're going to set your eyes on Stone Mountain, the Atlanta Evergreen Marriott Conference Resort is right on property and super convenient.
What's more Georgia than Chick-Fil-A? We were told about Truett's Luau of the Tik-Tok fame - what's greater than Hawaii meets CFA? If you prefer another option, check out Dwarf House instead - the original Chick-Fil-A! We did a few years back and loved that we got to see where it all started - and with a few new menu options too!
Fernbank Science Center (ASTC Passport), Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola
Day 2 Atlanta, GA to Nashville, TN (4 hours and 45 minutes)
We got a late start out of Georgia to Tennessee because we were having a hard time (and lots of tears) leaving friends behind. But once we got on the road we set our eyes on making a quick stop in Chattanooga, to either eat or do a quick bit of sightseeing. We ended up doing a little bit of both. We ordered lunch on the road as we neared and got the fried catfish at Uncle Larry's which was fantastic! After touring the town by car, because we ran into a little rain, we decided to stop and see the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo!
If we had more time (or better weather) in Chattanooga though, we had included the option of going to check out Ruby Falls/Rock City/Lookout Mountain!
We then headed onward to Franklin, TN about 30 minutes south of Nashville. Here we changed to Central Time & gained a whole hour in our day! Friends in the area told us to check out Arrington Vineyards & so that's what we intended to do. The weather cleared up as we arrived so we had a chance to be outdoors and allow the kids to run around a lot of pent up energy. And what a great place it was! We spent the afternoon outside, at a beautiful vineyard, enjoying fantastic wine.
And finally on to Nashville, TN, where we spent the night! We made sure to walk the city, to check out Broadway and drive by the Grand Ole Opry, but were mainly here as a place to sleep near the highway. There wasn't a lot in terms of kid-friendly things to do, but we also arrived by dinner time, having done all the fun stuff we wanted to do (with with friends was perfect), so we grabbed food and settled in to our hotel.
If you're hungry for something local, make sure to stop by Hattie B's for Nashville Hot Chicken - and use the order online to pick-up instead of waiting in line! The lines are going to be long - there are several locations and both that we drove past had lines out the door.
Hyatt Place Downtown with breakfast included (operating close to normal)! The hotel is central in Nashville, only a few blocks from Broadway and just off the river. We loved that we were somewhere we could walk downtown without being caught in the middle of it all.
Adventure Science Center (ASTC), Grand Ole Opry
Day 3 Nashville, TN to St. Louis, MO (4 hours and 30 minutes)
The drive between the two cities will actually take you through two other states - Kentucky and Illinois. So just for the fun of it, we ate on the road and did as the locals did with KFC (which admittedly the kids & I had never had)!
Our first National Park visit was also on the list for arrival - The Gateway Arch! It's fairly easy to get to when coming into St. Louis, as you'll pass right next to it, but it wasn't open to visit while we were there. We still got the iconic picture under the arch as we entered the gateway to the west - and if you're looking to do the National Park Junior Ranger program, you can still complete the program online by downloading and mailing in so your kids can get their badge for seeing this location.
We had also listed the options of visiting the St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis Union Station, Forest Park, Citygarden, or grab a drink in one of many breweries, and if we were spending more time in the city, we would! For us though, this was a chance to catch up with friends we hadn't seen in years, so our time there was time well spent. But had we been on our own, all of the above was recommended and was well-intended on our list.
Be sure to stick around to see fireflys at night - we had them in Atlanta, Nashville and here - but the kids actually got to catch some with friends while in STL. It was the best thing ever for Florida kids who don't get that back home!
Hyatt Regency The Arch which is located right under the arch! And it was fairly accessible to many of the sites we planned to do.
St. Louis Science Center (ASTC)
Day 4 St. Louis, MO to Omaha, NE (6 hours)
As we left St. Louis, the drive took us through Kansas City - so we made sure to see a few of the Walt Disney Landmarks on the Missouri side, being the Disney fans that we are! We were also there in time for lunch, so were told to check out Joe's BBQ in Kansas City.
The restaurant itself is in Kansas City, KS, so you can add another state to the list when you cross the state line that runs through the city. Joe's was another order ahead and drive up to pick up place - we split The Hogamaniac so we could try a little bit of everything and it was as good as it was said to be!
We then drove on to Omaha, a stop we intended to break up the long drive across South Dakota to Badlands and Mount Rushmore. We chose Omaha because we had friends in the city we hoped we could visit with, but we also considered staying in Sioux Falls, SD - if you want a different stop.
The Omaha Zoo is one of the best in the country and we were told to visit when we came - but they were requiring timed entries and we didn't have all the time we wanted to see it, so had to skip it. So instead we walked the city to get to know it and crossed the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, that allows you to walk into Iowa from Nebraska. The very casual experience - getting to walk a suspension bridge over the Missouri River & into another state- was all the rage to the kids!
There's also another National Park available at the site, Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, so we intended to get a Junior Ranger badge here. Unfortunately it also remains closed, but luckily the with the NPS offering the option to complete the workbooks online and mail in to receive a badge, we saved ourselves from tears.
We were told to visit Old Market and in particular eat at Spaghetti Works with kids. We also happened to be there on Monday, when kids eat free, so it was an added parenting win for us.
Holiday Inn Express Downtown – Old Market had breakfast included and a place to do laundry. The hotel is a little way off of Old Market, but we didn’t mind the walk which put us near museums and a quieter part of town. This hotel also tried to operate normally, providing us gloves and requiring masks for our full breakfast buffet, and allowing the gym to stay open but with wipes to clean down machines.
Day 5 Omaha, NE to Badlands, SD (6 hours and 30 minutes)
The drive over was a lot of green and farm and all you'd expect from being in the Midwest- until you actually get to Badlands. But in a small ray of hope, you'll gain a whole hour heading west here as you cross over into Mountain Time Zone.
Badlands National Park is an easy drive through with a few pull offs to hike - we spent about two hours between driving through and exploring on foot. But if you want to just enjoy the drive, it is enough to appreciate this location and its ever changing beauty. You'll come in from the Northeast Entry and drive the Badland Loops Road through the park.
The Ben Refiel Visitor Center is a short drive from the entry, and though it's doors are shut, Rangers are posted outside under tents to answer questions and provide Junior Ranger Activity Books and Badges. They'll give parents the book & the badge and "deputize" us, so we can later swear in the kids to being rangers, once completing their activities. The experience is a little lost for those who haven't done this before, but for us a huge time savings - we didn't have to worry about driving back to the Ranger to earn the badge, so it was much appreciated to not have to on this trip!
We got out at Big Badlands Overlook, Fossil Exhibit Trail, Panorama Point, and Burns Basin Overlook to enjoy a few walks and wildlife up close (listen for the rattlesnakes). The animals are abundant and you want to take them all in. If you want to see more, near the end, take Sagecreek Rim Drive. You'll take a dirt road that will lead you to prairies, where you'll find prairie dogs, big horn sheep and bison all near the side of the road. This was a huge hit for all to be so close to everything!
From there, you're only a hour and half drive to Mount Rushmore. The Mount Rushmore Memorial is currently open until 10p during summer, with the Evening Lighting Ceremony at 9p. After we checked out into our hotel, we headed over to be able to see it before it got dark and for the ceremony itself. The Memorial does cost $10 to park and it is not included in the NPS pass. So if you do want to make the most of your visit here, come earlier in the day to spend more time here - though a ton of time is not needed. And make sure to get your kids a Junior Ranger Badge here too - so far this was the 4th of the trip!
You'll also want to make sure to see Crazy Horse Memorial while you're in the Keystone area - we stopped by the morning we were leaving and got to see the artifacts and hear the story about this monument. It's a separate entry cost but your contribution goes a long way to keep the foundation alive. We didn't know much about it before going, but we are so glad we got to stop and visit. The story behind it is moving and the mission is inspirational; you'll have to see it for yourself to truly appreciate the full scope. The memorial itself is an ongoing project that will continue to finish for generations to come - so you will always see a different view of this massive rock sculpture between visits as it works towards completion.
If you have a full day to spend in the area, you can easily spend it between both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse and be truly inspired by the legacy of these monuments.
Holiday Inn Express Mount Rushmore in Key Stone, South Dakota was only 10 minutes from Mount Rushmore with breakfast included. The hotel is located in beautiful Keystone which is only a short drive from Mount Rushmore. It can be a bit of a tourist trap, but as far as cute mountain towns go, it’s worth seeing. The hotel also offered a full breakfast buffet and opened seating outside to limit the number of people in their dining space.
Burger Time is a North Dakota staple, but we found one in South Dakota along our pathetic and decided to try it out!
Play in the rain!
Day 6 & 7 Keystone, SD to Jackson, Wyoming (8 hours and 30 minutes)
You have a long drive through Wyoming to get to your next park, and this is how we started planning our double days. Anywhere that we would take a 7+ hour to get to, we ultimately decided to do two overnights in. We could've done longer, but it would also have changed the number of parks we saw and the route we took back home. And since we were set on seeing certain parks, this is the plan we all agreed on.
Grand Teton National Park is right outside Jackson, and you can drive through part of the park to get to Jackson itself. The park is open 24/7 and is only a few minutes from Jackson, a charming little city every bit worth seeing.
We looked up a list of family hikes in Grand Teton, knowing we wanted to do something, but not get too adventurous (we didn’t have bear spray on us, of course). And with little ones, hikes can't get to go too far or we'd end up leaving one of them behind. So we enjoyed being outdoors here, taking in mountain views we don't get back home, and seeing this incredible place formed from an earthquake. We walked over to Jenny Lake and hiked the String Lake Trail at sunset, which couldn't have been more perfect to round out the day.
The Junior Ranger program was also available here, so they were given a book and a badge to complete as they explored!
Once you're in Grand Teton, you can drive straight through an hour & 15 minutes north to reach Yellowstone National Park. We reserved this for the next day, so we could spend as much of the day as possible exploring. We packed lunch, got on the road early, and made it to the park a little after 9am. We had mapped out the drive round-trip through the park, which would take about 4 hours with no stops to complete. But once we arrived we were given current maps indicating that some roads were closed including the one that would make the round trip drive possible - Tower-Roosevelt to Chittenden Road (the closest parts of the park to Montana).
We instead decided to take shorter route with stops along the way - the first one was to see Old Faithful. The NPS website will make geyser eruption predictions and you can also check at the entrance to the park on arrival. Once you're in the park, cell service is EXTREMELY limited, so if you're trying to find updates, you'll need a hot spot to connect.
Old Faithful has seating set up around it to watch the eruption - it becomes a people magnet and for those of us that don't enjoy crowds, unappealing. We watched the eruption from behind in a grassy area under the shade, acting us unFloridian as they come. But there was no one gathered near us and made for better views. We then decided on a hike around Upper Geyser Basin to see the other geysers and pools. It does get a little crowded in spots, but its easy to avoid people as long as you keep on moving. We also got to see a second eruption of Old Faith from our hike, from a distance on our way back down Upper Geyser Basin Trail, and it was actually more impressive than being up close.
We continued north towards Madison then back easy to Norris Canyon Road to see Lower and Upper Falls. Lamar Valley, a great area to see wildlife is tucked away in the far northeast corner near the road closures, so we knew we'd be giving up that since we didn't want to drive back the way we came. But the path we took, east to Norris Canyon Road and then south to Grand Loop Road, took us right by Hayden Valley, another great area to see wildlife. And wildlife did we see! Wildlife jams are a thing here, so don't be surprised to get caught in traffic to find a bear, moose, coyote or bison (of many other animals) on the side of the road. Our kids didn't know better missing out on Lamar Valley, and since we didn't want to add extra time to our drive, we were happy with all we got to see with this modified route. We finished with exploring the West Thumb region, near Yellowstone Lake, before calling it a (long) day in the park.
If you're looking to spend more time in the park though, we recommend checking out this site for a few family hikes. The park is open 24/7 and over the summer, sunset is after 9p. Do come prepared though, since there aren't many market places or gas stations in the park, so top off when you get a chance and make sure to have enough water and snacks. Also come in layers - the nights in late June/early July easily got in the 40s, but then warmed up as we neared the sun. So we definitely needed to be able to peel off and layer up depending on where we were! The park itself also warns hikers to carry bear spray with them and has it available for purchase in various spots - with the amount of wildlife near common grounds we saw, I'd definitely get some if venturing off the beaten path, especially alone or with little ones, since the wildlife seemed a little fearless of the visitors.
This is one stop where you can't get your ranger book or badge as the visitor centers are closed and the rangers are manning the park!
Hampton Inn Jackson Hole was a little way out of town square, but near a grocery store and gas station. It also came with breakfast included. The gym was open and they were doing to-go bags of breakfast with lots of food. If you don’t enjoy the selection, there’s a grocery store right next door with a Starbucks inside.
We enjoyed staying outside of the park, especially trying to divide ourselves between both. But if you’re intent on exploring Yellowstone, there is lodging available in the park and worth checking staying north, east or west of the park! Jackson is as close as you can get to Grand Teton, so you’re in a good spot to visit this park solely - or if you’re like me, and getting lost in the woods is not really your thing!
Taco John's is Wyoming's top fast food chain - a local Taco Bell with a really great potato olés!
We decided to eat out one night in Jackson, so we could see this little town too. Masks were required in Jackson, so it made us feel better about being out and about. We decided on Jackson Drug, an original soda fountain right across from a city square that the kids burned some energy running around in. I can't vouch for it, but the Elk Burger was recommended; and save room to split a dessert too - you can't come to a soda fountain without getting one!
Play in the rain!
Day 8 & 9 Jackson, WY to Moab, UT (8 hrs)
This was another long drive south, so it would once again be a 2-night stay. Personally, these were the parks I was most looking forward to seeing. The rock formation and desert climates call to me, so I was thrilled with the time we'd get time to explore here.
Moab, Utah is situated right in the middle of two National Parks - Arches and Canyonlands, so can believe that the views from the city are extraordinary. We arrived after an extremely long drive, and since the temperature went from winter to dead of summer, we knew we owed the kids some pool time. With a pool, splash pad, and hot tub at the hotel, the kids were quickly able to adapt and wear out any bit of energy they had left in the desert sun.
The city of Moab is requiring masks be worn by all, outside of exercising or outdoor activities, and our hotel did a great job of minimizing exposure of guests to each other.
The next morning we got up early and decided that we would drive out further (30 minutes to the entrance) to see Canyonlands National Park. Since Arches was easily accessible, right next to our hotel, we felt another drive out made the most sense first thing in the day. We contemplated getting up early to see the sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, since the park is open 24/7, but sleep at this point became more important than a 5am wake up. No regrets though because we all but made up for with the sunset we got at the end of the day.
We found another listing of family hikes to take, and also consulted with rangers at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center which was open. It's also a great restroom stop and last chance to pick up a gallon of water if you forget before you go exploring this park. And don't forget your ranger book and badge - at this point you're at 7 parks if you follow the trip we did!
We also opted to just stick to Islands in the Sky. The drive to The Needles was further out, and though we would have loved to have see it all, a taste was all we needed. We first drove over and hiked to Mesa Arch, which has as an extraordinary view as you'd imagine it to be. We then head over to hike Whale Rock, which was said to be an easy hike for kids, where they had a little bit more room to roam. Finally, we took the drive to Grand View Point Overlook, which was a nice mini preview of what they'd see at the Grand Canyon in the days to come. And the hike was such a wonderful walk, making you feel so small compared to everything else.
To see Arches National you have to either go early or come back late. Not just to dodge the mid-day heat, but because the park will get at capacity by lunch. We didn't find any issues with that, because after a full morning of exploring, we took a break at the hotel pool, with plans to go for an evening hike and picnic dinner.
Coming back into the park after 5 also means there's not an entry fee and the crowds are all but gone. The only thing is visitor centers and stores are closed, so come prepared - and ready to download the ranger book for mailing in. We found a few family hikes to take that would allow us to see the park but also allow us all a pace that meant fun!
We started at Balanced Rock which was a quick loop with some extraordinary views. We also had time to hike the Delicate Arch Viewpoint Trail, Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch (where we stumbled upon a deer a few yards away), Broken Arch Trail, and all our favorite, Sand Dune Arch Trail. Sand Dune gave us a chance to take off our shoes, walk on powder red sand, and let the kids build castles, while we soaked in the energy from these rocks.
We also took the whole driving tour of the park and set a pace that got us to sunset before we left. My one ask was to see the sunset here, while my husband wanted to star gaze - so we found Panorama Point where we got the best view of the park and the setting sky. Before we left to take our star gazing drive, we were surprised to see the full moon illuminating the La Sal Mountains as it rose behind it. It was such a surprise to catch this special view - we knew that we now wouldn't be able to see stars, but ended up with the best show we could ask for!
Hyatt Place Moab with breakfast included and a place to do laundry. The rooms were a very generous size and the hotel was immaculately kept. It is the closest hotel to the road leading to the parks, so if you don’t mind staying on the outskirts of Moab (which is easy to get into anyways), this is the perfect spot! They still offered breakfast to-go - where you asked the kitchen staff for items they’d load up in a bag. The gym was also still open and asked to limit the number of guests in at a time.
In-N-Out Burger is one of our absolute favorite places in the west, so you can bet finding a location on our drive meant a stop! It seemed to be the same for the city of Provo, as there was a quite a wait in the drive-thru to get a late lunch. But we got our Protein-Style Burgers and Animal-Style fries and lived happily ever after.
Does it rain here?
Day 10 & 11 Moab, UT to Sedona, AZ (7 hours and 45 minutes)
One thing to note is that entering the state of Arizona, they're on Mountain Standard Time, which right now mimics Pacific Time. So we (by surprise) gained another hour which we weren’t expecting - now at a 3 hour difference from back home.
We wanted to drive south to Grand Canyon via Monument Valley but all Native American lands are closed currently, so we couldn't access it. Also expect when driving a vast majority of this drive to not have many to any places to stop. This area was literally shutdown - not even a person in sight.
We had intended to come in through Highway 64 at Desert View (eastern side) of the Grand Canyon, drive the rim to the west and exit via the South Rim outside the city of Tusayan. But times being as they are, they didn't have the highway or Eastern entrance open, which gave us a longer drive to and through Flagstaff to get into Southern Rim to enter (and exit) the park.
But not to be taken for granted, we got to see on this drive, the range that made the exterior part of the Grand Canyon. We had once before visited the south rim of Grand Canyon coming in from Las Vegas - and entering is a surreal experience. You drive through a forest - Kaibab Forest - and green is not much of what we expected from a canyon!
The Grand Canyon had one Visitor Center Store near Mather Point open where you could get your ranger book and badge. They required masks when visiting in and outside the area to reduce exposure and limit contact that the employees had with guests. We knew that this region of the canyon was not one we would do a lot of exploring in, because the hikes are more treacherous, so we opted to walk the trail at Mather Point and then head over to Grandview Point for a little hike (before deciding we rather not).
We have full intentions of coming back to Grand Canyon when they're a little older, so the short visit here was worth it just for their reactions alone. We have our sights set on taking them to the Western Rim later, which would give us all an opportunity to view the Canyon in a different light. Plus with a lot more stuff to do there, a trip for older kids is definitely on the docket!
We planned to stay in Sedona, two hours south of Grand Canyon, as we heard so much about what a wonderful desert retreat this is. We also knew there were family hikes we could do with kids in the area, while also relaxing before we started the long days of driving back east. We visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross, enjoyed the pool at our resort, and then spent the evening with a picnic dinner and enjoying the Bell Rock Trailhead. Your America the Beautiful Pass is also available for use last state parks, where you would otherwise need a day pass to park and access.
Hilton Bell Rock was the perfect retreat! The resort was very through in explaining Hilton’s CleanStay initiative and ensuring we understood all measures they’re taking to stay safe. The have a restaurant on-site still operating with mainly outdoor seating being used. They also keep their pool open in shifts, so they have an opportunity to clean and sterilize throughout the day. The pool never got busy and didn’t change any of the enjoyment or experience for us with the limited times.
Eegee's and try the frozen drinks!
Does it rain here?
Day 12 Sedona, AZ to El Paso, TX (8 hours)
White Sands is only an hour outside of El Paso, so we chose to stay here with hopes of visiting our next National Park. Before we even left on our trip, the park was still shutdown, but we still opted for this route - a sacrifice we knew could come. When started our road trip, White Sands had opened back up, so were excited about our plans coming back to life! When we arrived to the New Mexico border though, clear highways signs mandated a quarantine of all visitors for 14 days, so we drove straight through the state to Texas.
This was one of the longest drives of the trip with the shortest turn around when getting back on the road - and driving back east we lost a whole hour thanks to those time zones that at once point worked in our favor. So we arrived in enough time to grab dinner and settle in. We had found information on visit El Paso with kids, but decided that we were all spent -and another day of long driving called for a nice relaxing evening at the rooftop pool.
Plus, just taking in that you’re a few miles from Mexico, was an experience all its own. The culture here embraces their proximity to Mexico, and we saw several Mexican license plates mixed in with local ones as we played the license plate game on our trip (42 of 50 states, 3 provinces in Canada, 1 Mexico). It was definitely a city we appreciated getting to pass through and really makes you question all those borders we want to make exist. Being here, you see people just live all one and the same, only an imaginary line distinguishing the two nations. The people are so infused in both cultures, you already feel like you’re in a different place, but also one that feels so familiar.
We ordered from the restaurant attached to the hotel, Mamacita's, which was also highly regarded in the city! With a twist on every Mexican dish, we enjoyed the Bacon Wrapped Shrimp with Jalapeno Jam dip.
Relax for the next long drive back home
Day 13 El Paso, TX to San Antonio, TX (7 hours and 45 minutes)
Texas is big, y'all. Like really big.
And this stretch of the drive on I-10 is nothing but long and boring. Actually, the most interesting part was driving through a Border Patrol Checkpoint as we glided parallel to the Rio Grande (you know, the dividing line to Mexico). We didn't know this would be a requirement for the drive until we put it on our GPS. But because of the proximity to Mexico - in some spots you're only a few miles off - there is a checkpoint in either direction of the highway near El Paso that you quickly (but timidly) pass through.
We knew we would need to break from staring at nothing but desert, so we opted to stop in San Antonio for the night. We did lose another hour here too, so it made sense to take a break.
We arrived knowing we wouldn't be able to see The Alamo because it was closed thanks to Corona, but we were able to walk by it and tell the kids the history and significance of it still standing. We also decided to take a boat tour after walking the River Walk. Much of the River Walk is open and Texas is requiring that masks be worn out in public, so we felt very safe being outdoors in limited crowds and showing our kids this charming spot.
Go Rio Cruises is operating their narrated boat tours on limited capacities - 10 people per boat and spaced out per group. Boats are running every 30 minutes and being sanitized thoroughly between each shuttle. We had done the same tour years ago when we came, and were accustomed to overcrowded tourist attractions and playing footsies with strangers. So to now be able to sail in comfort and also do so feeling safe, was a very welcome change.
Hilton Palacio Del Rio with laundry available. The hotel is right on the River Walk and once again emphasized the Hilton CleanStay standards. The customer service in this spot was also superb - probably some of the best of all trip!
Iron Cactus was right on the River Walk where we got to eat outside with the birds and ducks. The Crab Stuffed Jalapeños were THE best (and so was the jalapeño margarita)!
DoSeum & Witte Museum (ASTC)
Day 14 San Antonio to Galveston (3 and 45 minutes)
My husband spent part of his younger years in Texas and one place he remembers going to is Galveston to play on the beach with his family. It was his one ask in the trip, so we worked it out to see a blast from his past. This gave us a chance to see a part of who he was, while also enjoying a short stop on our way back.
The Strand Historic District has shopping and food that you can walk only a few blocks from the cruise piers (when they are operational). Pleasure Pier was further down from our hotel, an amusement park over the Gulf. But for us, this was a stop to enjoy the beach of the Gulf! And we did so until the sunset.
Double Tree by Hilton was right across from the beach and was a perfect location to social distance! There was a pool with a bar on-site and limited dining ( to-go food to purchase), but plenty of restaurants within walking distance.
Miller's Seawall Grill had the best seafood platter made for sharing - gumbo, fish, shrimp, crab, and oysters!
Houston Space Center is only a short drive from Galveston and an ASTC location or pay a visit to the pyramids of Moody Gardens.
Day 15 Galveston, TX to New Orleans, Louisiana (5 hours and 45 minutes)
We came to New Orleans just this past fall and fell in love with the city. We enjoyed that our first time was adults only, and remarked how much the kids would love the new meets the old charm of this city. And even saved some things to do with them - like take a ride down the Mississippi on a steam boat.
Little did we know we'd be back so soon and with the chance to come here to see the city tamed down to a pint-sized version. Since our route was going to take us in through the panhandle we decided to stop and see NOLA in rare form - kid-friendly.
Unlike back in November, the street cars were running on Canal Street and we took one down to French Market to start showing them the city on foot. We took them riverside and showed them around the French Quarter. We decided to ride the Steamboat Natchez at its evening sailing, so grabbed a quick bite of traditional food to eat before boarding.
The crew on the Natchez enforced masks and had temperature checks before guests boarded. They spaced out seating, and made sure rules were being followed. A band played as we sailed the river, and the members that did not have instruments requiring mouthpieces wore masks. And the boat was not crowded, a welcome change from what I'm sure the typical summer months would bring.
Intercontinental was where we had stayed on our visit in November. We decided to come back because we liked its location - far enough from the action, but close enough to points of interest. And to be completely honest, I do an extensive search of Tripadvisor before any of my stays to ensure that "haunted" does not show up at hotel of choice (yes, I'm that person - but I can guarantee you are getting a through search from me). This one was one of the very, very few that came back all good!
Cafe du Monde for the beignets
The Original French Market for the shrimp boil
Acme for the oysters
... and we have even more recommendations from our couples' trip out here!
Louisiana Children’s Museum (ASTC)
Day 16 New Orleans, Louisiana to Orlando (9 hours)
This drive could have been worse, but we took a quick pit-stop in Panama City Beach to see their cousin. It's been a long 4 months since they had, as I'm sure its been for many, so it was nice to just give him a big hug.
They took us to Sharky's to enjoy beach views, time in the sand, and lunch before hitting the road again back to Orlando. The smoked tuna was shared by all as the best thing on the menu!
Once you're back in your home state, the time just seems to fly by, and this was the easiest of all the long drives we did - though the longest day of driving. We got home late at night and exhausted enough that the time change settled in pretty quickly.
How'd It Go?
It was a lot of driving, but it was so completely worth it!
We didn't have to alter many of our plans, only make a few concessions when we couldn't get into National Parks or down certain roads because of closures. Yet we went in expecting that and weren't (too) disappointed with some slight deviations.
It helped very much having a plan of what you wanted to do, so we always had a goal in mind. But it helped even more to have flexible plans that we could adjust if needed!
If you're planning on doing a similar trip, we recommend giving yourself the same type of grace we did - always not just now. It is work to make it work out.
Overall, go in with a good attitude and a solid plan B, and we promise it'll be smoother than expected. And most of all, enjoy the ride!