“National Lampoon’s Vacation” got it right! There’s nothing that can bring a family together like an epic road trip across the states. Much like the story line, there’s also plenty that can wrong along the way. However, with a bit of forethought, some strategic planning and a handful of helpful tips, your family adventure has the potential to become a legend that is passed on for generations to come. Get out your pens and notebooks because we’ve put together a road trip itinerary that will take your family over halfway across the states, through three national parks and to three national monuments. Read on for all the details, tips and tricks you need to conquer the road like a Griswold.
Your trip begins in Portland and takes your tribe on a loop that stretches over half way across the states and gives you an opportunity to see the stark contrast of the northern and southern regions of the western states.
Portland, Or to Boise, Id
From Portland, you head east on I 84 which takes you across Oregon and down into Idaho. As you drive, you witness the drastic changes in the landscape as you leave the lush Portland area and head down the Gorge and into the dryer eastern Oregon region. Make sure to point out the giant windmills along the way. It’s a great opportunity to talk to your kids about taking care of our planet!
Depending on how your crew holds up, you can call it a day after six hours and 45 minutes of driving and stop in Boise, Idaho, or continue on your way.
Travel Tip #1: Consider booking hotels with pools that are kid friendly. Swimming a great way to get energy out at the end of a long day of driving or right before you hit the road again.
Boise, Id to Idaho Falls, Id
From Boise, jump back on to I 84E and continue on until you come to Idaho Falls. This scenic city has an abundance of cool sites and attractions to tour.
The Japanese Pavilion is a newly renovated icon located in the Friendship Garden at Sportsmen’s Park on the Snake river. This outdoor building offers a place for parents to relax while their children wander through the garden, enjoy water features and even fish off of the shoreline of the river.
If you are looking to stretch your legs after your time on the road, The Green Belt Loop is a 2.28 mile paved path that circles the the majestic falls and is located between the Broadway bridge and the Highway 20 bridge. Your kids will love looking at the geese and bird life, and there are an endless number of opportunities for great pics along the way.
Eateries, like Jalisco’s, line the path and make perfect lunch and dinner stops. Their traditional menu and the colorful atmosphere is fun for the whole family. Order the kids up some enchiladas while you and your partner grab refreshing margarita!
When your crew settles down, check into the Residence Inn. This hotel is walking distance from the Green Belt Loop, Japanese Pavilion, and lots of local eateries. The customer service is excellent and it has beautifully appointed accommodations that make you feel like you are back home in your own bed. Perhaps best of all, the sound proofing in the building is amazing so you are guaranteed a good night’s sleep.
Rooms come with access to a swimming pool, hot tub, and fitness room—and they provide a complementary breakfast to boot. Before you head out, make sure to take advantage of this free meal. The staff goes all out and serves up a full breakfast with both hot and cold options. Rooms start at around $150/night
Travel Tip 2: If you’re a family of five or more, consider reserving a two bedroom suite. Your family will enjoy separate sleeping spaces and bathrooms along with a small living room and dining room area. These spaces feel more like apartment living than hotel hopping.
Idaho Falls, Id to Custer, SD
From Idaho Falls, jump on US-20 E and and drive until you come to the West Yellow stone entrance of Yellow Stone National Park, in Montana. Here you find the town of West Yellowstone where you can gas up, shop for souvenirs, and even grab a bite to eat. This little town has a whole lot of personality that your kids are bound to love. A walk through is a bit like something out of an old western and sets the tone for your drive through the park.
Upon entering the park, a ranger hands you a map with plenty of options for site seeing. Some of the best family highlights include the world’s tallest geyser (Steamboat Geyser), Artist Paint Pots that consist of brightly colored mud pots and small geysers, and of course—Old Faithful.
Old Faithful is worth the stop and wait—the anticipation is half the fun! It also offers your family an opportunity to relax and eat at the cafeteria or snack bar, and to grab a t-shirt at the shop. After Old Faithful is done with its show, hop back in the family rig and find your way through the park to I-90 E. You pass over the continental divide twice as you travel toward the exit, and don’t forget to tell the kids to keep their eyes peeled for wildlife along the way. You are likely to run into bison, elk, deer and even bear before you leave the Yellowstone area.
Once you are out of the park, this route takes past mountains with rock spires — the Absaroka Mountains— and plenty of bear warning signs. You pass through Buffalo Bill State Park in Wyoming and have the opportunity to share his story with your crew.
If you are ready to call it a day and your family likes to camp, there are campsites available here. If not, you can continue across Wyoming and into South Dakota where you can grab a bite and sleep for the night in Custer.
Best Western Buffalo Ridge Inn offers comfortable rooms and has all the amenities a family could ask for. Cool off from your long ride with a swim or ease cramping muscles with a soak in their hot tub. Plan on eating in because they offer a free complimentary continental breakfast with cereal, fruit, eggs coffee and even some hot items. Rates start at about $139/night.
If you are looking for lunch or dinner, grab a table at Sage Creek Grille. This restaurant focuses on locally sourced food and offers a seasonal menu. Try a Buffalo Burger from the Caron Ranch or nosh on the Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon Melt. If you are looking for something on the heavier side, order up the Backyard BBQ 10 oz Top Sirloin Steak. Smaller appetites will love the classic BLT or the basic Farmhouse Burger.
Custer, SD to Kansas City, KS
Get ready to show the kids some of America’s most famous national monuments! Your first stop is Crazy Horse! Just 13 minutes away on US-16/US-385 S, this monument is still under construction, but captivating nonetheless. Be sure to take time to tell your kids the heroic story behind the statue.
You can see the monument from the parking lot and there are great viewing areas to be found after you make your way through the gift shop, which sells miniature models of the finished Crazy Horse monument. Outside of the shop a plaza area has a water feature and bridge where your kids can drop a penny and make a wish. You can even stop and grab a bite and see a much larger statue depicting what Crazy Horse will look like when it’s complete. A bus ride to the base of the monument is available for $4/person. (Children six and under ride for free.)
From Crazy Horse National Monument, hop on US-16 E/US-385 N and take it to SD-244 E. Mt. Rushmore is only a 25 min drive away! The walk into the monument is breathtaking as you find yourself staring at the faces of figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln all surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota. You pass by musicians and walk beneath the flags of each state. Keep your cameral ready, there is plenty to capture while you are there.
Once you are done, you’ve got a long trek to Kansas City via I-90E and I-29 S.
Travel Tip #3: There are plenty of fast food stops along the way, but you can save money by hitting the local grocery and stocking your vehicle with fruits, veggies, whole wheat cracker, bread, meat slices, cheese and treats. This keeps the family satisfied and feeling healthier and happier.
There is little to see along this route and it’s a good time to let your kiddos get out their devices or put a movie on. One destination, you won’t be able to miss is Wall Drug Store. About 50 miles before you get to it, you begin to see signs advertising everything it offers, and it’s worth a stop. Wall Drug consists of a couple of blocks of stores that sell everything from gifts and souvenirs to donuts, soda and coffee. Its a fun place to check out and gives your the kids a break from long drive.
Travel Tip #3: If you end up driving into the night, make sure to use all of your vehicle’s safety functions. We highly recommend using automatic high beams as there is an abundance of wildlife on the road and it takes the work out of turning the brights on and off. This function detects light sources and automatically switches between high beams and low beams to ensure optimum night visibility.
Consider staying at the Embassy Suites in Kansas City. Along with lodging options designed for relaxation, they have a lending locker that allows you to check out anything you might want or need (think board games and blenders), there’s a gym and pool where you can work off road food, and they even have an outdoor grilling gazebo where you can fix your own food like you would on a your deck at home.
Kansas City offers more activities than your family can possibly pack into one visit. Some highlights to consider include Union Station where your little train lovers can check out a miniature train exhibit, visit the planetarium, or try to break free from an escape room. The National World War I Museum and Memorial is breathtaking and offers incredible views of the city. It is the only public museum dedicated to WWI. And if you really want to thrill the kids, take them to Sea Life Kansas City, an interactive aquarium located at the Crown Center. It is home to thousands of aquatic creatures and has interactive touch pools that will satisfy little hands.
All of the activities are sure to work up some appetites. Hit Fritz’s for Hamburger’s and more delivered by miniature trains. This fun restaurant serves breakfast lunch and dinner in a most unique way that will have the kids wanting to order more and more!
Kansas City, Ks to Amarillo, Tx
Kansas is the turning point on this itinerary. We’ve covered a good portion of the northern region of the western states, and now it’s time to head south. Follow I-70 W, I-335 S and I-35 S to Oklahoma City.
This next portion of the trip gives you the opportunity to stop in Oklahoma City and drive along portions of what is left of the famed Route 66. While in Oklahoma City consider visiting the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, the National Cowboy & Wester Heritage Museum, and the Oklahoma City National Memorial to give your family a good taste of the region.
From Oklahoma City, take I-40W to Amarillo, Tx. Along the way, you see plenty of signs and sights that pay homage to the old Route 66. Have the kids keep their eyes open for them. Right off I-40 at exit 143, you run across the Rout66 Museum. It’s worth the stop for fun!
When you reach Amarillo, check in at the Drury Hotel. Surrounded by eateries, this is the perfect overnight stop as you head back towards the PNW. At this point we suggest reserving one of their suites. These spaces separate the sleeping quarters from a living room area, giving kids and parents a little time apart. Rooms start around $119/night and your family will enjoy access to a pool, fitness room and complimentary breakfast. Nearby restaurants include The Plaza, Fuddruckers, and Red Robin. There is plenty to pick from that will please everyone in your crew.
Amarillo, Tx to Durango, Co
Upon leaving Amarillo, the first sight you want to catch is the Cadillac Ranch, a famous Rout 66 icon. To get there, get on I-40 E and drive about 10 minutes. This attraction is right off of the highway out in a field. Here you find a series of Cadillacs lined up like dominos and buried hood-first in the ground. Bring spray paint and let the kids go to town leaving their own mark on the cars, which are already covered in paint. It’s an opportunity sure to please the art lovers in your family.
Once you are done making history, follow I-40 W to I-25 N toward Santa Fe. Then take exit 242 for NM 165 E toward US-550 W/Bernalillo, which will take you into Durango, Co.
This town is built for family adventure! Once you arrive, a bit of rest is in order. The Rochester Hotel is the perfect place to stay while you are in Durango, which is also known as the Hollywood of the Rockies because of the many movies filmed there (including “Vacation”!)
Built in 1892, the renovated Rochester Hotel now has a bar, secret garden and a beautiful updated look. Each of the rooms in the Rochester has a western movie theme based on the films shot in the area. Movie posters framed in marquee lights line the hallways, and the atmosphere elicits the temptation to call it a night, grab some popcorn and watch a flick.
The rooms in the Rochester are beautifully appointed, quaint and cozy, and if your tribe needs some extra space, the Loft is a stunning apartment-style suite with two beds, a dining room, full kitchen and its own roof-style patio. A stay in this lovely space feels a bit like a european escape.
All of this is only a short walk from the vibrant downtown area. Prices start at around $199/night.
photo: courtesy of Mild to Wild
After all of your time on the road, it’s only right to add a little adventure to your trip. Book a white water rafting trip with Mild to Wild! They offer excursions down the stunning Animas river designed specifically for families with children ages 5 and up. You get to experience breathtaking views, thrilling rapids and the staff is super friendly and fun. Rafting is a great way to see the area from a different vantage point and gives your tribe a much needed break from the vehicle.
Durango, Co to Moab Ut
Leaving Durango via US-160 W on the way to Moab, Utah takes you right by Mesa Verde National Park. This national park is a trek worth making. The park is home to well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. As you drive through the park, there are many stops you can make to see and tour these captivating ancient ruins that transports your family back in time. They offer a magical element to your travels. Grab a map on your way in and get the camera ready for some amazing photo ops!
From Mesa Verda National Park, take US-491 N to Moab. This is only a two-hour drive away, giving your family a short day on the road. While you are there, treat yourself to a stay at one of the 3 Dogs & A Moose Cottages. The French Quarter is a beautiful, European-style cottage that offers your family 1,200 square feet of room to relax and play in. The fully equipped kitchen gives you the opportunity to easily make a home-cooked meal, and french doors lead from the kitchen onto a wisteria covered patio where you can sit and enjoy dining together.
These accommodations separate out the sleeping area, which is located on the second floor, from the eating and sitting area located on the ground floor—everyone can take a break from one and other and enjoy taking in the beauty of the area for a while.
While in Moab, you will want to hit Arches National Park. Here you find towering red-rock formations that leave visitors in awe. Look for pinnacles and stone formations with windows in the middle of them. There are trails for scenic hikes and viewpoints that you can drive up to as well. Arches is the perfect way to wrap up your road trip. You have plenty of opportunities to get out and explore and even more opportunities for great family photos.
How you get back to Portland is up to you. It requires a 15 hour drive that takes you from I-70w to I-15 N to I-84, which will take you all the way home.
You catch a glimpse of the Great Salt Lake along the way, and swing right by Boise, which makes a good stopping point for the night if needed.
By the time you return home, you have covered approximately 7,000 miles! A feat well, worth bragging to friends and family about, but most importantly, you have a treasure trove memories you will enjoy sharing for years to come.
What is your dream family road trip? Share it with us in the comments section below.
—Story and photos (unless otherwise noted) by Annette Benedetti