How to Plan a National Parks Road Trip

In seven weeks, we will embark on a sixteen-day adventure through Glacier, North Cascades, and Olympic National Parks. With only three parks on the itinerary this year, this trip marks a significant departure from our usual pace. In the past, we’ve visited as many as 9 National Parks and/or Monuments in a single trip. So why the change? In weighing the same factors we consider every year, certain factors just prevailed over others this time around. Our National Parks trip planning is constantly evolving. With that in mind, here’s a how-to guide to help you plan your next National Park road trip adventure. Remember: there are no right or wrong answers. There are only answers that work best for your family.

Consider age

This year, our kids are 14, 12, and 8. They’re physically tough enough and mentally open to shouldering a backpack load, making backpacking our activity of choice this go-around. We’re focusing on several 2-3 day treks in each park, which lengthens the amount of time we’ll need to spend per park if we want to see other sites not covered on our backpacking routes. When our youngest was 4 years old, however, a one-day trip to Mount Rainier was just the right amount of time to see a few sights and play in the snow. A longer stay with hikes may not have worked out as happily for our toddler or us. As kids age, their attention span and physical abilities grow. Something that’s worked for our family is to match growing skill levels with age-appropriate activities and visit lengths. We use our youngest son’s age as a compass for the rest of the family–our motto is: if the youngest is appropriately challenged and happy, everyone’s happy.

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Mount Rainier National Park, 2013
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Mount Rainier, 2013

Driving–what’s your comfort level?

I’m happy to drive for hours on end but will avoid city driving like the plague. My husband, much like the kids, prefers short drives. None of us enjoy driving at night. We take all of this into consideration when planning our trips, limiting drive times to 8 hours or less with bathroom/snack breaks every 3 hours.

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Driving Salt Lake City to Estes Park
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Favorite SLC stop: Crown Burgers, yum!

Two years ago, we tried to maximize our park time by driving between parks at night. We quickly realized we were not comfortable driving in unfamiliar territory at night, especially when tired. Your family, however, may feel differently. You’ll also need to determine the total distance you’re comfortable covering over the course of your trip, which, in turn, factors into how many parks you’ll be able to see. Some families may not want to drive more than 400-500 miles total; this will obviously factor into how many parks you’re able to see. 1,500-2,000 miles works well for us; we tend to find distances longer than 2,500 miles grueling. Your mileage (pun intended) may vary. Google Maps is fantastic for planning drive distances and times.

Narrow your geographical focus: what do you want to see?

This is probably the first question I ask when planning a trip. Two years ago, we focused on parks in the Southwest. Three years ago, we focused on San Francisco and Seattle sightseeing with short stops in between at Redwood National Park, Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, and Mount Rainier. If your focus is city sightseeing, you wouldn’t plan as many park visits. If your focus is visiting the parks, you’d probably limit your city sightseeing. You can still do everything, of course, but it’s helpful to narrow your focus so you can plan your time accordingly.

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Historic carousel, Golden Gate Park
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Hiking Point Cabrillo, Mendocino, CA

For those planning park visits, this map is a good starting point to determine which parks make good geographic sense to combine. Some combinations are obvious: Yellowstone and Grand Teton, Bryce and Zion. Others are less so. For example, tacking on Mesa Verde to the Utah five as we did might resonate with you; others might disagree. Similarly, some might argue that Black Canyon of the Gunnison should have been added to the itinerary given its proximity to Arches and Mesa Verde, but we opted to see Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks after Zion instead, based on our interests. Only you can decide what is best for your family.

Determine your limiting commodity and balance against cost

This is a big one for us. There are so many individual cost factors to consider: airfare, rental car, gas prices, distance, lodging, admission, activities, food. Once we’ve decided our general geographical focus, I start looking at airfare (we live in Hawaii, so airfare is always a factor for us). It’s cheaper to fly into Salt Lake City and drive to Rocky Mountain Park, even with an added day of rental car and gas prices, than it is to fly into Denver from Honolulu. However, the addition of a driving day (because we are unwilling to drive at night) means we have one less day for park visiting, which, in turn, affects my husband’s limited vacation days. These are the kinds of decisions we grapple with in planning our itinerary. For us, cost generally takes precedence over other considerations; other families might find time or age to be their limiting commodity. You’ll need to balance your limiting commodity with your values to prioritize what’s best for you. For example, given x number of dollars, we’d rather rent kayaks at our destination than eat out, but other families might feel differently. The key lies in determining what your family values. This not only makes good financial sense; it also ensures your family will gain optimal enjoyment from your itinerary.

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Driving to Rocky Mountain Park from SLC: Dinosaur National Monument

Research is your best friend in determining what kinds of activities are available in each park or city. I borrow guide books from the library and stalk the web for months beforehand, reading everything from blogs to Trip Advisor to find activities of interest. From there, I jot everything down in a notebook, noting where I found the information as well as any costs associated with the activity. Once I’ve secured airfare, lodging, and car rental, I subtract these costs from our overall budget, leaving me with a working knowledge of how much we have left to spend on activities. Some years, airfare and gas prices are cheaper, leaving us with more discretionary income to spend on extras like float trips or horse rides. Other years, airfare and gas prices prevent us from partaking in too many extras. That’s okay. I love the challenge of finding the most bang for our buck. Don’t be afraid to Google terms like “free cheap family activities Glacier National Park.” You’d be surprised by how many helpful returns you’ll find.

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A favorite extra: Grand Teton sunrise float trip, 2015

Map your route

Once you’ve considered your children’s ages, determined your driving comfort level, narrowed your geographical focus, and decided what activities you’d like to do, you’re ready to map your route to finalize driving distances and times. This is easy to do with Google Maps. We like saving our maps to use for navigational purposes–losing cell coverage on the road happens a LOT more than we’d like. We also always carry a paper map as backup (you can even print your Google map if you’d like). We’ve learned the hard way to carry a physical list of grocery stores, restaurants, and gas stations on our route as well, especially in unfamiliar terrain.

From here, I create a detailed itinerary, being sure to note any non-negotiables. Pre-paid campgrounds or a motel reservation would be an example of a non-negotiable–a place we’re required to be at a specific time. Some might argue that this defeats the spontaneity of a road trip. I’d argue just the opposite: once you plot your non-negotiables, you’re able to see those pockets of time that are negotiable–times when you’re free to let the wind carry you where it may. I research endless options for this very possibility, noting these options in the itinerary. I list local parks, ice cream parlors, paranormal exhibits, etc. in areas on our route so that should the opportunity arise, we’re prepared with fun options to choose from. Our visit to Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, South Dakota was the result of this very type of negotiable options list.

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Dinosaur Park, Rapid City, SD

Say yes to kitsch!

Once you’ve plotted your destinations and planned your activities, it’s always fun to compare your route with this map from Roadside America. Our focus is always the National Parks, but we love a giant jackalope as much as anyone else. Kitschy attractions like Wall Drug are a fun and integral part of Americana that define and differentiate the road trip experience from other kinds of travel. Our 6 and 1/2 hour drive from Estes Park, Colorado to Badlands National Park wouldn’t have been the same without a stop at Carhenge or Hay Bales Easy Chair Toilet in Alliance, Nebraska. Both were equal parts hilarious and bizarre. Stopping at these attractions definitely broke the monotony of the drive. To this day, the kids still talk about our Arby’s lunch in Alliance. Nobody remembers what we ate, but everyone still remembers the giant blow-up gorilla across the street!

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Roadside America: Carhenge, NE
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Alliance, NE

Don’t forget the music

No road trip would be complete without your favorite music pumping through the speakers. If you’re renting a car, however, streaming your tunes can be frustrating if you don’t have the right equipment. We no longer count on having a CD player or Bluetooth car phone music adapter. Instead, we travel with this wireless FM transmitter radio adapter car kit, which allows us to stream our music using a non-broadcasting radio frequency. It’s cheap, easy, and fail-proof: every rental car has radio. We also no longer rely on the Cloud for road trips–coverage can be spotty in remote areas–we download music we can’t live without and use the Cloud when we have coverage.

A new-to-us tip we’re trying out this year is audio books, which sounds like a great idea. I will report back after our trip to let you know whether it was successful or not!

Tell me: what’s your favorite tip for planning a National Parks road trip? Favorite song on your road trip playlist?

 

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15 thoughts on “How to Plan a National Parks Road Trip”

  1. I use the exact same process to to plan our park trips. I have multiple Word docs going on my laptop with our current trip and future trips in the planning phase. Great job.

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    1. So glad to hear you use the same planning process…makes me feel less obsessive. 🙂 Planning trips really is half the fun! Love that you have multiple docs going–sounds like a great way to build anticipation.

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  2. Love your tips, I am going to check out your links and use them for the rest of our trip. I love researching a trip and then executing it. Part of the fun is learning and figuring out your trip. When we did Yellowstone with our kids, we did the same thing planned it to be sure they were engaged. Can’t wait to hear about your trip.

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    1. So glad you can use the links, Tiffany! That makes me so happy to hear. 😀 I couldn’t agree with you more–planning anticipation + execution equals twice the fun. Yellowstone is such a great park for all ages. With all of your planning, I bet your kids had a wonderful experience.

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    1. Hi, Heather! We really enjoyed Dinosaur National Monument. It’s not a large park, but their embedded fossil display is impressive. I heard there are great hikes, too, though we didn’t have time to do them. I just asked the kids if they enjoyed the park (in case I’m making the memory larger-than-life in my head), and my 12-year-old replied, “Yes, it’s a definite must-see!” 😀 Hope that helps!

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  3. I just found your blog and I’m loving it already! You guys travel like my family and I do…multiple national parks at a time, cramming in as many hikes as we can. Sounds very familiar.

    Glacier is my absolute favorite place…you’re going to love it! Have a wonderful trip!

    Diana

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Diana! Love connecting with other people who love the National Parks! It makes me so happy to hear that you love Glacier. We’re so excited to go…all the pictures we’ve seen have been so unbelievably beautiful; I can only imagine how gorgeous it must be in person. Love your blog!! 😀

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