In July 2019, we did a 10-day family road trip with our 5 kids, ages 7-15, to 7 national parks/monuments. I already shared what we ate, as we took most of our own gluten-free, dairy-free food with us in this blog post here. But, many of you were interested in where we went and how we did the travel part of it. I do not fancy myself a travel blogger, but definitely appreciate all the resources we relied on as we googled for this trip planning. So, to pay it forward…here we go!
We live in Northern California, just north of Sacramento. We chose 10 days, as that’s the time my hubby could get off work. We left on July 4th to help use that extra day off for our adventures. So, our travels were in a peak summer season out of necessity. We thought about camping along the way (we love camping!), but it was just way too much stuff to bring to make that comfortable. We didn’t stay in VRBO’s or Airbnb’s, as we were only staying 1-2 nights in each area, and it was way more expensive due to the additional cleaning fees and such. We took our 8-seater Ford Expedition XLT, which surprisingly fit us all (including almost 10 days worth of food, my airfryer, and my electric griddle) even without the soft car topper or trailer hitch attachment we sometime use. It was pretty dang full, but got better as we ate our way through the food.
The national parks/monuments we wanted to hit:
- Glacier National Park, Montana
- Badlands, South Dakota
- Devil’s Tower, South Dakota
- Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
- Windcaves, South Dakota
- Rocky Mountain, Colorado
- Arches, Utah
We drove 11 hours the first day and stayed the first night in Kennewick, WA. Along the way, we stopped by Smith Rock State Park in Oregon, which was beautiful. We wished we had more time to explore it, but just took a quick 2 mile wander on the Rim Rock Trail for an hour and then back into the car.
**If you haven’t downloaded the Alltrails App yet and are interested in hiking, YOU NEED TO! This has amazing archives of so many hikes. You can search by area and see ratings from other hikers, directions on how to get there, photos, search by things you want to see (wildlife, waterfalls, etc.) , as well as search by length and elevation gain that your crew is up to. I religiously use this to record our hike as we hike, which shows our path compared to the trail. I can’t tell you how many times this has prevented us from getting lost in the wilderness – game changer!! I really can’t recommend this app enough and we only use the free version. So great!
We woke up early on Friday, July 5 and drove the 6.5 hours from Kennewick, WA to Glacier. We went straight there to be able to still get a half day in at the park. Most of these parks, due to the driving time, we only had a day or less to explore. We used that half day to do the Avalanche Lake hike – which was about 5 miles and 700 ft. elevation gain and took us 2 hours moving time (we hike about a 25 min mile with my crew). It was a beautiful introduction to Glaicer, though a bit crowded. We spent both nights we did Glacier outside of Glacier in Kalispell. Hotels in this area are super pricey this time of year!
Our full day in the park, July 6, we knew we had to choose carefully which trail to do first of the very popular Hidden Lake Overlook or Grinnell Glacier on the east side of the park. We got up early at 5:30am, ate breakfast in the car, and drove the 1 hr 40 minutes to Hidden Lake Overlook Trail, which was a good call, as you park at the Logan Pass visitor center and parking was FULL by 8am. Like, we literally got the last parking spot at 8am. We weren’t allowed to take the trail all the way down to Hidden Lake due to the large amount of bears feeding down at the lake, so we just did the 2 mile overlook hike. This one had a fair amount of packed icy snow to walk across that slowed many down and we wished we had some Yak Tracks. But, otherwise it’s a very manageable trail, just super crowded. We were excited to have some big horn sheep walk right up to us!
On the way to Logan Pass, we drove the Going-to-the-Sun road, which has absolutely spectacular views of the park. Even if you don’t want to hike, it’s absolutely worth driving this road! They do have shuttles for the park, but we knew we wanted to get to Grinnell Glacier Trail that day, and the shuttles don’t go that far, so we had to have our car. If you aren’t going to the east side of the park like we did, I would ditch the car and use the shuttle system.
After that, we drove 1 hr 15 minutes out of and then back into the park on a very bumpy road (glad we had 4 wheel drive!) to the trail head for Grinnell Glacier Trail. We got there at about 1pm and were sad to learn that the area had reached capacity and they weren’t letting anyone into that area until 3-4 pm. Bummer! But, we really wanted to do that trail and it wasn’t worth driving an hour back to the rest of the park and then an hour back again…so we just stayed put. We had a picnic by the side of the road. Then we got the “brilliant” idea to just walk the 5 miles to the trail head, leaving our car behind for Dad to somehow run or hitch a ride to later. Probably not the best plan, but we were determined. We just walked along the road for about 3 1/2 miles before a kind park ranger stopped by and said they were letting cars in and offered to take Matt back to our car. Hallelujah! Thank you ranger Donny!
All of it was absolutely worth it, as Grinnell proved to be my hands down favorite hike of our entire trip and convinced me that Glacier NP is my new favorite for most beautiful parks in this country (and that’s saying a lot, we have been to many!). The water was unreal in it’s turquoise blue and the green + snow was just breathtaking. It felt like we were on some exotic island. We hiked 7 miles before there was too much snow to continue.
This took us 3 hours, for which the last 20 minutes we got absolutely DUMPED on by rain. Like giant fat rain drops + some hail to really stick it to us. Funny enough, we had brought rain ponchos…and left them in the car. Gah! Don’t be like us, bring your rain ponchos, friends! But we did have this amazing big horned sheep walk by our car on the way out. Beautiful!
The next morning, Sunday, we drove 7 hours across Montana to Billings. At this point you are pretty darn close to Yellowstone and should go if you haven’t! But, we went there 2 years ago, so we didn’t stop this time. We did swing out in central MT to Virginia City and Nevada City to visit some ghost towns. These were original mining towns that provide an authentic snapshot of history, complete with a living history museum – the Nevada City Museum and Music Hall. We only spent 2 hours here, but you could easily have spent a day as their living history was very interactive and kid-friendly. Families from around the area volunteer their time to come populate this living history museum on the weekends. My kids got to play games from and learn so much about the 1800s. This was cut short by yet again another giant rain dump. One of the volunteers laughed and said, “Welcome to summer in Montana!”
Rapid City, SD – Devil’s Tower, Mt. Rushmore and Badlands National Park
From Billings, MT on Monday, we drove to Rapid City, SD. On the way we stopped by Devil’s Tower. This geological anomaly was pretty cool to see and made all of us want to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ha! A great break, as it’s an easy park and walk around type loop.
Next we headed to Mt. Rushmore. We had been told it would be crowded and that Mt. Rushmore was smaller than you would expect. But, we thought the crowds were manageable, as there is even a 5 level parking garage, making parking a breeze. We were bummed that the visitor center/museum was closed (we don’t know why), but headed up and walked the loop around Mt. Rushmore where my husband fulfilled his dream of this photo, ha! Seriously though, I found it quite majestic to be here – a place with so much history and iconic for our country.
The evening we just went back to the hotel and swam. We were going to do Custer Stake Park, but yet another day of RAIN drove us inside. It seems like in Rapid City, SD, it is a thing to have an indoor water slide at your hotel (we saw many of them), which my kids were pretty darn excited about. The kids swam while I did laundry. One of the ways we created space in the car was to only pack enough clothes for 4 days and then wash our clothes twice along the way at the hotel. It’s pretty easy to do, I just recommend bringing your own laundry soap, some quarters, and I stuck around and made sure my clothes didn’t walk away.
The second day in Rapid City, we explored the Badlands. On your way into the Badlands, there is a fun Prarie Dog Town where you can stop and pay for some peanuts to feed the hundred-ish prarie dogs that live there. I don’t know how animal activitists would feel about this, but my kids were so thrilled and my 9 year old fell in love with prarie dogs. It was a very unique, fun experience.
Inside the Badlands, there are a lot of short trails you can take. Most of them just kind of wander through the red rock. We meandered a bit but mostly did the Notch Trail and Door Trail. You could spend a whole day here, but we only spent a half day and felt like we had seen a good amount of it.
On our way back west to Colorado, we drove through Custer State Park on the Wildlife Drive and were thrilled to see bison and wild burrows.
We then headed to Windcaves National Park, and were sad to learn that the caves were closed due to a broken elevator. Dang it! So, instead we headed to the Mammoth Site, the largest active paleological dig of wooly mammoths, with over 61 mammoths found in this used to be sink hole so far. Very cool and worth a stop! The rest of this day was spent driving to Estes Park, CO.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
We loved staying in Estes Park for our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, as it was so close to all the hikes we wanted to do in the NE part of the park (unlike Glacier, no long drives into the park!). We only had a day in Rocky Mountain, so we were up super early to be able to do the Sky Pond hike. This was our longest hike of the trip at 9.5 miles. The Glacier Gorge Trailhead was closed, so we started our hike from the Bear Lake Trailhead. We were nervous, as we knew it was a risk driving our car in that we would find parking (they do have a shuttle system). We got to the parking by 8am and it was 75% full.
Sky Pond hike goes past 3 lakes and 3 waterfalls and is such a great way to get in a lot of Rocky Mountain NP beauties in one hike. There was a part where we had to hike up a waterfall (literally) that made both my husband and I nervous for our littles. We made it by going slow and sandwiching them between us adults…but I wouldn’t recommend it if you have littles that aren’t good hikers, as there was a cliff right there and it was one of the trickiest spots we’ve ever done. However, if you ask my 9 year old, that was his favorite part, as he felt so incredibly accomplished when we were done! Also quite a few patches of packed down snow that would have been nice to have yak tracks for, but we just went slow and embraced the butt slide! This hike took a good half day, and then we explored the cute downtown and watched a movie in the hotel to relax.
The next day, on our way to Utah, we took the long way out on Trail Ridge road, the road that goes along the north and west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. It was totally worth it, as we saw a mother & baby moose, a herd of elk, and the continental divide. We thought about doing another hike, but didn’t have time and this was a good way to still see some of the park and it’s wonders.
Arches National Park, Utah
We got to Moab at about 3 or 4pm and were determined to hike the famous Delicate Arch, as we knew it would be crazy crowded the next day. It was 100 degrees, but we took tons of water and were surprised how doable it felt. Still a fair amount of people, but much more managable crowds than it would have been.
Saturday, July 13 we woke up early to go to Double Arch. Much of Arches is smaller hikes that you can park and walk .5-1 miles to a beautiful view of an arch. We did Double Arch first as we knew that was another popular one and Arches does NOT have a shuttle system. It was a fun little hike that resulted in one of my favorite photos of the trip. The red rock in Arches is gorgeous!
Our main hike in Arches was the Double O Arch Trail. This starts at the Devl’s Garden Trailhead and has a view of several arches including Landscape Arch, Navajo Arch, and the Double O Arch. To get to Double O Arch, you do have walk on a very narrow stretch of rock that was the second moment on the trip that I questioned if this was a good idea for our young children. We went slow and held hands with my 7 and 9 year old, but I wouldn’t recommend it for younger than that or even those ages who aren’t confident hikers.
Arches gets very hot in the summer (usually 100ish degrees), so we only hiked for a half day before we headed back to the hotel pool to cool off. We spent the night in Salt Lake City with my sister and then drove back to CA.
I asked my husband just now if he would have done anything differently and he said, “I just wish we could do it all over again!”