(Photos by Julie, Jack, Katie and some random traveling folks)
I love a great road trip and I am fortunate to have two kids who do really well in the car for long periods of time. I learned early on to pack most of what the kids need to survive, without asking them: drinks, snacks, reading materials, music, coloring/drawing items, and a blanket. Sometimes it doesn’t go smoothly. I have probably stopped at every exit along I-5 at some point for an emergency of some sort.
Summer 2015, we traveled about 1,400 miles to Grand Targhee, Wyoming and around Yellowstone National Park. I drove straight home from Yellowstone and realized 14 hours, in one day, was too much. Since I am the only driver in our family until my son turns 16, I declared 2,000 miles in a week and/or 8 hours per day, is my maximum.
Summer of 2016’s planning started in the fall of 2015. “Where are we going next, mom?” My only thought was that we must be somewhere dark for the August Perseid meteor shower. I asked the kids where they would like to go and one location was the California coast. I prefer visiting national parks (buying an annual pass is a good incentive to use it) over lying on a beach, but maybe this could work for all of us. The Grand Canyon was on my bucket list. A road trip was forming in my head. The Grand Canyon – AND – the California coast!
Driving to the Grand Canyon from Washington would be fine if it was our only destination, but we had one week to cover a limited amount of miles. I had recently switched to paying as many bills as possible with my airline miles credit card. Enough miles had accumulated to book three roundtrip tickets to Las Vegas. With fees, it was about $70.
There are many tools to help with road trip planning. I use Roadtrippers.com. The roadtrippers.com site allows you to see options along your path: accommodations, attractions, dining, points of interest, etc.
Since we weren’t driving my car the entire way, one big expense would be a car rental. The general plan of travel was drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon, head south to Phoenix, west to California, then back to Las Vegas to fly home. After plugging in the basic locations on roadtrippers.com, the miles were around 1,200. Easy, breezy! Be sure to check the car rental rules. We could only drive in limited states. All of ours were covered. Phew!
I changed my mind many times after looking at weather trends in the areas we would be going through in August. I bypassed Phoenix and Palm Springs due to too much heat. I finally decided on a firm plan which included nights in Sedona and Hermosa Beach.
Websites like hotels.com and hotwire.com make reservations easy, and all the information is in one place. It was nice to pay for the hotels in February with the option to cancel close to the date of travel if I needed to. Weather reports leading up to our trip were a bit worrisome: high heat warnings, and flash flooding. Luckily all we had was some normal area heat.
Here we go!
Thursday afternoon/evening: We had a 6 p.m. flight to Las Vegas, arriving around 9 p.m., so staying near Las Vegas on night one was ideal. I chose Henderson but looking back, staying in Vegas would have been fine. I recommend flying in or out of Vegas at night, it’s impressive. My kids were very excited after seeing all the lights.
Here, we rented a car and drove to Henderson. We were hungry and ended up at Albertson’s for sandwich fixings, fruit and drinks. Since it was peak meteor shower night, we stayed up to wait for the moon to set (roughly midnight). We drove to Boulder City to find darker skies for a meteor shower photography session. My kids had a blast. I was the one afraid of the dark, and worried some animals were looking at us like we’re dinner. We survived.
Friday: breakfast, check out, Hoover Dam, then Grand Canyon (about five hours). Hoover Dam was amazing. The scale of the dam is impressive and the story behind it is a good history lesson for everyone. www.history.com/topics/hoover-dam. There is a parking garage with a $10 fee, so visiting the dam is easy. For us, it was incredibly hot (I was certain my flip flops were melting as I was walking) and the kids were tired, so we didn’t last long.
After some time back on the road, we stopped at an In-and-Out Burger. It seemed like a “thing” to do while in the area. I wouldn’t say it was the best meal I have had, but it was fun to watch them make fries.
If you have the time, there’s a detour off the highway to the Grand Canyon Skywalk. It’s at Grand Canyon West, on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. I wasn’t interested in the extra miles for this particular trip, but maybe on another one.
After what felt like and endless highway drive, with a few fantastic lightning storm shows, we arrived at the Grand Canyon entrance. We sat in line for a few minutes, then realized the left lane was for pre-paid visitors and we entered quickly with our National Parks pass. We then checked into the Maswik Lodge. I read some poor reviews online, but we were very pleased with our accommodations. I figure we just need showers and beds to sleep on, hopefully some Wi-Fi, otherwise, we’re out exploring. My daughter only cares about the shampoo and lotion available in the rooms.
Maswik is the older and less expensive lodging inside the park. At $205 per night, it’s still pricey for some. Camping options are available. If you plan to stay at a lodge at the Grand Canyon, book early! I was able to find a room in the Maswik Lodge at the South Rim but many options were not available by March.
After unloading the car, we grabbed the cameras and headed out. I admittedly was tired and over-protective as we walked down one of the hiking paths. It was very hot and all I could think about were the people taking selfies and falling off the cliff edges. We didn’t last long on the trail and returned to the safety of the upper paths.
We saw elk, butterflies, and beautiful views of the canyon at sunset, and then relaxed a bit in our room before heading out to a dark parking lot for more meteor shower photos. My son did really well capturing the starry night. (Proud mom moments.)
Sometimes we forget to eat real meals but Katie and I were hungry. We headed to the dining hall for Maswik Lodge since I chose not to make any reservations at nicer dining locations. The food was really great. We shared a pulled pork sandwich and steamed vegetables.
Saturday: Check out, stop at the visitor center for more canyon views, then head out toward Sedona, Ariz. This was the shortest driving day at about two hours. Sedona was my favorite stop on this trip. It is full of red rock formations, which are actually “rusted” sandstone. The entire area used to be the ocean floor.
Hiking is popular in the red rocks. It wasn’t 100 degrees so we opted for an evening off-road jeep tour into the hills. Pricey at about $300 for two hours, but oh, so worth it! We ended up in areas we never would have been able to access otherwise, with stunning views for miles.
On the drive in to Sedona, Jack saw Slide Rock State Park. It’s an area where the water has turned the rock into natural water slides. There was zero parking available and people walking uphill for quite a distance so I said we would try Sunday morning. If you go, go early. We arrived at 9:30 a.m. and the parking lot was almost full. It’s $30 to park at the State Park and you have to walk a bit to get to the actual slides. We packed a lunch and snacks. Some folks, who probably live close, haul in canopies and huge coolers. The water was freezing and the kids were a little bumped and bruised but it is a recommended stop.
We stayed two nights in Sedona. Again, this is a book early destination. We stayed at the Super 8, which was remodeled and renamed The Andante Inn of Sedona. I read reviews and most complaints were about construction. We missed all that thankfully but had to listen to a couple fighting down the hall at 2 a.m. Such is life in a hotel.
At this stop, I did laundry while Katie swam for three hours after the few hours of swimming at slide rock. There is a wine bar next door and they had live music. I lounged next to the pool, and enjoyed the fantastic tunes.
Things to avoid: the pricey, quick access food in the touristy strip of Sedona. We had better food further south. One of those favorites was Tortas De Fuego.
Monday: California coast or bust. We stopped in the Phoenix area to visit with one of my high school friends, then headed west. This was roughly an 8-hour drive so we were on the road early with a planned stop at Joshua Tree National Park.
Driving into the park from the south is interesting. We came close to turning around because we all thought it looked sketchy and no humans had been seen for quite a distance. Finally we made it to the visitor center. The park ranger let us know driving through to the best part of the park would add about two hours to our trip. Luckily we had no real agenda and off we went.
The park is incredible, with many stopping points. There are “jumbo” rocks which you are allowed to climb on, thousands of Joshua trees, two deserts: the Colorado and the Mojave, a cactus garden and a view of the San Andreas Fault. We didn’t see wildlife, but we were there in the high point of the heat. Oh, there was a bee issue. Apparently the bees get thirsty and will drink your sweat. Be sure to check yourself before re-entering your car.
After departing the park at the north end, we headed back on the route to the California coast. This is where having a printed map is important. With no cell service and being off our original path, finding our new route was challenging. We did it, though.
Our detour allowed us to miss a lot of evening commute traffic and we magically ended up at our Hermosa Beach destination just as the sun was setting. This was a 12-hour day in the car!
We needed to find dinner and after a long day, we wanted something more casual than we were finding on Google. We happened to walk past a store that turned out to be a deli as well. Mickey’s Deli. It was the best sandwich I have had in ages.
According to their web site, “Michael Angelo ‘Mickey’ Mance started Mickey’s Italian Delicatessen & Liquor Store in 1953. Just a short walk from the beach, it quickly became a favorite spot for surfers and beachgoers. It has now become a beloved landmark in the South Bay.” We took our food to-go and each could only finish half of our small sandwiches.
Tuesday: Beach time! We drove to Venice Beach early in the morning, but after morning rush hour traffic. After parking the car at a city beach lot, $9 vs $20 at a private lot, we found a bike rental shop and rode up to Santa Monica. Actually Katie chose to rollerblade vs. bike. This was great until mom became the pack mule at the Santa Monica Pier: backpack, camera bag and rollerblades.
The kids spent a few hours on the rides, we saw a lot of entertaining humans, ate ridiculously priced burgers, and after returning the bikes, we wandered around Venice Beach. There’s a skate park, graffiti walls, the ocean, people-watching and a lot of shopping. Of course there’s also Muscle Beach. I can’t imagine working out for an audience but one man put on a good show.
We watched a team of street entertainers who ask for donations. We learned there are teams who put on the same show in Vegas. Don’t fall for the trap! We did donate $5. A couple of men asked us if we wanted free burritos. We found that to be odd, but they had backpacks full of warm chicken burritos by EVOL (love spelled backwards). We took some. One man carried a bottle of sriracha and I asked for some. “You’re not from here, are you?” he asked. He was from Louisiana. Apparently Venice Beach folks don’t use sriracha.
Wednesday: Back to Vegas we go! I realized as we were on the final stretch, I might be an annoying driver.
I can’t look up what things are, so I rely on the kids who weren’t overly excited to help me. We detoured around a fire, passed a prison, saw a strange stack of painted stones and passed by a solar farm. Curious mom wants to know what they are! I had to look them all up later. Luckily, on the plane ride home, inside the Alaska Airlines magazine, there was a photo of the painted stone stack. See kids … it was “something” interesting. According to The Guardian, it was “One of the largest land-based art works completed in the United States in 40 years, Seven Magic Mountains was five years in the making. The seven towering sculptures are along Interstate 15, 21 miles south of the Las Vegas Strip.” See sevenmagicmountains.com for more information! The exhibition opened May 11, 2016 and will be on view for two years.
The solar farm is called The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. It has been known to blind pilots and scorch birds. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on the system. You can read it here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/ivanpah-solar-plant-may-be-forced-to-shut-down-1458170858.
After finally reaching the Vegas area, I forced one more stop before checking in at our hotel. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (your park pass works here!) is a must-see location. It’s an easy drive-through park, but it’s also a very popular hiking and climbing destination. Red Rock Canyon was designated as Nevada’s first National Conservation Area. There are tortoise crossing signs throughout the park. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any tortoises.
We finally arrived at our last destination off the strip: The Orleans hotel. We should have had dinner first, but we went swimming. I had promised my daughter more swimming, since we didn’t go at the beach. The hotel was huge, like everything in Vegas, but felt as kid-friendly as you could get in sin city.
After pool time, we took a shuttle to the strip. I think it’s close to 8:30 p.m. by now. I am not a big-city girl so getting through the crowds and giant hotels to find any type of reasonably priced food for my kids became a challenge. Tired and whining, we magically ended up outside the Bellagio just as the water show started. After the show I finally broke down and asked a valet attendant for advice on cheap eats. We were headed in the proper direction and then Pink’s Hot Dogs appeared in front of us. Phew!
Revived and fueled up, we headed back toward our shuttle stop. We got our fill of street performers and bright lights, then returned to the hotel. My daughter watched as I gambled away the remaining $50 cash I had ... It was all of 10 minutes. After defeat, I was ready for bed.
At each hotel we had two queen beds. My son got his own bed, and I shared with my daughter. On the final night, I tried to convince them to share so mom could have her own space. Well, at 4 a.m. I was up, on the couch, working in the dark, and they each had their own beds. The plan clearly worked out well for me.
Thursday: Sadly, the time finally arrived where we needed to pack it all up and head to the airport.
I can’t think of anything that really went haywire up until this point. There were definitely gripes along the way. Tired, hot and hungry, were all factors at some point. We returned the car, shuttled to the airport, and then went to check our bags. We were early (I usually am) and the staff let us know the flight we were scheduled for was going to be delayed.
Did I want to pay to get on the next available flight, which was in an hour? Yes! We hustled to get some lunch and then headed to the terminal. Here’s where I messed up. I completely read the wrong information on our new tickets. We were headed to a gate that didn’t exist. Yikes! We practically ran to the subway to get to the other side of the airport, we’ll just eat on the plane. Katie didn’t hesitate to let me know, “look, we’re right back where we started.” In the end, we made it in plenty of time, and ate our food while other people boarded the plane.
We landed back in Seattle early, luckily our shuttle was available and we didn’t have to wait to go home.
Are you exhausted yet? Believe it or not, I worked Thursday night and Friday morning until about 2 p.m., then drove to Mount Hood Friday evening to complete our summer travels with a visit to my sister’s family. It took six hours. The drive back home Sunday almost did me in. Five states and 2,000 miles of driving in ten days.
What would I do differently?
• Have a better plan for food. We ate a lot of “gas station” snacks. Purchasing a Styrofoam cooler at the beginning of the trip would have been worth the price. Our first night we shopped at the grocery store. Each room had a mini-refrigerator, but the long drives are hard to keep items cool with ice from the ice machine. As clever as I thought I was, it was a bit ridiculous.
• Research car options more. We ended up with a great car (KIA Sedona), but I probably paid too much.
• I could have saved some money choosing a different California city. Hermosa Beach is a bit pricey, but I felt safe and we were right on Pacific Highway / State Route 1.
Ultimately the cost of this 8-night trip (not including Mount Hood) for three people was about $3,300. That is with air miles, free cat-sitting at home, and not including any shuttle costs from home or airport parking.
Sometimes I feel like sharing travel details is like the old days of forcing friends to sit through slideshows. No one really wants to do it, but some will humor you. If you read through this entire story and enjoyed it, please let me know. I have already started planning the next road trip which will run through Canada. Their national parks will have free access all year in 2017.
Happy adventures, fellow and future road trip warriors.