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Western Loop – Touring the Parks of the Western US

Author: Irene Pappas
Date of Trip: July 2012

Loop Road Trip: US National Parks of the West Coast:
by Irene Karton

This past summer, our family of four spent six weeks traveling the National Parks of the Western United States. We were inspired by movies such as “RV” with Robin Williams about a man that takes his family on a bonding road trip, “The Griswolds Family Vacation,” and “National Treasure 2” which takes place at Mount Rushmore. The other main impetus was the fact that our sons are now 10 and 13 and we realized that our days of family holidays are finite and we were all at a good age to handle the travel. Their British-based curriculum at school gives them limited exposure to American history, so I thought this would be a great opportunity for some sneaky history and geography lessons.

The first obstacle we had to overcome was setting up some sort of itinerary based on our time constraints and prioritizing the sites we wanted to see. The Western US is a huge part of the country and we knew we would be spending a lot of time in the car. The boys have never spent more than five hours in a car at a time, so I wanted to maximize the fun in the minimum amount of distance. Thank goodness for google and tripadvisor – my new best friends for family independent travelers. There were several accounts posted by travelers that had done a similar route, which was invaluable for the planning stage.

We started out from our ending point and working backwards. Our eldest son, James, plays rugby and we signed him up for a rugby summer camp in San Diego, California that started on July 23rd. So, our starting point would have to be Los Angeles and a major decision that needed to be made was to rent either a RV or mini-SUV. We ended up renting a mid-size SUV through, which gave very good rates for international drivers (including insurance – very important when driving through liability conscious America!) Much as we loved the concept of traveling by RV we had to nix the idea in the end – with gas prices at US$4 a gallon, one main driver (me – my Kiwi husband isn’t too comfortable driving on the “wrong” side of the road), and a large distance to cover – we will have to save the lure of RV-ing for another trip.

James and I flew into Los Angeles a week early to get over jetlag, sort out the transportation and other trip details. In Costco, a US shopping wonderland, we purchased a GPS device Garmin Nuvi, which we nicknamed “Lola.” Doing this trip without the GPS and Google Maps would have been difficult and we wondered how our parents did road trips in the olden days with “paper” maps. Tony joked that we would have had a lot more disagreements if we didn’t have Lola to defer to. We plugged in a destination and Lola spat out directions, and “recalculated” when we often took a wrong turn. Once my husband got hold of the GPS, they were inseparable as he is an IT guy and was data mining things like speed limit, hours spent in the car, and elevation. I was starting to get jealous of the time he spent with Lola, but since he was the navigator it was important for him to get it right. He was also responsible for kid’s electronic entertainment (Ipad/Ipods), radio and music, food foraging, packing the car and busting up fights in the back seat. Men can multitask!

Our road trip began the minute we picked my husband and younger son, Nick up at the Los Angeles airport. We each had a backpack with five days worth of clothes and we had packed a collapsible cooler with drinks and energy bars for the ride. Challenge number one was getting out of the airport without scratching the rental, challenge number 2 was driving the Pacific Coast Highway #1. PCH was a bit challenging as it is a twisting turning one lane each way highway with steep cliffs (and drops) to our first stop – San Simeon. A Californian friend had recommended a stop here to break up our journey to San Francisco. Our hotel had firepits on the beach, and that night we traded traveling stories with a nice couple of Harley Davidson bikers. The next morning we continued north up the coast, stopping first at elephant seal beach. To see these huge endangered creatures (on average 3-4 meters) lolling around in their natural environment was pretty incredible. We drove another five hours to reach San Francisco.

San Francisco has always been one of our favorite cities, and we wanted to share that with the boys. A highlight was biking across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and taking the ferry back to Pier 39. Before leaving the northern California area, we took the boys on the highly recommended Jelly Belly factory tour in Fairfield. Free samples were included at the end. My youngest prankster, Nick, gave me a jellybean telling me it was buttered popcorn flavor, but it was really vomit flavor, naughty boy!

Driving east on route 80, we stopped next in Reno, Nevada. Jet lag started to catch up with my husband, so he took the night off to recover. Luckily we stayed in the casino Circus-Circus, which was kid friendly, had free circus acts and an arcade, so it wasn’t too difficult to keep the boys entertained. The next morning we headed north to Idaho, with the sole purpose of going to the National Park called “Craters of the Moon.” This is where the astronauts had trained for the first moon landing because the landscape and terrain eerily look like the moon. We hiked a cinder cone and went into underground ice caves – this was truly a unique park and we all enjoyed learning about the lava rock formations. Idaho is a state with unexpected natural beauty, but famous for their potatoes and we’d like to go back.

From Idaho we continued driving east and arrived at the Western Gate of Yellowstone Park. Most of our accommodation on this trip we booked a day or two in advance hotels through We knew Yellowstone would be crowded during the summer and we wanted to stay at a KOA (Campgrounds of America) for the camping experience so we had booked a cozy cabin (just bring your bedding) in Montana – north Yellowstone. This was the toughest drive for me because from Eastern Idaho to the Northern gate in Montana through Yellowstone Park is a twisty turny road. We didn’t get to the campsite until dark and had been on the road for 9 hours! We stayed at this campsite for three nights and had a cook out for my husband’s birthday. Exploring Yellowstone with its geothermal activity and seeing wildlife was great fun.

We then headed to Little Bighorn Battlefield and Custer’s last stand in Billings Montana, which was an incredible history account and much enjoyed by all.

Continuing east to Devil’s Tower in Sheridan, Wyoming (the movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Paul were filmed here), we hiked around the base of this incredible stone monolith. Our next stop was Keystone, South Dakota, where our hotel, the K-Bar S Ranch overlooked Mount Rushmore. Every morning we went out on the balcony to stare at George Washington and he stared back. We rented the audio tour of Mount Rushmore, another trip highlight. Hearing the incredible story of how sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt into the Black Hills rock was inspiring. The night time flag-lowering ceremony honored veterans and those that had fought for freedom and we found that quite moving. The town of Keystone was very family friendly with good restaurants, and Alpine slide, mini-golf and panning for gold. We ended up spending an extra day here because there was so much to do.

Heading south to Denver, we needed to pick up speed, so we had to give Rocky Mountain National Park a miss, but they boys ended up seeing a Colorado Rockies baseball game. The scenery in Colorado was breath-taking, actually so was the elevation and it took some time for us to acclimatize since we live most of the year at sea level. We then drove to Moab, Utah, and stopped at Arches National Park. We learned about the unusual red rock arch formations at the visitor’s center and then hiked through them. At the entrance of the park there were these huge 100-foot dunes of red sand that the boys “had” to slide down – that was very fun for them.

After a night of rest in Utah we headed further south to Zion National Park and we took the Shuttle through this amazing park and hiked a ravine at the end (with an unexpected flash flood thunderstorm – pretty wet!). The drive out of the area and further south to the Grand Canyon had such natural beauty, even the back seat was uncharacteristically silent☺. We stayed at a family run lodge at the north rim of the Grand Canyon and Tony took the boys on a power hike through the Canyon the next day. I rested my “driving leg” because I knew we had a long drive to reach Las Vegas and then San Diego.

By the time we returned to California, 6000 miles, six national parks, eight states in 20 days later we were thoroughly happy and exhausted. I felt some sense of accomplishment that my husband and I had somehow pulled off a trip of this magnitude and created long-lasting memories for our family. A friend of mine in Florida has this goal to see every national park in the US, so we may have to collaborate with her next summer. Hmm…where will our GPS take us next summer? Stay tuned…

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