My husband has always wanted to travel cross country and I have always thought he was crazy; however, the Summer of 2020 proved to be the time to take this leap on a national parks road trip. We decided on cross country travel and had almost three weeks to make it happen. I will share all of our stops during our cross country national park road trip, how much this cross country road trip cost, and tips for a cross country road trip if you’re thinking of ever planning one.
The Ultimate National Park Road Trip
Our family loves national parks vacations! After doing a National Parks Out West road trip where we visited Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Theodore Roosevelt, and Glacier National Park, we knew that we wanted to make sure our national parks road trip included as many national parks as possible. Since our daughter was in fourth grade, we were able to get the Every Kid in a Park pass for our family for free.
This cross country national park road trip had us visiting 11 national parks in just under three weeks! I would definitely say it was the ultimate national park road trip thanks to cross country travel.
Check out a video summary of our national parks road trip:
Our Limitations During Cross Country Travel
This is a touchy subject… Since states were loosening up their restrictions on travel in early June 2020, we evaluated the risks and decided to drive to our last 4 states to complete our family bucket list of visiting all 50 states. Since we were not comfortable with air travel, cross country travel was the winner.
We made sure to pack Lysol disinfectant spray and disinfecting wipes for the hotel rooms, plenty of hand sanitizer, masks, and an open mind. We only ate takeout and outdoors, and we limited our time if we went indoors anywhere. Our plan was to road trip to national parks, so we would be outdoors hiking most days or driving to the next destination. Most of the Visitor’s Centers were closed anyway, and we tried not to spend too much time in any major city to limit exposure.
Despite these limitations, our national parks road trip was a great success! When we returned to our home state, we quarantined for 14 days – just in case.
Cross Country Road Trip Cost
One of the reasons we went ahead with this cross country travel on a national parks road trip is because we knew this trip would be as inexpensive as we would ever see it due to the need for domestic tourism and the reduced prices.
We had over 100K IHG points and a free night, 16K Hyatt points and a free night, and 2 Marriott free nights. Since travel was still scarce in early June, the point value for many hotels was very very low. We took advantage and of the 17 nights, we only paid for two!
Our admission to the national parks was free, thanks to the 4th grade National Parks Pass. We did not enter any museum up until the end of the trip and did pay for parking sometimes and state park admissions. We brought water and snacks with us and had to purchase some lunch items and more water as the trip progressed.
Our biggest expense, by far, was meals. We could’ve opted for more fast-food or quicker meals, but since we hadn’t “been out” since March, we may have gone a little overboard. When we ate outdoors, we did splurge and ordered drinks, appetizers, and dessert. I mean, it’s vacation after all!
We drove almost 7,000 miles in 18 days, and because we drove in my Subaru Crosstrek, we got about 35 miles per gallon. This clearly helped us save on gas. We did buy some souvenirs too. We calculated that this trip cost us just over $3,000.
National Parks Road trip Itinerary
- 7h – Drive through Pennsylvania
- Stay: Hermitage, PA (border with OH)
We left in the afternoon after school and work with the goal of almost exiting Pennsylvania. We stopped to have dinner at Turkey Hill Brewing for an hour and made it late to the Holiday Inn Express Sharon Hermitage. It was an uneventful afternoon and evening of driving, but it put us right by a national park.
- 1h to Cuyahoga Valley NP
- 2h Lunch near Toledo: Schlotzky’s
- 4h to South Bend
- 50m to Indiana Dunes NP
- 1h 40m to Stay: Holiday Inn Express Ottawa, IL
- Dinner: BASH
Today was the first real day of the road trip, and it gave us a good feel for what to expect on these long days. After crossing into Ohio, we made it to our first national park of the trip – Cuyahoga Valley. Sadly, Brandywine Falls boardwalk and trail (the apparent highlight of the park) was closed. I had known about this ahead of time during my planning, and we opted to hike the Ledges Trail. It was a nice, gentle hike that took us through some unique rock formations which the kids loved climbing.
We then stopped at Schlotszky’s, and I ordered my favorite BBQ chicken pizza. Note: This makes me very happy, as I do not have any locations anywhere close to where I live. If you have never had this pizza, you are missing out! We ate it in the car, on our way towards Indiana.
We then stopped in to visit Notre Dame University and walk around the campus. We love visiting college towns and campuses when on a road trip, and were very pleased it was open, and not crowded.
Next was Indiana Dunes National Park, and to be honest, I was very upset because we followed the signs for the park, but then ended up at Indiana Dunes State Park. After getting over my initial frustration of going to the wrong place, we decided to just go with it. It was a nice climb up a couple of dunes and we dipped our feet into the frigid water of Lake Michigan.
We arrived at the Holiday Inn Express Ottawa and while the kids took showers, we ordered takeout from Burger and Sushi House. We were all very happy with our burgers, ramen, and sushi. I had planned for an early wake up to hike at Starved Rock State Park, but we needed the extra hour or two to sleep. I always over plan anyways.
- 1h Coffee at Flour House
- 2h 20m to University of Iowa
- 1h 45m to Des Moines and lunch
- Lunch: Zombie Burger + Shake Lab
- 2h Omaha
- 1h Lincoln
- Dinner: Fuzzy’s Taco
- Stay: Holiday Inn Express Lincoln I-80
Today we were driving through America’s Heartland. We stopped into Princeton, IL for a quick breakfast and coffee at Flour House and loved the charming downtown. We saw signs that President Reagan grew up in this area, which was a fun, random fact for the day.
We then drove to Iowa City to visit the University of Iowa and then headed to Des Moines. Since we didn’t want to be out and about in a big city at this time, we drove around downtown, ate at Zombie Burger + Shake Lab, and saw the beautiful golden-domed capitol building.
Then we visited Omaha, walked around the Old Market Passageway, and the downtown area, and headed to Lincoln, Nebraska. I had wanted to visit the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, but it was closed. We checked out the University of Nebraska, the capitol building, and the Historic Haymarket District.
- Breakfast: Hurts Donut Co.
- 6h to Cheyenne
- Lunch: Runza
- 1h 30m to Boulder
- Dinner: Pearl Street area
- Stay: Residence Inn Boulder Canyon Boulevard
Today was a long and boring drive through Nebraska. We had some “local fast food” from a burger place called Runza (not my favorite), but it was quick and helped us keep a good pace. While we had been to Wyoming before, we had never seen Cheyenne and wanted to explore a bit before heading into Colorado. We had planned to visit the Wyoming State Museum and the Cheyenne Depot Museum, but they were closed.
We did walk into the Depot area, saw a very cool map on the Transcontinental Railroad, and learned that Wyoming was the first state to grant women voting rights. We enjoyed the downtown area, grabbed a beer and a snack at Accomplice Beer Company, and then drove south to Boulder. This was the first of our scenic drives.
We settled into the Residence Inn Boulder Canyon (very nice property), and drove around the city a bit. We visited the beautiful campus of the University of Colorado and then hung out in the Pearl Street area for shopping, dinner, and ice cream.
Boulder has some amazing hiking all around, but since we are on a short time frame, I didn’t plan for it. That’s ok, it gives us a reason to return and hike the Flatirons.
- 2h to Rocky Mountain NP
- 4h to Glenwood Springs, CO
- 1h 20m to Stay: Springhill Suites Grand Junction
Today, we drove north to Rocky Mountain National Park and entered through Estes Park. We only allotted half a day here, and it was way too short! The drive through Rocky Mountain National Park was really beautiful and I wish we could’ve taken the Trail Ridge Road all the way to Grand Lake.
We attempted to hike near the Bear Lake area, yet the parking lots to the nearest trailheads were full. We opted to hike around Sprague Lake and take some of the back trails in the area.
After our hikes, we went to explore some of Estes Park. This town is adorable, scenic, and has so much to do. I wish I would have stayed here longer. We had lunch at Penelope’s Burgers and strolled the streets. We then took a short drive to the Stanley Hotel, which is where Stephen King drew inspiration for his bestselling novel The Shining. They usually offer tours and you can stay here, of course, but we could only explore the grounds.
We had a long drive ahead of us to Grand Junction and planned to stop at Glenwood Springs for dinner. When things aren’t closed, I would love to spend longer in this area. The town had many great dining and shopping options. Also, the Glenwood Canyon National Recreation Area is beautiful and I would like to soak in their hot springs pool. I have also heard many great things about hiking to Hanging Lake. Although now, a permit with a fee is required.
Grand Junction seemed like a great area as well; however, we arrived right at sunset and didn’t get to explore much. Our Springhill Suites located right downtown was a perfect location. We walked around a little bit to stretch our legs but didn’t get to enjoy the area very much. The Colorado National Monument just outside of town is on my list. As I mentioned before, I overplanned this national parks road trip because you never know exactly how much you will have time for or if you are just too tired.
- 2h to Moab
- Arches NP
- Canyonlands NP
- Dinner: 98 Center
- Stay: Moab Holiday Inn Express
We woke up today excited to explore Utah for the first time! Instead of taking the main highway, I-70, we were advised to have a more scenic route, Highway 128. It was only a few minutes more and there were no cars on the road early in the morning. The drive was like a mini Monument Valley and we even pulled over and ran in the middle of the road. I highly recommend this route if you are heading in from Colorado. It is also the perfect place to start your Utah national parks road trip.
We arrived at Arches National Park close to 9AM and headed straight for the Delicate Arch trailhead. We knew it was a very popular hike and were worried about the parking lot being full. The entire trip, park crowds were very low (we know that this is unusual for mid-June). The Delicate Arch 3 mile hike was tough but very doable for the family. The views as you are approaching the famous arch are beautiful but not as impressive as when you turn that final corner and see the arch. This is a must-do hike if you are in Arches! Check out my detailed review of hiking to Delicate Arch.
After a picnic lunch, we hit the Devil’s Garden area and hiked to Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, and then stopped at Landscape Arch. The whole hike was a little over 2 miles total. We stopped at a few more overlooks and did a couple of very short hikes (Balanced Rock and Skyline Arch). We had planned to do more, but it was hot and we needed a break before we visited and hiked Canyonlands NP.
After some pool time at the Holiday Inn Express in Moab, we ventured back out into the sun and drove to Canyonlands National Park. We stopped at Buck Canyon Overlook and Grand View Point Overlook to admire the vast canyons. We only did one hike here, which was Mesa Arch. It was an easy 1-mile hike to a gorgeous vista.
- 2h – Little Wild Horse and Goblin Valley State Park
- 1h 20m- Capitol Reef NP
- Highway 12 – Kiva Koffeehouse
- 2h – Bryce NP
- 1h 45m to Stay: Holiday Inn Express Springdale
Ready for another busy hiking day, we ventured early in the morning towards Goblin Valley State Park. There are no marked trails inside the “goblins”, so it is a natural playground filled with scrambling and climbing opportunities. This was a definite highlight of our entire cross country national park road trip. It was also one of the few non-national park hikes of the entire trip. If you are traveling with kids and are near Moab or Capitol Reef, this is worth the detour!
After a couple of hours, we drove a few minutes to Little Wild Horse Canyon. This slot canyon connects with Bell Canyon and the entire loop is 8 miles. We didn’t have time, so only did a short section before heading back. It was a fun little hike, yet I would have loved to explore more. Both Goblin Valley and Little Wild Horse are two of my favorite hikes in Southern Utah that are not in national parks.
Next up on our national parks road trip was Capitol Reef. We had planned to hike to Hickman’s Bridge, but there was no parking, so we moved on to the petroglyphs boardwalk, and then to a “secret hike” – Sulphur Creek Trail. It was so refreshing to wade in the creek and the scenery was pretty awesome the entire way too. I highly recommend this if you are visiting in the summer with kids.
We grabbed some pie in Fruita at the Gifford Homestead and checked out a couple of overlooks: Panorama Point and Goosenecks Overlook while having lunch.
We decided to take the longer, scenic route on Highway 12 (which added about 30 minutes). It was such a worthwhile drive going through the national forest; however, a couple of sections were quite narrow. We stopped at Kiva Koffeehouse, a coffee shop literally on the side of a mountain, and enjoyed a snack and some views. Towards the end of the drive, we were stopped by a cattle drive. Being from Florida, this was so unusual for us!
We arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park around 6PM and enjoyed the views from Sunset Point. We hiked down into the hoodoos through Wall Street and then back up the Navajo Trail. Those switchbacks were not easy, but it was a fantastic hike!
- Zion NP
- 3h to Lake Mead and Hoover Dam
- 45m to Las Vegas
- Walk the Strip, park at The Venetian
- Hyatt Place Las Vegas Silverton Village
Today was the first big “bust” of our national parks road trip. Due to the phased reopening of Zion, there would be no shuttles running. This meant that there was very limited parking along the Zion scenic road, where the majority of the hikes are located. I read online that the week before people were lined up at 6AM and didn’t make it into that section. I was not going to wake up that early, so we arrived by 7:30AM and sure enough, it was closed! I had a backup plan and headed over to the other side of the park to hike the Canyon Overlook Trail which was a little scary, but very worthwhile and only a mile in length.
Bummed that we didn’t get to hike the Narrows, we went to the Visitor’s Center area to re-strategize and decided to hike a section of the Watchman Trail just steps away. We had a wonderful couple of hours wading in the Virgin River, enjoying lunch, and some classic Zion views!
We then headed for Hoover Dam and just as we got off the highway, we saw a sign saying “closed”. That was the second bust of the day! We drove to the Lake Mead Overlook and drove back to Las Vegas for some pool time. Our hotel, The Hyatt Place Las Vegas Silverton Village, was just off The Strip and was a great place to stay away from the bustle and crowds we were trying to avoid.
Next time we visit, I would like to take the kids to see one of the Cirque du Soleil shows and explore some of the other hotels. In addition, there are plenty of outdoor activities within an hour’s drive. Check out these great ideas for a Las Vegas family vacation.
- Stop at Seven Magic Mountains
- 3h 45m to Joshua Tree NP
- 3h to Kingman, AZ
- 1h to Seligman
- 43m to Stay: Holiday Inn Express Williams
Today, our cross country travel became official when we entered California. From Las Vegas, we stopped at an art installation I heard about on Instagram, Seven Magic Mountains. It was very unique and colorful amidst the desert backdrop. If you want to learn more, check out everything to know about visiting Seven Magic Mountains.
I’ve never seen anything like Joshua Tree National Park before! After driving a little deeper into the park, we started to see the famed Joshua Trees, the jumbo rocks, and the cholla cactus. We scrambled around Skull Rock, hiked the Hidden Valley Nature Trail and the Barker Dam Nature Trail. It was a great half-day in the park. Next time, I am going to check out where to stay near Joshua Tree because I plan to explore more outdoor areas on a California national parks road trip.
Spending more time than I had originally planned at Joshua Tree, we drove through a boring stretch towards Kingman, Arizona (a famous Route 66 town). Sadly, we arrived just as the Route 66 Museum was closing. We were hungry, so decided on an early dinner at Floyd and Company Wood Fire Pizza. We checked out some roadside attractions in town and in Seligman and made it to Williams for ice cream and a pretty desert sunset. Check out some of the other places we ate and some of the best Route 66 diners.
- 1h to Grand Canyon NP
- 1h 17m to Sunset Crater National Monument
- 20m to Stay: Courtyard Flagstaff
- Dinner: Lumberyard Brewing
Due to a fire close to the North Rim, the only entrance/exit open was the South Rim. We drove up from Williams and spent the morning walking around a section of the South Rim Trail with stops at a few of the overlooks and then hung out at the El Tovar Lodge and Grand Canyon Village area. If you have younger kids, there is a train that takes you from Williams to the Grand Canyon and even has a show on board.
After a delicious Mexican lunch in Tusayan, we drove to Sunset Crater National Monument to walk around old lava flow. We had done a hike similar to this in Oregon on our San Francisco to Seattle road trip but knew the kids would enjoy looking at the hardened lava.
We drove to Flagstaff and enjoy some time in the pool again to cool off. Today we also got an oil change in the car and washed clothes (much-needed cross country travel necessities). We headed to downtown later in the evening to enjoy Lumberyard Brewing and tried to check out Lowell Observatory, but it wasn’t fully open to visitors yet.
- 38m to Slide Rock State Park
- Explore Sedona
- Stay: Holiday Inn Express Sedona Oak Creek
We arrived at Slide Rock State Park right when it opened. They were limiting parking, so we wanted to make sure we were able to enter and experience this as we have never slid down a natural waterslide or jumped from cliffs into a river. The kids slid and jumped countless times, although I only slid once as the water was unbearably cold for my Florida blood! A visit here in the summer is very highly recommended for families.
We then drove into to check out Sedona and instantly understood why so many people mention this city as a place to visit in Arizona. It was over 100 degrees, so we decided not to do any major hikes. Red Rock State Park, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and other trails will just have to wait until the next visit in cooler months. We did visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross, walked downtown, tasted wine in the Tlaquepaque Shopping area, and saw Montezuma’s Castle National Monument in addition to driving around Sedona and Oak Creek to check out the rock formations. In hindsight, we probably should have done one of those popular Pink Jeep Tours.
- 1h to Winslow
- 34m to Holbrook
- 25m to Petrified Forest NP
- Albuquerque Old Town
- 1h to Stay: Hyatt Place Santa Fe
We had planned to check out the Meteor Crater today, but the kids weren’t particularly excited and while I thought it would be cool, we skipped it and drove a good chunk of Route 66. After visiting “Standing the Corner” Park, we had breakfast at a very popular hotel, La Posada. Their restaurant, Turquoise Room, was spectacular! My husband said he would love to return and stay just the two of us one day.
Our drive continued to Holbrook, which is the site of the Wigwam Motel. This location, and much of Route 66, was the inspiration for the movie Cars.
Petrified Forest National Park was next. We drove to the Painted Desert Rim, the Route 66 car, Blue Mesa, and Crystal Forest. Again, it was way too hot to do any hikes, so we checked out overlooks and hiked very short sections. This is another national park I would like to explore when the weather is cooler.
We had planned to visit Petroglyph National Monument, but we skipped it and headed straight to Old Town Albuquerque. Crossing into New Mexico made us one step closer to completing our family bucket list (it was state 49). We had dinner and the famous Church Street Cafe and arrived at the Hyatt Place Santa Fe by sunset.
- Explore Santa Fe
- 2h 30m to Tucumcari, NM
- 1h 30m to Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo
- 1h 40m Stay: Avid Oklahoma City Yukon
- Dinner: LoKal Yukon and Braum’s for dessert
Today we explored Santa Fe. Since the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Palace of the Governors, and the Contemporary Native Arts Museum was closed, we strolled around the plaza, the Loretto Chapel, the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi, and walked to see the art installations on Canyon Road. The adobe-style of architecture is everywhere here and there is so much charm. This is a place we hope to see again in more depth.
We had a long drive ahead of us today, so we stopped for lunch in Tucumcari (a Route 66 town), close to the border of Texas.
We then stopped in Amarillo, Texas for another classic Route 66 roadside attraction – Cadillac Ranch. If you would like to participate in this constantly evolving art installation, you can bring your own can of spray paint or buy some right outside the fence. It was quirky, but a very fun little stop.
We stayed at the Avid Oklahoma City Yukon just west of Oklahoma City. We had never stayed at an Avid, and I loved all of the bright colors and modern touches.
- 2h 45m to Fort Smith, AK
- 2h 30m to Little Rock
- 2h to Memphis
- Dinner: BBQ
- Stay: Hotel Indigo Memphis Downtown
We had already been to Bricktown in OKC, so we decided to check out a new area and visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. It was closed, but we explained what happened to our kids and walked the grounds. What a beautiful tribute.
Then, we stopped in Fort Smith for an early lunch and a walk around the Fort Smith National Historic Site. I learned that this was the furthest outpost before the “Wild West” of Oklahoma. The interior was closed, but we walked the grounds and read about what occurred here. The downtown area of Fort Smith also deserves a second pass, as we were in and out headed to Little Rock.
From there, it was on to Little Rock, Arkansas. I had wanted to see the Clinton Presidential Library, and the Old State House Museum, but they were not open, and there was a large protest in front of the Arkansas Capitol Building, so we didn’t walk around there. We checked out the Julius Breckling Riverfront Park and then visited Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. As a U.S. History teacher, I was very excited to see the school itself as I pictured all of the news scenes from that era. We were thrilled that the Visitor Center was open (and empty). The kids asked 1,000 questions as we saw video, artifacts, and read through the exhibits. It was a very moving and powerful experience and one that I hope my children remember.
Our last stop for the day was Memphis. While our family has visited Pigeon Forge and the surrounding areas in the Smoky Mountains, we have never been to the western corner of the state. Memphis was not quite what I expected. It felt like a city stuck in the 60s. We stayed right near the main area at the Hotel Indigo and walked to Beale Street.
The barbeque in this city is no joke! They are known for their BBQ for a reason. We ate at Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous and it was probably the best rack of ribs I’ve ever had!
The National Civil Rights Museum was closed, yet we did walk the grounds of the Lorraine Motel to pay tribute to MLK Jr. and see the site where he was shot. A somber moment for sure, but I’m very glad I was able to see the spot and talk to my children about him, his work, and why the Civil Rights Museum is located here.
- 3h to Nashville
- Lunch: Biscuit Love
- 1h 20m to Louisville
- 3h 30m to Stay: Candlewood Suites Columbus – Grove City
Today we headed to Nashville. We had visited on a couple’s weekend a few years back, but loved the city so much, we wanted to return. We walked around Broadway (where the main bars are located) during the daytime, had lunch at Biscuit Love, and visited Vanderbilt University, the Parthenon, and the Titans stadium.
We then drove to Louisville, and were able to check out the Slugger Museum Store, but arrived 10 minutes after closing for the Kentucky Derby Museum. It was already late, but we drove around much of Louisville and loved it. This is a city that deserves a return trip. We stopped at a small town, Milford, for dinner and went on our way towards Columbus, OH.
- 2h to Pro Football Hall of Fame
- 3h 44m to State College
- Stay: Holiday Inn Express State College
- Dinner: The Corner Room
My son and husband are huge football fans, so we planned a stop in Canton to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While I did appreciate the museum and recognize many of the athletes, my husband and son were in heaven! The exhibits took you through the history of the league, famous moments, record-breakers, and the famous gallery with the bronze busts of inducted athletes. If you or someone you know loves knows their football, this is the place to go.
Our family loves to visit college towns, so when looking for where to spend the last night of our national parks cross country road trip, State College was the winner. We had attempted to visit on our way back home from our Midwest road trip, but it was pouring rain. This time, we had beautiful weather and enjoyed walking around the campus and the charming downtown area. We stayed just outside of the campus at the Holiday Inn Express State College and enjoyed our stay.
- 5h Home
Today we would finally make it home from almost three weeks of cross country travel. We grabbed some Duck Donuts before we headed out of town and stopped in Stroudsburg, PA for lunch. We thought about driving to some of the small towns in The Poconos, but we were so close to home that we just wanted to be back as soon as we could.
Cross Country Road Trip Tips
Cross country travel can be a lot of fun, but it isn’t always easy to plan. One of the best cross country road trip tips I received was to “make a plan, but be prepared to deviate”. There is bound to be something unexpected that will cause you to alter your itinerary. If I could share some cross country road trip tips it would be this:
- Plan your route and some of the major sites you would like to see
- Do research on other cross country road trips
- Make sure your vehicle is roadworthy (check brakes, oil, fluid levels)
- Use a GPS that takes into account traffic (Waze or Google Maps)
- Become a AAA member for peace of mind
- Have your documents ready (valid driver’s license, vehicle registration, and updated insurance card)
- Visit Welcome Centers (bathroom breaks, and ideas for stops)
- Bring a cooler and pack snacks from the grocery store
- Consider camping as a way to save money
- Download podcasts about traveling
- Keep an eye on the weather
If you are considering cross country travel, be sure you have time! We did ours in a little under 3 weeks and while our national parks road trip was amazing, I wish we could have spent longer exploring more areas. We also were a bit limited in our options due to indoor restrictions, closures, and capacity issues. While I loved our “rushed” Cross Country National Park road trip, I am hoping our next trip is a little slower.
I hope you enjoyed reading the itinerary of our Ultimate National Park road trip and cross country travel. If you have any questions about our national parks road trip or any of our cross country travel tips, please leave a comment below.
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