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Our 20-day, 6,000-mile cross-country road trip began with the simple, long-time dream of visiting Yosemite National Park. Seeing the tunnel view first-hand has been at the top of my bucket list for years.

Two years ago, after a few trips north and south along the east coast, I realized that our boys had grown to be excellent travelers and were old enough to keep life-long memories of places we visited. In the spring of 2015, I looked ahead and identified the next spring track-out as the perfect time to take this road trip.

Flying to California was never a consideration. I grew up taking road trips up and down the east coast every summer so I knew we would drive. So, one year of planning for the Wild West Road trip was underway.

12 Months Out: Plan WHEN To Go

Choosing trip dates is one of the easiest decisions during the planning process due to our boys’ year-round school schedule. They don’t get an entire summer off school which would provide numerous options for travel dates. In addition to a few holidays, their year-round school schedule gives them a three-week break each season so choosing a travel time for a long trip is merely a season decision.

Winter was out due to freezing weather and impassable roads. Summer wasn’t ever a consideration due to heat and crowds.

The only seasons I considered were fall and spring, and spring won for to its longer days (more daylight hours to SEE the beautiful landscapes we would be visiting) and greener views. Fall is my favorite season and I love foliage, but I didn’t want to be visiting any of these areas after leaves had already dropped. Green landscapes and wildflowers were the better choice.

Springtime can still be too early to visit upper elevations of certain parks, as we discovered with the Tioga Road and Glacier Point areas of Yosemite, but the valley was open and this time of year was perfect for all other destinations on the trip.

After deciding on the season, the exact travel dates were chosen for us. Spring track-out began on April 20, 2016 and so did our trip! We wanted to give the boys a day or two to rest at home before going back to school after the trip, so the exact end date, May 9th, was also pre-selected for us.

11-12 Months Out: Decide WHERE To Go

Our road trip route needed to go as far as the Yosemite Valley in California and while I had a few other destinations earmarked along the way, the rest of the travel itinerary was still up in the air. Using Google Maps, I marked a few places along the way to calculate time and distance to get a general idea of the travel time involved. Originally, I thought this trip could cover the entire western U.S. in 20 days but it quickly became clear that this wouldn’t happen! I grew up around small states in the east where it’s not unreasonable to drive through 5-6 states per day, but the large states out west take longer to conquer! Considering that another high priority destination was Monument Valley, I shifted the general area to only the southwest and decided to save the Pacific Northwest for another trip.

Reviewing an interstate map, it was clear that we should travel west on I-40 which leads straight from Raleigh to the desert southwest and into California. Wishing to avoid retracing our steps back home, driving back east on I-70 through states just to the north through the Rockies and plains looked to be a perfect plan.

With a general I-40/I-70 loop in mind, it was time to determine other points of interest along the way. I requested free brochures from the tourism bureau of each state through which we’d be traveling and also started pinning away on Pinterest. The goal of this trip was to get out west, so I didn’t plan any significant stops in the eastern half of the country that we could easily visit later on a future eastern-focus trip, but hoped to find a few brief roadside attractions to break up the long drive.

I didn’t rush this step in this brainstorming process of filling in the itinerary. I just kept my eyes and ears open for months to places along our intended loop, perused the brochures and maps that flooded my mailbox, and slowly developed a list of possible destinations.

8-10 Months Out: Fine-Tune the Itinerary

With a list of possible destinations, it was time to start finalizing the trip and assemble a day-by-day itinerary.

Besides Yosemite, I’d always wanted to drive the Pacific Coast Highway but didn’t have much desire to see anything else in California (I can’t believe I once thought this way! I absolutely love California now!). However, realizing that we were so close to San Francisco, we just had to visit. We couldn’t go that far west, almost to the Pacific coast, and not see the Golden Gate Bridge. Jeff wanted to visit the Exploritorium so San Francisco was added to the list. I briefly considered adding Los Angeles as I would have loved to visit Disneyland and we’d be quite close, but there wasn’t enough time nor the desire to deal with the traffic.

California is also known for its large Redwood and Sequoia trees. Seeing these in person became a must. The Mariposa Grove at Yosemite would’ve been the perfect solution but it was closed for “renovation” (I’m still wondering how a forest can be “renovated!”). Our route would take us right by Sequoia National Park, so we added it to the itinerary instead to satisfy our big tree goal. I also wanted visit Muir Woods on the coast north of the Bay Area, but time was limited and there were opportunities to see redwoods further down the coast.

Another drive-by that was added to the final itinerary was Las Vegas. I’ve never had a desire to vacation in Vegas and have always said I’d like to just drive down the Strip to see what it’s like in person. The Hoover Dam had already been added to the itinerary so we would pass within miles of Vegas and my simple drive down the Strip could be a reality!

The far-west California portion of the trip came together pretty quickly. Sifting through all of the options in the desert southwest, however, would be more difficult. As we would be traveling through the southwest twice, on the way to California and back, we could stay for a few days both ways. Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks – there were too many locations to cover on this trip so we reluctantly edited some out.

The Grand Canyon was a no-brainer. Of course we have to see the Grand Canyon! Bryce Canyon was also at the top of my list as my family had raved about it since I was a child. Monument Valley was also important to see, especially since the boys had been obsessed with the movie Cars for years. That left Sedona and Zion National Park to get the axe for now.

Arches National Park wasn’t initially a serious consideration. I thought we had enough red rocks on the itinerary already, but it would again be a location that we would be driving by and as timing became more defined, I realized we’d be in Moab overnight and there was room in the itinerary to spend some extra time there. I’m so glad that Arches fell so seamlessly into the schedule because it ended up being one of my favorite days of the entire trip!

With a route home on I-70 through Colorado, I originally tried to add a longer stay in the snow-capped Rockies and researched Rocky Mountain National Park for quite some time. However, this was scrapped due to time and we decided that the beautiful I-70 drive through the mountains and brief overnight stay in the middle of the range would have to satisfy our Rocky Mountains experience for now.


Nine months away from departure day, we had a rough trip itinerary that looked like this:

  1. Drive from Raleigh to eastern Tennessee
  2. Drive from Tennessee to Texas
  3. Drive from Texas to Arizona
  4. Drive to and explore Grand Canyon National Park
  5. Drive from the Grand Canyon to foothills of Sequoia National Park
  6. Explore Sequoia National Park and drive to Yosemite National Park
  7. Yosemite National Park
  8. Yosemite National Park
  9. Drive to Bay Area and explore
  10. San Francisco
  11. Jasper’s Birthday – activities around Monterey Bay
  12. Pacific Coast Highway
  13. Drive from California coast to Hoover Dam area via Las Vegas
  14. Visit Hoover Dam, drive to Bryce Canyon area
  15. Bryce Canyon National Park
  16. Monument Valley
  17. Arches National Park and drive to Colorado
  18. Drive from Colorado to Kansas City
  19. Drive from Kansas City to southern Indiana
  20. Drive home

Next week: Fine-Tuning the Cross-Country Road Trip

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