Guest Article: Ultimate Family Road Trip To The Wild West!

Zion National Park

As a single income family of 6 on a tight budget, finding ways to take vacations with the whole family can be extremely challenging. But as an avid adventurer, hiker and nature/history lover, I refuse to let our limited budget keep us from exploring all the amazing places out there that I want my family to experience. If you do your research, time things right, and are willing to step outside your comfort zone a little, you and your family can make incredible memories traveling to awe-inspiring places, having adventures that you will be talking about for years, even on a limited budget.

One of our family’s favorite trips ever was our road trip out west. In 16 days, we visited 17 states, 8 national parks, too many national reserves/monuments to count (and more public restrooms than I care to remember) and covered almost 5,000 miles in our trusty minivan. We saw more incredible sights in those 16 days and experienced more things than most people do in their entire lives…all on a very small budget!Map of the trip

Day 1 – Saturday

* Drove from Nashville to Kansas City

Day 2 – Sunday

* Drove from Kansas City to Murdo, SD

Day 3 – Monday

* To Badlands National Park

* Visited Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

* In the same general vicinity, we also visited:Badlands National Park

– Mount Rushmore – Keystone, SD

– Crazy Horse Monument – Crazy Horse, SD

– Devil’s Tower, WY

*To Sheridan, WY – Rodeo town, lots of history and cowboy culture

Day 4 – Tuesday

* To Bighorn National Forest/Recreation area (Took Hwy 14 across northern part- one of the most scenic, gorgeous drives of the whole trip)

* To Yellowstone National Park – too much to list all that we did here, but a few favorites were: Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, Upper Geyser Trail

Day 5 – Wednesday

* Grand Teton National Park – hiked Jenny Lake Trail to Inspiration Point

Day 6 – Thursday

* Sightseeing in Jackson Hole

Day 7 – Friday

* To Salt Lake City – toured Mormon Temple Square & historical sites

 Day 8 – Saturday

* To Bryce Canyon National Park – hiked Queens Garden/Navajo Loop Trail

* To Grafton, UT – explored historic “ghost town” and cemetery

Day 9 -Sunday* To St. George, UT – Toured the Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm

Day 10-11 – Monday – Tuesday

* To Zion National Park

– Jacob’s Ranch – full day of working with the horses/extreme trail riding around the border of the park

– Hiking in Zion – “The Narrows” trail

* Explored Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park – just outside of Kanab, UTMesa Verde National Park

Day 11 – Wednesday

* To Grand Canyon National Park – explored Desert View Watchtower, hiked South Kaibab Trail

* Drove across Navajo Nation (Hwy 160 through NE corner of Arizona)

* Monument Valley

Day 12 – Thursday

* To Mesa Verde National Park – explored cliff dwellings on paid ranger tours (totally worth doing the paid tours and not just the free ones)

Day 13, 14 – Friday

* To Albuquerque & Santa Fe – explored artisan markets, art galleries, city-square plaza

Day 15 – Saturday

* Drove from Sante Fe to Dallas

Day 16 – Sunday

* Drove from Dallas home to Nashville!

WHEW – I am telling you, we packed it in! This is a trip for you explorers/adventurers out there; it’s not going to be appealing to those who want a relaxing/sleep in late/sit by the pool reading all day kind of vacation (although there is certainly a time and place for those!) This is more of a hike-through-rivers, horse-ride-through-canyons, climb-sand-dunes, explore-ancient-ruins, camp-in-a- teepee, pack-your-bear-spray kind of vacation…and we absolutely loved every minute of it!Camping at Yellowstone National Park

– Pack your camping gear! We only camped about 1/3 of the nights, but it definitely makes a big difference in how much you spend on lodging. Campground fees are very inexpensive, especially in the National Parks, so you’re looking at maybe $20-25/night (sometimes less) versus $100 or more staying in a hotel. Some of our favorite campgrounds were: Madison Campground at Yellowstone NP, Signal Mountain Campground at Grand Teton National Park, Ruby’s Inn RV Park outside of Bryce Canyon NP and Zion River Resort on Hwy 9 outside of Zion NP. All of these had excellent accommodations; the bathrooms/showers at Zion River RV resort are nicer than ours at home and the kids LOVED getting to sleep in a real tepee at Ruby’s RV Park!Teepees at Ruby’s RV Park

– Pack a cooler! We were able to save a lot of money on dining by using a cooler to store groceries. We would generally eat breakfast and lunch very inexpensively on the road and then would sometimes splurge at a restaurant for dinner. Some of our favorite memories from the trip include those times when we’d find a beautiful vista somewhere along our route, pull the van off the road and enjoy a picnic in the most gorgeous surroundings imaginable!

– Invest in a good topper for your vehicle. Packing camping gear and a good size cooler along with luggage for the 6 of us would have been virtually impossible without our topper. And we’ve used it on LOTS of other trips just to free up interior space.Grand Canyon National Park

– Book hotels online. The nights we didn’t camp, we often stayed in inexpensive hotels (when we’re traveling out west, Best Western is often our go-to place for clean, comfortable, no-fuss lodging.) We rarely booked our rooms with much more than 24 hours notice and never had trouble getting a room. Almost without exception, we were able to find cheaper rates online through discount sites like Expedia or Priceline. Sometimes the hotel itself would tell us they were booked up if we called them directly, but there were always still rooms available on these online sites, and for a cheaper rate.Grand Teton National Park

– Timing is everything. One of the reasons we never had trouble getting a room and were able to see everything we wanted to see was because we scheduled our trip at just the right time. We hit the road the day our kids got out of school for the summer, May 23.

Here’s why it worked out so well: a lot of schools don’t get out until the very end of May or early/mid June. We missed a lot of crowds and traffic that would have slowed us down and limited our schedule by hitting a block of time when a lot of families with kids are still in school. We saw almost NO families on this trip. What we did see was international visitors…tour groups from overseas know that late May is the perfect time to travel in the US for the very same reason – they know they’ll avoid American families’ summer vacations.Devil’s Tower, Wyoming

Additional bonus: since this isn’t a peak time, it means hotel rates are often lower than they are during summer peak weeks. Another reason that mid-late May is the perfect time to plan your trip is that many of the higher elevations along our route would’ve been blocked by snow if we had arrived any earlier. Long stretches of road in BigHorn and in Yellowstone had huge snowdrifts piled along the sides of the road and would have been impassable just a few weeks earlier.

– Consider buying the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass. Many of our national parks have entry fees. Research the parks you plan to visit on your trip and see if it makes sense to purchase the $80 Annual Pass which gets your vehicle entry at any national park and over 2000 national recreation areas for the entire year. This is especially important if the federal government adopts the newly proposed National Park Service entry fee hikes this budget year which could more than double the current entry fees at many parks from around $30 to $70 per vehicle/per visit (yikes!!) The $80 Annual Pass is one thing that is not supposed to change, luckily, making it an even better value.Bryce Canyon National Park

– And last but not least, DRIVE don’t fly! Don’t get me wrong, I love flying and we are huge fans of our Southwest Rewards Card; we use it constantly to rack up points for free flights. But it would have taken A LOT of points for the 6 of us to fly out to one of the points along our route, then add the cost of renting a car to get around out there and it just wasn’t worth it. As it was, we were able to do the ENTIRE trip – gas, lodging, food, bear spray…everything! – for less than what it would have cost us in dollars for JUST the airfare if we had flown! WOW! And honestly, much of the adventure, beauty and memorable moments of this trip would not have happened without our 5,000 mile road trip.

A trip out west really does need to be done by car if at all possible to truly get the most out of it. Even if we’d had the extra money to spend, I wouldn’t do a trip like this any other way.Coral Sands Dune State Park

Hopefully this information will be helpful in planning your next budget-friendly trip and gives you an idea of just how many places you can visit and the amazing adventures that are waiting…all without breaking the bank! An extended trip with four kids on the road was something we wanted to accomplish before they head to college, and we proved it can be done! Happy trails!Trail-riding Jacob’s Ranch outside of Zion National Park


If you have questions about this trip, the places, they stayed, or the places they visited, please email and I will get you in touch with Shannon! Please let me know if you think you have taken a trip that others would benefit from hearing about and we can work out an article!