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Surviving the Great American Road Trip — with Kids

by Colleen Smitek
Family In Car Going On Road Trip

Family In Car Going On Road Trip. Stock photo by monkeybusiness via Envato Elements.

From Cleveland to Yellowstone National Park — and back — is more than 5,000 miles if you factor in all of the stops. That’s more than 70 hours in a car. Now that’s one thing if it’s just you and your best friend or spouse. It’s quite another if you have kids in tow, even if there are multiple devices involved.

But I can tell you that it was amazing. So amazing that our family of four did virtually the same trip two summers in a row. Two times to Yellowstone National Park, two times to the Grand Tetons and two times to Mount Rushmore. And our two daughters, ages 10 and 12 at the time of the first trip, asked to go again the following year.

Here’s 10 tips to help you have your own amazing adventure with kids:

Snacks, Snacks, Snacks.

This is not the time to try and get your child off sugar. Nor is it the time to enforce that mythical “No eating in the car” rule. Bring a whole bunch of things your kids like to eat and let them pick one snack each time you’re in the car for an extended period of time.

Build in fun!

This is probably the most critical point on this list. You can’t go from one national park to another. Same goes for museums or historic cities. You simply must add in sites that they helped choose and are looking forward to. On our first trip, those attractions included two sites from the book series Little House on the Prairie, Utah Olympic Park and horseback riding in Grand Teton National Park. On the second trip, the girls were most looking forward to Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas, where you dig through the dirt in the blazing hot sun looking for diamonds — and get to keep whatever you find. We were there about six hours but came up empty. On our way out, we saw a woman pluck a diamond right off the surface of the ground.

Tire them out with long hikes.

You wouldn’t believe what a delight a cool car can feel like after you’ve just spent the last three hours hiking in Arches National Park on a 90-degree day. And on the afternoon we left Yellowstone National Park, we were all happy to just sit and relax on the 6-hour drive to Deadwood, South Dakota. Which brings me to the next point…

Don’t be that mom or dad

There are more than 10,000 hot springs and geysers in Yellowstone National Park. If you want your children to hate the park, make them see as many of them as humanly possible. Instead, do your research and focus on a handful of sites, including Old Faithful and Yellowstone Lake.

Don’t fight with your spouse

Nothing can ruin a day like the tense mood that follows a spat. In the combined four weeks we travelled, my husband and I got in only one fight. He was mad that I spent $50 on bear spray in the Grand Tetons. Then, the four of us hiked around Jenny Lake in total brooding silence which, ironically, is the one thing you don’t want to do in bear country.

Offer diversions from devices

It’s essential for your kids to have devices on a trip this long. But they’ll feel lousy if you don’t intervene. Just like you must break up their junk food sprees with fresh fruits and vegetables, you must also nourish their brains. On our first road trip, I read The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder out loud over the course of two weeks in preparation for our stop at one of the Ingalls family’s homesteads in De Smet, South Dakota. We also used our car time to read up on what we were about to see. In places like Yellowstone, they were not allowed to look at their devices at all.

Bring a ball

Seriously. Every time we stopped to get gas, we bumped the volleyball around for a few minutes. It was just enough activity to loosen up a bit — and the girls really looked forward to it. Even just playing catch for a couple of minutes does wonders for kids who’ve been sitting too long.

Have cool drinks

Each and every morning, we filled our small cooler with ice and drinks and got ready for the road. Nobody ever got grumpy because they were thirsty on our trips. We saved a lot of money, too.

Cluster your overnight stays

Nobody wants to be on the move every day, endlessly checking in and out of hotels. Pick two places on your journey where you spend at least two or three nights. For us, those places were Park City, Utah, (two nights) and the Grand Teton National Park (three nights) on our first trip and Zion National Park (three nights) and Deadwood, South Dakota (three nights) on our second trip. This gave us time to catch our breath, hang out at the pool and recover from car fatigue before the next leg of the trip.

Give them their own responsibilities

My oldest daughter’s job was to collect all of the garbage from the car and keep it clean, while my younger daughter’s job was to organize and keep track of the snacks. This gave them buy-in on the trip — and it felt like we were all partners in making things go smoothly.

It’s three years later now and we still talk about those two trips all the time. In fact, I’m sure we’ll be back on the road again soon — with drinks, devices and snacks in tow.

 

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