The Great American Road Trip: 4 Kids, 5 Weeks and 7,000 Miles

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What’s it like for a family to live on the road for 5 weeks? Find out where we went, how much we spent and our best tips for a Great American road trip.

Has she lost her mind? I’m pretty sure that’s what everyone thought when I told them about the Great American road trip I had planned. I mean, a five-week cross-country road trip with four small children is quite the undertaking.

However, I was determined to see America. So we did. Snow-capped mountains, endless cornfields, open plains, red rock cliffs, dense forests and crashing waves all passed before our eyes. We saw wild horses, antelope, squirrels of all colors, prairie dogs, and beautiful birds. The United States is such a large country, and we were able to see so very much of it.

I didn’t just want my children to experience the different landscapes across America. Additionally, we were able to spend time with so many different people. We visited family we don’t see often and connected with old friends. My children got a glimpse at what life is like for other children.

So take a peek at my Great America road trip. Learn where we went, how much we spent and what we learned along the way. Hopefully it will inspire you to plan your own Great American road trip.

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playground, Marina Park in Dillon, Colorado

Colorado

As soon as the bell rang for my son’s last day of school, we were off on our Great American Road Trip. Our first stop: a quick trip to my brother’s house in Colorado.  We were able to beat the Friday afternoon rush, and arrive at my brothers with enough time for my kids to play with their cousins for a few hours. The next morning we were off again for a full days drive.

To break up our day, we decided to stop in Dillon, Colorado. If you ever have a chance, the area around Dillon Reservoir is absolutely gorgeous. Right along the highway is a bike path that runs for miles and miles through the mountains. A few years ago, we biked down from the summit of Vail Pass on the prettiest bike path I’ve ever been on. I’m dreaming of doing it again. We ended our bike ride in Dillon, Colorado, where we found the coolest spot for the kids.

Just off 1-70, there is a playground right next to Dillon Marina. With a vivid blue lake and snow-capped mountains in the distance, you have the most spectacular views as you play on the playground or eat lunch at one of the picnic tables. It was the perfect pit stop to break up our long drive. My younger son loved watching the boats in the lake and kept pointing to each one asking, “Can we go on that boat?” We will definitely be coming back here for a longer vacation someday.

Day: 1
Mileage: 297 miles
Accommodation Cost:
Free
Attractions Cost: Free

Road Trip Tip: Look for awesome rest stops to break up your drive.Click To Tweet

Related: My Year of Travel: The 10 Places I’m Taking My Family This Year

 

Visiting Friends in Kansas

Kansas

The week we moved into our house the couple across the street brought us a pan of homemade cinnamon rolls. At the time, they had 5 rambunctious boys and she was pregnant with her sixth (a girl). We quickly become friends, and I loved having someone I could turn to for parenting advice right next door.

A few years ago, they moved away. When I realized our Great American road trip would take us right past her house, I knew I needed to reach out to her. We had so much fun visiting with her family for a half a day. We basically just chatted and chatted like no time had passed. Our children got along fabulously. My oldest son and her youngest son, being the same age, were inseparable.

That’s one of the advantages of road trips over taking flights. You stop and visit with old friends along the way.

Days: 2-3
Mileage: 1190 miles
Accommodation Cost:
$82.13 hotel in Russell, KS
Attractions Cost: Free

Road Trip Tip: Reach out and connect with old friends along the way.Click To Tweet

4 kids at the St. Louis Arch

Missouri

I last visited St Louis 4 years ago and have been raving about it ever since. But sometimes you wonder whether a destination was really as awesome as you remember. On my second visit to St Louis with kids, would my experience live up to my own hyped expectations?

For my Great American road trip, I decided to almost exactly replicate my last trip to St. Louis (except staying at a hotel even closer to the St. Louis Arch), and we had just as much fun this time as four years ago. Actually more, because we didn’t have to visit the St. Louis Arch in the pouring rain.

Did you know that the St. Louis Zoo has free admission? We started our visit to St. Louis with a trip to the zoo, followed by an evening visit to the St. Louis Arch. Our hotel was right next to the Arch, so we were able to just mosey on over after dinner. To cap off our trip, we spent our second day visiting the City Museum, which is about the coolest place ever.

Days: 4-5
Mileage: 1,450 miles
Accommodation Cost:
Free with our Hilton hotel points
Attractions Cost: $128 for Zoo, City Museum and St. Louis Arch

Sometimes it's worth it to stay at a more expensive hotel at a better location than at a less expensive one farther away.Click To Tweet

 

Little Boy at lake in Ohio

Ohio

From St. Louis we pushed on to Ohio. My in-laws live outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Unlike where I grew up in Southwest Ohio, the northeastern corner of the state is covered in lakes. My in-laws actually have a lake in their neighborhood which is perfect for canoeing. Every year, they truck in sand to make a little strip of sandy beach which the kids had a blast playing in.

The northern corner of Ohio has plenty of fun attractions. You can go hiking at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, ride the coasters at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, or visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. We did none of these.

Instead we spend our time with family. The kids spent every waking moment running around grandma and grandpa’s house with their cousins. Between jumping on the trampoline, swimming at the lake and playing video games in the basement, the kids were go, go, go. My baby girl even went from baby steps to full-out walking during our visit. Even with all the fun attractions to tempt you away, sometimes the best thing to do is to stay home and enjoy your own family.

Days: 6-10
Mileage: 2,050 miles
Accommodation Cost:
Free
Attractions Cost: Free

Family always comes first.Click To Tweet

 

husband wife and little girl

Maryland

Look at that darling baby girl of mine. Can you believe she is one! Actually, two of my four kids had their birthdays during our Great American road trip. We celebrated my sweet daughter’s birthday in style with a full-on Maryland blue clam bake, of which she only got a little taste.

My husband’s cousin moved to Maryland a year ago. When they lived in Utah, we used to have family dinner with them every month and our kids were good friends. It was so much fun to reconnect with them and watch the kids become friends again.

We weren’t in Maryland very long, but we did swing in a visit to the Havre de Grace, the “Best Small Town in America,” or at least that’s what the sign says. At the head of the Chesapeake Bay, Havre de Grace is a darling little spot to visit.

We almost went on a boat ride through the bay, but, unfortunately, our boat had technical malfunctions and our ride was cancelled. Instead, we took a scenic little walk along the boardwalk spotting boats, interesting birds and the Concord Point Lighthouse along our stroll.

Days: 11-12
Mileage: 2,459 miles
Accommodation Cost:
Free
Attractions Cost: Free

Why give gifts when you can give experiences?Click To Tweet

 

World War II memorial and Lincoln memorial

Washington, D. C.

On our way to the Outer Banks, our Great American road trip had us pass right through Washington, D.C. We figured, why not stop for a quick visit? We lucked out and found a parking spot along Constitution Avenue, giving us 3 hours to explore. My plan was to first walk up and see the White House. (Look, kids, that’s where the President lives!) Then we would walk down to the mall to see the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.

As the saying goes, “The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.” I don’t think I will ever visit D.C. in the summer again. The temperature was uncomfortably hot, but when combined with the humidity, it became unbearable. My kids did not want to walk, and had a miserable time. We saw the White House (which did not impress), then walked to the World War II Memorial. From there, we had to call it quits as my 2-year-old went into a total meltdown.

A better plan would have been to just visit one of the air-conditioned Smithsonian museums. Oh, well. I was able to snap a few cute pictures and the kids can say they have been there. I’m thinking in a few years when they are a bit older, Washington, D. C. would be a perfect place to visit. In the fall, of course.

Day: 13
Mileage: 2,531 miles
Accommodation Cost:
Free
Attractions Cost: $9 for downtown parking

Don't try to see it all. Opt for deeper experiences instead.Click To Tweet

Related: An Art Lover’s Guide to Washington D.C.

 

Two boys looking through binoculars at Bogue Sound

The Outer Banks

“See the line where the sand meets the sea … it calls me!” ~Moana

I bought the movie Moana specifically for our road trip, and my children must have watched it a million times. I feel like our Great American road trip would not have been complete without a visit to the ocean. Neither my parents nor Jaclyn’s family had ever been to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, so I was excited for all of us to explore somewhere new.

Instead of visiting the tourist heavy area around Kitty Hawk, we decided to stay on the south end of the Outer Banks. My dad was so kind to rent us a beach house in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, and we spent a weekend with my parents and my sister’s family relaxing at the beach.

We went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean every day, collected sea shells every evening, watched a demonstration of a cannon firing at Fort Macon State Park, and even rented kayaks to explore Bogue Sound.

Days: 14-16
Mileage: 2,935 miles
Accommodation Cost:
 Free
Attractions Cost: $37.45 kayak rental

Look for similar alternatives to tourist-heavy areas. You'll have even more fun away from the crowds.Click To Tweet

 

Boy Catching fireflies in North Carolina

North Carolina

Putting the ocean behind us, we headed off to the airport to send my husband back home to return to work. I wasn’t all by myself, though. My mom was kind enough to join me for the next two weeks of my Great American Road Trip. I knew that we would miss my husband, but I didn’t realize he would take all the good luck with him.

We arrived at my sister’s house in North Carolina to find the AC broken. Not a great start to our visit. We thought our luck had changed when we got the AC fixed, but then the medical problems started. My nephew had to go in for stronger poison ivy medication. I got a cold and lost my voice. Then, my baby girl broke out into a wicked case of hives. At the same time, my oldest developed a rash on his face. To top it off, my oldest daughter fell and gashed open her wrist. It was my first ever experience with stitches, and I hope to never have to do it again.

I felt kind of terrible that we had a such a rough time at my sister’s house. Through all the troubles, we still had some fun. My kids absolutely love playing with her son and their dog and cats. We visited both the children’s museum and the science museum in Winston-Salem. I got to visit my brother-in-law’s laboratory and learn all about his research and got a VIP behind-the-scenes tour of the art school where my sister works.

All in all, North Carolina was definitely a memorable part of our Great American road trip – and my daughter has the scar to prove it.

Days: 17-21
Mileage: 3,397 miles
Accommodation Cost:
Free
Attractions Cost: $48.04 for Children’s Museum and Science Museum

Road Trip Tip: Always bring a medicine with you just in case - especially children's medicine.Click To Tweet

 

two little girls reading a book together

Tennessee

My husband’s oldest brother lives in Tennessee, so our Great American road trip continued with a trip to Nashville. We had actually just seen his family in Ohio, but we didn’t want to miss a chance to spend a little more time with them. I was also lucky enough to stop for lunch with one of my old college roommates who lived right along my route.

Unfortunately, our run of bad luck continued. My cold in North Carolina turned into an ear infection in Tennessee. So I added in another urgent care visit. Because I was not feeling up to much of anything we didn’t really get to go out and see much in Tennessee. I did get a chance to stroll downtown Nashville on a Friday night. I have to say, there were way more rock and roll bands playing than I expected. Additionally, we took the kids over to the playground at Centennial park where they have full-scale replica of the Parthenon.

Days: 22-24
Mileage: 3,895 miles
Accommodation Cost:
Free
Attractions Cost: Free

Road Trip Tip: It never hurts to look up Urgent Cares at your destinations. Just in case!Click To Tweet

Related: Arizona Road Trip: Exploring the Magic of the Southwest

 

four children in front of cornfield

Ohio

Home, sweet home! We had visited my in-laws in northern Ohio, but now it was time to visit my hometown on our Great American road trip. Every time I go back, it always amazes me how small my hometown is. I grew up in a small country town. The picture above was actually taken at my parents’ house. Their yard is bordered on two sides by a cornfield.

I loved watching my kids explore my hometown and see what my childhood was like. We visited a few of the local hiking spots, and I just loved being back among all the greenery. My kids loved watching old episodes of Lost in Space with my dad and getting ice cream at the famous local dairy farm. I even got to go out to dinner with some of my high school friends whom I hadn’t seen in years. I wish I lived closer. Ohio will always have a special place in my heart.

Days: 25-27
Mileage: 4,341 miles
Accommodation Cost:
Free
Attractions Cost: Free

There's always time for ice cream!Click To Tweet

 

little boy exploring a the base of Gooseberry Falls in Minnesota

Minnesota

My mom’s sister moved to the Minneapolis area two years ago, and I was fortunate to visit her there the previous summer. I had such a fun time that I knew I needed to include Minnesota in my Great American Road Trip. Also, my brother just moved to Minnesota, so I got to see him as well.

I had everything worked out perfectly. The night we arrived, I tucked my kids in bed and went to the airport to pick up my husband. The plan was for the my youngest son to wake up on his birthday to the ultimate surprise: Daddy! Instead, my husband and I were woken up in the middle of the night to a surprise: my oldest daughter throwing up.

My poor girl ending up with a stomach bug and couldn’t hold anything down the entire time we were in Minnesota. We even had to take her to the ER on our last day to get her IV fluids. That definitely put a damper on our Minnesota plans.

We were still able to enjoy some of the sights. We drove up to Lake Superior near Duluth and visited Gooseberry Falls State Park. The kids had a blast playing in the water. We went swimming a ton at my aunt’s pool and got to see amazing fireworks on 4th of July. But we had to nix the Mall of America roller coasters and Minnehaha Falls from our to-see list. Though now that my brother lives in Minnesota, I’m sure we will visit again.

Days: 28-34
Mileage: 5,624 miles
Accommodation Cost:
 $79.57 hotel outside Chicago, IL
Attractions Cost: Free

Road Trip Tip: The best pie ever is the apple-strawberry pie at Betty's pies in Two Harbors, MN.Click To Tweet

 

Hiking the Ridgeline Trail at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota

North Dakota

With my oldest daughter feeling much better, we decided to continue on the last legs of our Great American road trip. I have a friendly competition going with my sister to see which of us can visit all 50 states first. She might have Alaska checked off, but now I have North Dakota.

I actually didn’t mind the drive through North Dakota. I wouldn’t want to live there, but the wide open plains were prettier than in Wyoming. After seeing such eternal flatness, it was a bit of a surprise when the terrain suddenly shifted at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Even though we were on northern edge of the United States, the weather continued to be hot. We only did a few short hikes, of which the Ridgeline hike pictured above was my favorite. Mostly we enjoyed driving the scenic loop through the park and spotting the wildlife. My kids had a blast counting prairie dogs in the prairie dog towns (we saw over 100). But the favorite would have to be the wild horses we saw near the entrance.

Days: 35-36
Mileage: 6,240 miles
Accommodation Cost:
 $79.83 hotel in Dickinson, ND
Attractions Cost: Free with National Park Pass

Every true American road trip needs a visit to a national park.Click To Tweet

 

four kids in front of Mt Rushmore in South Dakota

South Dakota

For our last stop of our Great American road trip, we decided to make a quick visit to Mount Rushmore National Monument. Between the long drive home ahead of us and the heat of the day, we didn’t stay very long. We skipped the museum and decided to walk the short Presidential trail that goes close the base of the mountain. Unfortunately, the trail was under renovations, so we had to turn around and come back. I’m glad we stopped and took some pictures, but, all in all, if you visit in the summer I would suggest going in the evening.

Day: 37
Mileage: 6,528
Accommodation Cost:
 $123 hotel in Rapid City, SD
Attractions Cost: $10 Mt. Rushmore parking

If they are open late, use the cooler evening hours to visit attractions in the summer.Click To Tweet

 

Rachael's Family

Great American Road Trip – Summary

How to summarize my Great American road trip? Memorable might be the most accurate term. It certainly was one for the books.

All in all, we traveled 7,074.2 miles passing through 18 states over 37 days. Between my daughter and I, we visited three different urgent cares in three different states, plus one emergency room. My children were able to see all but two of their cousins (the remaining two live near us in Utah) as well as 18 other children who are family friends.

Adding everything up, our Great American Road Trip ended up costing us about $1,590 total: $600 on gas, $360 on hotels, $230 on attractions and $400 on my husband’s flights. We actually didn’t spend any more on food than we normally do.

The real question is, would I do it again? Probably not, though I’ll never say never. I had so much fun visiting all our family back East, but it sure is nice to be home in my own bed. I don’t think I’m ready for the nomad life … at least not yet.

 

Would you be brave enough to take the Great American Road Trip?

What's it like for a family of six to take a cross-country family road trip for 5 weeks? Find out where we went, how much we spent and our best road trip tips for a Great American road trip.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Keating | Mainely Keating August 7, 2018 at 8:43 pm

    Love this post so much!! We’re about to do two big trips this fall with our toddler as we move back to the east coast. The first from San Diego, CA to Portland, ME and then the second is from Portland, ME to Jacksonville, NC. I’m already on the lookout for places to stop along the way! So I’m definitely going to take note of some of these locations. We’re hoping to make the California to Maine trip a bit longer so we can stop and see/do things 🙂

  • Reply Diana August 9, 2018 at 10:56 pm

    Awesome road trip lady! Sorry for the bad luck with sickness (never fun on trips). It was great to see you guys again in Ohio… And I hope you were able to take pictures of those wild horses. That’s one thing on my bucket list. ? Keep up the great work of showing these things with your kids!

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