Sightseeing on a 500-mile-a-day road trip? You can do it!
I drove across the country for the first time in 1984, alone in a car without air conditioning and a radio that stopped working as I crossed into Texas. I took my second cross-country road trip this year, this time in an air-conditioned Honda CRV, with music streaming from my iPhone, and my 20-year-old daughter in the passenger seat.
I drove with Kelsey from Columbus, Ohio, to her summer internship in Los Angeles — 2,400 miles in 4.5 days. We encountered highway construction, accidents and rainstorms but we also managed to take in some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable, tucking in sightseeing and even some pool time despite our nearly 500-mile-a-day trek. Here's how we did it.
The drive and the stops
Day 1: We left Columbus at 8 a.m. and drove 719 miles via Interstate 70 to Topeka, Kansas, through construction in Indiana and Illinois, rainstorms in St. Louis and Kansas City, and traffic accidents. We'd planned 10 hours of driving, but didn't pull into the Fairfield Inn until 13 hours later. We ate takeout from Wendy's — burgers and fries — standing up in our hotel room to ease the kinks in our backs from sitting so long.
Day 2: Clear skies, dry roads and little traffic. We sped past the lush Flint Hills outside Manhattan, Kansas, through the flat lands of western Kansas and into Denver. After 630 miles and climbing 7,000 feet, we arrived in Vail, Colo. Most businesses in this high-end resort (including a couple of mink coat stores) were closed because it was after ski season and before Memorial Day. But we found a creekside patio table and meal at Sweet Basil before turning in at the luxurious Tivoli Lodge (offseason rates via Booking.com made it affordable). We wished we'd had time and energy to hike the snowcapped mountains. If we had, we might have needed the container of oxygen in our hotel room ($19.99) to offset the effects of the altitude.
Day 3: After a day of mountain driving, we reached Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park. We skipped the cowboy dinner show, one of several dining options offered along with lodging at a complex just outside the park. Instead we headed to the park, arriving at 5 p.m., which meant few visitors clogging the 13 viewpoints along a 38-mile loop drive. We made three stops, ending at Inspiration Point, home to rust-colored, pinnacle-shaped rocks called hoodoos that spike upward from the ground.
Day 4: We hit the road by 7:15 a.m. and reached Zion National Park two hours later. The drive into the park winds down into the canyon, past spectacular, soaring, red-hued sandstone walls, through a mile-long tunnel to a visitor's center. Shuttle buses take visitors through the park. We stopped only at Weeping Rock to see the hanging gardens created by dripping streams and at the lodge for a tasty lunch.
Back in the car about 1 p.m., we were in Las Vegas three hours later. We stayed off the strip, at a Marriott next to the Convention Center. After a couple hours at the pool, with drinks and appetizers, we went by cab to The Venetian to gawk at the pricey stores. At the Bellagio we saw the colorful Dale Chihuly glass sculptures and grabbed dessert at Jean Philippe's patisserie, then took Uber back to our hotel.
Day 5: We forgot to gas up before leaving Las Vegas and got nervous with a quarter-tank left and nothing but desert ahead. Siri said the nearest station was in the roadside town of Jean, about 30 miles ahead, and we limped into the Chevron on fumes. We made it to Pasadena at 1 p.m., tired but proud of ourselves. We ended our road trip with a family dinner that night. My father, uncle, brother and sister-in-law live in southern California and hosted us at the Terrace restaurant at the Langham resort.
Preparation and tips
AAA provided guidebooks and Google Maps was indispensable in planning the route. We had a mechanic look at the car before we left, getting new spark plugs and an air filter.
Hotels inside and outside national parks fill up so book ahead. In general, hotels seemed to be a better option than Airbnb for the few hours we had each night. TripAdvisor and Booking.com were useful.
National park entrance fees vary. We bought an annual pass for $80 which Kelsey can use while in California this summer. The pass has paid for itself in less than a month.