Last summer, we took our two girls on a 30-day, 4,000-mile trek around the western United States (here's the full route). The trip was made possible by my wife's employer, where everyone is given a multi-week sabattical after 10 years of service.
Our kids are relatively young for such a journey--just four and seven at the time of the trip. To make it bearable for them (and us!), we drove relatively short distances each day, and spent a mostly-driving-free week in Colorado in the middle of the trip. (More on the lessons we learned traveling for 30 days straight with two young kids in a future blog post...)
What was great about the trip, for the adults in the car at least, was that relatively little time was spent on interstate highways--only 1,200 of the 4,000 miles, and of those 1,200 miles, 900 of them were on the first three days and the last day of the trip. So most of the time, we were on state highways or even smaller backroads. These are the roads where you can really see the country, and get away from the crowds--many times we had the road completely to ourselves.
Given how much we enjoyed these roads, I thought I'd take a few minutes and share some of my favorites from the journey. (Click the small map image for the full Google Maps view (in a new window) of each road.)
- Snowy Range Pass (Highway 130, Wyoming): If you think of Wyoming as basically flat except for the Tetons/Jackson Hole area, Snowy Range Pass will prove you wrong. Rising up from a mostly flat plain, Highway 130 runs through Medicine Bow National Forest, climbing through some amazing vistas of mountains and high-altitude lakes. It's not overly long, but it's incredibly scenic. [more info]
- Wolf Creek Pass (Highway 160, Colorado): A truly amazing road, with incredible vistas, and an incredible descent into Pagosa Springs. This road was much more exciting when I was growing up in Colorado--it used to be a two-lane road, but now it's a four-lane highway for much of the way. (For a funny take on the road, listen to CW McCall's Wolf Creek Pass.) [more info #1 • more info #2]
- Mesa Verde entrance road (Colorado): Mesa Verde National Park is home to over 600 cliff dwellings and 4,000+ archeological sites, and is tucked way out of the way in southwestern Colorado. What isn't apparent from a casual glance at the park's web page is that it's a long, twisty road from the park entrance to the sites.
How far? It's about 20 miles from the entrance of the park to the first visitor's center (not even to the ruins), and those 20 miles will keep your attention the entire time. You quickly climb well above the floor of the valley where you started, and the road twists constantly as it follows the ridge lines into the park. This map gives a good sense for the road's layout, though the 2,000+ foot elevation gain isn't as obvious. (This 772KB PDF shows the road in even more detail.)
If your kids are in a hurry to see Mesa Verde, make sure you let them know that the entrance to the park is merely the beginning of the journey--in the middle of summer, with little traffic, it took us a good 50 minutes to negotiate the 25ish miles to the easiest-to-visit ruins (Spruce Tree House). In the winter, I imagine it could easily take twice that long.
- Highway 93 over Hoover Dam (Arizona-Nevada): With the October 19th opening of the Hoover Dam bypass project, the route we took over the dam is no longer available. (You can apparently drive over the dam from the Nevada side, but not the Arizona side--I guess you then come back via the bypass.)
We intentionally went this direction because we knew the bypass was opening, and we wanted to drive across the dam one last time. It still amazes me that, until just a month ago, this was the most direct way into Las Vegas from Arizona. An incredible amount of traffic flowed over the dam on a daily basis (which must've made Homeland Security very uncomfortable). Now it all flows over the bypass, which doesn't offer a good view of the dam (unless you walk out on the pedestrian walkways). I'm a bit sad to see this bit of road relegated to the history books, and I'm very glad we took the time to drive the dam while we still could. [more info]
- Highway 168 (California): This might've been my favorite stretch of road on the entire trip. Driving east to west, you climb up out of flat farmland on a narrow, twisting section of road. Some spots are very narrow, without any shoulders to speak of, and some sections are lacking guardrail, which definitely helps focus your attention on driving, especially as you descend out of that first section--some of the drop-offs are impressively scary.
At the bottom of the descent, you find yourself in a 10-mile-long valley, devoid of any sign of humanity other than the road and one small town (Deep Springs). The road here is amazingly straight: only two slight right-hand turns across the 10 miles of the valley.
From there, it's up and up and up into the Inyo National Forest, and the most amazing section of this road. There are some sharp corners, good views, forest all around, a section of one-lane road tucked between two rock faces, and at the end, a very steep and visually stunning descent into the town of Big Pine. I can't imagine doing this drive in the winter, but in the summer, it was incredible. [more info #1 • more info #2 (skip down to the "California 168 (Eastern Sierra Segment) east" section for some good pictures, though we drove it heading west)]
- Highway 120 through Yosemite (California): I've done this drive a number of times, and I never tire of it. We came up from Mono Lake, and stopped at numerous lakes and meadows to walk around and admire the scenery. Everywhere you look, there's something to see, so the driver must really focus on the road.
(Speaking of focusing on the road, if you want to go down into the Yosemite Valley proper from Highway 120, you'll take Big Oak Road, which has a few "oh my gosh" moments of its own.)
- Highway 120 to Highway 49 (California): Descending from Yosemite to California's central valley is done via either New Priest Grade Road (NPGR) or Old Priest Grade Road (OPGR). At the time of our visit, OPGR was closed for paving, so we didn't have a choice in the matter. Even if we had a choice, though, we would've probably taken New Priest Grade.
So how do the roads differ? Basically, OPGR seems to have been designed by thrill seekers, whereas NPGR was designed with safety in mind, but will make you dizzy as heck thanks to its numerous turns. OPGR basically goes straight down a ridge line, with only a few smaller turns to slow your descent. Contrast that with NPGR, which has something like 55 turns in its five miles, and you can see the two roads were built in very different eras.
(Another way to see how different the two roads are is length: OPGR is a 2.6 mile descent; NPGR is 5.3 miles, and yet they both start and end at the same point!) For a sense of NPGR, here's a descent on motorcycle. Regardless of which road you choose (some locals apparently choose to go up OPGR, and down NPGR), the views are wonderful.
- Highway 139 (Susanville, California): This road was a real surprise--we took it because it offered the best route up to Klamath Falls, but we knew nothing about it at all. The initial five miles out of Susanville climbs over 1,500 feet, offering great views back at the valley below.
After cresting the initial summit, Highway 139 continues through an ever-changing variety of landscape. There's a long section along a lakeshore, patches through dense woods, open fields, and eventually, farmland. We had this road nearly completely to ourselves, too--it was probably the least traveled of any of the roads we took on the trip. [more info]
- Crater Lake south-to-north route (Oregon): Crater Lake was formed when an ancient volcano erupted then collapsed, resulting in an incredibly deep natural lake, with no natural outflows or inflows (it's filled by snowmelt). The lake itself is amazing, but the road around it is truly incredible.
Out one window, you'll occasionally see the lake. Out the other window, there's a mix of views--sometimes forest, sometimes gentle sloping pastures, and sometimes a thousand foot drop to nothingness. There are numerous turnouts for looking at the lake, and the road circles the entire crater (though we just navigated a section of it this time).
On the day we drove through, highway crews were working on the road, and had our lane closed, so we were diverted into the other lane...right where one of the thousand foot drops happened to be. The view out the driver's side was intimidating, to say the least: no guardrail, no shoulder, just nothingness. Yikes! It was so intimidating, in fact, that the car in front of us smacked into every one of the orange cones marking edge of the closed lane--they were hugging the inside of the lane as much as possible! [more info]
- Highway 58 (Oregon): This route cuts across the Cascades, and it's scenic the whole way. Forests, reservoirs, and occasional mountain views keep things interesting.
By this point in the journey, the kids were counting the miles to home, so it was nice to have some scenery for them--at least until we reached I-5 for the last 100ish miles to the house. That part was brutal...so close and yet so far! [more info]
When all was said and done, parents and kids alike had a great trip, though probably for different reasons. For my wife and I, much of the enjoyment came from each day's journey from point A to point B, much of it along scenic backroads.
For the kids, they enjoyed arriving at Point B, which usually meant another evening in the swimming pool, dinner at a restaurant, and kicking back in a hotel room. Hopefully when they're older, though, they'll also recall some of the sights they saw during their grand tour of the west.