How to Break Up a Cross Country Trip into Manageable Chunks

My road trip this summer was a doozy, as I’ve already said. 5,037 miles driven, total. Yeah, that’s a lot of miles, but to put that a bit more into perspective, to drive from Fort Kent in absolute northern Maine to San Diego in southwestern California, you’d go 3,257 miles. So we could have almost gone across the country and halfway back, the long way. (And mind you, we flew home.) When I first approached the family with the idea, it was not met with glowing reactions. Daniela and MC were particularly less than enthused. As if sitting in the back seat of a car for thousands of miles could somehow be less than pleasurable. Go figure.

In any case, I knew going into the trip that I’d want to be careful to keep things interesting, light, and fun. This was my third cross country roadtrip, thankfully, so I had some experience to draw on. The last time I did it with a family, we just kind of winged it. We had AAA guidebooks for the states we were going through, and we drove until we felt like stopping, then found a hotel around that area, and went like that across the country. For the most part, it worked, but there were a few hotels that turned out to be pretty sketchy, particularly for a family with young kids. I wanted to avoid doing that again. Plus, this time we had great things like Google Maps and a fully functional cell phone for the whole way. That made a big difference as well. (GPS technology has come a long way in a decade.)

But how do you go about planning an entire trip in one fell swoop? Because that’s what it felt like I had to do. For a while, I kept postponing doing anything, just because it felt so overwhelming. In the end, I focused on a few guiding principles:

  1. We’d stay in the same sort of hotel every night, when possible. When you’re in a different place every night, having some consistency can really help. Since I’ve got Diamond membership with Hilton, I chose Hampton Inns as the hotel of choice. They’ve got a nice free breakfast, almost always have pools, and are generally just solid hotels.
  2. We’d drive no more than 6 hours a day, if possible. While that seems like a lot of driving on the surface, it’s really just drive for a while, stop for lunch or an activity. Drive some more, stop again. It’s very doable.

With those in mind, suddenly things didn’t seem as bad. I had some places where I knew we wanted to stop:

  • Palmyra (church history)
  • Niagara Falls
  • Kirtland (church history)
  • Nauvoo/Carthage (church history)
  • St. Louis (to see friends)
  • Independence (church history)
  • Kansas & Oklahoma (book research)
  • Salt Lake City (ultimate destination)

Taking those into account, I saw that we wouldn’t be able to easily drive from Oklahoma straight across to Utah again. It seemed like it would be more interesting to follow Route 66 through to Arizona, then hit the Grand Canyon as we headed north. That gave me the overall general path we’d be taking.

From there, I looked at how long the whole drive would take if we did it in one fell swoop: around 70 hours. If we did 6 hours max per day, it would take about 12 days to make the trip at that pace. That seemed like a lot, but I stuck to the goal for the most part. I really wanted this to be a fun, memorable experience. Jamming people into a car against their will for long periods of time would be anything but.

Then it turned into simple logistics. Where were we starting, and how far could we make it in 6 hours of driving? Google Maps helped a ton with this. I took it each day at a time, trying to break it all into manageable chunks. By doing this, I realized some things would have to give a little. I knew there was lots to do in Nauvoo, and that we’d want a bit of a break in the middle somewhere so I gave us two nights there. To compensate for that, I extended some of the drives on other legs by an hour or two. To compensate for that, I shortened some of the other drives to make things less daunting.

Overall, we stuck to 12 days. Here’s how it broke down, more or less:

  • Day One: Home to Utica, New York, stopping by Ben & Jerry’s Factory for a break. 388 miles, 8 hours of driving. (It was the first day. We were all fresh. I figured I could push it a bit there.)
  • Day Two: Utica to Madison, Ohio, stopping at Palmyra and Niagara Falls. 397 miles, 6 hours of driving. We got tripped up a bit because the visitor’s center in Palmyra didn’t open until 1 (it was on a Sunday), meaning we had to spin our wheels for a while. Thankfully, Hill Cumorah and the Sacred Grove were both open to walk through whenever you wanted, so we did that first. Niagara took longer than I expected as well, so we didn’t get into Madison until late.
  • Day Three: Madison to Joliet, Illinois, stopping at Kirtland, the Christmas Story House (it’s 20 minutes from Kirtland, people!) and Amish country in Indiana. 418 miles, 6.5 hours of driving.
  • Day Four: Joliet to Nauvoo, Illinois, no stops. 276 miles, 4 hours of driving. This was the day our tires decided to almost blow out. Thankfully, we had time to get them replaced. Yay for building that extra time into the schedule.
  • Day Five: Nauvoo. No driving.
  • Day Six: Nauvoo to St. Louis. 164 miles, 3 hours of driving.
  • Day Seven: St. Louis to Gardner Kansas, stopping at Far West, Adam-ondi-ahman, Liberty, and Independence. 389 miles, 6.5 hours of driving.
  • Day Eight: Gardner to Elk City, Oklahoma, stopping for book research along the way. 479 miles, 7 hours of driving. (This was a rough day for the fam. Who knew researching the area around serial killing sites wouldn’t be as riveting to everyone else?)
  • Day Nine: Elk City to Albuquerque, New Mexico, stopping at Cadillac Ranch. 440 miles, 6.5 hours of driving.
  • Day Ten: Albuquerque to the Grand Canyon, stopping at Petrified Forest National Park. 420 miles, 6 hours of driving. (However, there was a huge traffic jam in Flagstaff. I didn’t take traffic into account when I did my planning. Thankfully, Google Maps found an alternate route through the mountains.)
  • Day Eleven: Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon. 287 miles, 5.5 hours of driving.
  • Day Twelve: Bryce Canyon to Salt Lake City, stopping for a slot canyon hike at Willis Creek and then in Manti to see the temple where Denisa and I got married. 271 miles, 6 hours of driving. That road to the slot canyon was short, but suuuuper rough.

Like I said, the roughest day was Oklahoma, but all told, the trip went swimmingly. I love it when a good plan comes together. It helped that we didn’t really dictate at all what the girls did in the back seat. Play on the Switch? Watch movies? Whatever they wanted. There was no “you have to look at where we’re going to appreciate it all” rule. If it wasn’t interesting enough to catch their attention, I wasn’t going to force it on them. And guess what? Most of the places were interesting enough to catch their attention.

We didn’t listen to any audio books. We talked a lot. Listened to some music. The girls made friendship bracelets. Honestly, the driving was some of the easiest parts of the trip. We settled into a routine, and things went really nicely. The Hampton Inns were perfect (though we stayed at the Grand Canyon and then at a Best Western at Bryce, since there was no Hampton), and I’d definitely go that route again.

It was a ton of planning and research, but I feel like all that effort helped make it go as well as it did. Happy to answer any questions you might have!


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