Heath Fam Goes West!

Our East-coast family of six just returned from a 17 day trip out West, which included 3 plane rides, 2,000 driving miles, 5 states, 4 hotels (plus 3 relatives’ homes), 3 National Parks, 2 theme parks, 1 elk, and lots of hiking. Whew!! As our oldest daughter begins her Senior year of high school, I cannot express how thankful I am for this time together. Yes, there were a few squabbles along the way, as you can imagine with 4 kids in tight quarters! But, overall, everyone kept a great attitude and we created life-long memories that we already cherish.

Several friends have asked about our itinerary. Since I know firsthand how much planning and preparation goes into a trip like this, I decided to share some details from our trip in the hopes that it may help some of you plan your own adventure! So this first post will be about how we went about planning our trip. Over the next couple weeks, I will share details from each portion of our trip for those of you who are interested!

PART 1: The Planning Process

This trip has actually been in the works for more than 5 years. What I mean by that is that we have talked about “going out West” for much of our married life (22 years), and more intentionally over the last 5 years as our boys got older and our girls approached high school.  Jeff and I both knew this was a trip we wanted to take all together as a family, but to be honest, the logistics of planning a trip like this scared and overwhelmed me. There were so many unknowns; I wasn’t even sure where to start! So every year we would sit down and dream about what we wanted to see and how we wanted to see it, and I would write it all down. I would google a few things, get overwhelmed, and walk away.  Sounds like a great planning process, right? Ha! So take heart- this trip does not require 5 years of planning! It just requires making the decision to actually do it.

Last Fall, as Sarah began her Junior year of high school, Jeff and I knew it was now or never, so I got serious about planning.  We had been told you need to reserve lodging at the Grand Canyon a year in advance, which is where I usually got derailed. So this time I was determined to make a plan and stick to it! 

Stage 1:  Dream

Our first step was to dream of everything we wanted to see and how we wanted to see it. This stage for us began with our “5 years of planning” and gradually evolved into what you will see on our itinerary. Our original dream was to rent an RV and travel from Georgia out West, seeing everything we could possibly see along the way. The idea of living together in a small space for a long time was both exciting and terrifying. Can’t you just picture us as the Griswalds? LOL!

We made a bucket list of everything we wanted to experience along the way: The St. Louis Arch, Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Salt Lake City, Lake Tahoe, the Grand Canyon, Colorado, Cliff Dwellings, Las Vegas, Disneyland… the list went on and on. It only took a little research for me to determine that our dream trip would require at least 3 months for us to accomplish if we wanted to see everything! Wow!! So if you are interested in this trip, sit down together and start your list. Ask questions like: What do we want to see and do? Do we want to camp or stay in hotels? Do we want to drive or fly? Do we have friends or family we want to visit along the way? Don’t be afraid to dream big! Write it all down, even if you doubt you will include it. It may be part of a future trip!

Stage 2: Funnel

Next, I began research on the RV. After talking to a few friends who had taken RV trips, we quickly determined that we liked the IDEA of a long RV trip better than we would like the actual trip. Originally we were thinking it would be more cost effective, but once you figure in the overall rental plus gas, mileage, and site rentals, that was not the case. Also, with as much as we wanted to see, the slower travel involved would be counter-productive for us. I still think an RV trip would be really fun! But for this particular trip, we decided to just drive our own car. 

From there, we began to funnel down our “dream list” and cross things off until we were a little more centrally focused.  This was one of the most difficult processes for me (because I want to see everything!!) and took a lot of time and research. I decided to pull out a map and start with the family and friends we hoped to visit along the way. Since my brother lives in Colorado Springs, along with a few other very close friends, Colorado became a priority destination for us.  (If you have no reason to go to Colorado, I would recommend possibly starting in Arizona instead). I also have an aunt and uncle in St. George, Utah that we hoped to visit along the way.  With those 2 stops on the map, it just made sense for us to focus on the Grand Canyon as our primary destination and plan our other adventures around it. That decision alone eliminated nearly half of our dream list… so we will save those adventures for another time!  

In this stage, you should take out a map and prioritize your dream list. Make sure to ask questions like: How long can we realistically be gone? What is our budget? Do we want to see as many places as possible or spend quality time at just a few? What makes the most sense for us? 

Stage 3: Focus

At this point, I began researching other things to see and do near the Grand Canyon and stumbled upon “The Grand Circle.” I am embarrassed to admit I had no idea there are so many National Parks in that area! Pinterest was my friend, as I found details of what the Grand Circle was, which hikes to take, what other families had enjoyed and recommended, etc. Even this part required narrowing things down, as we were trying to keep our trip to about 2 weeks. Since we would be driving to the Grand Canyon from Colorado Springs, we added Moab, UT as a stopping point so we could visit Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. My relatives live close to both Zion and Bryce National Parks, so those went on the itinerary as well. And if you know my husband at all, you know there is no way we could be within driving distance of a Disney park and not end up there, so Disneyland became a required destination as well.  When I put it all down on the map, Las Vegas (and the Hoover Dam) was a natural stop along the way. We had a trip! However, with driving out and back from Georgia, our trip was still going to have to be at least 3 weeks. Because it’s so expensive for a family of 6 to fly, we decided to fly out one way, rent a car for our trip and drive home. But eventually we determined we would rather use those travel days visiting people and enjoying our adventure, so we decided to bite the bullet and fly both ways.

Once you have narrowed down your prioritized destinations, do a little research to see what other things are close by or on the way that you may not know about. If your family is like ours, we have several different ages and both genders represented and not everyone enjoys the same things, so be sure to include something fun for everyone along the way!

Stage 4:  Finalize

Now that we had a basic travel itinerary, it was time to finalize our plans! This also took some research, but was more fun.  I basically started with lodging at the Grand Canyon, and planned the rest of our trip around that. Lodging options are extremely limited at the North Rim, and fill up quickly at the South Rim, so make this part your priority. We were about 9 months out when I started planning, and at first I was unable to find anything to accommodate our family of 6. There are some really cool packages that include lodging and meals in Williams, AZ and a 2 hour train ride to the South Rim, so this was my back up plan. Eventually, though, I was able to find 2 nights at the Yavapai Lodge in a family suite (2 queen beds and a bunk bed), so I planned the rest of our trips around that. Frontier and Southwest offer some really good flight deals out West (make sure you read their policies on luggage), but I booked our flights on Delta during a Thanksgiving sale. We actually added 3 days to our trip based on cheaper flights on specific days, and I am so glad! 

Here are some of my overall travel tips when planning a family trip out West:

  • If travelling to the Grand Canyon or other National Park, reserve your lodging there first, and plan around that.  Their websites recommend booking 1 year in advance. If you can’t find anything at first, keep checking back. 
  • Use tripadvisor.com as a resource for your other destinations, lodging, and activities. I added Moab to our itinerary based on reviews from this site, and also booked our sunset tour at the Grand Canyon after reading recommendations. It was pricey and I wasn’t sure it would be worth it, but it was one of our kids’ favorite parts of the whole trip!
  • If you have points through a certain hotel chain, use those hotels and/or points. My husband is a Hilton Honors member due to business travel, so we found hotels in the Hilton family whenever possible. And because we are DVC members, we used points to stay at Dinseyland, so the lodging for that part of our trip was free (or at least already paid for, ha!).
  • Since you’re planning in advance, you have time to watch for deals on your actual travel arrangements. There are several apps and websites that will alert you for airline deals. If you need to rent a car, we rented ours through Avis and had a great experience. You can become a “premiere member” online before making your reservations- this came in handy for us when we picked up our car and made the process much smoother. Someone had recommended it on tripadvisor.com, and I would definitely recommend it as well!
  • Make yourself a spreadsheet to keep track of all the details- destination, lodging, confirmation number, details, price, etc. This will come in very handy along the way!

Our finalized Itinerary looked like this:

Day 1Fly to Denver, rent car & drive to Colorado Springs
Days 2-5Colorado Springs: Garden of the Gods, Cave of the Winds, Manitou Springs Cliff Dwelligns, USAFA tour (and time with family & friends)
Day 6Drive to Moab, UT and hike in Canyonlands National Park
Day 7Arches National Park, dinner in Moab
Day 8Drive to Grand Canyon’s South Rim (AZ)- Desert Watchtower, Hummer Sunset Tour
Day 9(Grand Canyon) South Kaibab hike (Ooh Aah Point), Biking along rim
Day 10Drive to St. George, UT (visit with family)
Day 11Zion National Park (*we ended up not going to Zion because half the family was tired of hiking… so a few of us hiked in Snow Canyon State Park instead. Then we toured the local country club, which happens to be where High School Musical 2 was filmed- an unplanned highlight of the trip for our kids!)
Day 12Drive to Hoover Dam, then on to Las Vegas
Day 13Drive to Anaheim, CA (Disneyland)
Days 14-16Disneyland & California Advneture, possible trip into L.A. or to Huntington Beach
Day 17Fly HOME!!

So, that’s pretty much how I went about planning our trip! I am working on more blog posts with details on each of our destinations, so if you want more info, check back soon! We are definitely hoping to do more family trips like this. If you have any tips or suggestions, I would love to hear them. Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s