Heath Fam Goes West: Part 3

MOAB, UTAH

Well friends, the adventure continues! After several days visiting friends and family in Colorado, we loaded up our rental vehicle and headed towards our next destination: 

Travel Day 6: Moab, Utah

It was a beautiful drive; we couldn’t get over the beauty of the snow-capped mountains in the middle of June! We kept an eye out for various wildlife as we traveled through ski-resort towns, and were rewarded with glimpsing a bald eagle and a few antelope./We were hoping to see some bighorn sheep, too, but no such luck. Still, I found myself taking an abundance of photos as the scenery continued to change around us.

Several hours later, we made it to Canyonlands National Park. We decided to do some hiking before checking into our hotel since CNP was on the way. That turned out to be a great decision! Canyonlands is HUGE, and we only had a few hours to spend there, so we chose to spend it at Islands in the Sky . We made a quick stop by the Visitor Center to use the restrooms and get a map before driving to the end of the road to Grand View Point, a 2-ish mile hike that led us around the top of a ridge with canyon views as far as we could see. It was unlike anything we had seen before! The boys loved it because there were lots of rocks to climb on, and the girls loved it because the hike was pretty flat and the views were amazing.  There were small towers of rocks, called cairns, marking the trail, which the boys enjoyed scouting to ensure we were still on the right path. We hiked for just under an hour, before we saw the thunderstorm rolling in. We hurried back around the edge of the canyon towards our car, stopping only to take a quick photo of the beautiful double rainbow that arched across the sky. 

Next, we made our way to another small trail leading up to the Mesa arch. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was our first of MANY encounters with arches in the coming weeks (which continues to be a family joke: I get texts from my girls in random places, “Look Mom, another arch!”) The short hike was fun and there were only a few other people on the trail (probably because of that previously mentioned thunderstorm!). When we got to the arch, we asked another hiker to take a photo of our family, and he obviously knew what he was doing. He suggested we turn around and look out through the arch while he took our photo from behind. It turned out to be one of my favorites from the trip! So, thank you, kind stranger! The kids took a few minutes to scamper up the nearest pile of rocks, and then we raced back to the car just before the rain began. Since it was getting close to sundown, we decided to head on to the hotel, even though we had only seen a small fraction of what Canyonlands has to offer.  Next time!

In Moab, we stayed at the Homewood Suites. We had reserved a “1 King Bed Studio with 2 twin bunk beds” room so we would all be in one room, and I had no idea what to expect. It was fantastic! There was plenty of room for all of us, and we could have stayed there comfortably for much longer than 2 nights. The bunk beds were tucked away in a little nook, so they didn’t take up any extra room. There was a sitting area with a fold-out couch, which is where the boys slept. There was also a little kitchenette with a full-size fridge. On top of that, breakfast was included, and it was delicious, with lots of options for everyone, including Texas-shaped waffles! There is a guest laundromat available for those who need to wash clothes, which came in handy for us. I cannot recommend this hotel enough!

Day 7: Arches National Park  

After fueling up with a yummy breakfast at the hotel, we made a quick stop by Sweet Cravings Bakery to pick up some sandwiches for a picnic lunch in the park. There was a short line, and you can actually order online and then pick it up, which I would recommend. However, the servers were very friendly and our order came out surprisingly quickly; more on that later…

It only takes a few minutes to drive from Moab to the entrance of Arches National Park. However, be prepared for a really long line to get through the gate! I think it took us about 20 minutes, which we spent making family karaoke videos in the car. Once inside the park, guests can stop by the Visitor’s Center to get a map, visit the bathroom and gift shop, fill up water bottles, and talk to a ranger. We picked up a Junior Ranger booklet for Noah and the staff helped us select a few hikes that would be good for our various age ranges. Our first stop was at several rock formations with fitting titles: Three Gossips, the Courthouse, etc. There was an area for cars to pull off, so we jumped out and the boys immediately took off towards the other hikers who were climbing around the base of the formations. To our surprise, an older park ranger approached us and informed us that although there was an area for cars to pull off, we were not actually allowed to access those particular formations due to the nature of the fragile soil surrounding the rocks. We quickly called the boys back over and climbed back in the car, resuming our quest for arches. But I must admit, while we totally understand the need to protect and preserve the Park, we spent a lot of time giggling and cautioning each other about the “fragile soil” over the next couple weeks! The park seemed pretty busy that day- all the parking areas were full at the first few formations, so we decided to drive out to our farthest hiking destination (parked at Devil’s Garden Trailhead) and then work our way back in. This worked out much better for us, so I would recommend that, unless you are trying to hit a specific arch at a specific time for photos. 

Our first hike was to the Landscape Arch, which I loved! The trail was very easy and the way the arch framed the natural landscape behind it made it look like a picture frame. From there, we started hiking to the Double O arch, but this trail was much more difficult and required a lot of steep rock climbing. Our boys were super excited about that, but for time’s sake we decided to turn around and make our way to some of the other arches. If you’re wondering how our boys reacted to that news, a picture paints a thousand words… it’s one of my favorite photos from our trip!

Landscape Arch
(*If you can stop looking at the boys’ faces long enough (haha!),
notice the rock behind us… that is a sample of the trail to Double O Arch)

After that, most of the arches were only a short walk from the road, so we stopped by Skyline Arch and Broken Arch, Fiery Furnace Viewpoint (which is supposed to be spectacular at sunset), the Delicate Arch viewpoints, Balanced Rock, and the Windows Section. If you are passing through and only have an hour or two at Arches, the Windows Section is a great place to see several different arches and rock formations in a short amount of time. It is an easy walk to the arches, and then you can climb up into them if you want. The views were so beautiful and just so different from what we see in the Southeast, and our little monkeys were in heaven with all the climbing. At some point, we pulled out our lunch, only to find that the reason our order came out so quickly was because they had given us someone else’s lunch! Since we were starving and there is no place in the park to get food, we just made the best of it and shared whatever happened to be in the bag, which turned out to be a ham and cheese sandwich, a veggie wrap, and a bagel. Fortunately, the sandwich was loaded with ham, so we spread it out among the other sandwiches, and when we added a few cookies from our car-stash, everyone had just enough to keep us going! 

Once we made the round of all the arches, we drove back to the Visitor’s Center so Noah could turn in his booklet and be sworn in as a Junior Ranger. Participating in the Junior Ranger programs was one of the highlights of his trip! After that, we headed back into town and found someplace to eat dinner. There are a lot of great local restaurants in Moab. We ended up eating at Eddie McStiff’s just because it was close to where we parked (and we were SO hungry after our shared lunch meal). The food was good, but not exceptional. There were several other places we passed later that I think we would have enjoyed more. After stopping in a few of the little shops on main street, we stopped at The Garage for some ice cream- it was a super cute venue and the ice cream was yummy! Everyone was pretty worn out from a long day, so we went back to the hotel and played a little Uno before going to bed. 

The next morning we enjoyed another great breakfast, loaded up the car, and stopped back by Sweet Cravings Bakery before leaving town. When Jeff walked in, the cashier remembered him from the day before and told him they had tried to track us down, even posting on their Facebook page once they realized their mistake! They offered us free sandwiches for the road (which were absolutely delicious and definitely came in handy) and threw in some free baked goods when Jeff insisted on paying for at least a few of them. Everyone makes mistakes; but how they handled the situation was fantastic customer service, and their food was definitely worth a second visit. If you find yourself in Moab, make sure to stop by and pick something up! 

We really enjoyed our time in Moab, and hope to go back someday. But it was time to set off on our next adventure… 

Grand Canyon, here we come!!

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!