We asked our friend Suzi Iverson over at Traveling with Monsters for some advice about family road trips in Utah. We figured you could use all the help you could get.
Utah gets in your blood. I have spent my life moving back and forth between Utah and several lesser locations, always trying to return, before finally resigning myself to the fact that I may have to be a frequent visitor rather than a permanent resident. My family lives in western Washington state now and my husband just accepts that the yearly budget has to factor in at least one road trip and several flights between Seattle and Salt Lake City. My kids love Utah too, and not just because Grandma and Grandpa live there. I suggest going on a tropical beach holiday and they whine, “Why can’t we just go to Utah?”
And why not? With its sunny days, clear mountain lakes, perfect sledding snow, dinosaur tracks, wide open spaces and millions (billions?) of other kids to play with, Utah was made for family travel. But at the same time, Utah also happens to be criss-crossed by long highways that are likely to prompt frequent cries of, “Are we there yet?!”
A successful family vacation in Utah requires a well thought-out itinerary as well as a smidge of preplanning for the inevitable long drives. Here’s how to travel with kids in the Beehive State, without losing your mind… or a child.
Plan a realistic itinerary the kids will love
If you know that your child is likely to sit down in the middle of a trail after 15 minutes and refuse to move another inch, why bother attempting a trek deep into Bryce Canyon? Goblin Valley is a great alternative: studded with hoodoos for kid-friendly exploring or an epic game of hide-and-go seek. Or maybe spend the day at a sand dune with buckets and shovels. In other words, your trip doesn’t need to be goal-oriented. The sooner you accept that your own dreams of hiking all 60 miles of the Highline Trail in the Uintas will have to wait, the happier you’ll be. And the happier your kids will be to embark on the next adventure.
Let them choose an activity
Your kids will be more motivated to get in the car or on the trail if you choose activities they are naturally interested in. Does your kid love dinosaurs? Fishing? River rafting? Spelunking? Wildlife? Weird land art? Gemstones? Swimming? Fossils? Even my most difficult child can usually find something somewhere on our route to get excited about. By letting every kid choose at least one activity on our trip, we lower our complaint rate by at least 25%. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.
Stay in family-friendly accommodations
It’s easy to fly by the seat of your pants as a single traveler, but once you have kids in tow, knowing you have a decent place to sleep is critical. Book suites or large rooms with enough beds for everyone, and a pool or hot tub to relax in after dinner. Also, don’t underestimate the power of a free breakfast: I no longer scoff at stale muffins and breakfast cereal when it means I can feed my cranky toddler the instant he wakes up. House rentals and camping are also both great options for family accommodations.
Be prepared for a long road trip
Utah has gems scattered all over, but its crown jewels — the national parks — are hundreds of miles from big cities and major airports, in the southern third of the state. There will be hours, and hours, and hours in the car. You can survive these hours by making sure you pack the necessities. Forget the spare tire; this is the stuff you can’t do without:
- Snacks, snacks and more snacks. There will not be a grocery store on every corner once you get outside the big city. Make sure to include healthy snacks that will keep them alive in addition to a secret stash of treats you can use to bribe them when necessary.
- Drinks. By which I mean jugs and jugs of water — Utah is frequently both dry and hot. But I also mean whatever other beverages are necessary for the non-driving parent to survive the screams and demands emanating from the back seat. A good cooler is critical here; cold drinks will keep everybody happier.
- Entertainment. Make sure to load a couple movies on tablets for the kids, and don’t forget earphones (otherwise you may be listening to Daniel Tiger for hundreds of miles). Toys, books and anything else that will keep the kids distracted through miles of desert are welcome. Our favorite game is road-trip bingo of some kind, using license plates or various roadside attractions — road kill, for example. Yes, we have to pay out candy and cash prizes, but it’s worth it to keep everybody happy for for hours.
- Emergency supplies for the car. Actually, don’t forget the spare tire. You should also have some type of emergency kit in just in case your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere; cell coverage can be spotty off the interstate and in the canyons.
- Emergency supplies for the kids. All parents know that having children involves dealing with bodily fluids way more often than we would like. Make sure you have a good first-aid kit as well as wet wipes, paper towels and plastic bags… just in case.
Schedule your days carefully
Most kids aren’t nearly as flexible with eating and sleeping schedules as we would like. You won’t be able to stick perfectly to your kid’s usual nap times and bedtimes, but if you plan to roughly eat and sleep when they usually do, life will be much easier.
I’m committed to a 50/50 activity-to-rest ratio when traveling with kids. Plan morning sightseeing and then afternoons by a pool, or go out on a full day activity but take the next day off to wander a park. We also try to alternate indoor and outdoor days in the heat of summer (and when it is nearing single digits in winter).
Make a good packing list, and check it twice
It can be easy to forget that the desert cools off fast at night, even in summer. On the flip side, even on a ski vacation there may be a hot tub or indoor pool calling your name. Make sure everybody has a jacket in addition to a swimsuit, whatever the season.
Packing for outdoor adventures also means remembering that everybody needs sunglasses, hats, water bottles, sunscreen and bug repellent. I usually end up spending $20 on gas station sunglasses that are too big because my kids are wailing, “Too bright! too bright!” and I forgot to pack appropriately. Don’t be like me.
With the perfect itinerary and a carefully crafted packing list, we never fail to have outlandish amounts of fun in Utah. Even if the floor of the minivan ends up with an inch of crushed sunglasses and goldfish crackers. These are the things memories are made of, right?
Suzi Iverson writes about how, why and where to travel with kids at Travel With Monsters. For more tips that make family travel less scary, follow Travel With Monsters on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.