To me, road trips are not just about getting there – it’s about all the amazing places in between. Not everywhere is a big end destination, and if we live our lives for the big excitement, we can miss so much in-between! Took that deep didn’t it? The husband, however, he wants to get there and get back with lots of rest at one place in between. So we compromise… or he gives in!
For three weeks in the fall several years ago, we left home for an extended round trip to Yellowstone through twelve national park sites, eleven states, and more than 4,000 miles. After a week in Island Park, Idaho, it was time to make our way back through the rest of our giant loop to our home back in Texas. As this is the continuation of my first post as we roadtripped to Yellowstone, make sure you start with part one!
- Fort Larned
- South Dakota
- Minuteman Missile NM
- Badlands NP
- Crazy Horse Monument
- Mount Rushmore
- Custer State Park
- Wind Cave
- Devils Tower NM
- Yellowstone NP
- Island Park
- Great Salt Lake
- Dinosaur NM
- Four Corners
- New Mexico
- Bandelier NM
Day 1 Returning: Exploring the Great Salt Lake
Total Drive Time: 8 hours
Island Park, ID to Great Salt Lake (4 hours)
Great Salt Lake to Vernal, Utah (4 hours)
This drive will take you through Salt Lake City – stop and see something. Our goal was Great Salt Lake with the plan to spend the night in Vernal, the closest town to visit Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah side of the park.
Drive the causeway across Great Salt Lake to the island which is home to pronghorn, lion, mule deer, and bighorn sheep. The visitor center explains the lake, its tiny inhabitants, and the reason for the smell! Drive further up to go on a trail and climb all over the boulders. Make sure you drive down to the water before you leave, but don’t plan to get in.
Day 2 Returning: Dinosaur National Monument and Moab
Total Driving Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes
Vernal, UT to Dinosaur National Monument (<30 minutes)
DNM to Moab, UT (3 hr south)
This site is a little out of the way to head back east slightly. However, it’s so unique that it’s well worth it in my book. The park has parts in Colorado and Utah; to see the dinosaurs, you want to be on the Utah side. Give the kids the goal of looking for all the dinosaurs on signs and advertisements – they’re everywhere! Drive 3 hours to spend the night in Moab to visit Arches National Park the next day.
This park is huge and has lots to explore. If you have more time, plan to spend the whole day here at least. Don’t be misled by the park name. There is so much more here than just dinosaurs. To start with dinos, head to the Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall where you see a giant upheaval of a side of the mountain with all the dinosaur fossils still embedded at twenty feet above your head. Talk to the park rangers and do your junior rangers.
Afterward, drive down to the lovely river running through the canyon area that shows off the beautiful layers and colors of the rock. Look for the mule deer in the canyon. At the end of the valley, there are the remains of a pioneer homestead to explore, and make sure you allow some time to wander off the road to go find the petroglyphs up in the rocks. It’s a beautiful place.
Moab is the hippie, rock climbing community where you stay for adventure. It’s a small town with lots of hotels. We visited a rock store and spent way too much money. If you have an extra day, stay here and go rafting the Colorado River or hiking in another park.
Day 3 Returning: Exploring the Four Corners Area
Total Drive Time: 7 hours
Moab to Arches National Park (11 minutes)
Arches to Four Corners (2 hours, 45 minutes)
Four Corners to Santa Fe, NM (4 hours, 15 minutes)
There are so many national parks in this bottom southeast corner of Utah that it was hard to just go to one. However, I was advised that they tend to all look pretty similar, so it’s really okay to not see all of them. Also, we didn’t allow time to explore all of these amazingly unique areas of New Mexico. If you have extra time, leave it for this part of the trip!
Arches National Park; Moab, Utah
This beautifully unique place isn’t very big and easy to see on the loop road. After exploring the visitor center, head out. There are plenty of short hikes off the main road with nice paved parking areas. Park and explore for several hours in the morning before it warms up.
Four Corners Monument; Teec Nos Pos, Arizona
First – pronunciation. “Tiiis-Nas-Pas” is as close as I can come. I mentally said it wrong for several years, so I’m saving you the error. On Navajo land, this is the exact place where Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona meet. Also, this site is very remote. We ended up back tracking to get back to the main highway.
The is a tourist site out in the desert – plain and simple. You pay for the right to be able to show your picture and say you were here. It costs $5-10 per person (depending on the time of year) to enter a concrete area with flags and a marked site. If you are wanting to buy Native American souvenirs, save your purchase to buy here where there are native artisans in booths selling you their own native artwork like dreamcatchers, pottery, paintings, and jewelry.
My kids still talk about it because they think it was exciting to be in four states at one time especially since one of them managed to fart on all four states at once – that’s the real memory. All in all, I’m glad we went because it really meant something to my map loving kids.
Shiprock Peak; Shiprock, New Mexico
There is part of New Mexico is a straight flat highway. Because of that, Shiprock is very easy to see off in the distance to the south. Shiprock is on Navjajo tribal land and is sacred. You can’t get close or even consider climbing it. Drive by and yell at the kids to look out the window – there’s nothing else in this area to spark excitement 🙂 . It’s very unique. Maybe they would be more interested if they knew it was used in the filming of “Jumanji 2”?
When driving this highway, remember you are on Native American land. There are reservations nearby that you can tour. Go into the gas station and read the signs in the Navajo language.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
This long day doesn’t allow much time to explore this unique town full of so much history. You could easily spend a whole day walking around the downtown and exploring museums in this town. And make sure your family knows the words to “Santa Fe” from Newsies so you can fully appreciate it and sing along!
- Mesa Verde National Park – This part of the trip is passing right by Mesa Verde if you want to grab that national park in south west Colorado. However, I don’t think I would plan to do both Mesa Verde and Bandolier due to their similarity. They’re both Anasazi cliff dwelling national parks. Mesa Verde is up on the mesa with beautiful wide overlooks and a couple of dwellings to explore; Bandolier is down flat with lots of smaller dwellings to climb ladders into.
- Canyonlands National Park
- Monument Valley
Day 4 Returning: Bandelier National Monument
Santa Fe, NM to Bandelier – 50 minutes and then back
This was a day trip from Santa Fe and a return back to the same hotel for the night. Bandelier allows for a good mix of history with all the natural national parks you have visited. The visitor center is excellent and at the entrance of the canyon where the cliff houses are located. The trail walks past the kiva remains and head for the ladders which will allow you to climb up into some of the cliffhouses.
- Los Alamos, New Mexico
- Albuquerque, New Mexico
Day 5 Returning: Santa Fe to Houston
Total Drive Time: 12.5 hours — a long day!
There are many places to stop and see in this area, but they are not the straight path home. On our trip, we drove this path pretty much straight through.