Surviving a Road Trip with Five- and Nine-Year-Old Kids

When I threw the first leg of our family vacation into Google Maps, I sort of wanted to claw my own eyes out.

24 hours? With our kids?!

I love ’em. But they are active, talkative, and capable of driving normal people insane even outside a confined space. How were we going to make it and still love each other on the other side?

No surprise, the idea of spending days in the car with young kids is worse than actually doing it. Considering how much physical activity, vocalizing, and goofing off is part of their DNA, both of them were saints. Most of the issues we did have in the car were on my wife and I. We were too tired, too cranky, or too done to have the patience.

Road Trip Survival

We Planned for the Unplanned
Turns out, the secret to a being a successful parent is to run from one cluster to another with a big grin on your face.

Things are going to go wrong. And it’s O.K. Someone will need to go to the bathroom every ten minutes and Subway sandwiches are going to get spilled all over the car. I mean, I killed two dogs with our car and sent it to the mechanic for five days, and we still managed to have a great time, for god’s sake.

Our best days were the days we were able to remind ourselves that things will never go to plan, so we should stop expecting them to. And then reminding ourselves again when the train got off the tracks.

We didn’t book any hotels, so we didn’t feel like we had to rush or drive a certain distance every day. We just went. When we were ready to stop, we stopped. We taught the kids how to pee on the side of the road when the closest gas station was fifty miles away in the Moab Desert. We were mostly O.K. with things not going O.K., and honestly, that was the best thing we could have done.

Break it Up
There was no way we were driving from Des Plaines, Illinois, to Pine Valley, Utah, in one shot. That would have been a recipe for disaster. Our kids love to run around, and being cooped up in a car for that long wouldn’t have been fun.

So we allowed three days to get out to Utah, and two days to get back from Colorado. Our longest day was twelve hours, and most of the other “driving” days were under ten. It kept the trip manageable and let us see some pretty cool stuff along the way, because we weren’t worried about how much mileage we needed to knock out.

Our very first driving day we stopped at the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. Anyone, anywhere, with kids needs to visit. Adults need to visit. It’s not really a museum at all – it’s a giant, eclectic playground. Bob Cassily and a bunch of local artists have been building this place organically for decades from salvaged and recovered materials. They turned an old shoe factory into something Willy Wonka couldn’t dream up. You could get absolutely lost for hours in this place, and it was a perfect way to kick off the trip. We drove nine hours the first day, but with a four-hour stop here in the middle, it felt like nothing.

What to Do
Proper expectations and breaks are all well and good – but we were still in the car for hours. That time has to get filled with something. I’ll never judge anyone for giving their kids and iPad or movies – being in a car that long is about survival.

But we found a nice balance between quiet things, loud things, things with screens, and things that don’t need batteries.

The first thing we did was incentivize “good” behavior. So, basically, not acting like a caged monkey on meth. Our kids are on a point behavior system normally. (Do something good? Get a point. Do something bad? Lose a point.) So we carried that over into the car. For every hour they did something quiet (no screens), they earned a point. It was our job to make sure they had access to quiet things. They brought library books. We read Charlotte’s Web out loud to them. They both brought those big school curriculum workbooks. And, of course, the scenery outside was worth staring at.

Our kids love to talk and sing, so we made sure we were prepared with games. Mad Libs, I Spy, and all sorts of variances on word association are all big hits. We’d make song requests, and they’d take turns singing that song, or tackle the Minecraft cover. We watched Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs fairly early in the trip, and they had a blast reciting their favorite lines over and over. And then over and over again.

With all that stuff to do, screens became a reward, or a release valve when Sandi and I just needed some peace and quiet. When the iPads came out, it was usually for an hour or two, and they typically came out once a day. Sometimes they played longer because we were at our wits end. Sometimes, they barely played at all. Like I said, being in a car that long is about surviving. You do whatever works, period.

Mariposa Grove – Solo Hiking in Yosemite and the Range of Light

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
-Henry David Thoreau

Read about my other two days in Yosemite – Pohono Trail and Cloud’s Rest

Day 3 – Mariposa Grove

My last day in Yosemite was my “easy” day, I drove to the southern end of the park and hopped on a shuttle bus into Mariposa Grove, an area with massive, ancient sequoia trees. There are two sections here, the lower and upper grove, and you can see nearly everything there is to see with only 4 or 5 miles of light hiking with moderate elevation gains.

I found most of the impressive trees to reside in the upper grove. The lower grove has a toppled sequoia, Grizzly Giant (the largest in the park by volume), and a photo op in a “tunnel tree,” one that’s was hollowed out to allow for the passage of cars and wagons. Now, you can only walk through them, which is fine, as treading near the roots of the trees can damage them.


In the upper grove, you’ll find the towering giants with the sheer bulk that’ll stop you in your tracks. Even though they look impressive in pictures, it’s impossible to appreciate the scale and majesty of these giants unless you come upon them in person. I spent several hours in the park wandering from tree to tree, stopping multiple times to read and enjoy the quiet.

Mariposa Grove - Yosemite

Another thing you’ll notice about the grove is the smell. If I could bottle up that aroma of pine and sun-kissed wood and bring it home, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

It was here that I encountered the most dangerous thing I’d come across in Yosemite. A pine cone. As I walked down the trail in the upper grove, I heard a long whistling sound and a thunk as one of the giant cones that hang from the trees hit the trail twenty feet in front of me. It was larger than my 32 oz. water bottle and weighed more than it full. I remembered how the bus driver on the ride of to Glacier Point had said that lumberjacks called these pine cones widow makers, and now I could see why.

Pinecone in Mariposa Grove - Yosemite

And with that, my trip to Yosemite was ended. I came away with an even greater appreciation for the national park system. When the park was founded, a stone company wanted to mine the limestone from El Captian to build homes. Without the protection of this national park, that awe inspiring sight would have been taken from millions. Back in the early 1900s, when they talked of preserving these lands for future generations, they were talking about me and everyone else in that park. And this American icon has led to the preservation of countless other natural wonders across the globe.

Read about my other two days in Yosemite – Pohono Trail and Cloud’s Rest

Sunset at Yosemite

Trails - Yosemite

Telescope Tree - Yosemite

Cloud’s Rest – Solo Hiking in Yosemite and the Range of Light

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
-Henry David Thoreau

Read about my other two days in Yosemite – Pohono Trail and Mariposa Grove

Day 2 – Cloud’s Rest

The hike to the summit of Cloud’s Rest is a 14.2 mile round trip trail that starts at Tenaya Lake, rises approximately 3K feet in elevation and ends with an incredible view from the back of the valley, sitting 5K feet above the valley floor. It’s a great hike with a little less traffic and offers you a different perspective on Half Dome and El Capitan.

Even though I’d done 23ish miles the day before, I still felt pretty good and set out in the morning in good spirits. The first mile of the trail is very calm – a serene mountain lake, sandy footpaths and mostly flat ground.

Tenaya Lake - Yosemite

The second mile is one of the most brutal sections of trail I’ve ever been on. You’re hit with a little over 1K in elevation change in less than a mile as you pick your way over rocks and rocky outcroppings. I was climbing this section along with several other groups, and all of us were stopping often, panting, heaving and wondering when it’d even out. It feels like the final stretch of a summit, but with none of the joy of reaching one.

Immediately following this, you plunge downward for a couple hundred feet and begin to question why you’re doing this. Luckily, the trail is much more moderate here in the middle section. You even pass by a quiet, pristine mountain pool and wind among giant boulders.

The last section of trail gets tough again, as you’d expect with the final stretch of any summit. After climbing above the tree line, it turns into a ridge hike, with a 5K foot bare rock drop down one side and 1.5K drop back into the forest on the other. I wouldn’t call it precarious by any means, the path is fairly broad, even and it’s not hard to get footing. But with those drops it’s easy for your mind to play tricks on you.

Clouds Rest - Yosemite

When you arrive at the summit, there are 360 degree breathtaking views. From here, you can continue on to Half Dome or turn back as I did. That brutal section isn’t any easier on the way down, and the cool waters of Tenaya Lake felt amazing on the battered soles of my feet.

Read about my other two days in Yosemite – Pohono Trail and Mariposa Grove

Tenaya Lake - Yosemite

Clouds Rest - Yosemite

Pohono Trail – Solo Hiking in Yosemite and the Range of Light

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
-Henry David Thoreau

Read about my other two days in Yosemite – Cloud’s Rest and Mariposa Grove

Pohono Trail - El Capitan

Last Labor Day, I took a much needed solo expedition to Yosemite, a national park that’s long been on my bucket list. 2014 came with the level of stress at work that leaves you feeling strangled and trapped, so much so that I decided to embark on a drastic career change (which only created a new, different level of angst.) This trip came at the perfect time, it was exactly what I needed to reset, unplug, and regain perspective.

As a procrastinator, I waited too long to plan my trip – two months out and on a holiday weekend, all the back country passes were taken, so I made my basecamp at Yosemite West, a KOA campground in Mariposa. It was far less expensive than staying in the valley and only forty-five minutes via car to the trailheads I wanted to explore. And an unexpected bonus was getting to witness the sunset over Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest every morning as I drove in.

Day 1 – Pohono Trail

The Pohono Trail is a 15-mile rim trail that hugs the south side of Yosemite Valley. If you want a sampling of everything hiking in Yosemite has to offer, this is it. This trail is not for the faint of heart – it’s 15 miles, about 3.5K in elevation change and unless you have two cars, you’ll probably have another six miles in the valley to get back where you started at Yosemite Lodge.

Getting up to the trailhead is easy – buy a one-way bus ticket from Yosemite Lodge to Glacier Point. This was the only guided experience I had in the park, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, the driver supplies you with plenty of inspirational and interesting stories about wildlife in the park, mountaineers climbing the many cliff faces, and the history of this incredible landscape, which is truly the birthplace of the national park idea. When I got off the bus, I had one of those soaring, awe-struck feelings in my gut.

Pohono Trail - Half Dome

Glacier Point sits 4,000 feet above the valley floor, and has stunning views of Half Dome. I spent about an hour wandering and gazing out over the hazy expanse as the sun rose. Several spot fires were burning in the distance. And I was treated to the heartbeat-skipping sight of a dad taking his ten-year-old out onto Hanging Rock, an tiny outcropping that dangles over the void. I couldn’t watch and started my hike.

Hanging Rock - Pohono Trail

The Pohono Trail winds past Sentinel Dome and continues on to Taft Point in its first section, which is well traveled and marked. This section is a popular day hike, and I don’t think I was ever more than a hundred yards from another person. Along the way you’ll find the Fissures and then Taft point, another dizzying overlook with nothing more than a metal bar between you and a yawning panorama of El Capitan and Half Dome. I found myself stopping multiple times to sit on the edge of the cliff to take in the air and the view.

Pohono Trail - Taft Point

Between Taft Point and Inspiration point, the trail turns into a bit of a slog. This 4- to 5-mile section veers away from the ridge and wanders through the woods. I was treated to moss covered trunks, sandy trails, and dry creek beds. It was here that I decided to change where I was planning on hiking on Day 2 and 3, the drought had strangled every single creek bed I crossed. There was no water to be had. I’d downed 32 oz. at Glacier Point and carried 64 oz. more, but I was planning on making it to the Bridalveil Falls viewing area restroom to replenish, since it didn’t seem I’d be able to filter any water.

Past Inspiration Point, the trail gets much rockier and takes a steep downward turn – the bulk of your elevation change can be found here. If you’re hiking the trail from Tunnel View up to Glacier Point, congratulations, you’re in much better shape than I am. Bonus insanity points if you try to do the 30-mile round trip in a day. Most times, I find going downhill harder on the body than uphill, especially when it’s steep.

As I stomped down this section of trail, I heard a noise behind me, and turned to catch a flash of brown fur. My immediate thought was “Shit. Mountain Lion. My wife and mom were right.” After the adrenaline surge faded, I realized it was only a deer. The thing regarded me as it walked down the path, and I slowly backed away to keep distance. As it kept coming, I veered off into the forest, thinking it merely wanted to use the trail. But the deer turned off the path and probably got within two arm’s reach. So I raised my walking stick, yelled, and almost fell over myself. If anyone had been watching, I’m sure they would have died laughing.

After the deer, I made it to the valley floor, out of water and with sore joints. I arrived at Bridalveil Falls only to discover no running water. It was near 5 p.m., and the shuttles (still 3 miles away) were stopping. I had 6 miles to the lodge. I drew a little inspiration from Cheryl Strayed in that moment and kept telling myself, “There’s only one option. Keep walking.”

Pohono Trail - Wild, Cheryl Strayed

The 6-miles from Tunnel View to Yosemite Lodge is unremarkable, under trees and steps from the road. When I got to the lodge, I monopolized the water fountain, refilled my bottles and headed home for the day.

Read about my other two days in Yosemite – Cloud’s Rest and Mariposa Grove

Forest Fire - Pohono Trail

Pohono Trail - Trees

Pohono Trail - Fissures

Pohono Trail - Half Dome

Pohono Trail - Overlook

Pohono Trail - Yosemite Overlook