A cross-country road trip is something I’ve always thought would be fun in theory but never actually thought I’d do. We’re not campers, and to be honest if I could get my husband to take three weeks off during any normal summer we’d be hightailing it to Europe. But obviously in 2020, things are different – so we decided to go for it. My sister got on board and together we mapped out the journey from Los Angeles to our parents’ homes in New Jersey… all with a 14-month old toddler and dog in tow.
Luckily, vacation days were stockpiled due to quarantine, so we were able to take a leisurely 15 days from coast to coast. We picked up an Expedition (it’s their “Luxury SUV” category from Enterprise in LA, and planned to drop it back off in NJ and fly home.
I’m sharing our itinerary and some tips here. You can also watch how it all went down on my Instagram story highlights! And if you’d like to plan a road trip of your own, it’s not too late! Weather-wise, a cross-country trip is doable (and perhaps at times, more enjoyable with less heat) well into the Fall.
(This blog post is a beast, so use these links to jump ahead…)
- DAY 1: LA TO ZION
- DAY 2: ZION NATIONAL PARK (THE NARROWS HIKE)
- DAY 3: ZION TO PARK CITY
- DAY 4: PARK CITY TO JACKSON HOLE
- DAY 5: YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
- DAY 6: JACKSON HOLE TO MOUNT RUSHMORE
- DAY 7: MOUNT RUSHMORE TO KANSAS CITY
- DAY 8: KANSAS CITY TO HOT SPRINGS
- DAYS 9 & 10: HOT SPRINGS
- DAY 11: HOT SPRINGS TO NASHVILLE
- DAYS 12 & 13: NASHVILLE
- DAY 14: NASHVILLE TO CHARLOTTESVILLE
- DAY 15: CHARLOTTESVILLE TO SPRING LAKE, NJ
*BEFORE YOU GO: Purchase an America the Beautiful Park Pass ($85 including shipping) for entrance to all National Parks for a full year.
DAY 1: LOS ANGELES, CA TO SPRINGDALE, UT
Drive time: 6.5 hours without stops
States crossed: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah
Noteworthy stops: Seven Magic Mountains (art installation), Whole Foods Las Vegas
Stayed: Cliffrose Springdale, Curio Collection (2 nights)
Alternate accommodations: Desert Pearl Inn, Cable Mountain Lodge, Under Canvas Zion, Zion Mountain Ranch
We left LA bright and early to get on the road by 6:30am (the drive to Zion is just under 7 hours – note you’ll lose one hour with the time change). Our first pitstop was just outside of Vegas at Seven Magic Mountains, a made-for-Instagram art installation in the middle of the desert. Entrance is free, and it’s the perfect 10 minute break to stretch your legs and get some fun photos. Pro tip: remember to adjust your speed on the service road you take to get there – the speed limit changes from what you’re used to on the freeway, and we got pulled over (our only close call of the trip, on the first leg!) for speeding, but got lucky with no ticket.
From there, we drove another 10-15 minutes to get to Las Vegas, which is an ideal halfway point to refuel and stop for lunch and groceries. In Zion you’ll want to have supplies to make breakfast and pack a lunch for your hikes, so I recommend placing a Prime Now pick-up order at the massive Whole Foods on Las Vegas Blvd (there is a BevMo next door too, but they do sell booze in WF) for groceries, snacks, and beverages. We got a healthy lunch to go here as well, figuring it might be our last chance for non-fast food options for awhile.
Once we got to the Springdale area, we dropped off Jack at Doggy Dude Ranch (dogs aren’t allowed in most areas of the park, or many of the hotels in Zion). He loved it, they have special add-ons such as “stand-up paddle boarding” – Jack did a river walk and was very happy!
Before checking in, we drove around Springdale to a couple of different outfitters to secure rentals and a shuttle for the next morning (rookie mistake, you should definitely secure a shuttle in advance. I have a full post on experiencing Zion coming soon that goes through everything!).
We were originally planning on staying at Desert Pearl Inn (they have big rooms with little kitchenettes that open up to ground level so great for families), but due to a last minute closure we had to find a back-up at the last minute. We ended up scrambling and booking a stay at the Cliffrose, a Curio Collection Hotel, and it worked out perfectly. They are set right on the river, and have a great pool, and some of the best views we had all trip. You can rent tubes to float in the river, or set up a picnic on the sprawling lawn. The only downside is that the rooms do not have kitchenettes and were a bit smaller than we were planning, so we had to make due with the mini fridge and our cooler! But overall it was a great option. During the summer, sunset it not until around 9:00, and it stays HOT well into the night, so it was nice to sit outside on our little patio and enjoy the views.
One other thing to note – and this may have just been an issue earlier in the summer as the town was adapting to crowds and unprecedented takeout needs – is that there are a limited amount of dining options, and they get backed up early. We tried to order dinner around 7pm and struck out pretty much everywhere as they were all too busy and no longer taking orders for the night. We ended up ordering burgers from Porter’s Smokehouse that were pretty basic but did the trick! Some other options we were looking at were: Bit & Spur, King’s Landing, Oscar’s Cafe, Cafe Soleil, or Zion Pizza & Noodle Co.
DAY 2: ZION NATIONAL PARK: THE NARROWS
*I’m putting together an entire post on visiting Zion and hiking the Narrows soon, so won’t go into too much detail here!
Be prepared to wake up early – we took a 7am shuttle from Zion Cycles in Springdale to hike the Narrows (we did the bottom-up trail, which does not require a permit). We were there on a Wednesday, so it was probably the least crowded it could have been. On a weekend, I would recommend departing at least 7am, if not 6am. The shuttles are semi-private (think sprinter vans), so you will come into close contact with others if your group is not that big. You could also splurge for a private van. Either way, I highly recommend going this route, even when the public shuttles reopen – they handle everything from gear rentals (walking stick, water shoes, and a waterproof bag are a must – BYO neoprene water socks, fanny packs, and baby carrier + sun shade) to transportation to park entrance, so you literally just got dropped off and picked up and don’t have to worry about a thing. There are a few different companies that run these services.
It’s about a 20 minute drive from the town of Springdale to the Narrows bottom-up entrance, and from there it’s about a 20 minute walk to the trailhead – so we got to the trailhead at 8am. We hiked about 7.5 miles and got to the top (where the trail splits) around 10am. We took the path to the right for a little bit, and then turned around! On the way back down, we stopped for a picnic lunch on one of the sandy banks. We ended up getting back to the trailhead at about noon, and to the parking lot at 12:30. We had planned to have our driver pick us up at 1pm, so it was perfect timing. There are restrooms and water filling stations in the parking lot while you wait. But be prepared for it to be HOT – it was about 30 degrees warmer in the parking lot than it was in the Narrows. That made for a very pleasant hike though!
Afterwards, we went back to the hotel in the afternoon and just hung out by the pool and river and rested. If we were feeling more ambitious (and didn’t have a toddler with us), we would have rented e-bikes or done another hike to Emerald Pools, Angels Landing, Observation Point via East Mesa Trail, or The Watchman Trail. For dinner we ordered (early this time!) from Whiptail Grill. It was good enough, but would just reiterate that you should not to expect fine dining for this part of the trip!
DAY 3: SPRINGDALE, UT TO PARK CITY, UT
We left the hotel at 7:15 so that we would get to Park City with enough time to actually enjoy the hotel and beautiful weather. We stopped for smoothies and coffee at Hoodoos – though it looks just like a market/souvenir shop, their smoothies and coffee were actually quite good! They also have a sandwich counter, so I would definitely go back here if we were coming back to Zion. After picking Jack up from his sleepaway camp, we hit the road and drove the 4.5 hours to Park City.
We checked into Waldorf Astoria Park City around lunchtime, and were very excited to be arriving to a 5-star hotel! Everyone was wearing masks and they had implemented lots of health and safety protocol so we felt super safe. We were upgraded to an awesome 1-bedroom suite with a full kitchen and washer/dryer + patio, which was a great surprise! My friends at WAPC also arranged the sweetest welcome basket for us here – with maybe the most thoughtful welcome amenity of all time which was a fridge magnet of us in front of the “Welcome to Utah” state sign that I had posted on my Instagram the day before! The hotel is very dog-friendly and they even had a little welcome amenity and bed set up for Jack. (Note, when you’re #bookedbyarbiter, you’ll receive upgrades, complimentary breakfast daily, welcome amenities, and a $100 resort credit for the same price as you would booking online).
We spent the afternoon walking around the hotel (it’s in the Canyons area of Park City, so a bit quieter and more removed), and had lunch at the pool grill. They are requiring reservations for dining as well as pool seating to ensure proper social distancing. For dinner, we went and met friends who were staying in the area at Blind Dog, which had a perfect outdoor set-up with picnic-style tables and grass for the babies to crawl around in.
DAY 4: PARK CITY, UT TO JACKSON HOLE, WY
We slept in a bit (this was the one night of the trip Henry did not sleep like an angel in his SlumberPod), and got on the road after breakfast. We stopped for photos at the Idaho/Wyoming border – it was seriously so beautiful, it looked like a painting. Just outside of Jackson Hole we stopped to drop Jack off at “camp” again – this time at DogJax (the Four Seasons does allow dogs, but we weren’t positive if he could come to Yellowstone and didn’t want to risk not being allowed in or missing certain stops).
After that, it was bout a 20 minute drive to Teton Village and we arrived to the Four Seasons Resort & Residences Jackson Hole – which was unanimously the favorite stop of the trip. We were so impressed by how the FS handled themselves, especially given that they had only just reopened that week after being closed all spring due to COVID. They did temperature checks, provided masks and gloves, and everything could be handled on the FS app. Four Seasons actually has a partnership with Johns Hopkins, so it’s not surprising that everything felt super safe! (Reminder, Arbiter Travel Co. is a Four Seasons Preferred Partner, meaning my clients get complimentary breakfast, a $100+ resort credit, priority status for room upgrades – higher priority than AmEx! – and additional perks when booking any of their properties.)
We hung out at the hotel all afternoon (Dan did a trail run and got some amazing photos). The hotel overlooks the beautiful mountains (it’s the only ski in/ski out property at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Teton Village) so it’s hard to tell if it is prettier in the summer or winter – but we really loved visiting in the summer!
After we put Henry to bed we booked a sitter through the hotel and went out to dinner. We were a little nervous about having a sitter, but putting him down before she got there meant they never actually had to interact or touch – so we just had her wear a mask and then wiped everything down after she left. Then we had a driver take us into the town of Jackson for dinner (about 25 minutes from Teton Village). After taking the requisite photos in front of the antler arch in the town square, we did some shopping (Onyx & Antler has chic western gear to channel your inner Beth Dutton) and walked around a bit.
There was live music at The Silver Dollar Showroom at The Wort Hotel, which was thrilling to hear for the first time since probably February! We had a dinner reservation at Local Restaurant & Bar, and the food was all SO good. You can’t not order the burger with foie gras, it was maybe the best I’ve ever had, and the buffalo tartare, bone marrow toast, and blackberry Old Fashioned’s were all incredible as well. They were running at half-capacity so while we did eat inside (which was weird!), all of the tables were super spaced out. The restaurant is right next door to the historic Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. While they are known for their rowdy nights and live music and dancing, sadly that was not the case in these times (everyone must stay at their assigned table or saddle bar stool, they actually will come and patrol you if you’re walking around). But it was still fun to see and have a few drinks and listen to the one-man band. We definitely want to go back during normal times!
DAY 5: YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
This morning, we rolled out around 8:30 (probably would advise to do a little bit earlier, but we’d had a few too many Old Fashioned’s the night before). We stopped for breakfast to-go at the much-recommended Persephone Bakery (there are a few locations, we went to the one in Wilson) – it is the cutest little café that looks straight out of a Nancy Meyers movie. Their breakfast sandwiches, pastries, and lattes really hit the spot. We then circled back around to Teton Village and stopped at Bodega, a very chic gas station market, to pick up snacks and beverages for the park. I was later told we should have gotten sloshies (boozy slushies), but probably would have been a little aggressive for 9am anyway – next time!
From Teton Village, it’s spectacular 2-hour drive through Grand Teton National Park (we wish we had more time to explore this park on its own!) to the entrance of Yellowstone National Park. (Have your America the Beautiful Pass ready for both). You probably won’t have service for the remainder of the day, so just plan to use your phone as a camera. There are also a few different Yellowstone apps you can download so you have maps on the go (see above). There are plenty of restrooms in the park, and lots of places to picnic – but no food, so bring your own.
We were so blown away by Yellowstone. I don’t know what we were expecting, but it was some of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. We did the Lower Loop – it feels almost like a a self-drive safari with a two-lane highway where you pull off for different landmarks and when you see wildlife. We did not hit any traffic (there were times when we didn’t see another car on the road), and didn’t find it to be too overly crowded at all, even for getting a late start on a Saturday during a holiday week. We didn’t have time to do any hikes since we were just doing one day, but there are lots of different trails if you are staying closer to the park or get an earlier start than we did. We started at West Thumb Geyser Basin. After that, we veered off at Gull Point Drive for a picnic lunch, and Kimberley ran down the hill for a dip in Yellowstone Lake. Then we drove through Hayden Valley, where we saw lots of bison and elk (and I was left on the side of the road for 10 minutes, a story that is now funny but was not so much at the time). Another worthy stop was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which was definitely a highlight. There are a few different viewpoints, but Artist Point was really incredible (and aptly named – it looked fake). Gibbon Falls is another pretty landmark.
The true highlight was probably Grand Prismatic Spring – there was a line to park (we got there around 4pm), but it moved quickly and was worth it). After that on the loop comes Old Faithful – we actually skipped it because the line was so crazy and we heard it wasn’t totally worth it. We left the park at around 5:30, and were back in Teton Village at 7:30 – so basically an 11 hour day door-to-door.
For dinner, we picked up takeout from Teton Thai on the way back to the hotel. People had told us that it was the best Thai food in the world, and we were skeptical – but it truly was the best Thai food we’ve ever had. (Warning, it’s got heat!) We put Henry to bed and got some more Old Fashioned’s (when in the West!) and had a cozy dinner on the balcony in bathrobes before calling it an early night.
DAY 6: JACKSON HOLE, WY TO KEYSTONE, SD
After a leisurely start (and another round of Persephone for breakfast), we hit the road for one of our longer driving days. We had gotten lucky with the weather the day before, because it was in the 50s and raining when we left (had been in the 70s and sunny the previous two days) – just a friendly reminder that weather in the mountains can change on a dime! The scenery for today’s was remarkable – we drove out through Grand Teton National Park again, and then through Shoshone National Forest, where it snowed! Again, expect to have basically no service for most of this portion of the drive – it’s a good idea to download Google Maps in case you get lost. After getting through the forest there was lots of plains (we saw some crazy lightning storms in Thunder Basin National Grassland), and some funky old towns (ie Dubois, WY), but not really anywhere to stop (case in point: we got McDonald’s for dinner in Casper).
Once you get to South Dakota, you enter Black Hills National Forest, which is surprisingly stunning. I think I was expecting Mount Rushmore to be a total cheesy tourist trap (which in some parts, it was), but the area surrounding it was truly gorgeous. We honestly could have spent an extra day here exploring the forest, swimming in the lakes, and doing the Needles Highway drive (which we sadly didn’t have time to get to). On our route, we could see Crazy Horse Memorial from the road (again, if we had more time could have gone in and actually visited that). We stopped at Mount Rushmore next. You can take pictures from the road, but it’s worth paying the $10 to park and get out and see it. To be honest, we went up to the entrance, took a picture, and that was that! We didn’t feel like we were missing anything by doing it this way, but it’s possible to spend a lot more time here getting closer to the monument.
From the monument, Under Canvas Mount Rushmore is only about a 10-minute drive, located up a hill with a view of Mount Rushmore in the distance. I am so happy that we stayed here in Black Hills National Forest. There aren’t great lodging options in the area anyway (if glamping’s not your thing, Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City is another option), but we loved being in the forest. And although glamping with a toddler isn’t necessarily something I would recommend, it was totally fine for one night. They are very kid and pet-friendly at all Under Canvas locations – it’s just not baby-proofed, so plan to be watching them the entire time if you bring your little ones. They have live music every night, and a little snack bar that serves breakfast and dinner (and beer and wine, though you can also BYOB to your tent).
When we got to the dinner tent, it was beautiful and sunny, but as soon as we ordered a hail storm started, so everyone had to move inside. It was actually a very fun and cool experience (you always hear about “golf ball sized hail,” but never actually see it!). The storm passed quickly and after we put Henry to bed (his SlumberPod fit perfectly in the shower), we spent the night drinking wine and looking at the stars and trees from our porch, and making s’mores on our little stove. There is no electricity in the tents (pretty good WiFi though) – they provide you with power banks and lanterns. The Deluxe tents and above have showers and private bathrooms (the Safari tents have a communal bathroom). We were totally comfortable for one night, but I think more than two would have been pushing the limits with comfort. We had a “Stargazer” tent with a little skylight above the bed. Since there were 3 of us, we added a cot and all fit pretty comfortably. I will say the beds are very comfortable, but the cots are not so much.
DAY 7: KEYSTONE, SD TO KANSAS CITY, MO
We celebrated one week on the road by waking up with the sun, which was probably a good thing as this was our longest drive day. Going from South Dakota to Kansas City is probably not something I’d advise, but we decided to bit the bullet and just get it over with rather than doing a random overnight stop at a motel and breaking up the trip. If we had gone from point to point it would have been a 10.5 hour drive, but we made several stops and ended up being in the car for 13 hours (there’s also a time zone change en route).
After leaving Under Canvas and driving out of the Black Hills, we drove through Badlands National Park, which was so worth the detour. The geography was super cool, and there were lots of bison and prairie dogs to spot. If we had had more time, we were looking at doing Bear Country USA on the way out too. From there we stopped at the famous Wall Drug, which is really not much to see but we figured we had to do it while were there (and there are not many other places to stop anyway).
The rest of the drive was pretty unremarkable, and we got to Kansas City around 10pm. We checked into Crossroads Hotel, a very cool boutique hotel in an old PBR factory in the Arts District. They had pretty limited operations due to COVID, but for future stays, their lobby bar and restaurant (Lazia) looked very chic. And apparently on the weekends, their rooftop bar, Percheron, is the place to be. The décor was industrial-chic – we got a room with bunkbeds, which was perfect for 3 people and a fun way to mix things up.
DAY 8: KANSAS CITY, MO TO HOT SPRINGS, AR
This morning I met a friend/fellow SmartFlyer agent who was also in town at the adorable Messenger Coffee, a multi-level bakery/coffee shop. When I met back up with the family, we got on the road and stopped at Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque right when they opened (10am), because you can’t go to Kansas City and not have BBQ, right? The ensuing food comas were fine for a pretty uneventful day on the road.
We stopped at a Walmart on the border of Missouri and Arkansas to pick up some groceries for the next few days (similarly, you can’t go to Arkansas and not go to Walmart, right?). We arrived to my sister-in-law’s family’s house in Lake Hamilton at around 7pm and had a family barbecue on the lake.
DAYS 9 & 10: LAKE HAMILTON (HOT SPRINGS), AR
We had so much fun spending time with my brother, his wife, and my niece (who was born a month after Henry) at their house on the lake. We rented a pontoon boat and went out on Lake Ouachita one day, which I highly recommend. It was quite picturesque! The rest of the time we just hung out and had family time at the houses (thank you, Kelsey!).
DAY 11: HOT SPRINGS, AR TO NASHVILLE, TN
On the way from Hot Springs to Nashville, Memphis is the halfway point. We stopped for lunch at Central BBQ (be sure to get the ribs), which is right across the street from the Lorraine Hotel (now the National Civil Rights Museum), the site where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. We walked around the outside and reflected (I would love to go back during non-COVID times).
We got to our friends’ home in Nashville around 4pm and caught up with everyone before heading out to dinner at Butcher & Bee. I was so excited to try this because we hadn’t been able to get a reservation when we were there last fall. All of the food and cocktails were delicious – but you can’t miss the avocado crispy rice.
DAYS 12 & 13: NASHVILLE, TN
We were lucky enough to stay with friends in their beautiful home for our three nights in Nashville. We were there over the 4th of July, when most of the country shut down bars and restaurants, so we had a great time just hanging out by their pool for the holiday weekend. Our hosts put together an amazing spread for dinner (thank you, McC’s!).
On the 5th, the boys went to golf and Kimberley, Henry and I went to 12 South to walk around. Compared to when we were there for Labor Day last year, it was SO empty and quiet. We got some cute gifts at White’s Mercantile, and some to-go beers at The Filling Station and walked up and down the street (Draper James and imogen + willie are two noteworthy shops). We ended with popsicles from Las Paletas, which Henry was very pleased about. After that, we continued our food tour with a fried chicken sandwich on a biscuit at Biscuit Love in the Gulch, which was unreal. That night, we went for round two of fried chicken sandwiches (when in Nashville), this time with hot chicken takeout from Party Fowl. (We were planning to do Hattie B’s or Prince’s, but they close early on Sundays.)
DAY 14: NASHVILLE, TN TO CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA
Today we set out for our final night on the road. We had been warned not to speed in Virginia, so we took our time getting there and arrived to Charlottesville around 6pm. The area is so bucolic and serene, I am already plotting how to send Henry to UVA for college. We checked into Boar’s Head Resort, a beautiful sprawling resort with a golf course and sports club. Their pet-friendly rooms have not been renovated, but they were clean and comfortable. Their restaurants were closed due to COVID, and we were there on a Monday which it turns out is not the ideal time to visit a college town if you’re looking for places to eat, as most restaurants were closed Mondays and Tuesdays. We ended up at Burtons Grill & Bar in the Shops at Stonefield (a new high-end outdoor shopping area that looked super cute!), and had a good dinner there so it all worked out!
DAY 15: CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA TO SPRING LAKE, NJ
Drive time: 5.5 hours without stops
States crossed: Virginia, Washington D.C., Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey
Noteworthy stops: Washington, D.C.
Stayed: Family’s home (10 nights)
For our last morning on the road, we indulged at the UVA-favorite Bado’s Bagels (worth it), and then walked around the University of Virginia campus a bit. It is truly one of the most beautiful college campus I’ve ever seen. On the way out of town, we stopped at The Market at Bellair (an upscale gas station market just across from Boar’s Head) and picked up sandwiches to have for lunch later.
Dan had never been to D.C., so we planned to stop there for a picnic on the way. We parked and walked through the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial and ate our sandwiches on park benches. I have never seen D.C. so empty, especially on a summer day – it was pretty ideal (aside from the humidity). We had wanted to do a drive-by of the White House, but the streets were all blocked off so we missed that.
After leaving D.C., it was just a hop, skip and a jump through Maryland and Delaware before we reached our home stretch in New Jersey! We drove to the beach (in front of the Spring Lake Bath & Tennis Club, where Dan and I got married) so we could say we truly made it coast-to-coast, before ending our journey at my father’s house.
After 4441.7 miles, 93 hours and 44 minutes, 15 (and ½, including D.C.) states, and countless laughs, we completed our cross-country road trip! And we had such a great trip that when we got there, we actually contemplated cancelling our flights and driving all the way back home to LA… But alas, we ended up keeping our flights and flew back from EWR to LAX 10 days later. (Side note, it was actually one of the easiest flying experiences ever – we got Business Class seats for a steal on United, and the plane + airport were basically empty. Everyone wore masks the whole time and we felt very safe!)
I highly recommend doing this trip at least once in your life. Reach out to work together to curate the perfect cross-country road trip itinerary for you!
Tags: travel guide, itinerary, family travel, traveling with kids, traveling with a baby, California, road trip, america, usa, domestic travel, cross-country road trip, family road trip, utah, jackson hole, park city, new jersey, NJ, nashville, mount rushmore, zion, yellowstone, wyoming, south dakota, kansas city, charlottesville, traveling with a dog