How to Plan an Epic Family Road Trip

Family road trips offer something a flight simply can’t—an affordable way to enjoy the journey across a section of our beautiful country.

"plan an epic family road trip" with image of woman pointing to a spot on a national park map
(photo courtesy of Renee Scheil)

I have many good memories of long family road trips from my own childhood, and wanted those experiences for our kids, too.

During their growing up years, we road tripped from our home state of Minnesota to Colorado several times (sometimes via the Black Hills), West Virginia twice, Florida once, Yellowstone and the Tetons twice, Glacier once.

Maybe you’re the type of person who likes to wing it when you travel. You love the adventure of driving as far as you feel like driving, and then looking for a place to stay when you get to wherever you end up. Awesome. Knock yourself out!

I’m not like that. I like to have a plan.

The reasons for planning have changed over the years, depending on the ages of our kids.

When they were little, I mainly wanted to know where we could stop every couple hours to let them out of the car for snacks and energy-release.

Later on it was mainly so we wouldn’t miss anything cool—either on the way or at our destination.

4 children standing in front of a building that says "World's Largest Jackalope Exhibit!"
And sometimes we hit the jackpot without knowing it! This is in Dubois, Wyoming on our way to the Tetons (2011)

I’m happy with the experiences we were able to give our kids and the places they got to see. We couldn’t take them everywhere we would’ve like to, of course. But we gave them a love for travel and an appreciation of what’s outside our own region.

Now, as adults, they can plan their own trips, as they have.

If you’re just beginning your family life and want to include some epic road trips, here’s how I planned ours. I hope you find it helpful:

Poll Your Family

If your kids are old enough to have an opinion, ask them where they want to go. A repeat of somewhere awesome you’ve already been, or somewhere new?

Our trips were most often for a destination visit with family or friends. We added on extras to take advantage of the miles and time during our travel.

Do you want to visit the mountains? The ocean? A national park or famous destination like Niagara Falls?

Start Your Online Research

There are several ways to do research for travel destinations

  • Talk to others who’ve been there—both in-person and through websites like TripAdvisor. Get personal opinions and reviews.
  • Go directly to the official tourism site(s) of your destination. Just do an online search for: (your destination) official tourism. If they offer a tourism packet through the mail, take it! It’ll be free and will probably include some coupons.
  • Look for bloggers who’ve written about your upcoming destination. You’ll find them through online searches. Some destinations have scads of great private blog posts about them. Others have pretty much nothing about them.
4 adults standing on a mountain top, overlooking more mountains
We took a gondola ride to the summit of Rendezvous Mountain in Jackson, WY—something we found out about through the Wyoming Tourism packet we got in the mail (along with a coupon!). It was one of our favorites from our trip!

Make a Starter List and Poll Your Family Again

Once you’ve written down or typed out your Starter List, ask all your participants what sounds fun to them. If you get differing opinions, which is likely, you can brainstorm how to work in at least one activity that means the most to each person.

You can also look at your budget and prioritize based on everyone’s interest.

When I asked our kids about whitewater rafting for an upcoming trip, they all answered with a resounding: “Eh.” Right there I knew we didn’t have to set aside $250 for our family to go whitewater rafting! On to the next possibility…

Plan Your Route

Thanks to iMaps, GoogleMaps and other map apps, it’s easy to figure out mileage and time for travel days.

One HUGE drawback with these online maps, though: They’re real time.

If I want to see today (November 28) how long it’ll take us to get from one side of Glacier to the other next summer, the map app takes me all the way around the Park, because Going-to-the-Sun-Road is closed for the winter. Until the pass is open, these apps won’t take me through them.

So you may have to go the old-fashioned way and dig out a road atlas. Which, now that I mention it, is good to have along anyway. If you end up without internet access for your map app—or a dead phone battery—you’ll want a real map along.

Anyway, plan your route using a map or an online map as best you can. Have a good idea how long you want your travel days to be, and how many days you want to spend where.

Research and Book Lodging

I never—and I mean not ever—want to have to drive around for 30-60 minutes from one hotel or campground to another looking for a place to stay after driving all day long to get there. No.

I always have our reservations set ahead of time for any campground, cabin or motel, where possible.

Some campgrounds in national and state parks are first-come-first-served. In those places you’ll need to think about when you’ll be able to arrive, how busy it will be, and the likelihood of a full campground.

tent in a mountain campsite
We were able to see a photo of this campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park and reserve it online ahead of time

Sometimes we’ve opted to spend more at a private campground so we could reserve a site, rather than risk arriving at a less-expensive but already-full public campground. Especially if we know we won’t arrive until later in the day.

For some super popular destinations, like Yellowstone and Banff, you’ll need to reserve a campsite months in advance. Some of the most popular campgrounds are booked full shortly after January 1.

So, do this part early on in your research if you’re heading to an in-demand destination. As soon as you have your dates set, start making your reservations. (Don’t forget to find out cancellation policies!)

Research the Best Area Activities and Poll Again

Once you’ve gotten an idea of destinations and lodging, dig deeper into activity options for each area:

  • Bookmark websites.
  • Type up a Pages or Word doc with a bunch of possibilities along with links to websites, and email it to everyone going along. Ask them to take some time to look into what you’ve found, and what looks like the most fun.
  • Or if you have younger kids, gather around the computer or tablet and go through the options with them.
  • You won’t have time to do everything you’ll want to do, so make a list of priorities.

Create an Itinerary

I like to create an itinerary with mileage/hours to travel, stops, lodging and activities. This is especially helpful when we’ll take in a lot of different locations in the same trip.

Here’s an example of just the first three days of our 2017 road trip to the Tetons and Yellowstone:

example of trip itinerary

The underlined phrase is a live link. Notice I have mileage, time frames, activity options, fees—the details we want to know all in the same place.

Of course, the detail is up to you. You don’t need this level of detail—or you can include more. It’s for your trip.

I printed the itinerary to take along, along with another list of all our lodging details. Here’s a sample from that:

example of trip lodging

Again, don’t assume you’ll be able to access this information on your phone once you’re on the road. In some areas you might be able to, but in other areas cell service can be sketchy-to-non-existent. Bring printed copies, too.

Plan for the Most Popular Destinations

Some of the most popular activities and destinations will have long lines, heavy traffic and limited parking…or may even be closed for some reason. Be sure to plan ahead so you know what to expect.

Example #1: During research for a 2019 Glacier trip, I found out the Visitor Center’s parking lot at Logan Pass fills up early in the day. So we wanted to be up and on the road in time to ensure a parking spot there.

Example #2: On our 2017 Tetons trip, we learned one of our preferred hiking trails was closed due to extensive trail re-construction. We were glad we knew that ahead of time so we had a chance to come up with an alternative.

Example #3: When I was researching a Banff trip in 2020, I discovered the campground at Johnston Canyon was closed for construction. That’s one campground I could cross off my list for that summer. (And as it turned out, Banff itself was closed due to the pandemic!)

See what I mean?

Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone National Park
Old Faithful is one of Yellowstone’s top attractions, so we got to the parking lot by 8:30 a.m! That proved to be wise 🙂

Plan for Down Time and Be Flexible

Maybe you and your family love to go, go, go non-stop. Awesome. Do that!

Our family needs downtime scheduled into our trips. So if you’re like that, too, you’ll have to pick and choose your activities so you’re not so busy that you wear yourselves out.

If we have a couple real busy days in a row, we plan a more relaxing next day. Or maybe plan a half-day activity, then use the other half-day to relax at the campsite, or at a beach. Or spend a couple hours at a picnic lunch instead of just 30 minutes.

We’ve found it’s not worth trying to pack so much in that we end up exhausted and grouchy with each other—even though it’s hard not to see and do everything we possibly can.

It’s also not worth fighting to keep something on the itinerary when it’s becoming clear it’s just not going to work well. Be flexible—especially to keep family unity and sanity!

Head Off the Beaten Path, Too

Sometimes you’ll find amazing places and activities that only the locals know about. Or if you can’t decide between this activity and that one (even two of the same, like two whitewater raft trips or two horseback trail rides), ask the locals or summer staff what they recommend.

We’ve gotten some awesome advice over the years by doing this!

On our 2017 family road trip to Wyoming, we were spending several days in the Tetons and Yellowstone. These national parks are wildly popular—and for good reason.

But we also had wonderful experiences in the Bighorn Mountains and the Snowy Range Mountains of Wyoming. Only a fraction of the people, but more of the same beauty and wilderness.

In fact, our favorite hike ended up being in the Snowies because the beauty factor was right up there with the big national parks, but there was very little traffic and very few people comparatively. And my husband’s favorite campsite of our trip was our site in the Bighorns.

hikers in the Snowy Range Mountains of Wyoming
We wouldn’t have known about this incredible hike in the Snowy Range Mountains without the recommendation of friends

We found out about these less-visited mountain ranges through friends, rather than online.

Another idea is to do an online search for least visited national parks and you’ll be rewarded with loads of ideas for off-the-radar destinations.

Now Go Plan Your Own Epic Family Road Trip!

I hope I’ve given you some new ideas for researching and planning your next road trip.

These have become some of our family’s most-treasured memories. I hope they’ll be yours, too!

Here’s more…

Sharon Brodin