A cross-country national park vacation is an amazing adventure for travel-loving families! Despite COVID-19, my family felt determined to take a proper summer vacation in the United States. I particularly yearned to visit the US National Parks for a long time but had shelved the idea until that elusive day when my young daughter would be able to keep up with us on hikes. Now, at 9 years old, she is more than capable of matching our enthusiasm for the outdoors! We then hatched a plan to take a vacation on wheels, rent a minivan, and make a home out of it. After preparing my COVID-19 Packing List For Families, we rented the van itself. I read up on how to visit the US National Parks while camping. To provide other families advice for taking a similar trip, I’ve compiled this detailed 16-day cross-country national park itinerary for families!
Van Camping As A Family
Van camping as a family is easier than it sounds! I researched the details early in my planning process and read up on “dispersed camping,” or camping for free on public land. I was excited to find several useful websites to help us navigate our family vacation! Two of my favorites include Campendium and Free Campsites, which helped to guide us when we needed to find nearby places to camp. I also learned that most Walmart stores around the country allow overnight parking in their lots. Once I had an idea of how our trip could work, I planned a rough national park itinerary for families that would take us from North Carolina to the Smoky Mountains, the Ozarks, and finally to the National Parks out West, including Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and several others. We set off on July 4th for our cross-country family adventure!
Our trip lasted sixteen days and we visited ten National Parks! Here is a condensed national park itinerary for families with a few recommendations for planning a COVID-friendly trip with kids.
Day 1: Smoky Mountains, Bryson City
On the first day of our 16-day cross-country national park itinerary for families, we spent most of our time driving to the Smoky Mountains. It was so wonderful to watch the Fourth of July fireworks from the highway! However, we arrived late at the campsite we considered staying in, so we were still a bit nervous about figuring out the dispersed camping situation. Luckily, the staff at a hotel took mercy on us and let us stay in their parking lot all night in Bryson City, NC. We made sure to get plenty of rest for the long trip ahead of us!
Day 2: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Day two marked the official start of our 16-day cross-country family getaway! Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, we spent the day at the gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This kid-friendly destination features lots for families to do during summer, like wading in Deep Creek. We also tried tubing. Once we were hungry, we picnicked in the park, feasting on ravioli with tomato sauce cooked on our camping stove. After lunch, we took a short hike to Juney Whank Falls, which was a nice path that led to a waterfall with a picturesque bridge. There were many teasy trails that connected and we could have continued our hike, but it started pouring. So, we piled back into the van and drove on to Nashville, Tennessee to visit a friend, where camped in her driveway.
Day 3: Nashville
Starting our third day in Nashville was so much fun for my family! In the morning, we had a socially-distanced play date with my friend and her two boys. Then, we drove through downtown Nashville, marveling at the country music clubs and colorful scenery. Nashville is an overall great city to visit with children due to its abundance of history and walkable green areas. Too bad we didn’t have more time to enjoy it! On our way West, we passed through Memphis, another Tennessee city chock-full of activities for all ages. There, we stopped and saw Graceland. Though it was closed, at least we got to see the mansion from outside, along with the Elvis mementos posted on the fence and painted on the sidewalks. Next, we hit the road for Arkansas. Though we also arrived late at Ozark National Forest, we found a dispersed campsite for the night.
Day 4: Ozark National Forest
By day four, we were ready to immerse ourselves in nature. Ozark National Forest offers an array of activities for families, especially since it covers more than a million acres! We spent a beautiful day at the Cove Lake Recreation Area, which is a popular summer hangout spot. This was my daughter’s favorite part of our 16-day cross-country national park itinerary for families! Cove Lake was really shallow and warm. We spent the whole day swimming peacefully in a marked swimming area. For an even better view, we then rented paddle boats to explore the lake. Finally, we picnicked in the area, attempted to campfire nachos, and even made our first round of s’mores. Before long, however, it came time to pack and leave for our next stop. We left in the early evening, and my husband and I took shifts driving all night until we reached Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Day 5: Albuquerque
More adventures awaited us the next day in New Mexico! Situated in a high desert, Albuquerque is the state’s oldest city. Signs of its origins as a Spanish Colony can be seen throughout the Old Town, contrasted by a modern downtown area. My family spent the morning touring the stunning Rio Grande Nature Center State Park, which ran adjacent to the river and even featured a cactus garden. Downtown, we browsed a few of the shops that were open, and I bought my daughter a set of worry dolls similar to the ones I had as a child. My husband and I were excited to see Breaking Bad fan sites like Twisters (aka Los Pollos Hermanos), where we ate chicken tacos for lunch. We also visited Walter White’s house. By afternoon, we headed toward Arizona, where we slept at a dispersed campsite outside The Grand Canyon.
Day 6: The Grand Canyon
On day six of our 16-day cross-country national park itinerary for families, we said good morning to the Grand Canyon! Starting our morning early here guaranteed we’d avoid some major afternoon heat, as well as huge crowds. Still, even in the morning, it was much more crowded than any other park we had visited! I noticed a lot of other hikers while we traversed the South Rim Trail, but many people were wearing masks, so it wasn’t hard to keep our distance. As one of the flattest, kid-friendly paths in the park, this hike was ideal for us as a family, as it afforded gorgeous views of the canyon from above. We had fun walking on the ledges to get a variety of views, mesmerized by the brilliant orange, brown, red, and purple hues. By evening, we drove to Zion National Park and slept in a dispersed campsite nearby.
Day 7: Zion National Park
My family hit the one-week mark at Zion National Park. Located in Southwest Utah, this sprawling natural area is well-recognized for its steep red cliffs. Though we had hoped to spend a full day exploring here, the weather was just too hot! Instead of doing much hiking, we spent most of our time wading in the Virgin River. What a cold and refreshing break from the heat! In the evening, we headed to nearby Bryce Canyon, which was an hour or so away. Fortunately, we were able to catch a stunning sunset once we arrived here. As it was my birthday, we spent the night in a tipi near Bryce at Ruby’s Inn, which included a heated outdoor pool and nice warm showers. However, the pool was quite crowded, so it wasn’t always easy to keep our distance from other guests. We didn’t spend as much time there as expected.
Day 8: Bryce Canyon
Our eighth day in Bryce Canyon proved to be one of the best on our entire 16-day cross-country national park itinerary for families! A quick drive from Zion National Park, Bryce is known for its unique rock formations. During our visit here, we hiked the intermediate Navajo Loop Trail, which took us down among the hoodoos. Though it was hot and the trail was steep, the spectacular scenery kept my family going. This was my second time here, but it was just as enchanting, if not more so than the first time! My whole family really loved Bryce Canyon, and there are lots of other family-friendly hiking options if you’re planning to travel with youngsters. Keep an eye out for the Bryce Amphitheater! In the afternoon, we drove to Arches National Park and slept at a dispersed campsite near the park.
Day 9: Arches National Park
Arches National Park is also located in Utah, just above Moab. Unfortunately, my family didn’t do as much hiking as expected here due to the extreme heat. Luckily, Arches can be toured via car without compromising its picturesque panoramas. During the late afternoon, we even stopped for a picnic, cooking chicken on the outdoor grill before a windstorm sent us running for the van! Fortunately, we spent more time climbing at sunset and visited The Windows. We climbed as high as we could and took in the breathtaking sunset views across the park while our cameras snapped continuously! After talking with two guys whom we met in the park, we decided to save Yellowstone and Glacier (originally part of our plan) for another trip. Instead, we embarked on an impromptu adventure to Colorado! We drove until we couldn’t stay awake anymore and spent the night at a Walmart in Durango.
Day 10: Durango
Day ten in Durango didn’t disappoint! A small town located near the New Mexico border, it’s a great stop for families traveling through the Southwest. Here, we spent our morning having a picnic near the river at Animas City Park, which had amazing views of the landscape. As we made pasta and hot dogs on our camping stove, our daughter enjoyed wading in the river and looking for fish. Across from the river, we found a nice new playground for her to enjoy. It was actually open and mostly empty (anyone from New York knows how amazing this felt!) Afterward, we drove through downtown Durango, which was very cute, complete with an old train station. In the afternoon, we drove on to the Grand Sand Dunes National Park and found a great dispersed campsite near the park.
Day 11: Grand Sand Dunes National Park
Of course, Grand Sand Dunes National Park is famous for its huge pockets of sand. After breakfast at the campsite, we visited to see what all the hype was about. Pro Tip: rent a sandboard at Oasis before you get to the park to avoid having to head back out as we did! Though it was a super long walk in the hot sand to get to the top of the hill, we were determined to try sandboarding as a family! After several attempts at sliding down the sand, however, it began to rain, which sort of put a damper on our plans. So, we headed to Rocky Mountain Park! Outside, we discovered an excellent dispersed campsite near the Blue River. We awoke to gorgeous views of the Rocky Mountains, with a magical path leading down to the river. My daughter called it “a fairy tale forest.”
Day 12: Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is another family-friendly destination we highly enjoyed! Animal lovers have endless chances to get up-close with moose, elk, deer, and chipmunks here. We also hiked around Lake Irene, where we ran into a large, but very calm dear. Then, we got in our car and eventually stopped due to the moose standing by the road! We were lucky enough to see both a male and female moose trotting through the mountains. We subsequently had another close encounter with the group of elk on our next hike. Afterward, we drove up the Trail Ridge Road to the summit at 12,000 feet. I recommend this for families, but bring warm clothes! The views were magnificent and the drive was harrowing yet breathtaking. Once night set, we left the park and drove as far as we could before spending the night in a Walmart in Cheyenne, WY.
Day 13: Mount Rushmore
From Cheyenne, we opted to take a more educational tour of this historical area. That’s why we inevitably drove to nearby Mt. Rushmore, which was great to see in person. However, as a parent traveling with a young child, it wasn’t nearly as interactive as I had imagined. So, we took the obligatory photos and were prepared to continue on our way. Luckily, I stumbled upon Horsethief Lake in the Black Hills on our way out, where we had a great time swimming. Down the road from the lake, we also conveniently came across Wrinkled Rock, another dispersed campsite. Though we only planned to check out the rock climbing when we drove there before sunset, we ended up staying the night at the campsite because we loved it so much. What a great community of rock climbers, complete with campfire songs!
Day 14: Badlands
South Dakota flaunts sprawling natural preserves ideal for adventurous families. To take advantage of the area, we did a little rock climbing. It was my daughter’s first time out of the rock and quite a challenge compared to the climbing gym, but she did great thanks to friends who had the equipment to belay her. Then, we followed our rock climbing with more swimming in the lake! Thoroughly exercised and refreshed, we drove through the beautiful Badlands on our way out of South Dakota. Our trip took longer than expected, however, since visitors were prohibited from entering the Indian Reservation due to COVID-19. But the views at the Badlands were worth it! After the park visit, we drove as far as we could since we were already in the home stretch. Later, we slept at a Walmart in Albert Lea, MN.
Day 15: New Buffalo, Michigan
After a long driving day, we finally made it to New Buffalo, Michigan! A charming Lake Michigan town close to Chicago, stopping here during our drive made the trip back a lot easier to endure. Swimming in Lake Michigan at sunset was also a paradise for us! Ideal for our little one, the lake was calm, blue, and relatively warm. And the beach was beautiful too! As a town, New Buffalo is also very quaint and perfect for wandering. We even found a great Italian restaurant to dine in as a treat: Brewster’s Italian Café, complete with a great kids menu. After days on end of eating fast food or meals cooked on our camping stove, it was heavenly! Satisfied, we slept at a rest area that was approved for all night parking.
Day 16: Back To New York
Day sixteen didn’t go exactly as we’d hoped. Though we planned to spend another day at Lake Michigan, we awoke to pouring rain outside. Alas, one of the many requirements of traveling with kids is the ability to go-with-the-flow. So we said goodbye to our trip and hit the road one last time. After a long day of driving, we finally made it home to New York City. No matter the bumps in the road, I highly recommend creating a national park itinerary for your family!
In the end, we had a fabulous time, drove 6,000 miles, and spent around $2,000 for a two-week family vacation ($650 not including the van rental!). Overall, this is a really affordable option for people who already own a minivan. In practice, the joy of this trip was building in flexibility. We avoided a fixed itinerary and took our time when we wanted to. Or, drove all night if we were up for it, not bound by hotel reservations. The sense of freedom, knowing we were completely self-reliant, was unmatched by any prior trip. We’re already brainstorming about a European vacation with a rented camper van, rather than trains and hotels! Van camping is ideal for families traveling in the COVID-19 era, allowing the possibility of exploring remote areas together and still staying socially distant. I hope you found helpful tips in my national park itinerary for families!
Written by Families Love Travel Contributor, Rebecca Giguere.
All images included in this article, unless otherwise noted, were taken by and belong to Rebecca Giguere.