Fun for all ages in the Western United States
Explore parts of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Oregon
Pack the car, get your road trip playlist tuned in and turned up. Time to jump in your rig – we’re riding through the wild west today. No cowboy boots or ten-gallon hats required. This rowdy route has a little something for everyone. There will be scenic vistas to swoon over and some seriously tasty vittles to try (that’s wild west talk for grub – or FOOD.) There’ll be pretty trails to hike, plus some ancient and American history to take in. What better place to start, than in west Texas. Read along. Get inspired. And don’t worry, there’s a map with all the road trip stops and sites to see at the end. Saddle up, we’re headed west.
A quick note before we begin, we built this road trip with three little kids in mind. At the time our children were 6, 4 and 13 months. But this route is excellent for all ages. We tried to keep drive times between stops to under 4 hours with plenty of pretty places to stretch our legs along the way. The lettered stops are where we slept for the night, but I’ve shared some of the special sites you’ll not want to miss midway. You can click on any listing in the table of contents to jump right to a section, but read along for inspiration. In all, it took us nine nights and ten days. For your reference, I’ve added the distances between each stop at the end of each day’s destinations. Let’s ride!
A | Amarillo, Texas
Our tour starts in Amarillo. This is the “panhandle” of Texas. Out here, it’s a ranching region. And cowboys are real. So why not begin our wild west trip with some authentic Americana. Nothing screams Texas as loud as The Big Texan Ranch, right outside Amarillo. Even better it also boasts one of the best steak houses in all of Texas. Here the stars shine bright.
This iconic steakhouse and motel is a destination in and of itself, even if you don’t choose to stay here. At least stop and take it in. Have lunch. Or even try your hand at consuming 72 ounces of steak in an hour’s time, a contest began between boastful ranch hands way back when. If you can do it – you’ll get your lunch for free. But beware, you also have to eat ALL the “fixins” (side dishes) that come along with your meal. While I do not condone overconsumption, it’s part of the spectacle here. Don’t worry, there are many more reasonable and delicious dishes to choose from on the menu including my favorite – Tex-Mex!
→ Where to stay in Amarillo, TX with kids:
The Big Texan offers simple, not-fancy rooms in a kitsch old western town atmosphere. And a room here gives you access to a pool in the shape of Texas. Honestly – what more do you need? Besides steaks the size of your head. From here it’s an easy 30-minute drive to the gorgeous Palo Duro Canyon.
The Big Texan Steak Ranch and Motel
7701 Interstate 40 Access Rd, Amarillo, TX 79118
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
Palo Duro is the “Grand Canyon” of Texas and the second-largest canyon in the United States. But to be honest, I’d never heard of it before we moved to the state. “Palo Duro” is Spanish for hardwood and lends the park its name. Just 25 miles south of Amarillo, you can drive through the park on your own. The canyon is 120 miles long and at some points 20 miles wide. I said it was large. This IS Texas after all and “everything’s bigger in Texas.”
There are several spots to camp along the canyon floor if you want to explore longer or choose not to stay at The Big Texan. Check out the Cow Camp Cabins, historic structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s under President Roosevelt’s New Deal, intended to put Americans back to work after the Great Depression.
Palo Duro Creek Ranch Jeep Tours
Since this was the beginning of our trip, we opted for a rough and raucous, quick and dirty two-hour jeep tour of Palo Duro. Unfortunately the lovely owner of Elkins Ranch Jeep Tours, Bob Hartley has passed away since our brilliant day out with him. He’s in the photos below with my boys. You can still take one of several tours up and down the canyon via Palo Duro Creek Ranch Jeep Tours. You’ll bounce and bump through a working cattle ranch that abuts the beautiful park. Our littles loved it.
→ Palo Duro Creek Ranch
Across from Palo Duro State Park 11301 TX-217, Canyon, TX 79015
2-hour tour $68
Palo Duro can be done before or after your one night stand at the Big Texan, but you’ll have to head back through Amarillo to catch Interstate 40 (I-40) as we continue west for another iconic American roadside attraction. We’re good these in the States – quirky places to stop along the way. This one is well worth parking the car for.
Just outside Amarillo, you’ll take Exit 62A off I-40 heading west. Follow the frontage road and you’ll soon see ten old Cadillacs buried nose down in a field lined up east to west. This is Cadillac Ranch and it’s open and free to the public every day and night. Park your car and walk across the field for a better look.
Originally the vintage cars were installed, in 1974, two miles to the west by the art collective known as “Ant Farm.” Visitors are allowed and even encouraged to bring their own means to add to the graffitied automobiles. My kids were little when we visited, so we busted out the Crayolas for a bit of on the spot coloring. Local cows add to the “ranch” vibe and were on hand to check out our handiwork.
DRIVETIME from Amarillo, TX to:
Cadillac Ranch | 10 miles, 15 minutes
DRIVETIME from Cadillac Ranch to:
B | Santa Fe, New Mexico
Leaving the panhandle of Texas in the dust, our route now takes us west into New Mexico – spicy land of chiles, pueblos and seriously spectactular scenery. There is a reason the painter Georgia O’Keefe spent the bulk of her adult years here. For fans, there is a museum dedicated to her life and work right here in Santa Fe which I would love to see sometime. But with three wee ones in tow, we didn’t make it on this road trip. All our kids wanted to see was the hotel with the pool.
We did get them out for a delicious dinner at Harry’s Roadhouse just outside of town. Casual and cozy, the menu blends New Mexican, Mexican and more and is sure to have something to please everyone in your posse. Don’t miss the green and red chili sauces, traditional and super tasty in these parts. Always ask how hot.
→ Georgia O’Keefe Museum
217 Johnson St, Santa Fe, NM 87501
Open: Daily 10 AM – 5 PM | Fridays open until 7 PM
→ Harry’s Roadhouse
96 B Old Las Vegas Highway, Santa Fe, NM
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
Where to stay in Santa Fe with kids:
We loved the convenience of having an apartment and pool with the kids after the four-hour drive from Amarillo and were happy with the Marriot Residence Inn.
→ Residence Inn by Marriott Santa Fe
1698 Galisteo St, Santa Fe, NM 87505
Scenic US State Route 84 north from Santa Fe
The artist Georgia O’Keefe was inspired by the landscape of New Mexico and driving along Interstate 84 north from Santa Fe to Colorado will give you ample opportunity to see why. You can stop and see her classic adobe home and studio in Abiquiú, but it might be better suited for older kids in your crew. We continued past and just awed at the views.
→ Georgia O’Keefe Welcome Center
21120 US-84, Abiquiu, NM 87510
A little over an hour on the road from Santa Fe will bring you to one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the entire United States. Now I haven’t driven every road in the US, but trust me, I’ve driven a LOT. I’ve lived in Kansas, California, Washington, South Carolina, Oregon, Washington (again), Michigan, Ohio, Michigan (yes, again), Pennsylvania, Texas and finally back to Oregon. If you want to know the timing, I’ll tell you. Oregon wins the most years and my heart. But this road in northern New Mexico was wow. Seriously wow. See for yourself.
Echo Amphitheater off Route 84, New Mexico
Soon you’ll see signs for the Echo Amphitheater as you drive north towards Colorado. It’s worth a stop. If for nothing else than to let your littles stretch their legs. Here local legends say the dripping stains at the clifftop came from tussles between local Navajo tribes and settlers. You can choose to share that tidbit with your troop or not. This spot gets its name from some serious echos created by the natural shape in the rock. Hiking trails and camping sites available nearby.
→ Echo Amphitheater
US-84, 17 miles west of Abiquiú, NM 87510
Restroom facilities available, entrance fee of $2.00/car
Pagosa Springs, Colorado
We’re back in our rig and continuing north on US Route 84 to the Colorado border where the landscape begins to green and become sprinkled with farms and pretty barns. Welcome to colorful Colorado. This road trip route only skirts a small southwestern corner of this lovely state, but what a corner it is.
You may want to consider a longer pause in Pagosa Springs, a natural geothermal area set next to the San Juan River which races through the little town. You can pay to soak in the world’s deepest natural hot springs or even stay at one of three hotel spas in the area. If you and your crew just need a little cool off from the road, dip your toes in the river at the Pagosa Springs Town Park. We took a break for a few to wiggle our legs while we watched the maneuverings of white water kayakers in the river. Don’t worry the river runs calmer where you can put your feet in.
→ Pagosa Springs Town Park
Hermosa St, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147
DRIVETIME from Santa Fe, New Mexico to:
Echo Amphitheater | 65 miles, 1 hour 15 minutes
DRIVETIME from Echo Amphitheater to:
Durango, CO | 148 miles, 2 hours 45 minutes
C | Durango, Colorado
Our destination for tonight is right outside the southwestern Colorado town of Durango. I’ll be honest, we didn’t allow much time for this adorable and historic town, but could definitely see the draw. Classic western town storefronts along main street have made it a popular choice for movie backdrops over the years.
You can take a heritage ride on the classic Durango-Silverton narrow gauge steam train that chugs along dramatic mountain rails through the San Juan National Forest. Or just visit the museum for a great overview of the train’s history and impact on this cute little western outpost. We can recommend getting refreshments and maybe some of those vittles I mentioned at the Steamworks Brewing Company before saddling up and heading out.
→ Durango-Silverton Railroad
479 Main Ave, Durango, CO 81301
→ Steamworks Brewing Company
801 E 2nd Ave, Durango, CO 81301
Lightner Creek campground and cabins outside Durango
When on a road trip with our kids, it is nice to have a place to cool down after many hours in a car, so I always seek out unique spots with a pool if possible. We found the quirky Lightner Creek campground outside Durango was definitely a unique destination affording camping options that include tent sites, cabins, lodges, and shacks.
We maybe should have upgraded to a cabin as our “shack” was indeed rustic and somewhat comical to put up a pack and play inside. But it made for some memories. The kids loved the pool with mountain views and throwing a line in the lovely little creek that runs through the camp. For those with older kids or those looking for a little more refined stay, I would probably recommend booking a room in Durango proper.
→ Lightner Creek Campground
1567 Co Rd 207, Durango, CO 81301, USA
DRIVETIME from DURANGO, CO to:
DRIVETIME from LIGHTNER CREEK CAMPGROUND to:
Mesa Verde National Park Entrance | 34 miles, 35 minutes
D | Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
While not as popular or well known as many of the US National Parks by both American and foreign visitors, Mesa Verde National Park is not to be missed if you can make it to this corner of southwest Colorado. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park is home to ancient cliff dwellings made by Ancestral Puebloans beginning in 7500 BCE and they are a wonder to behold.
We spent a night camping in the park, which I recommend if you can’t nab or afford one of the rooms at the Far View Lodge. The only road in and out of Mesa Verde is long and winding, so staying in the park affords the best opportunity to see the most sites. Many of the most popular cliff dwelling locations require reservations for Ranger lead tours to protect these well-preserved ruins. Plan ahead and book before which spots you want to see. I can highly recommend Cliff Palace, which we did with our three kids aged 6, 4 and 13 months (in a back carrier, which is required for infants).
Check the park website to ensure which sites are open seasonally and book in advance. Note there are ladders to climb up and down to most of these cliff dwelling sites, so make sure of your fitness and ability to do so before you reserve.
→ Far View Lodge
Mile Marker 15, Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330
→ Morefield Campground
Mile Marker 4 U.S. 160, Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330
Primitive campsites available, with a camp store and services seasonally
DRIVETIME from Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado to:
Moab, Utah | 145 miles, 2 hours 45 minutes
E | Moab, Utah
Moab and nearby Arches National Park are quite possibly some of my favorite places on the planet. I don’t use that title lightly as I’ve been a fair few places around the planet. But there is something so epically different from the landscapes I’ve lived in that this region full of red rocks is truly inspiring to me. My kids loved it too. This was our first trip to Moab. We loved it so much that we built another road trip around a stop here and returned years later.
Moab is a charming little town popular with earthy hiking, mountain biking and outdoorsy types. We loved it. Funky shops, great places to eat and so many opportunities to get outside. For campers – there are plenty of options to pitch your tent under the stars.
We stayed at the local KOA in a “Kamper Kabin,” again for the pool. The southern Utah desert is hot and dry and dusty. Having a pool to cool off helped. Plus? Cabins here come with fire rings or you can rent one if staying at a rustic site. Did I smell s’mores? Yes, please! Don’t want to rustle up your own grub in the morning before you hit the National Park? Sidle up to the Jailhouse Cafe on Main Street for a hearty and delicious brunch.
→ Moab KOA
3225 South, US-191, Moab, UT 84532
→ Jailhouse Café
101 N Main St, Moab, UT 84532
Arches National Park
This might be my favorite National Park in the United States. I haven’t been to them all, so it could get cut from the team, but right now – it’s my go-to response when asked. Why? It’s stunning for starters. So stunning and iconic that the state of Utah used one of the park’s most famous red rock arches on local license plates. And that’s saying a lot for a state that have FIVE National Parks within its borders. For me, maybe it’s because Moab and Arches are so different from the mossy, green-treed mountainous place I come from. There is something otherworldly and wonderful about this place.
Temperatures can top triple digits here in summer months, so plan your visit accordingly. We were here in May and while comfortable, it was definitely warm. Bring sunscreen and plenty of water. Start at the visitor’s center to get an overview of the park, learn some geology and plan your route.
Little explorers will love the Junior Ranger program, which is as involved as your family would like to make it. Pick up a booklet for interactive and informative ways to keeps your kids engaged as you make your way through the park. Mine learned about geology, erosion, conservation and what local critters they might come across along the way. Entering the park outside visitor center hours? Never fear, download the booklet before you go.
→ Arches National Park Visitor Center
Arches Entrance Road, Moab, UT 84532
HIKES TO DO IN ARCHES NATIONAL PARK WITH KIDS
We loved the following hikes and sites that were fine for our kids ages 6, 4 and 13 months (in a carrier): Balanced Rock, the Windows Section and our collective family favorite – Sand Dune Arch. While maybe not the most impressive of the natural formations here at Arches National Park, the soft red sand and shady spots at Sand Dune Arch made it a perfect respite. The boys loved running down the big dune.
Those who want to see Delicate Arch, the Utah state icon, know that the hike is challenging and 3 miles long (out and back) traversing sections of slick rock, so plan accordingly for your group’s abilities and give yourself plenty of time if intending to catch sunrise or sunset. Or you can get a glimpse from the Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint, which our crew could definitely do.
→ Balanced Rock
→ Windows Section
→ Sand Dune Arch
→ Delicate Arch Viewpoint
→ Landscape Arch
DRIVETIME from Moab, Utah to:
Salt Lake City, Utah | 234 miles, 4 hours
OPTION: From Moab, you could continue west through Utah to see Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and Crater Lake in Oregon. For more information this tour – check out my other western states road trip below:
F | Salt Lake City, Utah
I will admit that when we come to SLC, we don’t do much sightseeing as we have family here. But the city offers diverse options for history and outdoor aficionados. We enjoyed peeking inside the Utah State Capital building and poking about Temple Square, the headquarters for the Church of Latter-Day Saints. But, just so you know, if you aren’t Mormon, you can only access public spaces.
Or check out the Bonneville Salt Flats, 30,000 acres of wide-open flats of salt on the western edge of the Great Salt Lake basin. Depending on the time of year, temperatures here can be over 100F come summer and below freezing in winter. Pay attention to signs and online warnings and only walk where you’re supposed to, to protect this impressive natural wonder.
Shoshone Falls, Idaho
Leaving Salt Lake City and heading north to Idaho on the way to Oregon, you should make a stop at the beautiful Shoshone Falls outside the town of Twin Falls, Idaho. Out here they call it “the Niagara of the West,” watch as the Snake River pours over several sections from a secure viewpoint above the Falls.
→ Shoshone Falls Lookout
4155 Shoshone Falls Grade, Twin Falls, ID 83301
DRIVETIME from Salt Lake City, Utah to:
Bruneau Dunes State Park, Idaho | 65 miles, 1 hour 15 minutes
G | Bruneau Dunes State Park, Idaho
Maybe the largest inland single structure stand-alone sand dune in America isn’t exactly on your must-visit list when in the States, but it is a perfect place to stop for the night on this road trip. Bruneau Dunes State Park has a campground and nature center worthy of your time.
Far enough outside any major cities that might produce light pollution, the park has an observatory that affords excellent opportunities to view the night sky. Every Friday and Saturday from late March to mid-October, weather depending, you can take a look through their powerful telescope and get a glimpse of galaxies far, far away.
The park has lovely places to pitch your tent. When we visited the end of May, we had fluffy baby Horned Owls and pretty yellow chested Western Meadowlarks in the trees above our plot. With a little dune-side lake to cool off, it was a brilliant road trip break for our brood.
→ Bruneau Dunes State Park
27608 Sand Dunes Rd, Bruneau, ID 83647
National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center
For an Oregon girl moving back to Oregon with her children who had never lived here, this stop was a big deal. I may or may not have (may have) documented each child’s first footsteps on the ground of our own personal Oregon Trail. As it turned out, that was in the parking lot of the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center outside Baker City, Oregon. In actuality, we had a lot of Oregon still to traverse until we found our own homestead. But if you’re in these here parts, it’s a great museum to peruse.
For those who don’t know – the Oregon Trail was a 2100+ mile route that brought emigrants west starting in Missouri and Kansas, through Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and into Oregon along the Columbia Gorge. Almost 400,000 people moved west along the trail between the mid-1830s to the 1870s. It was a grueling route that required much planning and processing. What would you bring? What was essential? Could your Grandmother’s china make the cut? Your kids can get a good feeling for what to pack and how to load their own wagon at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. With interactive exhibits, it was a highlight of our trip.
→ National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center
22267 OR-86, Baker City, OR 97814
DRIVETIME from BRUNEAU DUNES State Park to:
Oregon Trail Center | 195 miles, 3 hours
Clyde Holliday State Park | 290 miles, 5 hours
DRIVETIME from Oregon Trail Interpretive Center to:
Clyde Holliday State Park | 95 miles, 2 hours
H | Clyde Holliday State Park, Oregon
This was one of our favorite family stops on our own Oregon Trail and if you are out this way, you too should stay in a tepee. Just one of the many unique Oregon campground opportunities you can try in this neck of the woods. But plan ahead, Clyde Holliday State Park only has two tepees to rent. $46.00/night on sleeping pads in your own sleeping bag is a bargain for the experience alone. With a little creek next door to look for bullfrogs and salamanders before roasting your own marshmallows, our littles adored this stop.
Note: Tepees are available mid-April through late September. Your tepee rental includes a space heater and vinyl sleeping pads for up to 8 people. Everything else is up to you.
→ Clyde Holliday State Park
US 26, Mt Vernon, OR 97865
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument | Painted Hills Unit
Eastern Oregon is full of diverse landscapes incredibly different from where I grew up – in the verdant Willamette Valley on the western side of the state. Continuing down our own Oregon Trail from Baker City and after our one night in a tepee, we trekked through the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument to the Painted Hills unit.
Turn left across the river valley to the strikingly striated “painted” hills that reveal layers and layers of ancient geological history. It’s easy to see why this spot is considered one of the “7 Wonders of Oregon.” Vistas of the hills are viewable near parking lots in the park. Or plan to take one of the many trailed paths through the beautiful natural preserve. Just stay on the trails. Please. This is a precious and precarious ancient land.
→ Painted Hills Overlook
Painted Hills, Overlook Trail, Mitchell, OR 97750
DRIVETIME from Clyde Holliday State Park, Eastern Oregon to:
Sisters, Oregon | 150 miles, 3 hours
DRIVETIME from Painted Hills to:
Bend, Oregon | 86 miles, 2 hours
Eugene, Oregon | 200 miles, 4 hours
Portland, Oregon | 200 miles, 4 hours 15 minutes
I | Central Oregon Sweetheart, Sisters
And here we’ve come to the end of our Oregon Trail road trip, the sweet little city called Sisters, a perfect base for exploring more of the beautiful mountain high region of Central Oregon. So called Sisters for the three nearby peaks known locally as the North Sister (Faith), Middle Sister (Hope) and South Sister (Charity), which you can see below.
From here you can follow your own Oregon Trail in many directions, but before you go, don’t miss the tasty sandwiches and charming little choo choo train that circumnavigates the Depot Deli on the main drag in town. In warmer weather, you can order your lunch and take a table in the garden out back. Or for those who prefer drive-in classics, hit the Sno Cap Drive-in for burgers, fries and shakes. Need some delicious locally roasted coffee? Step inside Sisters Coffee Company. Want to explore the area a little longer? Rent a place in nearby Black Butte Ranch. Or make your way to the slightly bigger, but no less cool burg called Bend. Central Oregon is dreamy come summer.
→ Depot Cafe
250 W Cascade Ave, Sisters, OR 97759
→ Sno Cap Drive In
380 W Cascade Ave, Sisters, OR 97759
→ Sisters Coffee Company
273 W Hood Ave, Sisters, OR 97759
→ Black Butte Ranch
13899 Bishops Cap, Sisters, OR 97759
DRIVETIME from SISTERS, OREGON to:
Eugene, Oregon | 107 miles, 2 hours
Portland, Oregon | 152 miles, 2 hours 40 minutes
From here, the journey is yours. You can hit Mount Hood, the Columbia Gorge, Portland, Eugene, Salem, the Oregon Coast and Crater Lake all within a few hours depending on which direction you choose. Let me know if you want more tips on where to take your Oregon Trail. I’m happy to help. Cheers from here.
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