Braving the pandemic to cruise the “Family Truckster” from LA to Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming – and back—nonstop outdoor action along the way.
by Dan Jahns
We were itching for an adventure. We had emerged from the first few months of global pandemic lockdown-induced cabin fever, we realized that we could manage this safely – but that the pandemic would not be over anytime soon. So like many families, we began to crave something exciting—and safe—and landed on that time-honored tradition, immortalized by the Griswold family in “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” the classic family road trip.
The original plan had been to rent a large RV so we could eat and sleep with no need for restaurants or hotels and their associated COVID risks, but my wife Francesca put the kibosh on that idea when her research uncovered that the Class A RVs do not have to meet the child restraint safety standards or the collision testing required for other motor vehicles. Not helping matters was the fact that RV rental prices had blown up once it became clear that this was the only way to travel safely during the pandemic.
Disheartened, but not deterred, we gassed up our Chrysler Pacifica minivan and plotted out a 14-day odyssey that would take us from Los Angeles to Las Vegas as the departure point for the Great American West: Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
We loaded up our “Family Truckster” and motored into the dry heat of Las Vegas mid-morning and spent a few hours with my Aunt Vivian. She had been one of the finalists for the Teacher in Space Program in the late 1980s and had been friends with Christa McAuliffe. While that tragedy was thirty-five years ago, Vivian still wells up when talking about it and her time with Christa. It is always a pleasure to spend time with family, but the desperate vibe that permeates Vegas and the desire for the open road urged us back in the Truckster and we headed northeast up route 15 to Bryce Canyon, Utah.
Before we had even made it to the park itself, we were enticed by the views from the car and stopped on the side of the road to revel in the amazing beauty of the setting sun reflecting off the red clay peaks. Orange bursts of fire fueling our wanderlust.
The kids and I spent some time scrabbling up and down the cliffs and caves until it was too dark to continue. Then we loaded up again and headed into town to the Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel. This was our first hotel stay since the pandemic had begun but before widespread mask mandates. While most people were wearing masks, we were surprised by the number who weren’t and even more surprised by how crowded the indoor pool and hot tub were. It was as if these people hadn’t been informed there was a global pandemic going on. Much to our kids’ disappointment we skipped the pool and spa experience and got to bed early in preparation for what would prove to be a magical day of hiking.
Bryce Canyon, settled by Mormon pioneers in the 1850s, is famous for its sunbaked hoodoos, those spire shaped rock formations covering the landscape as far as the eye can see. It earned its National Park status in 1928 when Congress upgraded it from a National Monument. We spent a few days hiking the canyons, including the spectacular hike to Mossy Falls and the famed Rim Trail at Sunset Point (elevation 8,000 feet).
We continued north through Salt Lake City and Idaho Falls until we reached Henry’s Lake about 15 miles West of Yellowstone National Park. We stayed at Soaring Eagle Lodge, my brother-in-law’s VRBO hunting mansion, a sprawling 7-bedroom A-frame that features a great room with 20-foot-high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, and walls festooned with elk heads, most of which he had shot himself. I am not a fan of killing any wildlife, but they did look peaceful up there.
We spent the next several days enjoying all that the West Yellowstone area along the Idaho-Montana border has to offer, including a climb up Mt. Two Top where we abandoned the human-maintained trail in favor of one of the elk trails that crisscrossed the mountainside. My brother-in-law—and guide for this particular adventure—informed us that elk instinctively know the most efficient way up and their tracks and trails become a superhighway for other animals.
We also enjoyed an outing on Henry’s Fork River where we formed a flotilla of canoes, paddleboards, and a rowboat and we saw a beaver, a moose, and countless waterfowl.
We ended the trip with some mountain biking and an ATV adventure to Elk Lake where me and the kids took a dip in the frigid waters.
Then it was time to head to Yellowstone National Park to experience the wonders of its massive acreage. Given we were in the time of COVID and had three young children with us, we were not planning to venture out of the car much so we purchased a super useful app called Just Ahead that provides a running commentary on what you are seeing out your window as you drive through the park. It tracks where you are so the info is always accurate and timely. We were absolutely amazed how well this app worked especially considering we had no cell reception in the park. We highly recommend it.
One of the interesting tidbits of information gleaned from Just Ahead was that Yellowstone was one of President Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite places to visit and he logged many days cataloging and counting the wildlife there while still president. Roosevelt is known as the “conservation president” and he created numerous national parks and monuments (it was easier for him to create a monument than a park because he didn’t need congressional approval for that), although not Yellowstone – that was Ulysses S Grant in 1872.
While in the park we saw a myriad of wildlife including herds of bison, an elk, a moose, and a variety of waterfowl. Of course, no trip to Yellowstone is complete without a visit to Old Faithful. While we didn’t dare get close enough to join the packed (and mostly maskless) hordes that stood waiting for it to spew, we timed it perfectly so that as we drove up, it was just starting to erupt. We jumped out of our double-parked minivan and watched in awe as the geyser blasted its steam skyward like white plumes of soft cotton. Amazing!
After a full two days in the park, we headed south through Teton National Park to Jackson Hole, Wyoming where we caught up with some local friends – socially distant of course – and enjoyed a wonderfully relaxing family bike ride along the miles of paved bike paths in and around the city. We rented our bikes and a bike trailer for the girls at Hoback Sports in downtown Jackson. Fast and friendly service despite the hordes trying to rent bikes. Hot tip: call or rent online in advance so you can skip the line when you get there.
With work looming on the horizon for Francesca (I was able to work remotely as we traveled) we had to turn the Family Truckster around and sprint back to LA before it turned into a pumpkin. The drive back was long but uneventful and we pulled into our driveway exhausted, but with our travel itch sufficiently scratched…until the next itch!
Good To Know
- You’re not fully equipped for a road trip – especially during a global pandemic – until you have a portable travel potty for the kids. If you already have one you know how indispensable this little item is when traveling long distances, particularly through desert areas where rest stops are infrequent. You can get one for under $20 on Amazon. You’re welcome. 😊
- If you are visiting Yellowstone National Park, consider getting your park entry pass online before you go. This will allow you to bypass the often HUGE lines. We didn’t do this and were stuck in a super long line so we bought the pass online on our phone and then drove right out of the line to the passholders line and saved ourselves A LOT of time.
- If you are staying in hotels and if you are cautious with your pandemic safety, ask to be placed on the bottom/lobby floor if possible. That way you can avoid getting into elevators with other unrelated guests and touching the floor buttons.
Dan Jahns – May 2021
Dan is a New Jersey native who has lived in Tokyo, Hong Kong and now resides in Los Angeles with his wife Francesca and their three young children. Having seen so many travel-loving couples grounded when they started having babies, Dan and Francesca made a pact that they would continue to explore no matter how large the brood got. They kept their promise to each other and now the family of 5 travels as often and as far as possible. Read about Dan’s pre-kids travels at Eat, Play, Love – An Around the World Travel Blog.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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