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How We Took A Bucket List Road Trip Across The Country

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We took an epic family roundtrip road trip across the USA from the West Coast to the East, and back again! See all the details you need to plan your own bucket list cross-country drive.

Reese Family seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time!

Why we took this road trip.

Since the girls were little (Maddie and Ashley that is, I still think of Emmy as little at 11 even though she is as tall as me), Pete and I have wanted to take a cross-country road trip.

For years we have said “this is the year”, but then life would get in the way, or opportunities in Europe would call our names.

Fast forward to 2021 and borders are still closed, we had business to attend to on the East Coast and Emmy is still not eligible for a vaccine… so, we decide to drive there instead of fly (we are avoiding air travel until we are all vaccinated) and FINALLY make that grand road trip across the country a reality!

How we paid for this trip:

I was starting to feel very stuck this past spring, so I decided to challenge myself to not pay for a single hotel or our rental car, but not in the normal way that we travel without a cost working with travel partners. This time, I used credit card points (this is one of the cards that we used) to pay for 56 hotel nights (28 nights- 2 rooms for each night) and the cashback I earned to pay for our rental car. 

I am not a “travel hacker” who is chasing every last point and we stay in mostly upscale hotels and resorts.

Plus, these were lazy earned points meaning I was strategic where I could be, (like using a card that earns extra points for food) but I made no extra effort beyond making sure I was using the correct card for our different purchases. We also earned points from sign-up bonuses. 

Earn 200,000 Chase Points for 40 free hotel stay nights.

You can get a jump-start earning your own points earning with the Chase Sapphire Prefered and the huge 100,000 point sign-up bonus that it has right now plus all the travel benefits we use often like primary rental car coverage (that saves money when we rent cars not having to purchase their expensive coverage). If you have a business, The Chase Ink Business Preferred also has a huge 100,000 point sign-up bonus. Please note- these are current at the time of writing but they are normally lower so confirm what the current offer is. 

You can click on each of those links above to see the bonus offered, the benefits each card has, the current bonuses offered, etc. Please note this post is not sponsored in any way and that I might earn bonus points too with these links. All of these current offers are subject to change. 

To use these points for up to 40 free hotel nights, you can transfer these points to Hyatt. They have rooms starting at 5,000 points a night. I have seen travel points hackers really stretch these points. I’m not one of them so I tend to use them for higher points hotels to stay at more luxurious hotels. I just love that there is an option to use them for all sorts of travel situations.

Keeping in mind that we stayed safe at home for 15 months, we were all itching to get out of the house- but we also wanted to travel responsibly and as safely as possible.

A few things we took into consideration when planning this epic road trip:

  • 4 out of 5 of us are fully vaccinated.
  • We purchased high-quality masks for all of us to wear whenever we were inside; outside when we couldn’t keep adequate space from others, and we changed them after every use.
  • We prioritized hotels with balconies and windows that opened so that we could air out the rooms before we removed our masks.
  • We also traveled with a high-quality air purifier and let it run for the required time to clean the room air upon arrival, and we had it on the whole time we were staying at each hotel.
  • We wiped down the rooms with Clorox Wipes and then sprayed them with Lysol. It took just a couple of minutes and was mostly a precaution against the common cold and flu. The last thing I wanted was for any illness to derail our trip.
  • We only ate outside with patio dining or in our hotel room.
  • When we stopped for bathroom breaks along the way, we made sure to get Emmy back outside as quickly as possible- again to limit exposure.
  • We stayed flexible on the trip. When spots along our route started to emerge as “hot spots” we did some last-minute changes to mitigate the risk including leaving a stop early and completely skipping other ones.
  • We never took an elevator with anyone else.
  • We hand sanitized like crazy and washed our hands at every opportunity!

Did all this make our trip without risk? No, not at all… but we felt like it didn’t take away from our enjoyment and hopefully decreased the risk. We have now been back home for over 21 days without any issue.

Here is the route we took on our cross-country road trip:

The red dots are the stops we made along the way, including gas stations, etc.

We originally planned to be gone for 31 days, but it ended up being 28 days and we traveled over 7,000 miles. 

I’ll break the articles up by the different destinations, but here is the master list of our cross-country road trip!

  1. Started in Newport Beach
  2. Flagstaff, AZ: 2 nights (spent a day at the Grand Canyon)
  3. Albuquerque: NM: 1 night 
  4. Oklahoma City: OK: 1 night
  5. Memphis, TN: 2 nights
  6. Knoxville, TN: 1 night 
  7. Ashville, NC: 2 nights
  8. Charlotte, NC: 2 nights
  9. Chapel Hill, NC: 3 nights
  10. Nags Head, NC: 1 night (wish we had stayed here for longer!)
  11. Ocean City, MD: 2 nights
  12. Washington DC: 2 nights
  13. Williamsburg VA: 2 nights
  14. Charlottesville VA: 1 night
  15. Nashville TN: 2 nights
  16. Kansas City MO: 1 night (last-minute change- planned St. Louis 1 night and then 2 nights here)
  17. Beaver Creek, CO: 2 nights
  18. Flagstaff, AZ: 1 night (last-minute change- planned 1 night in St. George UT + 1 night Las Vegas)
  19. Newport Beach, CA
Emmy missed traveling so much that she hugged her suitcase when we started packing.

All that aside, I spent months working on this trip and it was a really good distraction.

I actually love the planning stage of vacations and I always have a plan B and C. This time I had a plan D, E, and F too.

Some trips we arrive and I have done very little research and we just explore. This was not one of those trips. I had every single stop on our driving days noted and dining options outlined before we even left. This wasn’t foolproof by any means, but it really helped. Since travel and the world, in general, are constantly changing right now, having a lot of options saved the day multiple times.

We have never been so thankful to be traveling and for road trip food as we were on this trip.

Our rode-trip ride.

We had planned to take one of our SUVs on this road trip but quickly decided that a mini-van would be a better option. Pete and I have larger SUVs but they would have been beyond packed with our luggage and the 5 of us and having a mini-van on road trips has always worked best for us.

Of course, there was a huge rental car debacle going on when we were leaving and I was hearing stories from others that even with a reservation many were not getting their reserved vehicles or not getting a vehicle at all. We had a little issue because the first mini-van we were given had a mechanical issue, but it was quickly replaced and we were good to go. 

Little America Inn Flagstaff balcony view

First stop: Flagstaff, Arizona

We made pretty good time driving from Newport Beach to Flagstaff and I took a couple of quick cell phone pictures once we arrived to share with you all. This hotel completely exceeded our expectations and was the perfect entry back out into the world. I loved the view into the woods from our rooms!

Little America Inn Flagstaff King Room

We stayed at The Little America Hotel.

I picked this hotel because it was right off the highway and I have had family that stayed here in the past and they loved it. The higher-end options in the area felt lacking when I was searching for them and although I’m not sure I would really call this a high-end hotel, it was way better than I expected. The location was perfect to find dining options and it made it easy to drive out to the Grand Canyon during our stay.

Little America Inn had a pool that the kids used each night, a walking/hiking/running trail, a restaurant, good internet, and just about everything else you could want from a road trip hotel. It also is attached to a travel center for truckers so we were able to get a couple of loads of laundry done before we left. Who would have ever thought I would get all excited about easy access to laundry facilities, but here we are.

Family Hotel in Flagstaff- Little America Inn

We stayed for two nights in Flagstaff and the first night we ate at The Cornish Pasty Co..

Flagstaff has a surprising number of restaurants with vegan (and gluten-free) options. We loved the patio set up and the food was pretty good!

We also went to the local Whole Foods that day and picked up some hotel snacks, bottled water, and more beverages to help stay hydrated.

Emmy and I were feeling the elevation at this point and we were definitely dehydrated after our 8+ hour drive from Newport Beach, Ca.

Oh, and we also stopped to get drinks at Dutch Bros.

We don’t have those in CA and although we try not to load up on sugar drinks, we consider this a “when in Rome” kind of thing. If you haven’t had Dutch Bros, try their sparkling flavored waters and coffee. You won’t regret it!

The Cornish Pasty Co. Patio
The Cornish Pasty Co. Vegan Option

The next morning was Grand Canyon day!

Can you believe we had never been? As I said, this was definitely a bucket list trip for us. We saw so many things and places we have never experienced before and kicking it off with the Grand Canyon was the way to do it!

We started the morning with breakfast at The Toasted Owl.

I can’t even tell you how much we enjoyed the food here. The service was super quick and they truly have something for everyone.

The Toasted Owl Flagstaff

This was all vegan too! Yep, even vegan eggs and bacon!

The Toasted Owl Vegan Breakfast

After breakfast, we took a leisurely drive to the South Entrance of the Grand Canyon.

This passes you through a little town and there is a place for gas before you head in.

There are two main ways to get to the South Entrance of The Grand Canyon from Flagstaff. The highway route or the scenic route. One has you taking the 40 to the 64 (highway) or 180 to the 64 (scenic). We decided on the scenic route and it was awesome. This takes you through the forest with wildlife sightings possible. Both showed at about the same distance and time (1 h 24 min).

Quick Tip: Use Google Maps. Not just here, but on your complete road trip. I created our maps before we left on my laptop with Google Maps and then texted them directly to my phone. Multiple times Google Maps would reroute us to help avoided accidents and major slowdowns. This saved us hours upon hours over our whole road trip.

When visiting, your timing is pretty important during peak season. We were just getting into the busy season when we were there at the beginning of June. The absolute prime time to arrive is before the crowds, early in the morning (check for current opening times).

We are not those people though. We were still tired from the drive-in the day before and decided for a later entry. We hit the timing pretty well with just a little wait to get into The Grand Canyon. There are a lot of people who drive in from Las Vegas and these outer areas too so they tend to arrive around 10 or so in the morning so also take that into consideration. We were there about 11:15 am.

Grand Canyon Park South Rim Entrance

Once we were into the gates we followed the map we were given to the Grand Canyon Village in the South Rim.

The Grand Canyon Visitor Center Building is still closed, but they have an Information table set up outside the visitors center building staffed by park rangers who stay physically distanced from you while answering all of your questions.

There were a couple of options for food and drinks here too and the Grand Canyon Conservancy Park Store was also open. We split up at the end of our visit and I bought Emmy a magnet and Maddie and Ash souvenir shirts while Pete went to get us all a snack and something to drink.

It gets very hot, very quickly so dress in layers if you are coming early and staying for any amount of time.

Starting the Canyon Rim trail at the Grand Canyon.

During our actual time taking in the Grand Canyon, we walked the Rim Trail.

You can catch this right off the Grand Canyon Visitors Center area. There are signs for it, or you can just follow the crowd. This is a very easy walk and a great way to see the Grand Canyon without having to drive anywhere or exert yourself. With as warm as it got, it was a really good visit. Pete would have loved to actually hike into the canyon, but there is no way I would even attempt any sort of hike in the heat.

Rim Trail lookout points.

Here is what we saw just from the Rim Trail of the Grand Canyon:

Visiting the Grand Canyon
South Rim Grand Canyon
Wildlife in the Grand Canyon
View of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim
Grand Canyon Visitors Center South Rim
South Rim Grand Canyon Views
Grand Canyon views from Rim Trail.
Looking out over the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon was even more beautiful than we thought it would be.

There were some serious purple hues being thrown when we were there!

I still can’t believe that we saw the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone before THE Grand Canyon!

We stayed just a couple of hours and we would definitely go back. Scratch that- we will definitely be back!

Vegan pizza in Flagstaff, Az.

That night we went to Pizza Patio for some vegan pizza.

They have regular pizza too and also gluten-free so we all had a good dinner. The Pizza Patio staff was a bit frazzled on the night we visited, but the food was good. As the world is opening up, we have been being extra patient to allow restaurant and travel companies to ramp back up. Be sure to temper your expectations. Most are truly trying as hard as they can in these getting-better times.

We had a pretty early start the next morning for the next leg of our trip so we wanted to get as much sleep as possible so we ate and went right back to the Little America Flagstaff.

Walking trail at Little America Flagstaff

Early the next morning Pete, Ashley, and I got up extra early to go for a walk on their nature trail before we got back on the road. Driving all day is a lot of sitting so we wanted to move as much as possible. We were still able to get on the road first thing in the morning.

Road trip stop in Winslow, Arizona on Historic Route 66!

On this leg of the trip we went from Newport Beach, Ca. —> Flagstaff, Az. (Grand Canyon) —> Albequerque, Nm. —> Oklahoma City, Ok.

Our USA cross-country road trip. Flagstaff to Albuquerque

Because I have a thing for stopping at any place mentioned in a song that I like, we had to stop in Winslow, Az. It was such a fine sight to see! (wink, wink)

Our stops in Albequerque and Oklahoma were just planned as places to sleep at night so we didn’t see much of anything there.

Next stop- Memphis Tennesee!

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Heather Reese
the authorHeather Reese
Heather Delaney Reese is the storyteller and photographer behind the lifestyle and family travel blog It's a Lovely Life®! In addition to traveling 150+ days a year, she also helps new bloggers build successful blogging businesses.

2 Comments

  • Sounds like a great bucket list (aren’t you and Pete to young for that?!?) trip. I am looking forward to reading more about it. Thanks for sharing all your great travel tips.

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