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21 top tips for the Ultimate USA road trip with teens

Zion National Park, USA road trip with teens

The USA teen road trip plan

What does a USA road trip offer for teens?

Can I count the ways? How does hunting aliens and bears, swaggering through casinos, lounging by luxury pools, tubing through natural canyons and hiking up rivers, exploring moonscapes and valleys of fire, being chased by storms and monster bugs, parasailing to tales of mobster murders, walking with droids and shooting the odd gun sound?

A USA road trip is hard to pigeon hole in terms of itinerary focus– city/nature (supernatural) mountains/beaches/lakes. The result is a mixy hooha with something for every teen, whatever their area of specialist interest.

Our road trip was initially conceived as a Las Vegas vow renewal / New York city break/ West coast road trip rolled into one. Having been Covid cancelled and rebooked for 3 years in a row, the levels of anticipation and excitement were stratospheric.

Book it or wing it?

In terms of planning, gone are the days of winging it. For a family with teens, there has to be a daily itinerary with points of interest enough to get them out of bed, breakfasted and on the road by 8am. Accommodation needs to be pre-booked, particularly in high season and on a tight schedule. There is no time to be wasted trawling around destinations on arrival  if you want to have a family room ready for you in the ‘holy grail’ best accommodation at the cheapest price.

We planned to squeeze in some rest days and as many double nights in one place as possible providing an opportunity to relax and explore, whilst also covering as much ground as possible so as not to miss out on all the amazing attractions roadside America has to offer. You will be embarking on a fine balancing act between drive time, sights seen and fun. 6 hours a day in the car on any one day was set as an unofficial maximum. Individual tolerances may vary from family to family (and teen to teen). 

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 1 scheduling 

  •  Agree your own family’s individual driving tolerance limit for a day’s driving (and add in margin for gridlock)
  • Throw in rest days and 2 night-ers for r and r for out-of-car road trip sanity
  • Check all your routes to see if they are paved and thus hire-car permissible (ghost towns in particular are hard to get to with access roads generally being abandoned rather than maintained)
  • Worth checking time zone changes over state line so you don’t miss your restaurant/museum booking by an unexpected shift in the time/space continuum


We needed to start on the West Coast to be able to swing into Vegas on day 5 for a quick cheesy vow renewal, celebrating our anniversary (originally 20th, now less iconically, our 23rd) and pass through birthday treat Disney in LA.

The first job was  to find the best and cheapest start and end points for a 3 week road trip. Flights from NY, our US entry point,  to San Francisco could be found for about $100. Job done. The beauty of a hire car is you don’t need to do a full circle. You can stump up a $125 one-way drop-off fee and finish in LA, saving an extra 10 hour drive back up to San Francisco and providing an extra day to play with en route.

The itinerary now had a start and end point, just the middle to sort out!

I’d spent weeks in the Autumn of 2019 plotting an itinerary for the original trip before noticing that travel gurus, Trailfinders had actually beaten me to it and created their own US guided tour, thus providing the model answer in terms of what was achievable in 3 weeks. I could see that my own rookie plan was not totally insane in its scope and ambition. 3 years on, the plan needed tweaking as not all activity and room providers had survived Covid. Also, one child was now a bit chronically fatigued, so the hiking and 7 hour kayaking trips needed to be reined in.

Here was the new outline plan with key features:

USA road trip with teens map
  • San Francisco – 2 nights – Sealion spotting at Pier 39
  • Lake Tahoe – 2 nights – Kayaking crystal waters over huge white boulders
  • Yosemite – 2 nights – Yosemite Falls
  • Mammoth Lakes – 1 night – Lakeside strolls
  • Las Vegas – 3 nights – Casinos and vow renewal
  • Springdale 2 nights – Zion Narrows canyon river hike
  • Lake Powell – 2 nights – Horseshoe bend and boating Antelope canyon in Martian-orange desert
  • Sedona – 1 night – Slide Rock Park – natural tubing
  • Tucson – 1 night – Saguaro National Park cacti (with arms)
  • Yuma – 1 night – stop over needed on way to LA (and too scared to drive into San Diego)– Wild West prison
  • Los Angeles – 2 nights – Disney finale!


Food had to be planned (I was unsure sure how many shops would be found in the desert) and a few restaurants needed to be booked so there would be room at the inn when we rolled into town.

I budgeted $100/day for 4 of us – thinking most meals would be from supermarkets or hotel breakfasts, with the odd dinner out for a treat. Fast food was going to feature heavily as a budget option. It turned out I had woefully underestimated costing. 2 beers in Yosemite came in at $27. One Las Vegas large take-out pizza was $50! Since our last visit, the pound had tanked to the extent that an £8 loaf of bread, and £16 pack of sliced cheese almost put even a sweaty sandwich packed lunch for 4 over budget. Yikes.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tips 2 – Food: 

  • Keep a travel pack breakfast of yoghurts, cereal and bread in the airconditioned car.
  • Snaffle plastic cutlery from motel lobbies for breakfasting and lunching in the room and car.
  • Collect vouchers, handed out in supermarkets and petrol stations for cheap Macdonalds.
  • Look for out of town Walmarts rather than small supermarkets who will happily charge $12 for a pack of salami.
  • Purchasing a small car-plug in cool box would have been a good idea.

Car hire tips - boring but important

Zion National Park, USA road trip with teens

Teen road trip car requirements

How big should you go? With teens, you might need a bigger car than previously, as 1) they will have grown and, 2) they might need their own bag. A vehicle robust enough for national parks, with 4 doors and air con were non-negotiables. 4-wheel drive we could live without (no planned off-roading) and phones would cover navigation. 

The cost

Since Covid, hire companies had depleted.  The cost of car hire for 3 weeks had trebled from £500 to nearer £1500. I had been watching price steadily rise since the the cancellation in summer 2021 and decided to bite the bullet in November, booking a fully cancellable car, to limit losses in case prices went any higher. Only in June 2022 did the prices start to tumble and I rebooked again. I nabbed a much bigger “Cherokee jeep or similar”  for £300 less than the puny car I had initially reserved. I felt a bit happier that we were ready for America’s rugged terrain. 

Decisions to be made:

  1. Buy an excess waiver? Coming in at about £65, this seemed worth the gamble as the chances of scratches in an extended desert environment seemed high.
  2. Add a electronic Toll Road pass? After some discussion with the counter lady, it turns out you only really pay tolls when entering big cities. We were hiring from the centre of San Francisco and heading out of town and into the wilderness. A pay as you go option made more sense (we just had to watch out for tolls en route and make sure we paid them via an app straight away, so as not to be fined at the end).
  3. Sat Nav hire? This is quite pricy to add so we decided to go with Googlemaps on our phones, downloading maps for when we were out of signal range. Check out the best data roaming package for the US (you can buy data via a stand alone SIM card from Ebay).

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 3 – car hire:

  • Check out what deals you can get via AA membership, owing a Mastercard etc. In America being the military will get you many a discount.  This time it was cheapest for us to book through Zest (winner of Which? awards for good customer service and easy to read terms and conditions).
  • Book early, fully cancellable and keep checking back for better prices.
  • In hindsight, go for a vehicle with high clearance (for rocks/flooding) and 4 wheel drive, just in case.


Tips from the road: check out prices as you head into a town. The first garage you come to after a long trip is usually the most pricy. Also, smaller touristy towns, like South Lake Tahoe, seem to add a crazy premium so opt for larger towns to fill up. That said, it gets a bit nerve wracking once the tank gets to half full as the consequences of running out on the open road do not bear thinking about (we did not actually want to die in Death Valley). It’s best to have google-mapped the next (open) gas station in tank-range for longer trips so you know your are going to make it.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 4 – gas summary:

  • Fill up in big towns where it is cheaper
  • Have your gas stops planned in Google Maps
  • Keep an eye on levels – you do not want to run out in the desert.


Fortunately, American hotels usually provide 2 double beds as standard in an ordinary double room, meaning that we only had to book 1 room per night for a family of 4. I was pleased to see from Google that I should expect pay around $80 for a motel room. When I looked at central San Francisco hotels, funnily this number looked somewhat on the optimistic side.

So as not to completely break the bank, I opted for a average of around £150pn ($180). Using hotel rewards points we had built up in the UK in the 3 years waiting for the trip to happen, and even buying a few extra points when the sales were on, limited the damage.

All rooms were booked fully cancellable (I been bitten twice on that front) a year in advance and then revisited every month or so, especially on Black Friday, and rebooked if prices fell. Pre-paying often brought the price down and took the sting out of the final bill.

To keep the price average down but spirits up, I alternated between rustic and lovely. The night after the Yosemite cabin, the Village resort in Mammoth looked restorative. By mixing it up, the accommodation was just as much a part of the days’ adventure as the activities. I added pools wherever possible as a free teen evening activity, little knowing storms would rob us of most of these opportunities. Keeping track of bookings and price movement was a full time hobby – a way of virtually travelling while we waited.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 5 – accommodation summary:

  • Mix it up with the boring cheap nights and luxury pads to keep your average budget on track
  • Add in kitchenette and pool for budget eating and free teen activities
  • Go for character where possible to make the accommodation part of the fun bit
  • Book fully cancellable so you can either save money or upgrade while you wait


I pre-booked activities (museums/Disney/national park passes/boat trips and kayak hire) to make sure I got any early bird discounts and that tickets weren’t sold out for the 1 day we were going to be in town.


As a rule of thumb, take as little as possible as lugging huge bags to and from the car on a daily basis is no one’s idea of fun. Focus on utensils rather than outfits: bottle openers/sporks/torches/medical supplies/water toys.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 6 – packing

  • Take collapsible bags which can be stowed flat when emptied out to save room space (backpacks rather than suitcases will ease any journey from car to room involving kerbs, gravel and stairs).
  • Pack a small over night bag each (or collectively) to minimise the daily load.
  • Share 1 back pack per 2 people, putting each person’s clothes in an inner 1 plastic bag so you can take out (and pack away) their entire kit in 1 go. We compromised on 3 bags between 4. Upside – you can take turns carrying them.

Other pre-trip to do list items

A full-on admin attack took place to ensure we had the following:

Visas/ vaccines/insurance/letters for returning as one parent family/copies of all documents in case of loss, theft or dead batteries/printed-out zoomed-in mini-maps marked up with attractions e.g. Death Valley, Valley of Fire/addresses of accommodation for customs and postcards etc.

(You can access my full Monica Geller OCD information sheets and packing list by clicking here for subscriber access.)

Day 1 - San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe (via Golden Gate bridge and Jelly Belly factory)

We fronted our trip with 2 rather exciting city breaks in NY and San Francisco and were ready for the open road!

South Lake Tahoe, USA road trip with teens

South Lake Tahoe plan

AccommodationBeach Retreat & Lodge at Tahoe
En routeGolden Gate Bridge
Jelly Belly Factory Tour, Jelly Belly Ln, Fairfield, CA 94533, United States. Self guided tour and museum approx. 1 hour; $5 adult, $2 child
ActivitiesKayak from Timber Cove 1 hr $45/double
Parasail from Timber Cove 30-60 mins from $90pp (spectator in speed boat $35)
Zephyr Cove
Drive TimesSan Francisco to South Lake Tahoe 3 hrs

Accommodation Booked

To kick off our road trip accommodation, we would be staying at the rather fabulous South Lake Tahoe Beach retreat – one of the more pricy rooms of the trip, but chosen for its beach front location, pool, Hawaiian style bar and provision of complementary s’mores to toast around the fire pit.

Car pick up

Having carried our backpacks from our hotel at the top of Nob Hill and down a very steep hill (gravity injecting some speed into our jelly legs), breakfasted on fast food and picked up an overpriced packed lunch in a downtown minimart, we were ready to go.

At the car hire office we were allocated the “or similar” rather than the cool looking jeep featured on the website’s booking page. Bit of a shame, but there was plenty of room for bags and everyone had a door so it was still a step up from previous holidays.

Our first road trip leg was a relatively gentle 3 hours to Lake Tahoe, designed to ease us in to the journey and maximise lake side lounging opportunities. Picking the car up from the centre of San Francisco made sense on paper. There was no point taxiing all the way back to the airport when there was an office downtown. In reality, taking your first tentative foray on to (for us) the wrong side of the road in city centre traffic was utterly terrifying.

Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge

We negotiated the one way system, managing not to bump into anyone, and found our way on to some equally scary highways which mercifully led us out of the city and over the Golden Gate Bridge. There is a convenient pull over area on the other side where you can stabilise your blood pressure and get some shots of the bridge at the same time. 

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 7 – Don’t miss the Golden Gate look out (and take a jumper). Walking and cycling over the bridge are options for those with more time/better weather.

Jelly Belly Factory

Having driven through the home of “Mike the headless chicken” on our previous trip (it bizarrely survived several months without its head), we were keen to explore more of quirky roadside America. We’d had done some research and were hoping to incorporate giant balls of twine etc. Our first such stop was the Jelly Belly factory.

The candy maker hit the big time when its jellied beans became the favourite snack of none other than Ronald Regan. He would keep a bowl on his desk and offer them to visiting dignitaries and world leaders, generally raising their profile to the highest of heights.

Not only do you get to tour the factory (behind a glass screen), stacked with multitudes of brightly coloured trays, there is the added bonus of bean art. Lady Liberty, Roald Regan and the Mona Lisa herself have been resurrected in bean form. Stupendous. There is also a shop (teen heaven), goodie bag and bean museum providing the opportunity to sit astride a bean-mobile in your paper jelly chef hat.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 8 –  Look out for Road side America opportunities

Lake Tahoe arrival

We arrived in time for cocktails from our beach bar. Watching the sun go down over the lake, it felt like we had swapped winter in the city for a sparkly Caribbean summer.

Day 2 - South Lake Tahoe

One of the deepest Lakes in North America had been shoehorned into this year’s itinerary solely on the basis of social media posts like this. Having seen these incredible photographs on the internet of huge white boulders sleeping below the crystal water of Lake Tahoe, I had pre-booked kayaks from our beach jetty. Sadly, this is not where the rocks are. The crystal waters were also a little bit full of seaweed. I discovered that the big rocks hang out more at Zephyr Cove, which I quickly added to the itinerary.

Kayaking waters and parasailing the skies

The kayaking was fine but without the pretty rocks, not worth $90. The boys took off on their own and we spent most of the hour trying to find them. Whilst returning the jackets, however, our eye was caught by the fantastic array of other water activities available. For a not ridiculous price of $90 each they could have a go at the much more once-in-a-lifetime parasailing activity. And with 2 flying at once there was a bit of a discount. For an additional $30 adults, could sit in the speed boat to which they were to be tethered. Visitor numbers were extremely low this year, which was was not great for the boatmen but meant we were able to book with no notice. The afternoon suddenly looked very exciting.

The boys were strapped up and then launched into the skies with a go-pro pinned to their life jacket. Being English, this meant that they were then unable to speak for fear of being captured on camera. In silence, they enjoyed flying over the boat at various heights, until they became tiny dots in the sky above. 

The speed boat experience, gliding over the shimmering water with hair whipping in the warm wind was excellent. We were regaled with interesting local stories about how the low levels of water were throwing up all sorts of things, in particular dead bodies. The bodies of Mob victims which had historically been lobbed into the lake by gangsters working the nearby casinos, were now surfacing as evidence of their own murders.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 9 –  Tahoe water activities

Go for parasailing and jet skis over kayaks. Your teens will thank you for it. Best to pre-book to avoid disappointment.

Zephyr Cove

With afternoon lake-lounging displaced by the new Zephyr plan, we had to persuade people to get back in the car (not a universally popular choice) for a 15 minute drive along the lake shore. As we approached the cove, we were excited to see the strange white rocky globes protruding from the beach and water. This was definitely the place.

Parking is $12 however long you stay. There is some free parking on the road backing the beach but this was full.  We tried a small road on the other side of the highway but it transpired that it was impossible to cross back to the beach as a pedestrian without risking certain death. With only an hour before tea we got back in the car and paid the full $12 car parking charge.

There being no shade, we immediately took the to the water and bobbed around on our inflatable tubes. Propulsion being limited to small twisty hand movements, we stayed close to the immediate shore line, which was great for skimming around and over the smaller boulders. A kayak would have been infinitely better for finding the big boy underwater rocks, but we couldn’t see one for hire from this beach and had already  used up our kayaking budget. Research this as an option for a boating set-off point over Timber Cove if you are heading this way or maybe bring your own if you can.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 10 –  Zephyr

It is definitely worth checking out boat options for exploring these lumps of apparent moon rock half squatting on the edge of the lake. Water shoes are a plus for traversing scorching sand and climbing hot scratchy rocks.

Day 3 - Lake Tahoe to Yosemite

The National Parks website describes Yosemite as a shrine to the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, the persistence of life, and the tranquillity of the High Sierra. Pretty impressive stuff. For our whistle-stop 2 day visit our mission was to search out easy, flat trails leading to the most eye-catching white rocks and thunderous waterfalls. I was crossing fingers that 6-hour hikes would not be required.

AccommodationWooden cabin, Curry Village, Yosemite Valley
Activities1mile (30 mins) easy Lower Yosemite Fall Trail
1 mile (30 mins) easy Cook's Meadow Loop trail with views of Half Dome and Sentinel Rock
Drive TimesSouth Lake Tahoe to Yosemite 4 hrs


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We had learnt from our Canadian road trip that canvas tents and the potential presence of bears is not a great combination for a good night’s sleep. Even a year in advance, no family hotel rooms were available in the park. As a 3 little pigs middle option., we booked a wooden cabin in Curry Village, which very conveniently  sits right next to all the main geographical events. 

The cabin would have bear-proof walls, if not an inside bathroom (the terrifying prospect meeting a bear on a night loo trip was still on). There would be electricity too, which was a bonus in terms of lighting.

Route into Yosemite Park

There are 2 route options for getting to Yosemite from Tahoe, East or West. The Western road ran worryingly close to a raging wild fire so we made a last minute plan switch to travel down the East side of the park. This would entail doubling back on the Tioga Road when heading on to Mammoth, but as this was supposed to be the most spectacular section, it might be ok to see it twice?


Yosemite Park were still limiting visitor numbers after Covid to a certain number per day. I had pre-booked our park entry ticket. but some disappointed drivers arriving at the park gates in front of us were turned away – I wondered how far they had come. As we travelled through the park we kept a keen look out for wildlife at all times, and nearly didn’t spot a very camouflaged coyote.

The advantage of the looping back route was that we could whizz straight on to the cabin, clocking the best stopping points for our return journey the next day. A bright blue glacial lake and white pillow-like rocks were earmarked for starters.

Arriving at the campsite, the sheer scale of the vertical rocky walls enclosing the village was jaw dropping. We noted the canvas tents had bear bins outside and were doubly pleased not to have to check into one. Part way through unloading the car (a BIG feature of the road trip), we were trapped in our quarters by a titanic thunder storm. Rockets seemed to be exploding around us.  It was surprising that rock wasn’t sheering from the ghostly cliff faces.

Yosemite Falls trail

When the crackling clouds dispersed, we figured out which of the many shuttles we needed to catch to the internationally renowned waterfall rockstar, Yosemite Falls. Amazingly, they can be viewed from the flat 30-minute Lower Yosemite Fall Trail loop walk, which was ideal for our midday arrival and fatigued crew.

Ironically, considering the crazy amount of rain which had just fallen, recent droughts meant that the falls had dwindled to a trickle.  We were not sure if we had actually seen them until receiving confirmation from other slightly disappointed tourists that we were at the right place. The surrounding rockery and sky-tickling pines were still a sight to behold.

Half Dome

Yosemite National Park, USA road trip with teens
Half Dome overlooking the meadow on Crook;s loop

Leading directly from the falls was another fabulously short and nicely board-walked trail through Cook’s Meadow. Half Dome formed a mighty backdrop, making us all feel a bit like Antman. The trail leads to Sentinel Bridge, the perfect spot for a fantastic reflective photo opportunity.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 11 –  Lazy person’s Yosemite views summary

2 very easy trails take you to the best views in the park

Lower Yosemite Fall Trail – for the Falls 

Cooks Meadow -for Half Dome and Sentinel Bridge

Squirrels and bears

After playing with some very cute ground squirrels and eating al fresco pizzas outside the village cafe (we’d treated ourselves to 2 beers and 2 pizzas between 4 for our daily $100 – got to get your priorities right), it was time to turn in. Or, if you are 2 of the 3 males in the group, time to go on a bear hunt. What could possibly go wrong? Fortunately, despite there being in the region of 300- 500 black Yogis the area, and it being dusk, no bear-encounters took place and they all lived to tell the tale.

Day 4 - Yosemite to Mammoth (via Yosemite walks and volcanic lakes )

Mammoth mountains, the nation’s largest ski-area in winter, is a summer destination for  outdoor enthusiasts in search of hiking, riding and biking activities.  I thought we could spend a pleasant afternoon wandering round one of the breath-taking alpine lakes.

Mammoth Lakes, US road trip with teens

Mammoth plan

AccommodationThe Village Lodge, 1111 Forest Trail, Mammoth Lakes
En RouteOlmsted point
Tenaya Glacier Lake
Lembert Dome
ActivitiesFree Lakes Basin Trolley to Lakes
Horseshoe Lake Loop, 1.7-mile easy trail

Accommodation booked

After our simple cabin, it was time for a bit of luxury. I’d booked an apartment room in a fancy resort complex with pools in Mammoth Lakes, which had the look of an American Banff.

Olmsted point

The first stop on the road backtracking out of Yosemite looked weirdly lunar. Ideally, the path over the milky terrain is literally roadside, so no hot hiking is required for your moon walk: an easy sell to a sedentary-inclined teen audience.

Tenaya Glacier lake dip and picnic

Tubes were brought out for a dip in the emerald green glacial lake fringed by a very sandy inland beach. It did shelve off into a spooky abyss not far from shore which was somewhat disconcerting, but great for teen dares. The woodland picnic benches provided a perfect spot for lunch. A jay agreed and joined us for the duration. Despite being blue, we learned from Google that it did not meet all the criteria for an actual blue jay. Shame.

Lembert Dome

Our final Yosemite stop involved clambering over more other-wordly yet conveniently roadside settings. One child decided to tackle the near vertical slope, the rest of us sloped up the more forgiving gentle side. Like many sneaky hills, it’s bigger than it looks from ground level, and it took worryingly long for us to reunite at the top. We had what felt like the whole world to ourselves, a storm side-effect silver lining.

Horseshoe Lake

Arriving in Mammoth, we checked into our luxury-land apartment but there was no time to appreciate our lovely room or resort facilities as the last vintage tram of the day was leaving for the lake area.

The tram route takes you on a scenic tour of a number of lakes before you hop off at the end of the line at Horseshoe Lake (which was also running pretty low on water and was not very horseshoe shaped). Dried wooden shards edged the lake giving the place the feel of a post-apocalyptic desert. We were told by the driver that you can walk half way round the lake then follow a path to the road from where you catch the last bus to town.

The wooded trail was pretty, but a new storm was brewing and the fear of missing that last bus hung in the air as heavy as the gathering clouds. We trotted at pace through the woods, only catching the tram by running the last few hundred metres just as the skies opened.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 12 –  Don’t miss the free lake tour on the  vintage tram 

Pool and parking travel fails

Back in Mammoth, making our way from the bus stop to room, we took periodic shelter from the deluge bucketing from the sky in unimpressed shop-keepers doorways, before running like lunatics to drip on the next trader’s carpet.

Already wet through, there was no point drying off. We might as well get into our robes then head back through the paved market area (very much like an ordinary street in what must have looked like nightwear) and into the grand lobby. I’d left the googles in the car so headed back across town to the room, back to the lobby and down to the basement in the lift in costume and towelling slippers, but crucially without the card to get me back out of the car park. Being locked in with no phone I managed to find an emergency intercom to ask security to release us.

Finally arriving at the pool, we could see the entrance gate was padlocked. A storm will do that to a pool. The only option remaining was to head back to room for more take out $40 pizza and to dry ourselves using a towel in the shape of a mammoth (I had wondered why the elephant, but then I got it).

Day 5 - Mammoth to Las Vegas (via Death Valley)

 The home of some of the world’s  largest casinos and hotels (you can fit in about 150,000 guests), Las Vegas has been built in the middle of the desert and was home of the mob. I read that 87% of visitors gamble averaging 3-9 hours /day. Being too young to have a flutter, was “sin city” a great place to take the kids? Well, yes. I give you the mini-me world tour of national monuments, shows (if you have the budget) and all-you-can-eat buffets for starters.

AccommodationLuxor, Las Vegas
En RouteRhyolite ghost town
Death Valley – Stove Pipe Wells Dunes/Furnace Creek/ Zebriske Point
ActivitiesLuxor Pool
Vegas sign vow renewal
Wynn Buffet
The strip
Free casinos tour - Flamingos/Caesars/Bellagios
Neon museum –day ticket $20 Adult/ $10 up to age 17
Drive TimesMammoth to Death Valley 3 hours
Death Valley to Las Vegas 2.5 hours

Accommodation booked - Las Vegas

Always a great topic for discussion with anyone who has ever visited Las Vegas is which hotel should you stay in? There are so many novelty contenders with its their pretend Eiffel Tower, Pyramid and Statue of Liberty on offer. I’ve come to the personal conclusion that as you get to see all the fakery by touring town anyway, you should generally pick the hotel with the best pool. Pool entry will be included with your room and so is most likely to be the only one you will use.

Mandalay Bay looks amazing for teens, with its tubes riding down lazy rivers. But we had stayed in the Luxor when we got married in 2000, and it really had to be done again on our return visit with the boys. Fortunately, the faux Egyptian Sphynx, gods, rams’ heads and 5 pool complex ticked all the right teen boxes.

3 nights a corner room of the glass pyramid were included in our flight package so we didn’t have to think about the individual cost. The suite came with a jacuzzi bath next to the bed which seemed a bit odd for a
family room. What was the dress code? 

Death Valley

En route we were to drive though Death Valley, officially the hottest place on earth and lowest and driest in the US, where the sand dunes have been known to sing. It surely has to make any USA road tripper’s bucket list.

Checking the morning’s route from Mammoth to Las Vegas, we were alarmed to see that all roads through Death Valley were closed due to flash flooding. I was guessing this was unusual for the driest place record holder. I had expected a summer plagued by fire not water.  There did appear to be a highway that ran parallel to our original Death Valley route to Vegas which would get us to our hotel, but it was gutting that we wouldn’t see a cow’s skull poking out of the sand in the valley itself.

I could see that the new route would take us past the ghost town of Rhyolite. Having tried to lever a ghost town into the trip but finding the best ones (Jerome/ Tombstone)  just too far out of our way, we thought we’d throw this into the day’s plan as an itinerary substitute.

The route to Rhyolite did not involve too much off-roading and was close to Death Valley so we could pop in and take a look at the park entrance sign at least. 

Rhyolite Ghost Town

Rhyolite was a prospector town founded in 1905. With a peak population of 5,000 the town even had its own school. Its hotels attracted ladies of the night from as far away as San Francisco. The mine closed and it was all over by 1916.

Today, the reality of Rhyolite is a little depressing, the remaining 4 or 5 ruins being cordoned off with unattractive metal fencing. The resulting effect is of modern/urban desolation, rather than hokey pioneer. Heading to Tombstone might be more rewarding f you have the time for a more lively semi-ghost town.

Stove Pipe Wells and Furnace Creek

Arriving at the Death Valley entrance sign, a local ranger saved the day by declaring that there was now one road open through the park, and it was the one we wanted through Furnace creek. If we’d had cowboy hats we’d have tossed them in the air.

Hoping that this meant flood waters were receding and things were moving in the right direction in terms of safety, we headed into the hottest place on the planet. The cloud cover might make the trip a bit less deathly than usual heat-wise?

We stopped at the marked viewpoints, avoiding any that required any kind of hike. There was  a tiny bit of out-of-vehicle exploring in a proper yellow desert at Stove Pipe Wells (no evidence of skulls). At the ranger station an array of farmyard equipment from yesteryear lay artfully abandoned in front of a shop selling iced drinks which we were drunk in traditional manner on the porch:  a teen oasis in the desert. Madly, there was also a campsite. I was finding it hard to imagine what season this would work in. Despite the overnight rain, the temperature check machine in Furnace Creek still read 44 degrees.

Zebriske point

It took some encouragement, but we managed to persuade the boys to exit the car for a brief 10-minute paved track to the top of Zebriske point, an elevated lookout over the Badlands below. This yellow striped scene is the most photographed vista in the park and definitely a bit Martian. Best at sunrise, it was rendered a little greyscale for us by the light-sapping rain clouds.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 13 –  Death Valley

Teen highlights – 

  • Very small desert walk at Stove Pipe Wells
  • Very short hill to Mars/ Zebriske lookout
  • Iced drinks on olde porch at ranger station
  • Furnace creek temperature check

Desert storm

Death Valley, USA road trip with teens

Exiting the park, death appeared in a different guise, turning the sky jet black. Before long the inevitable rain was hammering down. The already saturated road, started to disappear under the water. Going back into the partially flooded valley did not seem like a wise move. Further flash flooding was probably on its way ahead of us too but all we could do was keep moving away from the floods that definitely lay behind us, and onwards into the storm.  Silence fell in the car and fear seeped in at the edges.

An nerve-shredding hour of so later, the dark sky-blanket disbanded, deciding to spare us from being swept off the road. We made it to the comically named Pahrump where there was supposed to be a Roadside America coffin-themed shop. After a nasty Taco Bell, where none of the locals claimed to know anything about the coffin man, we decided to leave death for now and choose larger-than-life Las Vegas. As time was ticking by and our daily driving was reaching maximum tolerance levels, we also ditched our overly ambitious Severn Sisters painted stone art in the desert plan in favour of water-repellent Luxor walls and a cold beer.

Day 6 - Las Vegas

Luxor pools/ Vegas sign vow renewal/ Wynn Buffet/ The Strip

USA road trip with teens – Top tip 14 – Vegas parking: 

Having navigated the pretty horrendous multi-laned highways coming into town it is unlikely that you will want to go back to your car until check out. You can generally park under your hotel for a variable fee ($24/day basic for us). This is useful as a) it is secure and b) you don’t need to venture into the non-aircon world whist wrestling with luggage.

Luxor Pools

For non-guests the pool costs $30/ day so it was going to be a quality one. Life on the road is full of tough decisions. For our anniversary I had to decide whether to treat ourselves to a $150 Cabana or risk burning to death on a desert lounger in 40 – degree heat with no shade. We might even have to put our towels on the sizzling concrete floor if they were all full? For $300 you could upgrade to tent with a misty spray of water, mini-fridge and VIP pools. On the basis that desert poolside lounging might be too hot even in a cabana, we decided to wing it without and just cool off in the water.  There were a number of pools and we researched which had shade at what time of the day.

In the event, tourist numbers were still low so there was an abundance of free loungers to choose from and the temperature was a comfortable 33 degrees  We managed a couple of hours, punctuated with frequent pool dips and luxury brought-to-your-lounger snax.

Vegas signs and vows

After the pool, we donned our original wedding outfits and headed out to take some Egyptian casino photos, thinking we could then walk to Vegas sign where we had arranged to meet our reverends and their portable wedding-mobile. As it turned out, walking in the Vegas heat is something  of an ordeal, especially in a suit/full length dress. The combination of age and heat made this a doubly bad move in the wardrobe department, as the sole of husband’s 22 year old shoe detached itself from the leather upper just as we approached sign. He balanced on the now independent soles for the renewal, and tiptoed in stockinged feet over hot tar to the Uber we hastily booked to take us back to hotel for Dr Martin change over.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tips 15 – Getting around Vegas: 

Walking along the strip checking out the casinos seems like a good idea in theory. In reality the lengths of the blocks are stupendous and the city heat is intense. Although there are walkways and free train shuttles between some of the casinos and also bus options, for 4 people the cost and convenience of the ubiquitous Uber won the day. 

Where to eat in Vegas?

Where to eat a fancy meal in Las Vegas is another subject of heated debate. The options are overwhelming. Initially I wanted a seat by the Bellagio fountains but the restaurant offering this was going to cost us £100 pp before we added celebratory drinks. Also, it was a steakhouse and we have a teen veggie. An all-inclusive buffet seemed the better option for the bottomless teen stomach and alcohol-inclined parents.

But which Vegas buffet? Looking for the absolute best in town, we went for the Charlie and the Chocolate factory lookalike, Wynn casino restaurant. It won equally on the food reviews and the mad pom-pom tree setting. There is an all-you-can-drink bonus feature for $20 per adult which also gets you all place in the small VIP restaurant queue (like a Disney fast pass). This saves you up to 90 minutes queueing so was a no-brainer for treat day.

After maximising our allocated 2 hours of binge-grazing on ridiculous combinations of enormous spider crab legs and freshly made tacos, they kindly gave us a take-out cup for our last margarita cocktail of the evening, just in case the previous 6 weren’t quite enough.

In another costume disaster I had resewn my slightly damaged wedding dress for the occasion. Having removed a section of material in the skirt, it was a little narrower than it used to be but I could still step into it, zip it up and with the help of an assistant, do up the 100 buttons at the back. I hadn’t thought to check if I could still pull up fishtail skirt to go to loo. Many margaritas into the evening,  I found myself in the ladies bathroom with no button assistant and had to just go for a bit of a skirt ripping scenario instead. Good job I wasn’t planning on wearing it for a third time.

The Strip - water and fire

Bustling along shoulder to shoulder in the general Strip throng, there is no sense of menace or whiff of criminality in the air. The atmosphere is one of everyone being in town for their holidays. We ended the day strolling beside Venetian canals, watching a volcano explode in the street and Bellagio’s fountains sway to piped orchestral music. A very Vegas ending.

Day 7 - Las Vegas Part 2:

Casino tours (flamingos, flowers and fountains) and retro Neon Boneyard


Whist feasting on an in-room breakfast (cereal from a plastic cup), we were surprised to see on the 28th floor, a foot appear on our sloping window wall. Disappointingly, it was not Spiderman or an escaped madman, but the window cleaner. Acres of slippy hot black glass, reflecting the day’s heat can’t be the easiest of work environments.

After a second lazy poolside morning, the afternoon plan was to tour the free casino novelties, before our booking at the retro neon signage museum at dusk.

Roller coaster in the sky: The first stop was the neighbouring New York casino with its alfresco rollercoaster which swings round the outside of the building. A teen winner.

Real flamingos:  Deciding to walk to Flamingo from Luxor was a mistake. It only looks like a few blocks on the map but we were melting under the sun inferno and gasping by the time we found an emergency McDonalds for iced colas to see us through the rest of the journey. We did find real flamingos in the garden at Flamingo’s. There were only a couple of them and they were not very animated. Maybe it was the heat.

Caesar's Palace

Roman holiday: We trotted over the road on the promise of or aircon to peep inside Caesar’s palace, with its Roman fountains and constantly rolling day-to-night ceiling effects. Sadly the daily Atlantis “display of fire, water and nine-foot-tall talking statues” was not showing, so an energy-restorative $9 Cheesecake Factory break was taken instead (2 between 4 – back on budget).

Bellagio's flowery forums

Fittingly for Vegas, the fake flamingos in Bellagio’s famously floral conservatory were more spectacular than Flamingo’s real ones. Giant giraffes, zebras and toucan also frolic in the air-conditioned foliage. The hotel’s Murano glass ceiling is a multicoloured marvel.

When to visit the Neon Boneyard?

The decision to be made when visiting Las Vegas’ outdoor retro neon light museum is whether to see them in a cooler night slot, when only some of the lights are illuminated (being genuinely vintage not all of them work any more) or in the bright (hot) sunshine of the day, when you can get a good look at all the exhibits. Thinking near dusk would be cooler, we had a 5pm booking to see all the lights. 

The dusk theory regarding heat was unfounded. It was so hot we had to practically run round the dusty pathways back to the airconditioned shop. That said, the signs themselves were uber cool, did sparkle in the sun and came with their own life stories. We had the place to ourselves (were others wise to the heat issue?). It would have been perfect conditions for the album snaps apart from the fact that my phone became scalding to the touch before deciding to turn itself off completely in a bid to save its own life. I had not encountered this as a travel issue before. Some family member’s phones coped better than others, so we still managed to take some photos. Camera heat-tolerance is a now on my list as a topic for future research.


Teens are not allowed to wander off the gangways which lead between the ubiquitous casino slot machines. They must stick to the carpeted paths and keep moving if they are to avoid intervention by security. As the adults did not want to miss out on the fun, we parked the boys back in the room with snacks and TV and hung out at the 5c slots hoping for a free drink from a passing waitress. We were offered one, but tipping the server so she would come back our way later, meant that is was not a totally free drink.

On our pervious visit, wannabe small-time gamblers could use real money in all the machines and the noise of tinkling pay outs, accompanied with sporadic loud cheering, would ring out around the room. Nowadays the machines are quietly electronic and token-based. You are presented with a redeemable paper print out instead of hard cash. And the stock of 5c machines has been depleted so you are required to invest quarters and dollars as a minimum bet, thus making the saloons more for proper gamblers than the have-a-go tourist parent.

Getting back to the room, we saw that the neighbouring suite had transformed into an actual crime scene. A bit disconcerting, but it did add an authentic unsolved murder mystery element to the stay (was it even real or a Vegas replica?)

USA road trip with teens – Top Tips 16 –  Vegas teen activities

  • Research key free casino attractions and plan an airconditioned route 
  • Bottomless buffets are teen-appetite  perfect
  • Do a mini-world tour, ticking off as many country/cultural icons as you can find
  • Find your favourite pool and book a room (Mandalay lazy river tubing for us next time)
  • Next time, the Mob Museum looks great!

Day 8 - Vegas to Zion (via Valley of Fire and Area 51)

AccommodationLa Quinta Inn and Suites, Springdale
En RouteValley of Fire
Area 51 (gift shop) near Hiko
ActivityZion Narrows - free with National Park pass and free shuttle from Springdale to park
Drive TimesLas Vegas to Valley of Fire 1 hr
Valley of Fire to Area 51 2 hrs
Area 51 to Springdale, Zion 3 hours 15 mins

Accommodation booked - Springdale

Zion National Park, USA road trip with teens
La Quinta, Springdale

The Quintas Inn Motel was chosen for its outdoor pool and magnificent orange=cliff backdrop. It also included breakfast which was a budgeting and logistical bonus in terms of not having to find a food shop. The motel was in Springdale, which was pretty much as close as you could stay to the Zion Narrows. Free shuttles run regularly to the national park entrance, where you board a second free shuttle taking you on a loop of the various spectacular walks of Zion National Park.

Valley of Fire

Leaving the volcanoes of Las Vegas we headed first into another fiery landscape. I had read that the road to the White Dome was possibly the most scenic drive in the entire USA. Googling the driving  loop around the Valley of Fire, we could see that the path was a little off-roady but hopefully do-able. 

This was our first foray into the kind of iconic lumpy orange landscape which was surely the inspiration for Disney’s Thunder Mountain ride. The intensity of the sawn-brick hues intensifies as you progress into the park to an impossibly bright lava hue. We were sufficiently blown away with the colour-infused surroundings, to attempt the ascent of a desert ladder leading to ancient petroglyphs. The loop road also affords stop offs at petrified trees, stony overhangs with heat warnings and a surprisingly elephantine rock-formation.

The road out to the White Dome was as incredible as its write up.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 17 – desert car supplies: 

As well as a full tank of petrol take a trunk full of water, 2 bottles each we’d read in case the car breaks down. We’d also gone for a crate of Diet Coke. Not intending to stray too far from the car at any point, we were looking pretty safe.

Area 51 - Extraterrestrial Highway

The day’s second activity was to search for aliens, which we were all pretty excited about. Area 51 being a remote and top secret United Airforce facility, rumours range from it being the place where fake 1969 moon landings were filmed to the theory that the base is hiding evidence of the existence of aliens.

There are few stops along the extra-terrestrial highway. The main hub for UFO enthusiasts is Rachel with its Lil Alien Inn and restaurants, but this was too much of a diversion on our already overly long day’s journey. I decided that the Alien Research Centre (in reality an alien-themed souvenir shop) near Hiko would suffice as a destination but had read that it has random closing times. We had 30 minutes of official opening time left when we arrived, so it was touch and go as to whether we would be allowed in.

The lone 50-foot metal alien towering over the desert and guarding the entrance is a sight to behold. The “do not enter” sign on the metal fenced-off area behind the store is equally great for souvenir photos. The Research Centre was open (we were the only customers) and there was just enough time to buy some alien t-shirts, tequila and shot glasses. 30 minutes was in fact more than enough, as the shop is of aircon-free corrugated tin-roof construction: an airless tin box in the desert. We were starting to melt. For not the first time on this trip, the safety/sanity of the staff working in these conditions crossed our minds.

Before abandoning our mission for the day, we did venture a bit further on up the track to see whether there were any actual aliens/ US military folk guarding the base, but there were none to be seen in the empty scrub and we had a date to keep with Zion in the opposite direction.

Area 51 to Zion – out of this world weather

We had another 3 hours ahead of us before reaching Springdale and the weather was on the turn. Having already experienced the black eye of one American storm we were not keen to meet another. But this was going to be our closest near-death experience of the trip.

Dark clouds engulfed the skies all around us until a faux night stole the day. Rain blurred the road ahead into mist, until it was submerged under several inches of flowing water. The car started to slide over the tarmac. Recent deluges had left deep gullies filled with swampy brown water on either side of the road. There was no capacity for any more to seep into the ground. The new water was simply going to sit on the surface, joining up the existing pools into one deeper lake. Lighting flashed, hitting the ground a few hundred metres either side of the car And then directly in front of it.

It was at this point that 4 phones simultaneously shouted out a severe weather warning and instructed us to seek high ground. This does not happen in the UK. It was as if the aliens really had landed and taken over the technology. It was a 5 hour drive back to Las Vegas (urban safety) or another 2 forwards to Zion (small country town in the mountains). Night was falling through the storm (though it was quite hard to tell as it was already coal black above us). A plan was quickly made to ditch our Zion hotel booking and check into the next motel we saw. Sadly, the next “town” turned out to be just a collection of farm houses, no motel in sight. There was no option but to keep going.

The next 2 hours were quite possibly the longest of my life. The rain eventually eased but the lightning continued all around us as we snaked cautiously along winding mountain roads which shelved away into the darkness on either side. Sudden side winds would try to push you over the edge.

Our destination was to be one of the highlights of the trip. We’d planned a several kilometre long river hike through the Zion Narrows, a 1000-foot high ravine. When we finally arrived, approximately 10 years older, I asked the check in clerk tentatively if the Narrows were open. Not surprisingly, they were closed due to flash flooding.

Day 9 - Zion Narrows

We awoke to sunlight and on inspecting our surroundings, saw the  orange mountains looming over our motel were poking into blue skies above. Brilliant. Despite the Narrows being closed, we decided to head over to national park anyway to investigate alternative walks.

With the speedy nature of flash flooding, by the time we arrived at the park entrance the Narrows had miraculously just been declared back open. We couldn’t believe it. It was another dream resurrection/ metaphorical hat waving moment. Although it did cross my mind that the waters flowing down the narrows may not be quite as clear as in the brochure pictures, and maybe not quite as safe?

We had packed our river walking water shoes but looking at others on the shuttle I was starting to wonder whether this was enough kit-wise? Most people were sporting rubberised boots with gaiters and sturdy sticks. They were particularly uniform, indicating that a local speciality hire shop was at play. Had we underestimated the river? It was entirely possible.

Alighting from the bus at the exotically named “Temple of Sinawava”, I noted the park sign had set the risk of flash flooding to orange-zone “probable” but not red-inevitable, and was reassured that the rangers knew what they were doing opening up the route. Donning our natty beach/surf shoes, one of the bootie zippers broke immediately. The elastic extracted from a Covid mask was commandeered as a fixing tool. It looked as stylish as it was effective.

Off we set, initially on a spectacularly back-dropped riverside path and then about a kilometre in, we entered the river itself. As anticipated, it was an opaque tan colour and quite swirly. But people were going in anyway, so having travelled across half the world to be here we took the plunge.

Our lack of water staff and broken sea slippers provided limited  protection against the unseen and very uneven river bed rocks. You never knew how far each step would sink. We seized upon 2 smallish driftwood sticks floating past with very different degrees of sturdiness. Neither turn-taking nor sharing these balancing tools were quarrel-free solutions.

Witnessing a grown man disappear up to his armpits at one point we learned to watch people ahead of us for the easiest route. It was better to follow less gung-ho sacrificial families with small children.

We battled on for a kilometre or so, tucking dresses and shorts into underwear as the water got ever deeper. And then it started to rain. I pictured the ranger sliding the “flash flooding” sign up into the red zone. The boys were not unhappy with my river walk veto as they had been ready to turn back some time earlier.  But husband had forged ahead in search of the point at which the sides of the canyon nearly touch. And there was no phone signal.  I left the boys perched on a rock and set off upstream in search of their missing father but to no avail. I retraced my steps, collected the unhappy brood and we hobbled/sunk our way back to safety. We were eventually reunited. Husband was not lost to the floods and I got to steal his photos. Win, win.

Rock shadowed pool and al fresco tea

Vegas aside, despite booking places with a pool, most had so far been unusable due to the inclement weather. The evening sunshine was an opportunity not to be missed for this most scenic of pool settings. After the dip, feeling like we had earned a treat, we dined in Oscars, a delightful open air restaurant in the shadow of more imposing orangey cliff walls. It cost $100 but the ice cream was as mountainous as the background and the cold wine very welcome.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 18 – Zion Narrows: 

  • Hire the proper shoes  (or at least wear some old trainers with a sole thicker than a sock) and stick
  • If you’ve time, wait a bit longer after flash flooding for nice, clear, safe water
  • Follow the small people

Day 10 – Zion to Lake Powell (via Coral Dunes /Marble Canyon and Horseshoe bend)

Lake Powell made the itinerary because we’d read that you could visit the gorgeous Antelope Canyon, as featured in  Athena posters since the 1990’s, by water. The fact that entry was via the spectacularly other worldly Lake Powell was an added bonus. I was excited to read it described as a crystal clear oasis framed by what many consider to be the most breath taking landscape on Earth.

AccommodationLake Powell Resort, Page
En RouteContinue through Zion Park
Coral Dunes, $10 per vehicle($25 to sandboard)
Vermillion Cliffs and Marble Canyon
ActivityHorseshoe Bend - 30 min walk from car park; $10 to park
1.5 hour Boat tour to Antelope Canyon $50pp from Antelope Point Marina
Gunfighter canyon – Page $60 for 25 rounds (machine gun) -
Drive TimesZion to Horseshoe Bend 3 hrs
Horseshoe Bend to Lake Powell 15 mins

Accommodation booked

Whilst researching Lake Powell boat trips, I spotted a resort on the edge of the lake itself. Wouldn’t it be handy to be staying on the edge of the marina?  Unfortunately, due to the low water levels and Covid, by the third time of booking, trips to Antelope canyon were not running from this particular marina. But I was already sold on the desert resort with a changing-colour pool and views over the lake. The landscape, with its bright blue pools dotted amongst the dusty white and orange bedrock, looked to be something out of a sci-fi film, with Captain Kirk poised to make an appearance over the horizon at any point. I booked it anyway and decided the 30 minute drive to the other boat marina would be a price worth paying.

Zion Park - Park 2: through the tunnel

Leaving Zion on vertiginous hairpin roads, you wait your turn to traverse the single lane rock tunnel to the other side of the national park. Here you enter a new world of visually arresting scenery, where creamy whites merge into pastel pinks as if on an giant’s mixing pallet. We stopped for some photos of mountain goats and mad geographical features.

Coral Dunes - boards and buggies

In our attempt to keep drive times to under 6 hours a day, Coral Dunes, despite its aesthetic promise, had not made this year’s itinerary cut. But about an hour into our journey the driver spotted the sign from the road and decided that salmon sand dunes were too good an opportunity to miss. We threw in a quick detour anyway. As promised, coral pink dunes, dotted with striking green trees rose before us, like a Dr Seuss illustration. The short walk to the top was like a mini-Saharan trek. We baked at the sandy summit drinking water like we’d crossed the entire desert. The sand was hot as fire and crested in peaks like a film set waiting for a camel train to plod into view. Fun teen activities abounded. Sand boards could be hired for $25/ hour. Speed freaks were careening wildly in dune buggies. Time was tight and the air scorched the back of your mouth when you breathed in, so we spectated on this occasion, but it had a lot to offer if you wanted to stay for the afternoon.

After a quick but unsuccessful search for all the creatures listed on the information board, we climbed back into our air-conditioned car cocoon (after a quick singeing of fingers on door handles and seat belt buckles) for our daily picnic of warm cheese and browned salad sandwiches.

Vermillion Cliffs and Marble Canyon

Continuing on the road to Lake Powell, we drove past huge wedges of vermillion cliff marching along the edges of the desert, over a deep Marble Canyon and on to Horseshoe Bend. The Colorado in the canyon was less colorado than usual, the post-rain sediment camouflaging it against its banks.

Horseshoe Bend

With its high profile social media presence, Horseshoe Bend had made it to bucket  list contender status. We’d read that it was a convenient 9 minute drive from Lake Powell and a 30 minute paved stroll from the car park. Perfect! And hence its popularity, The parking area can become full, in which case there is a complicated shuttle arrangement. In the event, possibly because it was the end of the day, there was room at the inn.

The walk was as mercifully short and the view as impressive as advertised.  he water flowing round the bend was even green rather than the usual flash flooding brown. It was hard to watch as fellow photographers hopped over barrier for death defying selfies. Was that extra 10 feet really a game changer? Did their friends and family enjoy the edginess of a dangling feet shot? I took my own photo from behind the fence, and it looked good enough to me (although it did make a guest appearance in the corner).

Horseshoe Bend, USA road trip with teens

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 19 – Geological feature hit list viewable from road

  • Zion Park – rolling peach rocks – think Dr Seuss 
  • Vermillion cliffs – sheer, red-hued and imposing
  • Marble Canyon – take the bridge over this vast scenic gully
  • Coral Pink Dunes – boarding and buggies in a mini-Sahara
  • Horseshoe Bend – textbook meander perfection (nearly on the road)

You would be mad to miss any of these.

Day 11 - Lake Powell - Antelope canyon boat trip and shooting

Antelope Canyon boat trip , gun shooting and hunting for shooting stars

Cruise along Antelope Canyon

In previous versions of this holiday, I’d booked an all-day self-guided kayak trip up the canyon. But on reflection, the idea 7 hours’ battling choppy waters in the desert heat sounded at bit too hard core. I toyed with 4 hours on an inflatable “rib” with a professional driver, but would it still be too hot? And what if we (I) needed the toilet? In the version that became reality, I went for a larger covered boat tour, with a loo.

The water level had dropped so low that the concrete slipway into the lake, no longer being supported by water, had collapsed under its own weight. To access the lake’s edge now requires visitors to embark on a very cool, slightly white-knuckle buggy-ride, vertically down to the launch point. Hang on tight to avoid being bumped off the back – no seatbelts here.

On board, I appreciated the shady boat canopy as we motored lazily along blue waters fringed with sunset-orange rocks. Their reflections shimmered like gold as we headed up the gorge until it became too narrow for motor vessels (canoeists were welcome to continue on until hitting the mud zone). Taking it in turns to snap photos from the front of the boat, we were told that the last time the waters had been this low was when Charlton Heston had filmed in Planet of the Apes at this very spot. I had not been the only one to spot the world-apocalypse landscape potential. Usually, apparently it is not so much of a gorge as a normal river. So when the drought finally ends the canyon will disappear, much like New York in the film.

Back at the docking bay, there were not enough buggies to take everyone up to the car park. A very long wait on the scalding decking ensued.  To be fair there was an airconditioned café we could have gone to for respite, then we would have missed our turn in the buggy.

Machine Gun shooting

Returning to base camp at Lake Powell marina, our eye was caught by the Gunfighter Canyon shooting shop in Page, where the door handle had been replaced by a rifle. Husband had the controversial idea of getting the kids to do some actual wild west shooting. I was conflicted – life experience versus glorification of guns. We went in to find out if it was even possible. On payment of $60, it is apparently perfectly acceptable for 15 year olds to hire and shoot machine guns under the supervision of a Bosnian engineer, and so it came to pass. I waited on the other side of the transparent screen (worryingly pitted with what appeared to be bullet marks?).

The first few shots are singular, then you turn into a mobster and fire off a round of about 20 in short succession. No one was killed and it was over in a literal flash. You get to keep the poster with holes near its heart/head as a souvenir. Not for everyone, but it is a teen opportunity for consideration.

Lake Powell Resort - evening teen activities

Back at the resort we treated ourselves to a burger in the restaurant over-looking the lake, spotted a non-cartoon road runner and dipped in a pool of ever-changing colour before attempting some dark skies starry night photography.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 18 – Page 

  • Choose your boat according the fitness levels,  tolerance for heat and toileting facilities
  • Why not shoot a gun? (answers on a postcard)
  • Disco light pools are A listers
  • Photography enthusiasts this is your night sky moment

Day 12 – Lake Powell to Sedona (via Grand Canyon/ Route 66)

We were heading for Sedona, an arty desert town surrounded by red-rocks and steep canyon walls mainly as a gateway to Slide Rock Park. Here you can shoot down a brick-red natural 800m long rock slide, tube-able by children. It is rated by Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 natural swimming holes in the US. This was going to be fun.

AccommodationHilton Vacation Club Sedona Summit
ActivityGrand Canyon South rim views and walk
Route 66 signs in Williams
Blue MacDonald's arches in Sedona
Drive TimesPage to Grand Canyon South rim (2 hrs)
Grand Canyon (via Williams) to Sedona 2hrs

Accommodation booked - Sedona

With the last of our Hilton points I booked a room with a kitchenette for a budget meal-in-your-room option, and on site pool in Sedona. We would be arriving late so no need to go for anything too fancy.

Grand Canyon

Another big driving day lay ahead driving from Page to the Grand Canyon then on to Sedona’ sliding rocks.

Google informed us that arriving at the south rim of the Grand Canyon from the east was one of the most scenic entry points. You get to stop at Little Canyon on the way for a canyon taster session, and a chance to look for desert critters (they were too professional for us and totally won the hide and seek challenge).

Entering the park we were struck by the lack of people. At Desert View Point, 23 miles east of the visitor centre, you share your first view of the whole canyon lying before you with about 20 others. No jostling for a front row position is required as you gaze over the 18 mile wide valley. You can helicopter over it or white water raft through it if you are staying here, which might give you more or a 3d perspective. From the edge, its almost too large to comprehend and can feel a bit like you are looking at a painting rather than into space.

Following the road set back from the canyon edge, there are multiple viewpoints. We stopped at the first 3 or 4 after which we were a bit spoiled and wanted an upgrade to a canyon-side stroll. Pressing on to the main village, we duly got to walk along the rim, gaping at vast proportions as more fellow tourists flirted with holiday death photos. We witnessed one woman slip over on the scree, coming to a seated stop just before she fell off into the canyon abyss.

Canyon critters

We had planned to take a shuttle out to one of the more remote view but with our Desert Views entrance we’d seen so many amazing perspectives already it was time to move on, after a bit of a cold drink.

In the main village café we were joined by an array of mountain bugs; huge black carpenter bees and evil looking red wasps, both capable of stinging more than once apparently. At one point I thought I’d seen a humming bird but it seemed to have antennae. After Googling, we realised this was simply another variety of over-sized inset, the “hummingbird beetle” (which gives you a general idea of its bodily mass). 

Route 66 - Williams

You can find road-trip Mecca, Route 66 signage, if you cruise and through the town of Williams, an hour south of the Grand Canyon. (There is a bonus Fred Flintstone roadside attraction figure on this route just outside the town).

Along the historic main street a plethora of cool signs (some in neon) and vintage cars, are on display like a car-themed peacock. We even met Rusty from the Cars film. The town in the film could have been modelled on Williams, a former key route across the country now bypassed by the main highway, although this “gateway to the Grand Canyon” is anything but abandoned.

Williams to Sedona

Another storm was getting ready to strike. Once again our phones urged us to seek high ground or face certain death, or words to that effect. Against the ticking weather time bomb, we pushed on to our next stop, Sedona. This involved navigating insanely tricky mountain roads which, unnervingly, appeared to have sustained recent landslides. The presence of other vehicles en route gave us a possibly false sense of security, or at least someone to provide assistance if things went awry.

The cliffs held their ground, and we arrived at the Boho wooden board-walked centre of Sedona. To the dismay of all car passengers, we found ourselves driving straight through this picturesque area and on to our more out of town retail-zoned suburb and to a room overlooking a car park. Note to self – book a room in the centre.

Sedona road side America for teens - Blue MacDonald's arches

In Sedona you can tick off the next teen roadside America item, the only MacDonald’s with freakishly blue arches, which for us complemented the colours of the storm clouds gathering just behind them. Making use of our kitchenette, we then supplemented our non-filling fries with floppy microwaved supermarket pizza. At $10 each this was almost the same price as a take out would have cost. It was too late to use the pool.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 19 – Roadside America spots 

  • Head to Williams for route 66 signs and souvenirs
  • Look out for Fred Flintstone on the way in
  • Take a selfie with the Blue Arches in Sedona (making sure to book a room in the town centre)

Day 13 - Sedona to Tucson (via Slide Rock and frontier ghost town)

AccommodationLodge in the Desert, Tucson
ActivityTubing at Slide Rock Park, $20 per car,
Goldfield frontier ghost town (free)
Drive TimesSedona to Tucson 3 hours

Accommodation booked - Tuscon

I had booked us a very cool sounding “Lodge in the Desert” in Tucson where you can stay in hacienda style individual lodges dotted around cacti-strewn walkways. The family room for 5 looked vast. This place made every cut of the holiday.

Slide Rock Park

We were in Sedona to see Slide rock, another  weather-dependant highlight on our teen road trip itinerary. On checking the forecast (something we were getting wise to), lightning was due at 12. If we were quick, we could fit in a trip to Side Rock after breakfast before the heavens opened, assuming the place was not weather-closed as a precautionary measure.

And if we were very quick we could drive the short but temptingly named “Red Rock loop” road in front of the hotel for majestic mountain views first. With our eyes on the weather clock, we were not fully appreciating the fiery red scenery. Nearly bottoming the car on the rocky pull-over terrain also added an edge to the atmosphere. People were getting restless in the back. It was time to slide!

5 miles back through Sedona and up Oak Creek, we pulled up the privately owned entrance to Slide Rock and we were pleased to see other cars in front of us being permitted entry. It was open, at least for now. I wondered how muddy/ torrent filled the waters might be.

To our utter delight, we followed a path beneath a pretty range of cliffs, fronted by fields of sunflowers and vintage farm equipment. Yellow butterflies and green lizards popped out on rocks to say hello. We passed a toilet/ changing block (bonus) and there was even a homestead style ice-cream shop for post-swim snacks. Brilliant.

The path brought us out at a tangerine-toned valley of tubers. The water was clear (hooray!), and cold, but not British cold. We joined the line of about 7 kids and took our turn to slide madly down the river, solo and then in tandem. The more adventurous could rocket off the sides of the valley into the deeper plunge pools. 2 hours sped by swimmingly.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 20  – Slide rock

  • Bring water shoes!
  • Tubes are fun but not needed to keep your head above the water. They even got in the way a bit when they got jammed in the smaller crevices.
  • This for me was the best day out of all, a not to be missed teen activity.
Sedona, USA road trip with teens
Storms over Sedona

As the sky darkened it was time to leave Sedona, straight into another deadly storm. This time the main feature was lightning. We pulled over to marvel at the spectacle of shards of light forking across the skies on all sides of car. Death-wish husband decided to head out into the deluge to take some photos of the biblically proportioned maelstrom. It was when a black cloud morphed into the shape of a human hand with 4 fingers protruding downwards out of the sky, and child 1 asked if you get tornadoes here, that a bit of panic began to creep in. Refusing to leave the vehicle to seek the family’s human lighting conductor, I took to phone calls, which were abruptly declined by the intended recipient in his quest for the ultimate fork photo. Eventually, he returned, unsinged, and we could continue our tempestuous journey towards Phoenix.

Goldfield Frontier ghost town

The roads to Phoenix are multi-laned and present an entirely different type of road trip challenge to desert driving in terms of speed-merging, not crashing and finding the right exit. After many hours of seat edge navigation we found our next stop, a Wild West Frontier town. Goldfields is a  less authentic ’ghost town’ than Rhyolite in that it is a reconstruction built on the foundations of the original rather than the original laid waste by the ravages of time. The saloon, shop and cafes, which I’d seen reviewed as kitschy, were touristy on the inside but the facades definitely looked the part. We’d missed the weekend gunslinger fights, which would have added even more of a stage-set vibe, but drank a welcome lemonade on a veranda as we listened to the vintage railroad train whistling around the valley.

Phoenix to Tucson Desert Lodge

Heading south on to Tucson, we had our first glimpse of proper wild cacti. They started small but soon enough entirely covered the hills, like a cartoon. We stopped for some self-proclaimed “famous pie” at the Rock Springs petrol pit stop ($8 a slice and an additional tip requested at the take out counter), and
then continued our journey taking millions of rubbish photos through the windows of the moving car.

Last stop of the day was Tucson’s Desert Lodge. As we approached, it was hard not to notice that they may have paved paradise and put up a parking lot. The desert had been reclaimed by urban sprawl and sad looking homeless people carrying carrier bags drifted around the streets. Where was I taking them, demanded people in the car? 

The cacti-filled haven that is the Lodge on the Desert used to be a desert retreat for wealthy types in the 1950s but in the intervening years suburbia has sprung up and surrounded it. Despite this, the hotel was still the most gorgeous and characterful accommodation of the trip. Waterfalls arched into a central pool and the al fresco restaurant was fairy-lit, so there was no need to venture out into potentially gangland territory waiting outside the front door.

Day 14 – Tucson to Yuma (via Saguaro National Park Cacti)

AccommodationHampton Inn & Suites Yuma
ActivitySaguaro National Park cacti
Drive TimesYuma to Los Angeles 4 hours

Accommodation booked -Yuma

Yuma was about half way between Tucson and Los Angeles and I couldn’t see any other obvious contenders.  If I’d been feeling brave we could have chosen a more appealing San Diego beach, but driving into another metropolis seemed best avoided if not entirely necessary. I’d wimped out, essentially.   I’d chosen this hotel  because 1. I could get it on points and 2. It was next to a huge mall, which I thought would provide some kind of cheap/ safe evening teen pastime.

Pool morning in Desert Lodge

The Tucson oasis in the desert/urban jungle being so divine, this was the only place we hung out until the very last minute of check out time. The boys chose the gym (in this heat?) while I opted for the water and a lounger under green tendrils of foliage.

This is when I met the wildlife. Initially I thought a small black bird was swooping toward my head, before noticing the insectoid nature of its clacking wing case. I bravely ignored it for the first couple of fly-bys but it was getting too close for comfort and I caved. Standing up to tackle it head on, I threw my towel over the droning beast, only to find it had escaped round the side and was coming back for more.  Without my shielding device, I had no option but to throw myself to the floor to avoid its flight path. I may have screamed. At which point the only other lady at the pool (cleverly not sitting near the greenery) remarked that I wasn’t from round here was I? When the monster-in-black came back for a 3rd assault, my final means of escape was to leap into the water and fully submerge myself. Surfacing, I found beetle-bug sat on top of the water waiting for me – like a bug themed zombie horror movie.

Saguaro Cacti

Lunchtime arrived and it was time to leave our little slice of urban heaven, and head out in search of cacti, the bigger the better. I wanted arms too. As if by magic (or hours of planning), a national park famed for such inhabitants lay a handy 30 minutes to the West.

In Saguaro Park the one-way Bajada scenic loop was much more of a track than the car hire place would have been happy with. The road undulated, and becoming wise the ways of water, I knew this meant water traps. I just prayed that the daily afternoon rains arrived after we had finished, as I didn’t fancy our chances of getting out of waterlogged dust tracks.

We’d stopped for one too many desert photoshoots in the hot sun before arriving at the main 0.8 mile Valley View overlook trail, with the densest concentration of shrubbery. There was a united blank refusal to get out of the car again into the wall of desert heat or turn off the aircon. So the hardcore elder members of the family wandered through incredible cacti families, from spikey round specimens to huge pipes with mad bendy arms. Tick. The path was pretty easy to follow but it would not have been impossible to get lost, as there were several options snaking off in different directions, so we didn’t go too far out of sight of the child-filled car before turning back to safety.

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 20  – Cacti

  • Don’t mess around with smaller specimens – head straight for the loop trail in the centre of the park and save your energy for the big boy cacti on this trail.
  • The loop road is one way, so plan your park entry accordingly (counter clockwise)
  • Go in the morning to avoid rain on the plains.

Saguaro to Yuma

On cue, the afternoon storm raged in, whipping up large dust devils, buffeting us with side winds and generally scaring the bejaysus out of us. Hours of barren hill-crossing later, we hit the outskirts of Yuma.The palm trees outside the hotel were bent double and shaking their heads like rockers. Yellow dust swirled across the road. The hotel staff had come out to witness events, telling me that storms are not usually quite on this scale. 

Road trip with teens haircare in Yuma

Running from the car to reception we were totally drenched. It wasn’t yet tea time and we didn’t really have a plan other than the mall. In spite of the presence of our constant travel companion, the “stay in” phone message, child 2, decided that 3 weeks into the trip, it was time for a haircut. Really, now? We headed out, forging our way through 2-feet deep road floods and parked up, possibly in a set from Breaking Bad. Long haired child and father entered the small barbers with unusual haircut photos in the window involving lots of tram lines. 

Not knowing the neighbourhood, I passed the time in the car browsing the local crime rates to ascertain the chances of us being carjacked (husband having left the keys in the ignition with the non-drivers for the aircon so we didn’t suffocate). The puddles grew larger as we waited in the possible drug dealers’ parking lot, and lightning stuck the pavement across the street. Cars were starting to struggle with the depth of the flooding on the roads. I willed time to speed up. The haircut was unusual. Child 2 had not selected the exotic (gang motif?) styles featured on the flier but it was more slicked-back street-style than usual.

Heading back to mall-activity safety it turned out to be one of those sprawling, outdoor type malls where you need to drive up to each shop, and battle with the elements in between. Furniture and office supplies were not sufficiently incentivising in terms of shopping opportunities to pursue this activity avenue. Room-served supermarket ready meal it was then.

Day 15 – Yuma to Los Angeles (via Wild West prison/ Mexican Border and San Diego)

AccommodationBest Western Stovall, Anaheim
En routeSan Diego

Accommodation booked

Not having the budget for a real Disney hotel, we chose the Best Western Stovall as the closest affordable option which included breakfast and that didn’t involve waiting for a shuttle (we’d left Disneyland Paris on the last bus and nearly missed it due to the enormity of the crowds).

Yuma Prison

Looking for a morning Yuma activity before setting off the the final big drive,  the options were 1) city tubing (the setting looked a bit industrial); 2) the Centre of The World novelty sculpture park (high on quirkiness points); or 3) a Wild West Prison ($8 each). The prison was an 8 minute drive so history won.

Prison activities: Browsing photos of the Wild Women of the West, posing for your own convict photo, entering the solitary cell of doom and watching a film about the prison story. It was interesting to see what constituted a criminal back in the day– adulteresses, Mexican revolutionaries, Mormon bigamists as well as the more traditional gun-toting by compadres of Wyatt Earp. Hot chili sauce and cool wild west “give it your best shot” tequila glasses were suitably sized souvenirs waiting for us in the gift shop.

Mexican border and Mission beach

It was time to motor along the Mexican border, looking out for Trump’s wall before heading north up the coast to live the teen Disney dream in LA. The scenery was yellow desert based and we glimpsed the border from the road, but no wall or border-guard action.

Having alerted friends back home to the existence of Alien Tequila, we were on a mission to source more and had read that the only outlet en route was in the middle of San Diego. Did we really want to go there with its scary inner city traffic junctions? I said no. But husband said yes, and, being the driver, won. The tequila shop was pretty impressive, with floor to ceiling dark wooden shelves crammed with decorative ceramic bottles.  A bit like an alcoholic Olivanders. 

Downtown San Diego had a laid back summer surfy vibe which was very out of character with the rest of the trip. We recalled that Taco Bell man in Pahrump had advised us to spend our entire holiday here and we could see what he was talking about. We threw in an on-the-hoof Google search of the best family friendly beaches for a pit stop. Our phone came up with Mission beach and we set off on more too-busy roads for a rare, second ad hoc addition to the day’s itinerary. Despite military-like pre planning, I was pleased we’d managed to add a degree of flexibility to the itinerary, some of it even voluntary. An if we’d braved the traffic anyway, we might as well reap the seaside rewards.

Mission Beach, San Diego

Mission beach, sitting prettily on a spit of land protruding into the Pacific, was surfer cool. A row of colourful Hawaiian boards lined the walkway behind miles of yellow sand and iconic lifeguard huts lounged under towering palms. For those having more than an hour to give it, there was even a funfair and huge indoor pool complex, which looked a bit like a glass Roman Temple. We did get to dip in the Pacific though (no sharks – good and bad result).

USA road trip with teens – Top Tip 21  – San Diego

  • With a laid back surfy vibe, amazing beaches and behind-beach fun, San Diego is definitely a good stop for teens
  • Tucson to San Diego is a 6-7 hour drive. If you can face the inner city traffic, this would be a better stop than Yuma for a whole extra beach day.

Driving San Diego to LA

Heading into LA takes driving to PhD levels.  I counted 14 lanes of traffic around us. Navigating to your exit is an art form. Express lanes form on the left, a gamble as you  are then sealed off by concrete barriers from the rest of the road and certain exits,  so you need to be pretty confident about your route to join one. We did not fall into that category. The gridlock benefits the slightly lost, giving us time to make decisions that fast flowing traffic would have robbed us of. Somehow, we held our nerve, didn’t peel off into express world or on to a too-early junction,  and with the use of a small phone, found ourselves in a suitably palm-strewn  Anaheim. Ferris wheels and Micky Mouse’s face poked out from behind walls. 

On a previous LA trip we’d encountered pizza shops with metal grills guarding the servers. I’d also seen the Cecil hotel documentary and knew that this city had a dark side, so was most pleased to find our hotel was in the fantasy land section where tourists roamed apparently crime-free boulevards.

Day 16 - Disney finale

Our final Disney day lay ahead, the perfect ending to our American adventure. Top tips for the Disney day deserve their own story, but suffice is to say that we embarked on space odysseys, boated through jungles, were escorted around Star Wars films sets by storm troopers and feasted on alien meat kebabs.

The weird thing was how much some of the landscaping resembled the places we had visited on the trip. Star Wars setting or Lake Powell? Thunder mountain or Sedona? Visiting outstanding natural environments punctuated by Vegas, Disney and Area 51, the whole trip seemed to be a fusion of real and fantasy worlds, with a sprinkling of other-worldly lifeforms.

The last ride of the day was taken just as the firework finale  erupted overhead. We crested the top of the Thunder Mountain roller coaster to the crackle of sparkling skies. Perfect. In fact I decided Thunder Mountain was a pretty good name for the whole trip. We walked back to our Best Western home for the day at 11pm jelly legged and fully Disney-ed. A stellar day and road trip all round.

Summary USA road trip with teens

This road trip truly had been an American adventure. With its jaw dropping natural and man-made wonders; its earthly delights and supernatural elements; misty mountains and surfy seas; jetty-snapping droughts and deadly flash flooding; fierce sun and swirling storms; rustic cabins to glassy sky scrapers, it felt like we had been a little bit of all this world has to offer.

In terms of lessons learned, I would say

  • Check the weather forecast. August is monsoon season (who knew? Despite my extensive research and previous trip, not me apparently). Storms sweep in mainly in the afternoons so plan this into activity/ travel timings.
  • Book the most robust car you can afford.
  • Bear in mind that pre-researched drive times do not account for current gridlock or weather conditions/road closures and the best laid plans/road can disappear under flash flooding at any moment.

I would love to hear about your road trip adventures and more not-to-be missed road side America stops for our next visit in the comments section below. Where is that giant ball of twine?

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USA road trip with teens

7 thoughts on “21 top tips for the Ultimate USA road trip with teens”

  1. You are brave. I never tried more than a 9 hour road trip when my kids were teens. But what a way to make lasting memories. Great post!

  2. Great tips – I think they apply to some adults too tbh 🙂
    I also really enjoyed reading about this itinerary, and must check it out next time we’re in the US! Thanks for sharing!

  3. We’ve done several USA road trips with our son, however at 1, 2, 4 and 5 years old. At teenager age would be a whole other thing. Lake Tahoe and Horseshoe Bend are still on our must visit list.

  4. Your ‘USA Road Trip with Teens’ article is simply fantastic! It’s filled with great tips and insights, making it a perfect guide for families like ours. Thanks for sharing this valuable resource, and I can’t wait to plan our own unforgettable road trip with your helpful advice. Keep up the excellent work on your website!” 😊🚗🗺️

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