While organizing our two-week road trip from San Francisco to Yellowstone (and back) last summer with two boys, ages 6 and 2, I was guided by two realities: We had to plan numerous stops to break up the 1,952-mile journey, and I had to be prepared for every one of those plans to change.
We booked campsites in Lake Tahoe; Twin Falls, Idaho; and Yellowstone National Park before hitting the road, leaving the second half of the trip open to improvisation. We quickly got used to living in a tricked-out minivan with two double beds and a kitchen in the trunk, but it turned out that it took a bit more work getting used to the unplanned.
I explained to my kids that we weren't sure where we'd go after Yellowstone and five days of viewing grizzly mamas and cubs, a red fox and more bison than I could imagine. All I knew was that I wanted us to be spontaneous, which is what I love about travel.
Going with the flow
So after a week of camping, we motored south to Jackson, Wyo., found a room at the historic Wort Hotel, and parked the camper van, ready to clock some hours in civilization.
My husband and I don't get very far with our 2-year-old, Nikko, unless I strap him on my back. And so it was that we stumbled into the lively Snake River Brewery, a brew pub serving pizza and beer, the perfect antidote to camping.
Next to us, a crew of snowboarders from Austria took an interest in our kids and recommended that we brave the alpine slide, a summer attraction at the Snow King Resort in Jackson Hole.
Two routes — one slow, the other rapid — zigzagged down through 2,500 feet of wildflowers and pines. Six-year-old Kai hopped into a toboggan on the fast side, while I glided down the mountain with Nikko, both of us shrieking the entire way. My plan was to sit out the next couple of rounds, but Kai insisted that I try the speedy side, with him steering. He accelerated, and forced his mom out of her comfort zone as we zoomed down the massive mountain at top speeds.
Exhilarated by the adventure, we headed back to Idaho. A young woman we had met in a parking lot told us not to miss the backwoods town of Lava Hot Springs. "Your kids will lose their minds," she said, high-fiving them as we said goodbye to Wyoming.
We'd been driving for hours when we veered off Interstate 15 onto a road in southern Idaho. Kai and Nikko screeched with excitement when two 60-foot water slides appeared, arching over the road. A sign read: Welcome to Lava Hot Springs.
The small town, a river-carved gulch between two mountains, consists of the KOA campground, a couple of inns, a handful of restaurants and a premier hot springs water park, all hugging a tree-lined street. In the evening under a palette of stars, we soaked in the sulfur-free mineral pools with temperatures from 102 to 112 degrees.
The hot springs were the main event for my husband and me, but the kids woke up begging for the water park, a sight they had not forgotten since our memorable entrance into town. Kai asked me to join him on the 60-foot slide, on which an attendant mentioned that sliders could reach speeds of up to 35 mph.
Bears? Wolves? Snakes? I prepared for these on our journey, but water slides so tall that a big rig could drive under them were not on my itinerary. My husband, typically the braver of the two of us, opted to stay with Nikko so I could conquer yet another terrifying physical challenge.
As we ascended the stairs, little kids high-fived one another while their parents shook with fear. For these kids, a slide of this magnitude was literally the height of adventure. A drive across the West — an epic journey for this mama and one none of my parent friends would brave with two young boys — was, by comparison, a snore for kiddos.
The Olympic-sized pool below seemed small. Kai whooped as his small body torpedoed down an engineering feat 20 times his size. The attendant nodded to me. "You're next," he said. I considered my years of hopping on a train because it was the fastest way out of town, boarding a ship to carry me around the globe, riding through the desert in the back of a pickup truck, and knew I could do this. I sent myself screaming down that slide, allowing my kids to guide me on yet another new adventure.
On the way to California, we took U.S. 50, often dubbed America's Loneliest Road, and stopped at Nevada's Great Basin National Park, one of the least visited in the country.
Deep underground, on our tour of the park's Lehman Caves, we learned a great deal about history and geology, but this cool cavern provided a deeper lesson when the ranger asked the boys about their favorite parts of our journey.
It wasn't Yellowstone's geothermal pools, Idaho's gushing Shoshone Falls or our Tahoe stargazing adventure — all activities we had planned — that had won their hearts. Instead, they talked about places we'd stumbled upon, such as these magnificent caves, and the surprises that emerged. By crafting an itinerary with space to breathe, we found our richest travel memories.
If you go:
Jucy RV Rentals; (800) 650-4180, http://www.jucyrentals.com. Small RVs decked out with a kitchen and two double beds. Pickup locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Average summer rates about $95 a day.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
Lava Hot Springs KOA, 100 Bristol Park Lane, Lava Hot Springs, Idaho; (208) 776-5295, koa.com/campgrounds/lava-hot-springs. Cozy, rustic cabins and tent sites along the Portneuf River. Rates from $29 a night.
Snake River Brewery, 265 S. Millward, Jackson, Wyo.; (307) 739-2337, http://www.snakeriverbrewing.com. A wildly popular brew pub known for hoppy IPAs and a mean bison burger. Entrees from $12.
Wort Hotel, 50 N. Glenwood St., Jackson, Wyo.; (307) 733-2190, http://www.worthotel.com. Since 1941 this hotel has lured travelers with hearty meals at its Silver Dollar Grill and luxurious rooms overlooking the slopes. Doubles from $399 a night through September, then decreasing in the off-season.
WHAT TO DO
Lava Hot Springs Pools and Water Park, 430 E. Main St., Lava Hot Springs, Idaho; (208) 776-5221, http://www.lavahotsprings.com. Soak your hiker's muscles in the hot pools, rocket down massive waterslides and frolic in the Olympic-sized lap pool. Combo passes start at $12.50 in summer.
Snow King Alpine Slide, 400 E. Snow King Ave., Jackson, Wyo.; (307) 733-5200, http://www.snowkingjacksonhole.com. Single slide tickets, $15; $45 fun pass for all attractions includes a kid-sized bungee experience.
Great Basin National Park, 100 Great Basin, Baker, Nev.; (775) 234-7331, http://www.nps.gov/grba. The Earth's longest-living trees and epic stargazing. Lehman Cave tours, $8-$10. Campsites available.