This American Northwest family road trip loops from San Francisco out to Utah and Montana, up to Canada, and then down through Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. On this family road trip itinerary, you’ll cross through 9 US states, 1 Canadian Province, and visit 5 National Parks including Yellowstone and Glacier, along the way. You can start anywhere on the loop that is convenient for you. This route as planned should take about 4 weeks, though you could easily spend a lot more time at the major National Parks. Use this route to get northwest family road trip ideas, or modify it to fit your schedule and the age of your kids. When possible, we’ll include alternate routes or additional stops that may be of interest.
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What is the Best Time of Year to Visit Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks?
Yellowstone and Glacier both have their peak season during July and August, which is also when you will find peak crowds.
Yellowstone National Park in September and October mean fewer crowds and fewer mosquitos. During this time you can expect high temperatures in the low 60s, with cold nights. Avoid spring in Yellowstone, as this is called “mud season”.
Summer temperatures in Glacier National Park average in the 70s, with cooler nights in the 40s. As you get into September the temperatures drop, but you also have a chance of seeing the Northern Lights. By October, you may see snowfall, and sections of the park start to close for the season.
We will be visiting Yellowstone in mid-September, followed by Glacier a week later.
How Much does a Northwest Family Road Trip Cost?
How much money you will spend depends on your family and your comfort level. Camping is one of the best ways to save money, though you need to make reservations well in advance. We are not comfortable camping, so we will be staying with friends when we can, and in hotels or motels the rest of the time.
You can save a lot of money on food by packing breakfast foods and snacks. Don’t miss 40+ Easy Road Trip Snacks for Kids & Toddlers which includes ideas for breakfasts and lunches.
Including staying with friends, we averaged $100/night during the fall of 2021. Staying inside National Parks is more expensive, but allows you to see the park at sunrise, and to avoid waiting in line to get in each morning. We were able to get a room in Yellowstone, but are staying just outside the other parks.
How much do National Parks Cost?
Each National Park has a different fee, but in general fees at larger parks are between $35 and $40 per car. If you will be visiting a few National Parks, be sure to get an America the Beautiful Pass– this annual pass costs $80 and gets you unlimited access to National Parks for one year. This pass covers entrance fees, it does not cover tour fees or lodging fees.
4th graders (and 5th Graders in 2021) also get a free annual park pass for their family.
Look for Junior Ranger packets in the visitor centers at National Parks. The kids complete the packets, and return them to be sworn in as Junior Rangers complete with a wooden badge! You may also want to get a family National Park Passport Book to stamp at each park.
Download the National Park Service app before you leave, it allows you to download important information about any of the parks so you can access it when offline. From maps to parking and bathrooms, this is app will come in handy.
How Much Do I Have to Plan Ahead?
We advise booking all hotel and motel rooms well in advance, with particular emphasis on the national parks, some of which are limiting visitors. Some popular lodging options in both Yellowstone and Glacier book up a year or more in advance, so the sooner you can reserve rooms in these parks, the better.
Most National Parks including Yellowstone and Glacier have limited cell service and wifi, even in lodges. Plan to download maps ahead of time or pick up paper maps at the visitor’s centers.
Planning ahead is one of our top family travel tips- you can check out the other tips at 21 Family Travel Tips for 2021: Best Tips for Travel with Kids.
What Should I Pack for a Long Road Trip with Kids?
We’ve got you covered! We drive a “not-so-huge” Subaru Outback, so space matters. Check out Road Trip Essentials: What to Pack for the Ultimate Road Trip in 2021.
American Northwest Family Road Trip Itinerary
This northwest family road trip is the second leg of our Family Year Out. We started with a 60+ day cross-country road trip. You can read about it in An Epic Cross-Country Road Trip Itinerary: 8 Weeks Coast to Coast
We are traveling with our 4-year-old and our 6-year-old, so we are trying to limit our time in the car to 4-5 hours a day. There are a few longer days on this trip to cover some of the vast distances between sites. If you have older kids, you could do a similar route in a lot less time. All activities we recommend are appropriate for families with young kids. Due to the current environment, we are mostly focusing on outdoor activities, with a few exceptions.
Need help keeping the kids entertained? Don’t miss 60+ Fun Road Trip Activities for Kids: How to Keep Kids Entertained on a Long Car Trip.
Start: San Francisco
We are starting from just north of San Francisco, but you could start anywhere on the loop. We are heading out in early September, so we should be avoiding the summer crowds, though we’ll be hitting the end of the season in some of the parks, and found that some of the boat tours will no longer be running.
Stop for lunch in Davis, CA. This is a university town, with lots of options for food. Waker spent some time growing up here, so we’ll be showing the kids around town and meeting up with some old friends.
Reno, NV- 2 nights
Reno is called the “Biggest Little City in the World”, there’s a lot to do here! Take a relaxing stroll through the Truckee River Walk, or play in the arcade while watching circus acts at Circus Circus carnival midway.
We are so excited to be hitting Reno just at the right time for the Great Reno Balloon Race! This is the world’s largest, free hot air balloon event. We’ll arrive on a Friday, then get up very early in the morning to watch over 100 hot air balloons rise at dawn on Saturday!
After such an early morning, we decided it was best not to try to drive to Utah, so we’ll have an easy afternoon and then head out the next morning.
Bonneville Salt Flats
From Reno, it’s about a six-hour drive to the Bonneville Salt Flats. This will be one of the longest drive days. You can also visit the flats as a day trip from Salt Lake City, it’s about 110 miles East. It’s best to visit during summer and fall when the flats are most likely to be dry.
The Bonneville Salt Flats are over 30,000 acres of land that used to be Lake Bonneville. The original lake was the size of Lake Michigan- when it dried up it left behind these salt deposits.
You can visit the Bonneville Salt Flats Speedway if you want to try driving on the flats- make sure they are completely dry, or you risk getting your car stuck in deep mud. Many movies are filmed here, and speed records set. Take exit 4 off I-80 and follow the signs to the speedway.
If you’re more interested in exploring the Salt Flats than driving on them, there’s a viewing area at a rest stop 10 miles from the town of Wendover, UT. You’ll see it on the map as “Salt Flats Rest Area”. The best viewing area is going westbound- there is no way to easily cross from the eastbound side of the highway, and the next exit is quite a few miles away.
Wendover, UT- 1 night
After visiting the salt flats, stay in the nearby town of Wendover for the night.
Shoshone Falls State Park
It’s a 3-hour drive from Wendover, UT to Shoshone Falls State Park. This waterfall has been called the “Niagara of the West”. It’s over 900 feet wide, making it one of the largest natural waterfalls in the United States. It’s at its most impressive in the Spring. In the summer some of the water is diverted for irrigation, and it may even be dry in the fall as the water is refilling the reservoir upstream.
Craters of the Moon National Monument- 1 night
Craters of the Moon is a large area of lava flow, with a few sagebrush plants and cinder cones mixed in. Astronauts explored here in 1969 while training for their trip to the moon. You can explore lava tubes, but you’ll need a free permit from the visitor’s center. The caves are generally free of ice and snow from May onward. Make sure to bring flashlights or headlamps and protect your head.
There is a seven-mile loop trail that circles the park, you’ll explore from there. After the visitors center, follow the loop until it splits to the right. Here you’ll find the short hikes to Snow Cone and Splatter cones. Continue along the loop. At the next intersection, decide whether to head right for Big Sink, the Molds Trail, and Buffalo Caves (closed in 2021), or continue along the loop to the next intersection.
Stop here to explore Indian Tunnel, and two caves of moderate difficulty- Dewdrop Cave and Beauty Cave. This area also has Boy Scout Cave which is more difficult.
As you continue on the road back towards the visitors center you’ll pass the trailhead for Devils Orchard Trail, a short half-mile loop.
The National Park Service warns not to depend on GPS to find the visitors center, it is at 1266 Craters Loop Road, just off U.S. Highway 20/26/93.
Plan to spend the night just north of the park in Arco, ID.
Grand Teton National Park- 2 nights
From Arco, you’ll have about a three-hour drive up to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. This park is full of hiking trails, and wildlife, keep an eye out for bears, and never let the kids run ahead of you on a trail. If you’re going to surprise a bear, best it’s an adult, not a kid!
You could easily spend a week exploring this park. There are a lot of trails in the family-friendly 2-3 mile range. One of the most popular hikes involves taking the Jenny Lake Boat Shuttle across the lake, then hiking 2 miles road trip to Inspiration Point and back. You can hike around the lake as well, but you’ll add two miles each way to the journey. From the boat, you can also hike the 1 mile round trip to Hidden Falls before heading up to Inspiration Point.
You can raft on the Snake River- either a slow float or a more adventurous rafting adventure. Tours leave from the Jackson Lake Lodge. For sunset, drive up Signal Mountain Summit Road for great viewpoints.
We weren’t able to get lodging in the park, so we’ll be staying in Jackson, WY.
Yellowstone National Park- 2 nights
Head up to Yellowstone National Park, just an hour from Grand Teton. Yellowstone was the first National Park and is one of the most famous. The park covers over 2 million acres and has over 900 miles of trails to explore.
Download the Yellowstone Park App for info, guided audio tours, road closures, and geyser eruption predictions. You could spend a lot of time exploring this park.
Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic
When you enter the park, head straight for Old Faithful and Castle Geyser. If you are waiting for the geyser to erupt, check out the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn. Keep walking along this path past Old Faithful, and you’ll pass several other geysers, as well as Morning Glory, a famous hot spring with intense colors.
From the Fairy Falls Trailhead take the Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail, a 1.2 mile (there and back) trail that overlooks the Grand Prismatic Spring and the Midway Geyser Basin.
Wildlife and Mud Pools
There are two places best known for seeing herds of bison and other wildlife in Yellowstone. The first is Lamar Valley, the second is Hayden Valley.
The road between Canyon Village and Roosevelt is scheduled to be closed until May of 2022. This makes Lamar Valley much more difficult to reach, as it’s a long way around!
Hayden Valley is a 20-mile stretch between Yellowstone Lake and Canyon Village- it often gets congested with traffic. There are often a lot of bison and even grizzlies on this stretch of road.
Grand Canyon Area
From the South Rim Trail, you can visit Artist’s Point, then drive back down to the trailhead for Uncle Tom’s trail. Check at the visitor’s center, as some report that the stairs on Uncle Tom’s Trail are currently closed. There are other trails, including Tower Falls, along the Cayon that are on the road that is closed until 2022.
Mammoth Hot Springs, with its other-worldly formations, is at the northernmost point of the park. From here you can also check out Gardner, MT. We will visit this area on our way out of the park, heading north into Montana.
About an hour after you leave the Mammoth Springs area of Yellowstone you’ll be in Livingston, MT. Stop here for lunch, stretch your legs and stroll down Main Street to soak up the Old West ambiance. This is the town where much of “A River Runs Through It” was filmed. Anthony Bourdain dubbed the Murray Hotel in Livingston one of his favorite hotels in the world.
Pinkys serves breakfast all day and is known for its pancakes. Closed Wednesday and Thursday.
Gil’s Goods has wood-fired pizza, salads, and hamburgers. Closed Tuesdays.
If you are feeling open-minded, try Faye’s Cafe, you give them an idea of what sounds good, and they’ll make it for you! $Set price per meal with a drink included.
If you have more time to spend in Livingston, check out this article in Thrillest.
White Sulphur Springs, MT- 1 night
We’ll be visiting a friend in White Sulphur Springs, known for it’s ranching and natural hot springs. This small town sits in the middle of the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
Alternate Stop: Lewis and Clark Caverns
These magnificent limestone caverns are part of Montana’s first state park. Discovered in 1892, you’ll need to take a guided tour to see these vast caverns. These caves are closed during the winter with the exception of a special candle-lit tour. Located in Whitehall, MT about 1:15 min West of Livingston.
Alternate Stop: Helena, MT
The capital of Montana, Helena started as a camp during the gold rush. Take the Last Chance Train Tour to see some of the highlights of the city. Take a self-guided tour of the state capital building with its massive rotunda, or head over to the Great Northern Carousel to ride some native animals, including a mountain goat and a cutthroat trout!
Gates of the Mountain Boat Tour
Just north of Helena, the Gates of the Mountain Boat Tour takes you on a 2-hour cruise on the Missouri River. The Lewis and Clark expedition named this area the “Gates of the Mountain”. Follow in their footsteps as you admire towering limestone cliffs as you glide along the river.
Great Falls, MT- 2 nights
There’s a lot to do in Great Falls, Montana! Check out the five waterfalls the town is named for in Giant Springs Park, then visit the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center to learn about this important expedition. You can also visit the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, about a 20-minute drive outside of town.
Glacier National Park- 3 nights
Glacier National Park has over 700 miles of trails and the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. You must have an entry reservation ticket as well as a park pass to drive this road from May 28-September 6th, 2021.
West Glacier and Saint Mary’s are connected by the Going-to-the-Sun-Road, a 50-mile scenic drive that is the only road through the park. Drive West to East to be on the outside of the road, with the best views, but also with sheer drops off the side. We’ll be staying in West Glacier Village at the West Glacier Motel just outside the west entrance to the park.
From the East side of the park, you can access the Many Glaciers area and the Two Medicine area. Both have great hikes and lots of wildlife. The hike out to Grinnell Glacier is the most popular in the Many Glaciers area. It is a 7-mile hike unless you take a series of ferries from the Many Glacier Hotel. This shortens the hike to make it family-friendly. The boats stop running for the season in Mid-September, so this won’t be an option for us.
Bonners Ferry, ID
Plan to stop for lunch in Bonners Ferry, about a three-hour drive from West Glacier. We’re planning to try the Two Tones Cafe which has a lovely back garden, but you can also check out Mugsy’s Tavern and Grill. There are quite a few options in this town.
Christina Lake, BC- 3 nights
After Glacier, cross into Canada and west to Christina Lake. The lake the town is named after is 18 km long and the warmest tree-lined lake in British Columbia! We’ll be visiting friends here, but this is a great place to relax and explore the lake by kayak, canoe, or paddleboard.
Alternate Stop: Nelson, BC
Nelson, BC sits on Kootenay Lake, making it a great place for water activities. Take the 2.2-mile round-trip hike to Pulpit Rock or stroll along Baker Street for shopping, coffee, or ice cream, keeping your eyes peeled for street art throughout town.
Alternate Stop: Princeton, BC
This is a great place to break up the drive to Vancouver if you’d like to limit your hours in the car.
Vancouver, BC- 3 nights
Less than an hour from the US border, we’ve heard many people rave about the beauty of this city- we’re so excited to visit!
Visit Granville Market, check out Stanley Park and its famous seawall and first people’s totems, then head to the Richmond Night Market. Consider a whale watch if you’re visiting from May to October- over 20,000 grey whales migrate past the coast here!
Seattle, WA- 3 nights
Waker lived in Seattle, and we will be visiting family here. If this is your first visit, make sure to visit Pike’s Place Market to watch the seafood workers throw fish.
The Artists at Play Playground in the same area makes a great stop for kids- the climbing structure will keep even older kids occupied.
Alternate Stop: Mount St. Helens
Three hours south of Seattle is the magnificent Mount St. Helens. During your visit, you can see evidence of the famous 1980 eruption. You can camp here, or stay in one of the park’s yurts. You’ll approach the mountain via the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. At mile 33 stop at the Forest Learning Center for lots of great kid activities.
Portland, OR- 3 nights
Portland’s slogan is “Keep Portland Weird”, so of course, there are a ton of kid-friendly things to do! Check out the downtown full of street art, the famous Powells Books, and Pioneer Courthouse Square. Taste test some of Portland’s most famous doughnut shops- Voodoo, Blue Star, and Pip’s Originals, then walk it off on one of the trails in Forest Park.
Just 30 minutes from Portland is Columbia Gorge and Multnomah Falls. This 620-foot waterfall is sure to impress! You can either take a short walk over the bridge crossing the middle of the falls or a longer hike to the top of the falls.
Alternate Stop: Cannon Beach
Cannon Beach is about 1 1/2 hours from Portland. This beach could be a day trip from Portland, or you could use this as a starting point for heading down the beautiful, rugged Oregon coast.
Known for its iconic Haystack Rock, you’ve seen this beach in the classic 1980’s movie Goonies. Fly a kite on the windy beach, then grab an espresso or some sweet treats from the Chocolate Cafe in town. Check out the family-friendly Public Coast Brewing for beers and burgers.
Leaving Portland, you can take your time meandering down the coast, or head to Eugene- a 2-hour drive that makes for a great lunch stop.
Alternate Stop: Bend, OR
Bend, Oregon is known for its great outdoor activities, its farmers market, and of course, the last Blockbuster! There are lots of family-friendly breweries packed into the city as well.
Alternate Stop: National Dunes Recreation Area
The National Dunes Recreation Area is over 31,000 acres- full of wetlands, dunes, and beaches. You can go sandboarding, hike the dunes, or take an ATV across some of the dunes. These enormous dunes (some reach 500 feet) inspired the science-fiction classic “Dune” by Frank Herbert.
Alternate Stop: Crater Lake National Park- 2 nights
Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States at 1,943 feet- it is also one of the most pristine. Created by a collapsing volcano, it is known for its clarity and intense blue color.
Drive the rim of the lake for fantastic views, then take a boat tour out onto the lake. To get to the boat launch, take the Cleetwood Trail 1.1 miles down to the shore of the lake.
Leaving the Klamath Falls area, head west to Ashland which makes a great lunch stop. Then continue to Crescent City, CA on the coast before heading south.
Bandon, Oregon makes a great place to stop along your tour of the Oregon coastline. Check out the tidepools at Coquille Point during low tide to find lots of sea creatures. Fly kites at Face Rock State Park, then visit the old town for fish and chips while you watch the fisherman at the marina.
From Bandon, you will continue down the coastline and into California.
Klamath is a great place to explore the redwoods of California. This is also one of the last few places you can drive your car through one of the trees (mirrors in please!). Visit the Yurok Country Visitor Center to learn more about the Yurok Tribe, one of several who traditionally lived in this area.
We’ll be stopping here for a quick lunch break before heading down the coast.
Patrick’s Point State Park
About 45 minutes south of Klamath, is Patrick’s Point State Park. This is a one-square-mile park along the Pacific Ocean. It has tide pools, the chance to search for agates, sea stacks, and amazing views. You can also visit Sumêg Village, which includes several traditional Yurok plank houses. In the spring and fall, you may be able to see migrating grey whales.
Hike the 2 mile Rim Trail, and decide whether to take one of the short trails down to the shore or hike inland to one of the higher viewpoints at Ceremonial Rock or Lookout Rock.
Fortuna, CA- 1 night
We’ll continue down the coast, passing through Eureka, CA, and stopping for the night in the smaller town of Fortuna, pop 12,000. Fortuna is a great place to explore the redwoods and puts you only a five-hour drive from San Francisco.
From Fortuna, you can take The Avenue of the Giants (rt 254), which parallels Rt 101 for 33 miles taking you through the redwoods and giving you access to hiking trails
Fort Bragg, CA
After getting your fill of the redwoods, head to Fort Bragg, to see Glass Beach. The beach is named after all the sea glass mixed into the pebbles on the beach. Please don’t take any glass home with you!
Fort Bragg is also known for the Skunk Train, an old-fashioned train that has been chugging through the redwoods since 1885. You can also take a rail bike along a section of track.
Just 10 miles farther south is Mendocino, CA. A popular weekend getaway from San Francisco, Mendocino is a great place to stop for lunch. If you have more time, explore Russian Gulch State Park.
Final Road Trip Stop: San Francisco, CA
We’ll end this northwest road trip by returning to the City by the Bay, San Francisco, California. Which stops are you most excited about? Any recommendations for alternate stops? Let us know in the comments!
Planning a road trip with kids? Our best advice is here: A Road Trip with Kids and Toddlers: 20+ Tips to Survive and Thrive.