The Road Less Minivan-ed

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Family Vacations Guide

The Road Less Minivan-ed

When it comes to four-wheeling it, don't go with the flow. Take to the byways on these three departures from the ordinary.



Road Trip
Cory Sorensen

One of the great mysteries of family life is why kids, who often can't bear a 15-minute ride to the grocery store, still love a 2,000-mile road trip. I am reminded of this when my husband and I propose a drive to Nevada's Valley of Fire from our Portland, Oregon, home. After being chauffeured nonstop to music lessons and soccer practice, my girls--the Big One is 14, the Little One, seven--are thrilled with the idea of driving somewhere, anywhere, that doesn't have some kind of lesson at the end.

The first day we head east past Mount Hood to Maupin, on the banks of the Deschutes River, and stop at C & J Lodge, a family-run bed and breakfast, where we sign on for its one-day, 18-mile raft trip. Conveniently, the stretch of river that runs past the lodge is studded with Class III and IV rapids, one right after the other, perfect for the legendary flea-sized attention span of the modern child. Our guide, Joe, tells us that girls make the best paddlers because they listen well. Our girls beam, then spend most of the float not listening, preferring to drench each other with the bailing bucket. The rapids themselves earn a four-star rating. "This is better than Disneyland!" hollers the Little One. The Big One falls out in a rapid called Boxcar while fixing her braids.

We spend the night at the lodge and linger over breakfast, thereby breaking the road-trip credo: Always leave early in the morning. We turn the car inside out looking for the Little One's sandal. After a half hour of this, she remembers that it fell out of the raft the day before. She thinks.

We are now behind schedule. Our next stop is Pyramid Lake, just north of Reno. Pyramid is Nevada's largest real lake, the sacred territory of the Paiute, surrounded by red-orange sandstone mountains. We have big plans to rent a boat, and have told the girls all about the endangered cui-ui fish found only in this lake.

Elephant Rock
Terry Donnelly

By the time we arrive, it's dark, so of course we can't see a thing. The girls are tired and crabby; all they want to know is where the gift shop is. My husband can't find the campground. I start to wonder why we decided not to fly, we of the gazillion frequent-flier miles. But by the next morning, we've slept off our bad moods. At 5 a.m., the sky is pale pink, the air cool and still. We love the austere high-desert landscape, the oily smell of creosote. We have a million-mile drive down desolate U.S. 95 ahead of us.

Fortunately, the girls both possess the self-entertainment gene. They can sing, color, tell dumb jokes in foreign accents for hours on end. Still, ten hours in the car is ten hours in the car. The Big One eventually disappears into her Walkman. The Little One conducts a science experiment: At every mile marker she steps on my seat belt to see if it will make me have to pee.

Our destination, the Valley of Fire, is the oldest state park in Nevada, famous for its red sandstone formations that tilt into the earth at magically weird angles. Again, we arrive at night, and the next morning it's at least as hot as Mercury. We don't care--we're here! The girls, both Big and Little, are eager to get to these famous rocks, rocks that look like musical instruments, rocks that look like animals, rocks we've been reminding them about for days: the Beehives, Elephant Rock, Piano Rock--kid-friendly rocks, some with arches, hollows, shallow caves, and overhangs that beg to be explored. We hike down a sandy-floored canyon to Mouse's Tank, named for the renegade Paiute who hid out here in the 1890s. The walls of the canyon shine black with desert varnish, etched with hundreds of mysterious Indian petroglyphs. The Big One leaves her Walkman in the car. The Little One brings along a notebook in which she copies ancient drawings of horses and bighorn sheep.

Perhaps I understand the appeal of the road trip after all. We are sick to death of quality time; we want quantity time. And one way we can be assured of having time together, lots of it, is to be trapped in our car, speeding down the open road. &nbsp--Karen Karbo

Day One
Portland to Maupin, Oregon
Mileage: 110. Drive Time: about 2 hours. Stopovers: C & J Lodge, Maupin, Oregon (800-395-3903;, has doubles for $70–$105 per night, breakfast included. One-day raft trips cost $75, adults; $65, kids under 13; lunch included.

Day Two
Maupin, Oregon, to Pyramid Lake, Nevada
Mileage: 480. Drive Time: 8–9 hours. Stopovers: Pyramid Lake is on the Paiute Indian Reservation, 32 miles north of Reno on Nevada 445. Rent kayaks at Reno Mountain Sports (775-825-2855; $25–$45 per day). Day-use passes ($5 per vehicle), camping permits ($5 per vehicle per night; primitive sites), and fishing permits ($6 per day; minimum age 12) can be purchased at the Pyramid Lake Store in Sutcliffe on the west side of the lake.

Day Three
Pyramid Lake to Valley of Fire
Mileage: 500. Drive Time: 9–10 hours. Stopovers: Valley of Fire State Park (702-397-2088) is 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Entrance fee is $5 per vehicle per day; camping, an additional $7 per vehicle per night. The visitor center is open from 8:30 to 4:30. At the west end of the park, two campgrounds offer 52 sites with shaded tables, grills, water, and restrooms.



Some men cheat death by climbing sheer cliffs, parachuting from creaky biplanes, or taking a Carnival cruise. But I'd like to see these so-called adventurers buckle a wife, a ten-year-old boy, and a four-year-old girl--all of them non-lacto, non-ovo vegetarians--into a minivan for 471.4 miles and 12 hours straight, and come out alive on the other end.

Olympic decathlon, my ass. Climbing Everest? Whoop-de-doo. (But I do know why Sandy Hill Pittman had that Sherpa drag along a cappuccino maker when she went up the mountain, and I sympathize. There's not a drinkable cup of coffee on I-95 either.) Of course, it's all worthwhile when we get there. It just doesn't seem that way when we're on the New Jersey Turnpike, an hour and a half into the trip, and there's only one piece of dried seaweed left in the snack bag. A few parental advisories:

  • The aforementioned snack bag should cover all moods and all foods: salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. It should be the biggest bag you pack. If another suitcase is larger, return to the kitchen and rectify what could be the most egregious mistake of the trip.
  • Choose any family car based on one criterion, and one criterion alone: the number of factory-installed cupholders. Count on at least three cupholders per kid--which still won't be enough. Before the trip, visit your local fast-food drive-thru windows to determine whether "supersizing it," "going large," or getting a "biggie drink" is something you and your car are willing to risk. If not, rent.
  • Obviously, if you let the kids supersize the drink, there are going to be consequences. From one of those gadget-on-the-go catalogs, obtain a portable urinal. Read the directions aloud in the car to no one in particular: "Before first use, fill with tap water and replace cap to check for leaks...spill-proof adapter for women not place in dishwasher." Buy one not because you intend to use it and not because you intend to make the kids use it, but simply because once the kids know it's in the car, they'll surprise you with just how long they can hold it until you reach civilization.
  • Don't hit animals with the car. It can add hours to any trip. And for God's sake, don't hit anything that has a stuffed- animal counterpart back home in your daughter's bedroom.
  • Souvenir shops are for suckers and single people. Keep back 200 feet. The very stuffed animal whose existence defies all concepts of modern marketing--say, Critter the Crab, a Cuddly Crustacean--is the one that cries out most loudly to be bought.
  • Consensus is not something the 105th Congress could build, so don't expect your kids to agree on the music in the car. On one hand, Barney's campfire songs may seem like cruel and unusual punishment. But then you may not yet be familiar with the oeuvre of Korn. At any point before, during, or after the trip, pass out portable electronic devices--Walkmans, Discmans, whatever--and the headsets that go with them.
  • Use the trip to explain to your children any laws of science that might otherwise go untaught in today's schools. For instance: The more you accelerate, the faster you go. The faster you go, the quicker you get there.
  • Another important lesson: Policemen are our friends. Until they stop us for accelerating.

--Tom Prince



Recently I read that long-haul truck drivers voted Wyoming the most scenic state through which to steer their big rigs. I concur: The Cuisinart-frappéed geology is an inspired mix of Salvador Dalí surrealism and Georgia O'Keeffe color.

As back-to-school realities loom, my family is intent on ticking off one more exploratory road trip before autumn hits us upside the head like a chalkboard eraser. The Bighorn Mountains of north-central Wyoming, a sleepy range not particularly on the way to anywhere, are our initial destination. Leaving Bozeman, we head east about a hundred miles on I-90 before jumping off at Columbus. Meandering farther east on County Road 421, Clyde, seven, and Mason, five, thrust their little arms in the air and whoop it up on the roller-coaster contours of the two-lane. When we reach Bridger, Montana, via a dirt-road shortcut, the bank thermometer reads 102°F. Our boys lobby us for an ice-cream pit stop, which we oblige. Vanilla soft-serve dripping all over the red-plaid upholstery of my '85 F-250 diesel, we roll down the road toward Lovell, Wyoming.

Like a snowboarder's launchpad to oblivion, the Bighorn Mountains rise up in a steep, progressive arc just east of Lovell on U.S. Alternate Route 14. Clyde, my cautious son, gets acrophobia as we wind around the exposed corners leading toward Bald Mountain (elevation 10,042 feet). As the temperature of my truck engine approaches a boil, the air outside gets progressively cooler. By the time we top out, it's officially sweater weather. On this northwestern edge of the range, the terrain has a decidedly Scottish Highlands feel. When the road starts to level out on top of the massif past a grove of Stonehenge-balanced outcrops, we pull into Porcupine Campground in the northwest corner of Bighorn National Forest. The boys and I wander around the crags looking for boulders we might claw our way up.

Morning brings low-hung fog and soft rain. We push off early to scout the Medicine Wheel, a sacred Native American archeological site just down the road. A mile-and-a-half walk leads to this ceremonial structure with a 245-foot circumference. Though many theories exist about why the Medicine Wheel came to be, we all agree that the astronomical-observatory notion seems most plausible. Clyde and Mason are wearing vacant, vision-quest stares, or perhaps they're just coming down from their hot-chocolate-and-oatmeal buzz.

Back on the road, we parallel the North Fork of the Tongue River, and head for Shell Canyon. Antelope Butte Ski Area marks the beginning of a brake-smoking downhill. We get out and amble down a steep trail for our first neck-craning view into the 4,000-foot canyon. Glacial polished granite folds over the fall line; Mason chucks a pebble off the edge, and we listen for a splash.

In what seems like a blink, we drop off the Bighorns and find ourselves in high-desert, red-rock country rolling across flatlands through buttes and mesas the color of burnt chile. Cruising westward through Greybull, we aim for Cody, for a quick look at the gun and art exhibits at the famed Buffalo Bill Historical Center. With the sun now firebombing the horizon, we pull into Wapati, a prime forest-service campground on the North Fork of the Shoshone River. Clyde and Mason scramble off to collect firewood, while my wife, Cindy, preps a crucial black-bean burrito feed. Minutes later, Clyde comes squealing into camp, face white as bleached bones. "It, it, it was a snake...a rattlesnake! I almost grabbed it!" Reaching into a pile of driftwood, seems junior almost shook hands with Mr. Buzzworm.

Following a morning mountain-bike ride up a Wapati side canyon, we load the truck and head out, viper angst in our wake. Doglegging back through Cody, we veer northward toward Dead Indian Pass via the Chief Joseph Highway. Kayakers know it as the shuttle road for the epic Clarks Fork Canyon. At the put-in for Honeymoon Canyon, we munch on PB&J sandwiches, with backdrop peaks scribing a Matterhorn skyline.

The Beartooth Scenic Highway is the last haute route of our journey, winding upward through dense pine and fir forests. We pull into Island Lake, loop through the near-empty campground, and select the definitive site. Chilled early September air reminds us of why we've brought pile jackets and gloves. Tufts of wildflowers hunker among the rocks. It would seem they know, as we do, that this ephemeral season is about to go out in a flash.  --Mike Harrelson

Day One
Bozeman to Porcupine Campground
Mileage: 200. Drive Time: about 4 hours. Stopovers: Porcupine Campground in Bighorn National Forest (307-548-6541) has 15 campsites with picnic tables, grills, water, and toilets; $10 per night; no reservations.

Day Two
Porcupine Campground to Wapati Campground
Mileage: 150. Drive Time: 3–5 hours, with stops. Stopovers: The trailhead to Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark (307-548-6541) is on U.S. Alternate Route 14, near the turnoff to Porcupine Campground. Contact the Buffalo Bill Historical Center at 307-587-4771 or Wapati Campground has 41 campsites with water and toilets; $9 per night; no reservations. Call the Shoshone National Forest office in Cody, 307-527-6241.

Day Three
Wapati Campground to Island Lake Campground
Mileage: 96. Drive Time: about 2 hours. Stopovers: Island Lake Campground has 20 campsites with fire rings, water, and toilets; $9 per night; no reservations. Call the Wapati Ranger District, 307-527-6921. Since the campground is very popular in summer, get there early in the day.



We talked with Dr. Fred Grambort of Albuquerque Pediatric, a father of two who once drove 4,000 miles throughout the West with his 12-year-old daughter:

What causes car sickness?

"In most cases, motion sickness is caused by overstimulation of the vestibular system. The body has three ways of understanding its position in space, and the vestibular system is one of them. Information is gathered from the inner ear via the semicircular canals (little gyroscope-like tubes filled with liquid and oriented in different directions). The fluids in the semicircular canals shift and help you orient your body to gravity's pull. If the vestibular system is stimulated enough, the information will become jumbled, resulting in nausea (your body's way of forcing you to stop rocking the boat)."

What can a parent do to keep kids from getting nauseated in the car?

"Well, the visual system can override the vestibular system, so make sure your children can see the road. Prop them up or put them in the front seat, and tell them to look at the horizon. Focusing on the road's vanishing point will help keep them oriented. Like a spinning figure skater who focuses on one point and turns her head out of sync with the spin to keep from getting painfully dizzy, a child's visual cues will override the confused vestibular system. Also, keep the kids cool to help with general discomfort, and don't feed them too much before they get into the car. A full stomach can aggravate nausea."

How do you deal with a carsick child?

"Once the child has already vomited, he's unlikely to be affected by motion sickness for the rest of that day. Once they have have short-circuited the system, so to speak, the nerves relax. But who wants to take that route? Prevention is obviously the best method."  --P.D.A.

Illustration by Calef Brown



"Moooooo," my three-year-old son, Jake, called, echoed by a high-pitched moo from my year-old daughter, Melanie. The kids were taunting the cows grazing at the edge of Vermont's Lamoille River as we slid by in our canoe. Cornfields sloped down to the water, surrounded by the foothills of the Green Mountains.

The canoe trip was a rare outing en famille during our weeklong road trip through Vermont. If my kids were older, say six and eight, they could have participated in all the sports we tried, but since they were so little, my wife, Lisa, and I had to craft a week of compromise. So, on the first day, I dropped Lisa off at Kedron Valley Stables in South Woodstock for a three-hour horseback ride. While she rode through secluded woods and historic villages, I took the kids to the nearby Billings Farm and Museum, a turn-of-the century dairy farm, in Woodstock.

The next day it was my turn to play as we made our way north to East Burke. From the town center, more than 75 miles of mountain-bike routes branch out into the Kingdom Trails network. I jumped on my bike and cruised into the countryside on soft forest singletrack. Lisa opted to stay on the grounds of the Wildflower Inn, which caters to families with hayrides, a petting zoo, playground, pool, tennis courts, batting cage, and basketball courts.

On day three, it was off to Stowe, where we made our six-mile canoe journey down the Lamoille. We split up again the following morning, Lisa taking Jake on a 15-mile bike loop through the quintessential Vermont towns of Waitsfield and Warren, while I put Melanie in the backpack and climbed Mount Hunger. The relatively flat bike ride, via Vermont 100 and Vermont 17, takes riders through two covered bridges into the farmland below Sugarbush ski area. Treasured by locals for its lack of foot traffic, 3,538-foot Mount Hunger is a moderate climb that rewards you with views of the northern half of the state. Melanie, of course, was far too busy chasing ants and pointing at chipmunks to relish the sights. Afterward, we met Lisa and Jake at the Ben & Jerry's factory over in Waterbury.

We spent the last two days in western Vermont, on or near the shores of Lake Champlain. In Burlington, I went sailing with Jake, while Lisa took Mel cycling on the nine-mile Burlington Bikeway. Then it was south to Basin Harbor for our big finale--a day of road biking for the entire clan. Button Bay Road (which turns into Lake Road) is a gently rolling route wedged between New York's Adirondacks and Vermont's Green Mountains, where silos and cows far outnumber cars, and Jake and Mel said their goodbye "moos."  --Stephen Jermanok

Day One
Boston to Woodstock, Vermont
Mileage: 150. Drive Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes. Stopovers: Kedron Valley Stables (800-225-6301) rents horses for $30 an hour (minimum age six). Woodstock Inn & Resort (800-448-7900;; doubles, $212–$324) has an indoor sports center, a pool, and tennis courts.

Day Two
Woodstock to East Burke
Mileage: 87. Drive Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Stopovers: East Burke Sports (802-626-3215) rents mountain bikes for $25 daily. The Wildflower Inn (802-626-8310) has doubles and suites for $115–$230, including breakfast.

Days Three and Four
East Burke to Stowe
Mileage: 64. Drive Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Stopovers: Smugglers' Notch Canoe Touring (888-937-6266) offers canoe rental and shuttles to the Lamoille for $50. The Mount Hunger trailhead is near Waterbury Center. Mad River Cyclery (802-496-9996), in Waitsfield, rents bikes for $20 a day, $14 for kids. The Inn at Turner Mill (802-253-2062) has two-bedroom suites for $132–$158, including breakfast for four.

Day Five
Stowe to Burlington
Mileage: 36. Drive Time: 45 minutes. Stopovers: Winds of Ireland (800-458-9301) rents 28- to 41-foot sailboats starting at $150 for a half-day. The Radisson (802-658-6500; doubles, $159–$179, children sharing room are free) is right across the street from the Burlington Bikeway.

Day Six
Burlington to Basin Harbor
Mileage: 27. Drive Time: 35 minutes. Stopovers: Basin Harbor Club (800-622-4000;; doubles, $210–$435, including all meals) provides supervised activities for ages 3–15. D.A.R. State Park (802-759-2354) is on the shore of Lake Champlain and charges $16 per campsite per night.

Day Seven
Basin Harbor to Boston
Mileage: 257. Drive Time: about 4 hours.



It's not easy owning a V-8 beast like the one I drive. Holier-than-thou compact-car owners look at you with utter disgust, berating you as the gluttonous gas and road hog that you are. What can I say? Mea culpa, and eat my 14-mile-per-gallon exhaust.

What's so ironic is that I was once a proud member of the gas-miserly crowd. As the owner of a sensible VW Passat sedan, I, too, looked on these monster sport-utility vehicles as examples of conspicuous consumption and vehicular excess. Now I own a behemoth Chevy Tahoe, and I love it. Why? Family life is a progression through stages. Kids need ever-bigger clothes, bigger rooms, bigger refrigerators, and bigger cars to accommodate their nuclear rate of growth.

My daughter, Mary, 11, now has legs as long as mine, and Peter, eight, will be there in about 20 minutes. Both have attitudes that cannot be contained in the backseat of a Beetle. There are cars bigger than mine--Ford's monstrous Excursion, for one, and the Tahoe's big brother, the Suburban. There are more luxurious cars--Cad-illac, Mercedes, and Lexus all manufacture SUVs. There are also electric cars on the horizon, and to atone for my current automobile sins, I promise to buy one when my kids are grown. But for now, here's some hard-won advice on choosing the best vehicle for family road-tripping.

Prevent War

My theory is that the intensity of road-trip fighting is directly proportional to how close siblings sit next to one another in the car. Find a vehicle with a table that flips down and physically separates the kids. This feature alone is worth the price of the car.

Avoid Too Much Détente

But beware of overseparation. I once rented a large van for a five-hour road trip in which I took the driver's seat, Mary sat on the first bench, and Peter on the second. We barely spoke--I needed an intercom to even converse with Peter. Look for enough space so your kids can happily coexist, but not so much that they can operate as nonspeaking independent nations.

Make Room for Gear to Go

My kids seem to live in constant fear of having nothing to do. This is most true on a road trip. When they're finally sprung from the seat belts, they want some action. Which is why we cram the car with a basketball, Rollerblades, hockey sticks, skateboards, soccer balls, swim fins and goggles, bikes...stuff. Look for a vehicle with enough cargo space to haul the contents of your sports closet.

Keep Kids Wired

I make my kids read, really I do. But on a road trip, sometimes you find yourself doing whatever it takes to simply get the family happily down the highway. If that means plugging in a TV, VCR, Nintendo, whatever, fine with me. Find a car with extra jacks, which will give the kids more electro-options and one less thing to fight about.

The Four-Legged Factor

After the kids are properly separated, the gear stowed, and the personal electronics fired up, I save room for the rest of the family. There's Haskell, now 12, but still the road pup. Then there's Cappie, a year-old mutt and road-pup-in-training. We also have two horses--and plans to check out a few equine-friendly vacation spots. As I said, our definition of "one big happy family" sure puts demands on the family car.



Pleeeeease MOM!  . . .I WANT IT.


As the back of this hands-on games and activities book for travelers over seven says, "Do Not Remove This Book from the Car (your sanity may depend on it)." Play coin races, a sliding block puzzle, backseat baseball, back-rub games, and more, while the miles slide by ($17 from Klutz Press; 800-737-4123; "The games are fun, and it really does keep you from getting bored in the car, " says Ashton Joseph, 11. "I like it because there are games I can play with my sister and others I can play by myself."  --L.T.B.


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