National Park Trip

Brett Roper, CFP®, AIF® |

For this post I will share my decision making process where life meets money for the Roper family in summer 2023.  My wife Laura and I are big believers in opting outside and sharing this mindset with our kids (Will age 11 and Mishi age 9).  We absolutely love our National Park system and purchased our National Park Passport Books a few years back to keep track of our visits.  The kids really look forward to the stamps!

Back in 2020 I learned of the 4th grade National Park Pass:  Basically you and your 4th grader can apply/download a pass to our national land and waters, plan a trip, and hit the road.  This equates to a free National Park Annual Pass worth $80.  The 4th grade pass admits all children under 16 and up to 3 adults for free in your vehicle upon entering a park.

Now the fun part…planning a trip with our new pass!  I knew the destination would be somewhere out West.  I identified 3 zones that we could hit a few National Parks within a 2 week travel window:  Upper Rockies, Southwest, and California.  We ended up choosing the Upper Rockies to see Wind Cave NP, Badlands NP, Glacier NP, Yellowstone NP, Grand Teton NP, and a few stops in between.   Custer State Park in South Dakota was very on par with a National Park in my opinion.

Next step was to figure out our logistics.  The original dream was to go Griswold Family style and just drive the mini-van from DC metro out West and back with a focus on car camping or ‘glamping’ along the way.  This was quickly nixed considering the drive time to and from the Rockies (2 days each way at a minimum).  We decided to start and end our road trip in Denver, CO visiting Laura’s older brother and borrowing some road trip essentials (thank you Mike and Adrienne!).  We chose to fly Southwest from DC to Denver for the free checked bags and a decent price point at $400 per person or $1,600 total.

With the original dream of driving and camping I began to look at Campervans to rent.  I even went as far as placing a refundable deposit down on an Escape Campervan rental to and from Denver.  During the research I came to realize RV’s and Campervans come with a fixed mileage allowance per day.  But, you can look to increase the mileage at certain increments or pay per mile over the fixed allotment when you return the vehicle.  I decided to build an offline map in Google Maps and start putting together a rough itinerary.  Glacier NP from Denver really added to the mileage overall but I wasn’t willing to compromise this stop and very glad we kept it!  All in for the Campervan rental would have been ~$5,500 plus gas and the cost of RV sites.  Yikes!

I had that ‘What if’ question for a few weeks after the Campervan deposit.  What if we rent a sedan or smaller SUV and build out lodging in and out of these parks?  At this point I already had our rough itinerary built in the Google Map.   I found a rental car through Costco Travel for $1,550 across 15 days with unlimited mileage and included a free additional driver.  No doubt the smaller vehicle would result in more fuel efficiency.  I researched a mix of small condo rentals, hotels, and NP lodging for $3,500 total along our route.  This lodging consisted of the 4 of us in 1 hotel room, sometimes 2 separate rooms, and a 2 bedroom condo.   Dreamcatcher Tipi at Yellowstone was the family favorite:

For those keeping track, the smaller car with lodging decision was roughly $500 cheaper plus the unknown of RV site reservations/costs estimated at ~$750 across the 15 day trip.  We went with the cheaper option and I am glad we did.  We were never in 1 spot for more than 3 nights and very often just 2 or 1 night stays to make the itinerary work within our time frame.  The thought of parking each night, setting up camp, breaking camp, and leaving the campground would have shortened our days venturing out into these beautiful parks. 

Here are some of our favorite pics from the trip.  I will add Glacier NP was our favorite across the family.  It is pretty far north and isolated but the scenery was stunning and our hike to the Grinnell Glacier had it all.  Going the Sun Road was worth the reservation far in advance and was one of the most scenic and beautiful drives I have ever seen.

This trip worked out to cost our family of 4 $500 per day to include roundtrip air, lodging, rental car, gas, food, and incidentals. As you can see from the pics, the memories and seeing these sights up close were priceless and the stories from this trip should last a lifetime. 

My tip to you is to start early in your planning, minimum 6 months out and a little earlier if you are thinking Glacier NP.  Figure out where you want to go and price out your options ahead of time.  I am happy to share my more detailed itinerary if interested. 

Where should we go next?  Our 4th grade pass expires July 31, 2024!


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