“Hey, we’re going to rent an RV this summer. Want to go adventuring with us?”
As I bounced the idea off my friend Marcie last fall, I couldn’t have guessed what that adventure would include: four Tacoma families in RVs, two national parks, seven campgrounds, 2,000 miles, somewhere around 150 bug bites and a trip we’ll never forget.
Marcie brings the party everywhere she goes, and suddenly our lineup consisted of eight grown-ups and eight kids ranging from age 6 to 10, all of whom had shared many camping weekends together. But 10 days together is a test for even the best friendships.
“We’re going on an RV trip to Glacier and Yellowstone,” I’d tell people, and they’d look jealous. “With three other families,” I’d add, and their eyebrows would shoot up. As an introvert who craves peace and quiet, I worried about whether they were right to be skeptical. Could we all enjoy what we were calling the Great American RV Trip? And if so, would we come back with lessons for other travelers?
One family borrowed an RV, another brought their own, and two families rented RVs from Cruise America. Those 25-footers had sleeping space for five people, along with a table, fridge, freezer, microwave, propane cooktop, toilet and shower.
Marcie and I had already sketched the trip’s outlines by the time the other families decided to join us. We met as a group to settle on some guidelines:
- The two of us would book campsites and offer ideas on what we could do each day, but it was up to each family to decide how to forge its own path.
- Each family would take care of its own food. We’d sometimes taken turns cooking on weekend trips, but that wouldn’t be practical on a trip this long.
- No sleepovers. Kids would snooze in their own families’ RVs to reduce the risk of any of our five girls and three boys feeling left out.
- No riding in each other’s RVs (with a few exceptions), for the same reason.
My husband, Jeremy, and I decided to get a head start and break up the 10-hour-ish drive to Glacier National Park with an overnight at the Wanapum Recreation Area in Vantage, Kittitas County. We also wanted a chance to get used to the RV before attempting a full day of driving. Shockingly, all of our clothes and food fit perfectly inside, and off we lurched.
Home sweet RV
Bang! Bang! That was the stovetop. We lifted it off. Rattle, thud! That was everything else. But we didn’t mind trucking along in what sounded like a box of bolts, because Siena, 10, and Clara, 8, were peacefully playing checkers at their table. Score one for the RV.
I was surprised at how easy it was to drive once you got over the side mirrors — which stuck so far out that I worried about clipping oncoming traffic — and the lack of a back window or backup camera. Jeremy and I had to make dramatic entrances at every campsite, with one of us hopping out and hollering directions while the other backed the beast into place.
The night in Vantage was windy, and the RV wobbled when anyone (even a small child) so much as stirred in bed. But you get used to it, like the clanging sounds, and it was a sweet feeling to have our family cozied up together in a little nest.
Just as sweet: the moment when the last family pulled into our campground near Glacier the next day, the adults toasting our adventure while the kids formed a ragtag bike gang that would roam together all week.
Marcie’s careful research had yielded some wisdom about Glacier. Most campsites in the park are first-come, first-served, with lines forming in the mornings. But you can book sites just outside Glacier and then rise early to head for the Apgar Visitor Center on the park’s west side. (By midmorning, RV parking spots at Apgar are nearly impossible to find.) Then you can hop a free shuttle that winds along the spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road, stopping at trailheads and visitor centers along the way.
That first day, all four families stuck together, catching the shuttle to Logan Pass to hike the Hidden Lake Trail. Soon we were slip-sliding through snow and having close encounters with majestic bighorn sheep and a shaggy mountain goat. It was well worth the early morning, which would become a theme for us.
Then Jeremy and I made a tactical mistake that would haunt us for the rest of the trip: dragging our non-hike-loving kids along on a second hike with the group to Avalanche Lake. The lake was gorgeous, but by the end of the day we’d logged around 10 miles, and our kids were beyond cranky about it. Lesson learned: We didn’t need to do everything in lockstep with the other families.
Finding our pace
The next day, when everyone else headed for the trails, we slept in. I made pancakes. We played in a lake. Midafternoon, I looked up from my book and there were our weary hiker friends, ready for their own dip. We all got ice cream in Apgar Village and swam together some more.
Next up: Yellowstone. We made the 7-hour drive and camped at a KOA in West Yellowstone the first night, basking in luxuries like full hookups and a pool before going off the grid in the park’s more rustic campsites. We’d be moving every day to pack in all the sights we could, making us glad we’d opted for RVs because the setups and takedowns consisted of simply pulling out the camp chairs. So spoiled!
We found more reasons to appreciate RVs: We weren’t endlessly packing lunches and backpacks, because except for the days when we went on long hikes, everything we needed was chugging along with us. We could pull over and cook anywhere, or grab food from the always-operating fridge. Siena and Clara liked having their own curtained-off space above the cab. And we had a handy toilet that could be used anytime, although the bathroom was so stinky when we rented the RV that we often opted for campground facilities instead.
But a potential downside of RV travel came into stark relief in West Yellowstone, when we shelled out a bajillion dollars to fill the gas tank — “Don’t even look at the pump,” a veteran RVer advised us — and then couldn’t start the blasted RV. After a few moments of panic, the emergency start button finally worked, and we were off to see Yellowstone’s geysers.
(Cruise America has a 24-hour hotline “to help you get back on the road as soon as possible” in the event of a breakdown. When I called later about another issue — the frame around our microwave kept coming unscrewed and threatening to fall onto the kids below — I was told Cruise America had no mobile service but we could take it to an approved service provider. This happened deep in Yellowstone, so we opted for duct tape instead.)
Speaking of gas, is it cheaper to drive your car and stay in hotels? Families will need to price that out depending on their travel style, because many factors come into play: Are you staying at the historic Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone (where a quick check showed weeknight options in peak season ranging from $148 to $1,034) or the One Horse Motel in West Yellowstone (closer to $120 a night)? Are you packing a cooler for meals, or relying on pricier restaurant food?
In our case, campsites ranged from $26 a night inside Yellowstone to $109 at an amenity-laden KOA just outside the park, and the RV rental averaged about $300 a night. Gas ran us about $630 total.
Burping, belching Yellowstone
Old Faithful is famed for shooting water more than 100 feet into the air on a predictable schedule, perfect for spectating. But nearly drowned out in that geyser’s buzz are the other geysers and thermal pools on the trail looping around its backside. We fell in with a ranger who described the geysers’ personalities and showed off his favorite, a “spunky” little bubbler. That was just our introduction to how otherworldly Yellowstone can feel. Kids and adults alike were wowed by the steamy and vibrant Grand Prismatic Spring, the lunar landscape of the Mammoth terraces, the brightly colored “paint pot” thermal pools at West Thumb Geyser Basin, and a fat mud volcano that burps with comical abandon.
The campsites, too, felt far from our suburban world. On my morning runs, it became common practice to count (and give a very wide berth to) elk and bison. The exceptional experience wasn’t lost on Siena and Clara: Both girls sidled up to me at different points and confided that they want to be park rangers when they grow up.
Of course, with 16 travelers, it was not all bison and roses. We had a few miscommunications and learned that we couldn’t count on cellphone service. Instead, when we made plans around the campfire each night, we took to communicating in vague terms: “We think we’ll be at Tower Falls at 9.” If we caught each other there, great. If we didn’t, we could look forward to coming together at day’s end.
That gave each family the leeway to move at its own pace. Some hit the road early to spot bears, wolves and elk, while others slept in. And those late afternoons and evenings were magical: Kids frolicked with startlingly little drama, adults swapped stories about the day, and everyone feasted on s’mores and Dutch oven fruit cobbler.
Out of our comfort zone
We all signed up for a grand adventure near the end: a day of horseback riding and whitewater rafting. First we saddled up at the ranch near Gardiner — just north of the park — and buckled helmets onto the kids. In retrospect, everyone should have worn them.
Most of us were novices, and although the guided two-hour ride was lovely until the last 50 steps, we will all think twice about riding again after one of our riders tumbled to the ground when another horse lashed out at hers. She’s in one piece, but it was a painful reminder of the risks. And it left a few of us jittery about the next part of our day as we listened to Montana Whitewater guides deliver their safety talk along the Yellowstone River.
Nobody turned back, though, and thank goodness: Rafting was a highlight of the trip. Clara screamed in fear as we went through the first set of rapids, but 10 minutes later she and Siena were smiling and laughing as we dipped through the canyon, splashed our friends’ raft and spied osprey above the emerald stretch of river. Another 10, and they were crowded at the front of our boat with their friends, brave and ready for whatever fun lay around the next bend.
Would we travel in RVs together again? Eric and Lisa, relaxing in a steaming pool at Chico Hot Springs after the rafting adventure, were already riffing about a journey to Grand Teton. A few feet away, Marie and Francois were dreaming of Banff. Maybe we’ll see your family there.
If you go
Cruise America rents motor homes of various sizes from locations including Everett, Puyallup and Kirkland. www.cruiseamerica.com and 800-671-8042
Glacier National Park in Montana is open all year, though schedules for visitor centers and campgrounds vary with the seasons. Snow closes parts of Going-to-the-Sun Road seasonally. A 7-day park pass for your car costs $35, and campsite fees vary. www.nps.gov/glac/index.htm and 406-888-7800
Montana Whitewater runs rafting trips on the Yellowstone River and other locations: www.montanawhitewater.com and 888-640-3056
Yellowstone National Park covers parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Its roads and visitor centers are open in July and August; the other months bring a range of options as the weather changes. A 7-day park pass for your car costs $35, and campsite fees vary. www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm and 307-344-7381