Voices from the Road

Retracing our newlywed road trip 15 years later with a bigger car, 3 kids, and a lot more snow

Fifteen years ago, my husband and I left Florida as newlyweds in January, bound for Canada. With everything we owned packed in a tiny Honda Civic, we set off on a cross-country adventure during which we ran out of gas, walked through caves, stumbled on a meteor crater, peered over the Grand Canyon, and experienced the meaning of “frigid” for the first time looking over the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. 

Fifteen years later, we did it again, but in the opposite direction. Since then, our tiny hatchback has been replaced by an SUV and we have three kids. For them, this road trip would be like a field trip, covering U.S. geography, history, geology, and natural science—and to see where their parents met, fell in love, and got married.

Our second trip began the same way the first did, with high expectations that melt into just one primary goal: Let’s just leave already. Four days later than planned, we finally headed off in our overweight SUV, accommodations planned only 3 days in advance, bound for Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Children stand at guardrails overlooking snowy cliffs

‘Enjoy the snow’

The main concern for our first day was the sometimes-dangerous Deadman’s Pass, which luckily was dry and not icy at all. At the end of the day, I nudged my husband and said, “We didn’t even run out of gas on the first day like we did last time.” 

The next morning, we got up ready for our next stop: Bryce Canyon National Park. It was cold, but the sun was shining. I thought of sunny Florida. “Enjoy the snow!” I told the kids. “Winter is going to be long gone soon.” A text message from my mother-in-law said otherwise: “The weather reports say some storms are going through there.” Outside our windows, all we saw was sunshine, clear roads, and just a light dusting of snow. “You shouldn’t believe everything you see in the news, Mom,” I texted back.

Half an hour later, fog rolled in and other than a mile of road ahead of us, everything was a misty white. In another hour, the snow started falling. We’d already taken the turn to Bryce Canyon National Park. “We’ve come this far,” my husband said. “We might as well check it out.” We rolled into Bryce Canyon just as the snow slowed to gentle flakes. The tall, red spires of rock, or hoodoos, were topped by more snow than the last time I had been there. When we left, the clouds and the snow covered us again, and we drove into the second blizzard of the trip.

Stubbornly optimistic

The next day, we followed the red roads of Zion National Park into a tunnel that took us 1 mile through a mountain. On the other side, we dipped in and out of the clouds. “It looks like you’re flying when you don’t look at the ground,” said my 11-year-old. We took the Weeping Rock Trail to a vertical garden on rock walls seeping with water thousands of years old. And just like the previous day, when we turned to leave, the clouds grew dark and the snow started again in earnest.

A blue car sits amid towering boulders covered in snow

We entered Arizona south of Kanab, Utah, and then headed east on U.S. Route 89A so we could see the Vermillion Cliffs. As the storm built up, we became more agonizingly aware that we were the only ones on the road and the snow was quickly building up. As we inched up higher, the road nearly disappeared into the white landscape. Barely able to see a car length in front of us, we joined a group of five vehicles, each of us driving slowly. At least we weren’t alone.

“What’s the point of taking this route to see the Vermillion Cliffs if the visibility is this bad?” my husband muttered. Stubbornly optimistic, I told him, “Just wait; it will clear just when we get there.” None of the kids believed me. I didn’t believe me. As the snow grew higher, I wondered if we’d make it out. 

The snow finally stopped, and giant red boulders balancing precariously on narrow stems like odd red mushrooms appeared beside the road. We stopped to explore this strange piece of history and discovered red brick dwellings that blended into the landscape. On to the Marble Canyon, and across the Navajo Bridge, it stayed clear. A Navajo elder pointed out the endangered California condors flying beneath the bridge. Snow in the area is rare, she told us, and we realized that we are part of a special few to see the Vermillion Cliffs covered in snow.

A train rests on tracks covered in snowy white

Trains, meteors, and petrified forests

We could see the fourth blizzard coming with the road stretched out ahead of us. An hour outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, we got hit again. The highways were icy, packed with cars inching slowly, several cars stranded on the ditch, while the snow fell fast and heavy.

We stayed at the Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel in Williams, Arizona, to surprise the kids. At the train station, we went back to a time of cowboys and train robbers on a train that’s been taking passengers to one of the world’s wonders for a hundred years. At the rim of the Grand Canyon, the kids threw snowballs over the edge and watched them disappear.

Sightseers look out at a crater carved from a meteor

On our first trip, my husband and I followed a small sign for a meteor crater off the highway just for kicks. We thought it would be a small hole in the ground, but it was so much more. As a surprise for our little space addict, we left the highway to explore the Meteor Crater, which now had its own exit. We were right—he had a big smile on his face as we counted down to the site of impact. We toured the Barringer Space Museum, and he bought his own piece of meteorite.

We left Arizona after a drive through Petrified Forest National Park. From a distance, the land looks like it’s dotted with regular logs, but when you look closer, the “wood” is petrified in hues of pink and purple with white stripes. At the Painted Desert viewpoints, we took in scenes of gentle peaks with purple and greenish hues.

A child leans on a large piece of petrified wood

White sands, caverns, and space shuttles

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, we stopped to visit extended family who’d never met the kids. Road trips don’t just connect us to the geography of the land, they connect us to people too. After a long overdue visit, with our hearts full, we hopped back into our trusty SUV to White Sands National Park. We got there just before sunset, enough time for the kids to play on the dunes and watch the sun dye the white sand pink and orange.

Our next stop was another New Mexico national park, Carlsbad Caverns—we’ve taken the kids on trails along rugged coastlines, through forests, and along rivers, but this hike was the first one that took them down a zig-zag into a giant mouth beneath the earth. The world underneath opened up, and they saw cave geology firsthand and learned how formations formed not just pillars and columns, but also draperies and popcorn and strange lion tails that hung from the ceiling. The 3-mile hike ended with a long elevator ride, and we emerged at the surface, our eyes squinting at the sunlight, but with a new awareness of unknown worlds that exist below our feet.

Texas was next, and the state is home to friends from both childhood and college, so the goal of our visit was to reconnect and introduce our children. Old and new friends bonded, but before we left, we made sure to make another stop for the space addict. In Houston, the Space Center gave our future rocket scientist a look into all the NASA history and science he’d been reading about, including seeing an actual space shuttle in person, watching NASA at work in the training facility, and touching the moon.

Wetlands and where it all began

From Houston, we headed south to the ocean then turned east. Interstate 10 took us past swamps in Louisiana, through tall trees, and over water in the Mississippi wetlands paralleling the coast. It wasn’t until Mobile, Alabama, that we got our first good look at the Gulf of Mexico.

The beach outside the Fort Pickens Campground of the Gulf Islands National Seashore was the kids’ first taste of Florida. The sand was so white, the kids called it “warm snow.” We spent the last few days of January enjoying the nearly-empty beaches and watching the sunset every night. We made our way south, camping in state campgrounds along the coast, swimming in Rainbow Springs, and hanging out with the manatees at Crystal River. 

Finally, we took the kids to a special beach outside of Gulfport, Florida. This is where more than 15 years ago, my husband and I stood in a circle of flowers and said our vows. That adventure began the same way all our adventures still begin: with high expectations that we’re forced to adjust, unexpected detours, and whatever else the world throws at us. I hope our kids learned to not lose hope and to see that all storms end, eventually—and adventures are often more fun when they’re shared.

Annie’s trip

Meet the Roadtripper

Annie B. Smith

Annie B. Smith is a Filipino-Canadian travel writer based outside of Nelson, B.C. She writes about family travel, outdoor adventures, exploring cultures, and parenting.