A Southwest US Road Trip Part 1: Death Valley & Hoover Dam

The Southwest United States just feels like a different world to me. So many crazy geological formations, weather patterns, flora & fauna. I grew up mostly in Alabama, spent two years in Utah during high school, then moved to Philadelphia for college/work, then Washington DC for more schooling/life, then to California. So I’ve lived in quite a few places in the US, but nowhere quite like the deserts of the Southwest.
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Daniel’s grandma lives in a tiny town in Arizona, and his brother & family were driving out to visit her. We figured we’d drive down, as well, and meet up with them there to let our kids have some cousin time. Since we had 7 kids between us at the time, we figured it would be tricky to all stay with Grandma at the same time, so we decided to stagger our visits there and instead meet up at the Grand Canyon and rent a big place together.

Since we were already driving for a while to get down there, we thought we may as well explore some other parts of the Southwest that we’d had on our lists for a while. The only issue we encountered was that we kept hearing of other cool things along the way, and 1 week was definitely not enough! We would’ve loved to spend more time in each of these spots, but are glad we saw a bunch of National Parks and other sites for a first taste.
I’m breaking this into several posts since otherwise it would be terrifically long, but here’s what we did for the first couple of days:


  • Started in San Jose, CA
  • Explored Death Valley National Park
  • Ended in Henderson, NV
This was a big driving day. We left home in morning and drove down to Death Valley, a little over 7 hours. Our kids did surprisingly great and we only had one stop for about 30 minutes for gas/bathroom/running out a few wiggles. While we knew we could remain in the park after 5, we were anxious to get there a bit before the visitors’ centers closed as the kids wanted to turn in their Junior Ranger booklets.

(Pro tip: If you’re short on time at a National Park, most of them allow you to print the Junior Ranger booklets in advance and complete the activities beforehand or as you. That way, you don’t have to go pick it up and then complete all the requirements. Many of them still have in-park requirements – as they should, since the whole point is to develop a love for National Parks by being in them – but then kids can at least complete parts of it beforehand. Plus, ours are always way more excited about being in the Parks after learning a bit about them beforehand.)

We got there in plenty of time, got Junior Ranger badges, then headed off to explore the park for a few hours. The nice thing about Death Valley is that there’s still ton to do even after the sun starts setting – in fact, I think the park is at its most beautiful at dusk. We drove through the afternoon light on Artist’s Drive with all kinds of beautiful, earthy hues.

Along the way, we stopped at one little hike through what was almost a tunnel. I can’t remember the name of it, but it had the most amazing formations.

We then headed down to Badwater Basin, which is where we found the lowest point in North America. The salt flats there are vast and beautiful and unlike anything I’d seen before. We may have touched a tiiiny bit of the salt to our fingers/tongues…our kids thought this was hilarious and awesome and wanted to do it repeatedly… We were there through sunset just walking out and it was ethereal and gorgeous.

After that, we began a beautiful drive out of the park as the sky darkened. We stopped and looked around and stargazed a bit after it got dark enough. It’s incredible how many stars are visible there!! It’s no wonder it’s one of the best places on the continent for stargazing.
We got our kids in jammies and they all fell asleep in the car as we continued on to Henderson, NV, where we stayed with some wonderful old friends.


  • Started in Henderson, NV
  • Church
  • Hoover Dam
  • Ended in Bullhead City, Arizona
This morning, we wrenched ourselves out of bed early to go to church, even though we were all tired from exploring and chatting until late the night before. After attending with our friends, we drove off to the Hoover Dam to try to beat some of the crowds. Since it was springtime, and not spring break for a lot of western districts, it wasn’t too crowded.

We all actually really enjoyed learning about the building of the dam and watching the movie. The little museum was super fun and interactive for kiddos (and adults!), and they learned quite a bit about the physics of the dam, as well as its history and the people who brought it to fruition.

Then we walked along the top of the dam, which gave us some beautiful views. We loved looking out from there! I’d say we spent about 2 hours total at the dam, which felt like a good amount to experience these different attractions there.

After that, we drove down to Grandma’s house in Arizona and spent the rest of the day with her (after some much-needed car naps).
NEXT UP: Wupatki, Lowell Observatory, & the Grand Canyon!

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