We did it! My three girls and I visited all 50 states on my maternity leave! We had an experience of a lifetime!
I came up with the idea on a whim after my vacation plans for my four-month maternity leave kept expanding. It sounded insane, but I am all for crazy adventures. The weekend before my youngest was born, my husband flew to Detroit and bought a Mercedes Sprinter van. He then spent the next month converting it into an amazing family camper van, while I recovered from delivery, attended to our newborn (and twin toddlers) and mapped out a route to make my crazy idea happen. Keep reading for all the details.
You may also be interested in reading my Top Places to Explore with Kids in All 50 US States.
At one month old, I packed our little girl and her big sisters and everything I could think of needing for life on the road into our van and hit the road. We completed our trip in multiple stages. We started with a weekend trip to Alabama to test the waters. Next we took an extended weekend trip to Georgia and Florida. After that I did my first longer, solo loop of the Midwestern states. After some downtime at home in Tennessee, Brad joined us for another long weekend trip, this time to South Carolina and North Carolina. Then I did the longest loop to the western states. It was mostly solo as I worked my way out west along a northern route, but Brad flew out to Seattle and joined us on flights to Alaska and Hawaii (he chose his states wisely) before I circled back to Tennessee covering the southwestern states. Finally, I did a solo loop of the Mid Atlantic and New England States passing back through Washington D.C. on my way home.I decided to do one activity in each state (some states got extras). Whatever sounded cool along the way! I also took a picture of the girls in front of every state sign (a logistical brain teaser for sure) and collected a transportation map from every state as a free souvenirs. Below is a map and list of everywhere we ended up going.
1. Tennessee - Great Smoky Mountains National Park
2. Alabama - The Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville
3. Georgia - Atlanta (Braves Baseball Game)
4. Florida - St. Augustine (Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine Alligator Farm & beach)
5. Kentucky - Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington
6. Ohio - Cincinnati (Riverfront Park)
7. Indiana - Indianapolis (Children's Museum of Indianapolis & Indiana State Fair)
8. Michigan - Silver Beach County Park
9. Illinois - Chicago (Millennium & Maggie Daley Park)
10. Wisconsin - Madison (Henry Vilas Zoo & Olbrich Botanical Gardens)
11. Minnesota - Minneapolis (Minneapolis Sculpture Garden & Riverfront Park)
12. Iowa - Iowa State Fair in Des Moines
13. Nebraska - Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha & Homestead National Monument
14. Kansas - Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
15. Missouri - St. Louis (Gateway Arch National Park & City Museum)
16. South Carolina - Charleston (Downtown, Angel Oak Tree & Kiawah Island)
17. North Carolina - Blue Ridge Parkway in Asheville
18. Arkansas - Bentonville (Walmart Museum & Crystal Bridges Art Museum)
19. Oklahoma - The Gathering Place in Tulsa
20. Colorado - Vail and Rocky Mountain National Park
21. South Dakota - Mount Rushmore & Badlands National Park
22. North Dakota - Theodore Roosevelt National Park
23. Montana - Zoo Montana in Billings
24. Wyoming - Yellowstone National Park & Grand Teton National Park
25. Idaho - Southern Idaho Waterfall Tour (Shoshone, Perrine-Coulee & Jump Creek)
26. Washington - Seattle (Waterfront, Ferry ride, Pikes Place Market, Chihuly Gardens & Glass. Kerry Park & Ballard Locks)
27. Alaska - Anchorage (Anchorage Museum, Byron Glacier, & Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center)
28. Hawaii - Oahu (Waikiki beaches & Diamond Head Crater)
29. Oregon - Multnomah Falls, Portland (International Rose Test Garden, Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden & Cartlandia), Cannon Beach & Cape Kiwanda
30. California - Redwoods State and National Parks, San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, Cable Car ride & Alamo Square), Yosemite National Park, Southern Orange County & Joshua Tree National Park
31. Nevada - Valley of Fire State Park and Hoover Dam
32. Arizona - Grand Canyon National Park
33. Utah - Arches National Park & Hovenweep National Monument
34. New Mexico - International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque and White Sands National Park
35. Texas - San Antonio (Riverwalk & The Alamo)
36. Louisiana - French Quarter in New Orleans
37. Mississippi - part of Mississippi Blues Trail
38. Virginia - Luray Caverns & Shenandoah National Park
39. West Virginia - Harper's Ferry National Historic Park & Appalachian Trail Visitor Center
40. Pennsylvania - Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia
41. Vermont - Green Mountains & various covered bridges
42. New Hampshire - White Mountains & various covered bridges
43. Maine- Acadia National Park
44. Massachusetts - Harvard University
45. Rhode Island - The Providence Athenaeum
46. Connecticut - Mark Twain House
47. New York - New York City (Brooklyn Bridge Park & Brooklyn Bridge)
48. New Jersey - Cape May
49. Maryland - Assateague Island National Seashore
50. Delaware - Rehoboth Beach Sea Witch Festival
Bonus. Washington D.C. - President's Park (White House)
There is so much I could say about this trip. It truly was a once in a lifetime experience. I'm also pretty sure I am the only person in the world to every do this lol. (A few other families have ventured to all 50 states with their youngsters, but I have not come across a Mom who largely did the trip solo with 3 littles under 3). Here is a round up of information and highlights from the trip.
Total States: All 50 (At 28 years for Mama, 2 years 10 months for the twins and 3 months and 28 days for baby Heidi)
Miles Driven: Approximately 19,660
Flights: 4 (Seattle to Anchorage, Anchorage to Honolulu, Honolulu to San Francisco and San Francisco to Seattle)
Days on the Road: 77
Average Days Per State: 1 1/2. Longest stay was 6 days in Hawaii. Shortest stays were Oklahoma, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut and Rhode Island at about 3 hours each.
Days Driving: 62 (9 days between Alaska and Hawaii and 6 days with family where the van remained parked).
Average Miles Per Day: 317 (approximately 4.5 hours per day at highway speeds)
States Hubby Joined Us: TN, AL, GA, NC, SC, IN, AK and HI ( in other words it was just me and the kids for the other 42).
Van: We actually bought the van, built it out ourselves, and then sold it for a profit, so it didn't cost us anything (we're actually in the process of converting another family camper van). Find out more about our van conversion here. But for comparison to rent a camper van for this trip would have cost roughly $10,000.
Lodging: 2 nights, $20 each. Once in Missouri because we needed AC and the generator's gas tank was empty and once in Yellowstone so we could continue on to Grand Tetons the next day.
Gas (Diesel): Our van gets 20 mpg, so I am estimating right at $3,000 but I did not go back and actually tally this.
Food: I did not separately track food because we were going to have to buy it anyways. I just stuck to our at home food budget ($150 / week for groceries and household items). We bought groceries along the way and ate in the van (we had a fridge and toaster). We also "splurged" on McDonald's a lot of evenings by sharing 2 happy meals between the 3 of us. And we bought ice cream in every state.
Attractions: As you might have noticed, I sought out mostly free attractions. I also bought a National Park Pass (used on eBay for $50 because it is good for a year for two people) which covered 25 destinations! For the places I did pay admittance, it was helpful that I usually only had to pay for myself because the kids were free. The Braves game in Atlanta would have been a splurge but we actually got those tickets for free from spending too much money at Home Depot renovating the van during one of their promotions. I think the Indianapolis Children's Museum ended up being our most costly excursion because the girls were not free there. I think I probably spent around $500 in attractions.
Souvenirs: $50 or less for postcards. Maps and photos were free.
Miscellaneous: I had to buy showers and laundry along the way, which is more expensive than you'd think. Between that and tolls and street parking, have a bunch of cash on hand for quarters! I did find several YMCAs that I was able to shower at for free. I paid to park in a lot in a few big cities too. I had to refill DEF and windshield wiper fluid multiple times. Brad had to change the brake pads and get the wheels aligned twice.
Alaska & Hawaii: $$$ I'll just leave it at flights for 4 (Heidi flew free), renting a car, and lodging for 9 days made adding these two states very pricey. It was more costly to visit these two states than the other 48 combined.
1. Hawaii. White sand, clear blue water, lush green vegetation and flowers everywhere, and Daddy was with us...what more can I say?
2. New Mexico. The International Hot Air balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque and White Sands National Monument near Las Cruces were hands down our two favorite activities.
3. Arkansas. Definitely not one I expected to make our top five, but northwest Arkansas was beautiful with the Ozarks. I got a very strong family oriented vibe from the area and there are tons of outdoor activities. We also loved the free art museum there (Crystal Bridges), the farmer's market we happened upon, and the Walmart ice cream shop!
4. Fall in Vermont / New Hampshire & Maine. Wow! Fall in New England really is something to experience. It put our Tennessee fall to shame. I definitely learned I prefer the mellow Appalachians and something about the tree mix and weather up there put the fall foliage at the top of my list.
5. Oregon Coast. I love that basically the whole coast is one giant undeveloped public park and there's a lot of hiking options there too.
Honorable Mentions: The Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska is a must visit with kids. Also, if you have slightly older and more adventurous kids the City Museum in St. Louis is a must!
Least Favorite States/Activities:
1. Kansas. We visited the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, which I was expecting to be a reenactment type site (like Williamsburg). It's not, and while we would have enjoyed a hike here, it was 90+ degrees, so we ended up not seeing much before the girls melted into endless tears.
2. Mississippi. We actually wasted half the day in Mississippi trying to figure out what to do there. By the time I came up with the music theme, we were already running out of time to get all the way home to Knoxville that night. So our trip was limited to seeing sculptures and really felt like a bust.
3. Rhode Island / Connecticut. My original plans for these states were coast related but with the chilly temperatures, we rethought our plans. What we ended up seeing (The Providence Athenaeum and Mark Twain House) weren't that exciting compared to everything else we saw on the trip.
Best Ice Cream:
1. Vermont. And ironically it wasn't Ben & Jerry's (I actually don't like ice cream with a million different things mixed in. I much prefer classic flavors). It was at the Chocolate Barn in Bennington. I usually always go for Mint Chocolate Chip (and the girls love Strawberry), but I got the Maple Walnut there, and it was delicious!
2. Texas. Justin's Ice Cream Company on the San Antonio Riverwalk had a blue cookie monster flavor that enticed me to ditch my regular order as well. It was basically cookies and cream and cookie dough, and it was awesome!
3. Arkansas. At the Walmart soda fountain shop I got a Coke, a mint chocolate chip cone and two kids strawberry cones for two bucks and some change. You can't beat that!
I do not have a list of top five playgrounds, but I will mention a handful that stood out to me. I also want to put in a plug that I highly recommend seeking out playgrounds when traveling with young kids. It's a great way to experience the area and let your kids be kids. Some of my fondest memories are of watching the girls playing with kiddos on the playgrounds across the country. The biggest standout was McDonald's playgrounds. I know that sounds silly, but no matter where we were across the country, we could rely on seeking out a McDonald's with a playplace to stretch our road legs out (which also came with a hot cheeseburger for Mama). Some amazing playgrounds were our state activity in several states, which looking back were coincidentally all designed by the same architect, Michael Van Valkenburgh. These were the Gathering Place in Tulsa, OK, Maggie Daley Park in Chicago, IL and the Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York, NY. Some playgrounds are snuck in next to famous tourist attractions, which is a fresh way to experience that tourist site: Kerry Park in Seattle (where you get a really good view of Seattle and Mt. Rainier), Alamo Square (next to the Painted Ladies) in San Francisco, Maggie Daley Park (next to Millennium Park/The Bean) in Chicago, and Brooklyn Bridge Park (under the Brooklyn Bridge) in New York. Besides those a few other great ones that come to mind: Ford Playground in Vail, CO, the playground on Laguna Beach's main beach, the playground at Silver Beach County Park in St. Joseph, MI, and Project Swing Park in St. Augustine, FL. We also appreciated the playgrounds at Seattle's and Anchorage's airports and at the Michigan and Wisconsin welcome center. And the following playgrounds that were in paid locations: Space Center in Huntsville, Zoo Montana, and Henry Doorly Zoo.
Cheapest Fuel (Diesel): Arkansas @ $2.45 / gallon
Most Expensive Fuel (Diesel): California @ $4.19 / gallon
Hottest State: Tennessee. I couldn't believe my home state took the award for hottest state, but when we got back from our Midwest portion enjoying lovely 70 degree weather the whole time, it was 96 degrees in Nashville, and I thought I was going to die. Thankfully we got to sleep in the house that night. I only had to use the A/C in the van a few hot nights: Alabama (until it ran out of gas and we sweated our tails off the rest of the night), Florida, and Missouri.
Coldest Night: New York. I didn't even think to look how cold it was going to get in Fishkill on our way up to Vermont. It got down to 39 degrees and we all huddled together under a dozen blankets. Maine was probably also cold, but I ran the heater that night so we were toasty warm. Honorable mention for Yellowstone and Grand Canyon for also being cold (in the 40s) even though it was summer when we visited those states.
Rainchecks: Miraculously only had one raincheck the entire trip. Can you guess where? PNW of course! When we returned from Hawaii, I had planned to go to Mt. Rainier National Park, but the rain and clouds were so thick, I couldn't even see it, so we had to skip for another time.
Best/Easiest Drive: I10 across Texas. 900 miles, and I didn't have to turn my cruise control off at all! Texas road signs state "left lane for passing only" as opposed to all other states, which say "keep right except to pass," and I found that this rule for the most part was actually followed, which combined with little to no fellow cars on the road made for an easy drive.
Worst/Hardest Drive: I81 through Virginia. I have done that drive so many times, and it never fails to be the most stressful drive ever. It's two lanes the whole way and an endless sea of semis that are always in the left lane gumming up the flow of traffic. I'll also mention that I ran into terrible traffic in New Orleans, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
Easiest State Sign: New Jersey. Because we slept at the rest stop that had a state sign at it. The next morning, I just had the girls jump out in their jammies and snapped a quick photo.
Hardest State Sign: Arizona. We entered Arizona at the giant bridge in front of Hoover Dam, and while the New Mexico sign was easy to snag there, the Arizona sign was not reachable. No big deal... I planned to get it on the way out. Ended up passing in and out of Arizona three more times (since we detoured up to Utah) and none of those border crossings had a state sign because the northeast corner of Arizona is all Navajo Nation. I ended up having to continue on to New Mexico for the hot air balloon fiesta and then do a five-hour detour back to the I40 border crossing with Arizona. The rest area, which is on the border and has access to the state sign, was closed for renovations, so I had to do an interstate pull over state sign shot, which I tried to avoid because it's an anxiety ridden feat when you have 3 small kids and have to set up a tripod.
Highlights from the Road: I have shared a lot of the highlights from our trip above, but a few others that come to mind include: all the time we spent with family and friends across the country, all of the funny poses the girls did for my state sign photos (none staged, that's just them being themselves), all the clever funny things Brooklyn said, Blakely carrying an oak leaf through the White House, trick or treating at Dewey Beach in Delaware in our scraped together costumes, going to the zoo and botanical gardens in Madison, Wisconsin and the subsequent singing of the "this is the garden" song the rest of the trip, Blakely's impromptu concert at Kerry Park in Seattle, touching a glacier in Alaska, the Diamond Head hike in Hawaii, seeing Valley of Fire in Nevada, exploring Vail, CO and driving through Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Challenging Moments on the Road: Among all the highlights we had hard moments too. But the good moments far outweighed the bad moments, and honestly the low points are just funny parts of the story at this point. There were two zero days as I call them, where I had to give up my plans for that day and try again tomorrow. Once in Arkansas when it took me all day to travel four hours and I ran out of time to truly explore Bentonville, so we pushed it to the next day and then once in New York City when I drove around for five hours without finding somewhere to park the van, so I left and regrouped to come back the next day with a better plan (parking at Newark and taking the train in). Hiking to Delicate Arch for sunset was also challenging and is actually probably equally a hard moment and highlight. I had to carry Heidi and Brooklyn who were both crying the whole way back down, but a lovely group of Chinese tourists hiked with us using their flashlights to lead the way and even sang nursery rhymes with me to try and calm Brooklyn down. We had many potty accidents on the road. It's challenging to be constantly on the go with newly potty trained toddlers. We also had four vomiting in the car seat incidents. I killed the van battery one night by forgetting to turn off the headlights. We got a small chip in our windshield that we are going to have to get replaced. Finally, I went for 10 days with no radio because I thought I blew a fuse and didn't have time to investigate to later find out that I just had accidentally turned it off.
Friendliest People: Someone asked where the friendliest people were. Honestly, we encountered friendliness, generosity and helpfulness everywhere we went. New York City stands out to me (ironically), as there were countless folks who went out of their way to help me navigate the many stairs with my stroller. There was a lady at a Pilot in Wisconsin who helped me carry in all my stuff into the store and gave us showers for free. The Chinese tourists at Arches who literally sang nursery rhymes with me to calm my kiddos down and offered their flashlights the whole hike back. So many opened doorways. So many offerings to snap photos. So many offerings to carry things. Just tons and tons of acts of kindness everywhere.
There were so many other memorable moments from the trip. I could seriously write for a month and not cover it all. I encourage you to check out my Instagram album over on @fillupthevan.