Category Archives: Cross-Country Road Tripping

Behind the Scenes: All this stuff for one night?

Before sharing some of our adventures in California, let me back up.  I promised some friends that I’d write about the nitty-gritty of traveling with our little ones, as they got the impression that it was all easy and fun (definitely fun, but not all easy) or that we only had to deal with one tantrum (not so much).

When I wrote about Pittsburgh, I didn’t include how challenging it was once we pulled up to the hotel.  Our van was packed to full capacity and we hadn’t planned out what we were going to pull out of the van and bring into our hotel room.  (Remember, Day 1 of our road trip started with us moving out of our temporary apartment that morning.  Our van ended up having more stuff in it than we anticipated. To lighten our load, we shipped some boxes to my parent’s house a few days into our trip.)

So, there we were.  Outside of our hotel in Pittsburgh.  Standing in 40 degree weather, dressed as if it were 60 degrees, pulling half the contents of our van into the driveway and a bellhop waiting to help us, probably thinking: “All this stuff for one night?”

Over time, we figured out what we needed to take in and out of the van at each overnight stop:

  1. Baby Bjorn travel crib
  2. inflatable toddler bed (packs a smidge smaller than an Aerobed)
  3. Baby Bjorn toilet trainer + all of our toiletries in one large backpack
  4. two bags (1-2 days worth of clothes + bedding for girls)
  5. small bag of pre-breakfast snacks (milk, cereal, almond bars)
  6. diaper bag
  7. camera
  8. laptop
  9. umbrella stroller

I usually wore Kid A in the Ergo and pushed Kid C in the stroller (with our camera in the stroller’s storage basket and diaper bag hanging from the handles), while M carried everything else or used a hotel cart.

By the time we were in Santa Fe (which was towards the end of our road trip), we found our rhythm.  We had our morning routine down pat.  We knew what we needed to take out of the van each time we checked in to a hotel. We knew the most efficient way to re-pack the van.

We didn’t know what to expect from our kids on this road trip.  Overall, I think that they did great.  Our toddlers are well-traveled for their age.  They’ve been to California several times (before we moved here), Hawaii and even to Stockholm, Sweden.  I think those experiences helped us prepare for our cross-country adventure.

Going on vacations with children in tow aren’t always vacations, but we adjusted our expectations of how long it would take to get everyone ready and out the door, what we were be able to do each day, and when we needed to let go.

Any other Behind-the-Scenes details that you’d like to hear about?  Please feel free to chime in.

Day 13: Phoenix, AZ to Ventura, CA

We stayed at Aloft hotel, which was the most hip hotel of our road trip.  The room was comfortable with a modern design.  That morning, Kid C continued with her ritual of drawing on hotel paper.  We also took some fun family shots before we checked out:


Kid C busy drawing




M & the kids

At 10:00AM, the temperature had already reached 86 degrees and would reach the high 90s by the afternoon.  Our plan for the day was to have breakfast, fill up on gas and head out of Phoenix.

We ate at Matt’s Big Breakfast, which was featured on The Best Thing I Ever Ate and Diners, Drive-ins & Dives.  The service was excellent – servers were accommodating to our kids (and happily cleaned up a big water spill courtesy of Kid A) – and breakfast was very satisfying.



Kid A petting the pig statue


The kids were fascinated with this pig


Matt's Big Breakfast: The Chop & Chick


Matt's Big Breakfast: Homemade waffle with thick-cut bacon


Kid C's Look of Concentration

After breakfast, we felt energized and eager to finish the final leg of our road trip.

Views on the road in Arizona:

IMG_5228IMG_5221IMG_5229We were surrounded by miles and miles of dry terrain, flat desert with mountains in the backdrop.  I noticed there weren’t as many rest stops on this stretch of road and M pointed out that the temperature was 103 degrees.  It’s no wonder why the speed limit was 75MPH.

Views as we reached the AZ/CA border:


After much anticipation, we finally reached the state sign we were most looking forward to seeing.

IMG_5239As we passed the California welcome sign, we cheered “Pacific Standard Time!” and felt a sense of relief and excitement. The kids, on the other hand, were not aware of this momentous event.


Sleeping Kid C


Sleeping Kid A

The first part of our drive into California was mostly desert.  We decided to stop in Indio for lunch.  When in California, a stop at In-N-Out is always on the agenda.  The staff was especially nice at this location – they gave the kids stickers and a few of the staff even signed a hat with notes welcoming us back to California.  (I had a brief conversation with the cashier and mentioned that we were driving cross-country.)



Kid A greeting customers at the drive-thru

We finished up lunch and continued our drive.  It would take over 3 hours (without traffic) to get to  Ventura.

After we passed Palm Springs, we saw hills upon hills of huge windmills.  We later learned that this was the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm.

IMG_5260After taking the 10W to the 210W to 118W to the 23S, we saw this sign:

Shortly after, we saw these views:

IMG_5282IMG_5288IMG_5289We made it to Ventura about 7PM, just in time for us to have dinner with Nana & Grandpa.

It had yet to sink in that we made it through our cross-country adventure.  We drove through 14 states, about 3500 miles, in nearly two weeks and Team Noren was still intact!

Day 12: Santa Fe and (driving to) Phoenix, AZ

After a good night’s rest, we were eager to get back on the road and get closer to our final destination.  Our morning routine included diaper changes, giving kids their milk and a mini-breakfast snack (usually cereal or cereal bar).  All of the following would happen thereafter:

  • change kids into their day outfits
  • pack away kids’ beds and clothes
  • M & I get ourselves ready
  • pack away our clothes
  • pack away toiletries and potty seat

At this point in our road trip, we were be able to do all of this by 9:30AM.  The kids kept themselves entertained that morning.


Morning playtime on Kid C's bed


Kid C having morning snack


Kid A snack time (notice cereal in bib's trough)

To save time, we had breakfast at the hotel and then packed up the van once again.

We thought we’d stay in Sedona, AZ for the night.  After doing quick research, it seemed like Sedona was a destination for a spiritual retreat versus a quick overnight trip with kids in tow.  Stopping in Flagstaff seemed to be the next logical choice.  We would see how the drive went and decide whether we would book a hotel in Flagstaff or try to make it all the way to Phoenix.  Only time would tell.

  • Santa Fe to Flagstaff = 383 miles
  • Santa Fe to Phoenix = 529 miles

Views during our drive out of Santa Fe:

We planned to stop for lunch in Gallup, NM and used Yelp to find Jerry’s Café.  (I wanted to have one last sopapilla while we were in NM.) When we stopped to fill up on gas, I saw a sign that read “Fry Bread – one block away”.  We had about an hour until we would reach Gallup, I’d never had fry bread, and I was starting to get hungry… So, fry bread, it is!

One block away from the gas station, we pull up and see this stand-alone building:

IMG_5097Not sure what to expect, we found a treasure trove of Native American crafts – some rugs, blankets, jewelry, but mostly pottery.  We hadn’t purchased a single souvenir up until this point, but we ended up buying a couple of vases here.  The pieces were “Horse Hair Pottery” – pottery that is fired first and in the middle of firing, horse hair is applied.  The pottery makers were Navajo tribe and Pueblo of Jemez.  I felt like we stumbled upon a cool, little shop.

But back to the Fry Bread… there was a single window (to the left of the shop’s entrance) with the Fry Bread menu written on a paper plate.  You had the option of having cinnamon, powdered sugar, or honey drizzled on the fry bread.  Or you could have all three toppings. 

IMG_5098Of course, I opted for all three.

IMG_5099It was a delicious treat that we all enjoyed.  (Yes, I shared.)  Next time, I would stick with just honey or honey & cinnamon.  The powdered sugar was just an added mess with no added flavor.  The fry bread was crispy and surprisingly light, with just the right amount of sweetness.

With our fry bread fix fulfilled, we continued on to Gallup.


Got a cool shot of a train


We made it to Jerry’s Café and I was especially looking forward to trying another sopapilla. (Because, you know, I wasn’t eating enough fried foods with drizzled honey that day.)



Jerry's Cafe: Chile Relleno plate


Jerry's Cafe: Sopapillas


Jerry's Cafe: Combo plate (with a taco, tamale, enchilada and maybe there was even a tostada)

The restaurant was full of local folk – always a good sign.  They had a kids menu and a high chair – another plus for us.  Our server was pleasant and our meals were tasty.  The sopapillas were crispy and delicious.  With drizzled honey, it was even better.  Eating good Mexican food always reminds me of being home.  I started to feel like we were closer to California than ever before!

We tried to let the kids walk around a bit before we plopped them back into their car seats for the next leg, which was nearly 3 hours until we got to Flagstaff.  We waited about an hour into our drive before we played the other movie loaded on the iPad, which was Cars.  Kid C was especially mesmerized by the movie and would blurt out Lightning McQueen’s catchphrase with an enthusiastic “Ka-chow!”  It was the most fitting kids flick for our little adventure.

Views as we neared the Arizona state line:



Arizona - The Grand Canyon State Welcomes You

We ended up having dinner in Flagstaff at Beaver Street Brewery restaurant, which was fine.  Nothing exciting to report.  At dinner, we decided to continue on to Phoenix.  We knew that the kids would fall asleep on this leg and as long as M had the energy, we would get to Phoenix in about 2 hours.  I was too tired to drive at that point.

We booked a hotel while we were on the road and arrived in Phoenix at about 10:00PM.  Total mileage for the day was nearly 530 miles, just a few miles less than the longest driving day of the trip (aka: Omaha to Denver leg).  We were exhausted, yet glad to have made it to Phoenix that night.  We were one day away from reaching California.

Day 11: Sante Fe, NM

Since we had such a long day of driving the previous day, we decided to stay in Santa Fe for another night. It was nice not having to worry about packing up and driving to another state.  We would get to enjoy the city for a full day.  We were most excited to sample some southwestern cuisine.  Several friends recommended we eat sopapillas.  After I read my dear friend’s blog post about sopapillas at The Culinary Chronicles, I knew we would definitely put sopapillas on our must-eat list.

We started our morning with a walk to Tia Sophia’s Restaurant, which was about 10 minutes away from our hotel.  This restaurant came as a recommendation of a friend’s friend who was from NM, and also received high marks on Yelp.  When we got there, we saw groups of people scattered near the restaurant, which we took as a good sign.  We waited about 20 minutes for a table and took in the sights nearby.Burro AlleyIMG_4885.JPG


IMG_4890.JPGOur food was delicious. I had the Huevos Rancheros (with green chile) and M had the Breakfast Burrito (with red chile).



After breakfast, we walked to Santa Fe Plaza and made our way to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis.  I was most impressed with the interior architecture of the church and the beauty of the light shining through the stained glass windows.  Kid C enjoyed climbing in and out of the pews and did a great job keeping her toddler-voice down.  On the other hand, Kid A’s loud voice forced us to finish our time in the church and head out.

IMG_4946.JPG IMG_4949.JPG IMG_4953.JPG IMG_4955.JPG

Thankful that we had such great weather, we took in some other sights on our walk back to the hotel.

Checking out sculptures at an art gallery

Wind sculptures outside of Loretto Chapel

Loretto Chapel

Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Colorful stones at an outdoor craft market

San Miguel Church

We wanted to get the kids back to the hotel for a nap – the first stationary nap they would have in over a week.  That afternoon, they napped for three hours.  M & I seized this rare opportunity and got massages at the hotel spa.  It was a much-needed treat that left us relaxed and rejuvenated.

That feeling lasted about an hour.  Shortly after we we sat down to have dinner, our toddler (Kid C) had a meltdown that reached a carry-out-of-the restaurant-screaming level.  Here are some nice family shots before the meltdown.

We had dinner at Tomasita’s that night.  I found my dish to be a bit too spicy for my liking, but I think M enjoyed his meal.  The sopapillas were good, but I imagined them to be crispier.  (Little did I know, that I would have a better sopapilla experience the next day.)

After dinner, we walked back to our hotel and went through our nighttime ritual with the kids – bath, brushing teeth, story time and bed.  M & I were happy with our decision to stay in Santa Fe an extra day.  We would definitely come back for another visit.

Day 10: Denver, CO and (driving to) Santa Fe, NM

“Ah, Denver…the sunshine state!”

Thankfully, the Sheraton in Denver was great and our room was huge. We were upgraded to a corner room, which was bigger than the last apartment we lived in.  The girls literally got to run around the place.  We also had nice views from our room.

View from hotel (Denver, CO)

We took some time to re-organize our suitcases, then headed out for lunch.  From our hotel, we walked about 10 minutes to Steuben’s Food Service.  Steuben’s was a recommendation from a friend of a friend.  It was also featured on Diners, Drive-ins & Dives.

There was a bit of a wait for our table (it was Sunday), so we decided to indulge in an adult beverage.  I had their specialty drink, a Bloody Mary with bacon-infused vodka and M had a regular Bloody Mary.  Both were delicious.

Steuben's: Bloody Marys

We were happy with the customer service and impressed with the food.  I had the lobster roll and fries – which was delicious and, might I proclaim, better than Luke’s Lobster roll in NYC.  Their Kids Meal came served in an old-school lunch tray with cut-up fruit (strawberries & grapes), fried corn and edamame (one of Kid C’s favorite veggies)! M had the cast-iron french toast which he described as “delicious, but be prepared to have your insulin shot ready.”

Steuben's: Lobster roll & fries

Steuben's: French Toast (with caramel overflowing from the cast-iron skillet)

Steuben's: Mac & Cheese Kids Meal

Kid A with mac-n-cheese-face

The restaurant itself was a great example of adaptive reuse – it used to be an auto repair shop and the owners converted it to a restaurant.  The space had a mod industrial-vintage vibe.

Steuben's Food Service

Steuben's: A kind stranger offered to take a family photo of us

Our impressions of Denver was that its downtown was clean and easy to get around.  Here was a random parking garage with a funky façade:

Driving through Colorado, we had spectacular views of mountains, clouds, and an amazing sunset.  These photos don’t do it justice.

We made stops at Pueblo, CO (Starbucks) and Raton, NM (Denny’s) before we arrived in Santa Fe later that evening.  The bright sign near the CO/NM state line was a welcomed sight.

Welcome to New Mexico

Day 9: Omaha, NE to Denver, CO

After Omaha, we planned on driving to Sterling, CO, sleep there for the night and head out to Denver the following day.  However, this is how things played out:

I drove the first leg and got us to Kearney, NE, which is almost 3 hours west of Omaha. We ate at a fast food joint called Runza, as recommended by a friend of a friend who was from Nebraska. (I’ll save my commentary about the food for another post.)  We initially planned to make a stop at North Platte, but since we already took our break in Kearney, we decided to just keep going. M drove the rest of the way.  As we approached Sterling, CO, we decided to try to drive another hour before we stopped for dinner and then re-evaluate where we would sleep that night. We made it Fort Morgan, CO.

What was that smell, Fort Morgan?  Was it really the sugar refinery?  Really, did I favor the smell of my kids’ poop over the smell at Fort Morgan?  Whatever the case, that smell motivated us to leave Fort Morgan and get to Denver that night.

Here are some photos from that day:

Kid C working on a drawing before we check out of our hotel in Omaha, NE

Windmill and fields of corn

We saw a lot of corn fields

York, NE: the most colorful water tower

We bought a contraption for the iPad that attaches to the head rest.  Up until this point on our road trip, we kept it out of sight.  We wanted to save any movie-watching or Word World episodes for when it was absolutely necessary.  Driving through Nebraska’s very. flat. road. made it necessary.

After seeing their fair share of cows and corn fields, the kids were getting anxious.  We still had a few hours of driving ahead of us, so out came the iPad! M & I felt pretty good that we made it an entire week without needing to use the iPad in the car.

Very. Flat. Road.

Kid C watching "Curious George" on the iPad

Kid A checking things out

There’s always excitement whenever we approach a state’s border and the challenge of capturing a good photo of its welcome sign.

Welcome to Colorful Colorado

We made it to Denver late that evening.  GoogleMaps calculates the drive from Omaha, NE to Denver, CO at 536 miles.  I still can’t believe we drove that distance in one day!

Day 8: Iowa to Nebraska

After our visit in Fairfield, we knew that we had long stretches of driving ahead of us — long stretches of driving very. flat. road. through Iowa and especially Nebraska.

We came across interesting things and beautiful scenery:

We made it to Omaha after about 4 hours of driving, with one stop for lunch in between.  I missed getting a photo of the Welcome to Nebraska sign, but got a shot of the city’s welcome sign.

Welcome to Omaha

After we checked in to our hotel, we followed the advice of Yelp and ate at Hartland BBQ.  It was a no-frills place, with pretty good food that left us satisfied and smelling like smoked meat.  Extra bonus was that the kids ate for free! (Kids meal free with purchase of a dinner.)

Hartland BBQ: Half rack of ribs with baked beans, potato salad and cornbread

We made tentative plans to make it to Sterling, CO the next day, which was a little over 6 hours from Omaha.  Two hours beyond Sterling is Denver.  As always, we would see how the day went.

Day 7: Fairfield, IA

Our next stop was to Fairfield, IA to visit some of M’s family.  We had some nice views along the way:

There was another sign (that I missed getting a photo of), that had a graphic of a horse & buggy.  Sure enough, we saw a few on the road:

Amish people riding in horse & buggy

When we arrived to Aunt R & Uncle J’s house, we were transported to a different way of life.  On one side of the road was their beautiful house and the other side of the road was their farm, which they currently raise cattle and grow corn & soybeans.

One of the first things that we got to do was watch Aunt R feed milk to a baby calf, Leroy. Kid C was hesitant and didn’t want to get too close.  Taylor, one of their dogs, was not shy in trying to steal some milk out of the bottle.

Feeding milk to baby calf

Leroy, the baby calf

The girls had a blast exploring the yard.

Kids collecting acorn, rocks & leaves

Later, Kid C even got to ride a John Deere tractor!

We were treated to our first home-cooked meal of our road trip, which was a welcomed break from eating out.  The girls had fun playing with Hunter, the other family dog.  They even took over his bed at one point.

After this stop, we decided head straight for Omaha, NE, skipping Iowa City as we initially planned.  It would’ve added another hour to our total driving time.  At that point, we erred on the side of less driving and were eager to get through Iowa and Nebraska quickly.  We had longer stretches of driving planned for the next few days and were crossing our fingers for good weather and agreeable children.

Day 6: St. Louis and Columbia, MO

St. Louis was another unexpected pleasant stop.  We had great accommodations, ate good food, and had nice outdoor time at Forest Park.

Water Fountain Fun in Central West End

C trying to go in to the fountain

C + pine cone

A + sticks

Picnic lunch at Forest Park - C feeding A

Chasing butterflies

After eating Pappy’s for lunch at Forest Park, we drove about 2 hours west to Columbia, MO.

For this road trip, one of the things I was most looking forward to was visiting my sister and her fiancé in their new home.  It had been several months since we last saw each other.  To get a taste of their life in Columbia was a treat. My sister is an elementary school teacher with a kindergarten & 1st grade mixed class.  I had a chance to visit her classroom, meet her students, and watch her teach.  I was such a proud big sister!

My sister in her classroom

Another benefit of staying with family in a new city is having a local suggest food recommendations.  We had our best breakfasts, so far, at crepes: etc and Cafe Berlin:

crepes, etc: French Toast

Cafe Berlin: The Starving Artist

Cafe Berlin: Chilaquiles

It was so nice to stay with family, in a comfortable home, for more than one night.  Our visit was much too short, but luckily we’ll be seeing them in California soon.

L + A + Cali

Bowl of rocks - kids' favorite thing to play with at Auntie's L & Uncle D's house

Auntie L + the girls

We were also able to re-pack up the van during this stop, so that we could have a view through the rear window.

Re-packed van

Ready to go, we headed for our next stop: Fairfield, IA.

Day 5: (Driving to) St. Louis, MO

Here are some on-the-road shots:

…and some state Welcome signs we saw during this leg of the trip:

Welcome to Indiana

Welcome to Illinois

Welcome to Missouri

We were so excited to see the Gateway Arch come into view!

Gateway Arch

When we arrived to our hotel, the kids did their usual run around the room ritual and proceeded to their favorite activities.  After looking out the window, Kid C finds the hotel paper and pen and starts drawing. (I have yet to get a photo of this, but eventually will.)  Her latest favorite doodles to make are balloons.

Kid A also looks out the window, then wraps herself in the curtains to play peekaboo:

One of A's favorite activities in the hotel rooms - playing peekaboo in the curtains!

Another one of Kid C’s methods of entertainment (thanks to our friend, C. Jamm.), is to put stickers on her face.  This kept her occupied for over 20 minutes during dinner. If you’re a parent of a toddler, you know that 20 minutes of concentrated occupied toddler time (COTT) means that you can eat half or all of your meal, while its still relatively warm, and finish half of an adult beverage!  Sweet.

C entertained herself during dinner by putting stickers on her face

The next day we planned to eat breakfast at crepes: etc. which was right around the corner from our hotel, then walk around Forest Park.