by Carmel L. Mooney
This summer we were blessed to travel across the U.S. and back by car, a total of 11,600 miles to experience the very best family-friendly destinations and attractions available, all on one giant road trip.
While we did experience many national monuments and parks and famous points of interest, we also explored and experienced some of the premier hidden gems our nation boasts for adventurous family travelers.
In this multi-part travel series, I’ll share the highlights of our “adventure of a lifetime”. While not every family is fortunate enough to cover the entire country in one grand swoop, I hope that portions of our trip will inspire you to embark on a quest to either visit or learn about some of these amazing American opportunities next time you do travel to these areas or plan a trip.
If you’d like to see more photos, a much more detailed account of this trip, along with specific routes and travel tips, please visit my blog
Our first gem, after leaving Sacramento, was discovered in Visalia. It was the Ben Maddox House B & B at the gateway to Sequoia National Park. Ben Maddox was a prominent historical figure who brought hydroelectric power to the central valley, associated with Thomas Edison and founded Visalia’s first newspaper. While staying in the historic grand suite of this 120+-year-old home, we found our hostess Lucy both delightful and talented. We also enjoyed the historic pool and lovely grounds.
The next day we savored a delicious and hearty feast of a breakfast – no need for lunch it was so great and huge. Unlike most B & B’s, guests have a menu of Ben Maddox House specialties to choose from. We enjoyed the fresh local ingredients prepared in our delicious fare and the lemon cookies and brownie cupcakes were to die for as well.
Well fueled, we then drove to our next hidden gem in Death Valley where we stayed at the historic Amargosa Hotel and Opera House with a history so flamboyant and captivating that you’ll have to look up their website to fully appreciate the accomplished New York ballerina who has run the place since she left NY decades ago to dance, perform and to paint world-famous murals on the walls. Marta Becket has created what is known affectionately as the Sistine Chapel of the west and she’s developed a world-famous stage show there. The hotel was once home to the Borax miners 100 years ago – very retro and very unique. They served the best lasagna we’d had in quite possibly forever.
Heading to the Canyonlands, a perfect stopping place is the Best Western Abbey Inn in St. George, Utah, the gateway to the Canyonlands. We were impressed with what a nice property this was and found it to be one of the nicest Best Westerns we’ve ever visited. St George is a quickly growing hub of museums, fossil digging sites, and more. After we left St. George, we drove through Zion National Park stopping at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, one of the most fascinating hidden geological gems in the Southwest. Every time we visit Utah we spend some time in awe of this natural phenomenon that is home to species found nowhere else in the world.
Once through the Grand Canyon, we discovered the climax of our southwest adventure awaiting us in Sedona at the indescribably beautiful Enchantment Resort and Mii Amo spa – the number one spa in the US and exquisite beyond words. Swimming at dusk in the beautiful pool and savoring the scenery and red rock backdrop, one can only realize that beauty this profound is a rarity.
We were impressed with the caliber of outstanding hospitality from every employee in every capacity throughout our entire stay.
My daughter adored Camp Coyote, the impeccable children’s program where she got the opportunity to hike to the ruins, cliffs, and rock formations while I enjoyed the incomparable spa.
After lunch, we took an off-road desert tour led by A Day in the West and an amazing Sioux Indian guide, a descendant of Crazy Horse. We learned so much and Jimmy made us laugh so hard our cheeks ached. It was the best off-road tour we’d ever taken and we’ve taken many. It was like doing the Rubicon but in the desert. Jimmy showed us all sorts of interesting things to see and taste in the desert and he also told us we had to try the historic, famous Cowboy Club in town where he’s ridden his horse right up to the bar. Great tip!
Later in Sedona, we played miniature golf at Los Abrigados Resort and Spa, a beautiful riverside resort where we had prime rib quesadillas that were nothing short of spectacular. That night we did go into town where I did some wine tasting and then we went to the Cowboy Club and feasted on buffalo, snake, and cactus-dipped in prickly pear cactus sauce – all delicious! We later watched a most amazing desert sunset from way up high above the entire town of Sedona. Later we swam at night again, sad to know it was our last night at the Enchantment Resort – the most upscale and gorgeous resort in Sedona.
Our next stop we arrived in Tucson to enjoy the wonderful Tucson Children’s Museum, a simply fabulous small museum. We loved swimming at the Hilton El Conquistador Tennis and Golf Resort where the water slide was awesome and the scenery throughout the property is superb throughout this gorgeous spot is situated at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountain range. Resident wildlife abounds and the largest golf course in southern Arizona tempts visitors, along with tennis and other outstanding amenities.
We ate an amazing dinner at Jax Kitchen – fabulous scallops, gourmet shrimp tacos, flatiron steak, homemade from scratch pasta, etc. This remarkable fine dining establishment manages to be very family-friendly. Delicious homemade bread, desserts and crackers, heirloom vegetables, and marvelous unique flavor combinations make this place extraordinary.
The next day we drove through the Saguaro Nat’l Park and to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum with its 2 miles of outdoor desert paths and exhibits of reptiles, hummingbirds, aviaries, and roadrunners, prairie dogs, etc. Next, we visited the Old Tucson Studios where hundreds of movies and westerns have been created. We took a stagecoach ride and the driver was a famous stunt man who has trained horses and movie stars for decades. We saw many costumes, sets, and props from Little House on the Prairie, Gunsmoke, and Three Amigos. We only wish we had more time. There was so much more to enjoy.
We entered Texas crossing the Rio Grande and Continental Divide and could see Mexico many times as we passed through Border Patrol near El Paso. We enjoyed the majesty of the desert as we headed to Marathon to check into our gorgeous historic hotel and resort, The Gage Hotel. Near Big Bend National Park, this exquisitely beautiful property is fortunate to offer a true desert oasis with its spectacular gardens, fitness center, Desert Moon Spa, exotic rustic elegance, and gorgeous Spanish-style courtyards. The stars envelope guests at night and the cooing of doves and music of songbirds awaken them in the morning.
Before departing we savored a wonderful morning swim at the gorgeous Gage Hotel pool – so exquisite with the Santa Fe style architecture and gorgeous cowboy theme décor, wrought iron, and mission-style buildings.
After passing through San Antonio we arrived in our favorite little Texas gem of Seguin, where we enjoyed a wonderful lakeside water-ski show at Lake Mc Queeney and a lovely dockside dinner. On our first night in Seguin, we got settled in our gorgeous lake house rental at Lake Placid and watched TRUE WOMEN, our favorite western movie, warming up for our Seguin TRUE WOMEN tour the next day.
The historic TRUE WOMEN tour in Seguin was positively fabulous; we loved seeing the places from both the movie and book. The history was so wonderful, captivating, gripping, and moving to see where it all happened. American History alive like that is truly spectacular. We even went to the oldest protestant church in Texas and rang the historic bell.
We went to Chiro Java for a great lunch, a unique little local coffee shop and bistro serving delicious salads and mouthwatering sandwiches. It’s a locals’ favorite.
We later toured the Seguin Heritage Museum and then Pape’s Pecan House, home of the world’s largest nutcracker collection. Their pecan treats and delicacies were amazing.
We had mother-daughter massages at Seguin Spa & Salon, and a Tex Mex dinner at El Ranchito Restaurant and Catering. Finally, we enjoyed boating on Lake Placid relishing the tranquility and fireflies. We canoed awhile on the lake at sunset and then we went night swimming from our own private dock at our lake house. We had to watch TRUE WOMEN again that night to see the wonderful places we’d enjoyed all day on our tours.
Seguin is a very special place with amazing people and history. It’s blessed to have walking tours, driving tours, historical tours, wonderful specialty shops, and excellent cuisine everywhere. One of our favorite shops was Cascades Gift Shop where numerous treats were lovely, especially the homemade chocolates.
We enjoyed touring Texas Lutheran University and the Texas Agricultural Education and Heritage Center. We also toured the Seguin Outdoor Learning Center.
Fabulous burgers are found at the best burger place in all of Texas, Kirby’s. For more family fun you’ll want to visit the fantastic Seguin Wave Pool in Starcke Park as well as ZDT Amusement Park which was very clean, safe, and well managed with excellent attractions.
Seguin was one of the most difficult places to see in our rearview mirror because the area was so fascinating and the people so lovely, warm, and gracious.
In the next part of my story, I’ll cover the southern and southeastern portions of the U.S. on our unforgettable 80-day adventure.
Carmel L. Mooney is a travel columnist and the editor of Road Trips for Couples.