Road tripping Canada and the USA in 1999

Almost 15,000km travelled, 49 days of diary entries, scanned photos and vivid memories pieced together by my parents to bring our 1999 family road from Vancouver to Los Angeles to life.

Don’t want to read the whole Canada and USA road trip story? Download a copy of the itinerary which includes driving times and things to do along the way.

Day 1: A long journey from Sydney to Vancouver

Our original flight out of Sydney was delayed almost 24 hours on what would have been day 1. After a stop in Nandi and Honolulu, we finally arrive in Vancouver on the 24th June 1999. That night, we stay at the Sylvia Hotel on English Bay.

After a quick nap at the hotel, we go for a walk along the shoreline to Stanley Park where my sister and I play at the park.

That night we eat dinner at an Italian restaurant, and return to the hotel to catch up on lost sleep.

Day 2: Vancouver, Swartz Bay, Butchart Gardens

We eat an early breakfast and pick up our Chevy Astro van to begin the road trip. We jump on the 99 and head north to Tsawwassen for a ferry ride in the car to Swartz Bay where we visit Butchart Gardens. We head to Victoria to collect money and return to Sylvia Hotel.

On the return trip to Vancouver we see a pod of killer whales and a wild bald eagle.

Day 3: Vancouver to Kamloops

After an early breakfast we begin the drive to Kamloops. Traveling from the coast to the mountains, we see a wild grizzly bear just 20 metres from the road. We stop in Lillooet along the way.

That night we go to Denny’s for dinner.

It was a long four hour drive to Kamloops. Dad specifically notes in the diary, “Vehicle performs well with weight of luggage + passengers.”

Day 4: Kamloops to Lake Louise

We leave Kamloops and hit the road for Lake Louise. This is where I have some of my first and most vivid childhood memories.

We drive through wild desolate country and old mining towns. We stop at Revelstoke for lunch, then continue to Golden. On the way we stop at Craigellachie, where the last railway spike climbs the east west railway. We go up the mountain and see lots of snow.

We see a female bear and her cub crossing the highway right in front of us. It happens too fast to get a photo on our film camera. We see wild sheep right before we arrive at Lake Louise, and see beautiful cabins nestled among the high snow capped mountains. We check in to a two-storey loft apartment which is kitted out with everything we need. That night, we cook pasta for dinner.

Day 5: Lake Louise

The whole family is up at golden hour and take an early walk with the camera.

We take a drive to Lake Moraine, where it’s raining and clouded over but still absolutely beautiful.

Moraine Lake, Canada. Photo taken in 1999 on a film camera
Moraine Lake, taken on a film camera in 1999.

We drive to the Chateau Lake Louise and take a walk through the hotel (because my grand parents are with us, and I specifically recall them loving looking at hotels).

We take a 5km-return hike around the lake and return to our room for a hot chocolate. My dad, sister and mum go for a canoe ride, and Dad specifically writes that he does all the work.

That night we have a BBQ dinner outside with an open log fire.

Day 6: Columbian Icefields and Jasper

We get in the car for the drive to Athabasca Glacier on the Columbian Icefields.

We take a snow coach tour of the glacier, which is freezing.

Afterwards we jump in the car and begin the drive to Jasper, “a quiet little town with not much happening” (definitely my mum’s words). Then return to Lake Louise after a stop to look at Athabasca Falls. On the drive we see goats, elk, coyote, a bear, deer and squirrels.

Athabasca glacier on a cloudy day. Photo taken in 1999 on a film camera
Athabasca glacier on a cloudy day in August 1999.

Day 7: Banff

After a leisurely breakfast we start the 45 minute drive to Banff.

We take a look at the Banff Springs Hotel, located at the top of a mountain looking down the valley. We drive around Banff for a while longer before returning to Lake Louise.

Day 8: Canada Day in Lake Louise

On the 1st July 1999 we take a leisurely walk around the town, then head back to the cabin for lunch.

We catch the Lake Louise Gondola. My Mum, Dad, Aunty and sister take a horse ride to Lake Agnes via Mirror Lake.

My mum, aunty and dad going horse riding near Lake Louise in 1999.
Horse riding to Lake Agnes via Mirror Lake in 1999.

That night we have dinner at the Gazebo to celebrate Canada Day.

Day 9: Lake Louise to Taber, Alberta

We drive through pouring rain to Calgary, where we hit a traffic jam. We continue to Taber for the only available accommodation we could find.

We stop at a Super 8 motel, and have dinner at Humpty’s restaurant.

Day 10: Taber to Great Falls, Montana

We begin the drive to Great Falls, Montana. Dad takes a wrong turn, blaming my Pop because “Bob was doing taxes for the border crossing”.

We cross the border into the United States through a place called Sweetgrass.

When we arrive in Great Falls, we pile in to a trolley bus for a tour around the town where we learn the history. We eat dinner at the Country Kitchen, then head back to another Super 8 motel.

Day 11: Great Falls to Bozeman

We wake up on Independence Day and have breakfast at the Super 8 motel. Today we’re driving through beautiful Montana to Bozeman.

Along the way we stop at Helena, the capital of Montana. We check out City Hall, and my sister and I play in a park while the others have coffee.

On our way from Helena to Bozeman we stop at Three Forks and check out Missouri River Headwaters State Park.

That night we stay at another Super 8 motel and have dinner at Perkins (which closed down in 2019).

Day 12: Bozeman to Yellowstone

After breakfast, we drive to Yellowstone National Park via West Yellowstone. We stop at the Grizzly Discovery Centre and see six grizzlies and nine wolves.

The Yellowstone National Park sign
Yellowstone National Park sign.

We hop back in the car and buy a park’s pass that is valid for one year. When we enter the park we see deer, elk, bison and a bear. Next, we see bubbling hot springs and then a geyser called Old Faithful. Even 26 years on I vividly remember seeing Old Faithful spurting right before us.

Next we went to see the mud volcanoes and the Yellowstone Lake and Canyon Village.

We leave Yellowstone National Park via the North entrance, driving through Gardiner and Livingston to get back to Bozeman.

Day 13: Bozeman to Billings

After breakfast we get in the car for a two-hour drive to Billings. When we arrive at our next Super 8 motel, we check in and go to town for the amusement park, putt putt and arcade games.

“As usual, Milly was refusing to do anything and chucked a big wobbly. This child really pushes the limits, but is adorable most of the time.”

Dad, 1999. Billings, Montana

Day 14: Billings to Sheridan, Wyoming

Today we’re leaving Montana and entering the state of Wyoming, destination Sheridan.

Just prior to entering Wyoming, we stop at the battlefield of Little Bighorn where Custer had his last stand. National Parks rangers gave an informative talk on weapons, tactics, reasons and results of the fight.

We continue driving to Sheridan and check in to another Super 8. We look around a museum and an old inn before heading out for dinner.

Day 15: Sheridan to Belle Fourche, South Dakota

Today we’re leaving Wyoming to enter South Dakota. On the road from Sheridan to Belle Fourche, we stop at Gillette for lunch and continue to our next Super 8 motel in Belle Fourche.

After a quick rest at the motel, we drive to Deadwood, where Wild Bill Hickok met his maker during a game of poker. This is also the place where Calamity Jane died and was buried.

That night we eat dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Belle Fourche.

Day 16: Belle Fourche to Hot Springs

Today we’re visiting Mount Rushmore. We find a spot in the 52 million dollar carpark and start the short walk to the entrance.

We walk along the Presidents trail to the sculptors gallery. After lunch, we start the drive to Crazy Horse Monument, just a few miles south. At the time, this monument had taken 50 years, and only the head was complete. When it’s completed, it’ll be the largest in the world.

Crazy Horse monument as seen in the year 1999. Photo taken on a film camera
Crazy Horse monument as seen in the year 1999.

We continue the drive to Hot Springs, where we check in, catch up on washing and have dinner.

Day 17: Hot Springs to Chugwater

In the morning we visit the mammoth site at Hot Springs. The dig had been going for 25 years when we visited in 1999.

The scenery on the road to Chugwater is sweeping plains and small plateaus. We arrive in Chugwater and check in at another Super 8, which has a pool.

Day 18: Chugwater to Fort Collins

We travel through the Colorado border and on to Fort Collins, which isn’t far from Denver. We couldn’t check in until late, so we drive to Loveland for some shopping.

Day 19: Fort Collins to Leadville Colorado (via Boulder)

We get in the car early and drive from Fort Collins to Leadville via Boulder. We eat noodles for lunch, then get back on the road through the canyons of Boulder, passing the goldfields and casinos of Black Hawk and Idaho Springs.

There’s not much to see or do in Leadville, and half the family is sick at this point. We lay low for the evening.

Day 20: Leadville to Aspen

After a continental breakfast in Leadville, we begin the drive to Aspen.

We stop at Independence Pass (3,600m altitude), which follows a very steep road with a cliff face drop on the side and hairpin turns.

We walk around town and take a ride up the gondola to Aspen Mountain at 4,300m. We head back down the mountain and start the drive back to Leadville.

Aspen Gondola as seen from a cable car. Photo taken in 1999 on a film camera
Riding the gondola up Aspen mountain.

Day 21: Leadville to Salida

The drive to Salida from Leadville is only about an hour and a half. We check in at another Super 8 motel.

My sister and I go to Salida Hot Springs across the road from where we eat lunch. That afternoon we swim in the pool at the motel, and go out for dinner in the evening.

Day 22: Salida to Ridgeway

We stop in Gunnison on the way to Ridgeway, where my sister and I play in the park. Next we visit Gunnison Black Canyon.

That afternoon we have a swim at the hotel, and head out for dinner at True Grit.

Day 23: Ridgeway to Durango

On the way to Durango, we drive through the canyons to Ouray, then to Silverton where we have a look around.

At Silverton, everyone but my Dad hops onboard the old steam train to continue the journey to Durango. Dad meets us at the station in the car – after what I imagine is an incredibly peaceful drive by himself after 23 days with the whole family in a small van.

That night we stay at another Super 8 motel in Durango.

Day 24: Durango to Cortez (via Mesa Verde)

My Aunty, Mum and Dad take a two hour whitewater rafting trip down the Animas River of Durango.

After their whitewater rafting adventure we drive to Mesa Verde National Park. We take a tour around the sacred site, where 700 years ago the Ancestral Pueblo people built a thriving community.

We drive to Cortez and check in to another Super 8 hotel. We have dinner at Main Street Brewery.

Day 25: Cortez to Blanding (via Arches National Park)

We drive from Cortez to Arches National Park. On the way we stop at Hole in the Rock for a tour.

We continue the drive to Arches National Park through Moab. Once we reach the park, we take a four mile hike in hot and dry conditions to see Balancing Rock and Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch.

Arches National Park. Photo taken in 1999 on a film camera
Arches National Park.
Landscape Arch in Arches National Park. Taken on a film camera in 1999
Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, USA
A photo of monuments in Arches National Park, taken in 1999 on a film camera
Monuments in Arches National Park.
Arches National Park, photo taken in 1999
More of Arches National Park.

After the hike we head to Moab and have dinner at Eddie McStiffs. We continue the drive south to Blanding, where we see wild deer crossing the road. We stay at another Super 8.

Day 26: Blanding to Kayenta

After breakfast we fuel up and drive to Natural Bridges National Monument.

We see the three bridges, Kachina, Owachomo and Sipapu.

Driving towards Monument Valley. Photo taken on a film camera in 1999
Driving towards Monument Valley.

We continue driving through the park towards Monument Valley. We arrive at the top of the valley, 330m (1,100ft) above the plains below. After a steep decline we cross the valley floor to Mexican Hat and into Monument Valley. Unbelievable views over the Arizona state line, and then to Kayenta.

A rainbow appears after a storm in the USA desert.
A beautiful rainbow forms after a storm.

We check in to the Holiday Inn in Kayenta.

Day 27: Kayenta to Page

After a complimentary breakfast we return to Monument Valley, then head back to Arizona and on past Kayenta to the Navajo National Monument where we see the breathtaking ruins.

Driving through Monument Valley. Photo taken on a film camera in 1999
Driving through Monument Valley.

We drive to Page and check into another Super 8, then head to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and look at Lake Powell. That night we have dinner at Strombolli’s in Page.

Day 28: Page to Grand Canyon

After another Maccas breakfast we continue to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon. Photo taken in 1999 on a film camera
The Grand Canyon.

Back in 1999, only 10% of people who visited the Grand Canyon visited the North Rim.

We visit Bright Angel Point and collectively have our breath away. While standing here I look up at my Dad and tell him to get the panoramic camera out.

Another view of the Grand Canyon.
Another view of the Grand Canyon. Photo taken in 1999 on a film camera.

We continue to Cape Royal, Point Imperial and then exit the park to return to Page.

That night we eat takeaway Chinese for dinner at the hotel.

Day 29: Page to Kanab

We eat cereal for breakfast and pack the car to continue our road trip. We drive from Page to Pipe Springs National Monument and take a ranger tour, then head back to Kanab and check into the Super 8.

After a swim in the pool with Dad, we go out for dinner at Nedra’s Cafe.

Day 30: Kanab to Bryce Canyon

We take the 1.5 hour drive from Kanab to Bryce Canyon after eating breakfast in the room.

We visit Sunset Point, Sunrise Point, Rainbow Point, Bryce and Fairyland Canyons – with equally spectacular views from different vantage points.

Bryce Canyon fairyland. Photo taken in 1999 on a film camera
Bryce Canyon.
Bryce Canyon on a clear day. Photo taken in 1999 on a film camera
Bryce Canyon.

We return to Highway 89 and visit Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park where sand has been deposited through a gap in two mountain ranges.

We return to our Super 8 motel in Kanab for dinner, which is takeaway Chinese yet again.

Day 31: Kanab to St George (via Zion National Park)

After breakfast in Kanab we leave for Zion National Park – a highlight of the trip for my Dad and I. This is another place that is almost certainly a core memory of mine.

We eat lunch on the valley floor in a canyon surrounded by 4,000ft cliffs. We drive further up the canyon to the Temple of Sinawava where we struggle to find parking because it is so busy.

Instead, some of the family walk 9km (6mi) to Emerald Pools. I sit this one out with my Nan.

That evening we drive to to St George and book in to another Super 8 motel, then go for dinner at Shoney’s.

Day 32: Zion National Park

We get up early to return to Zion National Park. We’re at the gates by 8:40am and straight into Sinawava Temple – this time finding parking easily.

We take a 2.5km (1.6mi) walk to the end of the trail, and wade through the stream up the river. Dad takes another 2mi walk up river through the canyons by himself.

People wading through water between two cliff faces in Zion National Park.
People wading through water between two cliff faces in Zion National Park.

Here, I have vivid memories sitting on Dad’s shoulders as he wades through the wasit-high water.

We return to Super 8 and have dinner at Chili’s.

Day 33: St George to Las Vegas

We get up late and have an easy breakfast. We have a two hour drive ahead to Las Vegas.

We stop halfway when we cross into Nevada at Mesquite, where we see nothing but casinos.

We check in to the enormous Luxor hotel in Vegas, and catch the monorail to Excalibur for a look around. My sister and I enjoy the amusement arcade.

We walk back to the Luxor and go up to our room on the 26th floor. We enjoy a swim in the pool, then get ready for dinner at Pyramid Cafe.

Day 34: Las Vegas

We eat breakfast at the Rainforest Cafe, which is great for young kids.

The family jump on a bus to a circus, where I’m pretty sure I pick up a fear of clowns.

That night we go to Treasure Island and see a pirate show, then go for a drive along the strip to check out Vegas at night.

Day 35: Las Vegas

A day of shopping and swimming followed by dinner at the Pyramid Cafe again.

Day 36: Las Vegas

We visit the MGM Grand for the theme park, where my sister and I enjoy plenty of rides and get soaked.

Day 37: Las Vegas to Barstow

We take one last drive up the strip to Caesars Palace for the 3D ride, Race to Atlantis.

We take the I-15 south towards Barstow where we cross into California. We check in to the Super 8 and we go for a swim.

Day 38: Barstow to San Bernardino

We drive from Barstow to Big Bear Lake, which has a very windy road. We arrive at the lake and have lunch.

Big Bear Lake, California. Photo taken in 1999 on a film camera
Bear Lake, California.

We drive from Bear Lake to San Bernadino.

Day 39: San Bernardino to Anaheim

We drive up the Sunset Strip, check out the Hollywood sign and continue to Anaheim where we check in to the Super 8.

It’s takeaway Chinese for dinner again at the hotel.

Day 40: Knotts Berry Farm, Anaheim

After breakfast we go to Knotts Berry Farm.

We go on all the rides: Ghost Rider, Supreme Scream, Wind Jammer, Montezuma’s Revenge, Jaguar, Boomerang, Big food Rapids, Big Splash and Gold Mine… Plus all the kids stuff.

That night we have dinner at Millies.

Day 41: Anaheim

According to the travel diary, I throw a wobbly after a long day of shopping and demand we get Maccas.

Day 42: Universal Studios, Anaheim

After 1.5 hours of driving in traffic, we get to Universal Studios. We go on all the rides and see a bunch of shows.

Day 43 & 44: Disneyland

Did Disneyland things.

Day 45: California to Vancouver

We spend most of the day packing our bags. When Dad drops the car off, we’ve travelled 14,900km (9,281mi).

We board our flight to Vancouver.

Day 46: Vancouver

We take a stroll around English Bay where it all began, and then go back into town to the Boatshed for dinner.

Day 47: Vancouver and home

We get up and find the IMAX to see Alaska.

When we get to the airport, in true McGrath fashion our luggage is overweight by 25 kilos. After what I’m sure took a lot of negotiating, we arrive home safely. And alas, my love for road tripping and National Parks comes to life at the age of 6.

One day we hope to recreate this road trip with our daughter Zoey and the grandparents.

April 11, 2024

Driving towards Monument Valley. Photo taken on a film camera in 1999

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