Lauren Runyon had one goal in mind for her children’s 2015 spring break from school: sit poolside on a lounge chair somewhere warm to escape her hectic life and Colorado’s bleak winter. Translation? This married mom of four and middle school teacher from Westminster, Colo., just wanted to head south.
Since the family had but one obligation that week, a soccer game for one of the kids in Pueblo, Colo., 112 miles south of Denver, their schedule was wide open. Lauren’s husband, Dave, had just the plan to fill it: Why not let the kids choose a road-trip route from there?
“The idea was that roughly every three hours at a major intersection, the kids could choose left, right or straight,” says Dave, co-author of “The Art of Neighboring” and executive director of CityUnite, a non-profit organization combining efforts of faith-based and civic leaders to improve their communities.
That meant son Ethan, 11, and daughters Kate, 10, Kendra, 8, and Emery, 6, were in charge of the road-trip itinerary for the next seven days. The only rule? All four siblings had to agree on the direction. Whether that led them to Galveston, Phoenix or Oklahoma City, the Runyons tossed convention out the car window.
“It’s representative of my entire (15-year) marriage with Dave because he never does anything conventionally,” Lauren says.
And while they occasionally vacation like “normal” families, she said, including an all-inclusive stay in Cancun, Mexico, last December, their overarching travel theme is “spontaneity.” Especially when it comes to road trips.
“Some people will plan a nice vacation,” she says. “And we’re like, OK, everybody! Let’s get in the car! We’ve packed our parkas and bikinis, and will either be at the beach or in a tornado shelter!”
“It can go completely and totally awry,” Lauren continues. “You just have to have an adventurous spirit.”
That devil-may-care philosophy took them throughout the Southwestern United States, from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M., to Phoenix, Arizona. After a few days touring Phoenix, the kids chose to return home via Farmington, N.M., stopping briefly at Four Corners Monument, then Great Sand Dunes National Park near Alamosa, Colo., before arriving in north Denver. (See a more detailed itinerary below.)
In addition to finding adventure on what became known as “The Runyons Head South,” the impromptu itinerary also led them to several “fantastic hole-in-the-wall restaurants,” Dave says, such as a Greek gyro place in Fountain, Colo.
Finding lodging was even part of the adventure. Not having booked a single reservation ahead of time, Dave would search for same-day lodging deals via HotelTonight.
“I’m a bargain hunter,” he says, particularly because traveling with four kids means paying for two rooms each night. “This app is the best thing I’ve come across.”
Hotel highlights included a stop at a Hampton Inn in Kayenta, Ariz., when the family arrived after dinner hours but were welcomed with a meal anyway.
“We were the only ones in the restaurant, and (the staff members) were great,” Lauren says.
Ask the kids about their favorite accommodation, however, and there’s one undisputed champion: the We-Ko-Pa Resort & Conference Center, located on the Ft. McDowell Yavapai Nation Reservation near Scottsdale, Ariz.
A name that translates from the tribe’s language to “Four Peaks” in homage to their sacred land, the We-Ko-Pa Resort was the only place the Runyons stayed during the trip for longer than one night. Between its Sonoran Desert setting, proximity to Phoenix and amenities, including two golf courses, two hot tubs and one resort-style pool, the family stayed three nights before realizing it was time to head home.
So, after driving more than 2,400 miles in a road trip that included six major stops in seven days, would they do it again?
There was at least once a day that Lauren looked at me and said, “This is stupid,?” Dave says. And I had the same thought at least once a day: “This doesn’t feel like vacation.?”
But the kids can’t stop talking about the “fun” and “adventurous” trip they helped plan. So chances are good the Runyon parents will again follow whims of their kids on future road trips. But will they be headed north, east or west?
“What’s good about that,” Lauren says, shrugging, “is that we have vacation plans for the next three years.”
Runyon Road-trip Stops
Santa Fe, N.M.”The family’s first major stop, they toured the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (St. Francis Cathedral) then headed to the end of the Santa Fe Trail. The family ate dinner in town that night but decided to keep driving toward Albuquerque. “My kids weren’t “feeling” Santa Fe because, as they described, it was more for “grown-ups who like pottery,?” Dave says. (My kids) have zero artistic leaning.
Albuquerque, N.M.“Opting to drive nearly 65 miles southwest that night from Santa Fe to the nation’s hot-air-balloon hotspot, the family’s goal was to watch an Albuquerque sunrise. “You look up, and the sky is just littered with hot-air balloons,” Lauren says. “It was beautiful.
PhoenixNot only did the family love staying at the We-Ko-Pa Resort, but there were plenty of family-friendly activities to keep the kids occupied for three days. Their favorites? Topgolf, a golf-entertainment complex in Scottsdale, and K1 Speed to race European-style karts at up to 45 mph.
Farmington, N.M. One of the best parts of the trip for Lauren, the kids chose to head to her birthplace and the site of many of her fondest childhood memories. Although Lauren’s family moved away from Farmington when she was young, she returned often to visit her grandparents on their sprawling acreage. Now with kids and husband in tow, Lauren showed them where she hiked and played, as well as her grandparents’ memorial on the land she explored as a child.
Four Corners Monument Continuing on the way home, the kids begged to stop at the only place in the U.S. where four states- Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado – intersect at one point. Spoiler alert: There are reports that the location is off by about 2.5 miles, a claim the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department refutes.
Alamosa, Colo.?For the last stay of the road trip, the Runyon kids chose Alamosa, a prime jumping-off point the next day to Great Sand Dunes National Park before heading home. The kids had a blast sand boarding, Dave says, despite the challenges of getting four kids to climb the highest dunes in North America.
Freelance writer and Outdoor Families Magazine contributing editor Heather Mundt lives in Longmont, Colo., with her husband and two boys. She writes about traveling with kids on her site, Momfari.com, inspiring parents to get out and discover the world with their children.