• caseychapmanrossph

Road Schooling: Austin to Denver and 10 Sweet Spots Along the Way

Updated: Feb 9

Featured in the Austin American Statesman (Fall 2020)

Our family of five packed our car to the gills with our gear, extra sanitizer, Pedialyte popsicles (great for avoiding dehydration on the road and in the mountains!) and even a travel potty! We hit the road on a mission to explore new learning environments by road schooling from Texas to Colorado taking the utmost in Covid precautions as well. Our remote learning experience was infused with exotic animals, aliens, swimming holes, hot springs, bike riding, spellbinding geologic formations - but also with the occasional hot spot failure and Covid challenges.

Johnson City Exotic Zoo Resort

Johnson City, TX

An hour outside of Austin, this animal resort is an easy first attraction that the kids love EVERY SINGLE time. Give yourself an hour to drive through the resort, and budget $20 or so to buy animal pellets that everyone can feed out of the car windows. Be warned: I’ve found pellets in my car for weeks afterwards, not to mention the slobber - keep the feeding outside the car when making this visit at the beginning of a road trip! They take Covid precautions seriously and it’s a very low contact, high fun attraction.

PROS: squealing, happy kids!

CONS: potentially dirty way to start the trip but avoidable

Gardens of Baron’s Creek

Fredericksburg, TX

We stayed here at the recommendation of a friend and it was fantastic! It had much needed access to a private dipping pool and hot tub, perfect for all of us to hop in and out of on school breaks. My husband and daughters also enjoyed poolside yoga recess breaks. We had every intention of watching a movie from the pool on the outdoor big screen but alas, were too tired by dark to make it happen. I loved having a fireplace in the bedroom and the huge front driveway was perfect for the scooters, skateboards, and bikes! It’s location on Main Street makes it fun to be able to walk to all the shops and attractions in downtown Fredericksburg, but you’ll also hear the street noise.

PROS: Strong wi-fi, proximity to downtown attractions, clean, great owner response when needed

CONS: Street noise by the pool, accessibility (price per night is high)

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Fredericksburg, TX

One of the Hill Country’s finest sites, Enchanted Rock State Park is one of the most accessible natural sites in terms of location, parking, tickets, etc. And there’s plenty of beautiful trails for all levels of hikers. The baby (three years old) and I made it about three quarters of the way up the rock, but then stayed back as the older kids went with dad the rest of the way. Did you know it is the largest pink granite rock hill in the United States?! We find that even though we hadn’t made it far from Austin, it really helps to break up even the short drive days with cool stops, especially where there’s exercise and a Kona Shaved Ice!

PROS: close parking to the start of the hike/trails, easy enough challenge that people of most ability can likely conquer it, Kona Ice awaits you at the bottom

CONS: no swimming, no bike riding and pets in very specific areas only

Caverns of Sonora

Sonora, TX

Driving through West Texas, there is literally nothing on the horizon...but wonders await down below! The Caverns of Sonora sit nearly halfway between Fredericksburg and Marathon making it an easy stopping point for a picnic lunch and tour. Booking the tour ahead of time online was simple and the experience exceeded our expectations. The full tour through the elaborate and winding cave system took just over an hour. With the three year old in tow, we opted for the short cut out about half way but still felt like we had an amazing experience. The wishing well, enchanted by decades of copper pennies in pristine turquoise water was a highlight as was the fossil finding mission we opted into via the gift shop. Spoiler alert: a hidden face in the rock exposed by our phone’s camera enhanced the magic of the experience. I highly recommend the stop if you’re on Interstate 10!

The Gage Hotel

Marathon, TX

We only had a mere forty-eight hours at the Gage but it ranks among the most special since we got to spend it with our family friends. Mid-day storms with rainbow chasers, epic sunsets, the most lovely green lawns and pool to lounge in during the off hours made this setting one of the most memorable parts of our trip. The brisket and turkey at The Brick Vault down the street melts in your mouth and the on-site brewery needs to be on your list for dinner. This historic West Texas gem hasn’t seen the last of the Ross Family but next time we’ll bring our pup and explore Big Bend and the ghost town of Terlingua, as neither are very far! Bonus: Check out the Big Bend Cookbook and/or The Terlingua Chili Cookbook by Austin’s own, Tiffany Harelik for some of the most delicious West Texas recipes around!

PROS: Strong wi-fi, great family vibe, very dog friendly, amazing food, ghost stories of old man, Alfred Gage himself visiting the historic halls

CONS: very far removed from all things (which can also be a plus), the food is so special but a little pricey, plan your grocery shops and gas fill ups because there aren’t a lot of easy options that we found.

The International UFO Museum & Research Center

Roswell, NM

This pop culture collection of UFO themed film paraphernalia and

crash site recovery research is a must see stop along the way, because, how can you not? Visitors are welcome to explore the small but mighty collection after a temperature check at the door and mandatory masks. It’s a very short horse-shoe shaped tour, so it’s not a big time commitment. The kids zoomed through, wide eyed and maybe a little apprehensive but generally, interested...especially in the gift shop. After seeing so many model aliens, when the live mascot alien popped around the corner, they were definitely surprised! However, minutes later they were fist pumping and hugging and my daughter exclaimed “I believe!” It was a great little stop well worth making.

PROS: fun, quick stop, sweet staff and Covid conscious

CONS: some of the displays may freak out young children, they are very real but can be skipped if you avoid the very back area

The Historic Plaza Hotel

Las Vegas, NM

When mapping our route, we chose the fastest line from Roswell, New Mexico to Manitou Springs, Colorado despite all the input we received about going through Santa Fe. Las Vegas, New Mexico was the perfect half way point on the road less traveled and we were so happy with the result!

We were thrilled to climb the massive staircases and roam the halls while learning about all the celebrity visits. Each celebrity bio was on a plaque by the room where they once stayed. We stayed in Room 303 or better known as the James Spader room, ha! Other rooms included Michelle Obama, Woody Harrelson, Javier Bardem, John Lithgow, the Coen Brothers and so many more! You also can’t tell from their website what a gorgeous town square park is across the street where we picnicked with pizza from JC’s New York and played for hours with sounds of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” and CCR’s “Run through the Jungle” streaming from the cars making “the drag” around the block. It was the perfect evening.

PROS: good wi-fi, very clean, nearby park, fun celebrity trivia, great experience overall

CONS: only one window was operable and we would have loved to have been able to open them all since it was gorgeous out, small bath tub, no private parking for hotel guests

El Colorado Lodge

Manitou Springs, CO

I had really high hopes for this one, so high (no pun intended with the dispensary next door), that I thought this one may be my favorite spot along the road with its cute adobe style cabins nestled in the super tall Pine trees with its little split level staircase and in-unit fireplace. Although the customer service at the front desk was fantastic and the proximity to Garden of the Gods was almost unbeatable, I can’t say I recommend it until they make a few adjustments to the quality of the experience. The room smelled like 40 years of cigarette smoke even though it was clearly labeled a non-smoking unit and the cleanliness was sub-par. We did enjoy an excellent dinner at The Mason Jar down the road that we would highly recommend!

PROS: Decent wi-fi, proximity to the park, fun style, large, clean pool and playground, recreational dispensary near by if that’s your jam

CONS: Cleanliness, smell of the room, somewhat loud street location

Garden of the Gods

Manitou Springs, CO

This park is such a beautiful representation of the wonders of the world. The deep red sandstone spires seem to defy logic with their entirely vertical walls or “fins” with tiny gaps between rocks hundreds of feet high. Huge boulders, some balanced seemingly precariously but obviously strong surviving over their millions of years history. I cannot recommend this experience enough. It is one of the most beautiful parks I’ve visited, wasn’t crowded, was very accessible with plenty of parking, and was free to the public.

PROS: easy hiking trails for all levels and lots even completely flat, nearby parking, free

CONS: hard to find any!

Historic Indian Hot Springs

Idaho Springs, CO

*just West of Denver-full disclosure (30 min)

Although this was slightly out of our way, I was set on visiting a hot spring as part of the trip and we loved it! With a communal hot pool, private tubs, geothermal caves and lodging, this spot exceeded my expectations. The staff was super friendly, our appointments were on-time, and the communal pool was far more beautiful than the photos online indicated. The banana trees and tropical foliage in the greenhouse were surely over twenty feet tall. With waters ranging from 98-104+ there was a spot in the water for everyone.

PROS: clean, on-time, easy online reservation process, friendly staff, gorgeous tropical environment

CONS: almost dangerously hot (but I suppose that can be a pro depending on who you ask), gift shop needs more items specific to the hot springs and not just Colorado, know before you go: geothermal caves are clothing optional

In closing, with the help of my very patient, supportive, and adventurous husband (and mostly willing kiddos), our Colorado remote learning road trip was a huge hit in exploring new places, and stimulating new learning environments. To follow our adventures, you can find us on IG @caseychap.

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