Meet: Andrea Leesch, National Parks Road-Tripper - The Expedition
Andrea Leesch, husband and kids posing in National Park

Meet: Andrea Leesch, National Parks Road-Tripper

“National Park adventures on a budget,” is how Andrea Leesch describes her family’s travel style.  

From their home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Andrea, her husband, William, and their two kids, Alexis (12) and Noah (10) have road-tripped to Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, Big Horn in Wyoming and the closer-to-home Black Hills. They mostly camp and stay in cabins along the way. 

“We typically take one big summer trip, a road trip to national park,” Andrea said. “I spend much of my winter and spring researching the destination and planning how we’ll get there.” 

The journey itself is a big part of the fun, and she builds in plenty of stops for sightseeing and activities. She’s inspired by the way she traveled as a child, touring the U.S. in a red Dodge Caravan. (“Two adults, four kids and a car topper.”)

“We were never resort people growing up,” she says. “I hope traveling this way instills in my kids the desire to go out and see what’s out there already. To see the things provided for us by nature that bring people together.” 

We talked to Andrea about the gear that changed their travels, why she always brings pennies along for the ride, and how you can change the way you see your trip—and make the experience better for everyone. 

The first trip I remember as a kid…

Was to the Black Hills, which was the same place we took our kids on our first big trip as a family. My parents rented a pop-up camper and we drove for what seemed like forever to get to the KOA campground. Later, when we took our kids there, we experienced many of the same stops I remember as a child. We saw Mount Rushmore, drove through Custer State Park and fed the donkeys, toured Wind Cave and Jewel Cave and did a kid’s fossil dig at the Mammoth site in Hot Springs. 

We always try to bring…

Hiking poles if we’re hiking—otherwise our son will pick up every long stick he finds. We try to remember pennies and quarters for penny presses, too. The kids love them, and they’re bummed if we see one and aren’t prepared with some coins. They make for great little inexpensive souvenirs.  

I’m always surprised how challenging it is…

To get the kids excited before we leave. It’s hard to show them photos of scenery from where we’re going and convince them we’re going to have fun. I guess you could say we’re building our travel rapport with the kids to get them to trust that when we say it’s going to be fun, it will be fun.

The biggest reward is…

Being with them as they see how fun it is and experience everything! Like when they see the deer wander into our campground as the sun sets, or they use my camera to photograph the bull moose they finally found after looking for it for days. Or as they stand in front of Nashville’s Parthenon after reading about it in the Percy Jackson book at the end of the school year. Our timing on that was golden!

The secret to a great camping trip…

Is to get down to your kids’ level and see it through their eyes. They’re kids, they can get wet and dirty. That’s why we have dedicated “camping clothes.” And at the end of each school year, their school shoes become camping shoes. Also, try to travel at their pace. Pushing their limits will also push you to yours. And, of course, end every day with a campfire and s’mores. It’s the icing on the cake of a day’s great adventures. 

The item that’s been a game changer for us…

Is the six-person Ayamaya Popup Tent we took on a 10-day trip we took this summer around the Bighorn Mountains. It really made the trip. Our plan was to only spend one night at each campground, and it provided the flexibility we needed for quick set-up and teardown. It folds up like a car windshield reflector and sets up the same. The four of us fit snugly on sleeping pads with sleeping bags. Our family glamping tent is much bigger (a nine-man Stonewall by Coleman) and it would have been a chore to set up and break down that one daily. 

On the road, we always pull over for…

Fun signs! It’s something I did growing up as a kid, so when we see a good one, we always pull over to take family selfies. It took a few years to get it to stick with my husband, but now he knows if there’s a sign he’d better just pull the car over or we’re turning around to get it. 

I’m hoping to get from The Expedition…

To be part of a community that loves traveling and sharing their adventures. There are things I’d like to do and learn more about and this was a group I knew would be supportive. I hope to be inspired to visit places I’ve never heard of and also share our successes and adventures with children. I’m here to be a resource for families in a similar boat, traveling to the areas we’ve been and planning vacations with kids. I’m always looking for fresh ideas and up for trying new things. It’s always great when someone can help me improve upon it and I hope to be able to do that for others in return.

Terry Ward is a Florida-based freelance journalist and travel writer.