After a year of social-distancing and safer-at-home orders, the travel itch is all but demanding to be scratched. Road trips were easy when we were young and untethered, but is a family road trip really worth the trouble? The short answer is YES, as long as you pick the right destination. Here are a few of our favorite, fully-vetted options from across the country.
With its coastal locale, deep history, and unbeatable food scene, Charleston has something to check off almost everyone’s travel wishlist. If you’ve got little ones in tow, don’t miss the South Carolina Aquarium and the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry. School-aged kids (and history buffs of all ages) will appreciate checking out Patriot’s Point, Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie.
Off the beaten path: Hit up Poe’s Tavern in Sullivan’s Island (Edgar Allen Poe spent time stationed at nearby Fort Moultrie) for the best burgers around.
Parent hack: Walk down to The Battery for wide open green space to let the kids burn off before (or after) dinner energy.
As the unofficial Bachelorette Party capital of the world, Nashville probably isn’t first on your list of “family-friendly road trip destinations,” but hear us out. It’s possible to plan an entire trip with nary a pedal tavern or honky tonk in sight. Indulge in a little culture at the Frist Art Museum (kids under 18 are free!) or the newly-opened National Museum of African-American Music. Explore the outdoors by hitting up the trails at the Warner Parks or keep cool by letting the kids splash in the fountains at the Bicentennial Mall.
Off the beaten path: Hit up Fannie Mae Dees Park (locally known as “Dragon Park”) near Vanderbilt’s campus to let the kids climb on a 150-foot-long mosaic sea serpent. There’s also standard playground equipment available, including several options tailored to kids of all abilities.
Parent hack: Grab dinner at Rosepepper Cantina in East Nashville, where the kids menu items are $1 (for them) and the margaritas are the strongest and best in town (for you). Bonus: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is right across the street.
Tucked away near the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia, Barnsley Resort feels like a throwback to a different era. The sprawling grounds and immaculate gardens beg to be explored, and they offer a variety of family-friendly activities from the expected (water sports, horseback riding) to the surprising (intro to archery, anyone?). Plus the facility is famously pet-friendly, so even the family dog can tag along on this trip.
Off the beaten path: The 15-mile UTV trail ride is the very definition of veering from the beaten path.
Parent hack: Don’t miss the s’mores supplies provided nightly in the living room of the inn.
Widely-billed as one of the most kid-friendly national parks, Acadia is full of breathtaking scenery … and paths and trails made to accommodate little feet (and short attention spans). Not to mention all the lobster rolls and blueberry-everything you can handle. Oh, and the popovers from the Jordan Pond House. It’s starting to sound a little like a food trip with a side of scenery, isn’t it?
Off the beaten path: Equal parts shop and exhibit, The Naturalist’s Notebook is a place you could easily spend an hour (or two).
Parent hack: If your kids are early birds, grab one of the reservations to watch the sunrise at Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Eastern seaboard.
We’ll be honest, October is really the peak-Salem visiting month; the spookiness factor is practically baked in. But there’s still loads to do and see on a summer road trip. Start with a trolley tour—the one-hour narrated guide will give you a great overview and you can make note of favorite spots to visit on foot. If you get hungry, beeline for Turner’s Seafood at Lyceum Hall.
Off the beaten path: Don’t miss the Salem Public Library. Their children’s area takes up the whole bottom floor.
Parent hack: To beat the late afternoon slump, hit up Maria’s Sweet Somethings for ice cream treats for the kiddos. Bonus: there’s a great coffee house next door if the grown ups need a caffeinated boost as well.
If you find yourself deadlocked in an argument over wilderness vs beach for your family road trip, Sleeping Bear Dunes just might be the compromise you didn’t know existed. The park stretches 35 miles up the coast of Lake Michigan, hugging the tree-covered hills of northern MIchigan. Check out the Wild Cherry Resort for glamping options, including yurts and cabins or Traverse City is only a half-hour away if a full-amenity hotel is more your speed.
Off the beaten path: Try tubing down the Platte River for a water experience that’s more than just splashing in the lake.
Parent hack: Climbing the dunes is the obvious must-do, but it’s a steep, hot climb. Hit it first thing in the morning to beat the crowds (and heat).
Whether your kids are into animals or STEM, the city of Columbus has you covered. The Columbus Zoo is a sprawling complex of various animal habitats, while COSI— the Center of Science and Industry— is so much more than a children’s science museum. Both provide tons of hands-on learning activities and expert-led demonstrations that will hold even the most energetic child’s attention.
Off the beaten path: The New Albany Farmer’s Market offers a huge selection of food stalls and booths to browse.
Parent hack: Check this list of reciprocal zoos; if you have a local zoo or aquarium membership, you might be able to score discounted tickets to the Columbus Zoo!
Some people love camping—the sleeping bag on the hard ground, the musty tents, the dirt and the bugs. For the rest of us, there are places like Buffalo Ridge Camp Resort with everything from glamping tents and luxury teepees, all the way up to modern cabins. While the resort is a destination unto itself, you’re also just a few miles from Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, and the Jewel Cave National Monument.
Off the beaten path: Check out the natural mineral springs at Evans Plunge.
Parent hack: Storybook Island is a free park/playground with tons of swings, slides, and other activities all oriented around famous storybook settings and characters.
Tucked into California’s Central Coast, Cambria is a hidden gem. Make the most of the gorgeous scenery with a wander along Moonstone Beach or a hike at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve (pro tip: go at sunset for the most spectacular views). Or, for a taste of opulence (and a chance to answer the question “but why don’t WE have an indoor swimming pool?”, tour Hearst Castle.
Off the beaten path: Don’t miss the Northern Elephant Seal Rookery; about 17,000 animals call it home.
Parent hack: Cambria Beach Lodge includes loaner bikes and adventure tools with your stay.
Home to the famous Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach on the Oregon Coast is recognized as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Make sure to put Hug Point on your itinerary—in addition to beach access, you’ll also find sea caves and a small waterfall.The area is more than just eye-candy though; downtown Cannon Beach is full of shops and art galleries.
Off the beaten path: Don’t miss brunch at the Lazy Susan Cafe.
Parent hack: Visit at low tide, when the beach area is largest (and the bird and animal life the most diverse!