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The Top 10 Road Trips for Families in America in 2021

published May 26, 2021
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Six years ago, the first road trip my husband and I took as new parents was a journey from the San Francisco Bay Area to Southern Oregon, for a funeral. Our 1-year-old had always been generally happy riding in the car, but she chose this opportunity to snooze and scream, alternately, every 15 minutes. It was the longest seven hours of our lives. 

Over the years, we’ve learned a few helpful tricks. Unlike that first road trip, when we made just one stop (walking over Sundial Bridge in Redding; highly recommend), we now plan lots of stops, at least every two hours, at popular detours and hidden gems along the route. This could be a pretty state park with an easy trail, an interactive restaurant, a quirky roadside attraction, or simply a playground that looked cool on the internet — anything to keep the kids happy and let us stretch our legs. We’ve also learned to not stay in one place too long (ahem, Grand Canyon) and to bring alllll the snacks.

Here are 10 road trips around the United States that start or end in well-known destinations and offer loads of stops along the way — including recommendations from families who’ve made these trips many times. So pack your bags, pick up some Dramamine, and hit that open road. 

Bridges and Boardwalks: San Francisco to Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast Highway

450 miles one way | See the route > 

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Pacific Coast Highway

California’s Highway 1 hugs the coastline, often winding along cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean. That may create white-knuckle moments for drivers, but kids will feel like they’re flying. Begin at the Golden Gate Bridge — but don’t just drive over it. Pull off and walk the 1.5-mile span to gaze up at the vibrant Art Deco towers and down at container ships entering the bay. 

Heading south, there are countless beaches to explore. Cindy Chew and Ethan Fletcher, parents of twin boys from Oakland, love noshing on olallieberry pie at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero, then heading to Año Nuevo State Park. “If it’s the right season, usually December to March, elephant seals and their pups can be seen on the beach,” says Cindy. “And our daring boys like scrambling on the rocks.” 

Don’t miss the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium in historic Cannery Row. If you’re there in winter, swing by neighboring Pacific Grove, where monarch butterflies cluster high up in the trees to keep warm. Farther south is Hearst Castle, where you can tour the 115 eclectic rooms and two stunning pools — and, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of zebra. Morro Bay and Santa Barbara are great launching points for ocean adventures like whale watching, while kids will be delighted (or disgusted) by San Luis Obispo’s Bubblegum Alley.

As you come into the Los Angeles metropolitan area, famous surfing beaches and celebrity mansions come into view. Pull off at the Santa Monica Pier for classic amusement, from midway games to a hand-painted carousel. The road turns inland here, and it’s a great starting point for adventures around the region. Disneyland, anyone?

Pacific Northwest Food and Fun: Portland to Seattle on I-5 

174 miles one way | See the route >

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Multnomah Falls

Interstate 5, which runs north-south through the West Coast states, is known for efficiency over beauty. But between Portland and Seattle, it’s rather lovely, with blankets of evergreen forest and plenty of pull-offs for exploration. In Portland, check out the Japanese Garden, ride the Aerial Tram, and fill up on kid-approved eats: Voodoo Donuts offers bacon-topped maple bars and Captain Crunch–crusted vanilla donuts, while Slappy Cakes has table-side griddles for DIY pancakes.

As you leave the city, take a detour east to Multnomah Falls, where you can gaze up at the cascade in full from the base or close-up after a quarter-mile hike to Benson Bridge. Return to I-5 and make your way north. Along the way, you can explore the Mount St. Helens visitor center and ridge observatory, ride a steam train at the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad & Museum, or birdwatch from the boardwalk at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge.

The Seattle-Tacoma metro area makes a grand finale, from the high-flying thrills of the Space Needle and Great Wheel to watching fish fly at Pike Place Market and coffee beans zip around pneumatic tubes at Starbucks Reserve Roastery. If time allows, continue a little further north to Everett, where Boeing builds its 787 Dreamliners. Touring the world’s largest warehouse and watching freshly minted logo-less jets take off and land is fun for kids and kids at heart.

Red Rocks Roundabout: Flagstaff to Flagstaff via Utah and Nevada

854-mile loop | See the route >

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Grand Canyon National Park

This road trip is ambitious, but if you have the time, it will deliver you to some of the most iconic desert landscapes and two national parks. Flagstaff is a good place to start, with a visit to Lowell Observatory (where Pluto was first discovered) and the 200-acre Arboretum at Flagstaff. Don’t miss Slide Rock State Park, just south of the city, where you can fly down natural waterslides carved from sandstone.

Heading north, epic detours abound, starting with Grand Canyon National Park. Skip the train and bus tours for one great viewpoint — such as Shoshone Point, with its level, one-mile dirt path from the road. Head north and then west through Southern Utah, for several great adventures: squeezing through a slot canyon at Antelope Canyon, renting a boat on Lake Powell, or sledding down sand at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. At Zion National Park, don’t miss the quick hike to Weeping Rock, where ground water drips through layers of stone above you like rain.

Turning southwest toward Nevada, marvel at real dinosaur footprints at St. George Dinosaur Discovery and hike through vibrantly striated sandstone at Valley of Fire State Park before entering the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas. For family-friendly fun, ride the High Roller Observation Wheel and visit the Fun Dungeon arcade at Excalibur. Return to Flagstaff by way of Hoover Dam, which supports the largest reservoir in the U.S., and Route 66 relics in Kingman, Arizona.

Riches and Ruins of the West: Colorado’s San Juan Skyway

235-mile loop | See the route >

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Colorado’s San Juan Skyway

Especially stunning in fall, when the aspens change color, the San Juan Skyway is a picture-perfect postcard of the American West as well as a crash course in its history, winding through deserted mining towns, ski resorts, and Puebloan ruins. Start in Durango, where you can get glimpses of the past in gaslit street lamps and saloons, or hop on a steam train to Silverton and back through a rocky gorge.

As you head west, detour to Mesa Verde National Park, where you can roam through the apartment-like dwellings built into a cliff by the Ancient Puebloan people and spot petroglyphs in the rocks. (At night, this International Dark Sky Park is great for viewing the Milky Way.) Return to the route and head for the town of Dolores for kayaking and fly fishing in the McPhee Reservoir or Dolores River. To the northeast, Telluride ski resort offers mountain fun all year round. Take the gondola to Mountain Village for great views as well as an Adventure Center with a ropes course and bungee trampoline. 

Heading south, the town of Ouray has been called the “Switzerland of America” for its picturesque location nestled amid 13,000-foot peaks. In Silverton, take a hard-hat tour of Old Hundred Gold Mine including riding on a mine train and panning for gold. Upon returning to Durango, consider adding Chimney Rock National Monument to the itinerary. This Ancestral Puebloan site preserves 200 homes and ceremonial buildings, including a great kiva.

Great Lakes Getaway: Chicago to Cleveland

380 miles one way | See the route >

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The Bean in Chicago

Compare and contrast two big cities on two great lakes. Start in Chicago with silly selfies in the reflection of “The Bean” in Millennium Park and an elevator ride up 103 stories to the glass sky deck at Willis Tower. But don’t leave before looking out onto the seemingly endless Lake Michigan; an 18-mile paved trail follows the shoreline.

Head east toward Indiana Dunes for sandy fun on beaches and trails. Continue to the University of Notre Dame for a guided historical tour of the campus and football stadium — especially fun if the kids have seen Rudy. The quirky RV/MH Hall of Fame invites the curious inside old Mae West’s 1931 Chevrolet Housecar and a 1985 Bounder. Continue on to see a B-25 bomber at the Liberty Aviation Museum, take in the views from the top of Marblehead Lighthouse, and ride some epic waterfront roller coasters at Cedar Point.

In Cleveland, swing by Ralphie’s house from A Christmas Story as well as the movie-prop museum across the street. For more memorabilia fun, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has iconic guitars and costumes on display as well as a stadium-evoking theater blasting concert footage. End your trip at 147-acre Edgewater Park, which has a fishing pier and great views of Lake Erie and the Cleveland skyline.

Cowboy Country: San Antonio to Oklahoma City

481 miles one way | See the route >

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San Antonio Riverwalk

Explore Native American, Spanish, and Old West history on this Interstate 35 drive. The San Antonio Riverwalk makes for a festive beginning, where you can walk or boat along the tree- and restaurant-lined canal. Then tour The Alamo, a mission turned museum dedicated to the 1836 Texas Revolution battle, and pick up a custom-fitted Stetson at nearby Paris Hatters.

Head north through a few notable Texas towns. In Austin, nosh on ribs and brisket with live music at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, take a self-guided tour of the State Capitol building, and watch bats emerge at dusk en mass from under the Congress Avenue Bridge. In Waco, fans of HGTV’s Fixer Upper should visit the Magnolia Market at the Silos to shop for home goods, play lawn games, and grab a bite to eat — like a “Shiplap” cupcake from Silos Baking Co. Only a few blocks away, the Dr. Pepper Museum offers exhibits, a classic soda fountain, and reservation-only experiences such as making your own soda. In Dallas, check out the Children’s Adventure Garden at the Dallas Arboretum and get colorfully creative at the Crayola Experience.

Entering Oklahoma, the interstate nears Chickasaw Nation lands. Learn about and celebrate Native American culture at the Chickasaw Cultural Center, which includes a historic village replica, educational exhibits, and a café serving fry bread and hominy-and-pork pashofa. In Oklahoma City, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum highlights the legacy of the American West through art exhibits, interactive displays, and artifact collections including early saddlery and hand-beaded moccasins.

Music, Mountains, and Motorsports: Nashville to Charlotte

409 miles one way | See the route > 

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Grand Ole Opry

This southern journey explores east and west of the Smokies. In Music City, a live country music experience is required, whether that’s at a show at the Grand Ole Opry or a walk through downtown Nashville, where notes waft from the city’s honky-tonks — and most are kid-friendly until 10 p.m. 

As you head east, visit Percy Priest Lake, where you can rent a pontoon or fly down waterslides at Nashville Shores. Consider detours such as seeing the impressive 136-foot cascade at Burgess Falls State Park, floating on an underground lake at Lost Sea Adventure, riding roller coasters and watching dinner shows at Dollywood, eating chili dogs and pinto bean pecan pie at the Bush’s Visitor Center, and myriad adventures in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tawny and Jeremy Plate, who live just outside Nashville, take their two kids camping in the Smokies each summer. They love picnicking and playing in the river at Metcalf Bottoms, bear-spotting at Cades Cove, and taking the “Chondola” up Anakeesta. “At the top is an amazing treehouse village play area with a ropes course and tree-to-tree bridge skywalk, not to mention a lookout tower, mountain coaster, and shopping,” says Tawny.

Making your way into North Carolina, check out Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned home in the U.S., with 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 75 acres of gardens to explore. Then head to Chimney Rock State Park, where you can reach the top of the 315-foot namesake monolith via many stairs — or an elevator ride. Once in Charlotte, Hot Wheels aficionados will enjoy the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Urban and Rural Pennsylvania: Philly to Amish Country

70 miles one way | See the route >

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Independence Hall

A journey through Pennsylvania is equal parts fun and educational, whether learning about the forming of the United States, walking through an old army encampment, or observing the lifestyle of the Amish. Start in Philadelphia with visits to Independence Hall (the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution), the 2,080-pound Liberty Bell, or the Museum of the American Revolution — then putt around tiny Philly landmarks at the mini-golf course at Franklin Square.

Don’t miss the Philadelphia Zoo, where overhead tunnels let tigers and orangutans walk above you as they move between enclosures. Particularly curious older kids may enjoy the Mütter Museum of medical history, with real skeletons, tumors, and even pieces of Einstein’s brain on display. Head West to Valley Forge, the winter encampment of the Continental Army, which offers a 10-mile self-guided driving tour that includes General George Washington’s headquarters and reconstructed log soldiers’ huts.

As you approach Lancaster, the farms of Amish Country come into focus. Amish Farm & House is a popular attraction with guided tours of the area, a one-room schoolhouse, and a farm. Or explore quieter horse-and-buggy enclaves like Bird in Hand or Paradise. Lancaster residents Amanda and Rob Stratmeyer enjoy taking their two kids to Strasburg Rail Road. “Our train-obsessed boys absolutely love it,” says Amanda. “It’s a pretty ride through Amish farmland, and you can stop off at Cherry Crest Adventure Farm for some extra fun. The kids talk about it for weeks afterward.”

The Big Apple to a Big Waterfall: New York City to Niagara Falls

482 miles one way | See the route >

Credit: Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

Traverse the great state of New York. Families visiting for the first time should start with a classic New York City tourist tour. Ride the Cyclone wooden coaster on Coney Island, take a ferry to the Statue of Liberty, go to the top of the Empire State Building, explore the many wonders of Central Park, and find a coveted toy at FAO Schwarz in Rockefeller Center.

Then, make your way north, stopping for a train ride through the Catskills on the Catskill Mountain Railroad and a cruise of the Hudson River launching from Albany. Then head east to explore the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown or mine for quartz crystals at the Herkimer Diamond Mines. On the Syracuse University campus, peep the mind-boggling Tree of 40 Fruit, which was grafted to grow different types of stone fruit, from peaches to cherries. Then head south to the Finger Lakes region and its roughly 100 waterfalls. 

Continue east toward Buffalo. Along the way, travel back in time to the 19th Century at the Genesee Country Village or learn about a favorite dessert at the Jell-O Gallery Museum. In Buffalo’s Canalside waterfront development, the Explore & More children’s museum is delightfully fun, with an interactive car wash exhibit and an accessible and whimsical treehouse. End by viewing breathtaking Niagara Falls two ways: from the Prospect Point Observation Tower and the Maid of the Mist boat tour.

Aquatic Adventures: Florida from Miami to Key West

165 miles one way | See the route > 

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The Florida Everglades

This fun journey on the Overseas Highway along the Florida Keys (a series of small islands) includes some 40 bridges as well as some epic sunsets. Plus, there are myriad opportunities to be at or in the water — often with animals. Start the adventure in Miami with a day at the beach, a speedboat tour of the coastline, or a dip with dolphins and seals at Miami Seaquarium

As you leave the city, detour west to Everglades National Park. The Everglades Alligator Farm offers airboat rides through the wetlands as well as opportunities to feed and hold gators. On your way back, stop at the famous Robert is Here stand for fresh tropical fruit and smoothies. Heading down the keys, consider snorkeling (or, for younger kids, taking a glass-bottom boat tour) at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park; feeding tarpon or touching stingrays at Aquarium Encounters; or touring the Turtle Hospital where injured or sick animals are treated and released.

Nearing Key West, you’ll traverse Seven-Mile Bridge, an engineering feat sure to delight youngsters. The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory is a must-see, where 50 species of butterflies and 20 types of exotic birds flutter around a glass-enclosed habitat. Don’t end the adventure before snapping a photo at the “Southernmost Point in the Continental USA” buoy. It’s a little cheesy, but the family scrapbook requires it.