Summer is approaching, which means it’s high time to start planning—and booking—your summer trips. Our advice: Slow down and enjoy the journey by road-tripping to and through your favorite destinations. We’ve researched a number of family-friendly road trips around the country. Here, in no particular order, are our favorite 10.
The San Juan Islands
Number of days: 4-5
What to do: The San Juan Islands, about 90 minutes from Seattle, comprise an archipelago characterized by steely waters and verdant conifers. Four of the islands are accessible by car ferry—San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw—so “road tripping” this quartet involves both car and boat. On San Juan Island, follow an exciting whale-watch with a stop at the informative Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, or sample brandies at the San Juan Island Distillery near Roche Harbor. On Orcas, hike to the top of 2,409-foot Mount Constitution in Moran State Park. Bicycling is the name of the game on Lopez and Shaw.
Why kids will love it: The sun sets late here, making summer nights last longer. Kids also will love all the local wildlife—orca whales, otters and eagles abound.
I-95 from Washington, D.C., to South Carolina
Number of days: 3-4
What to do: The highpoints of the 370-mile journey on this busy interstate are the zany billboards advertising for a glorified truck stop called South of the Border, as well as the roadside attraction itself. Start in the nation’s capital, where a night tour might be the best way to see all of the greatest monuments and memorials. Set out the next day for a 5.5-hour drive to SOTB. The circa-1950 rest area comprises restaurants, a gas station, an amusement park, and a motel. Its mascot, Pedro, is modeled after a Mexican bandit. Along the way, look out for billboards that read: “You never sausage a place,” and “Keep yelling kids! (They’ll stop),” among others.
Why kids will love it: The billboards are punny, and kids love puns. Think of the rest area as a poor man’s Disneyworld, complete with a video arcade and coin-operated rides.
Number of days: 2-3
What to do: Few New England drives are beachier than the 115-mile stretch of Route 6 through Cape Cod. Start the drive in Boston, and head for Sandwich, where the elbow-shaped peninsula meets the mainland. From there, follow the road west through towns such as Barnstable, Dennis, and Brewster. In Chatham, at the tip of the elbow, check out the Chatham Lighthouse, a 200-year-old beacon that still stands today. Outside of Eastham, be sure to stop at Cape Cod National Seashore, on the ocean side, for some wave-riding; and beaches on Cape Cod Bay for some clamming. Finally, in quirky Provincetown, sign up for a whale-watch cruise, or visit the small museum at the Pilgrim Monument for a dose of local history.
Why kids will love it: Kids love beaches, and you’re surrounded by them on this drive. Also cool: the 14 lighthouses along the way.
Chicago to Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Number of days: 4-5
What to do: The 215-mile journey is as much a part of this drive as the destination. After catching a ballgame at Wrigley Field in Chicago, take I-94 north. Stop in Racine for a kringle, a giant Danish and the city’s signature goodie. Stop next in Milwaukee, where you can tour the Harley-Davidson Museum or play laser tag with other kids. From Brew City, head west to Madison, where you and the kids can explore the Olbrich Botanical Gardens or the fun and interactive children’s museum. From here, continue north to Wisconsin Dells and Kalahari Resorts & Conventions, which features indoor and outdoor water parks, as well as an indoor theme park.
Why kids will love it: Kringles are legendary, but splashing around in the pools at Kalahari is even better.
Los Angeles to Palm Springs
Number of days: 2-3
What to do: Palm Springs is only about 110 miles east of Los Angeles, but the drive is one to remember forever. The first highlight: the Cabazon Dinosaurs, in Cabazon. These giant statues made their film debut in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” and are a favorite spot for families with dino-loving kids to picnic. On the approach to Palm Springs, in the San Gorgonio Pass, marvel at a wind farm comprising nearly 3,300 windmills. At the destination, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway offers great views of the Coachella Valley, while the plant life of Joshua Tree National Park is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Why kids will love it: There’s nothing like a big reveal, and this trip has three of them. Also, the 12-minute tram ride climbs 6,000 feet from the desert floor.
Want to go father? Consider the road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, or vice versa.
Number of days: 6-7
What to do: The Florida Keys arc like a necklace from the southeastern tip of the Florida peninsula west into the Gulf of Mexico. The westernmost island, Key West, is renowned for a funky arts scene and a laid-back style (as well as its haunted pub tour). Between the mainland and this paradise along U.S. Route 1, however, are dozens of tiny islands worth exploring. Some family favorites include Duck Key, which boasts interactive dolphin programs; and Bahia Honda Key, home to Bahia Honda State Park, where camping is available. If your kids are tired of sitting in the car, try exploring the Keys from above, on a helicopter tour.
Why kids will love it: This 165-mile drive has beaches and marine life (literally) around every turn, meaning every second is an adventure.
Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon
Number of days: 4-5
What to do: This trip stretches 270 miles from one of the world’s most incredible manmade destinations to one of the world’s most unbelievable natural ones. Start the journey in Las Vegas, where you can catch a glimpse of the Las Vegas Strip from the High Roller, the largest observation wheel in the world. From there, head to the Hoover Dam (where a tour will blow your mind) and into Arizona. At Grand Canyon National Park, take a few days to explore on foot, marvel at the landscape, and dip feet in the Colorado. You also can try one of these activities. Before returning to Sin City, take a side trip to the Grand Canyon Skywalk, on the Hualapai Indian Reservation.
Why kids will love it: This is another one of those trips where nature’s grandeur will make the kids ooh and aah. Also, the cantilevered bridge at the Skywalk creates a sense of floating on air.
For more Vegas tips, download our Insider’s Guide to Las Vegas
Utah National Parks loop
Number of days: 10-11 days
What to do: Utah residents refer to it as the “Grand Circle” of national parks: 1,500 miles of driving and four national parks in one week. Start at Zion, where hiking through slot canyons is de rigeur. From there hit Bryce Canyon, where wind has worn sandstone into funky shapes called hoodoos. Side-trip to some of the trails inside Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, or swing through Kanab and visit Best Friends Animal Society to interact with cats and dogs rehabbing from life-threatening injuries. Next visit Capitol Reef National Park, where giant rock formations dwarf even the biggest grownups. Finish up outside of Moab at Arches, where kids can marvel at more than two dozen natural stone arches.
Why kids will love it: Even from the car windows, this trip displays nature’s artwork at its best. Also, tiny towns such as Springdale (Zion) and Torrey (Capitol Reef) are funky and fun.
Alaska Marine Highway System
Number of days: 6-8
What to do: The Alaska Marine Highway System isn’t actually a highway at all. At least not in the traditional sense. Instead, the system comprises a series of protected waterways, plied by massive car ferries. Start the journey in Bellingham, Washington, and head north to Alaskan cities such as Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, and Skagway (to name a few). Linger at will, but be sure to visit the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan or hike the bottom (read: flattest) part of the historic Chilkoot Trail in Skagway for iconic experiences. Another great tour: the glacier helicopter transit from Juneau.
Why kids will love it: In addition to the history on shore, this journey is renowned for the spectacles along the way, including wildlife (whales, eagles, leaping salmon), mountains, and glaciers.
Number of days: 4-6
What to do: After exploring some of the sights in Washington, D.C., head east along U.S. Route 301 through Annapolis to the peninsula that boasts land from three states: Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Pick up Route 13 and head south for a trip on one of modern engineering’s biggest success stories: the 23-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. As the name suggests, this spectacle incorporates both bridges and tunnels. Hit Virginia Beach and Richmond on the back end—no matter old you are, the boardwalk along Virginia Beach is great for people-watching, and the Adventure Park at the Virginia Aquarium has all the ziplining you ever will need.
Why kids will love it: History. Beaches. Bridges. Tunnels. Amusement Parks (in Virginia Beach). This 400-mile round-trip has it all.
–Contributed by Matt Villano