10 Best U.S. family vacation destinations

I have a thing for travel.  So much so that a significant portion of my free time is spent researching various travel destinations and dreaming up itineraries.  So that my time spent travel planning isn’t entirely wasted, I thought I’d put together a post with my top ten picks for domestic family travel destinations.  I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several of these spots, but I’m also including a few places that are still on my travel wish list.  And so, without further ado, here are my choices (in no particular order).

best-family-vacation-spotsPhoto by Shari Weinsheimer under a Creative Commons public domain license.

1. Grand Canyon (Arizona) 

When we first moved to Arizona, I knew I wanted to visit Grand Canyon.  Let me just tell you that I was not the least bit disappointed when we did.  My family opted to camp inside the parks gates, but there are several options both inside and outside the park for those who’d rather not rough it.  Grand Canyon itself offers breathtaking views and photo opportunities.  There is far more fun to be had though.  My family thoroughly enjoyed attending free ranger-led presentations on topics ranging from fossils to condors.  Our days were spent hiking the beautiful trails and playing rock tag around the campsite.  Come evening, we’d venture out for a sunset ranger program or roast marshmallows over the crackling fire.  I have the best memories of those trips and so do my kids.  In fact, I distinctly remember my oldest daughter once telling me that she preferred our Grand Canyon camping trips over our trips to Walt Disney World.  Which brings me to my next destination.

2. Walt Disney World (Florida)

I know, I know.  I just got done telling you how my daughter once favored camping over Disney, but I really think that comment was brought on by a s’mores-induced sugar delirium.  Or something.  In any case, Walt Disney World is my idea of a perfect family vacation destination because it offers a little something for everyone.  Kids can go go go all day at the theme parks.  Moms can retreat to one of the glorious spas.  Dads can take to the golf course.  Foodies can savor dishes from some of Florida’s most highly-rated restaurants.  Adventurers can drive race cars at high speeds, parasail over the Seven Seas Lagoon or take a tour through the Wild Side at Animal Kingdom.  Seriously, Walt Disney World offers a little bit of everything for every member of the family.  It always has been and will remain one of my family’s top vacation destinations.

3.  Alaska

A few years ago we had the opportunity to visit several Alaskan cities during a summer cruise aboard the Disney Wonder and we had the most amazing time.  First of all, Alaska is breathtakingly beautiful.  Secondly, adventurous activities abound.  While we were there, we were able to spend an afternoon at a dog mushing camp, ride mules (the motorized variety) up a mountain trail, and do a flightseeing trip through the fjords on a floatplane.  Still, there were so many things we didn’t get to do, like zipline or go on a whale watching tour.  Not to worry; we plan to go back one day to try out the things we missed the first time around.

4.   California’s central coast

I grew up in what used to be a tiny town that nobody had ever heard of: Paso Robles.  Paso has since come into her own as a wine country destination that rivals Napa valley.  Having visited both, I can tell you that my preference would be for Paso, but I may be biased.  Since we’re talking family vacation destinations the wine scene doesn’t really apply, but the central coast still boasts several worthy attractions for families.  The area coastal towns (Pismo and Avila) offer family-friendly beaches that aren’t overcrowded like the ones further south.  The locally-owned shops there are quaint and unique and so fun to browse.  If I were planning a trip to the area, I’d try to plan it for late July when the California Mid-State fair offers old-fashioned fun for everyone.  From carnival rides to pig races to blue ribbon exhibits, the fair offers small town family fun at its finest.

5.   Yellowstone

America’s first national park is a destination every family should visit at least once, don’t you think?  I’m in the midst of planning an itinerary for an upcoming trip to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone and believe me when I tell you that there are entirely too many activities to try to cram into a twelve day trip.  Beyond the nature trails and hikes that are within the park’s borders, the area overflows with opportunities to get up close and personal with God’s creation.  There are horseback rides and llama treks and kayaking tours.  River rafting, hot spring soaks and fly-fishing.  The list goes on.  As if that weren’t enough, neighboring Jackson Hole boasts its own laundry list of attractions including the rodeo, a dinner theater and nightly shoot-out in the square.  How fun is that?!

6. Seattle

Seattle is such an awesome city for families.  I love that it offers the quintessential western laidback vibe while still providing a ton of urban perks for culture seekers.  The Pacific Science Center is a ton of fun for kids to explore, as are the area parks with views of the ocean.  Foodies are sure to find treasures at Pike Place Market and several notable restaurants.  Of course, you can’t go to Seattle and not eat fish and chips.  I’m here to tell you that the halibut I enjoyed at Duke’s Chowder House in Seattle is reason enough for me to return.  And if family-friendly festivals are your thing, you won’t be disappointed.  My family visited during the Northwest Folklife festival in May one year.  It was a huge celebration and such a fun atmosphere.  Also highly recommended?  The Klondike Gold Rush museum is not only worth exploring, it’s totally free.

7.  Hawaii

It seems like an obvious one, but I had to include it.  One of the hardest parts about planning a trip to Hawaii may be deciding on which island to visit, or whether to island hop.  While both methods have their merits, I can tell you that for our upcoming trip, we’re staying put on one island: The Big Island.  The island of Hawaii offers the most variety in landscape of all the Hawaiian islands–rainforest to lava beaches.  It also is the home of Volcano National Park and given my love for our nation’s parks, I really wanted to visit it.  During this trip, I’m planning to hike to waterfalls, night dive with manta rays, lie on the beach, savor malasadas (fluffy Portuguese doughnuts) and take in a hula show or two.  Hawaii offers relaxation opportunities as well as adventure and culture.  For those reasons, Hawaii is most definitely a top destination for family vacations.

8. Washington DC

When it comes to an educational destination, I’m hard-pressed to think of one better than our nation’s capital.  The last time we visited, I had a fifth grader who was studying American history in school.  You can imagine how excited I was to be able to take her to many of the places she’d been learning about.  Washington DC offers so many wonderful museums and exhibits–all (well, maybe most) for free.  My favorite memories of that trip include a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and to Arlington National Cemetery.  My husband and I are planning a return trip to the area for right around the time our youngest is in fifth grade.  I think it’s the perfect time in a child’s life to visit DC.

9. Boston, Massachusetts

This is another of my wish list destinations.  I’m drawn to Boston for its revolution-related history.  On my wish list itinerary is the chance to walk the Freedom Trail, visit Plimoth Plantation, and do an Urban Adventure Quest.  I hear good things about the duck tour, too.  I’m sure that my husband is itching to take our son to Fenway, but baseball isn’t really my thing.  I’d rather spend time with the kids at the Children’s Museum or the Boston Aquarium.  Or maybe cruise the Boston Harbor or ride the swan boats.  Clearly I’m going to need to whittle down my list itinerary wish list before we actually visit Beantown.

10. New York City

I consider it a total accomplishment that my husband and I braved the streets of New York City with our four children in tow.  Our hands were definitely full that trip, but we had an awesome time.  Having only spent a couple of nights in NYC, we barely scratched the surface of all there was to see and do.  We did take in a Broadway show and enjoy real New York pizza with a group of great friends.  We took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  We even lined up on the plaza and waved to the Today Show viewers.  But we didn’t see Central Park or visit the Museum of Natural History.  We didn’t eat hot dogs from a street cart or take the time to visit West Point, where my husband went to school.  We have a return trip planned during which I plan to do all that and more.  New York City offers such a rich array of attractions, entertainment and culture.  In spite of the expensive hotel rooms and ridiculous parking situation, I do think it’s a city families should visit if given the chance.

 I’d love to hear some of your picks for the best US vacation spots.  Does your family have a destination you return to year after year?  Where did your most memorable family vacation take place?

9 Replies to “10 Best U.S. family vacation destinations”

  1. Some of my favorites are here, too! Of course now that I am here, I love the Oregon coast. I think the drive from southern Oregon to California on the 101 is something everyone should do at least once! And check out the tide pools with the kids. (Oh, and also the Gorge in Oregon. Amazing!) We are big fans of Seattle and I’m so glad that we can drive there for a weekend getaway. We went for my bday this year and the kids want to go for all their bdays :). Hawaii is on our list now, too- maybe next year? I have no idea where to start with that so I’m excited to see how your trip goes! Another of our favorites is Estes Park, Colorado. So beautiful. We have family in Longmont and I love our visits there.

    1. I do want to visit the Oregon coast one day. And now that you’re there, I have an extra reason to go! My family used to camp at Sand-dollar beach along Highway 1 when I was younger. The twisty route up the coast made me sick every time but the views were–are still–so gorgeous. Oh, and yes, Estes Park. I agree with you on that one. Is it Rocky Mountain National Park there? It’s been a long time since we visited. Beautiful country for sure.

  2. Interesting list, and many that I would never think to include. I suspect because we have spent the majority of our time on opposite coasts? I look forward to a time when travel sounds fun again. Right now I could happily be a hermit!

  3. This post caught my eye since we just back from the Outer Banks. You guys should check out the New River Gorge, WV. You can camp like the Grand Canyon, but totally different scenery than from the Grand Canyon. I spent a day there with Christine and David and went white water rafting. That just scratches the surface, there are zip lines, nature trails, and you can cross the New River Gorge Bridge underneath the road on the bridge works about 875 feet above the river! Plus to satisfy your history requirement, your in coal country. You can learn a little about the industrial revolution, coal towns, and why “rednecks” are called rednecks…

  4. Great list! We are owners in Bluegreen Vacation Club which has offered us the chance to visit places we might not have ever gone. Some of our most memorable vacations have been (in no particular order):
    The beaches of FL (either coast will do – we have done Daytona, Naples and Ft Myers Beach.) We spent a wonderful week in Hershey, PA where one can partake in all sorts of Hershey Chocolate inspired fun and learning, plus its only 40 min from Gettysburg. We have visited Branson, MO and Gatlinburg, TN – both in late Sept/early October – wonderful. Horseback riding in the forests of the Smoky Mountains? spectacular!!!! We saw fall colors we have never seen! We have also visited friends who live in Michigan on the lower coast of Lake Michigan (Holland/Muskegon area) and that’s a pretty wonderful place too…micro-breweries, sand dunes, the beaches…wonderful.

    1. Oh, Karyn, you’ve listed a lot of new to me places that I’d love to visit someday. Something about the Smoky Mountains beckons me, and Michigan, too. Thank you for the suggestions!

  5. Yosemite, Williamsburg, Carmel and Monterey, Baltimore, Outer Banks plus loads of add on side trips traveling to from and around many of these areas.

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