From dude ranches to dark-sky preserves and from new museums to old-timey music, here are the sites to add to your bucket list of family getaways.
Your family has hit the theme parks, the iconic art museums, the baseball stadiums, and national parks. You've done a road trip, walked through Times Square, conquered white-water rapids, and eaten lobster rolls in Maine and barbecue in Texas. And all that's done is kindle your kids' wanderlust. When you're planning your next trip, check out one of these destinations where learning, adventure, and fun are all part of the package.
1. Roam with Dinosaurs in Utah
“Back in the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth" is a familiar refrain, but until you see the fossils up close, it’s easy to underplay the significance of these near-mythic beasts. A trip to Utah's Dinosaur National Monument (nps.gov/dino/index.htm) gives kids a clear understanding of how very real and astonishing the ancient reptiles were. There are all the standard activities that you’d expect to find in a state known for its outdoorsiness—white-water rafting, fishing, hiking, camping, and hiking in the rugged, remote backcountry. But this 80-acre area, the largest quarry of dinosaur bones in the U.S., features something the kids won’t expect from a National Monument: fossilized bones, many of which are partially exposed and intact, from hundreds of prehistoric creatures embedded in rock formations. As an added bonus, they can get a closer look at dinosaur remains at the Utah Field House of Natural History Museum State Park in Vernal, 20 minutes from the monument. (You can’t miss it from the road—it’s the building with the tremendous stegosaurus outside.) Plan your trip right, and you’ll catch one of town’s seasonal festivals or rodeo celebrations.
2. Study African-American History in Washington D.C.
The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture (nmaahc.si.edu), which opened in September 2016, is the culmination of years of work, from the search for and acquisition of the 35,000 items that make up the collection—many donated by descendants of slaves and slave owners—to the hard-fought Congressional battle for funding, which started when President George W. Bush authorized its construction. Located on the National Mall, the sweeping 400,000-square-foot museum is a chronological telling of centuries of African-American history in the United States—the anguish and the accomplishments. The story starts 70 feet below ground in a dramatic space dedicated to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The exhibit halls cover slavery, emancipation, segregation, civil rights, and today’s current events, telling stories in text, verse, and images, punctuated with objects like Frederick Douglas’s cane, Nat Turner’s bible, Rosa Parks’s mug shot, and Harriet Tubman’s shawl. The top floors are a celebration of culture and sports, with music video footage and recordings enlivening the space. It’s an American history lesson that the kids will never forget.
3. Dance and Dine in New Orleans
(Kenneth D Durden/Dreamstime)
If there’s one thing you should know about New Orleans, it’s that there is much, much more to the city than Bourbon Street. Especially for kids. First, there’s the food. Who wouldn’t love to sit under the giant tent that stretches over the tented patio of Café du Monde, the smell of powdered sugar and fried sweets in the air, and indulge in a classic beignet or two. (Parents: there’s a steady supply of the café's famous chicory coffee for you.) Guided excursions that give kids a sense of New Orleans’s legends and fabled past are readily available. Try a voodoo tour or a ride through the swampland for a sense of the myths and folklore that define this town. Then check out the global history on display at the the National World War II Museum (nationalww2museum.org). Among its many interactive exhibits are ones devoted to the D-Day invasion, submarine warfare, and the Nazis' rise to power, plus a 4-D film narrated by Tom Hanks. But you could make the case that the brassy, jazzy music best captures the city’s spirits. Clubs and music halls are not ideal for little ones, but music is everywhere. Small ensembles—heavy on the trumpet and trombone—and solo sax players often spontaneously break out in music on the sidewalk or in parks, and dancing cannot be contained.
4. Head West to a Dude Ranch
The legend of the American West is a cornerstone of our country's mythology, and the idea of a dude ranch is the stuff of cowboy fantasies, what with the cattle drives, horseback riding, campfires, and lackadaisical pace. Every child should have a chance to get a glimpse of the day-to-day reality—the duties and pleasures alike—of a rancher in Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, or any of this country’s magnificent western states, a back-to-the-land lifestyle that might even make you forget about your beeping, buzzing, ringing device. All dude ranches are not created equal, though, so it’s important to seek out places that are particularly kid-friendly. The Crossed Sabres Ranch (crossedsabresranch.com) in Cody, Wyoming, eight miles from Yellowstone’s east entrance, features archery, scavenger hunts, Yellowstone tours, and, for aspiring rodeo stars, roping lessons. At Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge (flatheadlakelodge.com) in Bigfork, Montana, about an hour from Glacier National Park, kids can learn the basics of horse care with a Junior Wrangler program, kayak and swim in the lake, and partake in a mountain steak-fry in the woods, a Wednesday night tradition with live music.
5. Show Some Texas Pride
Remember the Alamo? A visit to the battle site in San Antonio will ensure that kids never forget the historic clash. But now’s a prime time to explore the south Texas city, the seventh largest in the U.S., because 2019 marked its 300th anniversary, so things are livelier than ever. Allow yourself ample time to explore Broadway Cultural Corridor, a two-mile stretch along the San Antonio River that recently underwent a $500 million rejuvenation. You can duck in and out of remarkable sites like the San Antonio Museum, which turns back the clocks with its classical art; the DoSeum (thedoseum.org), an interactive children’s museum; the San Antonio Botanical Gardens (sabot.org), the 50-acre San Antonio Zoo (sazoo.org), and the Witte Museum (wittemuseum.org), an institution that chronicles the Lone Star State’s galvanizing history, from ancient times through today. Kids can dive deeper into the region’s history at the missions, built by Franciscan priests when they arrived in the 1700s. These mini-cities, which collectively make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site, encompassed everything early settlers needed to maintain a self-sufficient community, like chapels and craftsmen’s workshops, and some are still-functioning villages, complete with modest taquerias and public art.
6. Follow the Maple Syrup Trail in Vermont
A quintessentially New England industry, the sugar houses and maple-tree forests of Vermont can serve as the keystone of a memorable nature-centric getaway. At many farms, workers head out to the forest to tap the maple trees year-round, and many properties are open to visitors, offering a lesson in the age-old process with guided tours and, of course, plenty of samples. Some are family-run operations, like Sugarbush Farm (sugarbushfarm.com), which has 8,500 trees producing four different grades of syrup, as well as a dairy operation making cheddar cheese. Mitch’s Maples (mitchesmaples.com), a 70-plus-year-old institution, is open year-round, but tours are only offered during the spring. The rest of the year, it’s a popular destination for stocking up on all types of maple candy. Goodrich’s Maple Farm (goodrichmaplefarm.com) is known for its “sugar on snow” parties, part sweet indulgence, part physics lesson. (How else to explain 231-degree sugar caramelizing on contact with snow?) For a deep dive into the science of the process and the history of the industry, make sure you have the town of Rutland, home of the Maple Museum, on the itinerary.
7. Look Up at the Milky Way
Cleaning up the planet is the center of many conversations these days, from eliminating single-use plastics and the importance of recycling to green energy and wildlife conservation. But we don’t talk as much about cleaning up the sky. As cities expand, light pollution increases, and to bring greater awareness to the matter, the International Dark-Sky Association (darksky.org) is making great strides in preserving night’s darkness. A nonprofit that raises awareness on the negative impacts of artificial nighttime light on human health and wildlife, it's established Dark Sky Places on five continents. In North America, sites range from national parks and monuments to forests and lakes, some of which have family programs to orient visitors to the celestial landscape. The Astronomy Rangers tour at Bryce Canyon National Park, for instance, promises views of about 7,000 stars on its tour. You don't have to be a kid to be gripped with childlike wonder when confronted with gliding comets and countless stars piercing the darkness.
8. Batter Up and Throw a Left Hook in Louisville
The bourbon boom has increased tourism to Louisville, Kentucky, by millions over the past few years, but there are reasons for kids to visit this vibrant city, too—things that illustrate the deep impact of sports on culture and society. The downtown Louisville Slugger Museum (sluggermuseum.com) greets guests with a 120-foot replica of Babe Ruth’s bat and gives kids a behind-the-scenes peek at the classic American pastime. The destination is a working factory as well as a museum, and families can take a guided, hands-on tour of the production line. There are also batting cages where kids can take a swing and a bat vault that houses about 3,000 models designed over the decades for the league’s most famous players. A few blocks down is a shrine to native son Muhammad Ali (alicenter.org), and it’s as much a sports institution as it is a museum chronicling civil rights in America. It’s compact but jam-packed, so it’s worth reserving a generous chunk of time in your schedule. Look for memorabilia from his boxing career, like his gloves and flamboyant robes, and an elaborate display of his art, plus cuts of interviews and a sitting station where you can watch entire fights on a personal television. Ali's involvement in civil rights, social activism, and anti-war activity as well as his spiritual journey is recounted in photographs and interactive videos.
9. Get in Touch With Your Inner Cowboy and Cowgirl
Dating back to 1887, Cheyenne Frontier Days is the second-oldest event in the United States, outdone only by Mardi Gras. For 10 days in July, thousands of people overtake the state capital for an epic event that includes rowdy standoffs between bulls and cowboys, bronco-bucking events in Frontier Park, parades, concerts, and parties. But the grounds are a destination year-round, thanks to the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum (cfdrodeo.com/cfd-old-west-museum/), which houses a vast and comprehensive collection that defines the old west. Costumes, videos, and artifacts, along with a rodeo hall of fame, tell the history of Frontier Days, while separate exhibits focus on other chapters of western life, like the evolution of covered wagons. Women take the spotlight at the Cowgirls of the West Museum (cowgirlsofthewestmuseum.com), a modest storefront affair that chronicles the many achievements of boundary-blasting western women in the past two centuries. These trailblazers were an integral part of Wyoming's history--as you'd expect from the first state where women were granted the right to vote.
10. Soak Up Science in New York and New Jersey
From iconic art palaces like the Guggenheim and the Met to smaller gems spotlighting unique topics, like the history of lighthouses or the public-transit, there’s no shortage of museums in New York City. And if there’s one category that can hold the kiddos' attention for a marathon stretch of the day, it’s the city’s science museums. The most obvious, of course, is the Museum of Natural History (amnh.org), known for its 94-foot-long fiberglass whale and renowned planetarium. But it’s definitely worth making time to visit spots that are a little more far-flung. In Queens, the New York Hall of Science (nysci.org) features exhibits on biology, nature, technology, and physics, plus mini golf and other outdoor activities. There’s a preschool playroom and workshops for older kids. It's located near the Queens Zoo, the Mets’ baseball stadium Citi Field, and the Billie Jean King Tennis center (home to the U.S. Open), so it's easy to make a day of it. Back in Manhattan, the Intrepid Air, Sea & Space Museum (intrepidmuseum.org) is located on a historic aircraft carrier—a WWII fighting vessel and a National Historic Landmark—docked in the Hudson River at Pier 84. Kids can explore the Enterprise space shuttle and the Growler, the only American guided missile submarine open to the public. Virtual visits to the International Space Station are a highlight of the shuttle exhibit. You can also take the PATH train across the Hudson to the increasingly vibrant and hip Jersey City, where the Liberty Science Center (lsc.org) has interactive exhibits on space, wildlife, microbiology, and architecture, plus a high-tech planetarium and lots of climbing space for the little ones.