Best Family Vacations
Photograph by Todd Anderson
Looking for the nation's best family destinations? So were we. And we found them by surveying those who know best: real families traveling with kids ages 3 to 12. We asked 2,000 respondents in four regions to rate more than 400 vacation spots in six categories. Our families hailed from around the country, but to make sure we got the inside scoop, we had them evaluate places only within their own region. In the pages that follow, you'll discover the top 10 winners in each category, all of which had to receive a minimum number of votes and a top score to make our list. We've also put together a Top 12 list (below) ranking the highest-scoring destinations from each category. You'll probably see a few of your own family favorites here and learn about some lesser-known gems just begging for discovery. And no matter where your next vacation takes you -- around the block or across the continent -- you'll carry the invaluable experience of 2,000 adventurous families along with you.
Top 12 Favorite Family Destinations
1. Magic Kingdom Park
2. Universal's Islands of Adventure
3. Orlando, Florida
4. The Strong Museum
5. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
7. Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
8. Toledo Zoo
9. Yellowstone National Park
10. National Mall and Memorial Parks
11. San Antonio, Texas
12. Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Top 10 National Parks and Preserves
Photograph by W. Drew Senter/Flickr Open
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC & TN
We challenge you to describe this 521,000-acre park without superlatives. It is, after all, America's most-visited national park, showcasing the Southeast's most rugged mountains and offering hikers the highest vantage point in Tennessee (Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet). Visitors are drawn by its extraordinary variety: forested mountains, verdant valleys, streams and waterfalls, historic buildings, and abundant wildlife (it's the salamander capital of the world). One Georgia family summed up the essence of the park's appeal this way: "The sheer beauty of the Smoky Mountains keeps us coming back."
2. Yellowstone National Park, WY, MT, & ID
In 1872 Yellowstone was established as a national park (the first in the country) to protect its 300 geysers, and they remain one of its major attractions, along with some 10,000 other spectacular hydrothermal features, such as steam vents, mud pots, and hot springs. There are also dazzling waterfalls, petrified trees, striated canyons, and 423 species of native wildlife. It's hard to disagree with the Utah mom who told us, "Yellowstone is filled with natural wonders you can't find anywhere else on earth."
3. Mammoth Cave National Park, KY
"It's always cool there," said one dad from Tennessee, and he wasn't just talking temperature. Beneath the wooded trails and glimmering rivers of the park lies the world's longest cave system: 400 miles of labyrinths, chambers, massive natural pillars, towering underground domes, eerie stalactites, and a winding underground river. Visitors can choose from a variety of guided tours, including a 75-minute stroll ending at a flow stone waterfall and a challenging, six-hour belly crawl through some of the cave's narrowest passages.
4. Yosemite National Park, CA
The towering granite cliffs, sweeping views, flowering meadows, and awe-inspiring giant sequoias here inspired early conservationists, such as John Muir, one of the founders of the Sierra Club, and helped launch the national park system.
5. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, MN
Comprising more than a million acres on Lake Superior, this wilderness is a canoeist's and fisherman's paradise, with its thousands of lakes and streams dotted by islands and bordered by sandy beaches, rocky shores, and pristine forests.
6. Acadia National Park, ME
Freshwater lakes, ocean beaches and tide pools, the tallest mountain on the East Coast, 125 miles of hiking trails, and 45 miles of scenic carriage roads -- perfect for walking, biking, and horseback riding -- draw more than 2 million visitors a year to Acadia.
7. Zion National Park, UT
Famous for its Navajo Sandstone cliffs, narrow slot canyons, and natural arches, Zion supports an unusually wide diversity of plant and animal life, owing to its unique geography.
8. Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Carved by the Colorado River over millions of years, the Grand Canyon is overwhelming in its sheer massiveness, extending for 277 miles, stretching up to 18 miles wide and over a mile deep in places, and revealing nearly 2 billion years' worth of geological history.
9. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MI
Forget ocean beaches and remote deserts: you can explore dramatic sand dunes right here along 65 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. If you're hankering for something more refreshing, check out the more than 20 inland lakes.
10. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND
Teddy Roosevelt's original 19th-century cabin still stands (relocated next to the South Unit Visitor Center), and bison, wild horses, and elk continue to roam these rugged North Dakota badlands, thanks to an ongoing wildlife management program.