Worth the Trip: Family Vacation Ideas

Fun travel destinations, tested by real families!

  • Photograph by Rebecca Stumpf

    Presidents on Parade

    The Bausches of Omaha, Nebraska, discovered the City of Presidents on their way to Mount Rushmore. Spread over more than five square blocks in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota, the display features life-size bronze statues of all 42 past presidents, depicted in ways that invite interaction. Calvin Coolidge, for example (shown here), doffs his hat beside an empty saddle ripe for climbing. "It ended up being one of the highlights of our trip and the coolest public art project I have ever seen," says mom Ann Marie. downtownrapidcity.com

    Originally published in the May 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

  • Tanya Sgroi

    Where the Wild Horses Roam

    On the Maryland end of Assateague Island National Seashore, the feral horses are everywhere. "We saw them walking down the streets of the campground, by the hiking trails, on the beach, and in the marshes," says Michelle Jenczmionka-O'Malley of Lockport, Illinois, who visited with her husband and kids, Mia, then age 11, and Tyler, 8. (Visitors are warned to keep their distance, for their own safety and the horses'.) The herds, made famous by the book Misty of Chincoteague, are just one of the island's attractions. "There are hiking and biking paths, ranger activities for the kids, swimming, kayaking, crabbing, and clam digging," says Michelle. "You can even have a fire on the beach at night, and the kids loved taking a flashlight to see the ghost crabs scurrying around." nps.gov/asis

    Originally published in the April 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

  • Photograph by Sabrina Helas

    California Dreamin'

    Set along more than three miles of pristine shoreline within a spectacular state park, the historic Crystal Cove Beach Cottages offer a trip back to California's golden past. The Callahan family of Ladera Ranch rented one of the simple, restored private cottages for a weekend and found themselves transported to the 1950s, the seaside colony's heyday. "There's no TV or Internet, so it's easy to unplug and relax into the laid-back vibe," says mom Stephanie. "Our kids spent their days bodysurfing and examining sea stars, hermit crabs, and sea urchins in the tide pools. From our deck at sunset, we watched dolphins play in the waves and pelicans dive for their dinner." Nightly rates $162 to $249; cottages book seven months in advance.

    Originally published in the August 2013 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

  • Photograph by Tara Sgroi

    A Playful Paradise

    Jennifer Sedlock of Woolwich Township, New Jersey, and her two "high-energy, incredibly curious little boys" (A.J., age 6, and Tyler, 3), are huge fans of the Tyler Arboretum in Media, Pennsylvania. "There are the eight Totally Terrific Tree Houses to explore, the Magical Path where fairy and gnome homes can be found, a storytime cabin filled with books, an outdoor butterfly house, and a ton of fun programs and events for kids and families," says Jennifer. The 650-acre site also boasts 20 miles of trails, a pond, wetlands, woods, meadows, demonstration gardens, and renowned plant and tree collections. Open year-round. Admission: $9 adults, $5 kids 3 to 15, free ages 2 and under.

    Originally published in the May 2013 issue of FamilyFun

  • Photograph by Cary Norton

    Flights of Fancy

    At the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, visitors can stand nose-to-nose with many of the more than 150 restored Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aircraft. Elaborate, life-size displays re-create a WWI battle station, a 1940s-era American street, a WWII aircraft carrier deck, and more, while IMAX movies, short films, and hands-on exhibits bring it all to life. "The Cockpit Trainers exhibit was Dabney's favorite part," says Elena Reyes Lovins of Sherwood, Arkansas, who visited with her daughter, then age 3, and her husband, Chris. "She was able to get in and 'fly' several different planes, flipping switches and moving the control stick while listening to recordings of actual radio transmissions." On many Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from March to November, you might even see a Blue Angels squadron practice. Free admission and tours; flight and motion simulators $6 to $20; IMAX movies $8.75 adults, $8.25 ages 5 to 12; free ages 4 and under.

    Originally published in the March 2013 issue of FamilyFun

  • Photograph by Doug Merriam

    Desert Wonderland

    Spread over 21 acres and connected by two miles of paths, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson is a combination zoo, botanical garden, natural history museum, art gallery, and even aquarium. "We saw coatis, javelinas, hummingbirds, coyotes, and much more, all displayed in their habitats and unique to the area," says Jennifer McDonough of Columbia Station, Ohio, who visited the museum with her husband, Martin, and daughter, Samantha, age 4. "We bought a stamp book for a dollar, and Samantha raced ahead, looking for the animals in each exhibit and stamping their tracks in her book. There was a replica cave with areas you could climb through, trivia questions on cards you flipped to find the answer, and volunteers with small animals to look at and touch. We went early in the morning, brought a picnic lunch, and spent the day walking the paths." In-season admission: $14.50 adults, $5 kids 4 to 12, free for kids ages 3 and under.

    Originally published in the February 2013 issue of FamilyFun

  • Photograph by Jared Archer

    Where the Wild Things Are

    The Place: Goblin Valley State Park, Emery County, Utah

    Who Visited: Lisa and Phil Ekema of Hartselle, Alabama, and their sons, Andrew, age 11, and Caleb, 7

    Why They Loved It: The Ekema family discovered Goblin Valley State Park while on vacation in Moab, Utah. "It was one of the strangest places we've ever been," says Lisa. "After a long drive through the middle of nowhere, we got to the park and were amazed to find a bunch of 'goblins' waiting for us. My boys had a ton of fun playing on all of the different rock formations, then our whole family enjoyed a game of hide- and-seek behind the rocks." Spring and fall are the area's best seasons. If you visit in summer, the Ekemas recommend going early in the day and bringing lots of water and snacks. "We went early on a hot, hot day in July," Lisa recalls. "But the blue sky and red rocks made for some great pictures, and the boys didn't want to leave when it was time to go!"

    What It Costs: $7 per vehicle; camping is $16 per night, yurts are $60; reservations recommended (800-322-3770)

    For More Information: Call 435-275-4584 or go to stateparks.utah.gov and click on "parks."

    Originally published in the October 2012 issue of FamilyFun

  • Thorney Lieberman

    Prairie Learning Center

    The place: Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa

    Who visited: FamilyFun Senior Associate Editor Ellen Harter Wall and her husband, Chris, of Florence, Massachusetts, and their sons, Cooper, age 18, and Ryan and Bryce, 14

    Why they loved it: The Wall family discovered this free refuge and learning center when they lived in Iowa."We used to go when our kids were in early elementary school and preschool," says Ellen. "Now Cooper's 18! On our recent Midwest college tour, he asked if we could go back because it was one of his favorite Iowa memories." Highlights for kids include hands-on exhibits, such as the fur from bison, coyote, and other prairie animals, and re-created ground squirrel tunnels to explore. But Cooper's favorite attraction when he was younger was the ecosystem music box. "Each bar represents a prairie animal or plant," says Ellen. "When you slide a bar into the box and turn the crank, a note sounds. The more bars pushed in, the richer the sound, showing how the flora and fauna work together." Of the refuge's trails, Ellen recommends the two-mile loop near the visitors' center. "You get to walk through the prairie, listening to the insects buzzing and the wind rustling through the local tallgrass. And before you leave, be sure to drive through the 700-acre bison enclosure to get a look at the herd!"

    What it costs: Admission is free

    For more information: Call 515-994-3400 or go to fws.gov/midwest/nealsmith.

  • David Coleman

    Ruby Falls

    The place: Ruby Falls in Chattanooga, Tennessee

    Who visited: Tracy and Jeremy Houston, of Naples, Florida, their kids, Owen, age 6, and Ethan, 2, as well as Jeremy's parents, Janis and Marvin Houston

    Why they loved it: The Houstons discovered Ruby Falls, a 145-foot waterfall located in a cave beneath Lookout Mountain, while on vacation in Tennessee. "We stopped there to break up the drive home and wound up staying almost four hours," says Tracy. After buying tickets, the Houstons descended by elevator more than 260 feet for a guided cave tour and a light show at the waterfall. "The falls were beautiful, and the caves were really cool to see," says Tracy. "There were signs pointing out the different shapes of stalactites and stalagmites. And Owen loved asking the guide questions and hearing about the history of the falls." Another highlight was the playground the kids got to use at the end of the tour. "It was the perfect place for the kids to run around after walking for so long in the dark," says Tracy, who also recommends checking out the views from the top of Lookout Mountain.

    What it costs: $18 for adults, $10 for kids ages 3 to 12, free for kids ages 2 and under

    For more information: Call 423-821-2544 or go to

    Originally published in the August 2012 issue of FamilyFun