Each route is a loop, so you can begin at any point and follow the path in either direction. Don’t get hung up on the listed order; you can customize to suit your family. Ending up at the starting point is ideal if you’re flying in and renting a car. Look for our suggested pit stops on the maps, plus lodging and activities for your overnight stays.
913 miles; 20 hours of driving
1. San Francisco (2 Nights) Hop on a cable car for Fisherman’s Wharf, where you’ll kick off the trip at the Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum. Start at the tinkering gallery if you have kids under age 8. Spend the next morning at Golden Gate Park. Zoom around the playground, rent a rowboat, and have a cup of tea at the Japanese Tea Garden. Then cool off following the family-guide activities at the newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Stay at Handlery Union Square Hotel.
2. Yosemite National Park (2 nights) Take the park shuttle bus to the lower falls area, where you’ll hike up to Yosemite Falls and get misted at the footbridge along the way. The next day, hit the 2¼-mile Sentinel Meadow and Cook’s Meadow Loops, stopping off for a snack at the Yosemite Village Store. Also see the Bridalveil Fall; the kids will get wet! Refresh by boarding the shuttle to the Nature Center at Happy Isles, which has interactive natural-history displays. Round out the trip with Junior Ranger activities. Stay at Half Dome Village.
3. Sacramento (1 night) Make it to Fairytale Town by 2 p.m. so you can spend two hours exploring the storybook-themed playground plus animals and a garden. Start the next day at the ArtBeast Studio, with a puppet theater, blocks, musical instruments, and a space capsule. By lunchtime, start driving to Humboldt. Stay at Embassy Suites by Hilton Sacramento Riverfront Promenade.
4. Humboldt County (1 night) Check into the resort at night. The next morning, head down the road to the Shrine Drive Thru Tree, where you can squeeze your car through a redwood tree and explore the nearby treehouses. Then drive 4 miles to the Visitors’ Center at the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. It will have info on the day’s Junior Ranger programs and guided nature walks to Founder’s Grove. Leave by late afternoon and drive to Mendocino. Stay at Redcrest Resort.
5. Mendocino (2 nights) Have pizza and ice cream at Frankie’s, which offers gluten-free crust. The next day, explore downtown. Stop in the bookshop (it has a kids’ section) and Village Toy Store. Hop on the Adventure Trail at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens or build sand castles at the beach. Return to San Francisco the following day. Stay at Little River Inn.
718 miles; 14 hours of driving
1. Grand Teton & Yellowstone National Parks (3 nights) Start by exploring Grand Teton’s trails that extend from the Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center. Since the popular Jenny Lake area is under construction, take the 3-mile Heron Pond-Swan Lake loop, where you might see trumpeter swans, osprey, and moose. Have more fun at Grand Teton the next day. Then venture into Yellowstone, exploring the grounds around Old Faithful. Eat at the nearby Inn to fuel up for the Yellowstone Lake Overlook hike from West Thumb Geyser Basin, where you’ll see more geysers and mudpots. On the way to Billings, drive through the Hayden and Lamar Valleys, the best places to spy elk. Hop on the Trout Lake Trail for a short hike through the forest—you might spot river otters. Stay at Headwaters Lodge at Flagg Ranch in Moran, Wyoming.
2. Billings, Montana (1 night) When you arrive, grab an ice cream at the Big Dipper near the hotel. The next day, take the loop trail at Pictograph Cave State Park to view 100-plus rock paintings that date back more than 2,000 years. Stay at Best Western Plus Clock Tower Inn.
3. Thermopolis (2 nights) Get up early for the Dig for a Day Program at The Wyoming Dinosaur Center, where you can search for dinosaur fossils (more than 10,000 bones have been excavated from the area). You’ll stay there eight hours and receive a guided tour of the museum when you return ($150 for adults, $100 for kids). Too big a commitment? Visit the museum and get a tour of the dig site. Stay at Elk Antler Inn.
777 miles; 14 hours of driving
1. Washington, D.C. (2 nights) Begin at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where you’ll see the flag that inspired the “Star-Spangled Banner,” First Lady dresses, and interesting artifacts from the American Revolution. Don’t miss two kids’ play areas. The next day, go inside the Washington Monument (tickets at nps.gov), tour the White House (your congressman can arrange it), and check out the U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center (tickets at visitthecapitol.gov). Stay at The Embassy Suites Washington D.C. Convention Center.
2. Williamsburg (3 nights) Spend a full day at Colonial Williamsburg, where you’ll walk along cobblestone streets and interact with costumed characters. See the fife-and-drum parade, the Governor’s Palace, and its shaded garden maze. The next day, visit Jamestown (with a replica ship, a fort, and real artifacts) as well as Yorktown (take a 30-minute ranger-guided tour of Revolutionary War battlefields). Stop at your hotel for lunch and swimming in between the visits to the two cities. Stay at Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg.
3. Annapolis (1 night) Start with an Annapolis Harbor Cruise. The next day, tour The Maryland State House (where the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War was ratified) and the William Paca House and Garden (he signed the Declaration of Independence). Stay at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Annapolis.
4. Philadelphia (2 nights) Spend a day or more at Independence National Historical Park. Stop at the Visitors’ Center (kids can try on period costumes and park-ranger outfits), Benjamin Franklin Museum, Liberty Bell Center (find out why the bell is cracked), and Independence Hall (where the Declaration was signed; tickets at nps.gov). Then walk to the National Constitution Center; kids will have fun comparing themselves with the 42 life-size bronze statues of the Constitution signers. Finish at Fireman’s Hall Museum. Stay at Wyndham Philadelphia Historic District.
5. Gettysburg (1 night) Head to the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitors’ Center. In summer, it has a cart with uniforms and soldier gear that kids can touch. Tour the battlefield free with a park ranger or, for kids 8 or older, on horseback with a private guide ($75 per person). Stay at Drummer Boy Camping Resort.
642 miles; 11 hours of driving
1. Springfield (1 night) Begin at the free Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden at the Springfield Museums, where The Cat In the Hat and other Seuss characters are represented. Then go to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; kids shoot hoops in a full b-ball court, dunk in “training camp” machines, and record a sportscast. Stay at Hilton Garden Inn, Springfield.
2. White Mountains, New Hampshire (2 nights) Before checking into the hotel, stop at Polar Caves Park. Kids will love the nooks and crannies of this series of caves as well as the petting zoo and Maple Sugar House on-site. The next morning go to The Flume, a natural gorge, for an easy (and misty) 2-mile hike to see several waterfalls, rock formations, and covered bridges. Ride away at Clark’s Trading Post, which has a trained-bear show. Stay at Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods.
3. Boston (3 nights) Spend at least a half day exploring the 21 exhibit areas (including a space just for newborns to 3-year-olds) at the Boston Children’s Museum. Then visit the nearby Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum. In the one-hour tour, kids will get to dump tea overboard, meet the colonists, and participate in a reenactment. Start the next day at the New England Aquarium, where kids can touch sea stars, epaulette sharks, and rays. Don’t miss two rides: the Greenway Carousel (near Fanueil Hall Marketplace, a restaurant mecca) and the Swan Boats (at the Boston Public Garden). Stay at Hyatt Place Boston/Medford.
4. Cape Cod (2 nights) See the Highland Lighthouse—the Cape’s first—where kids can take part in the “Junior Keeper” program; if they’re 48 inches or taller, they can climb to the top. The next morning, take your little ones to an hour-long musical or puppet show at the Cape Rep Theatre. Then visit the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for guided walks through salt marshes and tidal flats; kids can dip in nets to search for wildlife. Spend the rest of your time at the beach or splurge on the Whale Watch Dolphin Fleet, a naturalist-led cruise to see whales and sometimes dolphins. Stay at The Villages at Ocean Edge, Brewster.
952 miles; 15 hours of driving
1. Chicago (3 nights) Set aside a day to spend in the spruced-up Navy Pier area. Besides the giant Centennial Ferris Wheel (which has eight-seat passenger pods), the pier is also home to the Chicago Children’s Museum. Don’t miss its Zoom Room with toy cars! Walk around the Lake Michigan waterfront and then your kids can cool off running through the pop-up fountains in the new Polk Bros. Park. You’ll need another day to cover the Field Museum (a haven for dinosaur fans) and the nearby Shedd Aquarium. If you’re planning on working in a couple of other Chicago attractions like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry into the trip, consider buying a CityPass. Besides saving you on admission fees, you’ll get VIP entry to the attractions, which means you’ll walk right in Shedd while everyone else is waiting in line. Spend your last day in town meandering around at the free Lincoln Park Zoo—the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is nearby and also worth the trip. Stay at Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel.
2. Ann Arbor, Michigan (1 night) If you’re up for another children’s museum, visit the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, which has a range of exhibits that will hold the attention of toddlers to tweens. Or if your kids are musically inclined, take them to the free University of Michigan Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments, which houses 2,500 instruments from all over the world. No matter what you decide, set aside a couple of hours for the Matthawi Botanical Gardens, which has a children’s garden with a maze and giant nest. Leave for Cleveland in the morning—about 45 minutes or so into your trip, stop at the Detroit Zoo. It’s home to the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center—the largest penguin facility in the world. Stay at Residence Inn Ann Arbor North.
3. Cleveland (1 night) If your family is a fan of the movie A Christmas Story, tour the house where it was filmed. Kids can touch everything and even climb under the sink where Randy hid. Another idea: Visit Farm Park, which is part of the city’s park system. There, little ones can learn about milking cows, growing tomatoes, and more. Two fun places to eat: Tabletop Board Game Café (you can pick one of more than 1,000 games to play while you’re waiting for you food) and Noodlecat (a Japanese noodlehouse by a James Beard award-winning chef; its kids’ menu is fantastic). About half way to Cincinnati, stop at Columbus Commons, a greenspace at the former site of an inner-city mall. Take a spin on the carousel and grab something to eat. Stay at Drury Plaza Hotel.
4. Cincinnati (1 night) Soak up low-key Cincinnati landmarks, like Fountain Square (think splash pad and summer concerts), Graeter’s Ice Cream, and the P&G Go Vibrantscape (with a 19-foot long piano like in the movie Big). Stay at Homewood Suites.
5. Indianapolis (2 nights) Your must-see: The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which is the largest in the county. It’s home to a new $8.1 million Beyond Spaceship Earth exhibit; the museum has a former astronaut on staff who helped create it. Unlike most children’s museums, this one appeals to a wide range of ages—toddlers to teens will find plenty to do. Spend time outside too at White River State Park, which offers paddleboats and kayaks. Stay at Crowne Plaza at Historic Union Station.
873 miles; 14 hours of driving
1. Amelia Island (2 nights) Meander through one of the nature trails at Fort Clinch State Park, and then hunt for shells and shark teeth on the three miles of shoreline. Your family can also tour the historic fort there; the period re-enactors will hold the kids’ attention. The destination is also well-known for horseback riding—and you don’t have to be experienced to get in on the action. Amelia Island Horseback Riding offers beachfront rides for kids as young as 6—as long as an adult comes along. A carriage ride through the town’s historic district is a great alternative for families with younger kids. Stay at Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort.
Optional Detour: Orlando Got kids who would love a “surprise” trip to Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando? Work into two theme park days. New at Disney: evening hours at Animal Kingdom (with cool light shows and a sunset safari), more Star Wars-themed activities at Hollywood Studios, and, coming later this summer, a new Frozen-inspired boat ride in Epcot. At Universal Orlando, the Harry Potter attractions—which bring the book series to life—will make your kids feel like they’re wizards-in-training. Stay at Cabana Bay Beach Resort at Universal Orlando or Disney’s Art of Animation Resort.
2. Cocoa Beach, Florida (1-2 nights) Your kids will literally have a blast at the Kennedy Space Center, home to the space shuttle Atlantis and many more rockets from NASA’s space program. Don’t miss the Children’s Play Dome, a space-themed outdoor play area where kids can blow off steam in between exhibits or cool down running through the fountains at the splash pad. Stay at Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront.
3. Boca Raton (2 nights) You’re there for beach time, of course, so stay at a hotel on or near the sand; the one suggested below is a short walk or shuttle ride. Still, make room for two activities in town: The Gumbo Limbo Nature Center (with a butterfly garden, boardwalk trail, and sea turtle programs) and the Sol Children’s Theatre, which has a great lineup of kid-friendly shows. Stay at Waterfront Resort & Marina—A Doubletree by Hilton Hotel.
4. Tampa Bay (2 nights) Spend a day at Busch Gardens Tampa, which has a Sesame Street-themed section and, for older kids, a thrilling roller coaster that opens this summer. The next day, visit Lowry Park Zoo, where kids can feed a giraffe and have other animal adventures. Stay at Hyatt Place Busch Gardens.
5. Ocala (1 night) Here, you’ll end on a relaxing note: On the way from Tampa, take a little detour to Rainbow Springs in Dunnellon, where your family can tube down the very calm river. Drive another 45 minutes or do to town and see a movie at the Ocala Drive-In. The next day, take a glass-bottom boat tour at Silver Springs State Park before heading home. Stay at Holiday Inn Express Suites Ocala Silver Springs.
546 miles; 10 hours of driving
1. Seattle (2 nights) Pick one or two major attractions; the Space Needle, Pacific Science Center, Woodland Park Zoo, and Museum of Flight are among the possibilities. Then vacation like a local the next day, visiting the Pikes Place Market. Grab food for a picnic and take it to one of the parks on Puget Sound, like Carkeek Park or Constellation Park. At low tide, you might be able to spot sea urchins or hermit crabs in the water. Stay at Hyatt Place Seattle Downtown.
2. Long Beach Peninsula, Washington (2 nights) This 28-mile coastal area is chock full of lighthouses, white sand, and quirky attractions. Visit the World Kite Museum & Hall of Fame in Long Beach, Fort Columbia State Park in Chinook, and the Long Beach boardwalk, which is surrounded by grassy dunes. Stay at Breakers Long Beach.
3. Pacific City, Oregon (2 nights) The town is known for its pristine beach, with three public access points. Your kids will love hunting for sand dollars, hermit crabs, and other beach treasure. It’s also home to one of the two “Haystack” rocks on the Oregon coast and has a mega sand dune to climb. Gray whale sightings are common in March, May, and late fall. Stay at Inn at Cape Kiwanda.
4. Portland (2 nights) Grab lunch from a food truck, explore the farmers’ market, and bike—there are loads of rental shops in town. If you want to take in a couple of attractions: The 5 ½ acre Japanese Gardens offers treasure hunts and Oregon Museum of Science & Industry is chock full of kid-friendly activities. Stay at Kimpton RiverPlace Hotel.
781 miles; 13 hours of driving
1. Estes Park, Colorado (3 nights) Use this Colorado town as your base camp for Rocky Mountain National Park. There, kids can take advantage of Junior Ranger programs and go on short family-friendly trails like the Lily Lake Trail and the Sprague Lake Trail. Families with older kids who could handle six miles round-trip shouldn’t miss Bridal Veil Falls, which starts at an historic Ranch and winds through several smaller waterfalls until you reach the main attraction. Stay at Fall River Village.
2. Cheyenne, Wyoming (1 night) Take a Cheyenne Street Railway Trolley Ride through the historic district. Visit Children’s Village with a vegetable garden, windmill, prairie plantings, puppet theatre and more. If you’re in town in late July—when the city holds its Frontier Days—you’ll be able to check out the world’s largest rodeo. Stay at Townplace Suites Cheyenne Southwest/Downtown Area.
3. Black Hills, South Dakota (2 nights) You’re here to see the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2016. Thirty-minute summer ranger programs are ideal for kids. Come in the late afternoon and stay for the evening lightening ceremony in the outdoor Amphitheater. While you’re in the area, also drive along the 18-mile wildlife loop at Custer State Park where 1,300 bison call home. The park’s Sylvan Lake also offers family-friendly hiking. Stay at State Game Lodge at Custer State Park.
4. Sterling, Colorado (1 night) Stop by Overland Trail Museum, where kids can explore a one-room school house, look at vintage toys, and learn about what life was like for the first settlers of the area. End your trip on a relaxing note at North Sterling State Park; it offers 38 picnic sites (many of them shaded), the Cottonwood Cove Swim Beach, and a playground. Stay at Best Western Sundowner.