South by Southwest
Route 66 nostalgia in northern Arizona
The Route: Perhaps no other stretch of asphalt does better at turning car windows into eye-popping postcards. Starting in Holbrook, roads wind through the pink- and toffee-colored badlands of the Painted Desert before leading into Petrified Forest National Park (nps.gov/pefo), the stony remains of an ancient forest. A short jaunt to the west along Route 66 leads to Meteor Crater, where an asteroid left the desert pockmarked with a gargantuan 570-foot-deep bowl. Expect to get tired of hearing the word “Whoa!” The ride continues west to Flagstaff and onto Highway 89A, which winds south through high-desert forest and terracotta buttes. Next stop: Sedona, famed alien-sighting center. (Don't tell the kids—or maybe do!) Besides chasing down little green men, there are (easy) treks to Native American ruins and nature walks at Crescent Moon Ranch in the Coconino National Forest (fs.usda.gov/coconino). But the most thrilling way to take in the scenery is on an off-road jeep ride. Pink Jeep Tours (pinkjeeptours.com) can accommodate kids 18 months and up (they supply free car seats). “It's like a really slow roller coaster,” says Steve Schneider, tour organizer.
Sleep: The jumbo tepees at the Wigwam Motel (galerie-kokopelli.com/wigwam) in Holbrook are a Route 66 institution. Perched on a Sedona hillside, the Hyatt Piñon Pointe (hyattpinonpointe.com) offers ceramics and dream catcher-making classes.
Local Eats: Fluffy pancakes, juicy burgers, and giant banana splits are dished up at the Galaxy Diner (928-774-2466), a retro eatery on Route 66 in Flagstaff.
Right on Key
The Florida Keys: the southernmost fun you can have in the U.S.
The Route: One of the continent's most dramatic drives begins on Highway 1 in Miami, then skirts Barnes Sound before landing in Key Largo, the first of the Keys. This bustling town is a great base for exploring John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (pennekamppark.com), where you can swim with fish straight out of Finding Nemo. Sundiver Snorkeling Tours (snorkelingisfun.com) offers a trip to shallow areas that allows kids as young as 3 to swim with parrot fish. “We even keep the boat stocked with pool noodles,” says Donna Pryor, tour manager. “And it's covered, so there's always shade.” From Key Largo, the highway continues over bits of land and water through the increasingly laid-back keys to your end point: Key West. Fort Zachary Taylor State Park has acres of white sand with bathtub-warm water. For squeals of delight, book a dolphin-watching tour with Glass Reef Key West (glassreefkeywest.com).
Sleep: Spread out in the townhouse-like digs at Hawks Cay (hawkscay.com) in Duck Key. It's only a short walk to the pirate-ship pool. In Key West, the Doubletree Grand Key Resort (doubletree.hilton.com) has a sprawling zero-entry pool for tots.
Local Eats: Try the area's namesake treat (left) at Ma's Fish Camp (305-517-9611), in Islamorada.
Theme parks and time-warp charm in Pennsylvania
The Route: Begin with a blast of history in Philly, home of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Head west on Highway 30 through tidy rows of corn and barley. Lancaster is Amish country, where towns offer handmade crafts and hearty fare (think: fresh chicken potpie). Abe's Buggy Rides (abesbuggyrides.com) has been escorting folks through the countryside since the '60s. In Hershey (hersheypa.com), find a botanical garden, a trolley tour, a serious amusement park, and a zoo. (Don't miss the 100-foot Ferris wheel!) But the main event is following the aroma to Hershey's Chocolate World (hersheyschocolateworld.com), where you can don an apron and stuff a bar with almonds, chocolate chips, pretzel bits, sprinkles, or other add-ins. The big decision is whether to gobble it up right then or keep it as a souvenir. The Pennsylvania Turnpike then leads east to Langhorne, where Sesame Place (sesameplace.com) beckons the babes. Kids can ride in Big Bird's Balloon Race, climb Cookie Mountain, jump at Ernie's Bed Bounce, then end the day with a hug from the furry guy himself.
Sleep: The Omni Hotel at Independence Park (omnihotels.com) sits near Philly's historic sites. The Lancaster Marriott (marriott.com) is a good base for Amish country. The Hotel Hershey (thehotelhershey.com) has a way-cool pool and a free shuttle to all the fun.
Local Eats: Whoopie pies are a Pennsylvania tradition. Bird-in-Hand Bakery, east of Lancaster (bird-in-hand.com), has been making its family recipe—springy chocolate cookies stuffed with light vanilla icing—for decades.
On the Theme-Park Trail
Southern Cali's got scenery, Shrek, and taco shops
The Route: The pilgrimage begins near the Hollywood sign, in Universal City, home of Universal Studios Hollywood (universalstudioshollywood.com). Sure, there's the historic movie backlot, but kids will flip for the new Transformers ride. Big kids (i.e., those who are this tall to ride) can join Optimus Prime in a crash-filled 3-D battle. Trot pipsqueaks over to Shrek 4-D, a fun effects-filled attraction that features talking donkeys, squirming seats, and blasts of water. Another jaunt on the I-5 leads south to Disneyland (disneyland.disney.go.com). Check out the Mad T Party, a nighttime event based on the wacky world of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. The final stop is SeaWorld, in San Diego (seaworldsandiego.com), which lies within view of Mission Bay, a massive inlet dotted with sailboats. At the park, splashy animal shows starring dolphins and whales delight the toddlers (and you, for that matter), while the new coaster “Manta”—with its 54-foot drop—will keep the big'uns in screams.
Sleep: In Universal City, the Sheraton Universal Hotel (sheratonuniversal.com) is within striking distance of L.A.'s big sights—including the La Brea Tar Pits, where saber-toothed cats, mastodons, and wolves were engulfed by the black, bubbling goo.
Local Eats: Surely Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop in Mission Hills (tacosmackdown.com) consulted a kindergartner when inventing the Surfin' California burrito, packed with steak, shrimp, and french fries.
Above the Fruited Plain
Lake Michigan's eastern shore is a woodsy wonder
The Route: Just west of Kalamazoo, MI, Highway 31 begins its crooked path along Lake Michigan through rambling pear and cherry orchards. In Fennville, pick your own at Crane Orchards (craneorchards.com), then sidle up to their homey café, serving pies an hour out of the oven. The road leads north to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a preserve with freshwater beaches and miles of trails. The star is the 110-foot climbing dune—a natural wonder regularly attacked by hyperkinetic kids. “My four- and six-year-old run up and down ten times before I even hit the top,” says Jolene Young, a local park ranger. The highway continues north along the lake, through woods studded with log cabins. At the point where lakes Michigan and Huron meet is Mackinaw City. Here, ferries make the trip to Mackinac Island, once the province of fur traders but now known as the U.S. Fudge Capital. May's Candy Shop (maysfudge.com) serves 16 flavors, including Orange Pineapple and Rum Walnut. Check out Fort Mackinac; in the costume room, kids get decked out in vintage garb, then see cannon demonstrations. Ready? Fire!
Sleep: On Mackinac, the family suites at the Mission Point Resort (missionpoint.com) are so roomy you really won't know where they are when you play hide-and-seek.
Local Eats: Northern Michigan is known for meat turnovers called “pasties.” Hunt's Mackinaw Pastie & Cookie Company (mackinawpastie.com) has the classic piping hot.
Lone Star All-Stars
The ride from San Antonio to Austin, TX, is down-home friendly
The Route: From San Antonio—home of the Alamo—Highway 16 points northwest, through countryside draped in wildflowers. In Bandera, the Cowboy Capital of the World, learn how to ride, groom, and feed horses at the Hill Country Equestrian Lodge (hillcountryequestlodge.com). “We have cute saddles for kids as young as two,” says co-owner Dianne Lindig Lovett. Ramble on Highway 16 to the north. Orchards strung along the Pedernales River offer peachy delights: cobblers, jam, ice cream, and pickin' (texaspeaches.com has a map). Explore Longhorn Cavern State Park, with sparkling calcite-covered walls and a mysterious dog-shaped formation. Highway 71 leads east to the capital, Austin, where you'll find fams cooling off at Barton Springs, a natural swimming hole. At sunset, go to Congress Avenue Bridge to witness more than a million Mexican bats flying out in search of dinner.
Sleep: San Antonio's Westin Riverwalk (westinriverwalksanantonio.com) sits near the Alamo and Riverwalk boat rides. The Hyatt Regency Austin (austin.hyatt.com) has a pool with river views and is walking distance from the bat show.
Local Eats: Dig into buttery brisket at Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que (coopersbbqllano.com).