We looked at all 50 states—plus Washington D.C.—to bring you a great list of fun—and cheap!—mini-vacation destinations.
In the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, Sulphur Springs offers breathtaking views. Uncover hidden treasures at the Old Spanish Treasure Cave where you can pan for gems, crystals, and fossils.
From late February to the end of March, Fairbanks is a wintery wonderland; kids can burn some energy on a playground compete with ice slides, a frozen train and lighted sculptures at the World Ice Art Championships at the Kid’s Park. If you have time, drive out to Chena Hot Springs Resort to warm up.
Junior adventurers go wild for the way-off-the-beaten-track Pink Jeep Tours. It’s like an amusement park ride through ruins, gulches, and ancient rock art. In Oak Creek Canyon, Slide Rock State Park has some amazing natural water slides. For a peek at what Native American life was really like, visit the 1.5 million-acre Hopi Reservation 100 miles north of town. Don’t miss the stacked pueblos (hand-made high-rises) and the brightly painted Katsina dolls.
Splash around in a naturally heated mineral-water swimming pool at nearby Harbin Hot Springs (toasty year-round!), then check out the Castello di Amorosa Winery, built to resemble an authentic medieval castle, complete with a dungeon and moat. If you feel like being active, rent bikes (toddler seats or tag-alongs are available) at Calistoga bike shop and cruise around the friendly little shops and restaurants. Don’t miss the educational (and funny, actually) Safari West African Adventure tour, where 600 giraffes, gazelles, zebras and other Serengeti animals interact freely.
Set in the North Georgia Mountains, Dahlonega was the sight of the first U.S. gold rush. Take a mining adventure 60 feet below ground at the Consolidated Gold Mine, where you can try your hand at panning for gold. Check out the nearby Baby Land General Hospital, the birthplace of Cabbage Patch Kids. Kids can witness the “birth” of a Kid at the Magic Crystal Tree and adopt a newborn on the spot!
A mountain community named for its waterfalls, Cascade is the perfect place for a day trip. Go horseback riding through the Garden of the Gods or see the waterfall at Heizer Trail in Cascade Community Park. At Santa’s Workshop, a Christmas-themed amusement park complete with the Candy Cane Coaster, the kids can meet Santa in his element!
Since the first American pizza was introduced in New Haven, head to Frank Pepe’s for lunch (get the fresh clam topping). Then chase down the delights of The Cupcake Truck (followthatcupcake.com reports its daily location). And since this is a college town, there a lot educational activities, too. Yale University sponsors a free, student-led Architectural Treasure Hunt tour for kids. Call 203-432-2302 to book a spot. Or, you can learn all about recycling. The Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, just a short ride out of town, gives tours of its recycling facility. Kids can watch from oversize windows as bottles, cans and newspapers are mashed and reconfigured before their eyes. Awesome!
When unaffected by the oil spill, Gulf Shores is an under-the-radar gem with turquoise waters reminiscent of the Caribbean. Wake up early and go deep-sea fishing, spend an afternoon on the beach or play a round of miniature golf at Pirate Island Adventure Golf.
In the riverfront town of Wilmington, tucked midway between New York City and Washington, D.C., take the family for stroll on the boardwalk or a ride in a water taxi. Kids will love the chance to board the Kalmar Nyckel, a recreated 17th century Dutch ship, where you can actually walk the plank. Arggh!
Head over to the Amelia Island Plantation for a family Segway tour through a salt marsh teeming with teeny, cute crabs. Kids younger than 8 can take the tour with a parent in an Island Hopper (like a golf cart). Savor homemade ice cream in a rocker on the porch of Marche Burette, an old-fashioned general store. End the day on a river cruise, where you’ll see wild ponies, dune turtles, egrets and—just maybe—dolphins. Whether strolling or by carriage, nosh and shop your way through picturesque Fernandina Beach. Hit the Happy Tomato Cafe for a southern barbecue lunch. Then explore Fort Clinch State Park, home to a Civil War-era fort with reenactments, as well as nature trails, picnic spots, a fishing pier, a beach and a museum.
If you’re going to stay put and splurge a little, you’ll love the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island. There’s spacious rooms, amazing views, an awesome spa and the kids club—great for toddlers & up—that keeps them entertained with all kinds of creative and cool activities (gardening, jewelry making, hunting for shark’s teeth…). There’s a game room with all the hottest video games for tweens. Younger kids get a kick out of the pirate’s treasure hunt, that takes them all over the resort and along the beach, picking up prizes along the way!
Facing Hilo Bay and located at the foot of three volcanoes, Hilo is the essence of the Aloha spirit. When downtown, stop by Wilson’s by the Bay for iced-shaved treats to stay cool. Have a picnic at Leleiwi Beach Park and then head to adjacent black-sand Richardson Beach Park for swimming and snorkeling.
One of the Seven Wonders of Illinois, Starved Rock State Park offers a wealth of outdoor activities including fishing, picnicking, horse back riding and beautiful waterfalls.
Here, you have to see the Lilly Nature Center and Celery Bog, a marshy wetland where—you guessed it—they farm celery and other crops. While there, you can also try to find your way out of Prophet’s Town Corn Maze. In town, don’t miss the Red Crown Mini-Museum on the corner of 6th and South streets. This Standard Oil gas station was built in the 1920s, saved from the wrecking ball in the 1980s and houses an eclectic collection of gas station and antique car memorabilia.
In Dubuque, you’ll find great views and quirky attractions, like the old French settlement at Catfish Creek. Ride the Fenelon Place elevator for a breathtaking view of the Mississippi River and three other states.
Dodge City offers a peek at 19th century Western life. Step back into the 1870s at the Boot Hill Museum, which reconstructs the old West. Then face off with Buffalo Bill, Davey Crockett, Billy the Kid and other famous names from the West at the Gunfighters Wax Museum.
In the rolling Kentucky Hills, you can trek deep into Mammoth Cave, the world’s longest known cave system. More than 350 miles of the caves have been mapped, and there are still unexplored paths to be discovered. Tours take you from a quarter-mile to 5.5 miles in, showing you a new world of natural and historic wonders.
Take a stroll along the boardwalk, go to the beach, take a deep-sea fishing excursion or enjoy some scrumptious seafood in this waterfront town. Ocean City’s Life-Saving Station Museum even has a Mermaid collection!
Art and imagination meet at the Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, where kids can put on their own puppet shows at the Storytelling Garden or sit in an enormous bird’s nest in the Treehouse Village.
Go camping without ever stepping outside, or be a stockbroker for a day: it’s all possible at the Duluth Children’s Museum. Then stop by the Waterfront Sculpture Walk, which features international art.
Go on a Heavenly Gondola ride for stunning views of the lake. In the winter, hitch a ride on a dogsled for a one-of-a-kind adventure. If you want to check out the views without the chill, cruise down the scenic by-way, Eastshore Drive.
This little town is nestled near the gorgeous White Mountain National Forest. Visit D Acres Organic Farm for outdoor adventures and animal-themed activities galore.
You’re in store for a swashbuckling adventure with the Jersey Shore Pirates! In the interactive treasure hunt on the Metedeconk River, young pirates use teamwork and a treasure map to recover treasure from the evil Pirate Pete. Each pirate leaves with loot and does the Pirate Limbo before the Sea Gypsy returns to port. Ahoy mateys!
Nestled along the Hudson River, Bear Mountain (the mountain looks like a bear lying down) is the site of the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. In this natural amusement park, you can go rowing, walk the trails, fish or camp—any outdoor fun can be had here! Cute alert: keep an eye out for the 42 hand-carved seats that look like mountain animals.
Take a tour around Asheville on the Gray Line Trolley, and learn about Asheville’s founders, famous residents and colorful small-town stories.
Visit Bonanzaville, where over 40 buildings depicting life in the Red River Valley in the 1800s and early 1900s. Then, prepare to fly away with your little one at the Fargo Air Museum, where kids can check out the cockpit of a plane, work the gears and learn what all the buttons are for.
At the Smoke Rise Ranch, learn about life on a real cattle farm, including lessons in roping, horseback riding and team penning. You can also take the family on a trail hike, spend the night in a cabin or camp out. Roughing it just got fun!
Located in the heart of Oklahoma, Tulsa is a place to kick back and relax. Check out the Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum, make your own mosaic at Purple Glaze Studio or spend a day by the water on one of the many river trails.
Take a self-guided tour of public art at Alley Art, featuring more than 25 sculptures. Stop by the Avery Rose Garden or go bicycling along one of 60 bike paths in the area.
Head to the Idlewild and Soak Zone theme park to take a trolley ride through a life-size replica of Mister Roger’s house and neighborhood. Prepare to get dirty as you learn how cars work at the Garage and Workshop exhibit at the Children’s Museum.
Sixty miles of beach equals lots of fun for the whole family. If you don’t want to spend all your time in the sand, check out the Children’s Museum of South Carolina, where kids can ride the Magic School Bus and learn a bunch of gross-cool stuff about the human body at the Kidz Medical Center.
Sharing a 100-mile border with Nebraska, the Missouri National Recreational River is a nature-lover’s paradise with canoeing, fishing, kayaking and more. Listen close and you may even hear the call of the bald eagle!
Visit the Tennessee Aquarium to check out everything from river otters to penguins and butterflies. For a true enthusiast willing to shell out some extra cash, the aquarium offers Sleep in the Deep, a program that allows you to spend the night on the grounds. Sweet dreams!
Frolic on the Gulf beaches, then make your way over to Pier 99 and munch on a po-boy (a scrumptious, classic southern sandwich) stuffed with meat or seafood. Then head to the Texas State Aquarium, where kids can pet stingrays and get a behind-the-scenes tour of animal feeding and care. Check out the world’s largest undeveloped barrier island at the Padre Island National Seashore. If you can, plan your trip around the release of the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle into the wild on South Padre Island. (They’re the most endangered turtles in the world.)
Twenty-three miles south of Salt Lake City, Lehi was first settled by Mormon pioneers in 1850, and eventually became a stop on many westward routes for stagecoaches and the Pony Express. When in Lehi, don’t miss Thanksgiving Point, a sprawling center for educational, hands-on discovery designed for ages 2 through 92. For example, see what dinosaurs looked like when they roamed the earth at The Museum of Ancient Life, and get a behind-the-scenes look at Dinosnorzzz, a dinosaur-themed slumber party held once a month.
Cruise the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, or head over to Mill Mountain Park, which houses a few endangered species—like the rare and beautiful snow leopard—at the Zoo.
In the 1960’s, to boost tourism, the city of Leavenworth transformed itself into a living, working, Bavarian village. Oktoberfest is obviously a big to-do here, and for the other 11 months of the year, the town never stops expressing its quaint character. With adorable boutiques and activities like horseback riding and sleigh rides, you’ll be charmed in no time. Not to be missed: warm cookies and espresso at the Gingerbread Factory!
Much of our nation’s capital is a charming blend of the historic and the modern. It’s a game of “Who Done It?” at the International Spy Museum, where you can examine (even play with!) over 200 spy gadgets and learn about espionage history.
Head to Big Bay State Park, a tucked-away island paradise with a mile and a half of undisturbed, completely secluded beaches. It’s a great place to relax: gaze into the serene, clear waters of Lake Superior or simply take a long stroll with your family. The stunning views are well worth the ferry ride get there.