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Family Vacations: 4 Fabulous Road Trips

Discount airlines may be making air travel cheaper than ever, but when it comes to family vacations, there’s still nothing like a good old-fashioned road trip. Even with gas prices on the rise, traveling in a car is almost always less expensive than flying by the time you factor in airfare for three or four (or more!).

And you can’t beat road trips for family bonding opportunities; playing the license plate game, singing silly songs and even calling out the endless refrain of “Are we there yet?” can make for extra-special family memories.

To help you plan your next summer vacation on the road, we’ve pulled together four fun weeklong itineraries geared toward four different types of families. For example, active kids will find plenty of outdoor adventure in Montana’s glacier country, while parents seeking a more educational trip can head to the historic attractions of the Washington D.C. area. But while each road trip is centered around a certain theme, they all feature a variety of activities to keep kids busy and engaged.

Outdoor Adventure in Glacier Country, MT

Day One: Begin your trip at the eastern border of Glacier National Park, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana. Stop at the Museum of the Plains Indian to view the rich diversity of historic arts of the Northern Plains tribal people, as well as work created by talented contemporary Native American artists. Experience traditional Blackfeet life by spending the night sleeping in tepees and dining on traditional cuisine at the Lodgepole Gallery & Tipi Village.

Day Two: Drive 35 minutes from Browning to St. Mary, located on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park. Dedicate most of the day to traveling the Going-to-the-Sun Road and exploring the heart of the park, which offers views of large glacial lakes, cedar forests and gorgeous alpine tundra. Stop at the Logan Pass Visitor Information Center at the top of the Continental Divide for exhibits and info. The Going-to-the-Sun Road exits the park at West Glacier, a charming mountain community and the western entrance to Glacier National Park. Spend the night here.

Day Three: Spend the day on the Flathead River with a guided whitewater rafting trip with the Glacier Raft Company or Montana Raft Company. This adventure is sure to be fun for the whole family and provides a view of the park from the Flathead’s waters. Overnight in West Glacier.

Day Four: Drive 20 minutes west to Columbia Falls, and spend the day at Big Sky Waterpark on 10 slides, in a huge whirlpool, playing beach volleyball and more. Drive 10 minutes to the western town of Whitefish to spend the night.

Day Five: Whitefish is home to Whitefish Mountain Resort, where you can take a gondola ride up to the top of the mountain for great views of Glacier National Park. Or check out the “Walk in the Treetops,” a 2.5-hour guided tour along an 800-foot rope boardwalk that offers a unique look at the treetop canopy. You can also rent mountain bikes or enjoy a guided wildflower walk. Overnight in Whitefish.

Day Six: Drive south 25 minutes to Bigfork and take to the waters of Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. Bigfork and the numerous other lakeshore communities, including Lakeside and Polson, are great starting points for water fun, with opportunities for sailing, boating, waterskiing and fishing. An added bonus: In late July, local Flathead cherries are harvested. You can pick your own fruit from lakeside orchards or visit a local roadside fruit stand. Overnight in Bigfork.

Day Seven: Drive south 70 minutes from Flathead Lake, through the Mission Valley to Charlo. A point of interest here is the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana, where you can look back into the history of the Flathead Reservation and valley through artifacts, native and early Montana clothing, and a gun collection used by native Indians. From here, it’s about a three-hour drive back to the starting point of the road trip.

Battlefields and Historic Attractions of the Mid-Atlantic

Day One: Start with a day in Colonial Williamsburg, VA, touring historic buildings and trying your hand at colonial chores and games. Overnight in Williamsburg area.

Day Two: Drive southwest about 20 minutes to Jamestown, site of the first permanent English settlement in America. There’s a living history museum there as well as a fort and reconstructed settlers’ ships. In the afternoon, drive east about 40 minutes to Yorktown, the site of a major Revolutionary battlefield. Overnight in Yorktown area.

Days Three and Four: Drive north about three hours to Washington D.C., where you’ll find historic attractions in spades. Spend this day and the next exploring the various museums and monuments there, such as the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the Washington Monument and the new WWII Memorial. Kids will also have a blast at the International Spy Museum. Need a break from history? Visit the National Zoo, which is most famous for its pandas. Spend two nights in the Washington D.C. area. For more ideas, see our Washington D.C. travel guide.

Day Five: Drive northwest about two hours to Gettysburg, PA, site of the Civil War’s most famous battle. In addition to touring the battlefield, kids can also visit the nearby American Civil War Museum, which offers life-size dioramas and a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. Overnight in the Gettysburg area.

Day Six: Drive southeast about two hours to Alexandria, VA, where the well-preserved Old Town offers a snapshot of colonial life. Kids can go on a scavenger hunt through the Old Town to learn about George Washington and other historic figures. If the kids are overloaded on history, head to Cameron Run Regional Park (also in Alexandria), featuring a water park, mini golf and batting cages. Overnight in the Alexandria area.

Day Seven: Drive south about 20 minutes to Mount Vernon, VA, George Washington’s gracious mansion home. Tour the mansion and gardens, walk along the forest trail, and meet the farm animals. Kids get a colorful map with their ticket that guides them around the estate to solve a series of nine puzzles. Drive south about 2.5 hours to return to Williamsburg.

Florida’s Beaches

Day One: Start your trip in Tampa with a visit to the Lowry Park Zoo. Meeting the manatees and sting rays (along with hundreds of other critters) will help get the kids in the mood for the beach. Overnight in the Tampa area.

Day Two: Drive northwest about 45 minutes to Tarpon Springs, Florida’s sponge capital. The local specialty is on display at Spongeorama, where kids can learn how sponges grow and how they’re harvested. There’s also a small aquarium in town, as well as a quaint downtown area and two public beaches. We like Sunset Beach, which has picnic tables and restrooms. Overnight in the Tarpon Springs area.

Day Three: Drive south about 30 minutes down the coast to Clearwater Beach. Soft white sand and plenty of nearby restrooms and snack bars make it a perfect place for a full day on the beach, but you can combine your swimming and sandcastle-building with a two-hour pirate cruise with Captain Memo. Overnight in the Clearwater area.

Day Four: Drive south about 1.5 hours to Venice Beach, where kids can do a little beachcombing. The beaches here are famous for their shark’s teeth and other fossils, as well as shells. Our favorite beach for families is North Jetty Park, where facilities include playgrounds, a volleyball court and a concession stand. Overnight in the Venice beach area.

Day Five: Drive southeast about 2.5 hours to Everglades City, the gateway to Everglades National Park. You can take a narrated boat tour of the Ten Thousand Islands, or go canoeing or biking. Overnight in the Everglades City area.

Day Six: Drive northwest about an hour and 45 minutes to Sanibel Island, one of the best places in the state to collect seashells. Try Old Lighthouse Beach, which boasts a historic wooden lighthouse (not open to the public) and a wildlife refuge. Kids may also enjoy the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. Overnight on Sanibel Island.

Day Seven: Drive north about 2.5 hours to Fort De Soto State Park, which has pristine beaches and a historic fort to explore. Once you’re done playing, it’s only about an hour’s drive back to Tampa.

Quirky Missouri: A Taste of Old Route 66

Day One: Spend your first day exploring St. Louis. The Magic House is a children’s museum with a three-story slide and an electrically charged ball that makes your hair stand on end. There’s also a special children’s garden within the Missouri Botanical Garden where kids can climb into a treehouse or check out a 19th-century steamboat. And don’t miss the City Museum, a wacky place constructed out of materials salvaged from elsewhere in the city. Our favorite part is an interactive play area called MonstroCity, which is a huge jungle gym made up of two Saber 40 aircraft fuselages, a fire engine, a castle turret and several 4-foot-wide wrought-iron slinkies. Overnight in the St. Louis area.

Day Two: Drive west one hour to Stanton and keep an eye out for the ubiquitous Meramec Caverns signs; these caves are where Jesse James and his gang supposedly once hid their loot. Families can go canoeing or rafting on the nearby Meramec River. Also in the area are the Riverside Reptile Ranch (where you can pet a snake!) and the Jesse James Wax Museum. Overnight in the Stanton area.

Day Three: Drive southwest about 45 minutes to Rolla, where you can check out a museum full of colorful classic cars at Memoryville, U.S.A. And don’t miss the Stonehenge replica, which you’ll find on the campus of the University of Missouri at Rolla. Overnight in the Rolla area.

Day Four: Drive southwest about two hours to Springfield. You’ll want to take a detour past the three-story Big Fork sculpture, located downtown outside an ad agency called Noble & Associates (on W. Chesterfield Boulevard).

Have lunch and spend the afternoon at the Incredible Pizza Company, which offers a buffet of more than 30 varieties of homemade pizza, as well as the Fairgrounds — a play land with miniature golf, go-karts, bumper cars and arcade games. Overnight in the Springfield area.

Day Five: Drive south about an hour to Branson. Quirky attractions here include the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, whose facade is purposely cracked as a reminder that Missouri, not California, holds the record for the nation’s worst earthquake. Among the exhibits are a two-headed calf and the world’s largest ball of nylon string. Also nearby is the Hollywood Wax Museum, showcasing famous faces from Tinseltown. Overnight in the Branson area.

Day Six: Spend the morning in Branson visiting a few other quirky sights, including the giant banjo at the Grand Country Mall (on Highway 76) and the Titanic Museum — a re-creation of the famous ship that sank in 1912. Then drive northeast an hour and a half to Lebanon and stop off at Nancy Ballhagen’s Puzzles, where you’ll find thousands of jigsaw puzzles — including one made of 7,500 pieces. Overnight in the Lebanon area.

Day Seven: Spend some time hiking, canoeing or fishing at Bennett Spring State Park in Lebanon. Then drive northeast about 2.5 hours back to St. Louis.

For more family travel tips and ideas, see our sister site, Family Vacation Critic!


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