Family Road Trip Travel Planner

Must-see spots for the perfect family road trip.
By: John Briley

Ah, the family road trip: Overstuffing your car and wheeling off to National Parks, historic sites, massive tourist traps and wherever else your insistent children dictate.

Itineraries are great but tight schedules are stressful. Leave the stopwatch at home and savor the delays and diversions. You’re with the people you love. Nothing matters more than that, so get planning. See below for our must-see picks for the perfect family road trip.

Grand Canyon

It is tempting after the long drive through hauntingly beautiful western landscapes to reach the south rim of the Grand Canyon and decide to go no further. The views are breathtaking, the amenities plentiful and the weather (usually) not too hot. But even a short hike into the canyon – yes, with the kiddos – will increase the grandeur. The Bright Angel trail is most popular and probably the safest. The Hermit trail is also a good choice.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls is tops among the many reasons to take a family road trip through upstate New York. Aside from witnessing the thundering power of a 173-foot-high, 2,600-foot-wide waterfall – from the rim or from a tour boat that nudges into the falls mist from below – you can pop the kids into Ontario, Canada, to catch the Greg Frewin magic show or walk the Clifton Hill Street of Fun, with games, movies, shops and rides, including a Ferris wheel that offers an above-the-falls view. From there, follow Queen Elizabeth way around Lake Ontario and into Toronto, Canada’s most cosmopolitan city. Children love exploring historic Casa Loma Castle, which has stables, gardens, a mini war museum and scads of kid-centric events.

Route 66

Rare is the road that inspires a hit song (Bobby Troup, 1946), a television series (CBS, 1960-64) and a 2,451-mile excuse to sell kitsch. Route 66 is that road. Originally mapped out as a wagon trail in the 1850s, Route 66 debuted in 1926 as the shortest year-round route between Chicago and the Pacific Coast. The road helped fuel our westward migration and spawned so many businesses that it earned the moniker "the main street of America."

 

In Chicago, the east end of Route 66, kids and parents will love the Shedd Aquarium, which includes beluga whales; the Field Museum (2011 exhibits include a 3-D dinosaur movie!); and the Lincoln Park Zoo, which features a sea lion pool. All are close to Lake Michigan beaches and an array of cafes and shops.

 

In Amarillo, TX, "Cadillac Ranch" is an iconographic "graveyard" of Cadillacs stuck in the dust like a 1950s version of Stonehenge. Also check out Wonderland Amusement Park, with 4 roller coasters, 5 water rides and a host of toddler-friendly attractions.

 

Santa Monica, CA, is the western end of Route 66 and, conveniently, home to a vibrant beach park – the 3.1 miles of lifeguarded beach is cleaned daily – plus the Santa Monica Pier and its admission-free amusement park.

More Classic Family Road Trip Routes

East: Any section of the Blue Ridge Parkway and/or Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. Highlights: Enrapturing scenery throughout, hiking in some of the most dramatic parkland in the East and easy diversions into the kid-friendly cities of Asheville, NC; Charlottesville, VA; and numerous funky mountain towns.

Midwest: Highway 22 in Michigan, from the Leelanau Peninsula to Traverse City. The road traces the shoreline and runs through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where fun lovers of all ages will delight in bounding down the dunes. Traverse City is the self-proclaimed Cherry Capital of the World, holding an annual week-long Cherry Festival the first full week in July.

West: The Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1), along western California from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco combines some of America’s most arresting coastal scenery with beaches, waterfalls and the quaint towns of Monterrey (and its eponymous aquarium) and Carmel-by-the-Sea.


Tailor these suggestions to your brood’s desires – or get out there and create your own. About the only thing you’re guaranteed to find on every family road trip is adventure.

Travel writer John Briley and his wife Cathleen are passing family road trip traditions on to their son Kai.

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