40 best family vacation spots in the U.S. + kids packing list

Published Date: January 6, 2023

A family walks to the beach at one of the best family vacation spots.
There are many factors to consider when it comes to finding the best family vacation spots. Not only do you need to find a place that has activities and attractions that everyone can enjoy, but it also needs to fit within your budget.That’s why we’ve identified 40 vacation ideas around the United States that are so good you might even decide to make one your second home. We’ve also put together a kids packing list to make your planning a little easier. 

Best family vacation spots on the water

A map of the United States identifies the best family vacation spots.
It’s hard to beat a vacation as relaxing as lounging at a beach house soaking up vitamin D. To that end, the best family vacation spots on the water all have excellent coastal access along with a variety of family-friendly activities.

1. Outer Banks, North Carolina

If you’re looking for a good mix of simplicity and entertainment in your family vacation, you’ll find it in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Outer Banks has over 100 miles of beaches without the congestion of most seaside destinations. Experience the thrill of seeing wild horses while driving on Corolla Beach or fly a kite at Kitty Hawk near where the Wright Brothers first flew.  Although the beaches are the primary attraction, there are plenty of other activities to explore. The North Carolina Aquarium offers interactive exhibits with its animals, like manta rays and horseshoe crabs. Since the Outer Banks was home to the lost colony of Roanoke, it has plenty of historical sites to make your visit an educational one as well. Your kids can participate in a scavenger hunt at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum or experience what life was like in the 1850s at the Island Farm.

2. Miami Beach, Florida

An aerial photo of Miami Beach shows why it is one of the best family vacation spots in the country.
Miami Beach is as rich in culture as it is in entertainment, making it one of the best family vacation spots. Experience scenic views along the 40-block boardwalk while you look for a beach spot to set up for the day. Miami Beach has many parks with different amenities, such as playgrounds, splash parks, volleyball courts or water activities like paddleboarding.  If your family gets their fill of sand, you won’t spend too much time trying to come up with other activities. Miami Beach is home to Jungle Island, the Bass Museum of Art and a botanical garden — each offering unique learning opportunities for children of all ages. 

3. Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

This lively island offers ways to explore by land, air and sea. Take a guided helicopter tour, or rent a bicycle to discover hidden gems on your own. You can also take the family on the water to find the Hilton Head dolphins and sea turtles. Kids of all ages can experience the fun of Adventure Cove, offering mini-golf and arcade games. No trip to Hilton Head is complete without trying the locally sourced seafood, so make sure to sample the catch of the day at one of the island’s many restaurants. 

4. Maui, Hawai’i

Whether you are looking for adventure or relaxation, Maui can meet you wherever you please. Take a family zip line trip or go snorkeling in the Molokini Crater. End your day with an authentic luau experience while you eat a delicious family-style meal.Just because you’ll be on an island does not mean there aren’t options for a road trip. The Road to Hana is a day-long epic sightseeing tour that takes you through legendary moments in Hawai'i’s history. Along the drive, you can share a view from “Jurassic Park” at Keopuka Rock, make a pit stop for shaved ice and walk through a bamboo forest at Pipiwai Trail.

5. San Diego, California

San Diego has long been known for its amazing year-round weather, consistently putting it near the top of the list for vacation ideas. Take advantage of the temperate climate by filling your days with outdoor activities. Visit LEGOLAND or Belmont Park for amusement park attractions right on the beach. There are over 17 museums to choose from around Balboa Park, as well as theaters where the whole family can catch a show and multiple gardens to lounge in with a picnic. Beyond Balboa Park, you also can head to the Birch Aquarium, SeaWorld or the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, all great options for the animal lovers in the family. And what family vacation wouldn’t be complete without a trip to sea on a whale-watching cruise?

6. Branson, Missouri

Branson is the family-friendly alternative to Las Vegas you’ve been looking for. Billed as the Live Entertainment Capital of the World, you could spend every hour of the day jumping from comedy to magic to dance performances. Visit Silver Dollar City for over a hundred acres of roller coasters, water rides and campgrounds. Get a one-of-a-kind view of the Ozark mountains by taking the family on a 150-foot-high ride on the Branson Ferris Wheel. To make this 15-minute ride even more appealing, children under 3 ride for free. 

7. Mackinac Island, Michigan

Mackinac Island is stubbornly resistant to change, and that’s exactly what makes it one of the top places to go on vacation. This small island off the tip of Northern Michigan boasts no cars and no chain hotels, but just because it is small doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot to offer. Access the island by ferry and travel around it by bicycle or horse-drawn carriage. Stay at the historic Grand Hotel that is consistently rated as one of the greatest hotels in the world. Treat your kids to Mackinac Island’s famous fudge before visiting Fort Mackinac to learn its history and see soldiers in period-appropriate uniforms firing live cannons.   

8. Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

The Water Park Capital of the World offers plenty of thrills for all ages — both indoors and out. Book a stay in a resort with an attached waterpark for added convenience, or visit the largest outdoor waterpark in the country at Noah’s Ark.After your fingers have pruned, take a river tour on the amphibious WWII Duck boats or enjoy an amazing water skiing show. Don’t forget to stay energized with a hearty all-you-can-eat breakfast at Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty.   

9. Lake Tahoe, California

The blue water surrounded by green forests exemplifies why Lake Tahoe is one of the best family vacation spots in the country.
Sometimes overshadowed by its winter mountain activities, Lake Tahoe has just as much to offer its water-loving summer visitors. A two-mile hike to Cascade Falls will give your family a breathtaking view of a 200-foot waterfall. Adventure seekers can climb across treetops using rope courses or zip lines.For a more leisurely excursion, spend your day on the lake and appreciate its stunningly blue water. Rent a boat, kayak or paddleboard for different levels of activity and experience. You’ll also have the option to take the whole family into the air with a hot air balloon ride over the lake. 

10. Sandusky, Ohio

Sandusky is synonymous with its main attraction — Cedar Point — and they both sit right on the Lake Erie waterfront. Roller coaster enthusiasts travel from around the globe to experience the thrills of the Roller Coaster Capital of the World, which includes the oldest operating coaster in the world.If your family members aren’t crazy about roller coasters, it doesn’t mean they’ll have a lack of activities to enjoy while in Sandusky. There is also the option to go on a Lake Erie cruise, visit the merry-go-round museum or spend the day at one of Sandusky’s waterparks. 

11. Finger Lakes, New York

The Finger Lakes are known for pristine landscapes that afford visitors all the water activities one could hope for. The area is surrounded by multiple state parks with dozens of waterfalls. Many are accessible by trails that are easy to walk with your family.Outside of its own water and amusement parks, the Finger Lakes also has a number of museums that are sure to keep your kids entertained. The Strong National Museum of Play is one of the largest history museums in the country and is home to the National Toy Hall of Fame and the World Video Game Hall of Fame.   

12. Chicago, Illinois 

As the third-largest city in the U.S., Chicago is a hard spot to overlook when considering the best family vacation spots. With its size comes many options for entertainment, including on its waterfront. It has ample beaches along Lake Michigan and multiple river tours to learn about different aspects of the city’s history. Millennium Park boasts nearly 25 acres of easily accessible gardens, public art pieces and event spaces. There is the world-class Art Institute, Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium — each offering unique opportunities for your children to learn about the world (and space) around them.   

Best family vacation spots in the desert

A graphic shares the best family vacation spots in the desert.
If you are looking to avoid crowded beach towns while still getting as much sun as possible, the desert might be up your family’s alley. It has wide-open spaces, picturesque photo opportunities and activities to please everyone. Just be sure to include plenty of sun protection on your kids packing list.

13. Grand Canyon, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is more than just a photo opportunity. Grand Canyon activities include hikes of varying difficulties, attending a Native American dance performance, horseback riding to remote waterfalls and riding the Grand Canyon Railway.Securing accommodations around the canyon is highly competitive. It’s recommended to make reservations more than a year in advance for camping and waterfall excursions.

14. Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree is known around the world for its unique rock formations — making it a must-visit destination for rock climbing and hiking enthusiasts. There are trails for all skill levels, so there are few barriers to entry. Cell phone service is limited, which creates the opportunity to disconnect from the outside world and connect with one another.Camping within the park is possible with a reservation, but there are also campsites nearby that are quality options. Stargazing in the middle of the desert is an experience your kids will never forget — especially if they are only familiar with bright city skies. 

15. Sedona, Arizona

The best family vacation spots provide experiences that can’t be replicated anywhere else, and Sedona sets that bar. Get breathtaking views of Sedona’s famous red rocks from the comfort of a classic train car. There are multiple options to choose from based on your preferred level of comfort — one option even includes a Wild West reenactment. Aside from its natural beauty, Sedona also features an African wildlife park where your family can safely experience a safari right here in the States. Other options include zip-lining over the exotic animals or feeding a tiger up-close. 

16. Scottsdale, Arizona

Scottsdale has the best of both worlds when it comes to city life and desert landscapes. You can take your family for a morning hike or jump in a jeep to take a tour through the Sonoran Desert. When the afternoon heat sets in, cool off at one of Scottsdale’s fantastic waterparks. Scottsdale’s Old Town district is also home to a number of art galleries. Every Thursday night, they hold ArtWalk, where the galleries stay open late and treat guests to several complementary activities.Since Scottsdale is conveniently located near Phoenix, it also has easy access to all of the state capital’s attractions. These include a zoo, aquarium and botanical garden.

17. Palm Springs, California

The water, palm trees and golf courses are why Palm Springs is one of the top family vacation spots in the country.
Architecture enthusiasts will have their fill in Palm Springs, where Mid-Century Modern buildings fill the neighborhoods. Take a Rat Pack tour to learn why Hollywood’s greatest artists were drawn to this idyllic desert location.Unlike some of the other desert locations on this list, Palm Springs offers all the modern luxuries visitors can hope for on their family vacation. Take your kids on a ride into the mountains on the Aerial Tramway. Shop the boutiques to score retro collectibles and vintage clothing, ride the waterslides at HyTides water park or head out into the wilderness on a jeep, bicycle or horseback tour. 

18. Albuquerque, New Mexico

Every October, hundreds of hot air balloons gather in Albuquerque for its International Balloon Fiesta. Day and night, the colorful balloons fill the sky, making for an enchanting experience unmatched anywhere else. That’s not all — this city has lots to offer year-round.   Albuquerque’s passion for dancing and food is always center stage. Dine on the richest New Mexican cuisine and discover your preference for green or red chiles. Attend a flamenco show or, better yet, take a flamenco workshop. Be sure to stop by the ABQ BioPark Aquarium and Botanic Garden so that your kids can get their fix of all sorts of wildlife. 

19. Moab, Utah

If any of your kids are in their dinosaur phase, Moab is one of the must-visit places to go on vacation. Mill Canyon has easily identifiable dinosaur tracks and bones. The Moab Giants museum has indoor and outdoor interactive exhibits that bring the prehistoric creatures to life.After you’ve explored on your own, jump into a Hummer for an offroad tour of Moab’s awe-inspiring backcountry. Experience another adventure by rafting through a canyon on the Colorado River. 

20. Glen Rose, Texas

Dinosaurs can’t be mentioned without including Glen Rose in the list. This small town is home to Dinosaur Valley State Park, where visitors can walk in the tracks dinosaurs left behind millions of years ago. There are options to hike, camp, mountain bike and swim within the park. At Dinosaur World, visitors can walk among more than 100 life-size dinosaurs, participate in a dinosaur dig and see natural fossils. If you’d prefer to see some modern-day creatures, visit the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, which features multiple endangered species. Your family can get up close and personal as you drive through the park, feeding and photographing the exotic animals.

21. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Whether you’re seeking adventure or relaxation, Big Bend has you covered. Take your pick of its many tour options by jumping in a raft, kayak or jeep. Ride into the Lajitas Canyons on a zip line tour. Give your children the opportunity to experience ancient plant and animal life in Big Bend’s own fossil discovery exhibit. After you’ve quenched your thirst for adventure, take a dip in Big Bend’s hot springs. The water is naturally 105 degrees Fahrenheit and has long been thought to have therapeutic value. 

22. Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe is brimming with culture and activities, making it one of the best family vacation spots. Spend the day at the Museum of International Folk Art — the largest collection of folk art in the world. Visit the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture to learn about the history of Southwest Native American people through contemporary art.  Fans of the psychedelic will love the child-friendly interactive art installation, “Meow Wolf’s House of the Eternal Return.” Older family members will enjoy solving the story’s mystery, while younger children can appreciate the stimulating surroundings.

Best family vacation spots in the mountains 

A map of the United States identifies some of the best family vacation spots in the mountains.
Some destinations are best experienced during a certain time of year. Mountain destinations, on the other hand, offer unique activities for every season. While many people love the mountains for their winter ski resorts, the summer months create new opportunities to connect with the terrain. 

23. Jackson Hole, Wyoming 

People ski down a mountain at Jackson Hole, showing why it’s one of the best family vacation spots in the country.
Jackson Hole’s main attraction is its world-class ski slopes that make for a magical family vacation. There are ski routes and programs available for all skill levels, so there’s something for everyone. There are also snowmobiles available for rental and sleigh rides that take you through Jackson’s blankets of snow. In the summer, ski routes turn into mountain bike trails. Wildlife expeditions bring encounters with bears and bison. The Snake River rapids provide a great opportunity for whitewater rafting. 

24. Aspen, Colorado

Like Jackson Hole, Aspen turns into a verifiable wonderland when its winter snow returns. Gondolas can take you to the mountaintops in comfort. Its Nordic Trail System provides more than 60 miles of cross-country ski trails. In warmer months, you can hit hiking trails with a dog borrowed from the local animal shelter. Aspen also has some of the best fly fishing conditions in North America. Appreciate the scenery of every season by putting on your waders and trying to catch a prized trout. 

25. Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Gatlinburg pairs southern charm with major attractions. If your family vacation ideas include shopping, hiking and amusements, look no further than this Smoky Mountains gem. Take advantage of Gatlinburg’s close proximity to the Appalachian Trail by hiking a short stretch of it. Visit the top-rated Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies to see a stunning collection of sea creatures. Attend Anakeesta, a mountaintop theme park with one-of-a-kind gifts. Or stroll across the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America at SkyLift Park.   

26. Park City, Utah

If you’re wondering where to go on vacation, Park City is one of the most versatile cities on the planet. When snow covers the ground, you can fill your days skiing, dog sledding and snow biking. When summer comes around, you can golf, paddleboard and ride the Alpine Coaster. Visit the Utah Olympic Park to see the 2002 Olympic Games museum, among many other activities. If you’re feeling adventurous, play on the high ropes course or take a trip down the Comet bobsled.  

27. Yellowstone, Wyoming

Yellowstone was the first national park in the U.S. — and it’s easy to see why the country was so quick to preserve its natural beauty. There are over 1,000 miles of backcountry trails waiting to be explored. The park sits on a volcanic caldera that produces hot springs your family can walk over and hundreds of geyser eruptions you can witness. Since Yellowstone encompasses more than 2 million acres, you can find a diverse range of wildlife. Bears, bison, wolves and elk all roam freely. Bird watchers can see more than 300 species of birds. 

28. Yosemite, California

Yosemite is another national park that is too good to pass up. While Yellowstone has geysers and a larger variety of wildlife, Yosemite has breathtaking cliffs and a giant sequoia forest. See the famed El Capitan or Half Dome rock formations in person to get the true sense of their magnitude.Yosemite has an abundance of waterfalls to explore, and some have paved trails to provide easy access. Horseback riding provides another option to hit the trails without relying on your own two feet to carry you. 

29. White Mountains, New Hampshire

The White Mountains offer another sprawling landscape that is as enjoyable in the summer as it is in the winter. The area offers golf, zip lines, waterfall hikes and old-fashioned train rides. Explore the polar caves where you can touch ice even in the middle of summer.  In the winter, enjoy one of its many ski resorts. Visit the Ice Castles that artists craft out of hundreds of thousands of icicles. These caverns, tunnels and slides are designed to make you feel like you’re in a fairytale. 

30. Glacier National Park, Montana

There are few opportunities in the world to hike to an actual glacier — and Glacier National Park has 25 of them. It also has the perfect mix of mountains, meadows, waterfalls and lakes. Your kids can attend the junior ranger program and receive a badge after completing certain activities.The Going-to-the-Sun Road is a 50-mile road that bisects the park and provides scenic views that are hard to beat anywhere else. There are ample opportunities for rafting, kayaking, and horseback riding. When your day’s activities are over, there are comfortable accommodations, both inside and outside the park. 

31. Catskill Mountains, New York

The Catskill Mountains have been one of the best family vacation spots for city dwellers for over 100 years. Looking for a break from the hustle of the city, families sought leisure in the natural beauty of this historic area. Your family can explore caves going 156 feet into the earth, raft down the Delaware River, visit the Saugerties Lighthouse and cool off with a visit to one of the Catskills waterparks. In the winter, your family can stay at a ski resort, visit the Mountain Top Arboretum and shop for art in local downtowns.  

32. Black Hills, South Dakota

The Mount Rushmore National Monument is probably the biggest attraction in this area. Just because the icon steals the spotlight doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other reasons to visit. The Crazy Horse Memorial has been under construction since 1948 and will become the world’s second-tallest statue after completion. The Badlands are a sight to behold, consisting of 244,000 acres of rugged spires and mixed-grass prairie. Visit Custer State Park to encounter some of its 1,400 free-roaming bison and learn the history of the area. Explore some of the longest caves in the world at Jewel or Wind Cave. Take the kids for a ride down the 2,000-foot alpine slide at Rushmore Tramway Adventures.   

Best family vacation spots in the city 

A map of the United States identifies the best family vacation spots in major cities.
If long road trips don’t agree with your family, checking a major city off your to-do list may be your best alternative. Cities are jam-packed with options for everyone’s taste. There’s education, amusement and activity that are all quick walks or car rides away. 

33. New York City, New York

The city may never sleep, but your family surely will after a day packed with some of these family vacation ideas. Get amazing views from iconic structures like the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty. See a collection of the world’s greatest artwork at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Visit the American Museum of Natural History for an educational and entertaining experience. Lounge in Central Park when your legs are ready for a break. Then see an official Broadway show.

34. San Francisco, California

If the chaos of Disneyland seems a little too much for your family vacation, take a trip to San Francisco. The Walt Disney Family Museum can provide your family’s fix of Mickey and friends. While parents browse memorabilia, children can attend storytime among other activities. The Exploratorium is an art exhibit that enables kids to interact with more than 600 installations. Pier 39 is home to wild sea lions, a variety of street performers, a carousel and even features an aquarium. Walk around the largest Chinatown outside of Asia before having a picnic at Golden Gate Park. 

35. Austin, Texas

The river and city skyline show why Austin, Texas is one of the best family vacation spots in the country.
Proud to be weird, Austin has all the oddities and entertainment someone could hope for their family vacation to have. The Cathedral of Junk shows kids how a little imagination can turn trash into a work of art. The Salt Lick has mouthwatering barbeque with a side of live music. Kayak to Congress Avenue Bridge to watch more than a million bats fly at sunset. Take your kids for a dip in the naturally spring-fed pool at Barton Springs. Pick your own produce at Boggy Creek Farm. Visit the animals at the Austin Zoo, where each one is a rescue and receiving rehabilitation. 

36. Seattle, Washington

Seattle is one of the most accommodating cities in the country to families. Take a trip up the Space Needle at the Seattle Center. Then visit the Pacific Science Center where kids of all ages can enjoy the butterfly garden and IMAX theater. If you’re looking to squeeze a little nature into your trip, head to Mount Rainier for hiking or hop on a boat for a whale-watching excursion.The Chihuly Garden and Glass is a kid-friendly museum of brightly colored sculptures of varying shapes and sizes. Shop at the historic Pike Market and watch as the fishmongers throw customers’ purchases into the air.  

37. Nashville, Tennessee

Nashville has long been the hot spot for country music aficionados, but it has recently been growing in popularity for the general public too. The Gaylord Opryland Resort features an indoor river with boat rides, a waterfall and garden conservatory. Take a tour at the Grand Ole Opry and get treated to a live radio concert. Stop by Centennial Park to see a replica of Greece’s Parthenon. Then drop by the Musician’s Corner to watch live music while you feast on delicious street food. Stroll down the Honky Tonk Highway and take your pick of its many restaurants and music venues. 

38. New Orleans, Louisiana

Mardis Gras might be the first thing you think of when you hear New Orleans, but this southern gem has plenty to offer families too. Rich in music, food and activities, New Orleans easily makes the list of best family vacation spots.Introduce your children to jazz at Preservation Hall where you can watch live musicians and learn about its history. Have your pick between sweet and savory food like beignets and jambalaya. Attend the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park or take a tour of a swamp to get up-close looks at the native alligators.  

39. Denver, Colorado 

Denver is great to visit at any time thanks to its more than 300 days of sunshine a year. Elitch Gardens has both butterfly-inducing roller coasters and water slides. The children’s museum is perfect for younger children to learn about nature and test their creativity in the featured art studio. The Downtown Aquarium provides the unique experience to have a meal while being surrounded by floor-to-ceiling aquariums. No trip to Denver can be considered complete without visiting Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater. Witnessing a live performance is unlike any other but even if you don’t get tickets for a show, even wandering the park is worth the trip.  

40. Minneapolis, Minnesota

Minnesota has big city recognition paired with a small city feel. The Children’s Theatre Company puts on interactive performances that are great for all ages. The Minnesota Zoo has a nature-based play area and seasonal shows. The Mall of America brings outdoor activities inside for year-round fun. Ride the roller coasters at Nickelodeon Universe, get a personalized crayon at Crayola Experience or visit the touch tank at the Sea Life Aquarium. This stop alone could take up multiple days. Ultimately, the best family vacation spot is going to be decided by your children’s ages and your individual preferences. Find the location with accommodations that suit your needs best, and you’ll quickly be making memories that will last a lifetime. Who knows — this location could even turn into a permanent part of your family’s life. You may even think of it as a second home.

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