Even as formerly locked-down families yearn for the open road after months of home-schooling in isolation, the ongoing uncertainty around COVID-19 has made long-term travel-planning near impossible. But with summer coming to a close (how is it September already?) there are a few last-minute summer road trips you can still take with the fam – and the kiddos might learn a thing or two, too.
Note: In many parts of the country, operations remain in flux, so check for coronavirus-related closures before hitting the road. And check our article on 9 expert tips for a safe road trip during the pandemic.
1. New England for American literature
Whether you have a few weeks to spend or just a few days, there’s an itinerary to suit eager readers of all ages. Goth-leaning kids will get a kick out of the ephemera-filled Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, where the delightfully weird writer and artist lived from 1986 to 2000. (The house is open to the public by appointment only.)
A familiar name on school reading lists, Mark Twain spent his early years in Missouri but wrote his most famous works in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Mark Twain House & Museum is now a National Historic Landmark (masks required).
In Derry, New Hampshire, the Robert Frost Farm Historic Site is where the poet lived from 1900-1911, and it’s said to be the inspiration for some of his best-known works. The house is currently closed, but the grounds are open, and a half-mile nature trail marks each point of interest with a poem.
Detour: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s time on Rocky Ridge Farm inspired her Little House series, and her Missouri Ozarks homestead is now a museum (masks required). And across the country in Portland, Oregon, the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden features life-size statues of the beloved children’s author’s characters, along with a map showing where events in the books took place.
2. The Mississippi Delta for music appreciation
The blues were born in the Mississippi Delta, and the Delta Blues Museum extols the genre as a whole, while the BB King Museum in Indianola tells the musical great’s story. The Mississippi Blues Trail marks the state’s most notable sites, but it also includes stops further afield, from Memphis and Chicago to France and Norway.
A two-room house in Tupelo, Elvis Presley’s birthplace is a popular tourist stop, but his sprawling estate in Memphis is the major attraction. Graceland’s 100-acre grounds include an entertainment complex, exhibits starring the King’s cars, jets, jumpsuits, and gold records, and, of course, the jaw-dropping mansion itself. (Masks are required, and tour capacities have been reduced in light of COVID-19, so purchase tickets in advance.)
3. The Southwest for natural science
Research shows that a connection to nature can improve children’s focus, memory, and attention span, which is as good a reason as any for an outdoor-oriented excursion. The legendary Grand Circle Tour can hit six Utah national parks – Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, and Grand Canyon – in 11 days, covering some 1500 geologically diverse miles in the process. Or you could allot more time for Arizona: Antelope Canyon, Flagstaff, Sedona, Jerome, and Prescott all make for eye-catching stops.
For the budding paleontologist, Utah is a great place to cultivate an interest in all things prehistoric. Near Salt Lake City, the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point has one of the largest displays of mounted dinosaur skeletons in the world, and further south, at the U-Dig Fossils quarry, you can search for trilobites to take home. In the state’s eastern corner, the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum (masks required) boasts dino bones, full-size replicas, and a recreation of a dig site, while Dinosaur National Monument has petroglyphs, pictographs, and fossilized bones on display, plus hiking trails and scenic drives.
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4. The South for Civil Rights history
With Black Lives Matter protests drawing global attention to racial inequality, the time is right for a deep-dive into the historical struggle for social justice. The U.S. Civil Rights Trail highlights the places where activists fought for parity in the 1950s and 1960s, covering more than 100 sites across 15 states.
In 1965, police attacked peaceful protestors on Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, marching to Montgomery in support of voting rights. Today the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail is run by the National Park Service, and the bridge is a landmark. (The park grounds are open, though the interpretive centers on either side of the bridge remain closed.)
In Montgomery, the Rosa Parks Museum (masks required) stands where its namesake was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus, and nearby, the Freedom Rides Museum details the fight to desegregate transportation. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is dedicated to victims of lynchings, and the Civil Rights Memorial honors the activists who gave their lives to the struggle.
Detour: Memphis’s National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel – the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination – has displays on bus boycotts, student sit-ins, Black power, and more (masks required). In Arkansas, the Little Rock Nine were the first African American students to attend a previously all-white school, and Little Rock Central High School is a National Historic Site with guided tours.
5. Florida for rocket science
If the excitement surrounding last year’s Apollo 11 anniversary sparked an interest in all things extraterrestrial, Florida’s Space Coast is the place to get your (moon) rocks off. The Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Merritt Island offers launch-site tours, an astronaut hall of fame, and a “rocket garden” with retired rockets from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, as well as hands-on experiences that provide a feel for the astronaut experience, like training simulators that show wannabe pilots how to dock at the International Space Station and launch simulators that mimic the shuttle’s ascent into orbit. (Masks required.)
In downtown Titusville, the American Space Museum (reopening September 21) displays donations like astronaut suits, launch consoles, and Soviet space program memorabilia, and a few blocks away, on the waterfront, Space View Park hosts the U.S. Space Walk of Fame, a collection of monuments dedicated to the people behind the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and shuttle space programs and the workers lost in the line of duty. The park is just 15 miles from the launchpads, and an audio feed is piped in direct from NASA’s control room, so it’s a good place to catch a rocket in action – just plan your visit when a launch is taking place.
Detour: It’s quite a drive, but the Space Center Houston’s museum has 400-plus artifacts on display, like spacesuits from Apollo 11 and 12 and rocks from Mars. A tram tour provides a look at the astronaut training facilities and mission control, and the center’s educational programming promotes careers in STEM.
6. The Pacific Northwest for arts and crafts
The Pacific Northwest is renowned for its natural beauty, but it also provides ample opportunities for young creatives to hone their artistic talents – or learn a whole new skillset.
In Seattle, the former military installation turned green space Discovery Park is crosscrossed with walking and biking trails and is home to hundreds of species of birds and other animals. Downtown’s largest green space, Olympic Sculpture Park features towering works by Louise Bourgeois and Alexander Calder.
Portland’s creative communities start ‘em young, with an array of organizations offering workshops and private lessons in multiple disciplines. Pick up affordable materials and tips on upcycling at SCRAP Creative Reuse, a nonprofit that stresses sustainability; take a private painting lesson at SunnyLove (masks required), and grab crafting supplies to go from the Craft Factory.
With nearly 600 wineries, Oregon’s Willamette Valley is famed for its adult beverages, and it’s a playground for fans of the culinary arts as well. Sign the kids up for a summer BBQ cooking class at the Merry Kitchen (masks required), or put those little fingers to work at Kiger Island Blues in Corvallis, where you can pick your own blueberries for $1.75 a pound.
Detour: Film-world hopefuls will have more luck in California, but the Beaver State has one attraction you won’t find down south: the real Springfield, as confirmed by Simpsons creator and “proud Oregonian” Matt Groenig. Hit the unofficial tour for photo ops – Instagram likes guaranteed.
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