If you browse through lists of the most popular family vacation destinations in the USA, you might notice a few patterns: many are purely kid-focused, and you’d be excused for not being able to tell some of them apart.

But popularity isn’t everything. Not every family is an amusement park family. Some kids – and many adults – have little interest in rollercoasters or quaffing flagons of butterbeer. Some would rather be exploring mysterious caves, trying new cuisines, staring at distant galaxies, pointing at aquatic mammals or soaking in a rustic hot spring. Some would love to sit on a beach and do nothing for a full week, while others would be bored stiff in an hour.

No two families are the same. The best vacation destinations for your family might never rise past number 11 on a top 10 list, they might never draw huge crowds, they might not sound kid-friendly at first blush, and they might take you or your kids a little out of your comfort zone — but that might be exactly what you’re looking for.

Two children in silhouette sitting on a rock in Joshua Tree National Park in California
California’s Joshua Tree National Park is great fun for all ages by day or by night © RonGreer.Com / Shutterstock

Joshua Tree National Park, California

National parks are a classic choice for a kid-friendly getaway, but the desert parks – in fact, deserts in general – are often overlooked as family destinations. If you have kids who always seem to be halfway up a tree, put Joshua Tree National Park high on your list. Rest assured, they won’t be climbing the prickly Joshua trees themselves, but the rock formations are irresistible. Some spots are clearly only for pro climbers, but others, such as the smooth curves of Jumbo Rocks, are perfect for even young explorers.

Don’t let the bouldering tire you out: as one park poster proclaims, half the park is after dark. For kids who are into outer space (or reciting facts about astronomy that you’re pretty sure you never knew at their age), Joshua Tree is a certified International Dark Sky Park and a certified thrill for stargazers. Celebrate at the annual Night Sky Festival, or join one of the regular ranger-led night sky programs.

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Seven-year-old Michael Andrews practices with some older members of his band before a Mardi Gras parade in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana
Believe it or not, there's plenty of fun for kids during Mardi Gras in New Orleans © Bob Sacha / Getty Images

Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana

People associate many words with Mardi Gras, but unless you’re from New Orleans, "kids" probably isn't of them. But go beyond the boozy Bourbon Street festivities and explore the many neighborhood events, and you’ll find a local scene that puts kids right at the center. Get up close to the parades so kids can snag "throws," the fun trinkets and goodies tossed by the folks on parade who are always on the lookout for a child at the ready. The ladders you see along parade routes are just for children so that they can always have a prime seat for the fun. Local hardware stores sell kits – make sure you add your own bling.

Younger kids – okay, nearly everyone – will delight at the annual Mystic Krewe of Barkus parade. Like other parades, the marchers are decked out in fanciful, glittery costumes, but unlike other parades, the marchers are dogs.

Best things to do with kids in New Orleans

A stone house in Jack London State Historic Park, California
The whole family will enjoy exploring Napa Valley's Jack London State Historic Park © Andriy Blokhin / Shutterstock

Napa and Sonoma Wine Country, California

Home to some of the top-rated restaurants in the world – notably Thomas Keller’s French Laundry – Napa and Sonoma Wine Country is known at least as much for its food as for its drinks. Foodies of all sorts (and ages) are guaranteed to leave satisfied, even if you never make it past the region’s many world-class bakeries. Ponder how an English muffin could ever be so buttery at Model Bakery, sample pastries that could double as modern art at Bouchon Bakery or fill up on the famed sticky buns of Downtown Bakery and Creamery.

You might need to take the family for a walk in nature after all of those pastries, so head for Jack London State Historic Park where you can hike and bike and visit the former home of Sonoma’s most famous resident author. If the kids (or, ahem, adults) really need to ride something, head to Sonoma Traintown Railroad, a charmingly retro train-themed park with 20-minute quarter-scale train rides with a stop at a miniature town and petting zoo.

South Dakota

There’s a lot more going on in South Dakota than many realize. Yes, there’s Mount Rushmore with its iconic giant heads, but that barely scratches the surface – in fact, you should consider heading below the surface of the Black Hills. At Wind Cave National Park, you can explore parts of the nearly 150 miles of cave on a variety of guided tours for all ages. If you’re not afraid of the dark (or enjoy being afraid of the dark), an adventurous candlelight tour for anyone aged eight and older explores undeveloped portions of the cave. Nearby Jewel Cave National Monument is the third largest cave system in the world, named for its sparkling columns of calcite crystals.

A trip to Badlands National Park is a glimpse into the deep past of the continent. This land was once under an ancient sea, but today it looks more like the set from a sci-fi movie. For the more recent past, devoted fans of the Little House on the Prairie books should head east to De Smet, where you can stand on the shores of Silver Lake, see the spots where Laura and her family lived, and even say hello to some trees, still thriving where Pa planted them.

A boardwalk through Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Florida
Keep an eye out for critters from boardwalk of Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Gail Shumway / Getty Images


There’s no denying Orlando its rightful place in the family vacation destination hall of fame, but Florida has a lot more to offer beyond rollercoasters and fairy-tale fantasy. The parts of Florida that actually look like Florida are plenty amazing. On Florida’s Gulf Coast, you'll find quiet shell-strewn beaches, manatees, Everglades National Park, sea turtles, world-class museums and a live mermaid show. Best of all, you’ll never need an app to see how long the lines are for anything.

If you take the family to Tampa to see the Salvador Dalí Museum, the largest collection outside of Europe, it’s probably only fair to take them to the Glazer Children’s Museum, a gleaming interactive museum that’s perfect for younger kids. For nature lovers, don’t miss the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, where you can explore six pristine native habitats along an easy boardwalk trail. Keep an eye out for alligators, water birds in all directions and – if you’re very lucky – a glimpse of a Florida panther.

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This article was first published May 31, 2018 and updated Jun 7, 2021.

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