The West is a top choice for adventure-loving families. It offers superb attractions for all ages: amusement parks, zoos, science museums, unique campsites, hikes in wilderness reserves, boogie-board surfing at beaches and bike rides through scenic forests. Most national and state parks offer kid-focused programs.
Best Regions for Kids
- Grand Canyon & Southern Arizona
Hike into Grand Canyon, splash in Oak Creek and ponder the saguaro cacti outside Tucson. Water parks, dude ranches and ghost towns should also keep kids entertained.
- Los Angeles & Southern California
See celebrity handprints in Hollywood, ogle the La Brea tar pits, take a studio tour in Burbank and hit the beach in Santa Monica or San Diego. Theme parks galore.
The whole state is like a giant playground: museums and water parks in Denver, ziplines and horseback rides in the Rockies, rafting near Buena Vista and Salida, cliff houses in Mesa Verde and ski resorts everywhere.
Red-rock fun park for older kids who enjoy the outdoors: mountain biking, slot canyon adventures and a bevy of unbelievable fantasy-worthy landscapes.
Go looking for grizzlies, wolves, bison and elk in Yellowstone National Park, with activities such as family white-water rafting also possible.
Western USA for Kids
Dining with Children
The US restaurant industry seems built on family-style service: children are not just accepted almost everywhere, they are usually encouraged by special children's menus with smaller portions and lower prices. In some restaurants children under a certain age even eat for free. Restaurants usually provide high chairs and booster seats. Some may also offer crayons and puzzles.
Restaurants without a children's menu don't necessarily discourage kids, though higher-end restaurants might; however, even at the nicer places, if you arrive early, you can usually eat without too much stress. You can ask if the kitchen will make a smaller order of a dish (check the price), or if they will split a normal-size main dish between two plates for the kids.
Motels and hotels typically have rooms with two beds, which are ideal for families. Some also have roll-away beds or cribs that can be brought into the room for an extra charge (these are usually portable cribs, which may not work for all children). Many hotels have adjoining doors between rooms. Some offer 'kids stay free' programs, for children up to 12 or sometimes 18 years old. Many B&Bs don't allow children; ask when reserving. Most resorts are kid friendly and many offer children's programs, but ask when booking, as a few cater only to adults.
Resort hotels may have on-call babysitting services; otherwise, ask the front-desk staff or concierge to help you make arrangements. Always check that babysitters are licensed and bonded, and ask what they charge per hour per child, whether there's a minimum fee, and if they charge extra for transportation or meals. Most tourist bureaus list local resources for child care, plus recreation facilities, medical services and so on.
Necessities, Driving & Flying
- Many public toilets have a baby-changing table (sometimes in men's toilets, too), and gender-neutral 'family' facilities appear in airports.
- Car-rental agencies should be able to provide an appropriate child seat, since these are required in every state, but you need to request it when booking and should expect to pay around $12 more per day.
- Domestic airlines don't charge for children under two years. Those two or over must have a seat, and discounts are unlikely. Very rarely, some resort areas (such as Disneyland) offer a 'kids fly free' promotion. Currently, children from two to 12 years enjoy 50% off the lowest Amtrak rail fare when they travel alongside a fare-paying adult.
Discounts for Children
Child concessions often apply for tours, admission fees and transport, with some discounts as high as 50% off the adult rate. However, the definition of 'child' can vary from under 12 to under 16 years. Some sights also have discount rates for families. Most attractions give free admission to children under two years.
Yellowstone National Park, WY Watch powerful geysers, spy on wildlife and take magnificent hikes.
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ Gaze across one of the earth's great wonders, followed by a hike, a ranger talk and biking.
Olympic National Park, WA Explore the wild and pristine wilderness of one of the world's few temperate rainforests.
Zion National Park, UT Free shuttles, river access, rock scrambling and all levels of hikes.
Oak Creek Canyon, AZ Swoosh over red rocks at Slide Rock State Park in Arizona.
Moab, UT Mountain biking, rafting, petroglyphs and rock climbing make this a great destination for teens.
San Diego, CA Boogie boarding and tide pools on superb, laid-back beaches.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO An ankle-deep stream flowing through giant sand dunes – younger kids will spend hours here.
Disneyland, CA It's the attention to detail that amazes most at Mickey Mouse's enchantingly imagined Disneyland, in the middle of Orange County.
Legoland, CA Younger kids will get a kick out of the Lego-built statues and low-key rides scattered across this amusement park in Carlsbad.
Universal Studios, CA Hollywood-movie-themed action rides, special-effects shows and a studio back-lot tram tour in Los Angeles.
Epic Discovery, CO Eco-themed adventure park in Vail and Breckenridge.
Aquariums & Zoos
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, AZ Coyotes, cacti and docent demonstrations are highlights at this indoor-outdoor repository of flora and fauna in Tucson.
Monterey Bay Aquarium, CA Observe denizens of the deep next door to the California central coast's biggest marine sanctuary.
Aquarium of the Pacific, CA High-tech aquarium at Long Beach houses critters whose homes range from balmy Baja California to the chilly north Pacific; there's also a shark lagoon.
San Diego Zoo, CA This sprawling zoo is home to creatures great and small, with more than 3700 animals. It also supports some brilliant conservation programs.
LA Museums, CA See stars (the real ones) at LA's Griffith Observatory, dinosaur bones at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, then get hands-on at the amusing California Science Center.
Pacific Science Center, WA Fascinating, hands-on exhibits at this center in Seattle, plus an IMAX theater, planetarium and laser shows.
New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, NM Check out the Age of Supergiants in Albuquerque.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science, CO From space to local Ice Age fossils, with an IMAX and planetarium for good measure.
Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, AZ You may not get many rainy days in Tucson, but when the monsoon season arrives this museum of tiny but intricate houses and scenes is a mesmerizing place to explore.
Museum of the Rockies, MT See the largest T-Rex skeleton ever unearthed, with plenty of other dinosaur fossils and a planetarium, in Bozeman.
Consider the weather and the crowds when planning a Western USA family getaway. Peak travel season is from June to August, when schools are out and the weather is at its warmest. Expect high prices and abundant crowds – meaning long lines at amusement and water parks, fully booked resort areas, and heavy traffic on the roads; reserve well in advance for popular destinations. The same holds true for winter resorts (eg the Rockies, Lake Tahoe) during the high season (January to March).
For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.
What to Pack
- Lots of sunscreen, especially if you'll be spending time outside.
- A front baby carrier (for children under 12 months old) or a backpack (for children up to about four years old) with a built-in shade top for hiking. These can be purchased or rented from outfitters throughout the region.
- Sturdy shoes and water sandals, for older kids to play in streams.
- A portable crib for infants and sleeping bags for older children, to minimize concerns about bed configurations.
- Towels, for playing in water between destinations.
- Rain gear.
- A snuggly fleece or heavy sweater (even in summer, desert nights can be cold).
- Sun hats (especially if you are camping).
- Bug repellent.
Family Vacation (www.familyvacationcritic.com) Trip ideas and packages sorted by age, destination and style.
Find Your Park (https://findyourpark.com) Great way to research which national parks to visit
Tracks & Trails (http://tracks-trails.com) Squeezing everyone into an RV? Check out this handy planner.
Trekaroo (www.trekaroo.com) Reviews, ideas and itineraries for families.
Undercover Tourist (www.undercovertourist.com) Discounted tickets and more at the big theme parks.