If you browse through lists of the most popular family destinations, 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.
That’s the thing: no two families are the same. The best travel destinations for your family and its peculiarities 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.
California’s Joshua Tree National Park is great fun for all ages by day or by night © RonGreer.Com / Shutterstock
Rocks and stars at Joshua Tree
National parks are a classic choice for a getaway, but the desert parks – in fact, deserts in general – are often overlooked as family destinations.
If you have the sort of kids that 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; others, like 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 of the park is after dark. For kids that 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.
Mardi Gras is a spectacle at any age – and kids will love the dog-inspired Mystic Krewe of Barkus parade © Ludovic Farine / Shutterstock
Mardi Gras in New Orleans
There are many words people associate with Mardi Gras, but unless you’re from New Orleans, ‘kids’ is probably not one of them. But go beyond the boozy Bourbon Street festivities and explore the many, many neighborhood events, and you’ll find a local scene that puts kids right at the center.
Get up close to the parades so the kids can snag ‘throws,’ the fun trinkets and goodies tossed by the folks on parade, who are always on the lookout for a kid at the ready. The ladders you see along parade routes are just for the kids, so 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 bedecked in fanciful, glittery costumes – unlike other parades, the marchers are dogs.
The whole family will enjoy exploring the Napa Valley's Jack London State Historic Park © Andriy Blokhin / Shutterstock
Napa and Sonoma without the wine
Home to some of the top-rated restaurants in the world – notably Thomas Keller’s French Laundry – Napa & 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: grab a perfect slice of pie at Fremont Diner, 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 & 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, dads) 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 is packed with fascinating places for families to explore, including the eye-popping landscapes of Badlands National Park © NetaDegany / Getty Images
Go deep in South Dakota
There’s a lot more going on in western South Dakota than many realize. Yes, there’s Mt 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 family lived, and even say hello to some trees, still thriving where Pa planted them.
Keep a keen eye out for critters either side of the boardwalk in Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Gail Shumway / Getty Images
Sea shells and swamps in Florida
There’s no denying Orlando its rightful place in the kid’s 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.
Here’s a short list of things you’ll find on Florida’s Gulf Coast: 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. 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.
Subscribe to our Lonely Planet Kids newsletter and get 30% off your first Lonely Planet Kids book purchase.