10 epic family adventures for last-minute planners

These educational, kid-friendly North American trips teach lessons about science, culture, and conservation.

The only real problem with summer is that it’s finite. You get 12 to 16 weeks and then it’s gone. That’s a lot of pressure on parents to make it memorable. But thanks to labor shortages, flight cancellations, exorbitant gas prices, and COVID-19 pandemic concerns, it’s turning out to be the summer of travel turmoil. Parents are realizing that it’s more important than ever that their ultimate family travel destinations live up to the effort it’ll take to get there.   

These 10 North American family adventures will keep kids excited, engaged, and learning—ensuring what gets remembered are the moments of family-bonding fun, not the bumps along the road.  

Climb mountains—in Michigan 

In upper Michigan, kids as young as six are encouraged to climb the walls. Guided tours teach the whole family the basics and then take them out to scale the heights at spots like Sugar Loaf Mountain. 

Kids who aren’t as keen on the climb can take the trail to Thomas Rock in Big Bay. The wheelchair-accessible, family- and dog-friendly route overlooks vast Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. Signposts along the way inform hikers about the native plants and trees. 

Get a new look at Niagara—from the bottom 

Hop into the glass elevator at Niagara Parks Power Station in Ontario, Canada, and head 180 feet below Niagara Falls. The Tailrace Tunnel was built in 1902 to redirect the Niagara River and provide electricity for Canadian homes. Newer technology rendered it obsolete, but this summer, for the first time, families can walk the 2,200-foot winding path to a new view up at the iconic cascades. 

Follow that adventure with a few hours exploring Generator Hall upstairs. Hands-on exhibits explain the mechanics of hydropower generation and introduce the people (including Indigenous communities) whose land, ingenuity, and hard work made possible the electricity that powers our homes—and electronic devices.   

Hike to Gold Mountain in California

In El Dorado County, California, a 2.5-mile Gold Rush route has been renamed to honor the contributions of the estimated 24,000 Chinese men who joined the stampede. The Gam Saan Trail (Gold Mountain, in Cantonese) isn’t paved, but it’s well-shaded and a great starter hike for families hoping to get kids into the activity. Historical markers offer an opportunity to start conversations about whose stories have been missing when we discuss the Gold Rush. 

The trail ends at the Gold Discovery Museum where you can learn more about the contributions of Chinese miners and their families, African American families (including farmers, miners, and shopkeepers), and the effects the Gold Rush had on the resident Native American tribes including the Miwok, Maidu, and Nisenan. 

Hunt for fossils at the world’s highest tides

Every day, 160 billion tons of seawater rushes in and out of the Bay of Fundy, making them the highest tides in the world. At low ebb, the ocean floor is exposed, offering a unique opportunity for treasure hunting. During those hours, families can safely venture out on foot from spots in both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia

(These dazzling rock formations stand where dinosaurs once roamed.)

For added adventure, saddle up on horseback or head out with experts from the Fundy Geological Museum. A top spot for fossil finds? Wasson Bluff, in Nova Scotia, “considered one of Canada′s most significant fossil sites,” says Tourism Nova Scotia’s Pam Wamback. “It’s the perfect place to be a part of uncovering our history—it’s predicted there are still thousands of fossils of dinosaur and other creatures from the early Jurassic period that have yet to be discovered here.”  

Go shrimping on Amelia Island, Florida

Seafood-loving kids make a splash learning the real ins and outs of shrimping on Florida’s Amelia Island. With the Atlantic Ocean on one side and three intersecting rivers, the area developed as a shrimping capital in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “Here on Amelia Island the shrimping industry was modernized,” says Thea Seagraves, education director at the Amelia Island Museum of History. “Most of the fresh shrimp that went to the northeastern U.S. came from here.” 

(Why Florida’s bioluminescent lagoon hangs in the balance.)

Families can head out on ecotours, try their hand at setting shrimp nets, and learn about the local wildlife and culture. Back on land, stop in at the Shrimping Museum on Fernandina Beach, where exhibits include a chance to pick up a telephone and hear recorded stories about shrimping from area residents, then taste shrimp fresh from the waters at spots like Timoti’s.  

Get active in Glacier Bay, Alaska   

Families can hike and bike this World Heritage site that is home to the world’s largest international protected area (3.3 million acres). For an up-close view of the glaciers that cover 27 percent of the park and cultural insight on the Indigenous Tlingit people whose homes were displaced by glacial advancement 250 years ago, join a guided kayak tour

From that vantage point, you can also take in the 15,000-foot-high Fairweather Range of coastal mountains that encircles the park—the highest of their kind in the world. Kids can’t agree on which activity to choose? Book an adventure on an expedition ship and you can try it all on an organized weeklong itinerary that’s perfect for science-minded kids. Less intense but equally exhilarating are guided family tours that pair wildlife viewing with opportunities for kids to get their junior ranger badges.

(More than a quarter of this national park is covered by glaciers.) 

Road trip along the Civil Rights trail

Standing in the places where history happened can bring the past to life. Families who set out on a road trip along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail now have 14 additional sites to explore. That brings the total number of destinations to more than 130 across 15 states. The U.S. Civil Rights Trail guidebook  uses QR codes to convey pop-up information along the route. 

(Take a road trip through Alabama’s civil rights history.)

Interactions include the chance to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with an AR experience that helps kids understand what it was like for civil rights protesters in the ’60s, or earn a Junior Ranger Badge at the Tuskegee Airmen Museum.  

Swim with manta rays in Hawaii and Mexico

When the sun goes down, massive manta rays come out to feed in the warm waters surrounding Hawaii and Mexico. In Hawaii, where the animals have traditionally been revered, families can join the gentle giants (their wingspans range from 11 to 29 feet) in the water on eco-sensitive guided tours that include insight into why it’s not a hands-on experience. 

In Mexico, the giant mobula manta ray migration takes place between March and June. Guests staying at the Playa Viva eco-resort (35 minutes south of Zihuatanejo) can get a front-row seat on the migration happening directly offshore. To spot larger marine-life wonders, join a local whale watching outfitter in season.

Bike great rail-to-trail routes in Montana and Idaho

The U.S. was once connected predominantly by rail. These days some of those former routes have been converted into fantastic trails perfect for family outings. In Montana and Idaho, two are sure to get your kids in the biking mood. When your kid’s foot hits the pedal on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alene, your toughest job may be keeping up. Comanaged with the Coeur d’Alene tribe, the trail is a 73-mile smooth asphalt route that spans the Idaho Panhandle, but families can opt for sections of this iconic trail that position you between strategic family-friendly stops

For littler legs, the mostly downhill options on the Route of the Hiawatha, in Montana, offers an easy adventure packed with tunnels and trestles that keep it interesting. The uniqueness of the trail isn’t simply the beautiful settings along its route, but its role as an innovative solution to the environmental problems caused by early mining activities. Prefer a guided excursion? Local outfitters like Row Adventures can point the way.  

(This New York State rail trail isn’t just epic—it’s also accessible.)

Kayak among dolphins in Virginia Beach

Summertime is peak dolphin watching season on the Chesapeake Bay. Families can head out in kayaks or on stand-up paddleboards (as well as boat tours) to glimpse pods of bottlenose dolphins. Guides share information about the animals and the region as kids keep a lookout for the playful marine creatures. 

On land, stroll a three-mile-long boardwalk or picnic waterside at the state park—possibly with some takeout Filipino lumpia (spring rolls); the popular resort town and neighboring Norfolk have become home to one of the largest communities of Filipinos in the U.S., thanks to the region’s naval connections.  

Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based travel writer and National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram.

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