Heading into winter, daylight may become fleeting, but family journeys can still be illuminating—even when they’re packed into a weekend.
Whether your brood has interests in science, arts, history, or simply being in the great outdoors, experts say real-life interactions—from walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs to touring a secret Cold War bunker—are crucial for childhood development.
“Learning is a multisensory endeavor,” says Nancy E. Hill, Harvard University professor of education and a developmental psychologist. She notes that children need to experience the world through sight, smell, touch, taste, sound. “Being able to read about something, hear someone tell you about something, and then touch it and experience it for yourself? You get a deeper learning experience.”
Hill, author of The End of Adolescence: The Lost Art of Delaying Adulthood, adds that a family getaway can help children mark the changing seasons, creating something to look forward to. Establishing this family rhythm can have a positive effect.
“For those families who can go on a family vacation [it’s] an opportunity for parents and kids to learn things together,” she says. “It’s great for children to see their parents learning, to see their parents figuring things out. It’s a model for kids and it levels the playing field, [when] so often parents always have to know the answer.”
More than half the U.S. is now fully vaccinated and the CDC recommends ensuring your family is among them. There are additional steps to keep everyone safe on the road, including avoiding crowds and regular testing. Read more here about the precautions your family should take while traveling.
National Geographic’s new book 1,000 Perfect Weekends is packed with ideas for a quick family getaway. Here are a few of our favorites.
Get closer to nature
Explorers of all ages may feel like they’re stepping into another world at White Sands National Park in New Mexico. With its sparkling dunes that seem to go on forever, this wilderness in the Chihuahuan Desert’s Tularosa Basin surprises with wildlife that has adapted to thrive here, including species of mice, lizards, and moths that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
More than 12,000 years ago, Columbian mammoths, giant sloths, and dire wolves roamed this area, leaving behind footprints along the wet shores of an ancient lake—some of these tracks go on for miles. The basin has a rich history of human habitation, from its first nomadic settlers who hunted mammoth and other game on the grasslands that existed 10,000 years ago and the Apache peoples who followed bison here 700 years ago, to Wild West ranchers in the 1800s, and the U.S. military: the first atomic bomb was tested on these grounds in 1945.
Kids who love the yuck factor will be delighted to know well-preserved fossils at Yoho National Park, British Columbia show eyeballs, guts, brains, and other details of some of Earth’s earliest life-forms. The Burgess Shale Fossil Bed contains the remains of inhabitants of the ancient sea that once covered this area, including Anomalocaris, the largest predator of the period, and Marrella, an anthropod with large head spines. Some fossils are on display at the visitors center at this UNESCO World Heritage site. Paleontologists continue to make new discoveries, providing a window into life 500 million years ago.
See celestial objects not visible from anywhere else in the world at Death Valley National Park, which straddles the border between Nevada and California. With so little light pollution, The International Dark-Sky Association says the night skies here offer views close to what could be seen before the rise of cities, and designated the park as one of the darkest locations around the world. Rangers offer programs to guide and educate groups on the cosmos. For optimal stargazing, let your eyes fully adjust and use a red light filter on your flashlight to protect your night vision. A simple pair of binoculars will help you get a closer look.
If you have an aspiring paleontologist in the family, take them to Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, Texas. The site of the first sauropod trackway ever discovered, the park is home to other cretaceous-age footprints left in the soft mud of a sea that covered central Texas 113 million years ago. Learn how the saucer-shaped tracks from the sauropods and three-toed tracks from theropods changed the field of paleontology by revealing how fast these creatures traveled.
Make learning fun at these immersive museums
Take a deep dive into the undersea world at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida, which houses a hundred species of marine mammals, including manatees and sharks. Mote’s Dolphin and Whale Hospital, Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital, and 135,000-gallon shark habitat all focus on educating visitors about protecting marine life. Get the most out of your visit with Mote’s Choose Your Adventure program. You’ll get a private, behind-the-scenes tour and access to activities like guided coastal walks, and learn how sea turtles are treated for conditions including fibropapilloma tumors.
See a hippopotamus, admire master paintings, and take a stroll through lush gardens all in one place at Balboa Park in San Diego, California. The San Diego Zoo, San Diego Museum of Art, and San Diego Automotive Museum are just a few of the 17 cultural institutions here. Many are housed in Spanish Colonial Revival-style structures built in 1915 and 1916, when the park hosted the epic Panama-California Exposition that drew more than 2 million people.
Young ones will love being transported to another world with ornamented towers, mosaic domes, and arched walkways to hidden Moorish gardens. They can learn about the plants flourishing here from six different continents, from palms to bonsai and cacti. The park’s Japanese Friendship Garden offers Shodo classes, in which students learn haiku and how to write beautiful letters by focusing on calligraphy skills and brush techniques.
Take your little rock star on a trip to Music City and stop by the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, Tennessee. As visitors navigate their exhibits, they’ll step into the shoes of Black American icons that forever changed the soundtrack of American music, from Jimi Hendrix to Ray Charles. The museum’s interactive galleries have everything from instruments, to costumes, sheet music, and photographs showcasing African Americans’ contributions to Nashville and American music of all genres.
See 3,600 years of fine art from both sides of the U.S. southern border at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Illinois. The museum has one of the largest Mexican art collections, including more than 18,000 pieces from ancient Mexico to the present. There are also cultural programs—including theater, dance, music, and author talks. Art fans of all ages will love the rich colors while they learn about Mexican folklore and motifs.
Dive into history
See what it was like to live in a cliffside 700 years ago at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings museum in the Colorado Springs, Colorado area. The series of 40 cliff dwellings were originally located in McElmo Canyon 400 miles away, closer to Mesa Verde National Park, where dwellings remain in the cliffside today. The structures now at Manitou Springs were built between A.D. 1100 and 1300 by the Ancestral Pueblo people in McElmo Canyon. In 1904, an independent preservation project started relocating the dwellings 374 miles away to where they are now, in order to protect them from looters.
Immerse yourself in 300 years of Arizona history on a weekend road trip around Tucson, Arizona. Start with San Xavier del Bac Mission, a prime example of 18th-century Spanish colonial architecture. Experience the Wild West driving across the Sonoran Desert, which includes the city of Tombstone and its infamous O.K. Corral, or make a stop at the old U.S. Cavalry outpost and Butterfield mail stage-coach station in Fort Bowie. The Amerind Museum in Dragoon spotlights Native American culture, tradition, and the community’s contemporary life. Stop at the Pima Air and Space Museum to see its “boneyard” of 4,400 vintage military aircrafts and the Titan Missile Museum, which offers tours of a supersecret Cold War military bunker.
Find additional weekend voyages in National Geographic’s new book 1,000 Perfect Weekends, which features hundreds of ideas for every kind of traveler.
Allie Yang is an editor on National Geographic's travel desk. You can find her on Twitter.