Children naturally possess many ideal characteristics of a scientist: They are observant, eager to explore, and, perhaps most importantly, cannot stop asking “why.” But as adults, many of us stray from this natural inclination to keep learning about advancements in science and technology. (Explore the top science museums in the United States.)
These six family-friendly destinations in the United States will invoke your inner explorer and leave you with a deeper understanding of the world above, below, and around us.
Stargaze at Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
Artificial light has polluted the brightness of the night sky, prompting more travel for the chance to look up at a starry night. In fact, 80 percent of Americans cannot see the Milky Way from where they live. (Read 10 weird things you (probably) didn't know about the Milky Way.)
Pennsyvania's Cherry Springs State Park, designated by the International Dark Sky Association as a dark sky park, offers stunning views of the galaxy’s nucleus as one of the world’s best places for stargazing. You can also see the Northern Lights, asteroids, and nebulae (mysterious clouds of dust and gas). Regular events include photography workshops and night sky tours during which park rangers point out constellations among the 10,000-plus stars and share the legends associated with them.
When to Go: Sixty to 85 nights of the year have ideal stargazing conditions. The park also hosts two annual star parties that attract hundreds of astronomers and amateurs alike. (Here are the best places to stargaze in the world.)
Watch carnivores at the Wild Animal Sanctuary, Colorado
Less than an hour northeast of Denver, this 720-acre privately-owned sanctuary is home to more than 450 animals—mostly large carnivores, including grizzlies, lions, jaguars, and coyotes—that have been rescued from illegal and abusive conditions.
On a visit, you will learn about how the animals are carefully rehabilitated into what should have been their natural habitat. (Instead, most of these animals come from dingy basements and cramped cages where they have never been in contact with others of their kind.)
Unlike a zoo, travelers can observe the animals in their spacious habitats from a strategically elevated walkway to not disturb them. Visitors can easily spend hours on the 3-mile loop, which includes snack bars and rest areas. (See beautiful photos of wildlife landscapes.)
When to Go: The Colorado sanctuary is open throughout the year until sunset. During warmer months, you may find the animals to be more active later in the afternoon, as many of the big cats nap earlier during the day.
Relive space missions at Kennedy Space Center, Florida
An hour outside of Orlando, find the launchpad for most space missions that you can recall. The vast visitors complex has hundreds of interactive activities, including an astronaut training simulator, a shuttle launch experience, and the option to share a meal with an astronaut. You can also relive the first moon landing through a 3D film that includes historic footage and control room recordings. Or, take a selfie with the 60-foot space shuttle Atlantis, which was in service for 30 years. (Discover more things to do on a trip to Orlando.)
When to go: The space center is open year-round with enough to explore for a full day, so start early. Consider planning your trip around a rocket launch viewing.
Discover fossils at Dinosaur National Monument, Utah
Take a giant stride back 150 million years to the Jurassic era and explore the fossils of allosauruses and stegosauruses that once roamed northeastern Utah. The remote Dinosaur National Monument transverses Utah and Colorado but the fossil hub is on the Utah side.
At the Quarry Exhibit Hall, one can see and touch more than 1,500 dinosaur fossils that have been preserved in a giant piece of rock coined the “Wall of Bones.” On some hiking trails, you can encounter petrolyphs, or drawings carved into rock, left by the native Fremont people who inhabited the area over one thousand years ago. Alternatively, step into the shoes of a paleontologist on a guided fossil discovery walk. Add to your adventure by rafting along Green Bay, surrounded by layers of colorful rock formations. (Take an epic road trip through Utah.)
When to Go: The monument’s peak months are May to September, but you may still prefer these warmer months for outdoor exploration.
Kayak in a biolumniscient bay, Puerto Rico
Light up your night (literally) at one of Puerto Rico’s biolumniscient bays. There are only five of these bays in the world, three of which are in Puerto Rico—Mosquito Bay on the island of Vieques, Laguna Grande in Fajardo, and La Parguera in Lajas. (Discover more of nature’s amazing glow-in-the-dark spectacles.)
On an after-dark kayak tour, discover the millions of single-celled microorganisms called dinoflagellates that produce a blue-green glow resembling that of miniature fireflies. The light is the result of a chemical reaction that is activated when the water is disturbed—so, with the stroke of a paddle or wave of your hand underwater. Try to spot an iguana as you paddle through the narrow mangroves.
When to Go: Generally, moonless (or nearly moonless) nights yield the best experience. Research which bay will be the brightest before you go.
Explore the cosmos at Griffith Observatory, California
Offering stunning views of both Los Angeles and the cosmos, this observatory was the vision of astronomy enthusiast Griffith Jenkins Griffith. If everyone could look through a telescope, he is believed to have once told a friend, “it would change the world!” (Watch L.A. shift from day to night in this amazing timelapse.)
The grand white concrete structure with charcoal domes sits at the foot of Mount Hollywood with the iconic the Hollywood sign in the backdrop. Opt to take one of the scenic hiking or biking trails that lead to the observatory so you can enjoy the surrounding green landscape.
At nightfall, view the moon, planets, and other space phenomena through public telescopes. Expert demonstrators will be on hand to guide you. For an even more illuminating experience, catch one of the daily space shows at the Samuel Oshin Planetarium.
When to Go: The observatory is closed on Mondays and major holidays. Public star parties are held one Saturday a month.
Science writer Monika Sharda is a former staffer of National Geographic Travel. Follow her adventures on Twitter @wanderwithmon_.