Custer State Park, South Dakota
Mighty buffalo (some weighing up to a ton) freely roam the wide-open spaces of this 71,000-acre park. Located about 40 minutes south of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota’s legendary Black Hills, Custer State Park park offers all sorts of outdoor family fun, such as swimming, fishing, kayaking, horseback riding, and hiking. Bunk at the State Game Lodge resort, departure point for the popular Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour. Treat your crew to the Blue Bell Hayride and Chuck Wagon Cookout (reservations required), complete with souvenir cowboy hats and bandanas for all.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee-North Carolina
The Smokies are a something-for-everyone destination—inside and outside the park. In the park, hike to 80-foot-high Laurel Falls, spot black bears in Cades Cove and elk in Cataloochee, and learn why the Smokies are called the “Salamander Capital of the World.” (Hint: 31 species of the amphibians have been found here.) In Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s gateway communities—Cherokee, North Carolina and Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge, Tennessee—family adventure options include tubing (ages 4 and up) on the Oconaluftee River and Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park and Splash Country Waterpark.
Bar W Guest Ranch, Whitefish, Montana
Saddle up for an authentic Montana ranch experience where parents can relax and kids are free to explore and play. Expert wranglers lead daily activities, such as trail riding (ages 7 and up), wagon ride dinners, and a Junior Wrangler program (with pony rides) for cowpokes ages 2 to 6. Outside the saddle, Bar W Guest Ranch offers hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, fishing, and other on-ranch activities, along with a world of outdoor fun—like an Aerial Adventure Park—in the resort town of Whitefish and in Glacier National Park.
Sanibel Island, Florida
Explore the idyllic southwest Florida island dubbed the “Shelling Capital of the World.” Sanibel’s east-west orientation causes a treasure trove of shells (at least 250 different kinds have been found) to roll in with the tides. Before hitting the beach at Blind Pass, Bowman’s Beach, or another shelling hotspot, visit The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum where kids can learn about shells and the critters that make them. Discover more wild things at the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to more than 245 species of birds.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
Slide, sled, and play in a ginormous wild sandbox. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to North America’s highest dunes—650-foot High Dune and 750-foot Star Dune—as well as wetlands, tundra, and forest. April to October, rent sand boards and sleds just outside the 233-square-mile park at Great Sand Dunes Oasis. Afternoon summer sand temperatures can top 150°F, so hit the dunes early or late in the day. After dark, marvel at the Milky Way on a moonless night, take an eerie-cool full moon hike (no flashlights required) in the dunes, and help kids (ages 5 to 12) earn a Junior Ranger Night Explorer badge.
Summer in the Windy City is celebrated outdoors. Use Chicago’s convenient bike-share system to pedal along the 18-mile-long Lakefront Trail and The 606, a former elevated rail line turned 2.7-mile recreational path. Conquer the climbing walls and roller blade or ride a scooter (rentals available) at Maggie Daley Park. Zoom across Lake Michigan on a Seadog Extreme Thrill Ride (minimum height 48 inches) or Lakefront Speedboat Tour. Swim and play on the sand at family-friendly 31st Street Beach or Loyola Beach. See camels, kangaroos, gorillas, and hundreds of other amazing animals at the always-free Lincoln Park Zoo.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Go for the amazing views and stay for the extraordinary experiences, like a private Meet the Canyon: Family Hiking Adventure (ages 8 and up). The first glimpse of the ginormous (277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep) canyon from the South Rim is breathtaking, but, the real fun for families begins beyond the rim. On a Hualapai River Runners whitewater rafting excursion, kids ages 8 and up can raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, hike to a waterfall, ride in a helicopter, and walk 4,000 feet above the canyon on the glass-bottom Skywalk at Eagle Point.
Callaway Gardens Summer Family Adventure, Pine Mountain, Georgia
Play and stay together at an action-packed summer camp for families. During the day, kids (ages 3 to 17) and parents participate in separate age-appropriate programs, such as water skiing and tubing, zip lining, and gliding on a trapeze with members of the Florida State University Flying High Circus. Late afternoons and evenings, families meet for group activities like scavenger hunts, team golf and tennis competitions, and performances under the big top. Callaway Gardens Summer Family Adventure runs from early June to late July, and families stay (four to seven nights) in comfy cottages and villas.
Yosemite National Park, California
While Yosemite is home to larger-than-life natural wonders—such as Half Dome and North America’s tallest waterfall (2,450 foot Yosemite Falls)—easy hiking trails and ranger-led programs help pint-sized explorers experience the park. November to late July, see, hear, and feel (expect to get wet) the power of a thundering waterfall on the one-mile Lower Yosemite Fall Trail. May to September, take a guided horseback ride (ages 7 and up) on a historic wagon road. Stay inside the park and bring binoculars to see constellations and other celestial bodies in the dark night skies.
Nantucket Island, Massachusetts
Cruising to the historic Cape Cod whaling hub by ferry is part of the fun. Park your car on the mainland and get around Nantucket Island on foot, by bike (bring your own or rent), and by riding the fixed-route WAVE bus. Sail the open Atlantic on a whale-watching tour to look for the mammoth finback whale—the world’s second biggest living animal behind the blue whale—and the school bus-size (about 50 feet long) humpback whale. Family-friendly Children’s Beach has calm, shallow water and hosts free summer activities, such as jump roping, kite making, and open-air movies.
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