Want to know where a former flight attendant turned road tripping junkie drives her kids? Besides crazy, the answer is everywhere. Yes, I’ve driven my three kids across the U.S. While most people can’t drive their kids across the country, they can hit a few iconic destinations before their teens graduate and head off to college.
Why Travel as a Family
As National Parks TravelingMom, I’m all about the iconic destinations that our national park system offers. Since I’ve driven my kids through the continental U.S., we’ve stopped at nearly every destination that appeals to families. Over 55,000 miles so far with three kids in a SUV; where some people see insanity, I see adventure.
As a former flight attendant, I’ve traveled more places than I can remember. I went where my airline sent me, excited to explore a new destination on a layover.
Until I had my precious baby girl, I never thought about the teaching moments that traveling allows. Then I looked down at my tiny baby and said, I’m going to show you the world.
Well, that can be harder done than said when buying diapers and paying for hospital bills. So I refined my quest and decided to show my babies their home instead – the U.S. I started small and added destinations every summer.
What I’ve learned along the way, besides the best truck stops for families, is that kids can be better travelers than adults if given the chance. They will drop their devices and explore with a curiosity that’s contagious.
We, as parents, don’t have as much time as we think. It sounds like a cliché but time flies when you’re raising kids. So don’t be the parent that wakes up on the morning of high school graduation, wishing you had shown your baby the world, too.
Where to start? A National Park of course
Yellowstone National Park, located in northwest Wyoming and 320 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, tops my list for teens. Old Faithful Geyser and Old Faithful Inn offer must-sees. Kids love animals so drive through Hayden or Lamar Valley for bison, bear, elk or even wolves. Give Yellowstone at least four days and I prefer a week. Be prepared to picnic for lunch since the food service isn’t conveniently located near iconic sights or hikes.
Yosemite National Park, in the central Sierra Nevada mountain range of California and 200 miles east of San Francisco, offers a convenient location and epic landscapes. But what’s the difference between the top two national parks?
Yellowstone is about its geothermal features, like geysers and mud pots, and the mighty mammals living there, like bear and bison. Yosemite offers an epic mountain landscape that even an amateur photographer can capture. The Yosemite Valley offers waterfalls, wildflower meadows and mountain top vistas that inspire everyone, including Ansel Adams and naturalist, John Muir.
Mount Rushmore National Monument, in southeast South Dakota 380 miles north of Denver, Colorado, is an image that most Americans know. To experience the magnitude of the sculpture, stand in front of it. Don’t think of Mt. Rushmore as a quick road trip stop. The Black Hills of South Dakota, where Mt. Rushmore resides, offers several days of western adventure for families.
Grand Canyon National Park, in northern Arizona, 215 miles north of Phoenix, offers another bucket list destination for families. During the summer, the south rim seems like the international terminal of JFK with visitors from around the globe. Stay for a few hours or stay for a few days. The Grand Canyon offers hikes and views for everyone in your SUV.
Redwoods National Park offers trees so big everything in its shadow seems small, even teen drama. I found redwood locations sprinkled throughout the west coast with several different varieties of trees.
Some of the most convenient locations are just north of San Francisco though Redwood National and State Parks, close to the border of California and Oregon offers the best location. Redwoods grow in Yosemite and Sequoia national parks as well.
Changing Gears to Urban Landscapes
New York City packs energy that falls flat for younger kids, but teens possess the stamina for urban trekking at its finest. I lived in NYC for two years, though I didn’t introduce my kids to the metropolis until they were out of strollers and could walk all day without whining.
In a city that never sleeps, travel lessons abound. Use the subway to get around, a must-have skill for teens who will be exploring on their own in a few years. In my experience, the skills I learned in NYC helped me navigate any urban city around the globe. From parks to museums and shopping to snacking, New York City offers a week of teen fun.
San Francisco, another urban center, offers a vibrant culture and postcard landscapes with a mellower West Coast vibe. It’s easier to navigate by public transportation, like the famous street cars. It offers American icons too, like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, a favorite for teens. Explore San Francisco by foot to see all the unique neighborhoods.
Boston offers a maze of American History that has to be walked to be understood. Start in the Boston Common, the park in the center of the city, and find the red line painted on the sidewalk. The Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile urban trail, will walk kids and teens through the American Revolution.
Washington, D.C., is another destination for older kids that offers history, culture and some of the best museums in the country, many of which are free. As the center of government, Washington is a must for future lawyers.
Teens Worship the Beach
The Florida Beaches along scenic Highway 30A tops my list for amazing places to relax. Teens will appreciate the beach even if they don’t build sandcastles in a ruffle-bottomed swimsuit anymore.
This area offers bike paths for teens to explore and beach towns packed with hang-outs like ice cream shops and juice stands. That, along with water so blue you think it’s the Caribbean, makes this site a teen favorite.
Southern California has been a mecca for the young at heart since the dawn of TV. The beaches of SoCal created a culture that teens crave.
Be the cool mom and sign your teens up for surfing lessons. Check out the piers and broad walks, both packed with fun. Your teens might even decide that the SoCal tops their college wish list too.
Mountains Call the Teens Too
The mountains, real mountains, are best appreciated in the western U.S. Colorado tops the continent with over 50 peaks over 14,000 feet.
Climbing a fourteener might be more than your teens can conquer but Colorado offers an array of outdoor sports for families, like hiking, mountain biking, river rafts and hot springs. The mild summer temperatures offer a respite when most of the U.S. is sweating through their shirts.
Winters offer world-class sports, like the teen fav, snowboarding. Keep your kids having fun with the old mom and dad longer and plan an annual ski trip. College students will flock home over the holidays if mom and dad pick up the tab for a ski trip.
Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, offers Olympic snow as it played host to the 1960 Olympics. I love Tahoe for its mellow California yibe that attracts moguls and boarders alike.
During the summer, Lake Tahoe offers a crystal clear lake for water sports, yoga retreats and an epic hiking trail, the TRT, the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Disney a Top Teen Destination
My final teen destination is Disney. My advice: take them. It’s an American institution. If your family isn’t crazy about all things Mickey and Minnie, limit your time at the park to a day or two.
DisneyLand in California offers better year-round weather and other family friendly destinations besides theme parks, like the beach. Disney World, in Florida, offers a city dedicated to all things Disney.
Teens love the thrill rides but can still snuggle up with a nostalgic character from their childhood for a picture. Bonus: they can roam the parks safely on their own while parents sample and explore nearby.