Years ago I promised myself my kids would see their country from tip to tip. It took nine years but I drove my three kids from coast to coast, one summer vacation at a time.
Not everyone is crazy like me, though think about hitting some of the iconic U.S. destinations. Got a list of the top places to visit before your kids leave for college.
Top Places to Visit Before Your Kids Leave for College
Yosemite National Park
Start with a National Park
The U.S. is blessed with epic landscapes that need to be seen to appreciate. Load up the kids for a road trip to remember and explore the nation’s treasures.
Yosemite National Park
Located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range Yosemite National Park is where the naturalist, John Muir coined the phrase, the mountains are calling and I must go. Since it’s 200 miles east of San Francisco, it offers a convenient location and epic landscapes. The mountains and meadows along the waterfalls are the draw here.
Yellowstone National Park
Located in northwest Wyoming and 320 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, Yellowstone National Park offers another top destination for families. Old Faithful Geyser and Old Faithful Inn top my list for must-sees.
Kids love animals so drive through the Hayden or Lamar Valley for bison, bear, elk and 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 next to iconic sights or hikes.
But what’s the difference between the two top national parks?
Yellowstone is about the mighty mammals, like the bear and bison and the geothermal features, geysers and mud pots. Yosemite offers an epic mountain landscape that even amateur photographers can capture. The Yosemite Valley offers waterfalls, wildflower meadows and mountain top vistas that inspire everyone, including Ansel Adams.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
About 380 miles north of Denver, Colorado, South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore National Memorial is an icon that most Americans know. To experience the magnitude of the sculpture, you have to 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 is located, offers several days of western adventure for families.
Grand Canyon National Park
About 215 miles north of Phoenix, Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park offers another bucket list destination for families. During the summer, the south rim seems like the international terminal at New York City’s JFK airport 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 is your SUV.
Though drive around to the North Rim in the summertime, the only time it’s accessible by car, to see a different perspective. As a bonus, you’ll find fewer people on this side of the rim.
Redwood National Park
Redwood National Park offers trees so big everything in its shadow seems small, even teen drama.
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.
New York City
Switch gears and explore the city, New York City. Since it packs an energy that falls flat for younger kids I suggest NYC for older kids with the stamina. They need to be out of strollers and walk for days 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. 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 family fun.
San Francisco offers an urban center with vibrant culture and postcard landscapes with its mellower West Coast vibe. It’s easy to navigate by public transportation, like the famous street cars.
It offers American icons too, like 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. Start at 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, DC, offers another destination packed with history, culture and some of the best museums in the country, many of which are free.
Disney, if your kids haven’t been. 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 weather year-round and other family friendly destinations besides theme parks, like the beach. Walt Disney World, in Florida, is really a city dedicated to Disney.
Los Angeles is still 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 up your teens for surfing lessons. Check out the piers and broad walks, packed with fun. Your teens might even decide that Los Angeles tops their college wish list too.
San Diego offers lots of family fun with beaches, parks and museums to discover in Southern California. Start at Cabrillo National Monument and its tide pools then move on Balboa Park.
With perfect year-round weather, explore San Diego any time of the year. Remember to pack the swimsuit, even in the winter, since the sun is still shining and the air is warm.
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 swimsuits anymore.
I love the bike paths for teens to explore beach towns packed with hang-outs like ice cream shops and juice stands. Along with water so blue you think it was the Caribbean.
Winter offers world-class sports, like snowboarding and skiing. Keep the kids having fun with the old Mom and Dad longer by planning a family ski getaway.
Lake Tahoe, straddling the border of California and Nevada, offers Olympic snow as the host to the 1960 Olympics. I love Tahoe for its mellow California yibe that attracts moguls and boarders alike.
Can’t make it in during the winter then explore the mountains in the summer. Lake Tahoe offers a crystal clear lake for water sports, yoga retreats and the epic hiking trails, the Tahoe Rim Trail and part of the Pacific Coast Trail.
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 kids can conquer. Though 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.
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