Ask anyone for the one thing you must do with kids in their state and you’ll quickly find that it’s like asking them to tell you which child is really their favorite. But, inspired by this HuffPost article, I pushed, asking friends, family, fellow travel bloggers and state visitors bureaus for that must-do experience to have with kids if you can only do one thing or spend time in one city.
As you’ll see from the list below, sometimes that one thing is a visit to a specific place, like Crater Lake in Oregon or the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas. Other times, the must-do is an activity, like fishing in Minnesota or maple sugaring in Vermont.
For each state, I could have picked five other must-do activities or places to visit, but in all, I think you’ll enjoy this bucket list of experiences to have with your kids in each state (plus Washington, DC, of course). Let me know what you think and what else is great in your state.
Home to more than 4,200 caves, it’s a must to take in the wonder and beauty of Alabama’s beautiful caverns. Look for a “frozen” waterfall and incredible stalagmites at Cathedral Caverns State Park. Or, spend the day at DeSoto Caverns Park, where you can also pan for gemstones and ride on go-karts.
Experience the majestic scenery by way of the Alaska Railroad. Try a six day/six night Alaska’s National Parks by Rail package for a rail excursion, as well as cruises and hiking at Denali and Kenai Fjords National Parks. Or, sign up for a day tour to pair a train ride with an iceberg hike or river float.
Explore the dark skies from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff (where Pluto was discovered in 1930). Peer through powerful telescopes to see the planets and star clusters each evening or stop by at lunchtime for a look at the sun through a solar telescope. You’ll also want to take guided tours of Mars and Pluto.
Ride the antique carousel at the Little Rock Zoo. The Over-the-Jumps Carousel is the last-known carousel with an undulating track. In 1991, the carousel was added to the National Register of Historic Places. While at the zoo, you’ll also want to visit with the tiger cubs and Trudy the Gorilla.
Admire the gigantic trees at Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. There’s truly nothing like staring up at trees that tower 20 and 30 stories in the air. Explore the parks that make up the Majestic Mountain Loop in three days or take your time to discover what’s unique about each one.
Be a cowboy or cowgirl at a dude ranch. At Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch in Parshall, kids are assigned their own horse for a week and ride on trails every day. Children bottle-feed baby calves and take care of ranch animals, including burros, goats and a miniature donkey. Also, enjoy fly-fishing, hiking and archery.
Explore Mystic Seaport. You can easily spend an entire day wandering around the historic 19th– century village and shipyard. Make candles, talk to village shopkeepers, see a planetarium show and take part in performances with costumed role players. Walk the gardens or rent a classic wooden rowboat.
Explore the Brandywine Treasure Trail, making stops at popular attractions, such as the Delaware Museum of Natural History and Longwood Gardens. Children will love spending time in the Enchanted Woods at Winterthur. It’s a must to explore the gardens and take a tram ride around the property.
Take an airboat ride through the Everglades. On a 45-minute boat ride, you’ll see alligators of all sizes swim right up to your boat. At the end of the ride, you’ll even get to hold a baby alligator. Alternatively, try a swamp buggy, a guided ranger walk or a tram tour to explore Everglades National Park.
Spend the day at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. At one end of the park, enjoy the Fountain of Rings musical show, go on a behind-the-scenes Inside CNN Studio Tour and take a spin on SkyView Atlanta. At the other end of the park, visit the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola.
Need to book a hotel stay in Atlanta? The Westin Peachtree Plaza (the circular mirrored building in the photo below) is a fun stay. Check out the latest rates and more details.
Explore the volcanoes or see an active lava flow at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. Try an easy hike, like Kipukapuaulu (Bird Park) or Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube). You may also want to take the Crater Rim Tour to experience rain forests, deserts, even see a crater that erupted 30 years ago.
Bike the Route of the Hiawatha Trail. This 15-mile bike trail was formerly railroad track and has since been converted into one of the most scenic trails in the country with ten tunnels and seven trestle bridges. Rent a bike or bike trailer and pick up a sack lunch at Lookout Pass Ski Area near historic Wallace.
Head to Chicago for a fun-filled day at Navy Pier. Ride the iconic Ferris Wheel, explore through play at the Chicago Children’s Museum or enjoy lush foliage and dancing fountains at The Crystal Gardens. In the warmer months, take a sightseeing cruise from Navy Pier for incredible views of the city skyline.
Need to book a hotel stay in Chicago? We stayed at the Comfort Suites Chicago during our cross-country road trip. It’s right on Michigan Avenue and has fantastic views from the upper levels. As a bonus, free breakfast. Check out the latest rates and more details.
You can’t go wrong with a visit to the world’s largest children’s museum, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Look for loads of exhibits and activities from Dinosphere for budding paleontologists to Health House for a look at healthy habits. Stay for the children’s theatre, a carousel and a planetarium.
Make your way to the Iowa State Fair. Over 11 days in August, visitors can take selfies with a Butter Cow, compete in a hog calling contest, enjoy a 200+ float parade and try all kinds of fair foods, from a tater dog-on-a-stick to chicken fried bacon. Look for carnival rides, musical shows and a petting zoo, too.
Explore Wild West Country for wild frontier towns, rodeos, old-time photo parlors and a look back at the gunfighters of the wild west, like Wyatt Earp and Calamity Jane. One to check out is Dodge City for a walk along the Santa Fe National Historic Trail and a gunfight outside the Boot Hill Museum.
Sleep in a teepee at Wigwam Village Inn in Cave City. Just minutes from Mammoth Cave National Park, which offers ranger-led cave tours, horseback riding and plenty of bike trails, kids will love spending the day exploring this popular national park, then coming back to their teepee home away from home.
Take a ride on the St. Charles Streetcar in New Orleans for a look at antebellum mansions, historic monuments, Tulane University and more (all for just $1.25 per person). Make a stop at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World to see parade floats up close and to check out decorations as they are being made.
Need to book a hotel in New Orleans? We stayed at the Sheraton New Orleans, which is just across Canal Street from the French Quarter. Check out the latest rates and more details.
Take the Acadia Quest challenge at Acadia National Park. Enjoy a fun-filled scavenger hunt that takes you around the park as you hike, bike, kayak, climb summits, take photos and go tidepooling. Kids can also earn a Junior Ranger patch and build sand castles at Sand Beach or Echo Lake Beach. Stay in nearby Bar Harbor at the Bar Harbor Motel (we did last summer). Check out the latest rates and more details.
Go camping at Assateague State Park. Home to wild ponies that roam free across the island, kids will love getting up-close with ponies, along with whitetail deer, herons, even dolphins. Bring your bikes and fishing poles for a day at the beach before setting up a campfire and gazing at the stars.
Dig into revolutionary history while walking the 2.5 mile Freedom Trail in Boston. Make stops along the way at 16 key sites, including Boston Common and Paul Revere House. Guided walking tours depart every hour. Or, explore the Freedom Trail at your own pace with an audio tour or a family scavenger hunt.
Climb the sand dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore then run all the way back down. Take a kayak out on the Platte River or go for a bike ride on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. If you have time, take a tour of the lighthouse at South Manitou Island, and don’t forget to pick up some cherries!
Go fishing in one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes (well, more like 11,842). Ask at a bait shop where the fish are biting or go out with a fishing guide to help introduce your kids to fishing (if it’s their first time) to help ensure you come back to shore with a fish or two.
Take a time out on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast with a visit to Biloxi. Try a Biloxi Shrimping Trip to learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about catching and cooking shrimp. Or, enjoy the views from the top of the Biloxi Lighthouse before taking a ferry to explore Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island.
Enjoy the views from the Gateway Arch. Taking the tram to the top of the 630-foot Gateway Arch in St. Louis is a must to see as far as 30 miles on a clear day. Explore the Museum of Westward Expansion just under the Arch, try a sightseeing cruise or take a helicopter tour to see the Arch from above.
Sit back and enjoy the views from an open-top Red Bus Tour along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. Opt for the four-hour Western Alpine Tour, which departs from the Apgar Transit Center on the west side of the park. Leave the driving to the guide and take in the sweeping views.
Spend a day at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. Ranked the #1 zoo in the world by TripAdvisor, kids will love the Desert Dome, the world’s largest indoor desert, as well as Kingdoms of the Night, the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit. You’ll also find an aviary, a butterfly pavilion, an aquarium and more.
Drive across or take a tour of Hoover Dam, which is still considered to be among the greatest engineering feats ever undertaken. If it wasn’t for Hoover Dam, there would be no Las Vegas, and maybe even no California. Go deep down into the power plant before enjoying scenic views from the observation deck.
Need to book a hotel in Las Vegas? We loved the Westin Lake Las Vegas in nearby Henderson. Check the latest rates and get more details for this family-friendly hotel.
Take a guided tour along the Mt. Washington Auto Road. In the winter, ride a SnowCoach, which climbs up to the treeline for fantastic views. Explore Extreme Mount Washington to learn how scientists record ever-changing weather conditions on the highest peak in the Northeast.
Escape to Cape May for a summer weekend on the Jersey Shore. Take the Cape May-Lewes Ferry and get ready to be wowed by this delightful seaside town. Walk the historic district to admire Victorian homes and inns before climbing to the top of the Cape May Lighthouse and biking along the promenade.
Go hiking at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. Bring a picnic lunch and try the easy 1.2 mile Cave Loop Trail. Or, for more experienced climbers, go for the Canyon Trail, a 1.5 mile one-way trek that rewards you with fantastic views of the Sangre de Cristo and Sandia Mountains.
Climb all 354 steps to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. It’s just a must. You’ll need to buy special crown access tickets months in advance from Statue Cruises, but it’s well worth the climb for the views alone. You’ll also want to take a 30-minute ranger tour at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
Learn to hang glide with Kitty Hawk Kites. Kids as young as four can take lessons at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head. Boasting the tallest natural dune on the East Coast, this location is ideal for soft landings. A lesson lasts three hours and includes five flights that can send participants 30 to 100+ yards.
Go on a guided ranger walk or hike at Theodore Roosevelt National Park for your best opportunities to see park wildlife, like bison, prairie dogs, elk and mule deer. Pick up a Family Fun Pack with field guides and binoculars before you go at the visitors centers. In the evening, settle in for campfire program.
Learn what it takes to be the best at a Hall of Fame. Spend a few hours at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton for football artifacts and milestone game moments before exploring the Super Bowl Gallery. Or, get your groove on at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Bring a bucket and shovel to dig for crystals at Great Salt Plains State Park, the only spot in the world where you can dig for rare hourglass selenite crystals. For the best luck finding crystals, seek out a site that was dug the day before and keep digging. Bring a picnic lunch and take a break near the campground.
It’s a must to see and explore Crater Lake, which was created years and years ago by a volcanic explosion. Bike or hike around the national park. Or, simply drive the 33-mile Rim Drive around America’s deepest (and possibly bluest) lake. Stop at as many overlooks as you can to take in the beauty.
Encourage learning and exploration at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. You could easily spend the entire day learning about our solar system at the planetarium, participating in hands-on workshops and live science shows, watching IMAX movies and building a water fountain or a Mars Rover vehicle.
Visit the summer cottages of the rich and famous from the Gilded Age in Newport. Among the most magnificent is The Breakers, which was once owned by the Vanderbilts. Each of the mansions offer guided or self-guided tours around the properties, as does the Green Animals Topiary Garden.
Go mouse hunting in Greenville. Mice on Main is a must for young children who will search for nine small bronze mice statues scattered across the town. It’s a fun way to see historic Greenville while making stops in quaint little shops along the way, like Mast General Store and Luna Rosa.
Go ahead, be awestruck by Mount Rushmore. Take a ranger tour to learn how the mountain sculpture was made and how each of the four presidents were selected. Pick up a Junior Ranger activity booklet to earn a badge. Also, stop at nearby Wall Drug for a five cent coffee and a maple-frosted donut.
Take a walking tour in Franklin to experience the Civil War through the eyes of soldiers and town residents. Explore Carnton Plantation, which served as a field hospital during the Battle of Franklin. In nearby Nashville, pay a visit to Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage and Belle Meade Plantation.
Enjoy both sandy beaches and classic Victorian homes in Galveston. Children will love the tree sculptures, as well as Moody Gardens, which boasts a lazy river, paddlewheel boat, summer concerts and rainforest pyramids. Also, head to Pleasure Pier for midway games and a giant ferris wheel.
Go hiking in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. Good hikes for families include the Mesa Arch, Grand View Point and Upheaval Dome Trails. Look for night sky programs and ranger talks. Also, check out an Explorer Pack just for kids for binoculars, a naturalist guide and more.
Go maple sugaring. Make a stop at a sugarhouse, like the one at Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, to help collect sap and see the sap boiled into sugar. Join a Sugar on Snow party during the sugaring season (March/April), then sample your own Sugar on Snow, Maple Cream or Maple Candies.
Take in presidential history by visiting the homes of three former U.S. presidents: Mount Vernon (George Washington), Monticello (Thomas Jefferson) and Montpelier (James Madison). Tour the homes room-by-room and explore the grounds and gardens. If you visit Monticello, make a side trip to explore UVA.
Watch the fishmongers toss around fish at Pike Place Fish at the world-famous Pike Place Market in Seattle. If you can, go in the morning on weekdays to avoid the crowds and stop in the original Starbucks for coffee. Next, head to the top of the Space Needle to see all the way to Mount Rainier on a clear day.
It’s a must to see the legislative process in action in Washington, DC. Take a one-hour public tour of the U.S. Capitol and sit in the House or Senate Gallery to watch live proceedings when Congress is in session. Reach out to one of your Members of Congress for tour reservations and gallery passes.
Go whitewater rafting. Children as young as six can enjoy a whitewater rafting adventure on the Upper New River or Gauley River. Look for moderate rapids and take time for swimming in the calm pools. You can even pair your rafting adventure with hiking or a canopy tour up in the trees.
Don’t leave Wisconsin without becoming a Cheesehead. Learn the ins and outs of cheesemaking and sample cheeses on a factory tour at Union Star Cheese just outside Fremont. Get the scoop (the slice?) on the history of cheese and even take home new recipes and a selection of new-to-you cheeses.
Go camping at Yellowstone. Then, hop in the car and drive two hours to do it again at nearby Grand Teton. Both national parks are uniquely beautiful and worthy of exploration whether through a Young Scientist Toolkit at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful or on a float trip along the Snake River at Grand Teton.