Ellen Parlapiano iVillage
Why you've got to go: Do we really need to convince you? It's only one of the most spectacular, iconic sites in America! This great gorge is 277 miles long and 6,000 feet deep in some spots, with rocks that are millions of years old.
What to do: Don't just stand there and stare! Bike along the South Rim (rent wheels from Bright Angel at the visitor center) or hike into the canyon on free ranger-led tours to spot fossils, lizards, and California Condors. For the ride of lifetime, explore by mule, but reserve your 3-hour excursion at least a year in advance.
Yellowstone National Park
Why you've got to go: It's America's very first national park and has the highest concentration of geysers in the world!
What to do: See Old Faithful, which shoots steam sky-high every 90 minutes, and then move on to the other geysers, stinky mud pots and multi-colored hot springs within walking distance (check out the flower-shaped Morning Glory Pool). Yellowstone is also a great place to spot wildlife: Bison, elk, bears, wolves and Bighorn Sheep all hang out here.
Why you've got to go: Boston is the birthplace of the American Revolution! Kids will have so much such fun following this 2 ½-mile red-brick road, they won’t even realize it's "educational."
What to do: Pick up a self-guided map from any visitors center, and start the trail at Boston Commons (Redcoats camped here), passing Granary Burying Grounds (see graves of John Hancock, Sam Adams and Paul Revere), the Boston Massacre Site, and Paul Revere’s House. Tour at your own pace, stopping along the way for lunch at Quincy Market. And don’t be afraid to veer off the trail. At the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, kids can reenact the revolt by hurling tethered tea crates into Boston Harbor.
The French Quarter
Why you've got to go: The Mardi Gras spirit lasts all year long in this surprisingly family-friendly city.
What to do: There's lots of free PG-rated fun in festive Jackson Square, where magicians, jugglers, mimes and jazz bands make the street their stage. Take in the lively scene from an outside table at Café du Monde, famous for its yummy beignets (warm French doughnuts smothered with powdered sugar). A quick stroll along the Mississippi River leads to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas (the reef tunnel is amazing) and the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium (creepy crawly thrills include bug-tasting). Hop the St Charles streetcar to the lovely Garden District and the Audubon Zoo (say hi to the rare white tiger).
More info: neworleansonline.com
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore
Northwestern Lower Michigan
Why you've got to go: You'll never see sand dunes like these anywhere else! Some are nearly 500 feet high, with jaw-dropping views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands from the top.
What to do: Climb the dunes, of course! But don't expect kids to walk. Running (or rolling) down these majestic sand mountains is part of the fun. Cool off with a swim at Esch Road Beach -- the pristine Lake Michigan water is brisk but refreshing. There's great kayaking and tubing on the warmer Platte River (gear up with canoemichigan.com).
Dinosaur Valley State Park
Glen Rose, Texas
Why you've got to go: It has some of the best-preserved dinosaur tracks in the world! Need we say more?
What to do: Rangers lead track tours through the Paluxy riverbed, best in late summer when water is shallowest. (You will get wet, so wear bathing suits and water shoes). Wade right up to giant footprints made by duck-billed dinos, three-toed meat-eaters and brontosaurus types; then swim in the Blue Hole upstream, where more tracks line the ledge.
More info: www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/dinosaur-valley
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Why you've got to go: From bayou blues to Beatlemania to heavy metal to hip hop, your budding Bieber or Taylor Swift wannabe will have a blast walking through the halls of rock history. This glass-walled museum is filled with fun memorabilia (view Michael Jackson’s sequined glove and a Lady Gaga dress), cool concert films (now playing U2 3D) and interactive exhibits (don headphones to hear interviews and performances). As long as you're all music lovers, there's something here for everyone.
National Civil Rights Museum
Why you've got to go: Housed in the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, this museum chronicles the civil rights movement—from slave times to present day. Board a replica of Rosa Parks' bus, see lunch counters where sit-ins were held, and view the room and balcony where Dr. King spent his final moments. The exhibitions and introductory film are enlightening and emotional, and guaranteed to spark family discussions about racism and intolerance.
Sanibel & Captiva Islands
Why you've got to go: For the most amazing seashell experience you've ever had! Gazillions of them wash up on these Gulf coast barrier islands, which are equally famous for their wildlife. Plus, the water is shallow forever, so it's a great place for little guys!
What to do: Grab a bucket and start shell hunting (just be sure to throw any live ones back). Scout for burrowing ghost crabs -- if you're still enough, you might spot one digging its tunnel. Watch for dolphins right off shore, or see them close up on a Captiva nature cruise. Also visit Sanibel's J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to alligators, manatees and roseate spoonbills.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Why you've got to go: It's located on one of the most gorgeous stretches of California coastline, and showcases local sea creatures and wildlife. Tanks are designed so kids can get this close to sharks, bat rays, sea turtles and more.
What to do: Play peek-a-boo with the adorable otters as they swim, swirl, and do back flips. Join the feeding frenzy as divers serve lunch to the amazing array of fish in the Open Sea and Kelp Forest tanks. Enter the Secret Lives of Seahorses; and get psychedelic at The Jellies Experience, where neon jellyfish float against a black light background. Outside on the deck overlooking the Pacific, you might spot humpbacks, orcas and grey or blue whales cruising by in the open waters.
New York & Ontario, Canada
Why you've got to go: This American landmark has a seriously jaw-dropping view, thanks to the six million cubic feet of water that thunders over the massive falls every minute.
What to do: Bring your passport, so you can view them from the Canadian and American sides; to visit both, just cross Rainbow Bridge. Board the Maid of the Mist (maidofthemist.com) boat from either shore to get right up to the raging water (they give you ponchos so you don't get drenched). By day you'll see rainbows; at night the falls are dramatically lit, and there are fireworks too!
More info:www.niagara-usa.com; www.niagarafallstourism.com
Why you've got to go: You've never seen trees like these! Dating back to the Triassic period, these ancient hunks of trunks have turned to stone.
What to do: Meet up in the Rainbow Forest Museum visitor center for ranger walks along Giant Logs Trail to learn how they got fossilized in the first place. A nearby trail leads to Agate House, a pueblo of petrified wood, built by the Anasazi 1,000 years ago. Drive across the park to see Native American sand paintings (petroglyphs) at Newspaper Rock; then continue to the Painted Desert and its multi-colored striped boulders (especially spectacular at sunset).
Statue of Liberty
New York City
Why you’ve got to go: Lady Liberty is one of America’s most recognizable and enduring symbols of freedom, and Ellis Island was the gateway to a better life for millions of immigrants.
What to do: Ferry over to both for one price. (Purchase tickets online or at the Battery Park terminal). First stop: Liberty Island. Since the Statue is closed for renovations till late 2012, you can’t climb inside; but park rangers give free tours around the pedestal and are full of fun facts. Next up: Ellis Island. Walk through the Great Hall, as generations of newcomers did, and search for your ancestors on ship manifests in the American Family Immigration History Center. In the new interactive Ellis Kids exhibit, children explore what it meant to pack up, ship out and fit in.
More info: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
Why you've got to go: You'll never, ever forget the first time your princess-loving little girl catches her first glimpse of the real Ariel or Belle (make sure that smartphone battery is charged!) or watches fireworks explode over Cinderella’s Castle. And let's face it: Disney is fun for Mom and Dad, too!
What to do: Spend the bulk of your time in Magic Kingdom, pausing in Town Square Theater for a Fast Pass to greet Mickey Mouse and the Princesses without a long line. Then hightail it to Fantasyland. Though its spiffy makeover is being unveiled in phases from 2012-2014, you can still ride classics, like Dumbo and It’s a Small World, along with a newly renovated kids’ coaster called The Great Goofini. For more Disney World touring strategies, read our Age-by-Age guide.
More info: disneyworld.disney.go.com
Climb Mt. Ranier
West Central Washington State
Why you’ve got to go: This 14,410-foot-high snow-covered peak has 25 major glaciers. And you don’t have to be a mountaineer to scale it.
What to do: In summer, hike on one of the lower gentle family trails that wind through forests and meadows of wildflowers, past waterfalls and glacial lakes. Best bets: Nisqually Vista Trail (in Paradise); Trail of the Shadows (in Longmire); and Grove of the Patriarchs (near Ohanapecosh). Or drive up to Sunrise, elevation 6,400 feet--the highest you can get by vehicle--for jaw-dropping views of the surrounding Cascades. In winter, rangers lead snow-shoe walks for children ages 8 and up.
Pacific Coast Highway Drive
From San Francisco to Los Angeles
Why you've got to go: It's the mother of all road trips, with beyond-gorgeous scenery at every point along the way. Curvy Highway 1 winds along California's craggy coastal cliffs, high above the ocean.
What to do: Take it slow and make lots of stops—whether you conquer the whole thing (allow 4 days) or just tackle small portions. Kids will be wowed by the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (ride the wooden coaster!); Monterey (go kayaking and see the Aquarium); Carmel's Pt. Lobos State Natural Reserve (otters, seal lions and whales hang here); Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (great hiking and camping); Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, and the elephant seals on the beach just north of it.
New York City
Why you've got to go: Your kids have heard about 9/11, and probably learned about it in school. A visit to the ground zero is your chance to help them really connect to what they've been told about that tragic day.
What to do: Make advance reservations to get your free tickets to the 9/11 Memorial, which honors those who lost their lives that day. Twin reflecting pools with waterfalls sit in the footprints of the World Trade Center towers, and are surrounded by bronze panels etched with victims’ names. An accompanying museum is scheduled to open in September 2012. The memorial is close to Battery Park, where you can catch ferries to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Why you've got to go: It's the waterpark capital of the world! With 18 indoor/outdoor options and more than 200 splishy splashy slides, your kids will get waterlogged long before they'll get bored.
What to do: Get a day pass for Noah's Ark Waterpark (America's largest) and race each other down the new 47-foot-high, 4-lane Quadzilla mat slide. Or book into one of the wet and wild resorts, like the African-themed Kalahari (the Sahara Sidewinders looping slides literally drop you through the roof) or Mt. Olympus (the Lost City of Atlantis water fortress has slides, geysers and monster dump buckets).
Redwood National & State Parks
Crescent City, California
Why you’ve got to go: They’re home to the tallest, most majestic trees on earth. Spoiler alert: You will feel small!
What to do: Stroll through the mile-long Lady Bird Johnson Grove, a mossy jungle of sky-high sequoias, some of them 2,000 years old (kids can crawl through the hollow ones). See if Roosevelt elk are grazing in Elk Meadow, then pick up the path to Trillium Falls and be on the lookout for yellow banana slugs along the way. There are coastal trails too: Take guided tide pool walks to discover anemones and sea stars.
More info: http://www.nps.gov/
Swim with Manatees
Crystal River, Florida
Why you’ve got to go: Just 90 minutes from Orlando and Tampa, this is the only place you can swim with manatees in the wild. Winter is the best time to see them, though they hang there all year long.
What to do: Snorkeling/diving outfitters like American Pro Diving Center take you to the warm springs where these gentle mammals congregate. Be patient and respectful: Let the manatees approach you.
More info: http://www.visitcitrus.com/
San Diego Zoo
Balboa Park, San Diego, California
Why you’ve got to go: It’s one of the world’s best zoos--and one of the few places in the U.S. to see giant pandas, rare sun bears, and Australia’s adorable koalas.
What to do: Visit Panda Trek first or last in the day, when crowds are lightest, to see the zoo’s black and white superstars, as well as red pandas. Don’t miss: Elephant Odyssey, where the pachyderms often have pool parties; and Northern Frontier, to watch polar bears swimming underwater. Summer “Nighttime Zoo” hours mean you can stay till 9 pm for special shows and animal encounters. Want to camp out overnight? Check out the Family Sleepovers, available on select dates.
Why you’ve got to go: It’s like stepping back in time to the 1620s, when the pilgrims arrived here from England on the Mayflower.
What to do: Get a look at Plymouth Rock, where colonists first set foot on American soil—you won’t believe how tiny it is. Then board the Mayflower II, a full-size replica of the original. Costumed actors recreate what it was like on the crossing and in the settlement. As you roam through the 17th century village, you’ll encounter farmers, cooks, blacksmiths and other residents, and hear their stories about life in the New World. Meet actual Native Americans at the Wampanoag Homesite, and learn about their cooking, crafts and culture.
The Colorado Rockies
Snowmass, Vail & Beaver Creek, Colorado
Why you’ve got to go: The snow is soft and powdery, the ski and boarding instruction is first-rate and there’s a winter wonderland of family activities both on and off the slopes.
What to do: If you’re traveling with very young kids, head to Snowmass. It offers the widest range of children’s programs at Treehouse Adventure Center: Childcare for kids 8 weeks and up; and ski lessons starting at age 2 1/2. There’s even Beginner Magic ski instruction for novice adults. At Vail, check out Ski Girls Rock, small group lessons specially designed by Olympian Lindsey Vonn for girls ages 5-15; and Adventure Ridge, an enormous snow park at the top of the gondola, with tubing, ski biking and mini-snowmobiles. At Beaver Creek, join ski parades, family ice skating nights and snowshoe tours.
Why you’ve got to go: No other amusement park on the planet has as many roller coasters -- at last count, 17 thrilling rides.
What to do: Ride them all, if you dare. Choose from wooden classics (Blue Streak and Mean Streak); steel screamers (the monstrous 310-foot Millennium Force is rated one of the best steel coasters around), suspension coasters (your feet dangle from the floorless Raptor), and ultra-scary models (you ride Mantis standing up, and flip upside down 4 times).
Kennedy Space Center
Cape Canaveral, Florida
Why you’ve got to go: Where else do you get to be an astronaut for a day? It's a total blast -- and just an hour from Orlando.
What to do: Though the real space shuttles have flown their final missions, you can feel what it's like to rocket into the stratosphere on the Shuttle Launch Experience flight simulator. Also take mission control tours; have lunch with an astronaut; and even train with one in family Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) programs, preparing for g-forces and a mock journey to the International Space Station.
Fort De Soto Park
St. Petersburg, Florida
Why you’ve got to go: Its North Beach has been rated the top in America for families.
What to do: Splash in the calm, crystal-clear Gulf water -- a sandbar creates a shallow lagoon that's perfect for young swimmers. Go shell hunting and build castles in the powder-soft white sand or blow off steam in the pirate-ship playground. There are bike trails and a historic fort to explore as well.
More info: visitstpeteclearwater.com
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Why you've got to go: Two massive volcanoes are here, including Kilauea, one of the world's most active. Trails take you past smokin' steam vents, black lava rock, and enormous craters.
What to do: Stop at the Kilauea Visitor Center first: Pick up maps, check current conditions, and learn how the volcano came to be in the movie "Born of Fire, Born of Sea." Ask if rangers are leading walks, or set out on your own, always sticking to the suggested paths. An easy hike for families is along the Earthquake Trail (Waldron Ledge), with great views of the Kilauea Caldera. Don't miss the Thurston Lava Tube, an underground tunnel where the hot stuff once flowed. (Drive there, then hike in, through a mossy fern forest.) Return to the park at night to see the gorgeous glow from the Halema'uma'u Crater. (Best viewing spot: The Jaggar Museum overlook.)
More info: www.nps.gov/havo
Why you’ve got to go: Some of the best-preserved ancient Pueblo dwellings (some dating waaay back to 550 AD!) are tucked beneath the sandstone cliffs, waiting to be explored.
What to do: Park rangers lead you up several narrow wooden ladders into Cliff Palace (with more than 150 rooms), Long House (kids will grind corn and peek into ancient ovens called Kivas), and Balcony House (with the steepest climb and a tunnel to crawl through). Purchase house tour tickets at Far View Visitor Center. Explore Spruce Tree House and Step House on your own -- no ladders (or tickets) required.
Ride Cable Cars in San Francisco
San Francisco, California
Why you've got to go: They're San Francisco's signature thrill ride! Hang on tight as the historic vehicles chug up and down the nearly vertical hills, with brakes lurching and bells clanging.
What to do: Hop on at the main station on Powell & Market Streets (right near Union Square), where both the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines shuttle you across the city and down to the Bay. Stay on till the end and take in the spectacular views of the water, skyline and Victorian homes en route. Powell-Mason drops you 2 blocks from Fisherman's Wharf. (Check out the sea lions and book a tour boat to Alcatraz). The Powell-Hyde line ends a few blocks away in Ghirardelli Square. (Go ahead and fuel up on some chocolate. You know you want to!)
Why you've got to go: Hang ten, dudes—surfing was born here! And Waikiki's gentle rolling waves are perfect for beginners (i.e., your kids).
What to do: Sign up for a lesson at one of the Beach Boys stands, located on the sand in front of the statue of Duke Kahanamoku. (This Hawaiian hero is considered the father of modern surfing). Or try one of the local surf schools, like Big Wave Dave and Girls Who Surf, where instruction is pricier but more personalized. Want to watch pros conquer monster Hawaii Five-0-like waves? Drive up to Oahu’s laid-back North Shore: In the winter and spring, the breakers at Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach and Banzai Pipeline can exceed 30 feet!
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
Cooperstown, New York
Why you've got to go: This shrine to our national pastime scores big with any sports-loving family.
What to do: Pick up a Discovery Tour scavenger hunt as you enter: Kids solve clues as they work their way through the interactive exhibits and artifacts, and get a small gift for turning it in. Have a seat in the Grandstand Theater for "The Baseball Experience," a fun multi-media show about the game's history; and see if you can guess how many baseball cards line the walls. (Spoiler alert: 135,000!) The Sandlot Kids Clubhouse, is designed for younger children, ages 2 -8, and has hands-on experiences and a literacy corner with videos of Hall-of-Famers reading books like Curious George Plays Baseball.
Why you've got to go: This national park is a scenic superstar: Think thundering waterfalls (best in spring and early summer) and seriously steep granite cliffs (world-class rock climbers scale these beauties).
What to do: Get acclimated by taking the free park shuttle round Yosemite Valley, home to famous sights like Half Dome, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls; hopping on and off as you please. Feeling adventurous? Set aside a half day to hike the Mist Trail alongside majestic Vernal Falls, climbing 600 granite steps to the tippy top. (Pack a waterproof poncho—you will get wet!) If floating down a lazy river is more your speed, go tubing down the calm Merced (rentals at Curry Village).
Why you've got to go: It's an amazing green gathering place, with music, dance, art, family festivals, and wide open spaces for playing—all a walk or el ride from other top Chicago tourist attractions.
What to do: Strike a pose in the reflective Cloud Gate sculpture (affectionately known as the Bean)—it's like a giant funhouse mirror. Splash around in the cheeky, animated Crown Fountain, which literally makes faces at you. Join one of the free activities on the big lawn (anyone for family yoga?) or plop down and have a picnic.