Places to visit in the USA
Where to start?!! In a country as big as America there are of course endless places to visit. The final selection will boil down to itinerary, region and your family’s preferences for activities. Below is a list of our favourites places to visit in the USA, based around our Classic California Family Holiday and Western National Parks itineraries. We have also included a few key cities which you may want to consider for a stopover en route.
There are of course many, many more places you can visit, so do please contact us to discuss further possibilities.
This is one of the most scenic cities in the US, with the stunning backdrop of San Francisco Bay and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco offers direct international flights and is an ideal place to start your California family holiday, being more compact and less imposing than sprawling LA or New York.
Spot sea lions at Fishermen’s Wharf and enjoy the many street performers entertaining the crowds here. Take a historic cable car up the steep, narrow streets and hold your breath as you drive down the numerous switchbacks of Lombard Street. Take the ferry to eerie Alcatraz Island, scene of many famous movies including ‘The Rock’. Watch how they make fortune cookies (and grab a bag to eat) in bustling Chinatown, gorge on a seafood feast at Pier 39 and enjoy a San Francisco-themed chocolate at Ghirardelli Square.
The quintessential American city, packed full of world-famous attractions and iconic sights. LA offers many direct flight options and can be a good place to start or end your Pacific Coast family holiday, embracing that ‘good ole’ American’ spirit at various legendary Californian locations.
Keep the kids happy with that essential visit to Disneyland for the classic rides of Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean. Or catch up with Harry Potter, Jurassic Park and even those annoying Minions at Universal Studios. Ride horses beneath the Hollywood sign, follow generations of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, take a celeb tour through Beverly Hills or Malibu and cruise glitzy Sunset Strip. Active families can rollerblade Venice Beach Boardwalk and surf from Santa Monica beach. Catch a baseball, basketball or football game and get into that cheerleading spirit!
Monterey and Carmel
Monterey is a picturesque seaside town located on the famous Big Sur coastal highway. It is home to the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium with its many sea turtles, stingrays, sharks, jellyfish, octopi and a bewildering array of fish. Hire bikes (or surreys – 4-wheeled powered vehicles) and ride the 18 mile Coastal Recreation Trail. Spot the marine wildlife off the coast then dine out on delicious seafood at Cannery Row or Fisherman’s Wharf.
From Monterey, take the 17 Mile Drive, with its endless views of crashing surf and wild beaches, to Carmel. This pretty beach town is renowned for marine wildlife safaris and you can choose to take a whale-watching cruise or paddle a kayak or SUP off the coast to view the Gray, Blue, Fin, Minke, Beaked or Humpback whale together with many dolphin, porpoise, sea lions and seals (depending on season).
A more relaxing alternative to the chaos of downtown LA, Santa Barbara is known as the American Riviera and is a lovely region to recharge the batteries. Miles of sandy beaches offer perfect bases for surfing or kayaking – or building sandcastles of course. Summerland Beach is stunning – the perfect spot for a sunset horse-ride. Another popular spot is Refugio State Park, with bike trails along miles of beautiful white sandy beaches flanked by palm trees.
Santa Barbara itself is home to beautiful wide boulevards and shaded piazzas where you can stop for an ice-cream and soak up the sunshine. Inland there are many gorgeous valleys and lush, rolling hills with a plethora of salubrious lodge accommodation. Santa Inez Valley is particularly beautiful – why not hire a bike for the day, load up with a picnic from one of the many delis and head off through the vineyards.
Yosemite National Park
This is one of the jewels in California’s crown, with a majestic landscape of deep valleys, thundering waterfalls, ancient sequoia trees and remote meadows with a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Its two most iconic landmarks, El Capitan and Half Dome, soar thousands of metres above you – watch ‘Dawn Wall’ or ‘Free Solo’ to gain a true perspective of these mountain giants (and also a healthy respect for climbers!).
Exploring Yosemite with kids is to enjoy nature at its best and active families will find it hard to choose between the masses of activities available here. These include guided hikes, mountain biking (tagalongs, trailers and tandem bikes available), and horse-riding.
Numerous self-guided walking trails leading to panoramic viewpoints will appeal to those who travel with hiking boots. Our favourites are the Grizzly Giant Loop trail (an easy hike beneath giant Sequoia trees), the short yet incredibly rewarding Sentinel Dome hike and the more challenging Yosemite Falls Trail. This leads to the top of North America’s tallest waterfall. Keep an eye out for black bears, mountain lions and bighorn sheep.
Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park – land of the gentle giants. The park is just three hours from Yosemite and a useful stop en route to Death Valley and Las Vegas. It is a dramatic landscape of huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns and the world’s largest trees (though interestingly, for trivia buffs, not the tallest…). The General Sherman tree is believed to be over 2,000 years old and a massive 52,500 cubic feet in volume. It is located in the Giant Forest Sequoia Grove, home to five of the world’s ten biggest trees – kids (and adults) will feel minute beneath them.
There are plentiful trails starting from 1 mile easy loops to the more challenging Moro Rock Trail – get the kids to count the 400 steps to the summit as the views are definitely worth it! A fascinating little spot is Tunnel Log where you can actually drive through the middle of a massive fallen tree. The tunnel is part of a road loop so you can get wild (and dizzy) going round and round – and under and through.
The largest alpine lake in North America, Lake Tahoe is one of America’s premier ski resorts in winter and thus in the summer, an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. The beautifully clear blue waters of the lake lap against the rocky shores, beneath a stunning mountain backdrop of the Sierra Nevada.
Active families can hire SUPs and paddle under the towering cliffs of the Rubicon Trail (brave teens can embrace some cliff jumping off Rooster Rock – parents can ‘chicken out’…). Or hire kayaks at Emerald Bay and paddle out to Fannette Island for a picnic lunch.
Gentler options include taking one of the cable cars up into the mountains (avoiding any whine-packed ascents) for superb hikes and bike rides (e-bikes available). There are also ropes courses, with zip-lines and rope bridges that the children will love. For the really adventurous, take a guided excursion along Lake Tahoe’s Via Ferrata, a nail-biting journey across the rock face with stunning views.
Perfectly situated between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, the Napa Valley is a gorgeous place to meander through – or stop overnight in one of the many delightful lodges and vineyards. Visit some of the many wineries the area is renowned for – from boutique establishments to national treasures such as Robert Mondavi and Beringer. Just be warned, there are over 400 to choose from!
Not just for adults, kids will love having fun in the hot springs and mud baths at Calistoga, watching the Old Faithful Geyser erupt every 10-30 minutes, or riding a winery aerial tram up to Sterling vineyards, offering stunning views. Perhaps the perfect choice for all ages is Castello di Amorosa. This is a medieval-inspired Tuscan castle complete with dungeons, drawbridges and a torture chamber… Hosts pour under-age drinkers grape juice while adults can indulge in some wine-tasting!
Head to the hottest place on earth – the remote and barren landscapes of Death Valley. Here, the mesmerising salt flats of Badwater Basin are the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 200 feet below sea level. Kids will love the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, America’s answer to the Sahara Desert, where you are guaranteed to get covered from head to toe. Get arty with some clever ‘footsteps in the sand’ shots or have some fun sledding down the dunes (using anything you care to sit on).
For a relatively cooler option, head to Dante’s View, at over 1500m, offering spectacular views over the entire valley and salt plains below. Highly recommended at dawn or dusk is the Golden Canyon Hike for views over beautifully coloured Badlands, constantly changing as the sun rises and sets. Continue on to Zabriskie Point for one of the most famous panoramas of Death Valley.
Las Vegas, that most iconic of American cities, rising up out of the Mojave Desert like a mirage. Leave reservation behind and embrace the sheer excess and extravaganza this city is famous for! Cruise the neon-lit Las Vegas strip on a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, watch the acts at Circus Circus and take in an OTT evening show such as Cirque du Soleil, David Copperfield or Penn and Teller (pre-booking essential).
Children will love watching the dancing fountains at the Bellagio Hotel and keeping their sweet tooth happy shopping in M&Ms World. Avengers fans will drag parents to the Marvel Avengers Station or experience New York in a somewhat surreal way on the Big Apple rollercoaster. Want some beach-time in the desert? Head to Mandalay Bay with its sands, wave pool and lazy river.
For a real splurge, hop on a hot air balloon ride for a bird’s eye view of this incredibly unique and bizarre city – a truly memorable way to experience Las Vegas with kids.
Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks
Zion National Park is famed for its yellow and red sandstone canyons, lush hanging gardens tumbling from the cliff walls and sparkling rivers and waterfalls. Regular shuttle buses drop you off at numerous trailheads so you can enjoy this outdoor paradise on two feet or two wheels, at your own pace.
There are paved trails accessible to buggies and toddlers. Popular longer hikes include the Angels Landing Hike, Emerald Pools or Canyon Overlook Trail for stunning views over the park. Biking options include the easy Pa’rus Trail through Zion Canyon. It can get really hot during the day so an early start is essential – and take advantage of the numerous opportunities to swim (or tube) in the Virginia River. Or follow the Zion Narrows Hike, which is up a river – cue endless opportunities for cooling off by splashing parents at will.
The colourful ‘hoodoo’ rock spires, high desert floor and layered plateau of Bryce Canyon National Park provide a healthy contrast to the canyons and forested mountains of nearby Zion. You just have to visit both! Being at a higher altitude, slightly lower temperatures create a more child-friendly hiking environment too – although the kids might prefer the 18-mile Bryce Canyon scenic drive with its numerous lookout, petroglyphs and picnic spots.
Children will also love the bucking broncos of the country rodeo which takes places near the park entrance during the summer. Yes, we know it’s touristy but yee-haw! Why not embrace the inner cowboy in you?!
One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, even the youngest travellers will not fail to be impressed by its size and meandering switchback canyons. The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, over a mile deep and 18 miles wide in places. It contains five nature zones ranging from desert to the lush forest on the higher points.
You can access the canyon from various directions – the North Rim is the quietest but perhaps not as suitable for families due to limited accommodation options and a much longer access route. The western rim offers the attraction of proximity to Las Vegas (2.5hrs) and the SkyWalk, a walkway built over a side canyon at Eagle Point where you can walk out over the top of the canyon and peer down through the safety glass to the valley nearly 240m below. However, our preferred access point is the South Rim with its visitor centre, numerous trails, shuttle bus options and a wide choice of accommodation (including a fabulous glamping site).
The classic self-drive option is the 25-mile Desert View Drive, with viewpoints of the canyon and the Colorado River at Moran Point, Lipan Point and Desert View. Or you can make use of the regular shuttle buses taking you between the key points.
We highly recommend stretching your legs and following one of the many self-guided trails. The 13-mile Rim Trail is superb with shuttle options at various points for tired legs. The South Kaibab or Bright Angel Trails, which actually take you down into the Canyon, are excellent but there is not much shade so you would want to rise early for these. For cyclists, there is the Greenway section of the Rim Trail which leads to the historic site at Hermit’s Rest.
Alternatively, take to the skies and splurge on an unforgettable helicopter ride or fixed wing flight. Whatever options you choose, do get up early one morning to watch a mesmerising sunrise over the Colorado River snaking its way through the canyon. Kids might moan at the pre-dawn alarm call, but this really is a beautiful and memorable way to enjoy your Grand Canyon family adventure.
Monument Valley and the Navajo Tribal Lands
The spectacular landscape of Monument Valley has been made famous in too many movies to mention. Its dramatic red mesas and sandstone buttes are a budding photographer’s dream, the deep, bright colours of the rocks and cliffs ever-changing from dawn to dusk. The valley is easily explored by driving the 17-mile Valley of the Gods Road that forms a scenic loop. It is part of the Navajo Tribal Park and families might like to take a guided tour with a Navajo guide who will point out the different rock formations from Navajo legends, described as ancient warriors frozen in time.
Antelope Canyon is also located within the Navajo Nation’s Tribal Reservation – part of Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park. This ‘slot canyon’ is renowned for its photogenic wave-like winding walls, where shafts of sunshine create a surreal effect on the red-hued rock sculptures. You are not allowed to explore the canyon independently due to the risk of flash floods so we suggest that the best way to enjoy this mesmerising sandstone scenery is on a Navajo guided tour. This will enable you to not only learn about the geology and rock art of the area but also listen to Native American stories, regaled in a stunning natural environment
Canyonlands and Arches National Parks
Canyonlands is Utah’s answer to the Grand Canyon. Carved out of the Colorado Plateau, it is a landscape of mesas, deep-river gorges and, of course, canyons. The Island in the Sky area offers breath-taking viewpoints over the canyons below as well as several child-friendly hiking trails. View the famous Mesa Arch, Upheaval Dome and the steep switchbacks of Shafer Canyon.
Sandstone formations, towering cliffs, broad vistas and the Colorado River set the stage for the quintessential cowboy movie. The setting may also be familiar as the location of ‘127 Hours’, where the climber Aron Ralston became trapped in a slot canyon, eventually escaping in a rather dramatic and unforgettable manner.
Arches National Park is home to the largest concentration of natural stone arches in the world (over 2,000) along with sandstone towers, turrets and pinnacles of varied colours and textures like nowhere else on earth. Many of the arches can be viewed from the car including Delicate Arch, North View and Double Arch.
But for a more up close and personal experience (start early to avoid the heat of the day) take to the trails. A popular family choice is the 7-mile Professor Creek Trail, through a canyon to an impressive waterfall. It involves lots of water crossings (depending on water levels) which keeps the children interested – and cool.
A more challenging option for older families is the popular Fiery Furnace guided hike, a legendary 2-mile route between towering maze-like walls. If climbing on sandstone and loose sand, through tight passages and double arches, to narrow ledges with steep drop-offs is your thing – this is the tour for you!
Grand Teton National Park
This fabulous national park is a showcase of snow-capped mountains, rising commandingly thousands of metres into the sky. A stunning alpine world of glacial lakes and towering, craggy peaks, its proximity to Yellowstone makes this is an easy inclusion on any family holiday to Wyoming. An easy child-friendly hike is to Moose Ponds where you will hopefully spot both moose and beaver.
Take the ferry across Jenny Lake and walk to Hidden Falls. Skim stones and dip sore feet in Jackson Lake. Hire bikes and cycle across either the ‘Paved Pathway’ or the sagebrush flats (child bikes, trailers and tag-alongs available). Ride horses on Polecat Creek Loop or take a scenic float trip along the Snake River. Enjoy a stunning sunset as the pink light of dusk hits the peaks and spot the prolific wildlife the park is renowned for, including bison, bear and pronghorn.
Yellowstone National Park
The flagship for national parks and a vital inclusion on any trip to the USA’s greatest parks. Yellowstone is America’s oldest, a vast area (nearly 3,500 square miles) of absolute wilderness in a region of high volcanic activity. It is a living geography lesson with geysers spouting steam, brightly coloured hot springs and bubbling geothermal pools ranging in colour from bright turquoise to oranges and yellows.
Dramatic canyons, lofty waterfalls and lush forests add to the varied scenery and there is also prolific wildlife. This includes both black and grizzly bears, coyotes, bison, moose, eagles and bighorn sheep. For the kids out there, it was also inspiration for ‘Jellystone National Park’, home to Yogi Bear!
It is a superbly family-friendly park with a huge variety of activities. Kids will gasp in awe at the exploding Old Faithful Geyser (eruptions can last as long as 5 minutes) and hold their noses at the overwhelming ‘smelly egg’ sulphuric odour. Meandering past the boiling mud pools, hissing vents and fumaroles – accessed by easy walkways – will keep them constantly entertained (perhaps the ultimate in letting off steam…). Horse-riding, mountain biking, canoeing and kayaking are all on offer too.
Younger kids will enjoy the gentle white water rafting on Yellowstone River whilst older ones can tackle the rapids of Snake River. With over 900 hiking trails to choose from, there will be something to suit every inclination. Even the most reluctant walker will manage the 1 mile round trip to Wraith Falls and older ones might like to climb Mount Washburn (475m) for far-reaching views over the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone to the Tetons.
Yellowstone is hugely popular and in peak season the scenic road that traverses the park in a giant figure of eight can become quite traffic-logged. Arrive early in the popular parking spots of the Geyser Basin area and book accommodation many months in advance.
There are so many variations to the original Route 66 (it might be a stretch to recommend the entire 420 mile Chicago to LA roadtrip for families) but there is an area just off the southern section of this iconic route – Sedona/Flagstaff/Phoenix – that is unbelievably scenic.
Enjoy the Meteor Crater Natural Landmark (where the moon landings were practised), Walnut Canyon National Monument, a pre-Columbian site where dwellings were carved out of the cliff face nearly 1,000 years ago and hike through the impressive scenery of Red Rock State Park. Visit the picturesque Montezuma Castle National Monument before finishing in Phoenix, where the desert hits the city.
It is easy to be sleepless in Seattle – there is so much to enjoy in this vibrant and very family-friendly low key city. From the waterfront, you can enjoy glistening views of the Olympic Mountains and Elliott Bay. Explore Pike Place Market, the famous Space Needle, the Olympic Sculpture Park, the excellent Pacific Science Centre as well as many other landmarks and places of interest. Catch up on some souvenir shopping at Pioneer Square or take a ride on the Seattle Great Wheel. Head below ground on an intriguing subterranean experience on a Seattle Underground Tour or take to the sky on a scenic seaplane tour.
Enjoy a day trip to nearby Mount Rainer National Park or hike the Olympic Peninsula (the setting for the ‘Twilight’ series). With Vancouver only 2.5hrs drive away, you can easily make your family holiday a US/Canada combo. Or push the boat out (sorry!) and take the ferry through the scenic San Juan Islands (with a high chance of spotting whales) to Vancouver Island for a true North American road trip with kids.
America’s capital city offers oodles of exciting experiences. Many international flights fly via here so a stopover can be a useful way to break the journey, recover from jet lag or offer a slice of American city life.
There are so many fun-filled ways to enjoy Washington DC. Families will love the buzzing neighbourhood of Georgetown as well as the Eastern Market, a huge food market (lively at weekends). There are loads of hands-on exhibitions at the legendary Smithsonian Museum (the world’s largest museum complex, so plan your visit) and most kids will enjoy the National Air and Space Museum or the hugely interactive National Spy Museum.
Take a bike tour to view the Washington Monument, the US Capitol Building and the Jefferson Memorial or simply follow the Mount Vernon Trail. This is a self-guided cycle route skirting along the Potomac River to finish at Theodore Roosevelt Island. Spend the evening seeing the monuments by moonlight on a magical trolley ride or take in a baseball game with the Washington Nationals.
New York City
The Big Apple! Where to start in this most famous and glamorous of cities…. Enjoy an open-top bus tour, drink in the view from the Empire State Building (day or night) and meander round Central Park (weekends are best when the park is traffic-free). Go shopping in Macy’s, feel the buzz of Times Square and take the Staten Island ferry over to the Statue of Liberty. Stroll around the historic district of Greenwich Village, enjoy noodles in Chinatown, walk across the famous Brooklyn Bridge and enjoy some R&R on Coney Island. Join a guided food tour (did you know you can actually do a ‘Cupcake’ Tour?!) and book a Broadway show.
Active families will like the Highline Park and Walking Path, a converted overhead rail line. Gamers will just ‘lurve’ Nintendo World and arty types have to make the Guggenheim Museum a must-do. Try and catch a baseball game with the New York Yankees or a concert at Madison Square Gardens.
Sometimes the best way to enjoy the city is simply by wandering its streets – from Broadway and Fifth Avenue to Wall Street. There are so many ways to enjoy New York with kids so why not top or tail your American family holiday with a stopover here. New York, New York – a living movie set at every turn!
The birthplace of the skyscraper, the start of Route 66 and once home to Al Capone, Chicago is one of the most famous cities in America. Many international flights use it as their hub so why not break your journey here to explore.
There is so much to enjoy here with great shopping along the Magnificent Mile, toe-tapping live music and an impressive array of mouth-watering food. Stroll the Navy Pier, stretching nearly a kilometre into Lake Michigan, and dine on the city’s signature deep-dish pizza. Or try a legendary breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s. From atop the John Hancock Tower, this ‘Windy City is mighty pretty’ – and pretty awesome too (from the 94th floor…).
Call us and we will be happy to provide you with a free-of-charge no obligation itinerary and quotation designed for you.
USA in pictures
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