Best Family Vacation Spots in the US That Are Off the Beaten Path

Jekyll Island, Georgia is full of unique beaches for kids to explore. Photo by Charlotte Blanton
Jekyll Island, Georgia is full of unique beaches for kids to explore. Photo by Charlotte Blanton

The best family vacation spots in the US aren't always the most popular ones (no hate towards Disney World, New York City, Washington, DC, or Los Angeles, of course). America is a big country, and there are so many great places to visit that may not be on every family's radar. There are lots of benefits to visiting places that are off the beaten path, including fewer crowds, lower prices, and the thrill of discovering something new and different.

Here are 15 of the best family vacation spots in the US that are off the beaten path. These places in the northeast, south, midwest, and western part of the country offer plenty of things to do with kids, including beautiful beaches and parks, family-friendly museums and cultural institutions, delicious restaurants, and all of sorts of other fun activities and unique places to explore. Check out our Family Travel Guide for even more amazing family vacation destinations.


Best Family Vacation Spots in the US That Are Off the Beaten Path: Block Island
There are plenty of ways to enjoy the great outdoors on Block Island. Photo courtesy of the Block Island Tourism Council

Best Family Vacation Spots in the US That Are Off the Beaten Path in the Northeast

1. Block Island, Rhode Island

This island off the coast of mainland Rhode Island may be small, but it's full of fun things to do with kids, starting with the ferry ride to reach it. As you'd expect, most of the activities on Block Island are focused on the outdoors, such as beachgoing, hiking, bird-watching, biking, and more. There are also charming lighthouses and great restaurants, with the culinary standout being—you guessed it—seafood.

2. Manchester, Vermont

When people think of Vermont, they often picture popular ski-resort towns like Killington and Stowe. But the state is dotted with quaint small towns like Manchester, which are fun to visit with kids any time of year. One Mommy Poppins writer travels to Manchester often with her family in the warmer months, where they enjoy gorgeous mountain hikes, delicious restaurants, fun shops, and visiting Hildene, the former summer home of Abraham Lincoln's son. Plus, Manchester is only about a 15-minute drive to Bromley Mountain, where you can enjoy skiing and snow sports in the winter and an Alpine slide, a climbing wall, and loads of other fun activities in the summer.

3. Upstate New York

There are so many great off-the-beaten-path places to visit in Upstate New York, we couldn't choose just one. There are the gorgeous hiking trails, stunning natural scenery, charming towns, and great museums of the Finger Lakes. There's the world-class horse racing, mineral-water springs, pedestrian-friendly downtown, and impressive cultural institutions of Saratoga Springs. There's the gorgeous waterfront, history tours, culinary festivals, and museums of Buffalo. And let's not forget Lucille Ball's hometown of Jamestown, two-time Winter Olympics host Lake Placid, and Cooperstown, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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Head to the famous Dollywood for thrilling rides and family fun. Photo courtesy of Dollywood

Best Family Vacation Spots in the US That Are Off the Beaten Path in the South

4. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

When we first wrote about Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the post exploded in popularity. With the huge number of things to do in these two Tennessee towns, perhaps this was no surprise. There are tons of amusement parks, including the world-famous Dollywood. There are interesting museums, from the unique Gatlinburg Pinball Museum to the interactive Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge. There are loads of ways to enjoy nature, including the stunning Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Grotto Falls. And there are so many great hotels to meet any family's needs.

5. Greenville, South Carolina

Sure, there are plenty of great beach towns in South Carolina, like Charleston and Myrtle Beach. But there are some great places to visit inland as well. These include the city of Greenville, where quaint southern charm meets family fun. Greenville's fabulous walkable downtown area is anchored by Falls Park on the Reedy with gorgeous waterfalls, a cool suspension bridge, and sprawling grassy areas for running and picnicking. There's also the Greenville Zoo, the fabulous Children's Museum of the UpstateRoper Mountain Science Center, and many more fun things to do with kids. Don't forget the delicious southern food!

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Best Family Vacation Spots in the US That Are Off the Beaten Path: Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama
Sink your toes into the white-sand beaches of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Photo courtesy of Visit Alabama Beaches

6. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama

It's no surprise that Florida, California, and Hawaii tend to be the most popular spots for beach vacations in the US. But if you're looking for a beach vacation that's off the beaten path, try Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, nestled along Alabama's Gulf Coast. With white-sand beaches, back bays full of outdoor adventures like fishing and kayaking, water activities such as parasailing and bumper boats, and loads of mini golf courses, these beach towns live up to their more popular counterparts when it comes to family fun in the sun.

7. Jekyll Island, Georgia

Once a retreat for the wealthiest Americans, this barrier island located midway between Savannah, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida has been attracting plenty of families in recent years. Jekyll Island features 10 miles of gorgeous natural shoreline with unique beaches, outdoor activities such as horseback riding and biking, a seasonal water park, and many more things to do with kids. Be sure to visit the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, the state's only sea turtle education and rehabilitation facility.

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Biltmore Estate
You can't go to Asheville without visiting the Biltmore Estate.  Photo courtesy of the estate

8. Asheville, North Carolina

Nestled in the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, the city of Asheville has become increasingly popular as a family vacation destination. There's the majestic Biltmore Estate and all of its activities, kid-friendly museums, a thriving food and arts scene, family-friendly breweries such as Sierra Nevada Asheville, and plenty of opportunities to enjoy nature. If you visit in December, check out the famous National Gingerbread House Competition at the Omni Grove Park Inn.

9. Amelia Island, Florida

While Florida's northenmost barrier island is popular among golfers and retirees, I can attest that it's also wonderful for families—I've been vacationing there since I was a kid, and now I bring my own children there. Amelia Island boasts award-winning beaches, destination-worthy state parks, tons of mini golf courses, an awesome downtown, and miles of gorgeous biking trails. My kids love the Amelia Island Nature Center as much as I did as a child, and we've never gotten bored staying at the Omni Amelia Island Resort.

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Best Family Vacation Spots in the US That Are Off the Beaten Path: Wisconsin Dells
Wisconsin Dells is known as the water park capital of the world! Photo courtesy of Visit Wisconsin

Best Family Vacation Spots in the US That Are Off the Beaten Path in the Midwest

12. Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

We know it may seem surprising to include two Wisconsin destinations on this list, but we couldn't leave off the water park capital of the world. There are over 20 water park resorts in Wisconsin Dells, including some that made our lists of the best indoor and outdoor water parks for kids in the US, the best indoor water parks near Chicago, and the best family resorts with water parks. Downtown Wisconsin Dells is also right on the Wisconsin River with its natural canyons, waterfalls, and rock formations. You can visit Lake Delton to enjoy swimming, fishing, and water recreation. At only about a three-hour drive, Wisconsin Dells makes for a great weekend getaway from Chicago.

10. Interlochen and Traverse City, Michigan

You don't need to be a student or camper at the renowned Interlochen Center for the Arts to enjoy Interlochen and nearby Traverse City. There are so many reasons for families to visit these two Michigan cities, from the beautiful Interlochen State Park full of nature activities to the interactive Great Lakes Children's Museum. There are lots of great day-trip options from these cities as well, including Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Mackinac Island. But do take time to stroll through the Center for the Arts, especially if you're visiting in the summer, when the annual Interlochen Arts Festival takes place.

11. Madison, Wisconsin

Wisconsin's capital city has lots to offer for families with kids. There are the great museums, including the fabulous Madison Children's Museum and the free Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. There's the plethora of outdoor activities, including 12 lakeside beaches, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, and the Henry Vilas Zoo. And let's not forget the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where you can catch a football game, eat homemade ice cream at the Babcock Dairy Store, and explore the gorgeous arboretum. Plenty of restaurants will satisfy any craving. 

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Best Family Vacation Spots in the US That Are Off the Beaten Path: Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
The largest redwood tree at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is approximately 277 feet tall and about 1,500 years old. 

Best Family Vacation Spots in the US That Are Off the Beaten Path in the West

13. Santa Cruz, California

Don't limit your Northern California family vacation to the San Francisco Bay Area. Just about 75 miles from San Francisco lies the funky coastal city and surfing mecca Santa Cruz, which has so many fun things to do with kids beyond its awesome beaches. Check out the legendary Mystery Spot, catch some thrills at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, see towering redwood trees at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, and visit marine life at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center. There are also plenty of great restaurants, including some yummy seafood spots on the Santa Cruz Wharf.

14. Boulder, Colorado

Boulder, Colorado may be smaller than the state's capital city of Denver, but that only adds to its charm when visiting the Rocky Mountains with kids. Just about an hour's drive from Rocky Mountain National Park, Boulder is full of outdoor adventures for families, including breathtaking hiking and biking trails, gorgeous parks, and pretty reservoirs and lakes. Pearl Street Mall, a four-block area that's closed to traffic, is full of unique shops and toy stores, lively street performers, and great restaurants serving just about any type of food. There are even kid-friendly museums, including the free CU Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Boulder, which has two children's exhibits.

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Best Family Vacation Spots in the US That Are Off the Beaten Path: Sitka, Alaska
Take a helicopter tour of southeast Alaska's breathtakingly beautiful glaciers, mountains, and ice fields. Photo courtesy of Temsco Tours

15. Sitka, Alaska

Visiting Alaska is a bucket-list vacation for many families. When it's your turn to check it off your family's list, try to spend some time in the southeastern city of Sitka, the center of Russia's American colony before the US purchased it. While Mommy Poppins founder Anna Fader has spent lots of time in Haines and Juneau since childhood, her recent family trip to Sitka was a real treat for her. There, her family discovered an amazing rainforest park with beautiful trails, gorgeous beaches, delicious and affordable restaurants, and interesting works by native artisans.