The first cross-country car trip in the U.S. occured in 1903, when a doctor and mechanic traveled between San Francisco and New York City in a shiny red Winton touring car. It took them 64 days.
A road winds past an overlook at Oregon’s Crater Lake.
Since then, four-wheeled travelers—including fictional ones like Thelma and Louise and canine co-pilots in Travels with Charley—have answered the call of the open road. A recent survey by the American Automobile Association found that 69 percent of respondents named car journeys as their favorite type of vacation. Taking a trek with family—across North America’s wild frontiers, through tiny historic towns, storied cities, and into spectacular landscapes—might be the best spring break your kids ever experience. It’s not hard to plan or execute. But be sure to pack a good playlist.
On Flordia’s Gulf Coast, St. George’s Island has sublime beaches and few crowds.
Here are six family-friendly routes, from a ramble through the Ozarks to a jaunt through Viking country in Newfoundland. You can complete some of these trips in a day or two; others make for memorable week-long odysseys.
Florida’s forgotten coast
One of the Sunshine State’s most alluring shores falls beneath the radar, where Florida’s Big Bend Region offers up swamps, sand dunes, and seaports—and few crowds. Near the start of the route—which traces one of America’s top 10 panhandles—Wakulla Springs State Park appeals to water-loving kids and parents with swimming and boat cruises plus chances to spot manatees. Founded as a British trading post in the 19th century, Apalachicola holds more than 900 historic structures, including the 1913 Dixie Theater.
Top stops: At the outsize St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge, secluded wetland trails yield bird-watching ops and views of the 1842 St. Mark’s Lighthouse. For beautiful beaches and a laid-back vibe, head to St. George’s Island.
Route: 135 miles from Tallahassee to Panama City
Volcanoes on the West Coast
Volcanos and the incredible landscapes they form highlight this drive through the Cascade Range of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. Your geology-obsessed teenager will dig the lava fields, cinder cones, slumbering snowcapped giants, and Oregon’s Crater Lake.
Top stops: Portland, Oregon’s 410-acre Washington Park offers plots of rainbow-hued roses and Japanese-style gardens plus the Oregon Zoo, with goats to pet and Pacific Northwest-themed habitats for otters and beavers. And near the California-Oregon border, Lava Beds National Monument is home to 15 types of bats, which live in caves formed by volcanic activity.
Route: 1,150 miles from Seattle, Washington, to Sacramento, California
A hiker walks along Upper Haddlock Pond in Maine’s Acadia National Park.
Mountains and spicy food in the Southwest
The Viking settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site in Newfoundland was built more than 1000 years ago.
Follow an ancient route along the upper Rio Grande Valley from El Paso, Texas, to Taos, New Mexico, and you’ll delve into Spanish colonial history and Native American heritage—all with a side of rugged mountain and high desert scenery. It’s a prime route for foodie families thanks to weekly farmers markets in Las Cruces and Santa Fe and a slew of restaurants specializing in homey New Mexican chow.
Top stops: Santa Fe’s multiple museums include the International Museum of Folk Art with displays of riotously colorful toys, dolls, and other playthings from around the world. And the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lets kids explore life in an adobe community that’s been continuously occupied for hundreds of years.
Route: 472 miles from El Paso, Texas, to Taos, New Mexico
Tourists snap photos at an overlook in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest
Coastlines and colonial history in New England
The New England coast from Boston to the Canadian border backdrops a 400-mile journey through cities, towns, and oceanscapes that have shaped the region for four centuries. You and the kiddos can dive into colonial history in Salem, Massachusetts, or play spot-the-lighthouse throughout Maine.
Top stops: Gloucester, a Massachusetts seafaring town founded in 1623, has restored wharfs, a pretty harbor, and summer day sails aboard the schooner Ardelle. Acadia National Park’s rocky coastline and deep woods can be explored by hiking trail, car, or on horseback.
Route: 400 miles from Boston to Lubec, Maine
A trek in Viking territory
Norsemen set foot in North America roughly 500 years before Columbus, a brief but significant heritage reflected in the Viking Trail, a road trip down Newfoundland, Canada’s rugged, windswept West Coast. Drink in the craggy ocean vistas and take your daughter, the wannabe Viking skjaldmær (shield maiden), to L’Anse aux Meadows—a UNESCO World Heritage site—to see the ruins of a 1000 A.D. Norse settlement and a living-history encampment.
Top stops: Go on a family hike in Arches Provincial Park, with its views over the Gulf of St. Lawrence and dolomite arches carved by waves over hundreds of years. Or watch salmon swimming up the fishway in Hawke’s Bay at the Torrent River Salmon Interpretation Centre.
Route: 314 miles from L’Anse aux Meadows to Deer Lake
An amble through the Ozarks
Zigzag across the wild Ouachita Mountains and storied Ozark Plateau to Arkansas’s historic bathhouses, melodious mountain towns, and the mines that give the Diamond State its nickname. Give the kiddos a dose of political history in Hope at President Bill Clinton’s boyhood home or take to the water for fishing, paddling, or snorkeling on Lake Ouachita.
Top stops: The Ozark-St. Francis National Forest holds hiking trails, lofty viewpoints, and the old-timey Hankins Country Store (open since 1930). And for a taste of mountain culture, the Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View hosts crafts demonstrations and live music year-round.
Route: 340 miles from Texarkana to Mountain View
Inspirations and routes are from National Geographic’s new 100 Drives, 5000 Ideas, available wherever books are sold.
Joe Yogerst is a travel writer, editor, and photographer based in San Diego. Follow him on Instagram.
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