Family road trips - memories for a lifetime

Family road trips - memories for a lifetime

This column ran in the June 5 News-Gazette "Family" section. We've added a few more suggestions at the bottom from friends and readers - feel free to add to the list!



That’s the constant sound in my head every time I think about summers with my kids.

They’re 12 and almost 9, prime ages for those memorable road trips to places like Mount Rushmore and the Corn Palace.

We’re pinching pennies as much as we can these days, but I know the time for family vacations is running out.

I read a commentary recently from Ken Burns about his new series, “National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” He recounted how, in the middle Blog Photoof filming at Yosemite National Park, he suddenly remembered the only road trip he and his dad had taken together, to Shenandoah National Park (left) when he was 6.

The memories came flooding back 45 years later — “our car in cloud and mist gliding along Skyline Drive, the little cabin we rented, the hike we took, the bright red salamander we caught, but most of all, the feel of my hand in his.”

“I can still remember that sensation to this day, though my dad has been gone for more than a decade. And I will always have that,” he wrote.

Burns argued that our country’s greatest natural treasures not only inspire awe but help us connect to each other and create lifetime memories.

I vividly remember my first trip to a national park, when I was 13 and my brother was getting married in Boulder, Colo. The ceremony was in a lodge nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Raised in the Midwest, I had never seen anything so magnificent and snapped photo after photo.

Blog PhotoOr our family trip to Washington, D.C., when I was 16. Strolling the halls of the Capitol and seeing the Supreme Court in action made a huge impression, leading me to take an internship in Washington six years later.

I didn’t get to experience other must-see U.S. sites until I was an adult — the Grand Canyon, Yosemite (left), Niagara Falls, the Statue of Liberty. I’d like to be there when my kids see them for the first time.

So I’m starting a list. I hope we can get to most of them before they decide traveling with your parents isn’t cool. We’re headed to Hilton Head/Charleston this summer, so I can check that one off.

I asked other parents for their “best place to take the kids.” Some favorites:


Yellowstone/Grand Tetons
These sister national parks spanning parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana are home to the stunning Teton Range, the iconic Old Faithful, lakes, sandstone rock formations and abundant wildlife.

Last spring, “the second school was out,” Sue Feldman and Pius Weibel took daughters Alleya, 15, and Imani, 10, on a two-week tour of the Blog PhotoBadlands, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone and the Tetons. The trip was “life-changing” for Imani, Feldman says.

Parts of the park were still impassable with snow, so crowds were sparse and the animals were at low elevations. They saw countless bison, elk, marmots, a black bear, moose and two grizzlies, “one with two babies, and, yes, we were a safe distance away!”

At the Grizzly Wolf Discovery Center gift shop, Imani decided to adopt a wolf, choosing a white female named Adara. A year later, she still watches Adara on the center’s webcam and “talks about the trip like it was yesterday.”

"If that isn't enough, throw in boiling lakes (above), muddy lava flows and eerie, surreal landscapes. It is an incredible, incredible place, and we all want to go back soon,” Feldman says.


Rocky Mountain National Park
This park in Colorado offers 60 peaks above 12,000 feet, glaciers, lakes, forests, wildlife and 359 miles of trails.

Blog PhotoIt’s a favorite for Kim Shinew and family of Champaign. Four years ago, Kim and daughter Hannah, then 10, took a 16-mile round-trip hike to the top of 14,259-foot Long’s Peak (left). They started out at 2 a.m. using their headlamps.

“We watched the sun come up over the mountains. The route was challenging and required us to scramble over boulder fields and traverse along peaks with large drop-offs. We got back to camp around 5 p.m., exhausted but proud,” she says.


Cape Cod/Nantucket
I have been to Boston four times but never made it out to the Cape or surrounding islands. It’s on The List.

Former Champaign resident Cheryl Alley grew up in the Northeast, and her entire family (28 people) would meet every summer for a two-week vacation on the Cape. They spent the entire time water skiing on her grandfather’s boat, having lobster fests, renting mopeds and taking ferries over to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. “So many things to do and by far the best vacation ever!” she says.


Niagara Falls
Yes, it’s surrounded by cheesy Elvis impersonators and tacky tourist shops, but the falls are truly breathtaking. Dubious beforehand, I was Blog Photospeechless (a rarity). And don’t miss the “Maid of the Mist” boat ride near the falls (left).

My sister-in-law suggests taking this trip via the College Football Hall of Fame and Cooperstown (which we did, of course).


Door County is an annual camping destination for Deborah and Chris Miller of Champaign. They have camped on an island with no electricity, swum at a dozen beaches, visited lighthouses and participated in a “serious” sand castle competition. They sailed, kayaked, biked, zip-lined, hiked through caves and ate at Al Johnson’s with goats on the roof.

Devil’s Lake State Park has a lovely beach, 40 miles of hiking trails, stone buildings built during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, 500-foot bluffs to climb, boat rentals and a timeless, safe, uncommercial vibe, says Champaign’s Garret Gengler, whose family camps there twice a year.

“Your kid can lose a toy in the water, and the old guy next to you will get up, put on his snorkeling stuff and hunt around for it for 20 minutes," he says.

Plus, it’s 30 minutes from the Wisconsin Dells — a backup plan for rainy days (see below).

Also getting votes: Hawaii (well duh), the Grand Canyon, Acadia National Park, Yosemite, Glacier National Park, the Pacific Coast Highway, Statue of Liberty and Disney World.

What’s on your list? Leave a comment below!


Here are few more suggestions:

Robin Kaler of Rantoul:

We enjoyed the Wisconsin Dells, because virtually every hotel has water slides -- both outdoors and indoors -- so your vacation isn't ruined Blog Photoeven if it rains. When you tire of your hotel's relatively modest water features, you can head to places like Noah's Ark with ridiculously huge slides. Our family had a fun bonding moment there, because we'd forgotten our towels at the hotel and had to find something at the water park. Their souvenir towels were $20/each (in 1999), and as thin as the finest onionskin paper. We sprung for one, and the four of us shared it all afternoon. We had ice cream for dessert every night, and our kids both got suede cowgirl skirts and vests. A true American vacation, or as we like to call it Vegas for kids or a McDonald playland with water.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming is another fun place. We did everything from hiking and horseback riding to rafting, Alpine sliding and a chuck wagon dinner, complete with a campfire show -- the kind where Dad gets called up to help act out the story of "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain." We still have the pictures of my husband wearing the tiny cowboy hat they put on him when they pulled him out of the crowd to represent the verse about riding six white horses. Our most memorable moment on that trip was when our younger daughter set out a trail of peanuts and lured a ground squirrel into her little backpack, then pounced on it and yelled, "I caught one! Can I keep it?"


Nadya Mason of Champaign:

There are many places we've visited pre-kids that I am looking forward to taking them to in a few years. Top of the list are: Yellowstone, Blog Photodriving across the continental divide from Glacier National Park (left), Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado (absolutely amazing Pueblo indian cave dwellings).

Dillon and I did a 2-week tour of civil war sites on the East Coast from Harper's Ferry to D.C. to Appomattox, that I would love to share with the kids when they are teen-agers. I definitely second the Pacific Coast Highway and Washington D.C.



Jodi Heckel of Champaign:

Our daughter has visited some pretty cool places — Tonto National Monument in Arizona, Acadia National Park in Maine (below), Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks in Utah and the Grand Canyon.

Unfortunately, she was at those places as a baby and toddler, before she could remember or appreciate them. It was easier for us to Blog Photoactually hike in those places when we could carry her on our backs, though.

Her first trip to a national park that she could actually remember was Rocky Mountain National Park, when she was 5.

She was thrilled to see the mountains, and I was thrilled to get her on the shorter, easier hiking trails. We tent-camped a couple of nights in the park. But for most of the week we were there, we stayed at the Estes Park YMCA.

It’s not for those who are looking for the solitude of nature. But it’s great for families with kids. She swam in the pool, went on nature hikes and — her favorite part of the vacation — spent hours in the huge arts and crafts building.

I love visiting national parks and introducing them to my daughter. We’ve camped closer to home too. And it doesn’t matter so much where we go, as long as our child gets the chance to sleep in a tent, look at the stars, roast marshmallows over a campfire and fill our car with nature — the leaves, flowers, acorns and sticks she’s collected.


Julie Wurth writes and blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. You can contact her at 351-5226, or follow her on Twitter at


The view from Rattlesnake Point, Shenandoah National Park. John F. Mitchell photo

The 1,200-square-mile Yosemite National Park offers stunning views wherever you look - granite rock formations like El Capitan and Half Dome, waterfalls, valleys, grand meadows and a vast wilderness area. National Park Service photo

Alleya and Imani Weibel check out Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park's Midway Geyser Basin last June. Feldman/Weibel family photo

Kim Shinew and daughter Hannah on their 2008 hike to the top of Long's Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Shinew family photo

A Maid of the Mist ship exits the base of the Horseshoe Falls, as seen from a ship leaving Niagara Falls, N.Y., in April 2005. David Duprey/AP

The view from atop the manmade mountain of water slides at the Wisconsin Dells' Zambezi Outdoor Waterpark in 2006. News-Gazette archives

Moraine Lake near Banff, Glacier National Park, Montana. John and Ann Neff/News-Gazette archives

The view overlooking Frenchman's Bay at Acadia National Park in 2006. Robert F. Bukaty/AP

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