As I write this, it’s the dawn of the Fourth of July weekend and families all over the country are donning their red, white, and blue and celebrating the beautiful United States of America.
They really are beautiful—these 50 states—and each so unique in its own right. If you dream of an epic adventure in which you cover them all or if, like my family, you aim to see all fifty states within a certain period of time (for us before my oldest heads to college), here is the definitive list of places you and your family must see in each state:
If you and your family find yourselves in the state of Alabama, be sure to head to Huntsville to check out the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the USSRC is the largest spaceflight museum in the world. Here Dr. Wernher von Braun got down to business and America’s space program was born. And here you’ll see the National Historic Landmark Saturn V Moon Rocket, among other impressive artifacts. There is an IMAX theater, space training simulators, live demonstrations, and activities all year round. Oh, did I mention that Space Camp is here?
For a state as huge and gorgeous as Alaska, you’d think it’d be difficult to narrow it down to one must see. And you’d be correct.
Of course, you need to get thee to a glacier if you’re in Alaska. A cruise through Glacier Bay National Park is an amazing way to do just that.
However, I’d be remiss to just toss North America’s tallest peak to the side like some second-class attraction. So, don’t forget to feast your eyes (or your mountain boots) upon Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley) while you’re there.
Some states are easier than others. If you’re heading to Arizona and you somehow forget to show your family the Grand Canyon, perhaps traveling is not your forte. 😉
If your kids are older and your family is of the super adventurous sort, a 10 mile hike could lead you to the stunning, blue-green Havasupai Falls.
Head to Arkansas’s capital, Little Rock and to the visitor’s center at Little Rock Central High School, the site of a historic culmination of desegregation in U.S. schools. This stirring National Historic Site will resonate with school children and features a number of exhibits and a film.
A hint: Little Rock is located two hours from Memphis, if you want to make this trip a two-for-one.
Where do we start with California? We start along the Pacific Coast Highway, of course. Like a scene from a movie, take your family from San Francisco to Los Angeles with numerous stops along with way, preferably spread out over a number of days so you can all enjoy the stunning scenery and two amazing cities.
Colorado is jam packed with some of America’s most fantastic scenery, including Rocky Mountain National Park and Pikes Peak but you’ve got to start with Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. A study in natural history and a sight to behold, the red rock formations are a must do if you’re Colorado bound.
Back East, do not miss Mystic Seaport if you’re heading through lovely state of Connecticut. Covering 19 acres on the Mystic River, Mystic Seaport—The Museum of America and the Sea features a recreated 19th century coastal village, a working shipyard, numerous exhibits, hands-on activities, and more. While in Mystic, kids will enjoy the Mystic Aquarium that features an impressive array of sea life.
A few states south, “the first state” (to ratify the U.S. Constitution, that is) Delaware offers up a number of history lessons. The DuPont family who called Delaware’s “Chateau Country” home at the turn of the century has left an indelible mark on Delaware. Visitors can tour three sites: Nemours Mansion and Gardens, Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, and Hagley Museum and Library for, not only a window in the industrious family, but a window into the economic development of America.
Heading to Georgia? Don’t miss the beautiful Historic District of Savannah. Like walking back in time, this beautiful city tells a story around every corner.
While visiting Hawaii, you’ll likely spend a great deal of time soaking up sunshine and delighting in the natural cultural treasures found there. No visit would be complete without touring the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.
Whether hitting the slopes or taking in the scenery in the warmer months, Sun Valley offers the ideal conditions for a family getaway.
In Illinois you’ll want to get your family to the wonderful city of Chicago and there’s no better place to take it all in the from the 103rd floor SkyDeck atop the Willis Tower.
In Indiana, get the kids revved up by taking them to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
A visit to Iowa provides an opportunity to stay in a hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City is the last of six Frank Lloyd Write-designed hotels still in service.
Get out of Dodge? No way! Check out the interactive museum bringing to life the dusty streets of the late 1800s.
When in Kentucky head to Louisville, of course, and the famous Churchill Downs. Don’t miss the Kentucky Derby Museum while you’re there.
In Louisiana visit the exquisitely maintained Oak Alley Plantation. Nestled along the banks of the Mississippi, this 25 acre estate offers a look at the prosperous sugar cane industry and unfortunate times of slavery, painting a vivid picture of this part of the country.
Acadia National Park offers 47,000 breathtaking acres of New England magic. Check out Cadillac Mountain and drive along Park Loop Road.
Maryland is home to the National Aquarium, hosting an impressive collection of more than 20,000 animals. Located in Baltimore’s beautiful Inner Harbor, this stop in Maryland has something for the whole family to enjoy.
The site of America’s first colony founded in 1620 by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, Plymouth is a must stop while in Massachusetts. Plymouth Rock, Mayflower II, and the Plymouth Plantation will bring it all to life for your family.
Called the jewel of the Great Lakes, Mackinac Island has virtually no cars—and fudge. What more could one want in Michigan?
While in Minnesota, you’ll be tempted to check out the Mall of America, sure, but don’t forget to enjoy one of the states “10,000 lakes.”
While in Mississippi, drink in nature as you drive along the scenic 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway.
No trip to Missouri would be complete without a visit to the iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
If you find yourself in Big Sky Country, you cannot miss spending time in what has been called the “Crown of the Continent”—Glacier National Park.
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo features the world’s largest indoor desert, the largest indoor jungle, the largest nocturnal exhibit, an aquarium, and an IMAX theater.
Nevada isn’t just about the Vegas strip. Don’t miss the beauty of Lake Tahoe with your family.
In New Hampshire, the choice is obvious. Simply head 6,288 feet upward to the summit of Mount Washington. You could hike and you could drive, but I strongly recommend experiencing the unique cog railway as you journey up.
My home state—I could write a book at how underrated and misunderstood The Garden State is. If you’re heading this way, come down to the Jersey Shore and enjoy our beautiful towns and beaches. Spring Lake, New Jersey, is a lovely destination for families.
White Sands National Monument—a sight to behold and sand sledding to boot, a must see when your family is in New Mexico.
While very difficult to choose one must see in New York, Manhattan is clearly the destination of highest priority. Once there, you’d be hard-pressed to identify a more important site than the Metropolitan Museum of Art, containing one of the vastest and most impressive collections of art and artifacts in the world.
Down in North Carolina, your family will have the opportunity to revisit the first flight at Kitty Hawk at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Enjoy the beautiful beaches of the Outer Banks when the history lesson is done.
North Dakota is home to the “Enchanted Highway,” a scenic drive from the town of Regent to just east of Dickinson, features a collection of the world’s largest scrap metal sculptures, by local artist Gary Greff. The many roadside artworks date back to 1991, with more still in progress. Classic roadside fun.
Your family will think you totally rock when you pull up to Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during your trip to Ohio.
Get your kicks in Oklahoma as you enjoy the various roadside attractions on the iconic Route 66 that enjoys its longest stretch in this state. You can even enjoy the National Route 66 and Transportation Museum in Elk City.
Don’t leave Oregon without taking in the beautiful Crater Lake. Known for its deep blue color and clear water, the lake was formed by the collapse of a volcano and is the deepest lake in the United States.
A large state with various natural resources, the first priority in Pennsylvania has got to be its rich history. Head to Philadelphia to visit Independence Hall and the famous Liberty Bell.
Rhode Island is a beautiful part of New England. Newport’s Cliff Walk allows you to take in the beautifully preserved mansions of the Gilded Age along with the natural beauty of the rocky coastline.
The lovely city of Charleston has a little bit of everything—Southern charm, history, beaches, a family-friendly and casual atmosphere, along with high quality cuisine and amenities of a metropolitan city. Head there!
South Dakota brings you a definitive attraction of your tour of the states—Mount Rushmore. Don’t miss it.
With a three hour drive between them, Tennessee brings you the music towns of Nashville and Memphis. Be sure to get some barbecue on Beale Street in Memphis before you head home.
Outside of San Antonio you can visit the Alamo. It doesn’t get more Texan than that.
There are many national parks and sites to see in Utah. First on the list is Arches National Park. Home to over 2000 natural stone arches, it’ll take your breath away.
Vermont is a treasure with the lush Green Mountains, quaint New England towns, and even Ben & Jerry’s, but be sure not to miss the beautiful Lake Champlain.
Colonial Williamsburg is a quintessential Virginia destination offering up fun history lessons for the whole family.
You’re in Washington. Grab a some coffee and head to Seattle’s Space Needle. Better yet, make reserveations at the revolving SkyCity Restaurant. You can discuss your plans for the rest of the city and Washington state over dinner.
Ok, it’s not a state, but no trip across America would be complete without a stop in the nation’s capital. There are so many attractions I wouldn’t want you to miss here, but if I had to choose just one I’d pick…The White House and The Lincoln Memorial. (Yes, I know.)
Beautiful West Virginia has a lot to offer. Begin by riding over the New River Bridge over the New River Gorge National River.
While in the Land of Lakes, be sure to experience a Great Lake or two while visiting Wisconsin. A lake cruise would be a lovely idea. Before you leave, pick up some cheese.
A fitting finish, in Wyoming, the highest priority is to visit Yellowstone National Park. Seek out Old Faithful and revel in the beauty of this country.