If you’re from the United States, you probably think of it as just “home.” But the US is one of the biggest countries in the world, with incredibly diverse geography, and you could explore it for years without getting bored.
Just as the song says, “from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam…”
Sunrise on South Padre Island, Texas
Many people have the goal of visiting all 50 states, and our family is no exception. In the past two years, our family of six has traveled the US full-time and visited 45 states.
Counting previous trips, we’ve actually been to 49 out of the 50 states (just Alaska left to visit!), so it’s safe to say we are experts on traveling with a family in the United States!
Why Travel the United States
The US contains a vast array of geographical landscapes and cultural experiences. You can enjoy a tropical beach in Florida, explore the deserts of the southwest, visit Hollywood and New York City, see a volcano in Hawaii and a glacier in Montana, ski down a mountain in Colorado, admire the prairie grasslands in Kansas, and so much more.
And it’s all incredibly accessible! When you travel within the continental US, you can reach every area by car or RV. Laws are generally the same from state to state, and you can freely travel across state borders.
When our family decided to move from the southwest US to the east coast, we thought, “Why not take our time getting there?”
Two years later we still haven’t settled down. We are traveling full-time and loving every moment. While we do want to head overseas, the 2020 pandemic delayed those plans, so in the meantime we are just enjoying seeing as much of the beautiful USA as possible.
Devil’s Bridge in Sedona, Arizona
How to take a family gap year
We started with the idea that we’d take one year off to work remotely, homeschool our kids, and travel — what’s become known as a family gap year. Now is the perfect time to take a family gap year, as modern technology has made travel more accessible than ever before.
Many full-time traveling families live in an RV, but we don’t. The six of us travel in our minivan and primarily stay in Airbnbs for four weeks at a time. This lets us take advantage of the hefty discounts that Airbnb owners often offer for long stays, enjoy the physical space of a house or apartment, and really experience each location like locals.
I could write a novel about all the details of how to take a family gap year, but the two major tips are:
1. Sell or rent your house and put your mortgage/rent money toward your lodgings, and
2. Work remotely and homeschool.
If you’re willing to give up the comfort of having a homebase, at least temporarily, and you have a job that you can take on the road, then you have ultimate freedom!
Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico
How to visit all 50 states
Our route to 45 states in two years has been a little…how should I say this? All over the place! We’ve made three loops across the country so far with a fourth coming up soon.
We like to visit the southern states in the winter and the northern states in the summer (for obvious reasons), and we’ve been alternating exploring new places and revisiting old favorites. We often stay for about a month at each location, but sometimes we visit destinations for just a weekend, in between longer stays.
If you want to be super efficient in your US travels, you might want to check out Randy Olson’s optimal US road trip maps, or TripSavvy’s list of must-see American attractions in an ordered loop you can begin at any point.
However you decide to travel the US, there’s beauty and fun to be found wherever you go!
Glacier National Park, Montana
Must-Visit USA Destinations for Families
Hopefully the information that follows helps you to plan your ultimate USA travels, whether you hit the road full-time or make separate trips over a number of years. We haven’t been everywhere, but we’ve been a lot of places, and these are our favorites!
We began our travels in the Pacific Northwest, an area of the country that we had never visited before. It was like a magical land, always misty with very tall trees and rocky beaches.
Our Airbnb on Whidbey Island even had a family of deer that liked to relax in the yard.
Must-visit destinations in the Pacific Northwest:
- Check out the “disappearing cannons” at Fort Casey
- Attend the annual Kite Festival
Fly a kite at the Whidbey Island Kite Festival
- Learn about whales at The Whale Museum
- Go orca watching at Lime Kiln Point
- Go up in the Space Needle
- Visit Understory at the Amazon Spheres
- Watch the fish throwers at Pike Place Market
- Take a boat ride at The Center for Wooden Boats
Ride a wooden boat on Lake Washington
- Browse the shelves at Powell’s Books
- Get a Voodoo Donut
- Visit the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center
California is a unique state that deserves a category to itself. Spanning almost the whole Pacific coastline, there is much to see from the northern vineyards and redwood trees to the bustle and beaches of southern California.
Must-visit destinations in California:
- Hug a giant redwood tree
- Visit a Sonoma vineyard
- Drive across the Golden Gate Bridge
- Visit Fisherman’s Wharf
- Have some chocolate at Ghirardelli Square
- Drive or walk down Lombard Street
- Ride a cable car
Ride a cable car in San Francisco
Drive the Pacific Coast Highway
View from Pacific Coast Highway
- Walk the Santa Monica Pier
- Hike to the Hollywood sign
- Visit Disneyland
- Learn about space at the Griffith Observatory
Visit Griffith Park for great views of Los Angeles
We lived in Arizona for 15 years, so we are well-acquainted with the southwest! Growing up in Maine, I never knew the desert could be so beautiful, but the vistas of the southwest are something wonderful to behold.
Just keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and scorpions, all of which we encountered at one time or another!
Must-visit destinations in the Southwest:
- Walk the Las Vegas Strip
- Drive through colorful Zion National Park
Drive through Zion National Park for gorgeous vistas
- Stay at the Wigwam Motel on Route 66
Drive Gate’s Pass in Tucson for gorgeous desert views
Watch a gunfight in Tombstone
Marvel at the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon makes every jaw drop
- Attend the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta
- Stand in four states at once!
Another state big enough to have its own category is Texas! As they say, everything is bigger in Texas. There are several major cities with lots to offer, from Austin to Dallas to Houston, and there’s also quite the impressive coastline on the eastern side.
Our favorite Texas cities are San Antonio and South Padre Island.
Must-visit destinations in Texas:
- Spray paint the cars at Cadillac Ranch
Add your mark on the cars at Cadillac Ranch
- Tour the Alamo
- Take a boat ride along the Riverwalk
South Padre Island
- Ride the go-karts at Gravity Park
- Visit the rescued sea turtles at Sea Turtle Inc.
- Take a sandcastle building lesson
Learn how to build the perfect sandcastle on South Padre Island
Florida and the Gulf Coast
We love visiting the Gulf Coast, from the rich history in New Orleans, to the miles of white sandy beaches in southern Mississippi, Alabama, and along the Florida panhandle.
As a family with young kids, we’re no strangers to the theme parks of Orlando, and we love the tropical paradise of Miami and the Keys.
Must-visit destinations in Florida and the Gulf Coast:
- Visit the French Quarter
- Listen to some jazz music at Preservation Hall
- Eat a beignet at Cafe Du Monde and a muffaletta from Central Grocery
- Relax on the perfect sandy beach in Gulf Shores
- Attend a Mardi Gras parade on Dauphin Island
- Visit Disney World
- People-watch on South Beach in Miami
- Visit the southernmost point in Key West
- See the mermaids at Weeki Wachee
These mermaids perform incredible feats underwater!
There’s so much history, culture, and good food to be found in the south! Visit in the fall or spring for weather that’s “just right”. We fell in love with South Carolina when we visited on our travels and now plan to settle down there and live the beach life!
Must-visit destinations in the Southeast:
- Walk through the dreamlike UNC botanical gardens in Charlotte
The UNC Botanical Gardens are straight out of a fairytale
- Try all the flavors of moonshine at the Kentucky Mist Distillery in Myrtle Beach
- Watch the sunrise from Surfside Beach
- Take a carriage tour through the streets of Charleston
- Make some music at the Musician’s Hall of Fame in Nashville
- Try Nashville Hot Chicken (if you dare)
- Tour Sun Studios in Memphis
The Mississippi River
- Take a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi River
- See the Spanish Moss in Savannah
- Try all the flavors in the World of Coke tasting room in Atlanta
The mid-Atlantic is where our country was born! There are lots of historical sites to visit in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York, gorgeous beaches along the shore, and of course the one-and-only New York City.
Must-visit destinations in the Mid-Atlantic:
- Stroll the Virginia Beach boardwalk
- Visit Historic Jamestowne
- Hike part of the Appalachian Trail
Hike the Appalachian Trail in West Virginia
- Tour the three branches of government
- Visit the national monuments
- Explore the (free!) Smithsonian museums
- Watch the pandas at the National Zoo
Say hi to the pandas at the National Zoo
- Tour Independence Hall and visit the Liberty Bell
- See a Broadway show
- Go up to the crown inside the Statue of Liberty
- Visit Times Square, Rockefeller Center, and Central Park
- Visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum
- Spend a day at Coney Island
Ride the rides or enjoy the beach at Coney Island, New York
New England will always be home to me! I love the beaches and port towns of Maine and New Hampshire and the rich history of Massachusetts. Visit in the summer for beach weather, in the fall to see the gorgeous leaves, or in the winter if you’re brave!
Must-visit destinations in New England:
- Walk the Freedom Trail
- Take a Duck Tour
- Visit Faneuil Hall
- Watch the fish at the New England Aquarium
Enjoy the picturesque foliage in fall
There’s nothing like the fall foliage in New England
- Go shopping in Kennebunkport
- Have the greatest pizza of your life at Pizza by Alex in Biddeford
- Eat pier fries in Old Orchard Beach
We spent four weeks in Louisville, Kentucky, and then explored the rest of the midwest on a whirlwind three-week excursion, hitting all the hot spots. Here are some of our recommendations for a trip through the midwest!
Must-visit destinations in the Midwest:
- Tour Churchill Downs (attend the Kentucky Derby if you get the chance!)
- Watch baseball bats being made at the Louisville Slugger Factory
- Visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
- Go duckpin bowling
- Drive a racecar with the Indy Racing Experience Driving Program
- Sing in Studio A at the Motown Museum
- Take the Coney Dog Challenge
- Take a reflection picture in the Bean
- Visit the Art Institute of Chicago
- Put your forehead against the glass at the top of Willis Tower
- Eat a Chicago-style hotdog and deep-dish pizza
- Visit the Milwaukee Public Market and get something cheesy
St. Louis, Missouri
- Go up in the Gateway Arch
Look out on the west from 630 feet high at the Gateway Arch
I wasn’t sure if we’d ever make it to some of the central states, because we tend to take routes that don’t pass through them. But on our mission to visit as many states as possible, we made sure to head that way! What can you see in the middle of the US?
Must-visit destinations in the Central US:
- Visit Mount Rushmore
- See Chimney Rock (remember it from playing Oregon Trail?)
Chimney Rock: even better than the 8-bit version!
- Go 650 feet underground and explore a salt mine
- Visit the National Oklahoma City Memorial
The Mountain West region encompasses lots of different terrain, from the Rocky Mountains in mile-high Denver, to Yellowstone’s effervescent springs in Wyoming, and the frozen glaciers in Montana.
Must-visit destinations in the Mountain West:
- Eat baked potato ice cream at Westside Drive In
Looks like a potato, tastes like ice cream!
Glacier National Park, Montana
- See a glacier
- Drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road
You’ll never forget the gorgeous views at Glacier National Park
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
- See Old Faithful erupt
- Marvel at the Grand Prismatic Spring
Yellowstone is a truly unique geographical experience
- Stand a mile high on the Denver Capitol Building steps
- Tour the haunted Stanley Hotel
- Visit Garden of the Gods
Alaska & Hawaii
Alaska is the only state we haven’t visited yet, but it’s in the plans! Hawaii was our honeymoon destination back in 2005, and we hope to visit again someday with the whole family.
Must-visit destinations in Alaska & Hawaii:
- See the Northern Lights
- Tour a volcano
- Watch the surfers at the North Shore
- Attend a luau
- Walk on a black sand beach
I hope this has given you a ton of great ideas for how you can travel and experience the United States with your family. There is truly so much to see and do, from coast to coast!
Megan Tenney travels full-time with her husband and four children. At Family Gap Year Guide, she teaches regular families how to take life on the road! Grab her free guide on how to afford full-time travel and live your dreams of seeing the world with your family!
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November 11, 2020 1:57 pm 1 Comment