1. Glenwood Caverns Adventure ParkWhere: Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Why it’s so cool: You access the park via gondola, and can then go on roller coasters, giant swings, or play laser tag on the top of a mountain. The original attraction, tours of Glenwood Caverns, still run regularly, too.
What makes it so unique: Not too many theme parks sit at an altitude of 7,000 feet on the side of a mountain.
Read more: Glenwood Caverns website
2. The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum
Where: Washington, D.C.
Why it’s so cool: Apollo 11 is there. So is the Spirit of St. Louis. It is literally the best place in the world for fans of aviation and astronauts. The very open layout makes it easy for kids to wander and explore while remaining within eyesight, and if you want a bit longer of a break, they have an IMAX, too.
What makes it so unique: It’s free, it’s on the National Mall, and no one has ever entered the building without completely nerding out.
Read more: Smithsonian Air & Space website
3. Lake TahoeWhere: On the border of California and Nevada.
Why it’s so cool: It’s a spectacularly scenic lake smack dab in the middle of the outdoor Mecca that is the Sierra Nevada that has worked hard to be friendly for people of all ages. Rent helicopters, jet skis, or take lake cruises; take gondola rides up Heavenly Mountain; or take your family on hikes covering all levels of difficulty.
What makes it so unique: It’s best known as a wintertime ski spot, but with the beaches, fishing, and watersports, the second deepest lake in the U.S. might well be the best family vacation spot period.
Read more: Tahoe Visitor’s Bureau website
4. Mt. Princeton Hot Springs
Where: San Isabel National Forest, Colorado
Why it’s so cool: It’s a magnificent hot springs at the foot of a fourteener with both natural hot springs and a developed pool and play area that you can chill in all day.
What makes it so unique: It combines the relaxation of chilling in a hot springs with the thrills of nearby ropes courses, whitewater rafting, and off-roading sites, all in the stunningly beautiful scenery of the San Isabel National Forest.
Read more: Mt. Princeton website
5. Eastern Market
Where: Washington, DC
Why it’s so cool: D.C.’s coolest neighborhood market features stalls with food, arts, and crafts, but the real appeal is the surrounding bars and restaurants with outdoor seating and traffic-less streets. Also, at the end of the market is a giant open room that’s perfect for amped-up kids to run around and play in.
What makes it so unique: It’s the best of two worlds: a friendly neighborhood hangout within walking distance of the US Capitol Building and National Mall.
Read more: Eastern Market website
6. The Grand Canyon
Why it’s so cool: It’s the quintessential family trip, and aside from the normal sight-seeing, it offers amazing family hikes (or mule rides, for the non-hikers), helicopter tours, and a Junior Ranger program offered by the NPS.
What makes it so unique: Well, it’s probably the world’s most beautiful natural wonder, for one thing.
Read more: The Grand Canyon NPS website
7. City Museum of St. Louis
Where: St. Louis, Missouri
Why it’s so cool: It’s got tunnels, slides, ball pits, “skateless” skate parks, rope swings, an aquarium, and an outdoor “MostroCity” that’s only open in the summer. And people of all ages are encouraged to play here.
What makes it so unique: It’s the country’s only playground that dares call itself a museum, thus elevating fun and play to the same level as art.
Read more: City Museum website
8. Adler PlanetariumWhere: Chicago, Illinois
Why it’s so cool: It’s a world-class planetarium sitting on the edge of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago. For kids who love outer space (which is all kids, right?) it’s a dream come true, for the rare kid who’s not interested, there’s a ton of park space and the Shedd Aquarium in the same complex.
What makes it so unique: The country’s first planetarium is one of the only places where you can see planets, stars, and even galaxies for real, and then see them for-slightly-less real in one of the most technologically-advanced planetarium theaters in the world.
Read more: Adler Planetarium website
Where: Columbus, Ohio
Why it’s so cool: There’s a planetarium, a water park, dancing robots, and a laser maze — no age group (including adults) would find it boring. And it’s educational.
What makes it so unique: It’s basically a mixture of a science museum and a playground. Parents Magazine voted it the best science museum in the United States.
Read more: COSI website
Where: Asheville, North Carolina
Why it’s so cool: Perfect spot for the kids to have free play after a day in downtown Asheville. In general, Asheville is exceptionally family friendly and a highly recommended home base for summer travel.
What makes it so unique: Fun, open-air, FREE(!) waterpark right in historic Asheville.
Read more: Splashville Facebook page
11. Great Sand Dunes National ParkWhere: San Luis Valley, Colorado
Why it’s so cool: It’s the world’s largest sandbox. It offers sandboarding, Junior Ranger programs, and even a shallow beach along Medano Creek in the summertime which is a perfect spot for skimboarding.
What makes it so unique: It’s the one spot on the planet that beach and mountain people will both be happy: it’s a desert and a beach surrounded by the Rockies.
Read more: Great Sand Dunes NPS website
12. Findlay Market
Where: Cincinnati, Ohio
Why it’s so cool: It’s a beautiful local market in the city’s most historic (and most hip) neighborhood — there are street performers, festivals, and places for kids to run around while their parents have a bite at one of the incredible restaurants in and around the market.
What makes it so unique: The state’s oldest farmer’s market has become fun, delicious hub for young, diverse families in the Midwest’s coolest up-and-coming city.
Read more: Findlay Market website
13. Knoebel’s Amusement ParkWhere: Elysburg, Pennsyvlania
Why it’s so cool: Six roller coasters, two carousels, two trains, a ferris wheel, a log flume, and dozens of other rides.
What makes it so unique: It’s the country’s largest free-admission amusement park.
Read more: Knoebel’s Amusement Park website
14. Wisconsin Dells
Where: Central Wisconsin
Why it’s so cool: The town got its start as a tourist center because of the stunning scenery in the gorge it’s named after along the Wisconsin River — now it also features water and amusement parks, mini golf, a circus, and of course, incredible boating.
What makes it so unique: It’s quite possible the perfect summer town: loads of outdoorsy summer activities in the same spot as theme parks, as if they put a theme park on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
Read more: Wisconsin Dells tourism website
15. Riverbanks Zoo and GardenWhere: Columbia, South Carolina
Why it’s so cool: Most cities as small as Columbia don’t have zoos as solid as the Riverbanks. It’s a cheap ticket, and offers giraffe and lorikeet feedings. If one of your kids isn’t as into animals, there’s a rock climbing wall and a zipline canopy tour.
What makes it so unique: It’s one of the best zoos in the South, and you can hang out with kangaroos and wallabies with no barrier in between.
Read more: Riverbanks Zoo and Garden website
16. Big Sur
Where: Monterey County, California
Why it’s so cool: Big Sur is probably the most scenic stretch of coastline in the United States, and the combination of beaches, horseback riding, and easy hikes make it a great spot for outdoor-oriented families. Check out the wildlife in Point Lobos or in the Andrew Molera State Park if your kids are into animals, or take them to the McWay Falls for a short, safe, and incredibly scenic hike.
What makes it so unique:
Read more: Big Sur tourism website
17. Conner PrairieWhere: Fishers, Indiana
Why it’s so cool: It’s a mixture of historical site, playground, and museum just a short drive from Indianapolis. It features Civil War re-enactments, hikes, replicas of old homestead buildings and Native American homes, and hot air balloon rides.
What makes it so unique:It’s kind of like Colonial Williamsburg, but you actually get to participate in all of the old-timey activities.
Read more: Conner Prairie website
18. Baxter State Park
Where: Millinocket, Maine
Why it’s so cool: The park follows a strict “Forever Wild” policy, and thus has no electricity, paved roads, or running water. As a result, the nature is dense and lush, and the wildlife is spectacular. If your family is into hiking, it is not an option to skip Baxter State Park.
What makes it so unique: It’s the home to the state’s highest peak, Mount Katahdin, which is also the northern tip of the famous Appalachian Trail.
Read more: Baxter State Park Authority website
19. Caladesi Island State Park
Where: Dunedin, Florida
Why it’s so cool: It’s the perfect family beach spot. You take a ferry to a carless island, walk a nature trail, have a picnic, chill on the white sand beaches, and collect a ton of shells.
What makes it so unique: It’s one of the few totally-natural islands in Florida, and it consistently ranks on “best beach” lists.
Read more: Florida State Park website
20. Sleeping Bear DunesWhere: Dunedin, Michigan
Why it’s so cool: It’s a staggeringly beautiful stretch of coastline in the Lower Peninsula equipped with forests, beaches, and huge sand dunes. “Let them climb those bad boys and run/roll down them all day long,” one mother told us, “and they are guaranteed to sleep the entire car ride home.”
What makes it so unique: Good Morning, America named it the most beautiful place in the United States, and this part of Michigan in general is a summer playground: Traverse City is a half an hour away, and North and South Manitou Islands are a short ferry ride away.
Read more: Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitor’s website