Stops: St. Louis, Petit Jean State Park, Hot Springs National Park, Memphis, Garden of the Gods
Drive time: 27 hours round trip
Pictured: The waterfall at Petit Jean State Park
St. Louis, Mo.: Halfway to Arkansas, consider staying in St. Louis, home of The Arch, gateway to the Midwest. Your children may think it's a bit on the short side compared to Chicago's skyscrapers, but it's definitely a do and the Lewis and Clark movie is worth the stop. Also in St. Louis you'll find one of my very favorite spots, the City Museum, where imagination runs crazy-wild. Think brain scribbles. You can swim through thousands of rubber balls, check out the world's largest pair of men's underwear and climb through MonstroCity, the most monumental, monolithic, montage of monkey bars-built out of two Saber 40 aircraft fuselages, a fire engine, a castle turret, a 25-foot-tall cupola and a set of 4-foot-wide wrought-iron Slinkies. It's like no place you've ever visited.
Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, Jasper, Ark.: You know you are almost there when you see motorcycles hanging off the treetops like Christmas ornaments. Yes, you are in Arkansas. But the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, my girls' all-time favorite vacation, is world class when it comes to dude ranching and good old-fashioned family fun. The wranglers and the owners, Barry and Amy, really make this family dude ranch feel like your western home away from home-could be why so many families come back again and again. Even the ranch dog is hospitable. He walked us back to our cabin each evening, standing guard on the porch each night. Aside from the horseback riding, which is spectacular, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch offers all kinds of western family fun like cookouts in the hills, critter hunts, five-star rock climbing, wrangler stories by a cozy fire, skeet and .22 shooting, ziplining, river canoeing and a very cool Via Ferrata-a jungle gym on natural rock that brings out the brave adventurer in everyone.
Petit Jean State Park, Petit Jean Mountain, Ark: When is the last time your family hiked to a 95-foot waterfall? Trust me, it's a hike you won't soon forget. Spend an afternoon at Petit Jean State Park, where the terrain is just breathtaking. There's curious history, too. Even little legs can handle the easy-to-hike Cedar Falls Trail where you can walk right up to the largest, most beautiful waterfall in the state.
Hot Springs National Park, Ark: Such a natural wonder, with thermal water flowing from 47 springs that shoot from the center of the Earth. In fact, about a million gallons of 143-degree water flow from the springs each day. You can fill up your own bottle of natural spring water-lots of the locals do-at one of the springs in town. The kids will get a kick out of it. Also, stop by the Hot Springs National Park Museum located in one of the original ornate bathhouses on Bathhouse Row.
The kids can earn a junior ranger badge as they learn about the history of Hot Springs, a town once known for healing spring water back in the early 1900s.
Memphis, Tenn.: There's no place like Memphis and no better time to visit than on the 35th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. We love the Peabody Hotel, where you can watch the legendary Peabody Duck March at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. each day. It's a 75-year-old tradition where five North American ducks march to and from the marble hotel lobby.
Get there early for a spot because the lobby fills up quickly.
Beale Street is also worth a stroll: very family friendly in the afternoon, fantastic food and live music to keep your feet thumping.
And of course, you'll want to put on your blue suede shoes for a tour of Graceland, the ultimate rock 'n' roll pilgrimage. My girls got a kick out of Elvis' jungle room. Three brand new exhibits open this spring for the 35th anniversary celebration-Elvis on Tour, Elvis Through His Daughter's Eyes and Icon: The Influence of Elvis Presley.
Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, Harrisburg, Ill.: Are we home yet? If you're looking for one more road stop to break up the loooonnng ride through Illinois, stretch your legs with a scenic hike through the Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee National Forest near Harrisburg. The kids will enjoy climbing the massive pillars of sandstone and sculpted rock formations. It'll give them a chance to burn off just enough energy before tackling the rest of the ride home.