Family road trip loop ideas from Chicago

Even though plane tickets are now a fortune, you don’t have ditch the thoughts of taking a spring break trip. You don’t even have to travel far to widen your child’s horizons.

That said, car rides can be a drag for kids. Parents, too. When we road trip as a family, we keep drive time less than six hours at a stretch. Frequent stops-both roadside and overnight-are key. It keeps the fun fresh. And we learn a lot along the way. Another trick? We never backtrack. Instead we drive home a different way than we came. I call it looping-a fantastic way to keep the scenery changing and the adventure unfolding.

So if you are looking to get out of town, here are four fantastic Chicago Loops-trips that loop your travel and double your fun. Because they’re road trips, they won’t tug the purse strings too much. But they will definitely top your kids’ lists. You will never want to fly (direct) again.

Here are four fantastic Chicago Loops-trips that loop your travel and double your fun. Because they’re road trips, they won’t tug the purse strings too much. But they will definitely top your kids’ lists. You will never want to fly (direct) again.

Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, Jasper, Ark.

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

On The Way

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.

Are We There?

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
, 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.

Hitting The Road

Petit Jean State Park, Petit Jean Mountain,
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 an

Boyne Mountain, Boyne Falls, Mich.

Stops: Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, Empire Mich., Lambeau Field and Packers Hall of Fame in Green Bay, Wis.

Drive time: 18 hours round trip

Pictured: Boyne, Mich.

On The Way

Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, Sleeping Bear National Park, Empire, Mich.: Named the Most Beautiful Place in America by ABC’s Good Morning America — and the Bozzo family —Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes will take your breath away. The sand dunes are ginormous, so large they are visible from outer space. The sand mountains, as my little one calls them, are quite a challenge to climb, but oh so fun to run down! For a quick stretch, you can hike the 100-foot dune climb. If you have more time, we had a blast braving the Dune Hiking Trail, a 1.7-mile trek to Lake Michigan, almost 3 1/2 miles (round trip) of sand-dune-climbing fun.

Are We There?

Boyne Mountain Resort, Boyne Mountain, Mich.:
Hike, bike, zip and splash. Boyne offers hundreds of hiking trails, miles of challenging single and two track mountain bike trails, kayaking, ziplining and Michigan’s biggest indoor water park, Avalanche Bay, voted the third best water park in the U.S. by Budget Travel.Your kids will marvel over the surf simulator where they don’t need a sunny California day to hang 10. Recognized as one of the world’s best resorts by Travel and Leisure three years in a row, Boyne Mountain Resort is a terrific spot for families. We love the bunk rooms for the kids, the handy in-room kitchen, the 90-degree outdoor pool and the key to this mom’s sanity, a world-class spa
right on site.

On The Road Home

Lambeau Field, Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, Green Bay, Wis.: With a little advance planning, why not catch a behind-the-scenes tour of the legendary Lambeau Field? Imagine walking through the players’ tunnel, up to the
exclusive club level, through the Legends Club.

Photo opportunities abound. Or relive 90 years of the most exciting moments in Packers football at the 25,000-square-foot
Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame
with nearly 80 exhibits, including four Super Bowl trophies.

Wisconsin Dells, Wis.

Stops: Discovery World in Milwaukee, Madison, The Burpee Museum

Drive time: 8 hours round trip

Pictured: Discovery World

On The Way

Discovery World, Milwaukee, Wis.: Two hours up the road, make a quick stop at Discovery World, the cutest science museum right on the lake. My little science lovers light up at the chance to land an airplane, lie on a bed of nails,
even pet a stingray. The perfect place to learn by exploration, Discovery World does a terrific job of combining innovation, science and technology into exhibits that will kick your kids’ brains into over-drive.

Madison, Wis.: Stop and stretch your legs in the biking capital of the Midwest, Madison.

You’ll find lots of hiking trails at the UW-Arboretum. Or if you’re looking to lunch, hike out to Picnic Point. Bike rentals are also readily available if you want to take a spin and discover for yourself how this quaint town has earned its title.

Are We There?

Wisconsin Dells, Wis.: In 2010, TripAdvisor named Wisconsin Dells the number one family destination in the U.S., third in the world.
Although it’s the water park capital of the world, the Dells has a lot to offer everyone-indoors and out. In fact, it’s one of the few places where they’ve managed to weather-proof the family vacation.

We love the Tommy Bartlett Science Exploratory where simple scientific wonders await. The new Bigfoot Zipline also tops our list-it’s Wisconsin Dells’ number
one attraction, with fun, zany guides and the longest racing zipline in America.

The Road Back

The Burpee Museum, Rockford: Break up the drive home to Chicago with a road stop in Rockford, the home of the sock monkey and Jane the T. rex. The fully restored 21-foot skeleton of
Jane is on display.

Kids can discover what happened during the 66 million years Jane lay buried and fuel their inner archeologist imaginations by checking out the expedition’s Montana base camp.

Smoky Mountains, Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Stops: Indianapolis, Kentucky Derby Museum, Starved Rock

Drive time: 19 1/2 hours round trip

On The Way

About 3 1/2 hours down the road consider a road stop in Indianapolis, recently souped up for its first Super Bowl. You can check out the .5 million newly created Georgia Street,
a now permanent pedestrian promenade built as a Super Bowl Village.
We just love the Children’s Museum.
There’s no wonder why it’s ranked among the best places for family fun by Parents magazine, Woman’s Day and Forbes Traveler. I’ve known power moms to make the drive from Chicago just to take to
their children there.

This museum is not just for little tykes, five stories of interactive, educational fun await every age level. The Biotechnology Learning Center rocks-we made cheese the day we visited. If you go this spring, check out its three new exhibits — CSI: Flight Adventures, The Adventures of Mr. Potato Head and LEGO Travel Adventure.

A little further down the road, you’ll find the Kentucky Derby Museum. It’s a terrific little two-hour stop where kids get a chance to place bets, race interactive horses, learn about Derby fashion and horse
care. The museum offers a free walking tour of the historic Churchill Downs where the Kentucky Derby has been held every May since 1875.

Are We There?

If you’re going to hit a national park, the Smoky Mountains should top your list. It is simply breathtaking, with majestic forests, gorgeous vistas and rocky mountain streams.

With 800 miles of trails, the park is a hiker’s paradise. There are short treks as well as strenuous hikes. On our visit, we made it to the top of Ole Smoky, Clingmans Dome. At 6,643 feet, it’s the
highest point in the Great Smoky National
. While in the area, there are many great places to stay. We chose Nashville, about a half hour away.

You may want to check out the Grand Ole Opry and Belle Meade Plantation. And live music is a must. Only don’t forget the boots. Boots and hats are always trending in Nashville.

On the Road Home

It’s on most eighth-graders’ field trip list, but I think any time is a great time to visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. What makes the learning powerful is the way the museum combines multimedia and exhibits. When we
visited, my youngest was just 5. She was awestruck by a life-size statue of a slave auctioneer pulling a young girl out of her mother’s arms. Ava talked about it for weeks. And I believe it still defines slavery to her to this day.

Before you hit home, consider a quick hike at Starved Rock State Park in Utica, 94 miles south of Chicago. There’s terrific Native American history here. Known for fascinating 400 million-year-old rock formations, beautiful St. Peter sandstone, canyons and sparkling waterfalls.

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