Looking for a fun summer vacation destination that’s within driving distance of Chicago and budget-friendly? Bowling Green, Kentucky, has lots of fun for families.
What to do
Mammoth Cave National Park is a few minutes away from Bowling Green and it is home to the longest known cave system in the world. There are numerous tours that take you into the caves led by great ranger who can explain these geological wonders. The Frozen Niagara is the shortest tour at one hour and so named because inside the cave some of the rocks look like a frozen waterfall. There are stairs and little ones did just fine with only a little help. Older kids may enjoy the longer tours. If your family is hard core, there are tours that last up to four hours and cover up to four miles. While not freezing, the temperature in the cave is typically around 54 degrees, so bring a jacket.
Reservations for tours are not required, but they are strongly recommended, especially in the summer when the park gets particularly crowded. You can make reservations here. While at the park you can fish, canoe in the Green River and camp. The Junior Ranger program is great, too.
Another option is Lost River Cave, located in Bowling Green. It’s a 68-acre nature preserve that offers Kentucky’s only underground boat tour that goes almost a mile into the cave. There are also walking trails (some of which are paved and stroller-friendly), a butterfly habitat and an outdoor playground consisting of only natural materials. Kids can also pan for gemstones and fossils.
The General Motors Corvette Assembly Plant has been making Corvettes since 1981. You can tour the plant, but they don’t admit children under age seven. The National Corvette Museum may be even more fun for families. There’s a fun Kids Zone and other interactive exhibits throughout. The Cave-In Skydome Sinkhole Exhibit explores the sinkhole collapse that happened at the museum in 2014 and features interactive experiences telling the story of the sinkhole and karst geology in Kentucky, including a simulator. Kids will also love the crane game on a big video screen where they can play along and help “rescue” cars. Some of the cars have not been repaired so you can see what they look like after falling 30 feet. They elicit a “wow” no matter how old you are. I confess that I’m not exactly an automotive aficionado and I really enjoyed the visit.
Love ice cream?
Ice cream lovers won’t want to miss Chaney’s Dairy Barn, which produces 18,000 gallons of ice cream per year. USA Today named it the best ice cream in Kentucky, and I can attest that it was really delicious. Your kids can get a better understanding of where the ice cream comes from when they visit the cows on site. Take a self-guided barn tour and even see the high-tech robotic milker at work. Yes, animals and robots! There’s also a barnyard playground and jumbo jumping pillow. Check out the Ice Cream and a Moovie event, when kids’ films are shown on the barn. They take place every other weekend in the summer.
Love amusement parks?
Beech Bend Amusement Park is a great size for littles — not too big or overwhelming. It has 40 rides, including a wooden roller coaster called the Kentucky Rumbler and Splash Lagoon Water Park.
Historic Railpark and Train Museum, located at an L&N Depot built in 1925, is a great place for train enthusiasts, with both a museum and rail cars to tour. They have everything from an engine to a caboose as well as cars in between, including a Pullman sleeping car and a Pullman dining car. Older kids will love the fun take it offers on the escape room craze — escaping from a locked train car.
Where to eat
For local flavor, head to the White Squirrel Brewery, which is named for the white squirrels found around town that are particularly common on the campus of Western Kentucky University. This brewery is family-friendly, and offers some fun southern favorites, like fried chicken and waffles, as well as fun new flavor combinations, like the hot jam burger. Parental beer drinkers will appreciate house beers like the jalapeno kolsch and nut brown.
If you’re visiting Lost River Cave, Lost River Pizza is nearby and has pizzas kids will love as well as interesting flavor combinations that adults will appreciate such as the brisket pizza, featuring beef brisket, apple chutney, honey chipotle BBQ sauce, bacon and caramelized onions. They also offer gluten-free crust options.
Where to stay
There are 35 hotels in Bowling Green, so you have lots of options. The Fairfield Inn and Suites was comfortable with a good free breakfast, indoor pool and fire pit for the evenings. If you’re looking for a green property, the Hotel Sync is an eco-conscious option with suites that have upgraded, full size kitchens.
Bowling Green is located off I-65 and is approximately a six-hour drive from Chicago. You can also fly into Nashville and take a shuttle bus that gets you to Bowling Green in about an hour.