The Most Memorable East Coast Road Trips with Kids

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by U.S. National Park Service
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by U.S. National Park Service

Family travel has never been trickier. After months of lockdown and a back-to-school season like no other, many American families are considering road trips to get away and recharge. Hitting the road safely takes work, but the stress and uncertainly of online school can give way to an invaluable silver lining when families enjoy an extended recess together in the safety of their car, exploring a new, nearby stretch of America.

Guide to Planning an East Coast Road Trip Itinerary

The feeling of getting away doesn’t require going far. Road trips that take place close to home may not be as bragged about as European vacations, but they are typically just as memorable. Visiting a new place, no matter how near or far, has a way of invigorating us.

Although lots of sunshine and varied terrain make California a popular favorite for a vacation behind the wheel, there are oodles of great family escapes to be taken from cities up and down the East Coast. They tend not to get the credit they deserve, but they’re out there. You just have to know where to look.

Need a little convincing? Here’s a taste of spots your family is bound to love, all within an easy drive from some of the East Coast’s most popular cities. Some of them are so close they don’t even require bathroom breaks.

East Coast Road Trip
Lake Champlain in Burlington

From Boston

Road Trip Destination: Burlington, Vermont

Driving Time: A little more than 3 hours

The small state of Vermont knows how to make a big impression on a road trip. Enjoy a mix of colorful fall foliage with beautiful views of Lake Champlain when you set a course for Burlington. It may be the state’s largest city, but there’s nothing big-city about it — ideal for strolling, it has a young and sophisticated vibe, thanks in part to the fact that it’s home to the University of Vermont. If you’re traveling with a teenager, think about checking out the campus while you’re in town.

Things to See and Do

  • Sailing excursion on Lake Champlain
  • ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain science museum
  • Church Street Marketplace
  • Vermont Teddy Bear Factory private tour
  • Ben & Jerry’s Factory Scoop Shop

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Road Trip Destination: Newburyport, Massachusetts

Driving Time: 45 minutes

Sure, you’ve heard of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, but how about Newburyport? Less than an hour from Boston, the coastal city has a rich maritime history and is the birthplace of the United States Coast Guard. Families stay busy and happy here soaking up vitamin D while hiking, biking, playing on the beach and whale watching.

Things to See and Do

  • Whale watching
  • Parker River National Wildlife Refuge
  • Maudslay State Park
  • Waterfront Park
  • Clipper City Rail Trail
East Coast Road Trip
Franklin Square in Philadelphia

From New York City

Road Trip Destination: Philadelphia

Driving Time: Less than 2 hours

The City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love gets top marks for being both fun and educational. There’s always something to be gained from a visit to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, but Philadelphia is loaded with outdoor activities, and cooler fall days are a perfect time to explore some of its lesser-known yet equally entertaining attractions. Center City’s grid of streets makes Philly easy to navigate and take in the abundance of landmarks. Come hungry: Philadelphia is also famous for its food. Think cheese steaks, hoagies and soft pretzels — there’s no skimping on calories when you visit.

Things to See and Do

  • Betsy Ross House
  • Franklin Square
  • Philadelphia Zoo
  • The Franklin Institute
  • Valley Forge National Historical Park
East Coast Road Trip
Lucy the Elephant on the Jersey Shore

Road Trip Destination: The Jersey Shore

Driving Time: 90 minutes to 2-plus hours

Summer is peak season on the Jersey Shore, but warm fall days provide an incentive to stick your toes in the sand one more time. Many beaches have lifeguards on duty after Labor Day. There’s also plenty to do beyond the beach, like visiting Lucy, a 65-foot-tall building shaped like an elephant. Yes, it’s a thing! And you’ll love Lucy.

Things to See and Do

  • Lucy the Elephant
  • Cape May County Park & Zoo
  • Walk a boardwalk
  • See a lighthouse
East Coast Road Trip
John Smith statue at Jamestowne. Photo by U.S. National Park Service

From Washington, D.C.

Road Trip Destination: Virginia’s Historic Triangle

Driving Time: 2 1/2 hours

The Historic Triangle area of Virginia—Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown—is another of those places where educational moments lurk within fun-filled days. Step back in time Colonial Williamsburg as you explore historical shops and businesses and interact with costumed guides. Trace the footsteps of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith at Historic Jamestowne, the first permanent English settlement in America, and tour historic Yorktown on a Segway. When you need a break from history, meet the famous Clydesdales at Busch Gardens.

Things to See and Do

  • Colonial Williamsburg
  • Historic Jamestowne
  • Yorktown
  • Schooner sailing on the York River
  • Busch Gardens
East Coast Road Trip
White-tailed deer fawn in Shenandoah National Park. Photo by U.S. National Park Service

Road Trip Destination: Shenandoah Valley, VA

Driving Time: Just over 90 minutes

The list of possibilities at Shenandoah National Park goes on and on. Go for a hike; the park has more than 500 miles of trails. Chase a waterfall. Look for wildlife. Go for a scenic drive. Stare at the night sky. (Download the Junior Ranger booklet before you hit the road). Lodges and campgrounds inside the park are convenient, but if you have the time, there are gems like Luray Caverns to be found within the surrounding communities. And if your kids are old enough to talk about college, you can drive through Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia. The campus was designed by Thomas Jefferson.

Things to See and Do

  • Admire the views from Skyline Drive
  • Hike the Appalachian Trail
  • Hike to a waterfall
  • Luray Caverns
East Coast Road Trip Itinerary
Forsyth Park in historic Savannah. Photo by Ralph Daniel/Explore Georgia

From Atlanta

Road Trip Destination: Savannah, GA

Driving Time: Less than 4 hours

Savannah is Georgia’s oldest city, so there’s plenty to see. But it’s how you see it that can make your road trip extraordinarily memorable. Book a horse-drawn carriage ride through the historic district, hop aboard an open-air trolley or zoom around town on a Segway. Then grab some pimento cheese sandwiches and pralines, and make the 20-minute drive to the sandy beaches that line nearby Tybee Island. If you have a Girl Scout in the family, don’t miss stopping by the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, former home of the Girl Scouts founder.

Things to See and Do

  • Tour the historic district and riverfront
  • Beachcomb on Tybee Island
  • Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace
  • Savannah National Wildlife Refuge
  • Dolphin cruise
  • University of Georgia Aquarium
East Coast Road Trip Itinerary
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in autumn. Photo by U.S. National Park Service

Road Trip Destination: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Driving Time: A little less than 3 1/2 hours

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina. There are three main entrances to the park; two are in the former state and one is in the latter. Autumn drives and hikes are loaded with color and wildlife watching opportunities. Plenty of stops along the roads, plus benches along scenic stretches, give families ample opportunity to stop and rest or to work out the wiggles.

Things to See and Do

  • Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
  • Hike the Appalachian Trail
  • See the scenery in Cades Cove
  • View wildlife on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Relevant Links:

A grand California family road trip

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A Florida spring break road trip filled with sunshine and surprises

Editor’s Note: Photos by Dana Rebmann except where noted.

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