Road Trips, Family-Style

If you remember road trips in the family car when you were little, things have changed. Instead of playing the License Plate Game, kids’ faces are planted in electronics. While the drive itself may be different, the goal is the same: choosing a destination with activities and attractions to appeal to everyone—whether toddlers or teens—and creating memories that last a lifetime. Here are several suggestions within a few hours of Kansas City; short enough to keep the “Are we there yet?” to a minimum.

Oh to be in Omaha

Omaha’s RiverFront can serve as a master plan as Kansas City begins to embrace its own river’s edge. Three attractions share 72 acres: Gene Leahy Mall, Lewis and Clark Landing, and Heartland of America Park—enough to keep kids of all ages happy for a day or two. Outdoor activities include ziplines, playgrounds, an urban beach, and impressive sculpture gardens. The Kiewit Luminarium offers 125 hands-on learning experiences for kids 6 and up, with a play area for toddlers. Bob the Bridge (named for former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey) is a 3,000-foot-long pedestrian walkway that connects two states as it rises 60 feet above the river. Catch concerts here during the summer months.

The Old Market in Omaha is filled with a diverse mix of shopping, art galleries, and restaurants.

Adjoining RiverFront is The Old Market district with cobblestone streets dotted with boutiques, antique shops, and more than 45 eateries, whether you’re craving a snack or the all-you-can-eat pasta deal at Spaghetti Works. The First Friday gallery stroll is an ideal way to check out local art or explore the neighborhood by bike or carriage. Your sweet tooth will lead the way to Hollywood Candy, a giant store with retro brands and fudge made fresh. Riffle through the vintage vinyl selection then order malts blended in an aluminum tin at the diner. End your search for the perfect souvenir with a “Midwest: Hell Yes” T-shirt from Raygun, big sister to the store in Kansas City’s Crossroads.

Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium offers 160 acres of animal habitats, a treehouse with climbing nets, open-air chair lift, steam railroad, adventures trails, rainforest, splash park, and butterfly pavilion. Get an up-close look at the ocean’s creatures at the aquarium where the sharks swim above you. Download the online map showing attractions, restaurants, and yes, public restrooms. Pro tip: save money on tickets with a reciprocity deal with the Kansas City Zoo and Aquarium.

The Alaskan Adventure splash pad at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is the perfect place to cool off on a hot summer day.

The Omaha Children’s Museum connects teens to the wonders of tech and science while little ones enjoy the Wiggle Room. With hands-on exhibits, a look at life on a farm, and an art center where kids can try their hands with crafts, no wonder this is Nebraska’s most visited museum.

Stay at the Embassy Suites Downtown, just three minutes from most attractions. Or choose Magnolia Hotel, built in 1923 and fashioned after a palace in Florence, Italy. Amenities include free transportation to nearby destinations, a happy-hour reception, and milk and cookies at bedtime. Look for online deals like the Zoo and Brew offer.

Make Memories in Des Moines

This city also makes the most of its riverfront area, which includes the Historic East Village, a dynamic collection of shopping, dining, walking trails, and an amphitheater where live music attracts locals and tourists alike. The Iowa Capitol Building, with its golden dome, serves as a landmark along with buildings saved from demolition that now house eateries and boutiques. The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is a delight with Asian-inspired landscaping, a dramatic geodesic dome, water garden, picnic benches, and sculptures nestled along the walkways.

The nearby Court District hosts a lively Saturday morning farmers market with more than 300 vendors selling produce and baked goods. Favorite treats are the whipped pineapple drink and mango on a stick. The free DART bus shuttle is a convenient way to explore the area.

Marvel at more outdoor art at Pappajohn Sculpture Park, a 4.4-acre urban respite; capture family photos at the iconic LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana, Keith Haring’s colorful dancing figures or Louise Bourgeois’s giant bronze spider, which you may recognize from Kansas City’s Kemper Museum. The park is an extension of the Des Moines Art Center, known for its impressive collection of 19th-and 20th-century art. Just as impressive are its three major buildings designed by world-renowned architects, including I.M. Pei.

Kids may beg for one more hour at Urban Air Adventure Park where they can zip through the air on the Sky Rider, test their skills on the ropes course, or burn off calories on trampolines. The onsite café serves pizza, mac ‘n’ cheese, and Icee slurpies.

The Rockin Rainbow ride at Adventureland in Des Moines.

Meanwhile, Adventureland is the largest amusement park in the Hawkeye State, boasting more than 100 rides and shows along its Disney-style Main Street. Entertainment for all ages includes bumper cars, the Space Shot, and roller coasters rated mild to intense. Draken Falls promises wet thrills, and the giant Ferris wheel provides a bird’s-eye view of the park. Dining options range from funnel cakes to Asian cuisine and mini donuts. For a stay-and-play experience, book a suite at Adventureland Inn or park your RV or pitch a tent at the campground.

At 49-acre Blank Park Zoo, family fun includes feeding the giraffes, riding a camel, and viewing animals like red pandas and tigers in native habitats. Behind-the-scenes experiences let you chat with zookeepers and see creatures up close; book these small-group tours at least two weeks in advance.

Enjoy a panoramic view of the Des Moines’ River valley from the High Trestle Trail that stretches 25 miles through five towns. Bright-blue lights illuminate the bridge after dark. Rent a bike to traverse the more than 800 miles of scenic trails or simply hoof it. Flat Tire Lounge in Madrid is a popular local hangout.

A giraffe at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines.

Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad is another way to regard the river valley from a comfy seat or an open-air lookout. The Fraser Train offers lunch or dinner service during a two-hour ride that passes over a 156-foot-high bridge. Or take a 30-minute trolley ride to downtown and back. A museum showcases memorabilia from the days of elegant railroad travel.

Here’s why you’ll be glad for that extra space in your SUV or van—the treasures you’ll bring back from the West End Architectural Salvage. This four-story home designer’s paradise is filled with restored antiques, stained glass windows, and lighting fixtures. The coffee house serves hot and cold java, craft beer, Italian sodas, and cocktails.

Staying near all the action is always a plus when making lodging choices. The Staybridge Suites is located within the downtown and historic East Village area; a free happy hour will appeal to parents. Des Lux Hotel, the city’s largest hotel, may also be its most welcoming, with fireplaces in several of the suites, a made-to-order breakfast, and lovely bar and lounge.

Find Your Way to Wichita

Attractions built around the Midwest’s waterways seems to be a theme here. At the heart of the Riverside neighborhood is Botanica: The Wichita Gardens, 17 acres encompassing the rainbow trail path, children’s garden, a treehouse, and woodland bird center. Consider taking art or yoga classes in this relaxing environment.

Experience the magic of childhood as you cross under the iridescent rainbow and follow the yellow path at Downing Children’s Garden in Botanica: The Wichita Garden.

Nearby is the Wichita Art Museum showcasing 10,000 works of art, including two dramatic Dale Chihuly glass sculptures. But don’t just admire the art; the museum offers creative activities for kids and adults while toddlers spend time at the drop-in play space. The outdoor art garden is a lush oasis along the Little Arkansas River.

More history and art can be found at other museums dotting the river and downtown districts: the inspiring Kansas African American Museum, Mid-America All-Indian Museum, and one devoted to the state’s Cowtown history. Take the free Q-Line to explore these and other attractions.

If you want to get in the water rather than simply admiring it, the Wichita Parks and Recreation offers several options, from kayak rentals to boat tours.

Be transported back in time at the unique, 23 acre open-air Old Cowtown Museum that recreates Wichita and Sedgwick County, Kansas from 1865 to 1880.

Ready to get wild? Sedgwick County Zoo is the place. More than 3,000 animals roam the native habitats. Settle onto the Safari Express, take a boat ride, explore the Children’s Farm, pet the goats, and feed a rhino or giraffe. And when it’s time to feed your kids, the Beastro has smashburgers and wraps, while the Cantina offers grab-and-go treats like the Walking Taco.

Shopping and dining await at Old Town, just east of downtown, where brick-lined streets and historic lampposts lend a vintage air. Pace yourself; the district boasts 100 businesses from antique salvage to fashions and food. Vietnamese, Mexican, barbecue, and bistro offerings might tempt you.

Stay nearby at Hotel Old Town where vintage meets trendy in this 114-room hotel built in 1906. Studios and suites include full kitchens, a plus for families.

The Douglas Design District is a three-mile stretch between downtown and Uptown where 500 locally owned businesses include boutiques and eateries. It’s an Instagram paradise with 100 murals by local artists. The Vault Collection is the place to score estate finds from Art Deco and midcentury modern to Arts and Crafts.

Skip Town to St. Louis

It’s not officially a visit to the Gateway to the West without a stop at the St. Louis Zoo, home to 16,000 animals, a 4-D theater, nostalgic carousel, sea lion show, and a Zooline Railroad. Now through June 16, the Dinoroarus exhibit delights youngsters of all ages with 14 different groups of animatronic and stationary dinosaurs. Dining choices include Pineapple Paradise, Scoops for ice cream treats, and Café Kudu, where you can watch your burger or street taco prepared on the open-air grill.

Suspended above visitors in the Missouri History Museum’s Grand Hall is “The Spirit of St. Louis,” sister plane to Lindbergh’s, which was featured in the 1957 film of the same name starring Jimmy Stewart.

The zoo is nestled within Forest Park, along with the St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Science Center, Missouri History Museum, The Muny, a golf course, and planetarium. This 1,300-acre urban paradise was home to the 1904 World’s Fair; parts of the exhibit are still on view. Another architectural wonder is the Jewel Box, a stunning Art Deco iron-and-glass structure. Simply stroll among the forests, prairies, sensory garden, and wetlands, or take the suspension bridge to the island for a picnic. Burn those calories by renting paddleboards, canoes, or kayaks, then dine at the Boathouse when it’s time for a breather. Book rooms at the nearby Drury Hotel to take advantage of zoo packages.

Kids will go for Grant’s Farm where they can view bison and water buffalo from the tram ride, feed a camel or goat, and see the massive Clydesdales. Grab lunch at the Brat Haus where guests over 21 can get two free beers. Now that’s hospitality!

City Museum, a wacky 600,000-square-foot playground created by artists, encourages kids to crawl under, spin around, and swing across the ever-evolving installations. Slide down the old spiral chutes left over from its former days as a shoe warehouse; older kids (and adults) will find the five-story spiral slide thrilling. Keep those 6 years old and under entertained at Toddler Town. At Circus Harmony you’ll find juggling and magic acts while Art City encourages guests to draw or create a mosaic. A treehouse, tunnels, and caves, along with the Big Eli Ferris Wheel, adds to this city’s worth of fun.

If your teens are still in need of action, there are two attractions just made for them. Adventure Valley sports over a mile of ziplines reaching speeds of up to 50 mph. Or challenge siblings to a paintball competition; the winner gets to pick the next place to eat. Amp Up Action Park lets kids zip around a go-kart track or engage in the three-level laser tag arena. Parents can relieve some stress with an axe-throwing contest and everyone can chill at the Filling Station Café.

The Jewel Box in Forest Park is a St. Louis treasure that has been restored to its former glory.

The Missouri Botanical Garden melds beauty with play time. Take a tram tour to view the green spaces, including the 14-acre Japanese Garden with waterfalls, beaches, traditional lanterns, and an island on its four-acre lake. The Climatron Geodesic Dome Conservatory holds a tropical rainforest filled with exotic rare plants. It’s surrounded by a two-acre playground just right for splashing in a stream, climbing a treehouse, or boarding a steamboat.

Don’t miss the Sachs Museum, an architectural treasure originally built in 1860 that was brought back to life during an 18-month renovation. The hand-painted murals are noteworthy.

If you’re craving retail therapy by now, Central West End, a pedestrian and bike-friendly district, is famous for its eclectic mix of chic boutiques, antique shops, art galleries and sidewalk cafés. The streets are also lined with magnificent homes ranging from French Tudor to midcentury modern.

The St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station lets kids explore the ocean’s wonders. Shark Canyon gives an up-close look at these sleek creatures while playful river otters provide comic relief.

Also sharing space in the renovated train station is St. Louis Union Station Hotel. Its Grand Hall, resplendent with graceful archways, art glass, and fresco details, is as impressive as it was on opening day in 1894. At night, a 3D light show set to music illuminates the 65-foot-high space. Share some small plates, order a cocktail, and enjoy the show. In fact, there are nine dining choices in this city-within-a-city including Landry’s, known for its seafood, the Soda Fountain, and The Pitch, an upscale sports bar named for the soccer stadium across the street. The hotel can score you tickets to this.

Union Station’s other attractions include a mini-golf course and a zipline that lets you glide 50-feet above the lobby. The Wheel, with climate-controlled gondolas that seat up to eight, provides a stunning view of the city. Selfie Express is a train-themed walk-through experience where taking family photos can go a little off the rails.

And head outside for the thrilling lake show with a 100-foot-high waterfall and giant lotus pods that shoot fire into the air. The action takes place from noon to 9 p.m. at the top of the hour.

Hot on the Trail of Hot Springs

Continuing our watery theme, Hot Springs, Arkansas, didn’t become famous for its rivers, but rather its mineral-rich thermal springs found throughout the city. In fact, fill a container with the signature water from fountains throughout downtown for the ultimate souvenir.

Built in 1912, Buckstaff is the only bathhouse to operate continuously for over a century on Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs.

Start your quest for a thermal experience at Bathhouse Row within Hot Springs National Park. Eight bathhouses, built between 1892 and 1923, remain from the heyday of this resort, and two still offer luxurious baths, including Buckstaff Bathhouse known for its bright blue-and-white-striped awnings. The Fordyce Bathhouse Museum is now home to the visitors’ center; behind it is the Grand Promenade, a one-half-mile trail that runs between Bathhouse Row and the nearby mountains.

But first, food! Superior Bathhouse Brewery, housed in a retired bathhouse, crafts the only beer in the world using thermal spring water. Pair the suds with a smashburger or Bavarian soft pretzel. Ask for extra straws to share a root beer float.

Hotel Hale’s Eden Restaurant is another option, serving brunch, happy hour, and dinner in a beautiful setting.

Tuna avocado crostini from Eden Restaurant in Hot Spring’s Hotel Hale.

While the bathhouses reflect the area’s history and charm, Hot Springs National Park may make you forget you’re in the middle of the city. Pick up a map at the Fordyce Visitor’s Center to orient you to trails, landmarks, outlooks, picnic areas, bathrooms, and cold spring and thermal water fountains to fill your jugs. Sunset Trail is 10 miles each way, while West Mountain may offer more wildlife sightings. Cyclists are allowed on paved roads. Find out how your enterprising kids can earn a Junior Ranger Badge.

There are dozens of lodging options near or in the park, including Hotel Hale with nine suites, each with a soaking tub for a mineral springs experience. The Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa, across from the bathhouses, was built in 1875 and is being renovated to its early glory days. The lobby bar is a popular hangout for casual dining and drinks. A mother-daughter spa day might include a thermal soak and massage.

Nearby rentals include cabins and B&B’s including Hot Springs Hillside Hideaway and Starlight Haven (click here for more).

For something a little more rugged, sleep under the stars at the Gulpha Gorge Campground where you can stay in your RV or tent for up to 14 days.

Magic Springs Theme and Water Park, within the national park, has over 40 rides from rotating teacups to high-intensity roller coasters. Families can make a day of it with water slides, a wave pool, and a lazy river ride. This is a popular venue for live music at the outdoor amphitheater.

The Natural State continues with Garvan Woodland Gardens, a 210-acre botanical garden along Lake Hamilton. Take a golf cart tour to experience the breathtaking scenery, including a woodland walk, koi pond, bonsai garden, and the Nature Preserve with almost 120 species of birds. A tree house, Children’s Adventure Bridge and man-made caves are just a few of the other attractions. Chipmunk Café serves casual fare from 11-3 p.m. daily.

Not all the beauty is by nature; the Garvan Pavilion with its vaulted ceiling, was designed by Maurice Jennings and Frank Lloyd Wright disciple E. Fay Jones. And the Anthony Chapel by Jennings and David McKee is a marvel of craftsmanship, with its truss system that mimics branches from surrounding trees. Fans of this design may recognize similar chapels found at Kansas City’s Powell Gardens and Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Before visiting Garven Gardens, be aware that only clear bags are allowed.

Meander Down to Medicine Park

Only a six-hour drive from Kansas City, this Oklahoma getaway is a mix of quirkiness and majestic beauty. Around 1908, Medicine Park was known as a hideout for bootleggers and outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde and Al Capone and a vacation spot for famous guests like President Roosevelt.

The nostalgic charm starts with its signature red cobblestones—a rare, geological phenomenon—that adorn nearly every structure, including cabins, cottages, and lodges. Encourage your kids to turn off electronics and explore the woodland trails and a lake with shallow and deep areas for splashing or floating. Then scout for the secret swimming hole. Note there are no changing rooms at the lake.

American bison roam the native mixed-grass prairie of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Spend the day or a weekend at nearby Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, a 60,0000-acre paradise of native prairie grass, massive granite boulders, biking/hiking paths, and freshwater lakes for fishing. But the draw is seeing elk, bison, and playful prairie dogs in their natural habitat. The refuge offers several camping options (permits are required), including Charon’s Garden with easy-to-strenuous hiking trails. Doris Campground has RV hookups and walk-in tent sites with shower and restroom facilities, picnic tables, and grills. Reconnect with your family over s’mores and board games.

If you need gear, BaseCamp Adventure Outfitters in downtown Medicine Park is where to find hiking boots and backpacks and rent paddle boards, kayaks, and mountain bikes.

The hiking trails in Charon’s Garden, part of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Medicine Park, range from easy to strenuous. Photo by David Smith

Discover Outpost is a charming shop filled with books, toys, and gifts, including feather pens and journals to memorialize your trip. And Comanche Shirt Company is where to find T-shirts printed in-house, arrowhead necklaces, and native blankets and jewelry.

Downtown is filled with dining options, including Healthy Hippie Café with vegetarian and plant-based choices and live music at night. Fancy Nancy’s disputes its name: enjoy burgers while playing checkers on the table in this rustic hangout. Joe Mountain Breakfasts is popular with the mountain bike groups that frequent the area. We dare you to order the Full Serve with eggs, bacon, and cheese between two waffles. Cobblestone Creamery scoops up ten flavors of homemade ice cream and Cobblestone Pastry is where to relax over a mocha latte and fresh-baked scone. After breakfast, Blissful Body Spa provides soothing treatments including a warm river-rock massage.

When it’s time to turn in, rentals range from quaint cabins to lodges sleeping up to ten. Isn’t She Lovely is next to Bath Lake (floats are available) with a firepit and hot tub to enjoy the stars. Bath Lake Bungalow is so close to downtown you can hear the music from the screened-in porch. Blue Eyed Coyote Guest House, with three suites, a wrap-around porch and an inviting hammock is a five-minute walk to downtown. Alley Cat Cabin is in the heart of downtown and sleeps four.