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Classic Family Vacations

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Three uniquely American destinations that offer fun, adventure, and history to delight travelers of all ages.

There’s a lot that people don’t know about South Dakota — including that it features six national parks, boasts the world’s third-largest cave, and is home to some of the best cycling in the country.

“We’ve recommended visiting South Dakota to all sorts of people. It’s really an underrated part of this country,” says Bob Mobeck, 71, of Branford, Conn., who in August 2016 spent a week biking through the state with his wife and two grandkids.

A few years ago, the Mobecks decided to treat each of their seven grandchildren to a special trip. But these wouldn’t be Disney vacations. They wanted to model their love of physical activity, introduce them to some cultural and historical elements, and make sure to leave plenty of time for bonding. Their oldest two grandkids joined them on a cycling trip in Germany, but the Mobecks decided to offer the next two, ages 12 and 13, a chance to explore some of the natural beauty and culture available stateside.

“I’ve always wanted to see Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial, and we thought, Why travel to Europe when we have so much to see here?” Mobeck recalls. They found what they were looking for with the help of Bicycle Adventures, an outfitter offering international and domestic tours, including five in South Dakota.

They chose the Mickelson Trail Bike Tour, a six-day trip along 109 miles of reformed rail-to-trail pathways that included stops at Mount Rushmore, the still-under-construction Crazy Horse Memorial, the legendary town of Deadwood, Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks, and even the site of a paleontological dig.

Starting in Rapid City, the group rode for four to five hours a day and made regular stops, including lunch breaks featuring gourmet dishes. The tour operator supplied maps and encouraged them to pedal at their own pace; they would meet at clearly marked spots along the route. This worked well for a group with mixed generations and abilities.

“The kids didn’t feel inhibited by us,” Mobeck notes. “They went off by themselves or rode with other people.”

At night, in their hotel, the group dined together before retiring to their rooms, where they could relax, recount the day’s highlights, and prepare for the next day’s ride before falling into a welcome sleep.

The trip accomplished everything Mobeck and his wife had hoped it would. He says the kids loved the exercise, experienced American cultural sites and an unfamiliar landscape, and created great family memories.

$2,566/person includes gear, meals, and lodging; discount for kids. www.bicycleadventures.com

Where: Start and end in Rapid City, S.D., and pedal your way to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, Wall Drug, and other sites.

Perfect for: Couples or a fitness-loving family of all ages looking to explore some of America’s most revered monuments.

Why go: South Dakota offers some of the best road and trail riding in the country, abundant open space, and fascinating geography.

Best time of year: Late spring to early fall.

Don’t miss: Badlands National Park.

Pack: A camera.

Walk Through History

It’s no surprise to anyone who’s been to Charleston, S.C., that it consistently ranks among the best U.S. cities to visit. It has just about everything you could want in a vacation: nation-defining historical landmarks, breathtaking architecture, amazing food, natural beauty, and infectious Southern charm.

“It can feel like you’re in a dream sometimes, like you’ve stepped back 200 years,” says city native Brian Simms, the owner of Charleston Sole Walking Tours.

Visitors can access most sites in the historic downtown district on foot. There’s just something so peaceful about ambling along cobblestone streets past centuries-old houses and buildings, discovering hidden gardens along the way.

Charleston also features ample opportunities for kayaking and a five-mile round-trip path that takes joggers or cyclists over Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge (try it at sunset!).

These are Simms’s must-sees:

African-American Heritage Tour

“People don’t realize how much African culture is here,” says Simms. He recommends learning about the African-American heritage that shaped the city, region, and country to fully understand Charleston. Gullah Tours offers a two-hour bus tour of important sites for $18. www.gullahtours.com

The Gibbes Museum of Art

An impressive collection of early-American art connects the region’s artistic past to a vibrant contemporary-art scene.

First-floor collection is free; exhibits $6–$15. www.gibbesmuseum.org

Battery and White Point Gardens

A large public park and garden with walking paths and military artifacts — all shaded by picturesque oak trees.

Free admission. www.discoversouthcarolina.com

Simms provides two-hour guided tours of other notable sites for $10–$20. www.charlestonsole.com

Middleton Place

A historic plantation with reenactment exhibits and a working stable, Middleton Place provides “an all-around view of what was going on with the history of slavery and the families that ran the plantations,” says Simms.

Cost: $28/adult; $15/student 14 and older; $10/children 6–13; free/under age 6. www.middletonplace.org 

Fort Sumter National Monument

Marking the site where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, this historic sea fort incorporates several sites around Charleston harbor and includes an education center at Gadsden’s Wharf that brings to life the forces that led to the Union-Confederacy conflict.

Cost: Admission to the fort is free; boat ride is $19.50/adults, $12/children. www.nps.gov/fosu

Where: Charleston, S.C.

Perfect for: Couples or adults looking for a place to spend time with parents or grandparents.

Why go: Remarkable antebellum architecture, friendly locals, and one of the country’s most exciting culinary scenes.

Best time of year: Spring (when the azaleas are in bloom) or fall.

Don’t miss: A tour of historic downtown.

Pack: Walking shoes.

Hit the Beach

Santa Cruz, CAPhotography by Donaven Staab/Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

World-class water sports, spectacular hiking and biking, and abundant marine life, beaches, and redwood forests make it easy to understand why Santa Cruz, Calif., locals are loath to drive “over the hill” (the Santa Cruz Mountains directly to the east) for anything.

Indeed, this popular seaside destination some 70 miles south of San Francisco offers plenty of fun for everyone.

“There’s so much to do; you have to be careful about packing your days too full,” says Carolyn Hauck, a freelance copywriter in Portland, Ore., who visits family in Santa Cruz a few times each year with her son, Silas.

Hauck has learned to pace her activities by balancing beach playtime with her 6-year-old, visits to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, half-day hiking trips in the redwoods, and less-ambitious adventures in one of the many parks and preserves.

How to fit it all in? Here’s a three-day itinerary to get you started:

Day 1: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk 

This classic beachfront amusement park, which opened in 1907, has been updated to keep kids (young and old) entertained for hours. Two of the park’s rides — the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster and the Looff Carousel, with its famous ring toss — are registered historic landmarks. But there are plenty of contemporary thrills and games, too.

Free admission; rides start at $4; all-day passes start at $36.95. www.beachboardwalk.com

Natural Bridges State Beach and West Cliff Drive offer an alternative outdoor experience. You can wander trails among monarch-butterfly habitat and walk to the beach to view natural bridge formations carved by the Pacific.

Back on West Cliff Drive’s biking and running path, make sure to look for passing dolphins or whales as you make your way to watch the surfers at Steamer Lane and visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum and Lighthouse Point.

Mitchell’s Cove Beach is a popular spot to let four-legged friends enjoy the surf and sand. Accessible via a path from West Cliff Drive, about halfway between Natural Bridges and Lighthouse Point. Dogs can be off-leash before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. every day.

The nearby Santa Cruz Wharf is a favorite resting place for Monterey Bay sea lions (you’ll hear them from a half-mile away!) and plenty of (touristy) restaurants and gift shops.

Locals’ tip: For a very cool, but mellow, adjunct to the big fun of the Boardwalk, check out the NHS Skate Museum in the hip Seabright neighborhood. This obscure gem provides a killer history of skateboarding.

Tours by appointment only.

Facebook: NHS Skate Museum

Twitter: @NHSSkateMuseum

(831) 459-7800

Day 2: Santa Cruz Mountains 

Part of the Pacific Coast Ranges, they’re home to expansive old- and new-growth redwood forests and quirky little mountain towns.

Solve the Mystery Spot. This funky roadside stop about five miles outside of Santa Cruz is a must-see. Whether you believe any of the alien-vortex-electromagnetic-field theories or just find it a puzzling and silly architectural gem, it’s worth an hour of your time. $8 for ages 3 and up; parking is $5 (cash). www.mysteryspot.com

Roaring Camp Railroads. In the 1880s, narrow-gauge steam locomotives hauled giant redwood logs out of the mountains. Today, Roaring Camp’s restored steam engines take passengers on an hour-long ride through the old-growth forest. You can even take a train all the way down to Santa Cruz Beach.

Cost: Forest train is $22/kids (ages 2–12), $29/adults; RT beach train is $25/kids (ages 2–12), $31/adults. www.roaringcamp.com

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Marvel at the majestic redwoods as you enjoy hiking, exploring, and picnicking along 15 miles of trails.

Cost: $10 per car (seniors: $9)

Leashed dogs are allowed on some trails and in picnic areas within the park. www.parks.ca.gov

Day 3: Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, Calif.

Considered the best research aquarium in the world, this state-of-the-art exhibit space in historic Cannery Row showcases 550 species, offering open-sea galleries and education programs focused on the marine creatures that call the two-mile-deep Monterey Bay home. $29.95–$49.95. www.montereybayaquarium.org

Where: Santa Cruz, Calif.

Perfect for: Adults, kids, teens, grandparents, and Fido.

Why go: This idyllic seaside community provides year-round fun.

Best time of year: Summer is beach season, but it’s also when you’ll find the crowds — and fog. Try late fall to avoid the hordes, enjoy gorgeous sunny weather, and perhaps experience the annual monarch-butterfly migration (mid-October to mid-January).

Don’t miss: The boardwalk.

Pack: Layers. It can be warm and sunny at the coast — or the fog can roll in and cool things down in a hurry.

This originally appeared as “Family Classics” in the September 2017 print issue of Experience Life.

is a writer and editor based in Boulder, Colo.