How to Travel With Kids in Your Own Backyard

International travel may out of reach due to the COVID-19 pandemic, or your budget – but you can still enjoy a memorable family trip while staying local. Nomad Casey shares her tips on planning the perfect domestic family vacation.

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A young boy aboard the Staten Island Ferry looks across the harbor at the Statue of Liberty. Photo © Getty Images / Orbon Alija

You might say I'm a tad addicted to traveling – I chose travel writing as a profession, after all. When my husband and I started having children, we were determined not to let it stop us from seeing the world. Before my first son turned one, he had taken a dip in a cenote in the Yucatan, toured Scotland aboard the Hogwarts Express, and bopped along in a stroller on the streets of Havana, Cuba.

I had my second child, another boy, in 2019. We booked a trip to England and France in February, 2020 to take advantage of the travel sweet spot. (I’ve deemed this to be between three months old and a year.) Of course, COVID-19 soon ground our lives and dreams of more international travel to a halt.

As restrictions started to ease, my husband and I knew we needed to find ways to indulge our wanderlust and get out with the boys. We began exploring historic sites, planning road trips and getting outdoors as much as possible. Turns out, there’s no place like home. Here are my tips for travel with kids in your backyard.

Domestic travel: see home in a new light

What makes travel so addictive? For me, it's getting away from the mundane, indulging my curiosity and discovering new things. Every place on earth probably seems boring to those who live there, but exotic to others. Treat your state, country, city or town like an adventure. Is there a park you've always talked about visiting? Go! A zoo in a different part of town? Check it out! My husband and I made a list of things we had long talked about doing with the kids in New York that would make for safe, socially distanced activities: the Prospect Park Zoo, the New York Botanical Garden, the Met Cloisters, and the Staten Island Ferry. We checked these places off of our list week by week.

Turn everyday outings into memorable experiences

We were fortunate to spend time on the West Coast of the US during the pandemic. After quarantining for two weeks at a vacation home in Bend, Oregon, we began exploring. I took the boys for runs in Shevlin Park, a 600-acre nature preserve with old-growth forest and miles of trails. We noted how different landscapes reminded us of other parts of the world (my son thought a rocky cliff on one side looked like Pride Rock from The Lion King). I often packed a picnic, and we would eat sandwiched between a river and a meadow. It felt special.

One day, we got caught in a storm. The eerie green glow of the storm's eye chased us the entire way back to the car. Golf ball-sized hail pelted us as I frantically buckled the boys into their car seats. My son still talks about it.

A hiker stands in a meadow in Oregon's Shevlin Park, with forests and mountains in the background.
A hiker enjoys the view in Shevlin Park, Oregon. Photo credit: Getty Images / Cavan

Plan a themed trip

My family and I watched every family-friendly Halloween movie imaginable in October 2020, and we decided to visit places featured in some of the films driving distance from New York. We visited Sleepy Hollow, the village immortalized in Washington Irving's classic tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. (My son watched the Disney version.) While we spared him any grim details, we visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Irving is buried, and walked across Sleepy Hollow Bridge. We also went for a hike in the nearby Rockefeller State Park Preserve and visited several Hudson Valley farms offering pumpkin patches and apple picking. On another fall trip, we visited Salem, MA and traced the filming locations of the cult classic Hocus Pocus. Our itinerary included a mix of activities to please adults and kids, like a Harry Potter wand shop and tacos and margaritas on a rooftop terrace.

A father pulls his daughter in a wagon through an apple orchard in New York.
Apple picking in New York. Photo credit: Getty Images / Cavan

Recreate favorite travel experiences

That sliver of time between when the day’s work is complete and dinnertime is my favorite time of day. Whether we're in Paris or Marrakech, we’ve always packed our itineraries with “happy hour” stops for a glass of wine and a small bite. Throughout 2020, we've put together happy hours at home for the whole family to enjoy, including cheeses from around the world, charcuterie, and briny olives. We also took up new hobbies to get us out of our comfort zone. While in Bend, my son, husband and I all took western horseback riding lessons at an outdoor arena.

Do a kid-friendly staycation

By Mother's Day of 2020, I was longing for a hotel stay. A rustic lodge with a modern makeover located outside Bend was receiving guests, so we booked a room. After hiking up Black Butte, a steep trail that rewards hikers with a panorama of the Cascade Mountain Range, we checked into the lodge for the night. Indoor public spaces were off-limits, but the vast lawn overlooking the lake was fair game. We ordered fried fish sandwiches and onion rings at the outdoor kiosk and watched as the boys played in the grass. We felt a world away, even though we were just 45 minutes from town.

Choose activities your kids love

We embraced the family road trip in 2020 and set ourselves up for success by indulging my son's interests. He adores animals. On a tour of the western US, our hotel in Walla Walla, Washington was near a free aviary that provides natural enclosures for exotic birds. We saw dozens of bison and elk in Yellowstone National Park, and at a Montana dude ranch, we learned about wild mustang. In the fall, we visited a dairy with heritage cows, horses, and goats in Vermont. I snapped pictures of my boys sitting on a pile of honey-colored leaves with the storybook countryside in the background. It may not have been a walled village in France, but it was a vacation I'll never forget.

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1 Comment

  • Jackie Hatfield said

    Love it...makes me want to travel with my grandchildren!

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