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Cottonwood Cove at Lake Mead

These family-friendly road trips offer fun for all ages — not just in the summer, but all year

Float-tastic Fun on Lake Mead

Las Vegas families don’t have to travel far to dip their toes into a lakefront vacation, but with water levels dropping at a drastic pace, take advantage of Lake Mead National Recreation Area before it disappears for good. Many daytrippers rent canoes or kayaks to slip in and out of the many coves tucked around the edges of the lake, but shake things up and spend the night on the water with a houseboat rental. Forever Resorts offers houseboats starting at 50 feet and increasing in size to larger, more luxurious models that sleep up to 14 people.

For the kids: Once you’re out on the water, there’s nowhere else to turn for entertainment, so rent a houseboat with a waterslide and make sure you’re fully stocked up on kid-friendly food and fun before you set out.

For the adults: After the boat is anchored for the night and the kids have slipped off to sleep, sneak outside and take in the new-to-you view of Las Vegas from the sun deck.

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Tip: Renting a houseboat can be pricey, but check out seasonal discounts noted online or by phone.

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Canyons and Critters in Kanab, Utah

With a population of 5,400 people, Kanab, Utah, would be easy to overlook, except that this quaint little town has snagged the perfect location from which to explore all things awesome in Southern Utah. Families can get their outside on with easy day-drives to Zion National Park (40 miles), Bryce Canyon National Park (70 miles) and the greatly underrated Grand Canyon North Rim (80 miles). Kanab is also home to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, and volunteers of all ages and experience levels are invited to interact with the 1,700 cats, dogs, horses, pigs and other animals that call Best Friends home.

For the kids: Cash in on the fresh air and pack a picnic lunch to eat in Jacob Hamblin Park. This large, open park with plentiful shade has a fantastic playground, complete with tandem slides, climbing walls and more.

For the adults: Well-known Western artist Maynard Dixon lived in Mount Carmel, less than 20 miles from Kanab. Today, the property is a living history museum with several of the artist’s pieces located throughout the buildings. Self-guided walking tours ($10) and docent-led tours ($20) are available.

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Tip: Some of Southern Utah’s national parks and monuments have restricted access during the fall and winter. 

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Urban Escape in Laughlin

Laughlin is often overlooked when it comes to vacation spots, but recent upgrades and changes have made the city an ideal destination for a quick vacay with the family. A mini-Las Vegas in some ways, Laughlin has nine hotel-casino resorts, more than 50 restaurants and a riverfront with boating, river paddling, fishing, jet skiing and other ample opportunities to cool off from the desert heat. Visit during the River Regatta (August 12-14) and float down the Colorado River with hundreds of other participants. Bring your own rafts, inner tubes and other float devices — and don’t forget your life vests!

For the kids: Find all the standard kid-friendly fare around town, including 15 movie screens and a bowling alley. All the casinos have video arcades, though Harrah’s, with more than 60 video game options, is arguably the best one to keep the young ones entertained.

For the adults: Tap your toes late into the night at the Laughlin Event Center, which has attracted an impressive roster of entertainers as of late, including Toby Keith, Lady Antebellum and Carrie Underwood. On the docket for the coming months: Hank Williams Jr., (September 24) and Dolly Parton (September 30).

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Tip: Like most casino-resorts, Laughlin’s properties offer promotional packages that include extras like meal vouchers, drink specials and discounts on other local activities.

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Mountaintop Retreat on Mt. Charleston

Most Las Vegas locals head up to Mount Charleston for day hiking in the summer and skiing or snowboarding in the winter, but stay for a few days to escape the valley’s oppressive heat. Dozens of trails in this part of the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area welcome hikers of all ages and abilities. At night, check into one of the cabins at Mt. Charleston Lodge. “Double” log cabins are larger studio rooms that come with two king-sized beds and fold-out sofa sleepers.

For the kids: Consider signing the kids up for a Junior Ranger Program, which is best suited for kids ages five to 10. And if you’re trying to narrow down the trekking options, look into taking a guided night hike (offered on Friday nights) with a trained naturalist who offers information about nocturnal animals, astronomy and other (appropriate) after-dark topics.

For the adults: A three-course wine-pairing menu served at the Mt. Charleston Lodge from 5 p.m. to close makes it easy to tip back a drink (or two) after a satisfying day in the mountains.

Tip: Cell phone reception in the area is sketchy at best, so plan in advance and completely unplug during your family trip.

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A Trip to the Wild West in Virginia City

Pull on your spurs, grab your cowboy hat and mosey on up to Virginia City, Nevada. Once a thriving mining town, Virginia City has kept its Wild West charm intact. Towns like this have the potential to feel tacky, but well-maintained museums and historic buildings such as the opera house and courthouse balance out trolley tours and gold-panning activities. A self-guided walking tour, available through a mobile app, hits the highlights while also giving your family room to explore at its leisure.

For the kids: Virginia City is known for its weird and wacky festivals including the International Camel Races and the World Championship Outhouse Races. Yes, these events are as goofy as they sound, and yes, you and your kids will get a kick out of watching them.

For the adults: Once home to as many as 115 bars and saloons, it would be a shame to visit the city and not enjoy a drink in one, many of which have been maintained to look as they did in the 19th century. The city hosts several saloon crawls throughout the year. Check in with the tourism office when you visit and find out if one is taking place while you’re there.

Tip: Because of its elevation, Virginia City receives an average of 56 inches of snow a year. Check the road conditions before you go.

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Cool Getaway in a Hot Place

While the summer temperature soars throughout most of Arizona, Flagstaff keeps its cool, with the average high hitting 81F in July. Unsurprisingly, families are drawn to outdoor activities and the city delivers. The Arizona Snowbowl, known for skiing and snowboarding in the winter, is also open in the summer for disc golf and hiking. Additionally, a handful of outfitters in the area offer guided horseback-trail rides, which last about one-and-a-half to two hours on average.

For the kids: At Flagstaff Extreme Adventure, kid-friendly (ages seven and older) and adult-friendly ropes courses with suspended bridges, nets and slides promise to get the adrenaline pumping. Advance reservations are strongly recommended.

For the adults: The Flagstaff-Grand Canyon Ale Trail spotlights the best in craft beer, with 10 stops in downtown Flagstaff and nearby Sedona and Williams.

Tip: Avoid visiting during special events taking place at Northern Arizona University because hotel prices and restaurant wait times sharply increase.

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Sunny fun in Santa Fe

A colorful collision of Southwest art, dining and culture, Santa Fe, New Mexico, has a personality found nowhere else. With several museums (including the country’s only museum devoted to artist Georgia O’Keeffe), dozens of galleries and lots of historic sites, it leans toward the parent-oriented side of family travel. However, outdoor recreation and accessible attractions such as the Harrell House of Natural Oddities and Bug Museum mean there’s a little something for everyone in Santa Fe.

For the kids: Though most restaurants have menus that satisfy everyone, if all else fails, head to the Santa Fe Farmers Market (Saturday and Tuesday from 7 a.m.-1 p.m.) or the Railyard Artisan Market (Sundays 10 a.m.-4 p.m.) to mix and match the perfect meal. Look for local specialties like tamales and burritos.

For the adults: Embrace your creativity with a class or workshop while you’re in town. Options are plentiful, ranging from painting and metal working to yoga and cooking.

Tip: Youth 16 and younger are always free at the Museum of International Folk Art, which has some activities and exhibits designed specifically with kids in mind.

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Colorado Time Warp

It’s easy to feel like you’ve been sucked back into the past in Southwest Colorado. Cliff dwellings tell a story of Ancestral Pueblos who lived here centuries ago, and ghost towns dotting the landscape paint a picture of an even more recent departure. Hop on a guided tour at Mesa Verde National Park, home to nearly 5,000 known archeological sites — some of the best-preserved in the country — and sign up for an ATV trip to the historic ghost town of Animas Forks, located near Silverton.

For the kids: Take a trip on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which has been in operation since 1882. Winding its way through the canyons in San Juan National Forest, the train passes over bridges and up steep grades.

For the adults: Lots of rivers means lots of river rafting. Some rafting excursions are appropriate for most members of the family (even as young as four years old) but others are intense and high adventure, requiring participants to be at least 16 years of age.

Tip: High altitude plus lots of sunshine equals a high possibility for sunburn. Wear sunscreen year-’round.

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Slow Down in a State Park Next Door

Skip California’s coastline, world-famous amusement attractions and crowded national parks on your next family vacation, and head for an underrated (and, unfortunately, underfunded) state park for a breath of fresh air. Located east of San Diego, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park has two family campgrounds and more than 100 miles of trails for hiking, cycling and horseback riding. Green Valley, located at 4,000 feet in elevation, has shallow pools and a creek for splashing around during the day, while many of the park’s trails leave from Paso Picacho, five miles north at 5,000 feet.

For the kids: Campground areas are crowded with kids on bicycles, but take note that helmets are required for people younger than 18. Remain cautious when driving through these areas to avoid accidents.

For the adults: Kick back and relax around the campfire even after the little ones are tucked in for the night. Purchase firewood at the park entrance or camp host sites, and use established fire rings — Southern California is a beacon for wildfires in the summer.

Tip: Reserve a campsite in advance at 1-800-444-PARK, especially if you plan to visit on the weekend.

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