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Quick family day trips to take during your winter vacation

Just because you’re home for the holidays doesn’t mean you can’t get out and explore, too. Add a little something special to your winter vacation with a day trip from Washington, D.C., Atlanta or Los Angeles. | By Montoya Hudson | October 22, 2021 (Updated March 13, 2023)

Traveling home to see relatives for the holidays can still be a vacation for you and the family. Cities like Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Los Angeles — three major hubs for holiday travelers — all have wonderful family-friendly destinations that are nearby. In just a few hours, your trip home to see the family for the holidays can be transformed into a vacation getaway for you and the entire family.

Treat your family to these easy day trips while you are home visiting relatives this winter and make lasting memories with the family by:

  • Sailing the ocean blue: Take a ride on historical tall ships or hob aboard a yellow submarine

  • Chasing waterfalls: Explore natural wonders within mountainous forests

  • Walking in the footsteps of presidents: Head to Mount Vernon to learn how George and Martha Washington lived

Day trips from Washington, D.C.

Mount Vernon, Virginia (Driving distance: 40 minutes)

Visit the home of the family that helped birth the United States by taking a day trip to Mount Vernon. Located less than 20 miles away from Washington, D.C. in Virginia, Mount Vernon is a quick and easy drive from the city. The immaculately kept estate was once home to George and Martha Washington.

This National Historic Landmark offers more than just a house tour, though. Your family can take part in an immersive experience that details what life was like in Mount Vernon. You can walk the adjacent farm grounds along with costumed performers while learning about harvesting crops in the 18th century, experience a day in the life of an enslaved laborer or learn how to lead like George Washington through interactive exhibits.

Baltimore, Maryland (Driving distance: 1.5 hours)

Baltimore is only about 40 miles from Washington, D.C., but is a destination all its own. With its rich culture and historical roots, the city offers plenty of activities during the winter holidays for your family.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has many family-friendly delights, making it a great spot to visit on a day trip. Get a bird's eye view of the city from the Top of the World observatory in the World Trade Center, tour the Historic Ships of Baltimore for a taste of life on the sea in the 19th century and introduce the family to a world of exploration at the Maryland Science Center. The National Aquarium is also a special treat; it’s home to more than 200,000 animals from all over the world. Kids will love seeing everything from a giant pacific octopus to a golden lion tamarin monkey all under one roof.

Day trips from Atlanta

Blue Ridge, Georgia (Driving distance: 1.5 hours)

Venture 90 minutes from Atlanta to experience the enchantment of Blue Ridge, Georgia with your family. This small town packs a ton of Southern charm into its atmosphere.

Bundle up with a cup of hot cocoa and listen to holiday carols while cruising the railways with Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. You’ll experience a bit of nostalgia with a drive-in movie at Swan Drive-In Theater. Located in the Southernmost reach of the Appalachian Mountains, you can chase waterfalls with a hike through the expansive Chattahoochee National Forest on trails like Fall Branch Falls. This family-friendly trail is less than a mile and has a smooth pathway. And while you won’t be able to pick apples at Mercier Orchard in the winter, it’s still worth visiting the largest apple orchard in Georgia for warm apple cider and fried apple pies.

Rock City Gardens (Driving distance: 2.5 hours)

Rock City Gardens is only a couple hours from Atlanta but will feel like a total escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. This 14-acre respite has an elaborate walking trail that meanders through more than 400 species of local flora, a thunderous waterfall and panoramic views of seven states from its mountaintop location. Due to some of the narrow passageways, strollers are not allowed in Rock City, but the tiniest members of the family can still experience the fun from the comfort of their baby carrier.

It’s especially memorable to visit Rock City during the holiday season, as the entire area is transformed into an enchanted winter wonderland. The park is draped in holiday lights with illuminated trees that seem to dance along with the holiday music that is played throughout.

Day trips from Los Angeles

Santa Catalina Island, California (Driving distance: 1 hour)

Take a winter day trip to paradise with a visit to Santa Catalina Island. Its lush natural landscapes and beautiful views will make you think you’ve been whisked away to the southern coast of Italy. However, this island destination is only 50 miles from Los Angeles. Plus, with many kid-friendly activities, it’s lovingly earned the moniker “Kidalina.”

Hop aboard the Catalina Express for a scenic, hour-long cruise across the channel. The ride is relaxing and plenty of snacks and drinks are offered on board. Once you arrive, explore the island in style by renting a golf cart (and a car seat, if needed). The water might be chilly this time of year, but you can get a glimpse of Catalina’s underwater gardens and sea life by taking a ride on the city’s semi-submersible (or glass-bottom boat). Take the older kids to Catalina Aerial Adventure Park’s obstacle course for a day filled with adventure or take all ages to Lloyd’s Confectionary where you can buy treats like caramel apples, saltwater taffy, freshly baked cinnamon rolls and more.

Joshua Tree National Park (Driving distance: 2.5 hours)

Located a little over two hours from Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park showcases the wonder of nature when two desert ecosystems collide. Winter is one of the best seasons to visit this historic site, as you’ll avoid large crowds and scorching temperatures. Just pack a coat to fight off the winter chill and comfortable shoes for hiking, and you and the family will be ready for a day of exploration.

Stop by the visitor’s center to get a Junior Park Ranger booklet with activities designed especially for the younger members of your family. However, the activities listed will help guide adventures for the older crowd, too. Excursions include taking the 1.5-mile (2.4 km) trek to see water in the desert at the Barker Dam, climbing to the top of the infamous Arch Rock and traversing the groves of twisted trees. Once you’ve completed all the activities, turn in your completed booklet to be sworn in as an official Junior Park Ranger.

Regardless of the day trip you choose, each offers plenty of family-friendly activities to enjoy together. So, shake up your routine holiday visit home by adding a special day trip for you and the kids. You get the see the family and create new memories all in one visit.

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Montoya Hudson is the founder of the popular blog, The Spring Break Family. She loves to share tips on travel, health and all things related to the family.

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