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Family-friendly day trips from Chicago

Adventures for the whole family are just a quick trip away

By Samantha Lande |
Indiana Dunes National Park
Photograph: Indiana Dunes National Park Indiana Dunes National Park


These family-friendly day trips will get the kids out on the road sans the "Are we there yet?" soundtrack. With new states to explore just a short drive away, Chicago is perfectly situated for a quick jaunt to regional wonders with the little ones in tow. Just in case you've run out of free things to do with kids this summer, some of these day trips are also near excellent hiking trails for the whole family.

Union, IL

Union, IL

Good for train lovin’ tots
1 hr 20 min by car

We’re willing to bet your kids have a thing for trains. If so, then the drive to McHenry County will be a worthy one. Here you’ll find the Illinois Railway Museum, the largest of its kind in the U.S., full of historic steam trains (that are still functional!), diesel trains, old streetcars and electric ones as well. Try planning a visit around one of the museum’s marquee events, such as “A Day Out with Thomas,” which had Thomas the Train from the well-known Thomas and Friends pull into the station for a day, or the upcoming four-course dinner on the 1930s-era Zephyr dining car, which is now an exhibit at the museum.
New Buffalo, Michigan
Photograph: musicfanatic29

New Buffalo, MI

Good for a quick beach escape
1 hr 20 min by car

You can spend tons of time on Chicago beaches, but there is something to be said about a cute little town near the water like this one. New Buffalo has beaches and is also close to Warren Dunes State Park for hiking and playing in hills of sand. Visit during berry season—you'll find plenty of great farms, like Mike’s Blueberries on Farina Road. For lunch, Redamak’s is the popular burger joint (it's made many a “best burger” list) in the area, filled with fun activities for kids, including a mini firetruck. And what would a visit to a beach town be without ice cream? Don’t miss funky and fun Oink's Dutch Treat Ice Cream & Yogurt Shop, serving up local Sherman’s ice cream on your way back to the city.

Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, IL
Photograph: Courtesy Six Flags

Gurnee, IL

Good for amusement loving families
1 hr by car 

If you're looking for water fun or thrilling rides, this short drive is a great one for the whole family. The two main attractions are Six Flags Great America and Key Lime Cove. (If you want to do both we recommend making this an overnight excursion). The famous theme park has plenty for even the littlest kids to do, with the return of some classic kiddie rides for the 40th anniversary in addition to KIDZOPOLIS and Camp Cartoon. On a hot day, take advantage of the water attractions as well. Key Lime Cove is perfect for a rainy day (or year-round fun), as the waterpark is completely indoors. It has more than 65,000 square feet of adventure for both the thrill-seeker and slightly reserved child.

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Photograph: Courtesy Lake Geneva, WI

Lake Geneva, WI

Good for time in the great outdoors
1 hr 30 min by car

There are plenty of great reasons to head up to Lake Geneva year-round—just check out Grand Geneva Resort & Spa—but it's especially fun to make the trip in summer. Just 10 minutes from Lake Geneva is Animal Gardens, open May–October 31 (hours and attractions vary so check the website), home to Echo the talking bird, who was recently seen on America’s Got Talent. Kids will love the baby animal petting farm, where they’ll have the opportunity to hold and feed both exotic and farm animals. The area is also home to a deer park and pond, where you can paddleboat with swans. After your visit, spend some time riding bikes and renting kayaks as a family while enjoying the beautiful scenery.

Indiana Dunes
Photograph: Jeff Manuszak NSP

Indiana Dunes, IN

Good for nature-loving families
1 hr by car
Pack a bag and head to Indiana for a day exploring nature. The expansive dunes sprawl across more than 2,000 acres and are home to many animals and plants. Start your visit at the nature center, where you can learn about the various programming, from making butter at one of the historic sites to bird scavenger hunts. On a sunny day, check out the plenty of places to swim or just hang out on the lakefront. For lunch, bring a picnic or hunt out The Rolling Stonebaker, a wood-fired pizza oven truck that is usually stationed within proximity of the dunes. 

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