Vaccines are steadily rolling out across the U.S. and normalcy (complete with unrestricted travel) is starting to look tantalizingly close. But more immediately, most parents have an event on their calendar that requires abnormal planning. “Spring Break 2021,” it says. But what does it mean? Sure, the kids are off. Yes, we all need a break. But the country is by no stretch vaccinated enough to let our guard down. Flights are out. Hotels are not the safest spots. Indoor dining and amusement parks are best avoided. This can mean only one thing for your spring break destination: Road trip!
The best spring break ideas for 2021 involve open roads and open-air accommodations. They are close to home and yet crowd-free. They are damn fine vacations, all things told. So take a deep breath, pack the car, and find something to look forward to. From national forests to state parks, beachfront lighthouses to yurts tucked away within fairy forests, here are your best bets for spring break 2021.
From: New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia
To: Maryland’s Eastern Shore
It’s tempting to default to standbys like the Adirondacks or Finger Lakes from New York City, but we say break south instead for Maryland’s eastern shore and interesting historic waterfront spots like St. Michaels, with its pretty harborfront and interesting trading post history that dates back to the 1600s.
Dubbed the Hamptons of the Chesapeake Bay, waterfront vacation rentals abound and the area has miles of bike paths to explore, too (the Oxford Loop, between Easton and Oxford, involves a historic ferry ride and is a favorite that opens for the season on May 1). Another ambitious bike route takes you from St. Michaels to three-mile-long Tilghman Island, where you can also consider basing. Rent an entire waterfront cabin for your family fronting the Choptank River at Black Walnut Point Inn and send the kids to fish for dinner off the onsite dock.
From: Los Angeles/San Diego
To: San Luis Obispo
Ireland may be out for now, but you can always explore San Luis Obispo. Three hours north of Los Angeles on California’s Central Coast (and roughly equidistant from San Francisco, too), the area is home to the rolling green Irish Hills Natural Reserve, full of trails overlooking Morro Bay and said to get their name from hills of a similar hue in Northern Island.
Avila Beach, nearby, is a quintessential California beach town with a chill family vibe. The two-bedroom owner’s suites at Avila Lighthouse Suites make it easy to settle (and cook meals in, too, with kitchens, if that’s your preference). SLO, as locals call it, has over 80 miles of coastline and is an adventurous family’s wonderland, with mountain biking, paddleboarding and tons of hiking at your doorstep. It’s also California’s third largest wine region if you can sneak off to Paso Robles and Edna Valley for the day (bring a picnic for the kids).
To: Galena, IL
Spring Break Illinois may not have the same ring to it as Spring Break Florida, but you might be surprised by all you can get up to with the family in sweet little Galena, roughly three hours west of Chicago in northwest Illinois.
The ski hill closed for the season in early March, but there’s still plenty more to do. Try hiking or biking along the Galena River Trail. Better yet, book a hot air balloon flight 3,000 feet up with Galena on the Fly for killer views of the rolling countryside of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin (the highlight comes when you skim the gondola on Lake Galena).
The best place to stay with some space to spread out and breathe is the Arrowhead Treehouse, located on a family-owned orchard and farm that’s been operating since the mid-1800s. which sleeps six, has a firepit, and is close to a fishing stream where can toss out a line or have an old-fashioned rock-skipping contest.
To: Palo Duro Canyon State Park
The Florida panhandle steals the spring break spotlight with its ridiculously beautiful beaches, but Texas’s panhandle is pretty epic, too, especially at Palo Duro Canyon State Park near Amarillo. A six-hour drive northwest of Dallas, it’s the second-largest canyon in the U.S., and a fascinating place to spot oddities like Barbary sheep (introduced to the park from Africa in the 1950s), groves of lush green junipers, and incredible rock formations carved by the wind and weather.
You can drive through the park for great views, explore on foot via the many hiking trails, or cruise around on a mountain bike or on horseback. There are several cabins for rent within the park, including some perched atop the canyon rim.
Pampered camper types should check out Palo Duro Glamping, with sturdy canvas “tents” tucked away on the canyon floor that come with bicycles, gas fire pits, and covered porches with rocking chairs and swings.
To: San Juan Islands
Whale watching, kayaking and generally frolicking like the happy family you are with fields of flowering tulips and alpaca farms as a background await in the spectacular San Juan Islands, north of Seattle (and about as close to Canada as most of us can get these days).
Waterfront vacation rentals in places like Orcas Island range from rustic cabins and cottages to lavish waterfront homes with private docks. You can really get away from it here at spots like West Beach Resort, too, on the west side of Orcas Island, where cabins with all the amenities front a pebbly beach and you can rent a boat from the onsite marina to explore on your own.
For the best shot at seeing passing orcas right from the shore, bring the family to Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island. Or head out on a whale watching tours into the Salish Sea, where humpbacks can often be seen along with those orcas you might find yourself getting used to here.
From: Washington D.C.
To: Virginia’s Northern Neck
Blue crabs, oysters, boat cruises, and a timeless Virginia waterfront inn await in the Northern Neck, a sleepy peninsula on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, about 3.5 hours southeast of the Beltway rush.
Rural roads run through farmland and past fishermen’s houses piled high with crab traps surrounding small Main Street-style towns like Irvington and Kilmarnock.
Blue crabs share the spotlight with Rappahannock River oysters in these parts, and one of the best places to slurp them with river views is across the river from Irvington in Topping at Merroir.
There are campgrounds and vacation rentals aplenty in these parts. But the best secret place to stay in the area is at Ditchley Cider Works near Kilmarnock, where you can rent a historic working farmhouse that dates to 1752 and is surrounded by apple orchards and set on miles of protected Chesapeake Bay, with your own private beach to explore. Kids can play farmer for the day and meet the resident cattle, ducks, and geese and cooking classes and farm-to-table catered meals can also be arranged.
To: Jekyll Island
From the ATL, it’s tempting enough to head due south to the beaches of Florida for Spring Break with the masses. But for a different beach vacation with the family, set your sights on Georgia’s slim stretch of coastline and the nature-oriented wilds of Jekyll Island, where you can ditch your car and rent bikes to pedal the island’s 25 miles of paved trails (and many miles more of packed sand along the beach).
The Georgia Sea Turtle Center is an interesting place to see recovering sea turtles convalescing in large tanks and, sometimes, undergoing operations in a surgery bay you can peer right into. You can pedal to the island’s beach-themed mini-golf course for a break from the beaches and a pizza lunch. Right along the beachfront bike path, the Beachview Club Hotel has a heated swimming pool, fire pits and suites you can access without setting foot in a common area or elevator with full kitchens tucked into a grove of live oaks that make for an ideal base. Or, if that’s a little close for comfort try the Jekyll Island Campground, surrounded by live oaks and right near the famous driftwood beach.
To: Hocking Hills, OH
Three hours west of the Burgh (and 40 miles from Columbus, OH) is the magical little Hocking Hills region of Ohio, where waterfalls, 10,000 acres of uninterrupted forests, and dramatic rock formations are the backdrop for an adventurous spring break with a nature focus.
Known as the Zipline Capital of the Midwest (a very specific and self-explanatory title), there are over 50 ziplines to fly down here at different locales — if your family requires that kind of spring break rush.
Alternatively, you can some stargazing with the family in the area’s dark night skies from John Glenn Astronomy Park. Or just hang out in a cool treehouse cabin tucked away in the woodlands or a Mongolian yurt at the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls.
To: Acadia National Park, ME
It may seem counterintuitive to drive north for spring break when you’re already in the northeast. But families who make the trip from the Boston area to Acadia National Park during the spring months are rewarded with experiencing one of the east coast’s most pristine coastal National Park — with none of the summertime hordes. You can even surprise the kids by staying in lighthouses with accommodations along the way, like the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, perched over a wild and rocky coastline in Bristol, Maine. From May through autumn, Under Canvas runs a glamping basecamp where tents with woodburning stoves sit along 1,200 feet of sublime coastline.
For spring break away from the crowds in Colorado, give the ski resorts a miss if you can bear it and plan some off-piste fun instead with the family around the great little town of Carbondale, which has an anti-Aspen vibe and is just three hours west of Denver.
On your way in, stop in Glenwood Springs to let the kids burn off some energy at the historic Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, with its splash zone and slides, or the smaller Iron Mountain Hot Springs, where several mineral pools sit perched over the Colorado River nearby. Carbondale, with its many coffee shops, breweries, and bike trails, makes a nice urban base for exploring the area’s hiking and biking trails. For a family stay everyone will remember, book one of the multi-room log cabins just up the road in the Crystal River Valley at Avalanche Ranch, where the three-tiered onsite hot pools are the perfect spot for stargazing or admiring the surrounding mountain peaks.