Best Midwest Summer Road Trips for Champaign-Urbana Families
Excursion! We love Champaign-Urbana, but there is a big world to explore with your family
Summer is a fun time to tour with your kids and venture beyond Champaign-Urbana. So get some new ideas on where to go this year
Having fun in Champaign-Urbana in summer is not difficult. But summer is an ideal time to go – aside from dodging orange construction barrels – and road trips that won’t damage your piggy bank are highly valued. That is why we are offering our list of ideas for summer road trips from Champaign-Urbana.
Many thanks to Urbanas Markt am Platz for presenting this list. Did you know you can take advantage of your SNAP / LINK benefits in Illinois farmers markets? Bring your LINK card to the Urbana market on site and get ready to buy the best fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and baked goods from the farm. This year they are implementing a new universal SNAP token system with The Land Connection. All tokens from the Urbana market on the square (chicken) and from the champagne farmers market (eggplant) are accepted in both markets. Both markets sell a new wooden marker that is reddish-purple in color and has the symbol of a currant on one side and says $ 1 on the reverse. This token can be used in both markets.
A matching program is offered at the Urbana Market in place that matches your SNAP / LINK benefits up to $ 20 per Saturday. A triple match takes place on the third Saturday of the month. SNAP / LINK customers can get a total of $ 60 this third Saturday when they take advantage of the benefits. Appropriate funds will be provided by the Experimental Station this year. For more information on Urbana’s market in the square’s SNAP / LINK program, please click here.
Road trips within two hours from Champaign-Urbana
Decatur (45 minutes)
A trip to Decatur may mean more to do than you anticipate. One of our favorites is Scovill Zoo, which is free on Thursdays all summer and has the best goat petting area you will ever find. After your visit to the zoo, cool off at the Illinois Children’s Museum, located very close to the zoo. We hear that the high ropes course at Overlook Adventure Park is also worth a visit, but we have yet to try it out. The annual Decatur celebration takes place in August and is considered the most family-friendly street festival in the Midwest.
Bloomington Normal (one hour)
This one-way trip on I-74 will get you to a day of fun including the Children’s Discovery Museum, Miller Park Zoo, an amazing splash guard at Miller Park, Sugar Grove Nature Center and Altitude Trampoline Park, or the Iron Coyote Challenge Park / Ninja Gym. There are many great restaurants in the Bloomington-Normal area.
Peoria (one hour 15 minutes)
You may not know how much Peoria has to offer your family for a short road trip. If Touch-A-Truck Day is your child’s favorite day, schedule a visit to the Caterpillar Visitor Center (note that it’s still closed due to COVID-19). You can also find the Peoria Zoo in the parking lot next to the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum, which is very exciting, especially if you have younger kids (Memorial Day weekend reopening in 2021). Free entertainment includes a visit to the East Peoria Bass Pro Shop. Our favorite restaurant is Blue Duck BBQ.
Springfield (one hour 30 minutes)
There is so much your family to do in Springfield that we have a whole lot to help you plan your trip. Obviously, you will be fed up with all of the things about Abraham Lincoln, but there is more to the area. Springfield hosts the Illinois State Fair every August. So you can plan ahead if your trip will include an overnight stay at this time of year.
Indianapolis (two hours)
Indianapolis is the closest “big city” to CU at just under two hours. The main attractions are the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and the Indianapolis Zoo. Think * all day * of a trip to one of these places. Indy is the perfect destination for a short road trip that you can combine with a hotel stay that offers endless options for activities and dining.
Road trips 2-4 hours from Champaign-Urbana
Chicago (two hours, 15 minutes)
We’ll soon have a comprehensive list of museums to visit for free during the summer, but the variety of things to do in Chicago really is endless. Stroll around Navy Pier, play games in Maggie Daley Park, stroll the free Lincoln Park Zoo, and more. Or venture into the suburbs and spend a day shopping and dining. Parents, you can leave your children aged 4 to 10 for an hour in a supervised play area at IKEA while you shop on your own (still closed due to Covid-19). Everyone will love it! Click here to find out what we think are the best things to do in Chicago.
City Roof Museum in St. Louis. Chambanamom’s photo.
St. Louis (two hours, 45 minutes)
St. Louis is simply the best when it comes to FREE things to do in big cities! Believe it or not, the St. Louis Zoo is a free zoo. As long as you are willing to walk a short distance, you can park for free in the beautiful Forest Park. Be ready to spend a full day at this great zoo. Another free family favorite is the St. Louis Science Center that you won’t want to miss if you have dinosaur fans in your family. Regardless of whether you want to get inside the Gateway Arch, you can visit the newly renovated Gateway Arch Museum for free (no ticket to the top required). And while it’s not free, the City Museum is another popular choice. But be prepared – you can lose your kids in his sea of jungle gyms and slides. Read all about planning a family visit to St. Louis.
Rockford (two hours 45 minutes)
Rockford offers some of the benefits of the big city without actually having to navigate a big city. Head to the Discovery Center Museum for indoor fun or check out the largest outdoor water park in Illinois, Hurricane Harbor Rockford (formerly Magic Waters). With plenty of accommodation options, this is a great stopover en route to Wisconsin Dells or other road trip destinations in Wisconsin, Iowa, or Minnesota.
Gurnee (three hours)
With the opening of the new Great Wolf Lodge near Six Flags Great America and the nearby Gurnee Mills Shopping Center, you can spend several days in Gurnee. We hear that it is worth buying a season pass if you are away for even two days. While not an inexpensive trip, you can pack a lot depending on the number of days.
Madison, Wisconsin (three hours, 30 minutes)
What’s special here is the free Henry Vilas Zoo, but there are more family-friendly activities to enjoy along the lakes in this part of Wisconsin. Madison is another great stop on the way to Wisconsin Dells. It’s a fun place to be your ultimate destination or stop along the way.
Lake Wingra in Madison, Wisconsin.
Holland, me. (Three hours, 45 minutes)
In Holland, you’ll find Michigan beaches, a quaint downtown stroll, beautiful walks, and more. You will feel like you have traveled much further than a couple of hours by the time you go here.
Cincinnati (three hours 45 minutes)
Did you know Cincinnati is less than four hours from Champaign-Urbana? Another nearby “big city” to add to your list of families to visit. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens will impress you with all of its close encounters with animals. The city itself is on the Ohio River. So, take a stroll along the riverside to find places to eat and play. Located near Kings Island in Mason, Ohio, is one of the largest amusement parks in the country (The Brady Bunch even filmed an episode there!). And don’t forget that there is another Great Wolf Lodge in the area.
Santa Claus, Ind. (Three hours, 45 minutes)
You can hear from friends in Champaign-Urbana heading to Holiday World to find a huge outdoor water park and enjoy rides in the theme park. Camping is a popular option for families hiking to see Santa Claus. However, you can find accommodation within half an hour if camping isn’t your thing.
Road trips more than four hours from Champaign-Urbana
Wisconsin Dells (four hours, 30 minutes)
No doubt you’ve heard us talk about the Wisconsin Dells before. The Dells are the most family-friendly destination in the Midwest. Whether you’re staying at a on-site water park resort or choosing from one of the hundreds (literally) activities in this city’s amusement zone, your kids will beg to return to the Dells each year.
Gatlinburg, Tenn. (Eight hours)
Gatlinburg is a little further than our other suggestions in the Great Smoky Mountains. Think of Dells-type activities as well as numerous hiking, rafting and outdoor opportunities with the mountains as the backdrop for the entire trip. It’s close enough that you can easily drive it in a day or break up with a stop in Cincinnati or any other location along the way.
Which road trips would you add to our list?