Road Trip! We love Champaign-Urbana but there’s a great big world out there to explore with your family
Summer is a fun time to hit the road with your kids, so we offer some new ideas on where to go this year
Having fun in Champaign-Urbana in the summer isn’t hard to do. But summer is an ideal time to travel — aside from dodging orange construction barrels — and road trips that won’t break your piggy bank are highly valued. So we’re offering our list of ideas for summer road trips from Champaign-Urbana.
RELATED: Looking for ideas closer to home? We have a long list of day trips — destinations that do not require an overnight stay!
Road trips within two hours of Champaign-Urbana
Decatur (45 minutes)
A trip to Decatur might offer more for you to do than you expect. One of our favorites is the Scovill Zoo, which is free on Thursdays all summer and has the best goat petting zoo you will ever find. After your visit, you might cool off at the Children’s Museum of Illinois, which is located close to the zoo. We hear that the Ropes Course at Overlook Adventure Park is worth a visit but we’ve yet to try it. Don’t forget to eat at Krekel’s on your visit to Decatur!
Bloomington-Normal (one hour)
This easy drive on I-74 can bring you to a day of fun including the Children’s Discovery Museum, Miller Park Zoo, an awesome splash pad at Miller Park, Sugar Grove Nature Center/Imagination Grove (just outside of Bloomington-Normal) and Iron Coyote Challenge Park/Ninja Gym. There are plenty of great dining options in the Bloomington-Normal area; Ancho and Agave wins as far as adults are concerned, and kids can always find something there, too. If you miss now-closed Destihl in downtown Champaign, you’ll be happy to hear there is still one in Bloomington-Normal.
Peoria (one hour, 15 minutes)
You may not realize just how much Peoria has to offer your family for a quick road trip. If Touch-A-Truck day is your child’s favorite day ever, plan to visit the Caterpillar Visitors Center. You can also find the Peoria Zoo in the parking lot adjacent to the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum, which ends up being a whole lot of excitement, especially if you have younger children. Free entertainment includes a visit to the East Peoria Bass Pro Shop and our favorite place to eat is Blue Duck BBQ.
Springfield (one hour, 30 minutes)
There’s so much for your family to do in Springfield, we have a whole post for you to plan your trip. Of course you will get your fill of all things Abraham Lincoln, but there’s more to the area than that. Springfield is also the home of the Illinois State Fair each August, so you may want to plan ahead if your trip involves an overnight stay during that time of year.
Indianapolis (two hours)
Coming in just under two hours, Indianapolis is the closest “big city” to C-U. The “big ticket” attractions are The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Zoo. Think *all day* for a trip to either of these places. Indy is the perfect destination for a short overnight road trip that will provide countless opportunities for things to do and eat.
Road trips 2-4 hours from Champaign-Urbana
Chicago (two hours, 15 minutes)
The variety of things to do in Chicago is truly endless. Walk around Navy Pier, play at Maggie Daley Park, stroll the free Lincoln Park Zoo and so much more. Or venture out to the suburbs and just spend a day shopping and eating. Parents, you can drop your kids ages 4-10 in a supervised play area at IKEA for an hour while you shop alone. Everyone will love it! Check out what we think are the best things to do in Chicago by clicking here.
St. Louis (two hours, 45 minutes)
St. Louis is just the best when it comes to big city free activities! It’s hard to believe but the St. Louis Zoo is a free zoo, and as long as you’re willing to walk a short distance, you can park for free in the beautiful Forest Park area. Be prepared to spend an entire day at this large zoo. Another free family favorite is the St. Louis Science Center, which you won’t want to miss if you have dinosaur fans in your family. Regardless of whether you want to take the tram ride to the top of the Gateway Arch, you can check out the Museum at the Gateway Arch for free. Tickets are required for the tram ride and can be purchased online. And while not free, the City Museum is another popular choice. But be prepared — you may lose your children in its sea of climbing structures and slides. Read all about planning a family visit to St Louis.
Rockford (two hours, 45 minutes)
Rockford offers some of the big city perks without actually having to navigate a big city. Visit the Discovery Center Museum for some indoor fun, or head out to the largest outdoor waterpark in Illinois, Hurricane Harbor Rockford (previously Magic Waters). With plenty of lodging options, this makes a great stop along the way up to Wisconsin Dells or other road trip destinations in Wisconsin, Iowa or Minnesota.
Gurnee (three hours)
With the opening of the Great Wolf Lodge in proximity to Six Flags Great America and nearby Gurnee Mills Shopping Center, you can fill several days in Gurnee. We hear it’s worth it to buy a season pass to Six Flags Great America if you’re going to go even two days, so while it’s not an inexpensive trip, you certainly can pack in a lot depending on how many days you have.
Madison, Wis. (three hours, 30 minutes)
The standout here is the free Henry Vilas Zoo, but there are more family friendly activities you can enjoy along the lakes in this part of Wisconsin. Another great stop on the way to Wisconsin Dells, Madison is a fun place to be your ultimate destination or a stop along the way.
Holland, Mich. (three hours, 45 minutes)
Michigan beaches, quaint downtown area to stroll, gorgeous hikes and more await in Holland. You’ll feel like you’ve traveled much farther than a few hours when you road trip here.
Cincinnati (three hours, 45 minutes)
Did you know Cincinnati is less than four hours from Champaign-Urbana? Another close-ish “big city” to add to your family’s list to visit. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens will impress you with all of its up-close animal encounters. The city itself is nestled along the Ohio River, so stroll the riverfront to find places to eat and play. Nearby Kings Island in Mason, Ohio, is one of the nation’s great amusement parks (The Brady Bunch even shot an episode there!) And don’t forget there’s another Great Wolf Lodge located in the area.
Santa Claus, Ind. (three hours, 45 minutes)
You may hear of friends in Champaign-Urbana that drive over to Holiday World to find a huge outdoor waterpark and thrill rides in the theme park. Camping is a popular option for families that trek to Santa Claus but you can find lodging nearby if camping isn’t your thing.
Road trips more than four hours from Champaign-Urbana
Wisconsin Dells (four hours, 30 minutes)
Without a doubt, you’ve heard us talk about Wisconsin Dells before. The Dells are the top family friendly Midwest road trip destination, and whether you want to stay on site at a waterpark resort or venture out to choose from any of the hundreds (literally) activities located in this fun zone of a town, your kids will be begging to return to the Dells every year.
Traverse City, Michigan (seven hours)
A bit of a longer drive, you’ll get all the best of Michigan if you navigate far enough north. The Traverse City area is loaded with outdoor recreation opportunities, most notably the Sleeping Bear Dunes a short drive from Traverse City. There are great hikes, water sports aplenty and beautiful scenery all throughout the area. This is also where you can find Michigan wine country and tons of great food.
Gatlinburg, Tenn. (eight hours)
Gatlinburg is nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains. Think Dells-type activities plus ample hiking, rafting and outdoor opportunities with the mountains as the setting for the whole trip. It’s close enough you can drive it easily in a day, or break it up with a stay in Cincinnati or somewhere else along the way.
Some ideas on trips you can take with your family:
- Visiting the Arthur Amish Area with Kids
- Spend a Saturday in Tuscola
- Peaches Aplenty at Okaw Valley Orchard
- Best Midwest Summer Road Trips for Champaign-Urbana Families
- 31+ Unique Summer Day Trips from Champaign-Urbana
- Visiting the Indoor Waterpark at Grand Bear Resort Near Starved Rock
- Midwest Indoor Waterparks Within a Few Hours of Champaign-Urbana
- Winter Road Trip: Visiting Ice Castles at Lake Geneva, Wis.
- How to Rent a Boat on Lake Shelbyville with your Family
- Road Trip: Visit St. Louis as a Family
- Visiting Imagination Grove Near Bloomington-Normal
- Road Trip: Visiting Wisconsin Dells
- Day Trip from Champaign-Urbana: Living Large in Casey
- Head North for Family Fun: What To Do On Your Chicago Trip
- An Insider’s Guide to a Springfield Getaway
- Effingham, a Trip to the Crossroads
- Winter Break Day Trip: Family Fun in Peoria
- Travel Back in Time at Lincoln Log Cabin
Get ready for summer in Champaign-Urbana:
- End of Summer Pool Closings and Hour Changes
- Champaign County Fair Fun for Families: Preview, Highlights, Tips and Ways to Save
- Blueberry Picking Near Champaign-Urbana
- Summer Parades in the Champaign-Urbana Area
- Best Midwest Summer Road Trips for Champaign-Urbana Families
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- How to Celebrate Juneteenth Around Champaign-Urbana
- 8 Great Summer Festivals in Central Illinois
- Champaign-Urbana Area Fourth of July FIREWORKS!
- 50+ Ways to Have Summer Fun on a Budget In and Around Champaign-Urbana
- Summer Fun in Chicago: Free Days at the Best Museums
- Champaign-Urbana Area Summer Fairs and Festivals
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- How to Celebrate the Fourth of July in Champaign-Urbana
- Champaign-Urbana Area Outdoor Swimming Pools
- Champaign-Urbana Area Summer Reading Programs
- Where to Go Boating with Your Family Near Champaign-Urbana
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