Choosing Road Trip Stops for a Toddler

Toddlers have a lot of energy.  When they are strapped into a car seat for a good portion of the day, it is difficult to burn off that energy.  I get it.  Sometimes I just can’t wait to get out of the car to stretch my legs a bit!  Quality stops are necessary – especially on road trips that are going to take more than one day!

Recently, Boo and I spent two days driving to visit a friend in Indiana.    Sure, I probably could have made the trip in a day (10 hours of direct driving), but I was doing all the driving by myself and that would have meant a LOT of sitting for Boo.  So, I decided to make a trip of it!  Lots of fun stops and quality bonding time with my favorite tiny person!

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Photo courtesy of

My primary planning tool was Roadtrippers (they also have an app!).  This site is awesome because you can enter your starting point and destination and it will show you lots of stops along the way – hotels, restaurants, shopping, parks, weird gimmicks on the side of the road, etc.!  You can choose the distance you are willing to travel from your course, choose the type of stops you are looking for, and then read reviews and visit websites on any that pique your interest!

My goal was to drive about 5 to 6 hours each day and stop approximately every 2 hours for some sort of break.  First, I chose a midway point and booked a hotel for the night.  Lexington, Kentucky looked interesting for the way out and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania would have been ideal for the way back.  In the end, I settled on Cadiz, Ohio (the middle of nowhere – but it is Clark Gable’s birthplace!) for the return trip because hotel prices were cheaper.

Next, I chose a region that looked like it might meet my time requirements and I zoomed in.  I was looking for places that were safe (read more about this here), inexpensive (or free!), fairly quick, interesting for a toddler, and different from any other stop on our list.

So, here is a break down of our trip!

Day 1 Goal: Reach Lexington, Kentucky

Roanoke, VA to New River Gorge Bridge, WV: 2 hours 30 minutes

This one was surprisingly awesome because of all of those stairs!  We spent a lot of time going up and down!  There was a nice air conditioned museum to explore as well!

New River Gorge Bridge, WV to Carter Caves State Park, KY: 2 hours 40 minutes

We stopped for lunch somewhere in the middle.  Carter Caves is really neat because there are a lot of cave tours to choose from.  There are even wild caves (not rigged for electricity) to explore!  I chose the most basic X Cave tour because it was the shortest and had the least steps.  This was Boo’s first cave experience, so I was assuming I would be carrying her the whole way.  Turns out she did fantastic and didn’t even mind total darkness!  We even found some cool stumps to climb all over!

Carter Caves State Park, KY to Lexington, KY: 1 hour 36 minutes

Day 2 Goal: Reach South Bend, Indiana

Lexington, KY to Big Bone Lick State Park, KY: 1 hour 15 minutes

This is the site where Lewis and Clark met up to start their expedition west.  Lewis was also contracted by President Jefferson to perform a dig for dinosaur fossils here.  There is a short walkway explaining the area’s prehistoric history as well as a very small (but air conditioned) museum.

(Check out that lovely, morbid scene!)

Furthermore, apparently there used to be bison in Kentucky!  This state park is attempting to reestablish a herd.  Right now they have a few bison in a farm-type situation (a short walk from the parking lot) with lots of cute calves!  Thanks to this trip, Boo can now identify a bison by sight!

Big Bone Lick State Park, KY to Cincinnati Zoo, OH: 38 minutes

This was a really short drive time, but there is a lot of cool stuff in this area, so I couldn’t help taking advantage.  Unfortunately, this is where our day started going downhill (more on that later!).  We had intended to stop at the Newport Aquarium in Kentucky, but my GPS couldn’t find it, so after randomly driving around for half an hour, I chose the only other thing in the area I could remember off the top of my head (I still don’t have a smart phone).

This was more money than I planned on spending.  We also should have spent the entire day at the zoo to really do it justice (and to make it worth the cost of admissions/parking/food!).  As is, we spent about 2 hours there and only saw a handful of exhibits.

Cincinnati Zoo, OH to Mass Ave Toys; Indianapolis, IN: 1 hour 50 minutes

I didn’t get any pictures (we were too busy playing!), but this toy store is awesome!  Street parking was approachable (I am not a huge fan of city driving…or parallel parking), the neighborhood is charming, and I could spend hours (and lots of money!) in this store!  We did not have time to check out any other stores or restaurants in the area, but I will definitely keep it in mind for the next time we are in the area!

Due to an unfortunate series of events (again, more on that later!), we decided to call it a day and got an unplanned hotel outside of Indianapolis.

Day 3 Goal: Make another attempt at reaching South Bend, Indiana

Indianapolis, IN to South Bend, IN: 2 hours 30 minutes

Our third day of drive was fairly quick, so we just made a midway McDonald’s stop before hitting the road again.  I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before, but McDonald’s is one of my favorite road stops for Boo.  She loves the milk that comes in those tiny little jugs for her happy meal!

The return journey!

Day 1 Goal: Reach Cadiz, Ohio

South Bend, IN to Toledo Botanical Garden, OH: 2 hours 30 minutes

This look like a really neat place (and it was free!), but we did not stay particularly long because of the heat.  We did find this bridge over a small stream and Boo burned off some energy walking across it (over and over and over again).

Toledo Botanical Gardens, OH to Target; Avon, OH: 1 hour 38 minutes

Target is another one of my favorite road trip stops.  This time, my excuse was a new pair of sneakers for Boo.  We were unsuccessful in this endeavor, but Boo always enjoys shoe shopping!  In any case, this type of stop is always an adventure for a toddler.

Avon, OH to Cadiz, OH: 2 hours 20 minutes

There really is a whole lot of nothing in this area of Ohio.  There seem to be plenty of hikes and outdoor sort of activities, but I am a little spooked right now about hiking solo with the kid.  I keep hearing stories about solo hiking trips going poorly – thanks to shady people or even the elements.  In any case, we will wait to check out this area until we have a larger adventure crew!

Day 2 Goal: Reach Bel Air, Maryland (visiting family in my hometown!)

Cadiz, OH to National Aviary; Pittsburgh, PA: 1 hour 10 minutes

I was so excited about this stop!  I have never been to an aviary before!   This one did not disappoint!  The prices were reasonable, the birds were beautiful, and Boo had a great time exploring their habitats!

Pittsburgh, PA to Bel Air, MD: 4 hours 20 minutes

I am sad to say that I was unable to find any interesting stops in the southwestern region of Pennsylvania, so we stuck to the typical food and gas type stops.  I’m sure there is more to the region that I was unable to find, but maybe I was just burned out by this point.

There you go!  Five days of driving and every one of our stops was exciting and engaging for a toddler!  I hope this inspires you to go beyond the usual rest stops and restaurants for your next road trip!


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