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updated: 3/25/2016 6:34 AM

Gas tank getaways: Great Midwest family vacation spots

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  • Stunning sunsets will cap off a great day on the shoreline in Michigan. Crystal Mountain Resort and Boyne Mountain Resort will keep your family busy with ziplining and sand dune climbing even when there's no snow for skiing.

    Stunning sunsets will cap off a great day on the shoreline in Michigan. Crystal Mountain Resort and Boyne Mountain Resort will keep your family busy with ziplining and sand dune climbing even when there's no snow for skiing.
    Courtesy of Jamie Bartosch

  • Lake McConaughy in Nebraska offers white sand beaches and water sports to keep the family busy and happy.

    Lake McConaughy in Nebraska offers white sand beaches and water sports to keep the family busy and happy.
    Courtesy of Diana Rowe

  • Crown Center in downtown Kansas City features shopping, office space and a famous fountain, appropropriate for the city known as the "City of Fountains."

    Crown Center in downtown Kansas City features shopping, office space and a famous fountain, appropropriate for the city known as the "City of Fountains."
    Courtesy of Kirsten Maxwell

  • Put-In-Bay, Ohio, is on an island that allows you to enjoy the wonders of Lake Erie.

    Put-In-Bay, Ohio, is on an island that allows you to enjoy the wonders of Lake Erie.
    Courtesy of Tonya Prater

  • Kelleys Island, near Sandusky, Ohio, offers all the fun of Lake Erie, including nice beaches and good fishing.

    Kelleys Island, near Sandusky, Ohio, offers all the fun of Lake Erie, including nice beaches and good fishing.
    Courtesy of Tonya Prater

  • St. Louis is home to many family-friendly destinations (in addition to the Gateway Arch), including City Museum, a great free zoo and Busch Stadium, where you can sit in the dugout during a tour.

    St. Louis is home to many family-friendly destinations (in addition to the Gateway Arch), including City Museum, a great free zoo and Busch Stadium, where you can sit in the dugout during a tour.
    Courtesy of Jamie Bartosch

  • St. Louis is home to many family-friendly destinations, including Busch Stadium, where you can sit in the dugout during a tour.

    St. Louis is home to many family-friendly destinations, including Busch Stadium, where you can sit in the dugout during a tour.
    Courtesy of Jamie Bartosch

  • The Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota is under construction.

    The Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota is under construction.
    Courtesy of Jamie Bartosch

  • Custer State Park in South Dakota offers a Jeep tour that allows you to see the wildlife, including donkeys, but also the area's famous buffalo.

    Custer State Park in South Dakota offers a Jeep tour that allows you to see the wildlife, including donkeys, but also the area's famous buffalo.
    Courtesy of Jamie Bartosch

 
By Jamie Bartosch
Courtesy of TravelingMom.com

The Midwest is packed with fun within-driving-distance-of-Chicago family vacation spots. The family travel experts at TravelingMom.com have been to dozens of places they love, from Omaha to Ohio, during all seasons and with all ages of kids. That includes Chicago, which has a wealth of new offerings to entertain suburban families on a staycation.

These are just a few of our favorite Midwest family vacation spots.

Put-in-Bay & Kelleys Island, Ohio

Did you know that Lake Erie is the warmest of the five Great Lakes? OK, it's not Caribbean island warm, but the islands of Lake Erie still have all the outdoor fun of a beach resort. When you tire of building sand castles, head to the Lake Erie Islands Nature and Wildlife Center, where you will find short hiking trails, a frog pond, fun photo ops and an extensive collection of mounted animals. Or hop on the Put-in-Bay train tour, which takes you around the island to places like the butterfly house, the fort maze and the antique car museum. If all of that laid-back fun isn't exciting enough, head to nearby Sandusky, Ohio, home of the Cedar Point amusement park. There, you can take a ride on some of the fastest, highest, most heart-stopping roller coasters in the country.

Rapid City, South Dakota

I remember thinking, "What are we going to do for five days in Rapid City, South Dakota?" But five days wasn't enough time to see everything this fun city had to offer. An excellent choice for a multigenerational family trip, we learned some history at Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial. Then we enjoyed the wildlife -- watching the buffalo roam at Custer State Park and visiting Bear Country USA, a cool drive-through zoo that includes an area to watch black bear cubs play. Of course, you have to make the obligatory road trip stop along the way at the country's most famous roadside attraction, Wall Drug.

St. Louis, Missouri

An underrated family destination, St. Louis is home to the funkiest, most creative museum I've ever seen, City Museum. There's a school bus hanging over the edge of the roof, next to a Ferris wheel, among other wild stuff -- and you can climb into and onto everything. Little kids will love Magic House, a sprawling children's museum, and the city's terrific (and free) zoo. Baseball fans will want to tour Busch Stadium, where you can learn about the history of the St. Louis Cardinals before walking onto the field and sitting in the dugout. Just make sure you save time to try the frozen custard at Ted Drewes. Weather not cooperating? A 45-minute drive away is an excellent cave, in Onondaga Cave State Park.

Lake McConaughy, Nebraska

White sand beaches in ... Nebraska? You betcha. They're along Lake McConaughy (or "Lake Mac" as the locals call it). Rent boats or Jet Skis or try parasailing. There's a lot to do nearby, including the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the immense rolling hills and mixed grass prairie of Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway, and the history lesson to be found at Windlass Hill at Ash Hollow State Park.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

This year marks the 100th birthday of our National Parks System. Mammoth Cave, the closest national park to Chicago, is a 10-million-year-old wonder. It's impressive for its sheer size, although most of the cave tours lack the stalactites and stalagmites that make visitors oooh and aaah. If you crave those formations, and are in reasonably good shape, opt for the two-hour Frozen Niagara tour, which requires walking up and down 500 stairs.

Note: Caves are cool, so bring a sweater and wear closed-toed shoes. If you're traveling with little ones, plan to carry them; caves are not stroller-friendly.

If you like the caving experience, spend an extra day or two exploring the caves of southern Indiana. Marengo Cave is the place to find those jaw-dropping stalactites and stalagmites.

Kansas City, Kansas

This city is known for its awesome barbecue, jazz music, and so many great museums. One popular one is the College Basketball Experience, where you can shoot hoops, do play-by-play, and learn about the game's history. In the nearby suburb of Overland Park, kids can see a 1900s turn-of-the-century farm, Deanna Rose Children's Farmstead, with 200 animals and birds, a one-room schoolhouse, a dairy barn and more.

Resorts in Northwest Michigan

Crystal Mountain and Boyne Mountain are ski resorts in Michigan, but even if there's no snow on the ground, there is so much to do here -- and they're two places I highly recommend. We loved the ziplining, sand dune climbing, alpine slide riding, stunning sunsets and cherry pie that's so good, it's been described as a religious experience.

Chicago

This is where I'm spending my spring break -- doing a little urban exploring with the kids. That includes the new For The Win arcade downtown, biking the new 606 path, wall climbing at downtown's new Maggie Daley Park, and seeing the pop culture art exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. We'll probably eat at Block 37, a new downtown mall that's home to buzzed-about places like Gayle's Best Ever Grilled Cheese, Magnolia Bakery and the upscale Latin food court, Latinicity. We might also try the new indoor sky diving place, iFly, or see a family-friendly production of "Schoolhouse Rock Live!" at the Apollo Theater. Conjunction junction, what's your function?

• Jamie Bartosch is one of the 60 family travel experts whose work can be found at Travelingmom.com, the leading online family travel magazine. Have a family travel question? Use our Ask a TravelingMom feature or post your question to our Facebook page.

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