2019 was a great year of traveling for us, and we hope you come away inspired to travel more in 2020. This annual post is always one of my favorites, and I love looking back on our best family trips of the year.
National Parks figured prominently in our plans this year, and we recorded a record-breaking number stops – 12 parks in all! They never cease to amaze, and we always encourage families to visit these special places.
While most of our travel was domestic, we did visit the United Kingdom and Ireland and enjoyed the slower pace of driving the islands and taking it all in. Despite the challenge of driving on the wrong side of the road (ahem), it was an unforgettable trip full of great memories. From the rugged coastline of Dingle, to the refined gardens of Blarney, Ireland is a great place for families no matter what part you happen to be visiting.
2019 also had us riding some new roller coasters at Dollywood, searching for Nessie at Loch Ness, chugging our way to Hogwarts on the Jacobite Steam Train, meandering through a virtual Dr. Seuss book at Joshua Tree National Park, and reliving some of our favorite on-screen moments at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour and Universal Studios Hollywood.
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The Best Road Trip of 2019 – Utah
Words can’t really describe a drive through this incredible state, so we’ll let the photos do the talking.
We visited all five National Parks in Utah, plus one in Arizona (Grand Canyon National Park), another in Nevada (Great Basin National Park), and a handful of parks, monuments, and recreation areas in between.
It was awesome!
Best Sunrise – Zion National Park
As we woke up early to get a head start into Zion, we peeked out of our room to brilliant oranges and reds. It was a stunning way to start the day.
After getting to the park, we hiked through the canyon as the sun finally peeked out from behind the massive cliffs, and it was just perfect.
If you want a view like this for your visit, book stay at the Best Western Plus Zion Inn and Suites in Springdale, UT. It’s just 90 seconds or so from the entrance to the park, and shuttle service runs from just across the street during the busier months.
Zion is an amazing place, and we’d love to go back.
Best Sunset – Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks both celebrated their 100th birthdays in 2019, and there was no better send off from Grand Canyon than one of their epic sunsets. It was a fitting ending to 100 years of jaw-dropping moments this park has given visitors over the years.
Best Surprise – The magic of the Hogwarts Express
If I’m honest, our trip to Scotland was about one thing – rekindling our obsession with all things Harry Potter, so the first thing we booked for this trip was a ride on Scotland’s Jacobite Steam Train. This Hogwarts Express lookalike runs from Fort William out to Mallaig and back, and it whisks you by many of the films’ shooting locations, including the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct seen in several of the films.
The trip was every bit as magical as we’d hoped it would be, and we highly recommend any Potter-head giving it a go. There is something truly magical about chugging along through the Scottish Highlands that makes you feel like a first-year headed to Hogwarts. Start planning your trip for this summer before it’s sold out!
Best Alternate Plan – Pinnalces National Park
We were so excited to visit Sequoia National Park for our trip to California, but when we saw that the weather wasn’t looking great, we weren’t sure what to do. We held out hope until the morning we wanted to drive up, but the roads were closed.
After having a quick family meeting, we decided to shift gears and make the drive north to Pinnacles National Park to escape the weather. We had a really fun day, and this park didn’t let us down. The views were epic, and the hikes rejuvenating. Be sure to read more about Pinnacles National Park here.
Best Theme Park – Dollywood
We usually end up at a theme park of some sort each year, and this year our favorite was Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN. I had not visited here since I was a kid when the park was brand new, but now it’s full of world-class roller coasters, fun areas for families with smaller children, and that great hospitality you would expect to find from Dolly herself.
We spent all day at this park, and had a blast. If you’re in the area, combine a visit here with a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Best Food – Murphy’s Ice Cream – Ireland
We got our first taste of Murphy’s Ice Cream in the town of Dingle while driving around the peninsula. Made with milk from Kerry cows, it’s some of the best stuff we’ve ever tasted. We actually went twice in one day – once before the drive around and once when we got back to Dingle!
Go for the sea salt flavor. Trust me on this.
Best Weekend Trip – Dubuque, Iowa
This trip just about fell apart for us due to some last-minute conflicts, but we pulled it together, and it was a lot of fun. If you’re wondering what’s going on in Dubuque, you’re not alone – we didn’t know much about it either! As it turns out, the movie Field of Dreams was filmed nearby, and you can still head out into the corn fields to play some baseball. They have really great museum about the Mississippi River that’s also a Smithsonian Affiliate, and they lay claim to the world’s steepest railway.
Read all about Dubuque here, and don’t forget to take a spin through Madison County, home of all the beautiful bridges.
Best Hotel – Ballyseede Castle, Ireland
Once we heard that Ballyseede Castle had two furry mascots that also happened to be Irish Wolfhounds, it was all over – we just had to book a night here. Situated along Ireland’s famous Wild Atlantic Way, Ballyseede Castle is located in the town of Tralee in Kerry and is just a short drive from Galway, the Cliffs of Moher. It is also the perfect jumping off point for a drive around the Dingle Peninsula.
Besides the mascots, the rooms were nicely appointed (we booked a large family room), and the food and hospitality were lovely. Definitely worth booking a stay if you can.
Best Tour – Waterford Crystal
One of the last things we did on our trip to Ireland was take a tour of the House of Waterford Crystal. What a cool place! If you’ve ever wondered about how they make all those championship trophies or even a ‘simple’ champagne flute, this tour is for you.
Not only will you learn a lot, you’ll see artisans hard at work, perfecting their crafts. You may even get a chance to break a few things…
Their guided tour is very popular and highly rated on TripAdvisor. Read reviews and book your tour before they fill up!
Best Underrated National Park of 2019 – Great Basin National Park
This park is not easy to get to, and we spent a lot of time in the car just to see it, but this one was a surprise. Unfortunately during the winter and spring, the higher elevations of the park are closed (no bristlecone pines for us), but you can still do some hiking and take a tour of the Lehman Caves, which are amazing.
We loved this tour because, unlike other parks like Mammoth Cave, visitors can get up close to many of the formations. In fact, you have to be careful not to bump them or break anything. If you get the chance, pay them a visit – it’s a great park.
Best Former Movie Set – Tie: Star Wars and Field of Dreams
This was a tie for me. I mentioned Field of Dreams earlier in this post, and I loved the fact that during Labor Day weekend they play a celebrity softball tournament with retired MLB stars, and that they will let you on the field to take some fun photos.
My other favorite this year was from Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, where some of the scenes from Star Wars: The Force Awakens were shot. This is such a unique part of Ireland to begin with, but with its ties to one of my favorite movies, it’s even better. The Force is strong with this one.
Best Hike of 2019 – Anacapa Island – Channel Islands National Park
We took a lot of great hikes this year. From Great Smoky Mountains to Pinnacles to Arches, it’s hard not to find a great hike. I’m picking Anacapa Island because of the wonderful feeling of having an entire island nearly to yourself. Since a limited number of people can visit in a day, you can roam all over and not have to deal with crowds at all.
While there are several islands to visit in the park (and we’ll try to get back to some), we loved Anacapa for its simplicity and spectacular views. Gazing down at the sea lions with nearly nobody around was a highlight for us.
Best Views of 2019 – Dealer’s Choice
We visited so many destinations this year with spectacular views, it’s impossible to decide. Instead, I’ll leave you with photos from the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon National Park, Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher and Dingle Peninsula, and Joshua Tree National Park.
Where are you headed in 2020?
We want to know! We’re always looking for new destination to #takethekids so let us know in the comments.
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