Looking to take an easy, long weekend getaway with the family? I've rounded up my favorite road trip destinations, within a five hour drive of Indianapolis!
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Planning a family road trip from Indianapolis?
I am always proud to say I've lived in the Hoosier State, with the exception of a brief East Coast foray for college, for nearly 30 years. And, between my time in Indiana as a kid, young adult, married couple always after the best weekend getaways, and now a parent of a young toddler daughter, I think I've visited most of the remotely drivable destinations from Indianapolis, both inside the state of Indiana and beyond!
From the shores of Lake Michigan, to the bright lights of Chicago (my first and favorite 'big city'), to quaint college towns, and major historic sites, there's more to the Midwest than meets the eye, if you're planning a road trip from Indianapolis. Midwesterners are notorious road warriors, but even we have our limits, especially for day trips or quick weekend getaways. So I've set the driving limit at a 5 hour drive from Indianapolis. A 5 hour driving is easily doable for a long weekend, and allows us to really broaden our horizons to create the full list. I've included all sorts of ideas in my high-level to-dos in each destination, from free activities, to museums, outdoor fun and areas of natural beauty, interactive exhibits, science activities, educational events, and lots of casual breweries and tastings for mom and dad. So pack up the entire family, and let's discover some fun places within a five hour drive of Indianapolis!
20 Easy, Quick Family Road Trips Within 5 Hours of Indianapolis, Indiana
State and National Parks
Let's kick things off with some of the best outdoor activities near Indianapolis. Indiana is very proud to be home to many state parks and one (new) national park! Here are a few of our favorites, any of which makes an easy drive from Indianapolis for a day trip or quick weekend.
Brown County State Park
Just an hour south of Indianapolis, Brown County State Park, our "Little Smokies," is known throughout the state as Indiana's autumn leaf peeping destination. Stop by nearby Nashville, Indiana for quaint, Southern Indiana charm. Expect crowds in September and especially October! Brown County is Indiana's largest park, with over 20 miles of winding roads, 70 miles of horse trails, and encompassing 16,000 acres. Stay at the Abe Martin Lodge & Cabins within the park and, if you're feeling fit and looking for some amazing views, climb the 90 foot Fire Tower.
If you enjoy exploring Indiana's natural landmarks and parks, consider signing up for the Indiana Nature Pass to earn prizes when you check in at specific sites. (You still have to pay to get into spots that require payment).
Turkey Run State Park & Shades State Park
One of our favorite things to do on a Saturday in early summer is drive an hour west of Indianapolis to Indiana's second-oldest state park, Turkey Run and its neighbor, Shades State Park, for a quick canoe trip. We park at Sugar Valley Canoe, they load us up in a van and drop us off in our canoes! After a couple hours on the river, we reach the pick-up zone, load up, and it's back to Indy we go! There are also two historic sites on the property, the Lusk Home and Mill Site and the Richard Lieber Log Cabin.
Looking to stay longer? Check into the Turkey Run Inn, which was built in 1919 (you'll want to book well in advance!)
Mounds State Park
On the trend of an hour, head about an hour north of Indianapolis to Mounds State Park, in Anderson, easily accessible from I-69. Here you'll find 10 "mounds" (earthen structures) built by some of the first people to inhabit the area, the Adena-Hopewell. Historians believe that "The Great Mound" was built around 160 A.D. The understanding is that the Adena-Hopewell used the mounds as ceremonial structures for religious observances, and potentially to view the stars and other important planetary events. Interestingly, the park is in the path of the totality of the 2024 solar eclipse. Mounds State Park also has a number of marked walking trails.
Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana is very proud to have added a National Park to our list of credentials, with the Indiana Dunes National Park earning the designation in 2019. I like to think Leslie Knope had a hand in this.
Indiana Dunes National Park's 15,000 acres encompass about 20 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. With 50 miles of trails and views for days, the Indiana dunes are absolutely worth visiting, especially if you're not interested in driving all the way up to Northern Michigan. Don't forget that you need a National Parks Standard Entrance Pass to enjoy the dunes.
Pokagon State Park
Looking for winter fun in Indiana without having to drive too far? Consider visiting Pokagon State Park, also off of I-69, but a little farther north, near Angola (almost to Michigan). Pokagon is known for its Pokagon State Park Toboggan Run, and its family-friendly, but mildly terrifying, runs are a right of passage of young Hoosiers. The run open November 24, 2023 and operates through February 25, 2024. Looking to stay a little longer? Check into the Potawatomi Inn & Cabins.
The Midwest is proud to be home to many charming small towns, as I'm continually discovering the longer I live here and get out and explore! I've rounded up a few of my favorite Indiana small towns that make easy trips from Indianapolis.
I debated putting Carmel on this list, but it's my adopted hometown and, darn it, I like it. Since I moved here nearly 30 years ago, Carmel has changed very much for the better and is nearly unrecognizable. Let's just say it wouldn't have made this list when we first showed up! From the world-class performing arts at the Center for the Performing Arts (including the Palladium), great dining at Anthony's Chophouse and divvy, local breweries, everything you need for home decor and renovation at the Indiana Design Center, to the genuinely luxury, 'shop local' shopping at the Carmel City Center (Addendum is my personal favorite gift store in Indy), Carmel is worth a visit. Looking to stay longer? Check into The Hotel Carmichael, a Marriott Autograph hotel that opened in 2020. Be sure to grab a drink and take in the live music at Feinstein's.
Arguably the best college town in the country, Bloomington, Indiana is the ideal mix of traditional limestone architecture, live music venues, quirky restaurants, cute shopping, a charming college main street, and, of course, some of the nation's most enthusiastic basketball fans. And it's a surprisingly short drive from Indianapolis! Grab a delicious dinner at Farm or Malibu Grill, visit the original (now massive) Upland location. Stay at the new Graduate Bloomington, or at my personal favorite the Indiana Memorial Union's Biddle Hotel (on campus). And if you can snag tickets, take in the fan frenzy of an IU Hoosiers basketball game.
Not too far from Bloomington is the architecturally significant, yet charmingly small, Southern Indiana town of Columbus, Indiana. I visited the first time from Bloomington as a birthday surprise during law school and was so pleasantly surprised at this Southern Indiana gem! Grab an incredible ice cream sundae at the 120+ year old Zaharakos (a great way to keep younger children entertained...), tour the famed midcentury modern marvel Miller House, designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen (and now operated by Newfields in Indianapolis), or even take a Columbus walking tour, Want to stay longer? Check into the Inn at Irwin Gardens Bed & Breakfast.
I first visited Kalamazoo as an easy 'halfway' point between Indianapolis and our yearly summer trips to Northern Michigan. In addition to having an undeniably awesome name, Kalamazoo is also home to incredible local beer, Bell's, which you can sample at Bell's Eccentric Cafe. If you're only in the area for a short while, the Eccentric Cafe is worth a stop. Check out the thriving vintage clothing scene, and take the kids to Air Zoo, the aerospace and science 'experience.' A visit to Kalamazoo can be easily combined with a trip to Grand Rapids.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Wrapping up our small towns section, Ann Arbor, another of the Midwest's great college towns (don't let Bloomington hear me saying that!), offers one of the great college 'main street's in the U.S. Explore the University of Michigan, and if you enjoyed Bloomington's version, stay at Graduate Ann Arbor!
For a complete change of pace, my next grouping of easy, family-friendly road trip destinations less than 5 hours from Indianapolis are those bigger cities. We don't have many, here in the Midwest, but the ones we do have are some of the greats. To me, the perfect city vacation is fast, short, and reasonable affordable, and you'll be able to satisfy all of those goals in either destination described below.
It goes without saying that Chicago is a #1 vacation destination for many Hoosiers, myself included. The Windy City offers all of the big city amenities of NYC, blended with Midwest friendliness, lower prices, and far fewer tourists. Honestly, every time I visit Chicago I'm surprised there aren't more people visiting. Haven't they heard!? Whether it's your first trip to Chicago, or your next in a long history of trips up I-65, I'd suggest that you use your time to: learn all about Chicago's ever-evolving skyline on an architectural boat tour, take the kids to the Shedd Aquarium, have a classy morning at the Art Institute of Chicago, take in the amazing shopping experiences on Michigan Avenue (there are plenty of 'touristy' spots to keep non-shoppers entertained), and experience "real Chicago" with a stay at The Drake (my favorite historic Chicago hotel is now surprisingly affordable). I have a range of Chicago resources on the blog, including a review of The Drake Hotel, Chicago.
Heading northeast this time, let's discover our other neighbor to the north (no, not Canada...quite). I grew up traipsing up and down I-69 to visit family in Detroit, and I wouldn't have had it any other way, The Motor City is an often under-appreciate neighbor for Hoosiers, and I'd strongly encourage you to consider a trip. Fun, historic, and vibrant, Detroit has a lot to offer, from its sprawling historical part at The Henry Ford (which includes Greenfield Village, the museum, and the Ford Rouge Plant), discovering the Detroit Riverfront, to taking in a Tiger's game and indulging in some excellent cuisine. Don't forget the Detroit Institute of Arts. My Grandmother trained for two years to become a volunteer docent at the "DIA" when I was a kid - and you bet I paid attention on those tours! Even the Detroit suburbs are worth exploring. I'm particularly fond of Birmingham and Rochester for walkable destinations with plenty to keep you occupied, including some of the best boutique shopping around.
Just under two hours from Indianapolis, Cincinnati is a very manageable weekend trip, or even a day trip (I've done both, multiple times!) Spend an afternoon at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, visiting their adorable young hippo family, including the famous Fiona, stop by the Cincinnati Art Museum, learn about an important and little-known aspect of the region at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and take in a Cincinnati Reds game (and grab a drink beforehand at one of the many, many nearby party zones). Hope over to the Kentucky side of the Ohio River to visit Newport, likely the ultimate family-friendly destination on this list, where you'll find the Newport Aquarium and a Hofbrauhaus, along with just about any other family activity you can imagine.
St. Louis, Missouri
Go West, Hoosiers! About a four hour drive from Indianapolis, a family trip to St. Louis is worth the drive. Tour the Anheuser-Busch factory with the Brewery Experience (a highlight for me. Obviously you can see some Clydesdales!), check out the Saint Louis Art Museum (located on a stunning campus, in the middle of a massive park in the middle of the city), and, of course, take the scary pod elevators up into The Gateway Arch to get the finest views of the Mississippi River and beyond. Be sure to check out all that Grant's Farm has to offer (yes, it was a former home of President Ulysses Grant). There's a lot more than free beer, but yes, there's also free beer and we shouldn't downplay the allure of that!
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Now the largest city in Michigan, Grand Rapids hasn't lost any of its Midwestern charm as it has grown. Stop by the hometown of United States President Gerald Ford, visit the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum, sample some local beers (I like Grand Rapids Brewing Co. for drinks and dinner), and check out the Grand Rapids Children's Museum! I love the Amway Grand Plaza for lodging - a classic, historic hotel right on the river, and within easy walking distance to most of what you'll want to see - what more could you want? Oh and it's pretty affordable. Perfection. Though Grand Rapids isn't on Lake Michigan directly, you aren't too far if you'd like to get in some beach time while you're up there!
For whatever reason, the Midwest isn't generally known for its beaches, but I'd argue that we can change that! I actually had a poster of the Sleeping Bear Dunes on my wall in college and I loved telling people about all of the natural beauty "Up North!" While it is a little harder to find water as a weekend trip from Indianapolis (I'm obviously a Northern Michigan loyalist, but if you're going to drive that distance, you'll probably want to stay a little while), I do have a few suggestions a little closer to home, if you're looking for a quick, family beach weekend!
The shores of Lake Michigan are home to a number of charming, small beach towns, just over the Michigan border! Consider St. Joseph, Benton Harbor, Saugatuk, all of which are three to four hours' drive from Indy. The nicest hotel I've found in the area is The Harbor Grand in New Buffalo, if you're feeling fancy or planning a romantic couples' getaway! The further north you go, the more you'll notice the decrease in humidity and increase in "lake vibes."
A little closer to home, and a little more difficult to get to, Lake Wawasee has been Indianapolis residents' lake home destination for over a century. While there's no hotel on Lake Wawasee, you can easily rent houses through AirBnb for your perfect lake weekend, just about a 3 hours drive from Indianapolis!
Historic Road Trips
French Lick, Indiana
The charming Indiana French Lick Resort is actually home to two historic resorts, French Lick Resort and West Baden Springs Hotel. French Lick Resort is the more affordable, larger, and more family-friendly of the two, with West Baden having a nicer restaurant and a "four star" rating. Family trip? French Lick. Couples weekend? West Baden. No matter which hotel you choose, you'll have access to the amenities provided on-site, from the spa, Pete Dye golf course, horseback riding, and, naturally, the casino (if that's your thing. It's not mine!)
There has actually been a hotel in French Lick since 1845, when tourists started visiting to "take the waters," from the natural sulphur springs, which you can still smell, should you wish. The hotel now offers a behind the scenes tour, which I'm absolutely going to take next time we visit.
New Harmony, Indiana
Going in roughly the opposite direction, a visit to New Harmony is much heavier on the history and much lower on the spa/golf course/casino aspects. About three hours south of Indianapolis, on the Wabash River, sits New Harmony, formerly home to The Harmony Society, an early 19th century Utopian Society that you almost certainly learned about in 4th grade Indiana history class. They established a co-ed public school system and opened a public library, both of which were cutting edge in their day. Many of the town's oldest buildings have been restored and are available to visit.
Springfield, Illinois is one of the furthest destinations on this list, and it is a solid five hour drive from Indianapolis. To be honest, it's not a very interesting drive, either, as you'll sort of feel like you're on a cornfield treadmill. But, you can't beat Springfield if you're an Abraham Lincoln buff! Illinois's capital city is home to the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area, the center of which are the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Lincoln's last home before he left Illinois for the White House, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, and Lincoln's Tomb. For a history buff, this is the ultimate three day weekend. For the non history buff, there's frankly not that much else to do.
Nightlife, Drinks, & Live Music
Our final category of road trips within five hours of Indianapolis takes us to my nightlife section, which focuses on the best places to see live music and experience some evening relaxation. But, don't worry, there's plenty for the family to keep everybody entertained.
Nashville is a national destination for live music and for its wonderful food scene. About five hours nearly directly south of Indianapolis, Nashville is a great place to visit if you're looking for an easy weekend trip from Indianapolis. Any night of the week, stroll up aptly named Broadway Street and pop in and out of almost any bar to hear the best live music the country scene has to offer. It does get a little rowdy, but it's perfectly family friendly and I never felt unsafe, even at night. Fill your days with a trip to Andrew Jackson's very well-preserved estate, The Hermitage, a visit to Nashville's surprisingly interesting Parthenon replica, Vanderbilt University, and, of course, the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Last, but certainly not least, is Louisville, Kentucky, only about two hours south of Indianapolis, but somehow seemingly worlds away. Downtown Louisville is home to yet another amazing nightlife scene, with its "Fourth Street" area teeming with bachelorette parties. As with Nashville, there's more than enough to keep you occupied during the day. We all know I'm a wine girl, but I've enjoyed a few Bourbon tastings in Louisville - and there are Bourbon tasting rooms downtown, so you don't have to load up the whole family and traipse all around the Bourbon Trail. We had a great time at the Evan Williams Experience. Walkable, in the middle of downtown Louisville is the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, where you can watch the bats be mad, and learn more about baseball bats than you really knew there was to know. I promise you'll leave the tour desperate to be out at the diamond. And finally, one of the best places to visit in all of Kentucky is Churchill Downs, and it's a relaxing visit when it's not Derby day! Take a tour, and watch a bit of whatever race is going on the day of your visit. It's no Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but it sure is cool. Need a hotel in Louisville? We've loved the historic Seelbach Hilton. Affordable, centrally located, and still oozing 1920's glamour, the Seelbach was frequented by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the inspiration for Jay Gatsby, George Remus.
Thanks for stopping by!
Phew! Well, we made it through all 20 family-friendly road trip destinations from Indianapolis. I hope you've found some alluring Midwestern destinations that'll have you packing up the car and hitting the road for your next big family adventure. Feel free to drop your favorite road trip destinations in the comment section below!
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