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Christopher Elliott
Iden Elliott prepares to go snowshoeing in Crested Butte, Colorado.

The best family vacations of the year are in places you'd least expect. They're out-of-the-way destinations you might not even consider for a family getaway.

I know, because I spend every day of the year on the road. I also travel with my three kids. We live in rentals and try to experience a place like locals. In 2018, we crisscrossed the Western United States, starting in Colorado and ending in Hawaii.

I polled my kids, and it turns out the best family vacations of the year were not in the places you'd expect. Far from it!

Ketchum, Idaho

Christopher Elliott
Iden Elliott at the Hotel Ketchum in Ketchum, Idaho.

We spent two weeks early this spring in Ketchum, and the kids loved this mountain resort. Ketchum is next door to Sun Valley, the legendary ski resort. There are technically two Sun Valley ski resorts: Dollar Mountain, where you learn to ski, and Bald Mountain, for the more advanced. It's a little confusing.The just-opened Hotel Ketchum, on the northern end of town, nails Ketchum's quirkiness. Developers took an old motel, stripped it down to the studs, and reimagined it as a modernist masterpiece. OK, maybe "masterpiece" is too strong a word. There is art here, though. Mostly, sheep. And a corny sheep theme. ("Lucky ewe," "Baby, don't herd me.")

The Limelight Hotel, on the other end of town, is closest to the River Run area and the gondola that takes you up to Seattle Ridge, which has some of the best ski runs in Idaho. It's also vying to become the cultural center of town, with a new performing arts center under construction across the street.

The Limelight is ideal for guests who want to spend three or four days skiing, with in-room microwave ovens, basic dishes and a refrigerator. There's also a pretty decent grocery store right across the street. But the brick oven pizza served in the lobby is a real standout. I recommend the veggie pizza.

I've been coming to Sun Valley for years. The place reminds me so much of Austria, where I grew up. From the mountain terrain to the faux-Alpine houses to the high prices. They are good memories.

Sedona, Arizona

Provided by Christopher Elliott
Aren and Iden Elliott at the top of Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.

What's to love about Sedona? Everything. Its red rocks, though not on the same monumental scale as the Grand Canyon's, are awe-inspiring. If you're in Sedona, chances are there's a hiking trail close by that will take you up a winding path to an overlook that will leave you breathless with awe.

I consider Sedona's vivid sandstone monoliths to be among some of the natural wonders of the world. It's also at the top of our "best family vacations" list. It's not just the shapes, which emerge dramatically from the desert floor, but also the bright red color. At dawn and dusk, Sedona's red rock formations glow with energy.

We were so fascinated by Sedona that we rented a small house on the outskirts of town near the airport and set aside several hours every day to explore. The first day set the tone for our entire visit. My oldest son and I ascended to the Airport Loop trail, which rewarded us with stunning views of Sedona. Finally, we arrived at one of the area's famous vortexes, a mystical energy center, said to have healing properties. The start of the trail offers a vantage point that you have to see to believe — towering rocks, mountain ranges, blue sky. It's bucket list stuff.

On our way down the mountain, a tourist asked us to point him to the vortex. Little did he realize that he was standing in it at that moment. In a sense, Sedona is one massive vortex of beauty. But I didn't want to get all poetic on him.

It's not just the postcard-perfect scenery that kept us in Sedona. There are plenty of other distractions, from quality restaurants to museums and shopping. For example, we found ourselves at Indian Gardens Cafe & Market at least once a week. (Tip: try the sourdough bread.) But it's understood that these things are here for the tourists and daytrippers. The real draw is the mountains.

Crested Butte, Colorado

Provided by Christopher Elliott
Aren Elliott and the author share a light moment while driving through Colorado in 2018.

Although Crested Butte is only a few miles over Italian Mountain from Aspen, Colorado's most high-profile ski area, it might as well be on a different planet. People don't come here to be seen, and there are no paparazzi tracking the few celebs who venture over the hill.

There's much more to Crested Butte than its legendary slopes. After two days of intense skiing, we got off the mountain and headed into town. We met up with Nel Burkett, curator of the Crested Butte Heritage Museum, who took us on a walk through the historic downtown and then offered a brief tour of the museum. It's funny, but when I asked the kids what they remembered, they said, "That's the town where all the buildings burned down." True, more than a few buildings on the tour had burned to the ground at some point in history.

Crested Butte has a fascinating history as a coal mining town and a center for environmental activism, and there's still an interesting mix of money and idealism here. You can find impressive, million-dollar mansions in the hills, but you can also run into a few old-timers who live more modestly. And you can visit shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants that remind you more of a college town like Berkeley.

Speaking of restaurants, there are more than a few tasty choices here. Our favorites included Teocalli Tamale, with its generous burritos and a library of palate-blowing hot sauces. And there's Secret Stash, which claims to have the best pizza in the world. Who am I to disagree? For a more formal dining experience, try the Magic Meadows Yurt, which involves a brisk snowshoe walk through the woods to a backcountry cabin heated by a wood-burning stove, with live music and a five-course meal prepared by a private chef.

2 comments on this story

At the end of the day, we always found ourselves out in the snow and cold. Crested Butte is one of the coolest places in Colorado, thanks to high mountains that pull freezing air into the valley. You haven't lived until you've gone snowshoeing on a clear, subzero night, trudging through the fresh powder. Look up and marvel at a thousand stars bracketed by dark mountains. Now you're having an adventure!

Christopher Elliott's latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). He edits the family adventure travel blog Away is Home. You can follow his adventures on Twitter or Facebook.