The kids have begged you for months to take them to Texas, but it just hadn’t been in the cards until now. After doing some cursory research, you decided it’s quite feasible to drive to Houston from Chicago.
As you plan your road trip, what do you need to know?
Road tripping from Chicago to Houston requires you to drive through the entirety of Illinois into Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas before finally getting to Houston. The drive takes over 16 hours and should be split into three or more days with plenty of fun activities in between.
If this is your first road trip with the kids, I want to help you plan the most fun experience you can have.
This guide will be chock full of traveling information such as routes and drivetimes as well as sightseeing destinations for making every part of the trip to Houston a blast!
The best route from Chicago to Houston
I’m sure you’re more than ready to get this show on the road, but how do you reach Houston from Chicago?
Well, it’s a rather long trip that will require you to cross through all of Illinois as well as make stops in Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas. Be sure to take plenty of breaks and plan some overnight stopovers too.
Once you’ve gotten your bags packed and the kids are ready to leave, here’s how to embark on your latest family adventure!
Chicago to Champaign
You’ll spend the first leg of your journey in your home state of Illinois, but you won’t be anywhere near Chicago.
Your first stop is Champaign, which is two hours from Chi-Town when you drive straight south.
If you don’t hit a lot of traffic, then your trip will be off to an excellent start.
Champaign is in the central part of Illinois and features the University of Illinois, the Krannert Art Museum, the Spurlock Museum, and the Neo-Romanesque Altgeld Hall all in the vicinity of the college.
Of course, I don’t think a college campus is exactly something your kids will care for at their age, but fret not. Champaign also features children’s museums, parks, farms, and shopping centers to keep the kids entertained.
Champaign to Mount Vernon
From Champaign, it’s back into the car for another long drive, this time to Mount Vernon.
This part of your trip will last two and a half hours without too much heavy traffic.
You’ll continue southbound, maybe a touch southwest as you eventually reach Illinois’ Mount Vernon.
The Jefferson County city of Mount Vernon features endless entertainment such as museums, an aquatic zoo, a historical village, and arts centers.
Mount Vernon to Cape Girardeau
You’ve finally gotten through the long drive that is passing through Illinois.
To wrap up this day of driving, you’ll stop briefly in Missouri, specifically Cape Girardeau.
It’s a two-hour drive from Mount Vernon if you don’t get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. You’ll want to drive slightly southwest and you’ll reach the edge of Missouri.
Cape Girardeau is a city with a myriad of attractions that are sure to entertain the family, including plenty of parks, a nature conservation center, museums, and even a water park.
Although it’s a brief part of your trip, I do recommend stopping here for the night.
You’ve driven for hours and hours already, even if you took lots of breaks, and you should rest your weary head so you can wake up with a sharp, clear mind tomorrow.
Cape Girardeau to Memphis
The sun is up and the kids are restless, and so it’s time to hit the road again.
From Cape Girardeau, you can reach Memphis by driving straight south for about two and a half hours.
Try to leave early to avoid rush hour so you can skip most of the ensnarling traffic that will only slow you down.
Memphis is a city that needs no introduction. This city shaped music legends such as Johnny Cash, B.B. King, and Elvis Presley and is today still an ode to music.
You won’t find any shortage of family-friendly attractions, some of which I’ve written about on the blog already!
Memphis to Little Rock
Your time in Tennessee is as brief as the stop in Missouri, as you’re next going to drive into Arkansas.
It will take you about two hours to reach Little Rock from Memphis. The route will take you westward.
As the Arkansas state capital, Little Rock is a beautiful city situated on the Arkansas River.
It has some deep history, which is why it houses the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.
Kid-friendly museums, state parks, public parks, zoos, and theme parks are bound to entertain your little ones.
It’s great that there’s so much to do around here, as Little Rock is an excellent place for an overnight stay, thus wrapping up day two of your jaunt to Houston.
Little Rock to Texarkana
Are you feeling refreshed this morning? Hopefully, the answer is a resounding yes, as you need to ready up to drive to Texas.
This is also the day you’ll reach Houston, but it will take you a couple of hours.
Before you get to Houston, you need to drive to Texarkana from Little Rock. That will take about two and a half hours barring serious traffic.
The eastern Texas city of Texarkana is named such because of its location on the border of Arkansas.
Spring Lake Park is one of the most noteworthy parks there, but this city boasts so much more family entertainment than that.
Make sure you check out the next section to see what you can do here when you and the kids roll through!
Texarkana to Nacogdoches
There’s only one more stop on your list before you get to Houston, and that’s Nacogdoches.
If you drive straight south, it’s a three-hour drive to Nacogdoches, a tiny city in the eastern part of Texas.
Once you get here, it’s worth stepping out of the car and stretching your legs. Nacogdoches has so much natural beauty and wonders to behold if you have a little bit of time.
Nacogdoches to Houston
From there, you need to only drive for two and a half hours south, and you’ll have finally made it to Houston. Woohoo!
How long will it take you to get to Houston from Chicago?
Now that you know what it takes to reach Houston with Chicago as your starting point, precisely how many hours on the road are you in for?
If you drive from Chicago to Cape Girardeau on the first day, that’s six and a half hours in the car.
Then, from Cape Girardeau all the way to Little Rock takes five hours.
Leaving from Little Rock and driving to Houston is a seven-and-a-half-hour trek.
Overall, it will take you a little over 16 hours to get from Chicago to Houston by car.
You can do your best to avoid traffic, but in some cases, it will simply be inevitable. Keep in mind then that your trip time will take even longer.
That’s why I cannot recommend enough that you break this drive into at least three days and take plenty of breaks on those long stretches of road time.
You’ll keep the kids from getting too cranky, and you’ll prevent the fatigue that creeps in the longer you’re behind the wheel.
Kid-friendly destinations on the road to Houston
When you do need to take a break, make it a meaningful one. All the stops between Chicago and Houston offer an assortment of family fun and entertainment.
Here are some recommended destinations to add to your itinerary for a great time!
- Hessel Park
When the kids begin getting restless early into your road trip, pull over at Hessel Park so they can let off some steam.
This scenic, appealing park features grills for cooking homemade meals, sports courts, and a great variety of tree species (at least 50 species are represented!).
If you’re passing through in the summertime, don’t miss the Hessel Splash Pad, which is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Kids’ play equipment is available as well.
- Sholem Aquatic Center
Open seasonally, the Sholem Aquatic Center is like a small water park but without the lines, the crowds, the overpriced food, or the costly tickets.
The Aquatic Center features a 25-yard lap pool with eight lanes, a zero-depth pool, multiple pool slides, and play-and-spray features.
Mount Vernon Destinations
- Aquatic Zoo Water Park
The Aquatic Zoo Water Park is a seasonal option for families passing through Mount Vernon.
Experience the joys of the lazy river or get active in a 25-meter pool or a zero-depth entry pool.
The Jungle Chute is a body slide that achieves 3G forces, the Tropical Cyclone is a 266-foot tube slide with dual tubes, and the Blue Lagoon is a lap pool with diving boards.
The Rain Forrest is for the young’uns, as it’s a kiddy splash pad that has spray features aplenty and a King Kong tipping bucket that will leave the whole family soaked.
The Amazon Lazy River is ideal for relaxing, as is the zero-depth pool called Coconut Beach.
The Watering Hole is a concession stand that serves food and drinks throughout the day.
- Jefferson County Historical Village
For a bit of culture while in the area, you should take your children to the Jefferson County Historical Village.
You and the kids can hike the Timeline Trail and see the storage barn and the Horace Mann school sign.
You can also walk through the onsite museum, which is called the Schweinfurth Museum and Interpretive Center.
The museum opened in the late 1990s and features permanent and rotating exhibits.
In the permanent exhibits, kids can see Mt. Vernon cookstoves and antique pianos!
Cape Girardeau Destinations
- Lazy L Safari Park
The Lazy L Safari Park is a small, walk-through zoo that the kids ought to truly enjoy.
You can do more than witness the animals here. Other attractions include geode cracking (for an additional fee) and gemstone mining (also for an additional fee).
The kids can step into the Parakeet Jungle Exhibit and feed the parakeets (for a fee).
At the Lazy L Safari Park, kids can feed even more animals still unless the creatures have a “no feeding” sign on their enclosure.
The zoo has a Snack Shack that stocks ice cream, chips, candy, and drinks.
You can also pick up a souvenir to commemorate the day at the onsite Safari Gift Shop.
- Cape Splash Family Aquatic Center
The seasonal Cape Splash Family Aquatic Center is an outdoor water park for kids of all ages.
Eight water slides are installed throughout the park, one of which is 265 terrifying feet tall!
A swirl pool, lazy river, zero-depth entry pool, and splash pad are tamer forms of entertainment that will cool off the kids all the same.
The season begins in late May and lasts until the end of July. The hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays.
- Discovery Playhouse
The Discovery Playhouse offers interactive and educational learning experiences for kiddos of varying ages.
The exhibits are divided by age group, including kids six months to four years old, kids older than four years old, kids up to eight years old, and kids older than eight years.
Some of the exhibits include the Discover Planetarium, the Dogtown Press Theater for kids to become entertainers, and the interactive Fire House that shows the children fire safety in a fun setting.
I’ve recommended some great kid-friendly activities in Memphis before, but here are some new ones to entertain the family!
- Memphis Zoo
The Memphis Zoo is one of the top-rated zoos in the country, so if you’ve never seen it yourself with the kids, why not change that?
More than 4,500 animals are on display here in exhibits like the African Veldt, Animals of the Night, Cat Country, Dragon’s Lair, Northwest Passage, Once Upon a Farm, Pelican Pool, and more.
Butterfly encounters are open daily during the museum season, and the kids can even feed the giraffes and maybe see their blue tongues.
Families can also dine at the multitude of restaurants and snack shops throughout the Memphis Zoo, some of which include Bamboo Springs, the Bar-B-Zoo, the Pizzafari, and Go’Rillin.
- Fire Museum of Memphis
All kids should be well-versed in fire safety, and at the Fire Museum of Memphis, they can be.
This museum offers a variety of interactive exhibits to engage children while teaching them about the history of firefighting, what firefighting looks like today, and the importance of fire safety.
- Mud Island Park
The home of the giant Memphis sign, Mud Island Park is open daily from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
On the park grounds are the Mississippi River Museum and the Mud Island Amphitheatre.
The Mississippi River Museum showcases an assortment of historical artifacts.
The Mud Island Amphitheater is a great place to check out a live event like a concert!
Little Rock Destinations
- Magic Springs
Magic Springs is a water park and theme park in one!
The theme park has kids’ rides, family rides, and thrill rides so that no matter the age of your kids, there’s a little something for everyone.
The kids’ rides include trains, planes, a carousel, and teacups.
For the tweens and teens that want a thrill, they should ride such attractions as Brain Drain, The Gauntlet, the Arkansas Twister, or the Plummet Summit.
The water park also offers rides and attractions for children of all ages. The Bubble-Up Pool and Splash Island are nice and tame, as is the Kodiak Canyon Adventure River.
If you want slides, you’ve got ‘em. Magic Springs features the Seven Falls Slide Tower, Rapid Falls Recovery, and the High Sierra Slide Tower.
- Little Rock Zoo
Did you miss the Memphis Zoo on your route, and you feel bad about it? The Little Rock Zoo is an excellent alternative.
The variety of animals here includes amphibians, big cats, farm animals, birds, insects, great apes, monkeys, lizards, rodents, and turtles.
Plenty of attractions throughout the zoo will put a huge smile on your kids’ faces such as the Arkansas Diamond Express Train (which costs an additional fee to ride), the Over-the-Jumps Carousel (which also costs a fee), and seasonal fish feeding.
The seasonal Lorikeet Landing feeding experience is tremendous!
- Museum of Discovery
Calling itself the premier science center in Arkansas, the Museum of Discovery will allow your children to test the limits of science and their own imagination.
The standout exhibit here is the Tornado Alley Theater, which, over seven minutes, teaches visitors about the devastating effects of hurricanes. There’s even a faux hurricane rumbling!
- Spring Lake Park
One of the most celebrated parks in Texarkana is undoubtedly Spring Lake Park.
The park offers trails, a playground, picnic areas, a pavilion area, a disc golf course, a concert area, and a softball and baseball diamond.
The 145-acre park features a Rotary Splash Pad as well for beating the Texas heat.
- Holiday Springs Water Park
Speaking of beating the heat, Holiday Springs Water Park is the perfect destination for doing just that.
The park features the Paradise Lagoon Adult Pool, the River Rapids Lazy River, the Monkey’s Island Children’s Pool, and the breathtaking Texarkana Splash Mountain.
You and the family can also explore the Sand Castle Area, the Holiday Waves Wave Pool, and the Slide Tower.
Cabana rentals are available, as are birthday and family tents.
- Splash Kingdom Timber Falls
You can also make a beeline for the Splash Kingdom Timber Falls in Nacogdoches.
There are some twisting, turning, spiraling enclosed water slides here such as the Lumberjack and Timber! Older kids are sure to love it.
The Log Jam lazy river, Kids Treehouse, and Activity Pool are suitable for toddlers and young kids.
Feeling hungry? Kids can energize themselves by snacking on chicken tenders, hot dogs, nachos, pizza, wraps, popcorn, cookies, funnel cake, or soft pretzels.
- Pecan Acres Park
The small but picturesque Pecan Acres Park offers benches for drinking in the greenery, walking trails, a playground, picnic areas for snacking, an open area field, and disc golf.
What can you do around Houston?
You’ve finally made it to Houston, so now it’s time for the real vacation to begin!
Here are some fun-filled family-centric activities to add to your itinerary.
Space Center Houston
For your little astronauts, Space Center Houston is like a dream come true.
The exhibits will take you and the kids through real rocket exhibits, a spacesuit collection, and a space station gallery.
The kids shouldn’t miss the chance to venture inside the replica of the Independence, a NASA 905 shutter carrier aircraft.
Live presentations and films are also offered throughout the day.
Embrace the spirit of animal conservation at the Houston Zoo, which reminds you why animals are such wonderful creatures.
Venture across exhibits such as the African Forest, Bird Habitats, the Bug House, Galapagos Islands, the McNair Elephant Habitat Area, the Reptile and Amphibian House, the Sea Lion Exhibit, and the Texas Wetlands.
Children can take a break from the animal sightseeing by riding the Wildlife Carousel.
Animal encounters of all kinds are available here as well, including sloths, okapis, Galapagos turtles, orangutans, and elephants.
The Downtown Aquarium is the perfect place to see aquatic animals in exhibits like the Underwater Rig, Sunken Temple, Rainforest, Shipwreck, and Texas Bayou.
More than your average aquarium, the Downtown Aquarium features arcade games and amusement rides such as the Aqua Reel, Frog Hopper, Lighthouse Dive, Aquatic Carousel, and Diving Bell Ferris Wheel.
Wrap up the perfect Houston day with a stop to the Kemah Boardwalk, which has all sorts of options for keeping the kids entertained.
They can spin, turn, and twirl on amusement rides, eat an assortment of food, or play some arcade games to hopefully win amazing stuffed prizes.
The best part about the Kemah Boardwalk is that with the temperate Texas weather, it never closes!
Going on a road trip to Houston from Chicago is a multi-day venture with plenty of exciting stops to tantalize you along the way. No matter where your adventures take you, you and the kids are sure to have so much fun!