My Top 10 Family Adventures
By Michael Lanza
How many outdoor trips do you have on the calendar for 2016 already? I have four (with others in active planning stages)—and three of those are with my family, both because that’s what we like to do, and because planning months in advance and involving my family are my first two rules for getting outside more. For me, this is the time of year for pulling out maps, researching online and in my guidebooks, and poring over my list of adventures I want to take—which is now 17,076 words long and growing. I need to get busy—and so do you.
To help you out with ideas and inspiration for next year, here are my Top 10 Family Adventures at The Big Outside, a list that includes seven national parks, three amazing paddling adventures, four trips that should be on every backpacker’s to-do list, hiking an active volcano, and cross-country skiing among the greatest concentration of active geysers in the world.
All are linked to the original story and photo gallery; several of these include a video. You may also want to peruse my list of 10 all-time favorite adventures, domestic and international, that are not necessarily for families—although several trips could be on either list (and there’s no overlap between the two).
Here’s wishing you an adventurous new year.
Not only is this one of the coolest dayhikes in America, but we had a special component to our trip up and down the mountain: a three-generation family party with a 66-year spread between the youngest, my 10-year-old daughter, and the oldest, my 76-year-old mother. When I scored last-minute permits to hike the mountain, I wasn’t sure everyone could make it. Then, hours into the ascent, events seemed to take a bad downturn. Read for yourself how it all turned out.
Sure, any trip in the Big Ditch is worthy of a top 10 list—you could fill a top 10 list just with Grand Canyon hikes. But in this rugged terrain and unforgiving environment, choosing the right backpacking route becomes critical; most trails are rough, many trailheads remote. This four-day, 29-mile hike combines two of the most spectacular and accessible trails coming off the South Rim—the Grandview and South Kaibab—with an easier, less-busy stretch of the Tonto Trail that delivers constant, big views.
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I’ve been to a lot of national parks, many of them multiple times. To me, cross-country skiing the almost flat, 2.5 miles of trail through Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin, past one-fourth of the active geysers in the world (and the greatest concentration of them), is one of the coolest experiences in the National Park System. And right up there among the most scenic, wildlife-filled trails I’ve skied are several others in Yellowstone, like the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Tower Fall, and Mammoth Hot Springs—many of them manageable for children and beginner skiers. Every family should take this trip.
For our kids, who were nine and seven, this three-day backpacking trip on the wilderness coastline of Washington’s Olympic National Park ranks as a favorite for all the expected reasons that children love a wild ocean shore: playing for hours in water, exploring the variety of sea life in tide pools, and picking, awestruck, through the myriad flotsam from civilization like old, salt-worn buoys (my son took one home). For adults, the scores of offshore sea stacks, giant trees, and natural beauty make the Olympic coast one of America’s classic backpacking trips.
Stand at the brink of a thunderous waterfall that drops a sheer 1,400 feet over a cliff. Hike a trail in the heavy shower of mist raining from a clear, blue sky. Dayhike through one of the most iconic landscapes in America—Yosemite Valley. The Valley’s towering cliffs and waterfalls will awe any adult and even the most cynical teenager. But for kids, there are also the thrills of walking through the mist from a giant waterfall, and moments like traversing the narrow catwalk blasted out of granite on the final steps to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. This should be a must for every American.
For 52 miles through Stillwater Canyon, the Green River slowly unfurls beneath a constant backdrop of giant redrock cliffs and spires. Off the water, you camp on sandy beaches and slickrock benches, hike to centuries-old Puebloan rock art and cliff dwellings, and maybe even spot bighorn sheep scrambling around on precipitous rock faces. An easy trip for beginners and families (our party of 17 ranged in age from four to 80 and included eight kids), floating the Green River is still my family’s gold standard for river trips.
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Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness sprawls over more than half a million acres of the North Cascades region, in my opinion one of America’s most spectacular mountain ranges. And the five-day, 44-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass loop gives you five-star views of 10,541-foot Glacier Peak and the sea of lower, jagged mountains surrounding it. Plus, this route has earned a reputation for its somewhat more adventurous flavor, owing to the route over 7,100-foot Spider Gap, which does not follow a maintained trail.
Paddling a flatwater river shared with alligators. Seeing scores of large, exotic birds like brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, white ibises, and black anhingas. Canoeing among remote islands to camp on a wilderness beach you have all to yourself. Watching a dolphin surface just off your canoe’s bow and swim a wide circle around you. It’s hard to overstate how exciting and fun this park is for adults and children. And the trip my family took when our kids were ten and almost eight was one of the most beginner-friendly in the Everglades.
Many hikers content themselves with exploring the trails of Zion Canyon and the popular dayhike up Angels Landing—all worthwhile. But backpack into the backcountry and you discover a sprawling landscape that’s unique even in the Southwest. Cliffs of pure white and blood-red sandstone soar hundreds of feet overhead, rock ripples like water, and you walk along a high rim looking down on a labyrinth of slot canyons and isolated mesas. This trip’s moderate difficulty and multiple itinerary options make it ideal for families and beginner backpackers.
For a complete package of sheer thrills, five-star scenery, immersion in a vast wilderness, beautiful campsites, repeated episodes of children shrieking with joy, and the company of like-minded people for six days—not to mention eating like every day was Thanksgiving—few trips we’ve taken as a family compare to our guided float down Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Flowing like an artery through the heart of the second-largest federal wilderness in the continental United States, the nearly 2.4-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the Middle Fork is a world-class whitewater river widely considered second only to the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in terms of raw beauty.
You may also want to visit my All Trips and Skills pages and see a menu of all of my stories about family adventures at The Big Outside, and these stories of mine as you’re planning upcoming family adventures:
Past Top 10 Family Adventures
I update the list above every year, and sometimes one or two trips get bumped for something better. But that doesn’t diminish their appeal. So I will keep this list below—what I could call my “junior varsity” top family adventures—to give you more choices for your family.
With America’s greatest concentration of national parks and a wealth of other public lands spread across southern Utah, it just plain takes a lot of time to really explore this region. I’ve been at it for years just to begin scratching below the surface. In this weeklong spring trip with another family, we dayhiked in Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon national parks, and focused most of our efforts on the lesser-known Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where we hiked to arguably the area’s finest waterfall, squeezed through the slot canyons Peek-a-Boo Gulch and Spooky Gulch, and backpacked for three days in one of the gems of canyon country, Coyote Gulch. The photos and videos alone will sell you on this trip.
Glacier National Park belongs on every serious backpacker’s must-do list. But much of this vast wilderness of rugged mountains is remote, which translates to long, challenging trips that aren’t always ideal for families or beginners—not to mention that this park has the highest concentration of grizzly bears in the Lower 48. When I wanted to take our kids, then nine and seven, backpacking in Glacier, I chose a three-day hike on the popular, gorgeous, and relatively accessible Gunsight Pass Trail, a hike brimming with classically Glacier-esque jagged peaks, waterfalls, and wildlife like marmots and mountain goats.
In many ways, this week spent in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park compares with the “Playing the Memory Game” trip to Capitol Reef, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Bryce Canyon National Park on the list above. But don’t count it out: It offers a perfect combination of two days of off-trail hiking and slot canyon exploring with a family-friendly, three-day backpacking trip in one of the most accessible areas of the Capitol Reef backcountry.
This trip makes my list more for sentimental reasons than any other—but that’s why it or something similar should be on your list. We all, parents and children, excitedly anticipate this annual, multi-day, cross-country ski trip to a backcountry yurt in Idaho’s Boise Mountains—for many reasons that the story explains. Your family’s equivalent could be a different type of outdoors adventure, closer to your home so that it’s accessible. The most important elements: a commitment to it, and reserving this time only for each other, uninterrupted by electronic devices or other distractions. Read on to see what I’m talking about.