By Michael Lanza
Want to guarantee that your kids are always excited about getting outdoors as a family? Find adventures that excite them. We adults tend to look for nice scenery, but that, by itself, isn’t always going to fire up a school-age child or teenager. No matter what their age, kids want to engage with the outdoors—to get dirty and wet and climb around. By thinking a little more about trip planning, parents can find places and activities that inspire everyone scenically and experientially.
Ever since my kids were small, I’ve tried to plan family trips that matched their physical abilities, but that also would satisfy their innate need to explore and interact with their world—which fuels curiosity and ultimately, as a growing body of research suggests, helps them grow into smarter and healthier people.
“Exciting” doesn’t mean death defying or scary. Calibrate the adventure according to the desires and comfort levels of parents and kids—bearing in mind that, the older your children get, the more they’ll probably want to participate in the decision-making about family trips. As I suggest in tip no. 10 in my “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You:” Let your teen (and this applies to pre-teens) help plan your trip or activities, and he or she will feel more invested in and excited about the plans.
Below are 10 ideas for great trips, with links to stories at The Big Outside; for many of them, you can find similar opportunities near home, too. Some of them require planning weeks or months in advance, meaning you should start now; others you can pull off without complicated logistics. For any that require advanced skills, professional guide services are widely available all over the country and easily found in online searches for options near your home. Many websites for national and state parks and other public lands list outfitters that have a permit to operate a guide service in the park, as well as free, ranger-led hikes and tours that can be much more thrilling and fascinating, for all ages, than you might expect.
Getting outside with your child doesn’t have to be expensive—but there’s also no more emotionally satisfying way to spend your money than on family travel. It forges strong bonds and cherished memories that stay with parents and children forever.
No. 1 Hike to a Waterfall or Swimming Hole
Some of the fondest and most enduring memories my kids and I have are of hiking through the rain of mist below Vernal Fall and Upper Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park, and walking through the tunnel blasted through solid rock behind Tunnel Falls in the Columbia Gorge. From playing in streams since they were very little to jumping into frigid mountains lakes as teenagers, my kids have always loved water in nature. It’s a guaranteed win.
Make a water feature your destination, or the payoff at the end of a hike, or just grant kids the latitude to stop en route to a summit or other destination to jump into a lake or creek. Not only will they be happier, but it’s physically rejuvenating, cooling them off and soothing muscles and joints to help them get through a hike.
Some of my family’s favorite waterfall and creek hikes are in Yosemite Valley, Yellowstone National Park, the Columbia Gorge, Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
And see my story “The 12 Best Dayhikes Along North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway” for hikes to waterfalls and swimming holes like Rainbow Falls (photo above) in the western North Carolina mountains.
Get the right pack for you. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and 6 favorite daypacks.
No. 2 Watch a Geyser Erupt
The first time we took our kids to Yellowstone National Park, they were too young to remember it—age four and two—but they laughed uproariously when Old Faithful erupted. (We hadn’t realized before that moment how apparently funny Old Faithful is.) The second time, when they were nine and almost seven, we cross-country skied along the Firehole River through the Upper Geyser Basin—home to one-fourth of the active geysers in the world and the greatest concentration of them, including Old Faithful—and the kids shouted excitedly and pointed at each geyser eruption happening before our eyes.
In any season and at any age, seeing Yellowstone’s thermal features (lead photo at top of story) is always a magical, fascinating experience. Visiting our first national park should be a requirement of U.S. citizenship. See all of my stories about Yellowstone National Park, including:
I can help you plan any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
No. 3 Take a Hike With a High Thrill Factor
On my family’s most recent visit to Zion National Park, there was no question in my kids’ minds about us hiking up Zion’s most famous feature, Angels Landing. Then 14 and 12, Nate and Alex knew Angels’ reputation for steepness and exposure in the final quarter-mile to the summit—and that was all the motivation they needed. Walking along its knife-edge ridge, with chains in place as handholds and thousand-foot drop-offs to either side, measured up to their high expectations.
Challenging and exciting hikes like Zion’s Angels Landing and Hidden Canyon (which traverses a ledge across the face of a cliff) not only deliver a thrill for kids, they imbue them with self-confidence, because they will see many adults and other kids turning back before the hard section (although the technical difficulty of hiking Angels isn’t very high, and with reasonable caution, it’s perfectly safe). These hikes aren’t for everyone—and maybe kids will be more comfortable with it than a parent. But for the family that relishes this kind of thrill, a hike like Angels Landing really is unique and rewarding.
See my stories about hiking Zion’s Angels Landing and The Narrows; Yosemite’s Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and Mount Hoffmann and Mist Trail and Upper Yosemite Falls Trail; The Beehive, Precipice Trail, and other hikes in Acadia National Park; the Knife Edge Trail on Maine’s Katahdin; and hiking to natural arches in the Windows Section, Devils Garden, and the Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park.
No. 4 Float a Wilderness River
The raft containing my 12-year-old daughter, Alex, and three other kids age 12 to 14, with one of our guides at the oars, smashed into the train of tall, intimidating waves at Cliffside Rapid. At each wave, the raft reared back to ride over it, then nosed downward into the trough, sending the next wave crashing over the bow. With each wave, the four kids—riding bravely in the raft’s bow—briefly disappeared underwater. They rode the length of Cliffside screeching and laughing with delight.
On a six-day rafting and kayaking trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, which cuts through the heart of the vast, nearly 2.4 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, my family and 21 friends and extended family enjoyed beautiful canyon scenery, great side hikes to waterfalls and overlooks hundreds of feet above the river, and big whitewater: The roughly 100-mile-long Middle Fork has some 300 ratable rapids, many of them class III and IV.
Multi-day river trips have a special quality to them. They’re thrilling but safe (when you choose a river within your skills or take a guided trip). You spend several days in the backcountry, completely disconnected from civilization, without the physical rigors of backpacking and far more creature comforts in camp. And for those who choose to just ride along in a raft with no responsibilities, these adventures are within reach of many people: On a multi-family float trip down the beginner-friendly Green River through Canyonlands National Park, our group ranged in age from four to 80. That Canyonlands trip earned an iconic place among my kids’ memories of our many adventures, and I’m sure they’ll always remember our Middle Fork trip as one of the best.
Protect your expensive gear when traveling. See my “Review: The Best Gear Duffles and Luggage.”
No. 5 Squeeze Through a Slot Canyon
We scrambled through a tight, twisting corridor in rock, pulling ourselves over short pour-offs, ducking through natural arches, and contorting our bodies to squeeze between wildly curved sandstone walls that frequently narrowed to just inches wide. And the four kids, age 10 to 12—mine, and two belonging to another dad with us—couldn’t stop gushing about it.
“Wow, this is so cool!” “That’s amazing!” “Awesome!”
We were dayhiking Peek-a-Boo Gulch and Spooky Gulch, a pair of slot canyons in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Created by occasional flash floods, the claustrophobic defiles known as slot canyons litter the Colorado Plateau. Some require technical skills and gear for rappelling, and proper clothing, like a dry suit, for wading for hours through cold water. But others, like the popular Peek-a-Boo and Spooky, are beginner-friendly and often dry, and those two can be hiked in just a few hours. All pose the deadly danger of flash floods, so only enter one with a forecast of sunshine.
Read about my family’s one-day adventure rappelling a slot canyon in Capitol Reef National Park, and backpacking five days through Paria Canyon, which has a narrows section stretching several miles and a tributary, Buckskin Gulch, that forms a true slot canyon about 12 miles long. The Subway and The Narrows in Zion National Park narrow to slot-canyon dimensions only briefly, but constitute two of the most dramatic and beautiful canyon hikes in the Southwest.
And while it’s a cave rather than a canyon, on my trip to-do list is a ranger-led Hall of the White Giant Tour in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
No. 6 See Big, Charismatic Wildlife
As my family hiked up the Gunsight Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, on our way to 6,900-foot Gunsight Pass during a three-day backpacking trip, a mountain goat hopped onto the trail not 50 feet ahead of us, on a stretch where the path clings to the face of a cliff. We stopped, and my kids, then nine and seven, looked back and forth between the goat and my wife and me, simultaneously amazed and clearly wondering how to react. I’m quite sure that mountain goat—which eventually yielded the trail to us—seared a lasting impression on my children.
My kids have also seen bison, elk, and even wolves (through binoculars) in Yellowstone, alligators (at close range) in the Everglades, sea lions, seals, and brown bears (from a safe distance) in Glacier Bay, and close to a dozen bighorn sheep in Dinosaur National Monument.
From my perspective as a parent, seeing large animals stirs in my kids—as in adults—powerful feelings of awe and humility in the presence of such magnificent creatures, instilling in them a deeper respect and appreciation for nature and the vital importance of protecting it.
Accessorize wisely. See my “Review: 21 Essential Backpacking Gear Accessories.”
No. 7 Walk Up to a Glacier
We pulled our sea kayaks onto a rocky beach in southeast Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and strode over to a wall of dirty ice several thousand years old. At the water’s edge, my nine-year-old son and I peered, transfixed, into the blue, dripping mouth of an icy alcove in the Reid Glacier—ice formed from snow that fell thousands of years ago, during the earliest days of human civilization.
Walking up to ancient ice gives you a sense of the vast spans of time over which natural processes occur—dwarfing the human footprint on history. It also helps adults and kids intellectualize the enormous breadth of changes already underway as the climate continues warming. (I wrote about my family’s sea kayaking trip among Glacier Bay’s rapidly retreating glaciers in my award-winning book, Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.)
While North America’s glaciers are steadily shrinking and disappearing, like rivers of ice all over the world, you can still see some up close while sea kayaking in Glacier Bay or dayhiking or backpacking in numerous places, including:
• On Glacier National Park’s Grinnell Glacier Trail and dayhiking or backpacking elsewhere in the park.
• Backpacking to spectacular Sahale Glacier camp (one of my 25 favorite backcountry campsites) in North Cascades National Park.
• On several trails in Mount Rainier National Park, including where the Wonderland Trail parallels the massive Carbon Glacier.
• Backpacking more than 18 miles (one-way) to the terminus of the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park, at the toe of the two-and-a-half-mile-long Blue Glacier flowing off Mount Olympus (a spot where mountain goats are commonly sighted).
• Dayhiking the Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies.
• Backpacking the Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park in the Canadian Rockies.
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No. 8 Trek or Ski to a Backcountry Hut or Yurt
On the first day of my family’s weeklong trek on the Alta Via 2, an alpine trail traversing Italy’s incomparable Dolomite Mountains, lasted nearly nine hours and included crossing one ridge that, from a distance, appeared to be an impassable wall of vertical rock hundreds of feet tall, and walking for hours through on-again, off-again rain showers. We reached the Rifugio Puez, a hut perched on the barren and rocky “altopiano,” tired and hungry. We’d come to the right place.
That evening, we sat in the small dining room, laughingly recalling our war story about the day’s adventure and plowing through a dinner fit for hungry trekkers: minestrone soup and a delicious dumpling soup; a ham, eggs, bacon, and potato dish; salad; and a substantial plate of penne in red sauce.
Hiking hut-to-hut or skiing to a backcountry hut or yurt offers a unique experience: a wonderful blend of a true mountain trek with the pleasant comforts of a substantial dinner and a thick mattress at the end of each day—which can be particularly alluring to families. Hut trekking and skiing to yurts rank among my kids’ favorite family adventures.
See my stories about hut treks in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park, New Zealand, and New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the Tour du Mont Blanc in the Alps of France, Italy, and Switzerland, and about our annual family ski trips to backcountry yurt. There are numerous hut and yurt systems throughout the United States and the world, including, among the better known, the 10th Mountain Huts in Colorado, the High Sierra tent cabins in Yosemite National Park, and huts in the Swiss Alps.
No. 9 Camp on a Wilderness Beach
On a small, mangrove-covered island in Everglades National Park, we stood, hypnotized, watching the sun drop into the Gulf of Mexico every night. Backpacking the coast of Olympic National Park, we passed by scores of sea stacks and huge boulders wallpapered with sea stars, mussels, and sea anemones. Sea kayaking in Glacier Bay, we saw hundreds of seals, icebergs calving explosively into the ocean, and ice- and snow-covered mountains. In each place, we had a wilderness beach entirely to ourselves, where our kids could play in tide pools and explore some of the biologically richest environments on Earth.
Children love a beach. But a wilderness beach is so much more complex and fascinating to them—and pretty special for parents, too.
See my stories about our family trips backpacking the southern Olympic coast, paddling the Everglades, and sea kayaking Glacier Bay, and about a backpacking trip that included the biggest, sandiest beach I’ve ever seen in the mountains: Benson Lake in Yosemite National Park.
No. 10 Climb a Cliff or a Big Mountain
In blasts of frigid wind, our party kicked steps in firmly frozen snow, steadily making our way up the highest mountain in the Lower 48. At the broad, summit plateau, we stepped into the welcome warmth of sunshine, and the wind died down. A little while later, my 15-year-old son, Nate, and I stood together on top of California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney. The successful climax of a four-day climb, it also represented the culmination of several months during which Nate committed himself to training hard and helping to raise money for an organization, Big City Mountaineers, that brings kids from poor, urban backgrounds into the mountains, giving many of them their first opportunity to experience nature.
Climbing a mountain or rock climbing gives you and your child the chance to share a powerful sense of accomplishment and self-discovery. It also demands some degree of fitness and requires that a kid be old enough to have the maturity and physical strength and stamina. Depending on your skills, you may need to hire professional guides.
See my story about climbing Mount Whitney. Mountaineering and rock climbing opportunities and instruction are widely available. Some of the most aspirational and beautiful climbing destinations are the Grand Teton, Mount Rainier, Yosemite National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, New York’s Shawangunks, Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon, and Kentucky’s Red River Gorge.
I understand risk. Read “Why I Endanger My Kids in the Wilderness (Even Though It Scares the Sh!t Out of Me).”
Your child’s age and experience can also dictate how you define “big mountain.” For a small child, that could be a 30-minute walk up to a summit or overlook with a view, or scrambling around on boulders. For older kids, it could be a non-technical hike up the highest peak in a mountain range, the state, or the region, like Thompson Peak in Idaho’s Sawtooths, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, and North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell, or a unique, challenging, and stunningly pretty hike like Mount St. Helens.
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See all of my stories about family adventures at The Big Outside.