The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips

By Michael Lanza

As a parent of two young adults who’s taken them outdoors since before they can remember, I’ll share with you the biggest and in some ways most surprising lesson I’ve learned from these trips: Our outdoor adventures have been the best times we’ve had together as a family—and not just because the places are so special. The greatest benefit of these trips is that they have given us innumerable days with only each other and nature for entertainment—no electronic devices or other distractions that construct virtual walls within families in everyday life.

For my family, our experiences together outdoors make up most of our richest and favorite memories. They have brought us closer together.

That’s a gift we’ve given ourselves as a family, one that I’ve cherished every minute of (well, most of the minutes, anyway). I also know our kids will appreciate it more and more as they get older—and perhaps they will pass this gift on to children of their own someday.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, from the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, from the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls.

No matter where you go or what you do with your kids, you can reap that reward. But if you want to share with your family the very best experiences and places in nature, well, I have a pretty darn awesome list for you.

For this story, I’ve picked out the 10 very best adventures my family has taken and I’ve written about at The Big Outside—which also rank among the most beautiful and inspiring trips I’ve taken over the past three decades as an outdoors writer, including many years running this blog and previously as a field editor for Backpacker magazine.

This tick list includes seven national parks, three world-class paddling adventures, three trips that should be on every backpacker’s to-do list, America’s most scenic and fascinating volcano hike, and cross-country skiing or hiking among the greatest concentration of active geysers in the world.

Not surprisingly, all of these trips are extremely popular and require planning and making reservations months in advance.

The writeups below all link to my full feature story about each trip at The Big Outside, which include more images and detailed tips on planning each one yourself (and which require a paid subscription to read in full).

You may also want to peruse my list of 10 all-time favorite adventures, domestic and international—there are definitely trips that could be on either list.

I’d love to read your comments about any of these trips or the entire list, and other readers and I would appreciate any advice you have on any of these trips. Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

Here’s wishing you many years of forging lasting memories together as a family.

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Hikers on the crater rim of Mount St. Helens, with Mount Adams in the distance.
My kids, nephew, and mother on the crater rim of Mount St. Helens, with Mount Adams in the distance.

1. Three Generations, One Big Volcano: Hiking Mount St. Helens

I’ll make you this guarantee: Mount St. Helens is one of the coolest dayhikes in America, period. Hikers on the standard route, Monitor Ridge, soon emerge from shady rainforest onto a stark, gray and black moonscape of volcanic rocks, pumice, and ash, with infinite views of the Cascade Range, including other snow-capped volcanoes like Hood, Adams, and Rainier.

It’s also a tough hike at 10 miles round-trip and 4,500 vertical feet up and down, most of it on rugged terrain that varies from loose stones and dirt to ash that’s like hiking a giant sand dune. We had a special component to our trip up and down the mountain: a three-generation family group 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 an ominous turn.

Read my story to find out how it all turned out.

Hiking Mount St. Helens was one of my “30 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever.”

Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall in Yosemite National Park.
The view from the John Muir Trail of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall in Yosemite National Park.

2. The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls

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.

Read my story and start planning your trip.

Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Grand Teton, Yosemite,
and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.

A raft floating the Green River through Stillwater Canyon in Canyonlands National Park.
A raft floating the Green River through Stillwater Canyon in Canyonlands National Park.

3. Tackling America’s Best Easy, Multi-Day Float Trip

For 52 miles through Stillwater Canyon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, 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 stood, for years, as my family’s gold standard for river trips (eventually replaced, when our kids got older, by the last trip on this list).

Read my story about floating the Green River through Canyonlands National Park.

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A family trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc in Italy.
My nephew Marco, daughter, Alex, and 80-year-old mom, Joanne, hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc in Italy.

4. Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc in the Alps

My list would be incomplete without one of the biggest, most beautiful and fun adventures my family has ever taken. And you’ll find the Tour du Mont Blanc (also the lead photo at top of story) on just about any list of the world’s greatest trails. The main reason is the sheer majesty of this roughly 105-mile (170k) walking path around the “Monarch of the Alps,” 15,771-foot (4807m) Mont Blanc. Passing through three Alpine nations—France, Italy, and Switzerland—and over several mountain passes reaching nearly 9,000 feet, it delivers almost constant views of glaciers, pointy peaks and “augilles,” and the snowy dome of Mont Blanc.

Making this trip all the more special was the fact that we had three generations of my extended family represented, including my 80-year-old mother.

Read my story “Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc at an 80-Year-Old Snail’s Pace.”

Click here now for my e-guide “The Perfect, Flexible Plan for Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc.”

A young boy backpacking the wilderness coast of Olympic National Park.
My son, Nate, backpacking the wilderness coast of Olympic National Park.

5. Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast

For our kids, who were nine and seven, this three-day backpacking trip on the wilderness coastline of Washington’s Olympic National Park ranked 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.

Find out why in my story about that trip.

See my “10 Tips for Taking Kids on Their First Backpacking Trip
and my very popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”

A young boy backpacking the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.
My son, Nate, backpacking the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.

6. Dropping Into the Grand Canyon

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.

See more photos and read my story about it now.

Want my help planning this or any trip that you read about at my blog?
Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.

A mother and young daughter paddling a mangrove tunnel on the East River, in Florida's Everglades region.
My daughter, Alex, and wife, Penny, paddling a mangrove tunnel on the East River, on the edge of Florida’s Everglades.

7. Like No Other Place: Paddling the Everglades

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. Paddling a flatwater river shared with alligators (kept at a safe distance).

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.

Read my story about that trip.

Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips
and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”

West Rim Trail, Zion National Park, Utah.
Backpacking the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park, Utah.

8. Backpacking Zion, a Land of Otherworldly Scenery

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.

Read my story and I think you’ll see why.

Score a popular permit using my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”

A young girl cross-country skiing the Biscuit Basin Trail through the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.
My daughter, Alex, cross-country skiing the Biscuit Basin Trail through the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone.

9. Exploring Yellowstone

Visiting the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, should be a requirement of American citizenship (and I would gladly contribute to a fund to make it affordable for every family). Besides the opportunity to see a range of wildlife that nearly mirrors what North America looked like before Columbus, you can watch geysers erupt and see natural hot springs, whistling fumaroles, bubbling mud pots, and some beautiful waterfalls.

I’ve visited many times, with my kids and before I had a family, in every season. It’s wonderful for everyone, at any stage in life, partly because so many of its highlight features can be seen on short walks. And 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 most fascinating experiences in the National Park System.

See my stories “The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone,” “The 10 Best Hikes in Yellowstone,” “Cross-Country Skiing Yellowstone,” and all stories about Yellowstone at The Big Outside.

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The "kids raft" running Cliffside Rapid on Idaho's Middle Fork Salmon River.
The “kids raft” running Cliffside Rapid on Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River.

10. Rafting Idaho’s Incomparable Middle Fork Salmon River

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 an experience guaranteed to be a family favorite that you’ll want to repeat—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 widely considered second only to the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in terms of raw beauty. My family might argue it’s better—and we’ve take three Middle Fork trips.

See my stories about my family’s first two trips on the Middle Fork, “Reunions of the Heart on Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River” and “Big Water, Big Wilderness: Rafting Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River.”

See also my All Trips List, all of my expert tips, and all stories about family adventures at The Big Outside.

Tell me what you think.

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14 thoughts on “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips”

  1. I was hoping you’d post more on your Coyote Gulch hike as I’m 50 and haven’t climbed in 2 years (not much of a climber but done it a few times) and am nervous about going with my 17 year old son this summer. Do you think we could use tubular webbing rather then rope for descent and ascent of Gulch (I know it’s grade V3 so most climbers don’t even need the rope but I know I will)?

    • Hi Pam,

      I’m confused by your question. What part of Coyote Gulch do you think you need a rope for? My family did not encounter any section of that hike that required protecting with a rope for anyone, and our kids were young when we backpacked it. Please explain, thanks.

      • It’s not required but from most blogs I’ve read for the sneaker route (dropping in from 2-mile path from parking at water tank into gulch by Jacob Hamlin Arch) that most people like having a rope as I read it’s class 3 to 4 for bouldering so pitch is very steep especially difficult with backpack if not a climber. I never have used webbing but lighter cheaper option for the 160 meters I need so wanted to see if tubular webbing ok as everyone said rope (although someone said 9mm rope fine as 11 mm+ is overkill). Of course your family is experienced so wouldn’t even need assurance of a rope/webbing that’s why I was asking you as you seem the most experienced climber of all people I’ve read that have done this hike!!

        • Hi Pam,

          I haven’t hiked that route into Coyote Gulch before, I have only read about it. It does sound like some people would prefer having the safety and reassurance of a rope as a handline or, better yet, on belay. I’m sure a 9mm rope would be adequately strong and safe for simply lowering or belaying someone. While tubular webbing is quite strong, you can’t use it as a safety backup to belay a person down-climbing a steep and difficult route because it can’t be run through a belay device, like a rope can. You’d have to fix the webbing to some kind of anchor (maybe around a large, immovable rock) and have the person downclimbing use it as a handline; but that relies on them not letting go of thin, slippery webbing, which is risky. With a rope, you can put a harness on a person and belay them; and if they use it as a handline, it’s easier to grip than webbing, especially with gloves on. You might only have to carry one belay device and one harness and haul it back up for subsequent people who want it. The last person descending would have to remove and carry the rope and gear down and be comfortable with that.

          I hope that helps. Good luck.

  2. Out of these we have only been to the grand canyon with family. We did get down but that was just to get a glimpse not the entire trail.

    The entire trail must be fascinating but dont have the courage to complete it with my family. 🙂

    The other suggestions too look awesome.

  3. Have you backpacked (or paddled) Isle Royal in Lake Superior? This trip was one of my favorites. It may not have the awe factor of some of the big western parks but lovely and lots of wildlife (moose in particular, wolves unfortunately now nearly extinct from island if I recall correctly – wonderful ecology lessons here). While we did this trip prior to kids, I think that it would work well for kids with some experience – there are lots of established campsites to offer varying trail distances as well as trails that vary in difficulty.
    The Boundary Waters (or Quetico for even greater seclusion) offers a similar experience though most likely canoe-based. I find this type of trip appealing for the greater relaxation opportunity compared to backpacking, at least as I’ve done these trips. We were planning a family canoe camping trip until delayed by job change & move.

    • I haven’t yet been to Isle Royale, though it has been on my list. I’ve heard and read good things about the place. We’ve been talking about a family trip to the Boundary Waters and Quetico, possibly even next summer. Thanks for the suggestions and following The Big Outside.

  4. A raft trip down the Rogue River, through the Wild and Scenic section, in Oregon. I’ve got at least 40 under my belt and it never, ever, ceases to amaze me.

  5. Thanks, i will look through the other categories. I have just managed to settle it with my employer, so i have six weeks with the kid and girlfriend, i have to take advantage of that 🙂

    Yellowstone has always been on my wishlist, and with the little one the short hikes makes it attractive

  6. Hi Thomas, that’s a broad question and there are many good answers. I suggest you scroll through the many stories under my Family Adventures category above ( Also, I always tell people that Yellowstone is a great park for taking young kids (or anyone who wants to see a lot with little effort). You will see a lot of wildlife, many of the geysers and other thermal features can be seen on walks of just 20 minutes, and it’s definitely one of the most amazing places in the world.

  7. Great article – thanks. As a spin off, are there any general areas you would reccommend for a scandinavian family of three (our son only 6 months old) in june-august?
    We’d like a very scenic area(s) where we can do a bit of hiking carrying him, and just enjoy nature. We would prefer it not being overly hot.