My Top 10 Family Outdoor Adventures
By Michael Lanza
As a parent of teenagers who’s taken his kids on outdoor adventures 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—but not only because of the places and experiences themselves. The main reason is that these trips 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. These times have brought us closer together.
That’s a gift we’ve given ourselves as a family, that I’ve cherished every minute of (well, most of the minutes, anyway). I also know our kids will fully appreciate it when they’re older—and, hopefully, pass this gift on to their own children.
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 newly updated story, I’ve picked out the 10 very best adventures my family has taken and I’ve written about at The Big Outside. 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 fascinating volcano hike, and cross-country skiing or hiking among the greatest concentration of active geysers in the world.
Not surprisingly, all of trips are extremely popular and require planning and making reservations months in advance.
All are linked to my full feature story about each, which include numerous photos, and a video in most of them. Below the top 10, I’ve included several bonus trips that made this list in previous years but have been bumped as I’ve regularly updated it.
You may also want to peruse my 10 all-time favorite adventures, domestic and international—there are definitely trips that could be on either list (and there’s no overlap between the two).
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.
Here’s wishing you an adventurous new year and many more years of forging unforgettable memories together as a family.
Why not begin my list with one of the biggest, most beautiful and fun adventures my family has ever taken? You’ll find the Tour du Mont Blanc 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.”
See which section of the Tour du Mont Blanc made my “25 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever.”
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.
How do we raise kids who love going on outdoor adventures? Read what I’ve learned over the years in
my “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids” and “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You.”
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 then-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. See more photos and read my story about it now.
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. Find out why in my story.
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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 (including one spot on my top 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites), 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.
Planning your next big adventure? See “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips”
and “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
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.
Make sure your family adventures go right. See my “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors.”
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.
Permits for backpacking in popular national parks like Zion, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Yosemite are in high demand. See my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
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 erupts, 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.
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. My family already has our next Middle Fork trip on the calendar. See many more photos in my story about it.
Tell me what you think.
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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.
We had our first run-in with quicksand just an hour into a two-family, five-day, 38-mile backpacking trip down Paria Canyon, which straddles the border of Utah and Arizona and joins the Colorado River at Lees Ferry, the gateway to the Grand Canyon. Many more encounters followed, with almost no one avoiding an immersion (none of them dangerous)—and it quickly became a game for the five teens and ’tweeners among us. But Paria Canyon is more than muck—it’s one of the most continually stunning, multi-day canyon hikes in the Southwest.
Read my story about this top-drawer adventure for avid backpackers.
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.
Read my story about it now.
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.
Read my story about it now.
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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.
Read my story about it now.
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.
Read my story about it now.
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.
Read my story about it now.
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