Top Six Family Adventures In National Parks

Michael Lanza and his wife, Penny Beach, took their children on 11 national park adventures to see landscapes before they are transformed by climate change. Here Nate and Alex hike to Gunsight Pass at Glacier National Park. Photo by Michael Lanza.

“Nate, do you agree that this is our favorite trip?”

My seven-year-old daughter, Alex, threw that question at my 10-year-old son, Nate, as our family paddled a pair of canoes on a three-day trip in the Ten Thousand Islands of Everglades National Park.

It was last February, and we were embarked on the last of 11 wilderness adventures in national parks that my wife, Penny, our two kids, and I crammed into one year of a family calendar already packed with school, soccer, music lessons, community commitments, and the careers of two working parents. Between backpacking in the Grand Canyon in March 2010 and paddling in the Everglades in February 2011, we backpacked in five other parks, sea kayaked in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, hiked to Yosemite’s biggest waterfalls, cross-country skied in Yellowstone, and rock climbed at Joshua Tree.

These trips were all for a book I’ve written about taking my kids to parks facing various threats from climate change. Ranking our trips was very serious business for my kids. So I asked them to pick the top five national park trips we’ve taken as a family over the years. And after much chin-rubbing deliberation and debate, we concurred on the following list of six—presented in no particular order—because they couldn’t eliminate any one of them. So you get a bonus just for reading this story. I hope it gives your family some inspiration.

Floating the Green River through Stillwater Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

My kids and the six other kids from three families who joined us on the Green—when Nate was six and Alex was four—still talk about this as a sort of ur-adventure, the benchmark by which all others are measured. In fact, this beginner-level river trip was so much fun that the kids have since referred to it simply as “the river trip.” The 52 miles from Mineral Bottom on the Green River to Spanish Bottom on the Colorado River pass through a deep, broad, spectacular canyon of soaring red cliffs and spires. Riverside campsites are plentiful, the weather is generally dry with warm to hot temperatures from mid-April through May or mid-September through October, and the calm river is suitable for families and beginner paddlers.

Read more and see photos at Floating the Green River.

Backpacking in Grand Canyon National Park

Any backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon is a trip of a lifetime, sure. But the most accessible trails—the South Kaibab and Bright Angel, both starting on the busy South Rim—are crawling with dayhikers. Most other canyon trails are remote, rugged, and can be hard to follow. Few multi-day hikes here offer something between those extremes—but an exception is the four-day, 29.2-mile hike from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead. While the upper Grandview and the South Kaibab are popular (though both are nonetheless drop-dead gorgeous)—and both are very steep and sometimes quite exposed—the middle of this route, following a 19-mile leg of the Tonto Trail, crosses a broad, gently undulating plateau of sagebrush, rock gardens, and cacti with brightly colored flowers blooming in April. The views stretch from both rims high overhead to the Colorado River at the bottom of thousand-foot cliffs whose edge we traced. Between the canyon’s top and bottom sprawls a universe of deep chasms, sheer walls, and soaring towers of red, orange, white, brown, and black.

Read more and see photos at Backpacking the Grand Canyon.

Sea kayaking Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Paddle sea kayaks deep within a national park the size of Connecticut, that comprises just part of a vaster, pristine wilderness as large as Greece. Watch bus-size chunks of ancient ice calve off the face of tidewater glaciers that form white walls up to 200 feet tall and a mile across, rising straight out of the sea. Lose count of the number of harbor seals, sea lions, bald eagles, and seabirds you encounter—not to mention waterfalls plunging hundreds off feet over cliffs.

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Alex and Penny kayaking in Johns Hopkins Inlet at Glacier Bay National Park. Michael Lanza photo.

We kayaked for five days and camped on wild beaches in Johns Hopkins Inlet, in the bay’s West Arm, on a trip run by Alaska Mountain Guides. One the truly great aspects of this trip? The relatively easy accessibility for an Alaska-scale wilderness adventure: A three-hour flight from Seattle lands you in Gustavus, the tiny gateway town to the park, where guide services as well as gear rentals for DIY trips are available. And beginner sea kayakers routinely head out without guides in the fairly protected bay, as long as they’re competent at backcountry navigation and camping in grizzly country.

Read more and see photos at Kayaking Glacier Bay.

Backpacking the southern Olympic coast, Olympic National Park, Washington

The 73 miles of Pacific coastline within Olympic National Park constitute the longest stretch of wilderness coast remaining in the contiguous 48 states. This wild borderland between ocean and terra firma is home to tide pools brimming with mussels, sea stars, and sea anemones; an abundance of seabirds, otters, and seals; various species of whales; and one of Earth’s largest virgin temperate rainforests, where Sitka spruce and western red cedar grow 10 to 15 feet in diameter and 150 feet tall, while western hemlocks and Douglas firs soar over 200 feet tall. We spent three days backpacking the 17.5-mile southern stretch from the Hoh River to Third Beach. We clambered up and down rope ladders dangling down hundred-foot-tall bluffs, camped on the beach, and looked out in awe at scores of crumbling stone pinnacles, called sea stacks, rising out of the ocean. The highlight for my kids? Building driftwood “ships” and playing for hours in creek pools. Information: Olympic National Park Wilderness Information Center, (360) 565-3100, http://www.nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/wic.htm.

(Note: Look for a story about this trip, with photos, video, and planning tips at TheBigOutside.com in spring 2012.)

Paddling in Everglades National Park

Alligators get the attention of children very quickly—and of adults, for that matter, when you’re paddling a small, plastic kayak in the same dark-chocolate water where the gators are swimming. At the same time, large, exotic birds—snowy egrets, brown pelicans, white ibises, black anhingas, and great blue herons—flapped and sliced through the air just overhead. We paddled through claustrophobic, otherworldly mangrove tunnels, where densely intertwined branches formed close walls on both sides and a twisted canopy overhead. And that was all just on our first morning. After a half-day of kayaking on the flat, virtually unmoving East River, we canoed for three days into the national park’s Ten Thousand Islands, camping on a wilderness beach, seeing more birds—including 10 bright pink roseate spoonbills hanging out together—a dolphin that swam circles around a bay we paddled into, and sunsets every evening over the Gulf of Mexico that were impossible to tear our gazes from. This trip had many moments that I believe will be indelibly imprinted in my children’s memories.

Read more and see photos at Paddling the Everglades.

Cross-country skiing in Yellowstone National Park

There’s something about telling children that they’re cross-country skiing above the world’s largest active supervolcano that gets them really, really excited. Passing close by erupting geysers, bubbling mud pots, and whistling fumaroles confirms their impression that everything could blow at any time. Throw in frequent sightings of bison, elk, a bald eagle or two, coyotes, and a few trumpeter swans, plus giant, frozen waterfalls and multi-colored hot springs, and you have one of the most unique and special experiences in the entire national park system. We cross-country skied mostly easy trails through the Upper Geyser Basin (home to one-fourth of the active geysers in the world, including Old Faithful); around the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs; to Tower Fall, which we could see cascading behind a curtain of clear ice; and along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, where 308-foot-high Lower Yellowstone Falls crashes onto a mountain of ice one-third its height.

Read more and see photos at Skiing Yellowstone.

Freelance writer and photographer Michael Lanza is the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and creator of TheBigOutside.com. His book, Before They're Gone—A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks, comes out in April 2012. An avid backpacker, climber, backcountry skier, and cyclist, he has hiked and climbed extensively in the U.S. West and Northeast, and in the Alps, Canadian Rockies, Himalaya, Iceland, Patagonia, New Zealand, Spain, and the Scottish Highlands. See stories and images from his outdoor travels at TheBigOutside.com and michaellanza.com.

Comments

It's a shame all American families can't do things like this. We'd have an entirely different -- and certainly better -- nation if we could.

Your kids are lucky.

Thanks, Lee. I agree completely. But I also believe that it's up to those of us who already enjoy our parks and outdoors to spread the word to people who haven't had the exposure to these places yet.

And that is all the more reason why you need to keep doing what you are doing. I'll be watching for your book and will buy a copy for my daughter so she and her hubby can get some ideas for helping their daughters learn to enjoy these places.

I'm a huge fan of getting kids outside and enjoying our national
parks--all of our public lands, actually. These are some great trips
you've mentioned here! Agree with the above comments as well. Sometimes
it seems like an uphill battle, but all we can do is keep encouraging
families to get active outside and appreciate our amazing landscapes.
I'll be keeping an eye out for your book as well.

Amazing trips! How much money would one have to save up theoretically to take on any of those adventures?

Wow. Thanks for sharing. I've been getting in a summer NP trip each summer for the last three years. Our favorite destinations are Great Smokey MNP, Yellowstone NP, and Badlands NP. As the kids get older we hope to take on a little more in the way of adventure, but for now they enjoy the hiking, camping, and ranger led activities.