Outdoor Vacations for Families
Here are "soft" outdoor adventures costing far less than a week at a theme park or on a cruise
You do it countless ways. You can introduce the kids to moose in a national park or to monkeys in a rain forest. You can navigate the rapids with a couple of teens on a wilderness river, help a seven-year-old conquer a mountain peak or a nine-year-old reach out and touch a glacier. Maybe you play Swiss Family Robinson in a tent in the treetops or take sea-loving youngsters snorkeling amid schools of tropical fish.
Whatever the goal, you can-with proper planning and advice-keep expenditures for an authentic, out-of-doors vacation to a perfectly modest level. Here are 11 budget-priced adventures that take your family back to nature.
1. Maho Bay Camps
Located on the exquisite U.S. Virgin Island of St. John, this camp has begun offering kids' arts-and-crafts classes, taught by visiting artists, which stress recycling and reusing materials. The kids can make birdhouses, musical instruments, or mosaics from recycled materials. You all stay in big, rectangular, canvas-sided platform tents, hidden amid trees along a hillside overlooking the sea. Each tented cabin comes equipped with lights, fans, and its own deck for watching the sunset. The seaside camp is surrounded by the Virgin Islands National Park and offers many watersports as well as places to snorkel. (The entire island of St. John is ringed by pristine beaches.) And units at Maho Bay are connected by wooden walkways the kids will love. Rates start at $75 for a canvas "bungalow" housing two adults and two children, with kids under 16 staying free. Call 800/392-9004 or access maho.org.
2. Yellowstone Association Institute
This institute makes it easy for families to explore one of the nation's most popular national parks with summer and winter naturalist-led programs that include cold-weather sessions on wolves, honing outdoor skills, and snowshoeing. In summer, they focus on hiking, photography, and animal tracking. And there are also programs designed for those who want to cross-country-ski their way across the park. Over the course of the four-day program, parents can help their children earn a Junior Ranger badge. Lodging in park hotels, and some meals, are included. Rates for four days start at under $605 in winter for adults and $345 for kids. Call 307/344-2293 or access yellowstoneassociation.org. To see what family and educational programs are offered elsewhere, link to the park you'd like to visit from the National Park Service Web site at nps.gov.
3. Appalachian Mountain Club
The nation's oldest conservation and recreation organization has both winter and summer family workshops that are proven winners. Build snow shelters and learn how animals adapt to winter, try wilderness cooking in spring, or act out stories inspired by your outdoor experience. Give the kids a taste of the backcountry without lugging camping gear and food: Hike from one historic high-mountain hut to the next, where you will be served hearty meals, sleep on cots in rustic bunkhouses, and join junior naturalist activities. Rates at the huts, including meals, start at $85 for adults, $52 for kids (less for AMC members). The new, kid-friendly Highland Center at Crawford Notch, New Hampshire, sleeps 120 and offers environmental education programs for adults and children. Call 617/523-0655 for more information or visit on the Web at outdoors.org.
4. Grandparenting with Elderhostel
The famed senior citizen organization now offers more than 100 well-priced trips all over the world for grandparents to share with grandchildren and has begun to add vacation packages for three generations as well. Each of the trips is designed to teach-many about the outdoors, ecology, or animal life. Domestic journeys typically start at $500 per person, including accommodations, meals, and activities. Go to "camp" in the Adirondacks or Catskills and study trees, lakes, and streams. You're guaranteed the presence of other grandparents and children of similar ages, and full-time counselors will enable tired grandparents to grab an occasional break. Call 877/426-8056 or access elderhostel.org.
5. The Sierra Club
The club makes it easy to introduce the kids to the outdoors with savvy leaders attuned to kids' likes and dislikes on their 30-plus family trips. Some are especially designed for families with younger children, like the "Toddler Tromp" in Maine's Acadia National Park. There is even one Sierra Club adventure in California's Tahoe National Forest for moms and their daughters ages 11 through 14. See the Grand Canyon from rim to river. Raft through Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. Leaders plan meals and activities; trips typically last a week or less. Weeklong trips start at under $500, with most trips less than $800 a person, including food and activities. Call 415/977-5500 or log on to sierraclub.org/outings.