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.
6. Outward Bound
This not-for-profit organization has been successfully sending people into the wilderness for more than 50 years. Parents and teens set off on weeklong family adventures designed to help them face new challenges and grow from the experience. Go sailing in Maine, dogsledding in the Northwoods of Minnesota, white-water canoeing in Texas, or mountaineering in the Cascades in Washington State. Eight-day trips average just over $1,000 per person. Call 866/467-7651 or visit outwardbound.org.
7. Cows, pigs, and more
The young 'uns in your gang will love a farm, where they'll quickly discover that milk and eggs don't come from the supermarket. They can gather eggs, feed the pigs, and maybe milk a goat or a cow. Check your state tourism office: Some local farmers in Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin, among other places, welcome a family or two at a time. Others, like the 140-guest Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy, New Hampshire (800/242-6495, east-hill-farm.com), are resorts as much as farms, with indoor and outdoor pools, and kids' programs complete with crafts and magic shows. Inclusive rates start at $90 a night for adults, $75 for kids. Emandal Farm in Willits, California (707/459-5439, emandal.com), offers summer family weeks and seasonal family weekends where kids can help care for the baby animals in the spring and make cider in the fall. Weeklong prices start at $805 for adults, $196 for kids. Find more than a dozen guest farms at familytravelnetwork.com.
8. Ride 'em cowboy!
Horse-loving kids and their parents will think they're in heaven at a dude ranch that caters to children, with special riding programs that enable them to learn about horses and the surrounding countryside. Parents get to relax while kids join in organized children's programs, even preparing for a junior rodeo. Hike or fish as well as ride. GORPtravel (gorptravel.com) lists dozens of affordable kid-friendly ranches around the country. The Mayan Dude Ranch in Bandera, Texas (830/796-3312, mayanranch.com), promises meals, horseback rides, and kids' activities for under $900 a week per adult and under $400 per child under 13. Rocking Horse Ranch Resort in New York's Hudson Valley (800/647-2624, rhranch.com) costs just a little more. Visit in winter for fun in the snow.
9. Safe white-water rafting
On river-based trips, you'll also have the chance to hike, fish, or play volleyball on the shore. Experienced river guides lead expeditions through wilderness areas that can be as big as Rhode Island. Even better, they plan the meals and help entertain the kids. Go for a few days or a week. Dvorak's Expeditions in Nathrop, Colorado (800/824-3795, dvorakexpeditions.com), offers some western river trips where kids go free (adult prices start at $950 for five-to-seven-day trips) and other four-day family trips priced by the number of people. Northern Outdoors, with two resort centers in Maine (800/765-7238, www.northernoutdoors.com), gives families a chance to kayak, rock climb, and raft. Family overnights, which include two days of rafting on the Kennebec River, camping, and all meals, average about $200 per person.
10. Family RV-ing
Parents who don't enjoy camping can still get up close and personal with nature by choosing to travel in an RV, staying in national and state parks across the country. The kids will love the chance to make new friends at campgrounds. Figure on paying $1,000 or more to rent a motor home for the week, plus about $22 a night for campground fees. Find coast-to-coast rental outlets at gorving.com. The largest national rental chain is Cruise America (800/327-7799, cruiseamerica.com).