By Michael Lanza
As a parent of two college-age 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 I’m confident they will 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 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 (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. I try to respond to all comments.
Here’s wishing you many years of forging lasting memories together as a family.
Table of Contents
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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.”
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.
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.
Want to read any story linked here?
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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.”
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.”
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 any trip that you read about at my blog? Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.
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.”
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.”
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.
Feeling inspired by this story? Join now for full access to ALL stories and get a free e-guide!
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 already have our next Middle Fork trip on the calendar.
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.
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