Sometimes you just want to go to the beach. Swim, lounge, nap, enjoy a cocktail at 4:59 p.m. It’s a relaxing vacation but, let’s be honest, not very memorable. It’s not the kind of time you’ll look back on later in life and say, that trip sure was something, wasn’t it? “Bucket list,” “epic,” “once in a lifetime” — these are the descriptors for a different type of vacation. One that requires planning and prep. One that requires patience and some fortitude. An experience that becomes core to the family lore — bringing everyone together with repeated retellings, long after we’ve settled back into our routines at home.
This list is your launching pad: 22 family-friendly adventures for the bold. The trips all have been experienced by the editors and adventurous friends of the editors of Fatherly, who can vouch that they’re the kind of adventure you’ll talk about for years to come. These are all suggested with a big caveat: Don’t jump into anything that isn’t labeled “Easy” if you’re new to the activity. Families with young children (under 6) should probably stick to Easy or Moderate. And don’t plan a trip based solely on the write-ups below. Planning is part of the fun. Get inspired, do some research, and then call a park ranger (you will find no more helpful person to give a kind but firm real talk). The world awaits.
Paddle Through Canyonlands National Park On The Green River
Before they converge to form Utah’s wildest whitewater, the Green and Colorado Rivers meander gently toward one another for some 100 miles, through vast desert and high-walled canyons. Stillwater Canyon (on the Green River) begins roughly at the boundary of the Canyonlands National Park, and continues for 52 miles through some of its remotest stretches, with otherworldly excursions to rock formations like the Doll House and the Maze, and opportunities to view petroglyphs and sacred sites of the Ancestral Puebloan people.
Because it’s a tough, steep drive down to the launch point at Mineral Bottom, Stillwater Canyon tends to be quieter and less crowded than the Colorado — and as its name suggests, you can expect four to six days of mellow flatwater paddling. Canoes must take out at Spanish Bottom, at the top of Cataract Canyon, where the Class II-V rapids begin.
With no designated campsites, you’ll have to scout them out — in high water in early summer, they may be fewer and farther between. In low water in September and October, sandbars expand camping options, but paddlers may encounter short rocky stretches and minor rapids.
Before You Go:
+ Secure an upstream permit from the National Park Service.
+ Contact a licensed operator for a shuttle and jet-boat pickup at Spanish Bottom.
+ Read up on traveling responsibly through the Canyonlands.
Tackle The Whitewater In The Nation’s Newest National Park
Location: West Virginia
New River Gorge was the hidden secret of whitewater enthusiasts, Appalachian adventurers, and birders for decades. No longer. In 2020, New River Gorge National Park told a nation what a sizable group of outdoors enthusiasts already knew — one of the most pristine, rocking places in America, full of roaring rivers, mountain biking, hiking, pristine woods, and some gnarly BASE jumping off the world’s longest single-span bridge was everyone’s for the taking.
You have all sorts of Whitewater here and can choose by experience and how adrenal you want your trip to be — whether the more mild upper New River (Class I-III) or the bumpier, heart-pumping lower New River (Class II-IV). If you’re experienced and ready for one of the best runs of whitewater anywhere, the upper Gauley River is for you. Just make sure you’re in shape and ready for one wild ride.
Before You Go:
+ Book everything at Adventures on the Gorge.
+ Be sure to also do treetop ziplining (great for birders).
+ And walk under the bridge, if you dare.
Explore The Lower Mississippi River
There aren’t enough superlatives to capture the scale, spirit, or story of the Mississippi River — it’s the biggest river, by far, in the United States, discharging some 600,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Gulf of Mexico. Its river valley encompasses nearly half of the continental United States, making it the third-largest drainage basin on the planet, nearly tying it with the Amazon and exceeded only by the Congo. It’s the country’s busiest inland waterway — every bend has been engineered to facilitate safe navigation by tows pushing as many as 42 barges at a time. None of that even touches on the role it plays ecologically and culturally — the river’s meanders “built” the land we live on and the river has a hold on our imaginations, even if we’ve never laid eyes on it. The Mississippi River is rightly intimidating – but it’s also, somewhat miraculously, rich in natural beauty, with stretches of dynamic wilderness that have flourished between the levee and the shore.
“First-time visitors expect mud, pollution, and industry — and the biggest surprise is that it’s wild and beautiful,” says John Ruskey, founder of the Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and the Lower River’s greatest living navigator. “There are giant sandbars, and a sky that sort of feels like Montana, because it’s so big and open, with bright stars at night."
Ruskey started taking his own daughter, Emma, out on the river at the age of 2. “As a parent, I was less worried letting my 2-year-old loose on a sandbar [in the Mississippi] than I was letting her loose in our living room. Our living rooms are stocked with potential hazards, like wires, and things that can fall, things that you shouldn't put in your mouth. But out on a sandbar, she could walk and walk, until she got to the water’s edge, and there was nothing that could harm her. It was the place where you could relax as a parent.”
Before You Go:
+ Contact the Quapaw Canoe Company. Quapaw’s mission is to connect people with the river, especially young people growing up along the Mississippi, the river’s future stewards. They also lead expeditions for groups from all over the world.
Muddy Waters Wilderness Expedition, “the wildest of the wild Lower Mississippi.”
Start in Clarksdale, where the Delta Blues is still a thriving tradition, and paddle in hand-crafted Voyageur canoes to Greenville, Mississippi, roughly 100 miles downriver. Along the way, camp on giant forested sandbars, swim in wild coves, enjoy meals and storytelling campfire style, and learn from Quapaw’s knowledgeable guides. In this stretch, both the White River, which drains the Ozarks, and the Arkansas River, the biggest tributary, join the Lower Mississippi. “It’s a vital habitat,” says Ruskey. “It’s where you have the highest concentration of black bears, and some of the biggest cypress in the Deep South.”
Hike Up, Float Down The Delaware River
Level: All In!
Hike in, camp, float out. There’s no more romantic way to adventure — and when you pick a gentle river like the Delaware and a hilly but entirely surmountable (and vista-full) hike like the Delaware Water Gap via Appalachian Trail, you can bring the kids along. The best part: It’s a boating adventure that doesn't need someone to pick you up. You just float back to where you began.
Start here: Kittatinny Point. Take the Appalachian Trail for 4.8 miles north. Go to: Sunfish Pond to the Worthington State Forest Campground on the Delaware River along the Garvey Spring Trail (1 mile). Float: Along the Delaware River back to Kittatinny Point.
Before You Go:
Camp Under The Stars In The Florida Keys
Level: All In!
Between the Everglades National Park and the curved arm of the Florida Keys are thousands of islands — many of which are privately owned, and many of which fall within the boundaries of state and national parks. From remote micro-keys to the popular spoil islands of the Intercoastal Waterway, there are both reservable campsites (with some amenities) and rugged backcountry sites that take skill and determination to reach.
The water trails winding through this scattered archipelago — including the Ten Thousand Island Wilderness Refuge and the mangrove forests of Everglades National Park — offer abundant opportunities to see marine wildlife, including dolphins, manatees, and sharks. But permits, careful planning, and prior experience are required.
More accessible are the Spoil Islands of Indian Lagoon (reachable only by boat, but no reservations necessary). And for families looking for a remote camping adventure without all the paddling, book the ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park, 60 miles off the coast: Snorkel crystal-clear waters by day and sleep under the clear glow of the Milky Way at night.
Camping & Backpacking
Hang with wild horses, pitch a tent on the Pacific coast, explore the backcountry, and summit bucket-list peaks.
Hang With The Horses In Assateague
The ocean breezes, the soft sand underneath, the birds circling the dunes, wild horses — this is next-level car camping. A mere 10 miles south of Ocean City, Maryland, Assateague National Seashore is a hidden refuge along the Maryland coast. There are no boardwalks, shops, homes, or really much of anything here. This is a protected space where wild horses — there are currently 82 — outnumber the humans, and know it. Yes, your campsite all but guarantees an overnight visit by the wild beasts (don’t approach!) and if you keep food out, it will be snatched. The campsite also does not include a campfire, but your tent is in the midst of the dunes and under the stars. So lay out in the soft sand and stare up at the stars — what else do you really need?
Before You Go:
+ Reservations are required, so check out NPS.gov for more details.
Explore The Whole Coast
You can walk the length of Oregon on the 362-mile Oregon Coast Trail, from the wild mouth of the Columbia River all the way down to the California border. But to take in the full sweep of Oregon’s unspoiled coastline with kids, the best bet is to drive along historic U.S. Route 101, hiking and camping along the way. You’ll find a spectacularly beautiful mix of pristine beaches, old-growth forests, and dramatic headlands — and a shoreline that’s 100% public land, by law (thanks to Oregon’s landmark 1967 Beach Bill). There are no barriers and no private beaches — and (the vast majority of) Oregonians like it that way.
With beautiful, well-maintained state parks along the way and historic coastal towns offering amazing food and fun side adventures all the way, there’s really no such thing as a bad plan (but you will want to make reservations ahead of your visit). There are opportunities to camp on the beach or up in the coastal woods, just a short hike through maritime forests away from secluded coves, mountain streams, and vast beaches that can only be reached on foot.
See The Backcountry On Fire Island National Seashore
Locations: Long Island, New York
Here’s some backcountry camping for city folks, no car necessary. From the heart of New York City, take the Long Island Railroad to Patchogue, New York; the ferry there to Watch Hill, Fire Island; and then hike — 2-plus rather tough, slow miles through the sand — to one of the more remote patches of backcountry beach in the country (one of 10 official National Seashores). There are no fires, no water or food, and no people on this 7-mile stretch of beach. It’s just you, the waves, a few deer, fox, and plenty of mosquitoes. On a day with a steady breeze (most days, that is), you’ll enjoy the most blissful day at the beach this side of Fiji.
Before You Go:
+ Get your camping permit through the National Park Service here.
Backpack The Ozette Triangle
Location: Washington State
With a rare mix of remote-feeling ruggedness and easy, flat terrain, the Ozette Triangle is a true backpacking adventure that’s not out of range for families with young kids. There are just two designated campsites — Sand Point and Cape Alava — each about 3 miles from the ranger station. At low tide, you can connect these, hiking directly from Sand Point to Cape Alava along the beach, turning this into a 9-mile “triangle,” that can be broken up over three days into 3-mile chunks. Though you don’t cover vast distances, you do pass through an incredibly diverse landscape, with lush understory, swamplands, and forest to the wild coast of the Olympic Peninsula.
Before You Go:
+ You’ll need to secure a wilderness permit to reserve campsites at Sand Point and Cape Alava (you can hike the triangle in either direction).
Sleep Under the Stars In The Great Dunes Of Colorado
In Colorado’s southern landscape, wildly different climates are stacked on the horizon like a great cosmic Neapolitan ice cream sandwich, with snowy peaks layered over dense forests layered over the vast desert of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. People flock to the high dunes, some towering at 750 feet, to fly down the slopes on special sandboards (available for rent). At the base of the dunes, you can cool off by splashing around in seasonal Medano Creek, snowmelt that flows across the sand in early summer. But hike onward into the backcountry to camp for the night, and you might as well be on the moon — huge empty dunes roll out in every direction, the Sangre de Cristo mountains glow red on the horizon, and world-class dark skies let the constellations shine.
Before You Go:
You can pitch your tent anywhere in the backcountry dunes, as long as you have a permit. Since tent stakes won’t hold in loose sand, you’ll need a freestanding tent or sand anchors. Bring plenty of water for everyone in your group (there is no water available anywhere in the backcountry) and meals that don’t have to be cooked, in case desert winds make it all but impossible to keep a fire going. Most backpackers hike out to the dunes in the evening when temperatures drop, and hike back out before 10 a.m. to avoid the morning heat.
It goes without saying that hiking on sand is not easy — though the trail to the Dunes Backcountry sites is only 1.5 miles, it can take hours to close the distance (and can be especially challenging when the winds pick up). If you’d rather camp at the edge of the dunes, a slightly longer hike (2.8 miles) gets you to the “ghost forest” of the Escape Dunes area where breakaway dunes have started engulfing the surrounding forest, resulting in a spooky mix of live and ghostly trees at the boundary.
Finish The Appalachian Trail
Level: All In!
Most thru-hikers of the great Appalachian Trail move north-to-south, from Georgia’s Springer Mountain 2,190 miles to Maine’s Mt. Katahdin. That last 100 miles is a doozy. Dubbed “The 100 Mile Wilderness,” the trail is one long wet roller coaster of climbs and water crossings that is swarming with bugs, moose, bears, and a reputation for bad weather. It also is a pine-scented paradise for anyone looking for one of the more remote stretches of trail in America, complete with stunning vistas and nothing that would count as civilized but a handful of old logging roads. This is a bucket list trail in the sense that it will take you time to prepare — getting in shape, the right (light) equipment, and setting up your bailout plan if the roughly 10-day trip goes sideways (it happens). It’s the kind of hike that your outdoorsy teen has been preparing for their whole life. The reward? This.
Before You Go:
Roll along great canals, tear it up through Tahoe, explore the Badlands on two wheels, and pedal through the Grand Canyon.
Roll Through The Great Allegheny Passage And C&O Canal
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C.
Did you know that you could bike on a flat protected gravel road from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C.? Yes, the Great Allegheny Passage, connecting with the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O) is one of those gems of road-free bike riding in America. About 315 miles, a bike can split it up as they choose — as a few easy, luxury-lapped inn-to-inn days (might we suggest staying at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and the well-appointed Savage River Lodge), or a tour de Force of a mid-Atlantic bike ride, conquered in an iron saddle-making 45-mile-a-day week. The ride shows off the best of a much-looked-over region. Remote woods, farmlands, and river passages through the mountains will pass you by. Overlooked is the right word — you won’t find throngs of gawking tourists as you have this neck of the woods to yourself. Go in fall and it’s perhaps the most unsung leaf-peeping adventure in America.
Before You Go:
Shred The Flume Trail
Location: Lake Tahoe, Nevada
Lake Tahoe’s 13.5-mile Flume Trail is a mountain biking trail that can inspire a beginner to take up the sport forever. It’s got a little bit of everything, starting with a hard-earned uphill (at elevation; you should be fit for this ride) that takes you to a gorgeous lake where you can picnic. It ends with a bombing downhill (nothing crazy, but plenty fast to get your heart pumping). But it is a 4.5-mile section in the middle that you’re coming for — a ride beside the “flume,” a flat trail sits on a 1,500-foot cliff and oversees, well, all of Tahoe. It’s a picturesque view that you’ll want to slow down for and take it all in. The “flume” in the flume trail amounts to a wooden shoot that was used in the 19th century to transport logs from the mountainside down to the valley below. You can see pieces of it along the way, if you take a second to look down from the views of Tahoe’s mountains.
Before You Go:
+ Check out travelnevada.com for bike rentals and shuttles.
Explore The 200-Year-Old Erie Canal
Location: Upstate New York
The Erie Canal, which crosses New York state from Albany to Buffalo, is the nation’s oldest piece of infrastructure, in continuous operation since construction first began in 1817. When it was completed in 1825, it linked the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. It was the Eighth Wonder of the World, fueling Citizen Kane–like personal wealth and industrial splendor in cities like Buffalo, Chicago, New York, and Detroit. Towns along the Erie Canal supplied the world with everything from peppermint and guns and timber to social and religious movements (New York’s canals became important routes on the Underground Railroad, and both the Women’s Movement and Mormonism started on its banks). While its commercial heyday has passed, the Erie Canal remains a marvel of engineering — and a rich path through history, from vibrant towns like Fairport to crumbling 19th-century aqueducts, that may be the closest thing the U.S. has to ancient ruins. You can bike the full length of the canal — or any portion of it — along the East-West portion of the Empire Trail.
Before You Go:
There are 57 locks along the canal, a handful of which are officially designated campsites for bikers. You can also call ahead to locks and ask lockmasters for permission to camp for the night on the grounds of the canal’s famously crisp blue-and-white lockhouses.
Bike The Badlands
Location: North Dakota
Considered by mountain biking aficionados to be some of — if not the — best singletrack in the United States, the 144-mile-long Maah Daah HeyTrail is a living testament to the infinite forms that wilderness can take. From the pale rock formations, striated with red and black, that stretch to the horizon like melted pyramids, to the jagged peaks resembling giant shark fins on the horizon, the Badlands is a landscape that’s ultimately beyond analogy. Biking the entire Maah Daah Hey presents a serious challenge, even for experienced mountain bikers — but completism isn’t the point. These are some of the wildest and most sacred spaces in the country, and the Maah Daah Hey has space for everyone, with 16 entry points and nine major sections that run the gamut from beginner to expert. There are gentle stretches of rolling hills, blanketed in high grass and roamed by buffalo and other wildlife, that are perfect for kids 7 and up.
Before You Go:
+ Start by contacting Dakota Cyclery, the only full-service bike shop in the Badlands, to chart your adventure or arrange a tour.
Bikepack The Arizona Trail
Level: All In!
The 800-mile Arizona National Scenic Trail, designated in 2009, is one of the only of its kind that allows mountain biking. If you have the experience and setup, it’s one that should be on your bikepacking bucket list. Does it require some hiking? Is the temperature a bit extreme? Are there rattlesnakes everywhere? Yes, yes, and yes. But from cactus-pocked desert views to dense pine forests, the terrain is astounding. Oh, yeah, and it goes straight through the Grand Canyon, so there’s that. If you choose not to take on the whole trail at once (a month-long trek that requires shuttles and re-supplies), there are ample resources for taking the trail a section at a time.
Before You Go:
Sleep on deck off the coast of Alaska or on a barge in France, in a car in New Zealand, or anywhere at all in Patagonia.
Travel The Inside Passage By Commuter Ferry
The Alaska Marine Highway Service has been connecting coastal communities in Alaska with the port in Bellingham, Washington, since 1963. These are commuter ferries, not cruises — their purpose is to transport people and supplies up and down the Alaskan coast, from Ketchikan to the Aleutian Islands — but they offer unique opportunities to experience both the cultural depth of Alaska and to see wildlife, from humpback and killer whales to hundreds of species of birds. While several ferries in the fleet have private berths that you can reserve, passengers are free to sleep anywhere — and that includes pitching a tent on deck in the summer months and basking in Alaska’s endless summer light.
Ferry service is divided into three sections: the Southeast, from Bellingham, to the end of the Inside Passage; South Central, which crosses the Gulf of Alaska to Homer; and the Southwest region, the last (and most remote) section of the route, which connects Homer with Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands. Way-out-there Dutch Harbor, in Unalaska, is the largest commercial fishing port in the Pacific (and home base to the Deadliest Catch).
While any section of the route promises incredible views and plenty of adventure, the Homer/Unalaska section takes passengers through some of the wildest and most remote stretches of the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge. Wildlife sightings are so abundant in summer that a naturalist from the refuge is onboard every ferry, Homer to Kodiak and on to Unalaska “to present educational programs and answer questions.”
Rent A Barge And Float Through France
Picture a slow meander through the shade of arched plane trees, past centuries-old vineyards, and Medieval fortress cities, with excellent (but affordable) wine and food just a short bike ride in any direction. Sound too pleasant to qualify as an adventure? Don’t worry, you’ll be piloting your own barge through narrow canals and antiquated locks tended by French civil servants — with your kids as your crew.
Europe’s extensive canal system for centuries connected agricultural and industrial centers with the seaports. Most canals are now primarily recreational. Sleeping on the boat means no hotel fees (and lots of social distance) and time to laze on deck reading and playing cards, while still experiencing the cultural richness and natural beauty of the countryside. You can tie up almost anywhere along the bank and bike into the nearest village for local delicacies or dinner. There’s a huge range of experiences to explore — some canals cut through wilderness, others through bustling towns; some have no locks, others dozens; some boat-rental companies offer budget workhorse family barges, others luxe narrowboats that look like precious floating antiquities.
A Trip to Try:
In 10 days, you can travel the historic Canal du Midi from Toulouse all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the canal route was first surveyed by Leonardo da Vinci — and finally constructed in the 1600s (in part, to let French merchants evade Barbary pirates bobbing off the Iberian Peninsula). Navigate dozens of ingeniously engineered old locks, and cross over rivers on raised stone aqueducts, themselves incredible feats of engineering.
Road Trip New Zealand
Location: New Zealand
The history of campervanning in New Zealand goes back at least a century — farther if you include the horse-drawn cottages that facilitated the earliest road-tripping through the unrivaled beauty of New Zealand’s natural landscapes. And that tradition is rooted in another: New Zealand’s “freedom camping” policy, which lets travelers camp on public lands — usually for free and without a reservation. Like all great ideas, this works because people are considerate, respect the rules and leave no trace — there are hefty fines if you don’t abide. Many campervan rental companies have pickup and drop-off depots in Auckland on the North Island, and Christchurch or Queenstown on the South Island, making it easy to choose a route and stick to it — or to change course and freely explore.
New Zealand is phasing tourist visa travel back in, starting in October — perfect timing for summer travel there. There are several camper van rental companies to choose from, and thousands of potential itineraries in this land of a thousand landscapes.
Before You Go:
+ South Island / Te Waipounamu: Immerse yourself in the history and protocols of Māori navigation while paddling a waka — a traditional Māori canoe — along the coastline of Abel Tasman National Park.
Take Patagonia By Car
Level: All In!
Famously remote and otherworldly in its beauty, Patagonia has long lured climbers and outdoor enthusiasts to its high peaks and volcanic archipelagos — and everything in between. At roughly 400,000 square miles, it encompasses portions of Argentina and Chile, and stretches from the Andes to the sea. This is a road trip to the “end of the world” — Tierra del Fuego, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans surge into each other offshore in a great eternal rumble. Vast and dynamic, Patagonia would take several lifetimes to explore in its entirety — but a route from Coyhaique, Chile (the northern gateway to remoter stretches of the region), down to the world's southernmost road, in Ushuaia, Argentina (the jumping-off point for Arctic expeditions), will cover an astounding range of cultures and landscapes.
Expect high mountain passes, plunging waterfalls, glaciers, deserts, grassy plains, and wild transitions from one climate to another in a matter of miles. Expect abundant wildlife, from penguins, flamingos, and soaring Andean condors, whose wingspan can reach 10 feet, to wild herds of ñandús and guanacos (species of wild ostrich and llama, respectively). Road-tripping to the end of the world is a significant commitment that takes careful planning — but it’s an adventure you'll never forget (which means you can explore it together forever).
Before You Go:
+ Contact Windbreak Rentals for help in planning an itinerary and to rent a 4x4 vehicle, all-terrain trailers, and camping equipment. They’ll drop off and pick up rentals at major airports throughout the region.
+ Download the Overlander app, crowdsourced by and for overland travelers all over the world, with real-time notes on camping sites and other resources. While vehicles are equipped with auxiliary gas cans, being in remote sections of Patagonia means being aware of supplies and self-sufficient.
+ Depending on the route you choose, you may have to cross the border between Chile and Argentina multiple times — check itineraries against the guidance of the State Department and stay up to date on COVID-related requirements.
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