A longtime backpacker, climber, and skier, author Michael Lanza, along with his nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter, embarked on a year-long trip through our National Parks.
It was an ambitious adventure, designed to immerse them in the natural world and to learn more about the effects climate change was having on these important landscapes.
He chronicled the journey in his book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
Here, he shares five ways to encourage the next generation of outdoor adventurers.
1. Encourage outside play.
A slew of experts agree that regular, unstructured outside play is critical for a child’s healthy development.
To that end, “Kick them out of the house,” advises Lanza. “Kids today often want to play indoors where the electronics are. Insist they play outside—but also, give them the freedom to roam within boundaries appropriate for their ages. That way, they can explore and not get bored.”
It also helps to plan regular activity as a family: cross-country or downhill skiing, hiking on local trails, biking, even walking around your neighborhood or local community, Lanza advises.
2. Start slow.
When the time is right for adventure, take baby steps. “Begin with short hikes and gradually work up to longer outings,” advises Lanza, who gathered personal experience as a field editor with Backpacker magazine. “Evaluate your child’s readiness for something new based not just on its physical difficulty, but how well your child handled previous experiences that presented comparable stress.”
Lanza’s year–long trip included sea kayaking and wilderness camping in Glacier Bay, Alaska. He determined they were ready for such an outing because they had previously backpacked, rock climbed, floated and camped on a wilderness river, and cross-country skied through snowstorms.
“They had managed stressful situations well and understood the need to follow instructions and that trips have uncomfortable moments,” explained Lanza. “Despite how wet and raw it was, they loved Glacier Bay.”
Lanza believes in one important rule: no whining. “Tell your children they can talk about any situation they’re not happy with, but draw the line at complaining just to complain. Everyone will be happier.”
At the same time, he advises including them in the decision-making process, so they have a sense of control over their own fate, which, he says, goes a long way toward relieving stress, no matter what our age.
“Welcome their questions and address their concerns,” Lanza says. “Make sure they know that you won’t ask them to do anything they are not comfortable with, and that you will provide whatever help they need.”
According to Lanza, Grand Teton National Park, Yosemite, Zion, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain National Park all offer hiking and backpacking options that are ideal for beginners and families, with easy to moderately difficult days and simple logistics.
4. Be flexible.
Whether rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone or canoeing in the Everglades with his kids, Lanza made a point to be flexible.
Taking children on an outdoor adventure, especially younger ones, does not always go according to plan. Young kids want to throw rocks in a creek and play in the mud.
Lanza’s advice: “Let them. But, explain that there will be time for playing, but also a time for hiking.”
Meanwhile, parents should “focus on the journey rather than the destination,” advises Lanza. “And have Plan B at the ready.”
5. On the trail with teens.
No matter what kind of trip is planned, allowing a teenage son or daughter to invite a friend along is often a good strategy. It can be a little trickier when planning an outdoor adventure. “You want to make sure he or she is up to the challenges the trip may present,” explained Lanza. “It’s a good idea to talk with the parents ahead of time and perhaps plan a practice outing.”
Whether it’s a mountain climb or rafting a river, finding a shared goal that will challenge and excite your teen is a great way to open new doors within your relationship and to the natural world, offers Lanza.
Michael Lanza also offers outdoor adventure tips and strategies on his website The Big Outside.
Plan ahead for your National Park family vacation. (The best lodging fills quickly.)
Choose from these historic gems to add a layer of history to your outdoor adventure:
Many Glacier Hotel, Glacier National Park
There are few places on the planet as stunning as Glacier National Park. And one could argue that the historic Many Glacier Hotel is the ideal venue from which to appreciate the vast and astonishing landscape. Located on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake with jagged peaks as backdrop, the iconic hotel was built by the Great Northern Railway in 1914 to lure tourists to the Wild West. Today, visitors from around the world find their way to this northwestern corner of Montana, eager to see the disappearing glaciers, hike aside azure-colored lakes and to catch a glimpse of resident wildlife.
This secluded, five-story hotel offers visitors a window into the past with old-world style guest rooms and a Swiss Alpine theme. While dedicated to honoring its historic roots, the 214-room gem has undergone a multi-million dollar renovation that included remodeling rooms, updating furniture and lighting and restoring the dining room to historic standards.
Also included was the return of the “missing staircase”.
Once part of the grand lobby, sharing space with soaring beams of Douglas fir and a massive fireplace, the original double helix staircase stretched from the lake level of the hotel to the lobby. It was removed in the mid-’50s to make way for a gift shop.
As part of the recent remodel, the magnificent spiral staircase has been restored to its former glory.
In addition to world-class hiking, Red Bus tours, boat cruises, horseback rides, and evening ranger programs, are offered in an unparalleled lakeside setting, Contact: www.VisitMontana.com www.GlacierNationalParkLodges.com
Yellowstone National Park – Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
Built in 1999, recycled timbers were used in the construction of this lodge that offers easy access to the Old Faithful geyser and the wealth of natural resources that attract visitors each year from around the world. Accommodations include lodge rooms and cabins with wildlife and park themes. America’s first national park, established in 1872, Yellowstone spreads into Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, and is home to abundant wildlife including grizzly bears, wolves, bison, and elk. Check out the hot springs and geysers and experience a ride in the historic yellow touring cars that add to the historic park experience. The grand Old Faithful Inn recently underwent renovations and also welcomes guests eager to see the geyser’s faithful performance.
The Oasis at Death Valley, Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is the lowest, driest, hottest place on earth. True. And, all the more reason you’ll be mesmerized by the unexpected luxury found within the Oasis at Death Valley. The historic Inn at Death Valley, tucked within a true oasis-like setting, offers updated and stylish accommodations, fine dining, and spa services, all a welcome contrast to a day spent exploring amid salt flats, mud hills, and volcanic craters. A recent multi-million dollar renaissance of the 1920s gem means you will now enjoy sweeping views while sipping morning coffee or evening cocktails on the shaded outdoor terraces. The inviting dining and bar areas have been updated yet retain their historic charm, and are further enhanced by the owners world-class collection of renowned paintings of the era. You’ll want to plan time for the historic, one of a kind spring fed pool, where lush landscaping, cabanas, a pool bar and a café invite relaxation.
Come nightfall, be sure to look up. You’ll be in awe of what it means to stand in designated Dark Sky country. It’s one of the few places in the U.S. where you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye.
Take note: Twenty-two, new dreamy casitas will open within the Oasis later this year.
El Tovar, Grand Canyon National Park
Find inspiration in this National Historic Landmark hotel, perched just steps from the world’s grandest canyon. Completed in 1905 by the Fred Harvey Company, now the Xanterra Travel Collection, to accommodate tourists arriving to this wonder of the world, El Tovar provides a history-rich lodging experience on the south rim of canyon. Charles Whittlesey, Chief Architect for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, designed the hotel, to be a cross between a Swiss chalet and a Norwegian Villa, a result he believed would appeal to the elites of the era. Today, El Tovar retains its elegant charm offering guest rooms and suites that reflect the colorful history of the property and its global appeal to visitors that have ranged from Theodore Roosevelt and Albert Einstein to Sir Paul McCartney.
Every season offers a fresh opportunity to put your world in perspective by simply standing at the edge of this visual extravaganza. From your cozy digs, set out for hiking, photographing, journaling and people watching.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel, Yellowstone National Park
Captivating views of Yellowstone Lake are best appreciated from this elegant hotel’s Sun Room, where classical music performances enchant guests of all ages most evenings during the summer season. The lyrical sounds of a string quartet often serve as a delicious backdrop as guests, in multiple accents and languages, share their experiences of the day and plans for tomorrow. First opened in 1891, in an era when guests arrived by stagecoach, the Grand Old Lady of the Lake was restored to her Colonial Revival heritage during a multi-million dollar renovation completed in 2014. A National Historic Landmark, the Lake Yellowstone Hotel update refreshed guest rooms, the dining room, bar, public spaces and redesigned the deli. Walking tours of the hotel are offered for those interested in learning more about the history, hardships, and idiosyncrasies of this National Park treasure.
Zion Lodge, Zion National Park.
Peace and refuge. That’s what the name Zion means. And in this beautiful Southern Utah park, filled with shifting and photographic opportunity, you’ll find plenty of both. Bike, stroll or cycle through 146,000 acres of uninterrupted beauty, punctuated by colorful cliffs and canyons as well as diverse plant and animal life. i Later choose from more than 200 miles of trails for hiking before relaxing beneath the park’s massive sandstone walls. The lodge, the only in-park lodging, features historic cabins with private porches as well as motel-style rooms with balconies or porches.
Does your family travel in an RV?
Visitors to Death Valley National Park now have options thanks to the Furnace Creek Ranch.
The Fiddler’s Campground offers 35 RV sites (but no hook-ups). Located at The Ranch, the Furnace Creek RV Park offers 26 full-hookup RV sites and can accommodate RVs up to 50 feet.
Guests enjoy swimming in the nearby spring fed pool, laundry and shower facilities, complimentary wireless internet and easy access to restaurants.
For those who like to spend time on the links, the Furnace Creek Golf Course is directly adjacent to the Campground. As the lowest elevation course in North America, it’s one for your bucket list.
Both sites provide the perfect jumping off place to enjoy Death Valley National Park and the extraordinary night sky.
What's this about a super volcano turning the roads inside our treasured national park into a "soupy mess"?
Park officials once closed a 3.3 mile long stretch of Firehole Lake Drive because the pavement has become too soft for vehicle traffic.
A spokesperson for the park explained that Yellowstone, our first national park, sits on top of the caldera of an ancient super volcano. That's the source of the heat that spews steam from geysers like Old Faithful. That same heat has melted roadways. In fact, geologists recently discovered that the volcano was more than twice as large as previously determined.
Established in 1872, Yellowstone is the wonderous home to grizzly bears, wolves, and herds of bison and elk. It is the core of one of the last, nearly intact, natural ecosystems in the Earth’s temperate zone.
Visitors can find travel and other Park updates here.
Put Death Valley National Park and the Oasis at Death Valley (formally the Furnace Creek Resort) on your family vacation list and you’ll return home amazed by the sometimes startling natural wonders, astounding vistas and western charm you’ve discovered.
From our country’s low point at Badwater to neighboring mountains rising more than 11,000 feet from the desert floor, the local landscape will leave you and your family forever changed by the beauty of its memory.
You’ll also have loads of fun exploring via jeep, horseback, bike, golf cart and horse-drawn wagon.
The family-friendly and historic Oasis at Death Valley Resort is an ideal vantage point from which to explore Death Valley National Park, a land of striking contrasts.
This sparsely populated landscape is rich in natural beauty. Rolling sand dunes provide color and texture amid a dramatic silence. Death Valley is the largest national park outside Alaska.
Providing contrast to the desert surroundings, families enjoy time in the spring-fed swimming pools. The Ranch at Death Valley offers accommodations in a casual, family-like setting on western-themed grounds, a nod to its origin in the 1800s as a working ranch.
Visions of California gold-hued riches fueled the intrepid explorers who crossed the rugged terrain of Death Valley aboard wagon trains in 1849. Each November, modern day travelers can relax in comfort while learning about the hardships the early pioneers endured.
Guests at both the Oasis at Death Valley and the Ranch can take part in the annual 49ers Encampment that celebrates the historic trek with gold panning, a western art show, music , a “pampered pet” parade and the colorful arrival of a wagon train and riders on horseback.
Vast salt flats create a cracked mosaic across the desert floor providing mesmerizing photographic opportunities. Badwater, 17 miles south of the resort, is the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level.
From Dante's viewpoint, more than 5,000 feet up in the Black Mountains, you can see across most of 110-mile-long Death Valley. About an hour from the Inn, the vista provides a unique overview of the sites you might choose to explore more closely.
Built in 1927, the historic 66-room Inn sits aside a mineral stream that meanders across the property and warms the swimming pool to a comfy 85°F.
This scenic pathway on the Oasis at Death Valley property provides shaded cover for hikers, bikers and those who enjoy a horse-drawn wagon ride.
Kids ( and their parents ) love exploring the unique region via horseback.
The resort, ( pictured in the distance ) is located in a desert oasis where mountain run-off from the Funeral Mountains flows. The average high temperature in November is 76ºF with very little humidity. The park averages less than two inches of rain per year.
At 214 feet below sea level, the rolling 18-hole, par 70 course is the world’s lowest elevation golf course. Palm trees frame the fairways and majestic mountains provide arresting vistas throughout the course. Water comes into play on nine holes and multiple sets of tees provide a challenge for every member of the family.
IF YOU GO:
Photos by Lynn O'Rourke Hayes
For an update on ash, lava, steam and smoke, visit a volcano. These five destinations provide a multifaceted opportunity to get outside and learn more about planet Earth.
1 Arenal Observatory Lodge, Costa Rica.
Wake to a chorus of tropical wildlife on this volcanic wonder. The majestic centerpiece of a rich rainforest setting can be observed from most guest rooms, the dining room and an expansive deck. Horseback riding, biking and hiking trails wind through old lava fields and soft jungle trails where howling monkeys, slithering snakes, butterflies and colorful birds beckon visitors. The last major eruption of Arenal took place in 1968. Austin Lehman Adventures offers great family tours to the region.
2 Mount St. Helens, Washington.
On March 20, 1980, an earthquake of 4.2 magnitude reawakened this volcano, leading to the May 18 collapse and eruption. Today, families visiting the National Volcanic Monument can learn more about the geologic and biologic history of the area though interpretive talks, walks and theater presentations. Hiking, biking and helicopter tours also provide an expansive view of the region’s recovery. Ask about the Music on the Mountain series scheduled for this summer at the Johnson Ridge Observatory.
Contact: fs.usda.gov/detail/mount sthelens/home?cid=stelprdb 5160336
3 Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska.
Accessible only by float plane or boat, this remote park is located on the Alaskan Peninsula near Kodiak Island. Spanning nearly 5 million acres, the protected region is the site of the Novarupta volcano’s 1912 eruption, considered to be the 20th century’s most powerful and heard as far away as Juneau. Today, visitors come to observe the dense population of brown bears and to fish for trophy rainbow trout, salmon and Dolly Varden trout that run in Katmai’s streams and rivers. During the summer months, meals and lodging are available at Brooks Lodge, a popular spot for bear viewing. The National Park Service also staffs a visitor center and offers interpretive programs.
4 Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii.
The historic Volcano House reopens this summer after a recent renovation, offering families the opportunity to wake to a magnificent sunrise over one of the world’s most active volcanoes. The only lodging option within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii Island, the hotel rests on the rim of Kilauea caldera with a view toward Halemaumau crater. Learn about active volcanism, the region’s biological diversity and Hawaiian culture through driving and walking tours as well as the Junior Ranger program. Ask about helicopter and boat tours.
Contact: 1-866-536-7972; nps.gov/havo/index.htm
5 Yellowstone National Park.
The landscape that became America’s first national park in 1872 experienced the first of three volcanic eruptions 2.1 million years ago. More than 640,000 years have passed since the most recent blowup. Although not currently erupting, the molten rock beneath the surface of the park is active and has recently caused the closure of roads near the most famous geysers. Visit this wonderland to learn more about what bubbles below and to see the herds of bison, elk, grizzly bears and wolves that make this park so popular.
Contact: nps.gov/yell/index.htm; 1-866-439-7375
If you are looking for a great summer road trip, consider this iconic drive inside one of America's most stunning National Parks.
Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed in 1932 and is a spectacular 50 mile, paved two-lane highway that bisects this magnificent Montana park east and west.
A Colorado clan takes time ( too little as it turns out ) to explore
Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National
Park from their base camp -- YMCA of the Rockies.
"Man, this place has everything!"
Our 8-year-old, Piper, was agog only halfway through our two-day experience at YMCA of the Rockies, Estes Park Center. My marketeer wife wondered aloud why, with so much free stuff, they don't bill it as all-inclusive. "Hmm, I will have to inquire," she answered herself.
This Y's Estes Park Center has been connecting youth and families with nature for over 100 years, longer than the adjacent Rocky Mountain National Park has been a national park. And though it borders both the park and it's gateway tourist town, Estes Park, it is easy enough to overdose on activity without ever leaving the 800-plus acre grounds of the Y. Of course I don't recommend missing the incomparable majesty of Rocky Mountain National Park (thankfully, many Y activities are actually forays into the park), and even the most trap-shy tourist would find something worth seeing in Estes Park. So the solution is obvious. Give yourself more than the two and a half days we allotted for this adventure.
Of Dog Pulls and Choo Choos
As check in at the Y wasn't till the afternoon, we spent part of our first day exploring events in town. The parking lot of the Visitor's Center was host to the 25th (yes, 25th!) annual Dog Weight Pull. It's just like it sounds, like a tractor pull, but for dogs. Genuine canine competition.
For inside fun we let loose our inner dorks at the Estes Park Conference Center, joining enthusiasts at the Rails of the Rockies model train show. Train fans are serious about their choo choos.
Y Wouldn't You?
Finally leaving the hustle and bustle of the tourist town, we drove 10 minutes out of Estes Park to the vast and peaceful grounds of the Estes Park Center of YMCA of the Rockies.
Dropping our bags in our cozy cabin felt like coming home again. I suppose I expected "rustic" in all the sense those quotation marks imply, but with a kitchen you could actually cook and store food in, cushy furniture, wrap-around deck with a killer view, and…wait for it…wifi!, I would upgrade the description to "rustic chic". Some units also have fireplaces (we would have loved one) and TVs (we loved not having one).
After touring the grounds to see the mind-boggling array of activities available (many only in the high summer season), we stopped for dinner in the cafeteria with 1,400 thronging teens, pre-teens, and a few bedraggled handlers. The air, thick with hormones, and bad perfume, brought back a flood of summer-camp memories. Unfortunately, so did the all-you-can-eat buffet food. But hey, it's camp, and if you get desperate, you're just 5-10 minutes from dozens of restaurants in town.
We started taking bites of the activities elephant with our remaining time that first night with a visit to the indoor pool, which was perfect for sapping the last of our day's energy.
So Much To Do, So Little Time
Day 2 was a whirlwind of activity. Here is our list from that epic day:
Breakfast in the cafeteria
Wildlife Detectives: an hour program learning about the nature of and inter-relationship of the area's wildlife. Half inside, half outside.
Broom ball: poor man's (and uncoordinated man's) hockey on the camp's frozen pond.
Ice skating: on the pond with free skate rentals.
Lunch in the cafeteria (maybe we'll eat dinner in town)
Putt putt golf: "Elk Duds" are a natural hazard here. Play on.
Hike: One of many at the edge of the grounds. Tons more outside the grounds.
A Spot of Grownup Time
As we'd decided to grab dinner in town, we took advantage of a bit of extra time beforehand to visit, get this, the "family friendly" Snowy Peaks Winery. Grownups belly up to a $3 wine tasting flight while enjoying grownup talk with the proprietors. This is unusually possible because of their "No Wine-ing Zone" for the kids, who are welcome to free tastings of cider (non-alcoholic, naturally).
Since the kids were such champs at the winery, and we had an oven back at the cabin, we ran by Village Pizza for some take 'n' bake. After devouring that manna from Heaven, we were fortunate that the kids (who had napped in the car) dragged our old bones out again to the camp's indoor rollerskating rink. They were playing Abba.
After crashing hard that night and sleeping in the next morning, we were able to finish our stay strong with more roller skating, a course in proper hiking preparedness, and a visit to the amazing Crafts Center. So, with mementos of their own making in hand, we were able to persuade the kids to hop in the car and depart the Y.
"I wish we could stay longer here," Piper said.
Success is when you leave with them wanting more.
IF YOU GO
YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center is open and quite busy year-round.* But it's peak season of activities, pleasant weather, and guests is summer. Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park also peak at this time. Given this trio, you would not find yourself getting bored in the summer with a weeklong stay. Lodging is discounted in the off season, when there is still tons to do in and out of the camp. We think, with the countless free and cheap activities, that the lodging prices are a great deal. The great range of lodging and programs also makes the Y great for youth and corporate retreats, family reunions, and multi-family vacations.
At 8,000 feet at the foot of the Continental Divide, temperatures can be very warm during the day and frigid at night. Sun in the day can also quickly turn to rain or even snow (even in summer!), so bring layers and a pack to carry them. Always have hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, and other sunblock; it takes just 15 minutes to burn in the thin Rocky Mountain air.
Drink more water than you think you need and slow your pace or the low oxygen air will unpleasantly slow it for you. Bring your camera and binoculars to catch the breathtaking views and abundant wildlife.
*Note: YMCA of the Rockies has another, much larger camp on the other side of Rocky Mountain National Park called Snow Mountain Ranch, which is more winter-centric than Estes Park Center.
This winter, get cozy with the kids in a great American lodge. Sit by the fire, share stories and enjoy a winter family vacation. Here are five to consider:
Devil’s Thumb Ranch. Tabernash, CO.
Stay in a cabin or the lodge and get cozy near one of 45 flickering fireplaces. Enjoy local specialties in the lodge dining room where a three-story, three-hearth fireplace, comprised of hand-stacked stones, warms winter visitors. Grab the binoculars to catch a glimpse of wildlife roaming on this 6,000 acre expanse of Colorado beauty or set out on the Nordic trails for an up-close view of winter scenes. From now through May, stay two nights and get the third night free. Pet friendly. Contact: 970-726-5632; www.devilsthumbranch.com.
Skytop Lodge. Skytop, PA.
For junior boarders and skiers, this lodge in the Poconos offers crowd-free, gentle slopes on which to learn. Kids as young as three can enroll in ski school. Dog mushing, tobogganing, sledding, ice-skating and cross-country skiing add to the active pursuits available on this sprawling 5,000-acre estate. Later, stretch out in the indoor pool or bubbling hot tub and get ready for game night. Contact: 800 -345 -7759; www.Skytop.com.
Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood, OR.
Located in Oregon’s Mount Hood National Forest, this magnificent lodge was built at the height of the Great Depression by unemployed craftspeople hired by the Federal Works Progress Administration. Located 60 miles east of Portland, the well-crafted lodge has long served as the centerpiece of this mountain playground. Take a guided, moonlit snowshoe tour, experience Snowcat skiing or simply relax in the historic lodge and enjoy the extraordinary views. Ask about weekday, ski-free deals. Contact: (800).547-1406; www.timberlinelodge.com/
El Tovar – Grand Canyon National Park, AZ.
Open since 1905 and registered as a national Historic Landmark, this charming, 78-room lodge is just steps from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Take in a nature talk, go for a mule ride or hike the famed trails that criss-cross down and through the park. Marvel at the extraordinary beauty of snow falling onto the multi-colored rock walls and into the canyon below. Contact: 928-638-2631; www.GrandCanyonLodges.com.
The Whiteface Lodge. Lake Placid, NY.
Located in the heart of the Adirondacks, this woodland lodge is spacious, with modern amenities. At the same time, it serves up rustic, with stone chimneys, antler chandeliers and handcrafted Adirondack furnishings. Nightly family bonfires, a skating rink, cross-country and downhill skiing, snowshoeing and indoor swimming programs, provide plenty to keep an active family engaged. A complimentary kids club makes it easy for the adults to take advantage of the full service spa on site. Contact: 800-903-4045; www.thewhitefacelodge.com