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.
It's been more than 50 years since the creation of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, which protects more than 12,000 miles of pristine waterways.
Here are five places where you and your family can relish the natural beauty of our nation’s rivers.
Middle Fork of the Salmon, Idaho.
Find your way to Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness and commit to an unplugged week on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. As you float, fish, and splash through 100 miles of spectacular scenery you’ll be treated to unexpected luxuries along the way. Relish the fresh air of morning as your crew delivers hot coffee or cocoa to your luxury tent. Later, warm up in a hot spring, dine on organic, seasonal specialties and plan for the next day’s adventure under a starry sky. Contact:
Rio Grande River, Big Bend National Park, Texas.
This Wild and Scenic River forms the southern boundary of this 800,000-acre playground. It’s the only Park in the United States that hosts a complete mountain range – the Chisos. With older children in tow, soak in the Park’s scenery as well as the warm water offered by a resident hot spring. On the northern riverbank, steamy water fills the foundation of an old bathhouse, creating a popular natural hot tub. Nearby, look for painted pictographs on the cliff walls as you enjoy a one-mile loop hike past historic buildings and the area where various Indian groups lived and traveled.
The Rogue RIver, Oregon.
Float through 40 miles of scenic Southwestern Oregon and you’ll explore the same rugged country that drew Native Americans, trappers and prospectors for centuries. Stay in the raft or up the adrenalin ante by running the rapids in an inflatable kayak. Designated a “Wild & Scenic” wilderness area, you and your family will paddle through the Siskiyou Mountains and the Rogue River National Forest. Also possible are adventures that include hiking and gourmet dining options.
Au Sable, Wellston, MI. Introduce your family to the joys of fly-fishing in the north woods of Michigan. The scenic and diverse Au Sable River originates north of Grayling and winds for more than 100 miles before meeting Lake Huron
A fly-fishing only section of the river flows past Burton’s Landing and is known as the “Holy Water” for its productive riffles and trout filled pools. Team up with a local outfitter for instruction designed for young anglers.
Contact: PureMichigan.com; https://www.dloopoutfitters.com
Cache la Poudre, Colorado.
Located in the northern Front Range and dubbed thePoudre” by local residents and longtime visitors, the main and south forks of the Cache la Poudre River, originate in Rocky Mountain National Park and flow north and east through the Roosevelt National Forest before eventually passing through Fort Collins.
You can explore the region via the Cache la Poudre – North Park Scenic Byway. Beginning in Fort Collins, it follows the river and the route used by settlers to connect Colorado’s northern plains to the Green River settlement in Utah.
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.
Maybe you’ve never heard of Snowbasin or Powder Mountain, two ski resorts a short drive east of Ogden, Utah.
But what about the Winter Olympics (you know, this year, the ones in PyeongChang)? You’ve heard of them, right? Back in 2002, Snowbasin hosted the downhill, super-G, and combined events for the Salt Lake City games.
And Powder’s claim to fame: It’s the largest ski resort in Utah, in terms of skiable acres (8,464) and the eighth largest ski resort in America, when measured by slope length.
Powder and Snowbasin are, as my dad likes to say, two peas in a pod because they’re in the same valley. But they are very different peas. One is more corporate, the other counter-culture. They look different and feel different, but they have the same sublime snow, plus Utah’s legendary outdoorsy vibe.
Looking for Powder Mountain and Snowbasin
If you can find them, that is. It’s a challenge for these resorts to compete with the flashier Park City area mountains. They’re not as close to Salt Lake City and they don’t have the million-dollar marketing budgets. This lack of hype could lead you to believe you’re in the middle of nowhere, when, in fact, you’re somewhere really special.
Which pretty much describes how I felt when we checked into our little place overlooking the Pineview Reservoir in Huntsville, Utah, about halfway between Snowbasin and Powder Mountain. It was surrounded by snowcapped mountains and seemed almost desolate, even though we were here at the height of ski season.
Of course, “Where are we?” also applied to our lives. When you’re constantly on the move, you wake up on some mornings and ask yourself, “Which state am I in, again?” Then you look out the window and see mountains and snow, and you say, “Oh, Utah.”
Riding up Powder Mountain
You can’t quite see Powder Mountain — or “PowMow” as the locals call it — from our place. The resort is accessible from nearby Eden by a narrow, winding road. A sign ominously warns motorists that chains are “required” during ski season, but on the day we drove up to PowMow, the roads were completely clear.
By the way, it’s true that this has been one of the worst ski seasons in memory as far as snow goes. No matter where we’ve visited — Colorado’s Wolf Creek, Purgatory, Crested Butte or Eldora — the snow has been uniformly disappointing. I wondered what a place that modestly calls itself Powder Mountain might be able to offer.
More than I thought, it turns out. Powder Mountain is enormous, but it also keeps its snow like a reservoir holds water. It breaks ski resort traditions in many ways. First, you drive up to the base and then ski down, like Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia. It also emphasizes quality over quantity, limiting lift ticket sales to 1,500 per day. This, the resort promises, ensures the lowest skier density of any major ski resort in North America.
PowMow’s runs are broad and gentle. Even the black diamond slopes — the most difficult ones — have a bluish tint, meaning they are not heart-stoppingly scary. Also, the average skier is, as my middle son would say, a dude. I’m talking jeans, last decade’s snowboard, long beard, and a headset playing the Grateful Dead. PowMow’s unofficial, somewhat revolutionary motto is “Powder to the People.”
And here’s something else you normally won’t find at an American ski resort: A snowcat, the kind used for grooming slopes, utilized instead to transport skiers from one ridge to another.
I didn’t have to imagine what this place would be like with good snow, because Powder Mountain had the best snow I’ve skied on all year. That’s what you get when you create a ski resort at the top of the Wasatch Mountain Range. Lots and lots of snow that sticks to the ground when everyone else has gone to the beach.
On the fixed-grip chairlift, a guy from Houston told us about the last powder day at PowMow, and I could swear those were tears in his eyes. Here, the snow is something like a religion.
Chasing Olympic dreams at Snowbasin
Snowbasin may share a valley with PowMow, but in many ways, feels like it’s on another continent. Sure, the snow is still great (I base this on two visits, one in February and the other in late March). But the slopes here are a little more serious.
There are two Olympic downhill runs. Have you ever stood at the top of a downhill run? Just take the Allen Peak Tram to the top and take a peek down Grizzly, the start of the men’s downhill course. It starts with a wall of snow that you basically plunge down, reaching speeds of 70 miles per hour. Even the slightest miscalculation can send you careening off the slope and to to the hospital. I made careful turns down that black-diamond slope until I reached the bottom.
Speaking of Olympics, Salt Lake City is making a bid for the 2030 games, which has the folks at Snowbasin excited. They can already envision the athletes coming back to the top of Allen Peak and competing again. That would be something.
Snowbasin is known for two other things: First, its base lodge is among the nicest in the west. It looks more like one of those upscale ranches in Wyoming than a ski lodge, with soaring ceilings, 360-degree fireplaces and gourmet food. And second — and this may come as a surprise — it offers some of the longest and most family-friendly runs I’ve ever been on. Try Elk Ridge, accessible from the Strawberry Gondola, for some pure carving pleasure.
Ah, and the views! Both Snowbasin and Powder Mountain have incredible vistas of the reservoir or of Ogden and Salt Lake City. But on a clear day, from the top of the Allen Peak, it’s said that you can see all the way to Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming.
I’m glad we landed here now, as the Olympics are underway. I can’t think of a more perfect time, or place.
You can read more about Christopher Elliott's family travel adventures at Away Is Home.
One of the hottest trends in travel is EAT vacations. We’re not talking about tours with celebrity chefs. Rather, families are looking for trips that provide memorable Experiences, real Adventure and Transformative moments.
Here are five ideas that may fit the bill.
1. Discover Palau.
Located in the westernmost corner of Micronesia, Palau, an archipelago of more than 586 islands, consistently ranks as one of the world's best dive destinations. Pay off for the lengthy travel time includes 1,450 species of fish, 500 species of coral as well as rare sharks and stingrays.
You may have heard about the opportunity to snorkel amidst the moon and golden jellies of Jellyfish Lake. For now, the lake is closed to snorkelers while the environment recovers from complications of drought. It is still possible to hike around the 12,000-year-old marine lake where scores of gelatinous creatures waft through the water following the arc of the sun.
When not diving, snorkeling or kayaking through the turquoise waters tap into the country's considerable WWII history that incudes sunken ships and planes.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Fans of the Tomb Raider film series will particularly enjoy exploring the Angkor Archeological Park, unfolding deep within the Siem Reap province. While hundreds of archeological and artistic temples and ancient structures remain, the most familiar (it’s on the Cambodian flag) is Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century to honor Vishnu, a Hindu God, the temple's bas relief galleries inform modern visitors of life in ancient times.
Also of note is the remarkable water system, including moats, canals and reservoirs, that once provided water and crop assistance for the thriving communities. Visitors arrive via river cruises on the Mekong or a stop in Siem Riep where lodging and tours are plentiful.
Choose your backcountry.
For an EAT trifecta, establish a pure connection with nature, off the beaten path. Hike, paddle or float into a pristine location where your family can learn or hone their wilderness skills. Choose a destination suitable for the ages and abilities of your crew. Encourage each person to take responsibility for the adventure whether that is early research, carrying a small pack, collecting kindling or serving as master storyteller around the fire.
For the youngest set, get started with an overnight in the backyard or a nearby park. That way, should the weather or unforeseen forces create a kink in your plan, warm and dry shelter is nearby.
Contact: www.Backcountry.com; www.NPS.gov ; www.Huts.org
The Dalí Museum. St. Petersburg, FLA
The budding artist in your clan will be transformed by a visit to this 66,450-square-foot museum that houses the most comprehensive collection of Salvador Dali’s works in the world. Enjoy the priceless collection of masterpieces, paintings, photographs, watercolors and books sure to inspire the whole family.
Younger children will enjoy the “Dillydally with Dali” program offered daily, which includes puzzles, games, story hour and creative expression. Be there on the first Saturday of the month, for Breakfast With Dali, a morning that includes a junior-focused tour, followed by a buffet breakfast. Children under five are admitted free.
Boundary Waters Canoe Trips. Ely, MN.
Ease your canoes into the pristine water and look forward to peaceful days of paddling amidst a sparsely populated, one million-plus acre expanse of wilderness. Listen to the waves lapping against the shoreline and the haunting lullaby offered by local loons as you drift to sleep in one of 2,000 secluded campsites that dot the lake region. Wake to the sounds of birds chirping in the birch trees and enjoy breakfast over a campfire. Then set out to explore more of the 1,500 miles of canoe routes that crisscross the waterways.
So you want to dive the Great Blue Hole near Ambergris Caye, in Belize.
Scuba enthusiasts are eager to dive this large submarine sinkhole once explored by Jacques Cousteau. Located near the center of Lighthouse Reef, the Great Blue Hole is part of the large Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, a World Heritage site.
Experienced divers have the opportunity to see remarkable limestone formations as well as several species of shark in the crystal waters. The dive destination is 60 miles from Ambergris Caye and for those of us who get sea sick it be a treacherous crossing. But worth it.
Working with an experienced and reputable outfitter is essential. Las Terrazas Resort is a family-friendly condo-style hotel adjacent to the White Sands Dive Shop, where Professional Association of Diving Instructors-certified (PADI) owner Elbert Greer will ensure your dive experience is top-notch.
Contact: www.lasterrazasresort.com; www.whitesandsdiveshop.com; www.travelbelize.org
A week before we visited Yosemite National Park, Alex Honnold became the first person to free-climb the near-vertical 3,000-foot face of El Capitan. And just a day before we arrived, two other climbers — Leah Pappajohn and Jonathan Fleury — scaled Yosemite’s El Capitan without clothes.
And by “we” I mean, my 10-year-old-daughter and my sons, ages 12 and 15.
Great timing, huh?
Unfortunately, Honnold was long gone by the time we arrived at the foot of “El Cap.” Fortunately, Pappajohn and Fleury were. I didn’t know how I would have explained that one to the kids. (“But Dad, they’re still wearing ropes, right? So they’re not totally naked.”)
That’s Yosemite National Park in the summer. Always something to do, always something to see. I’m just reporting the bare facts.
For us, Yosemite meant taking in the iconic sights, but also wandering through the amazing sequoia groves with the help of an expert guide. If you’re thinking of coming to the park during peak season, you need to know about the “insider” way we avoided the crowds.
A visit with “El Cap”
I know what you’re thinking. Yosemite in June. But isn’t everyone there?
Yes, but it’s still an enormous park, which at 1,189 square miles is about the same size as the state of Rhode Island. An insider will know where to go to avoid the crowds, and that insider is a private guide from the Yosemite Conservancy, a nonprofit that supports this national park.
Pete, our conservancy guide, knew the best spots to see the famed El Capitan, the shortcut to Bridalveil Falls, the perfect meadow to stop for a picnic. He even knew the best place to see the climbers scaling the north face. While a line of cars waited on the other side of the park, we used his insider knowledge to save time and see the best places.
The main attractions, of course, were “El Cap” and Half Dome, the two monoliths. If you’ve never been to the foot of these landmarks, let me tell you, there’s no way to adequately describe them. The only thing that comes close is a photo, and only famed photographer Ansel Adams captured what I would consider their essence — the shadows, the smooth granite face and the elegant shape that inspired countless tourists from around the world and a clothing line or two.
There’s a meadow in the Yosemite Valley, right off Northside Drive near the raging Merced River, where you can watch the brave climbers challenging “El Cap”. Bring a powerful pair of binoculars so you can see them inch their way up the vertical face. Not to be melodramatic, but my two youngest kids, who are known to be a little chatty, were stunned into silence. This was some rock.
Circling the sequoia grove
The rocks aren’t the only big things in Yosemite. There are also enormous, thousand-year-old sequoias, and the best place to see them is a secluded grove called Tuolumne Grove. It’s a 2½-mile hike down into the grove, but well worth it. Among the attractions: a dead sequoia you can walk through, a massive fire-red sequoia named Big Red, and a California redwood felled by lightning and hollowed on the inside that the kids can walk through.
Pete explained the fascinating history of these trees — how they used to be common in North America until climate change forced them to retreat to a few isolated pockets, how some of the trees are up to 2,000 years old, and how they create their own ecosystem that’s home to a variety of beetle, millipede and spider species.
Visitors to Yosemite probably know there are redwoods here, but if they don’t know about Tuolumne, it’s unlikely they’ll ever visit. This is one of the smaller and least-trafficked of the groves, yet it is also one of the most visually arresting. Standing next to one of these giants, you feel a lot like you do when you’re at the foot of Half Dome or “El Cap.” There’s an almost reverent attitude you see in the other visitors, even the kids. It’s as if they innately know that these trees are among the last of their kind and must be respected.
Impressed as I was with the silencing effect that Yosemite had on my otherwise boisterous kids, it couldn’t last. On the drive back to the Rush Creek Lodge, the conversation turned to an unanswerable question: Will the nude climbers ever return? Also, why weren’t they arrested for indecent exposure? (Apparently, there’s no law against it in the national parks. Who knew?) And just as suddenly as the quiet had descended on our group, it all evaporated into laughter.
Timing is everything.
If you go…
Where to stay
If you want to avoid the traffic and long waiting lists for a campground in the park, check out Rush Creek Lodge, a new hotel on the east end of the park. Go to their poolside barbecue for dinner, which is the best value this side of the national park.
Where to eat
If you’re heading into the park, pick up a few sandwiches at Rush Creek’s general store. For dinner, we found a respectable Mexican dinner at Cocina Michoacana in nearby Groveland.Cover your eyes, kids! I think I see two nudes ascending El Capitan!
Silicon Valley draws me like a powerful magnet, with its Mediterranean climate, irresistible culture of innovation and iconic technology brands that have defined a generation. It pulls in my whole family, which, like many Americans, lives in a world defined by Apple, Facebook and Google.
But, if you’re coming to San Jose, Calif., to see these companies, you might short your circuits. Sure, you can drive by the campuses of these tech giants and take a selfie of the Android statue at Google or next to the “One Infinite Loop” sign at Apple. You can buy merchandise at a gift shop or stop by the Apple store and pick up a new iPad. But tech tourism, as a recent article in the local newspaper noted, isn’t exactly encouraged by the secretive Silicon Valley companies.
If you visit San Jose, as we recently did, and if you look hard enough, you might discover even more than you expected — a place with a fascinating history of entrepreneurship and a forward-looking culture like no other. And in the process, you might also discover why tech companies don’t want to become tourist attractions.
I didn’t have to ask my kids, ages 10, 12 and 15, if they wanted to see Silicon Valley. I knew they did. My oldest son, Aren, is our resident techie, who can figure out how to do anything on a computer and is a fan of the TV show Silicon Valley. My younger kids are avid users. Did they want to see the Facebook campus? You bet.
It didn’t happen.
We wandered aimlessly around the Google campus in triple-digit temperatures, looking for the Android sculpture, until they begged me to return them to our air conditioned rental car. A contact at Facebook, who held out the promise that we could get on the campus, canceled at the last minute. The closest we got to becoming bona fide tech tourists was parking in a guest spot at One Infinity Loop and visiting the Apple store. When we tried to see the company’s headquarters, the receptionist almost laughed at us and said unless we knew someone, this was as far as we could go.
Well, so much for that.
The experience pushed us to make the best of the situation — you know, to innovate. And we did.
As it turns out, there are two museums where technology and discovery are celebrated. One is the Tech Museum of Innovation in downtown San Jose, an interactive science and technology center that offers a look into the soul of Silicon Valley. Every exhibit here, from the medical imaging equipment to the nanotechnology displays, oozes with futuristic flair. It made the kids ask themselves about the future, not the present. What will life be like down the road? What part do I play in it?
My 10-year-old daughter, who already has her eye on medical school, spent a good half hour “dissecting” an digital cadaver on a new machine that is meant for biology students.
For a look back at what made Silicon Valley great, you have to check out the Computer History Museum in nearby Mountain View. It’s dedicated to preserving the technology that too often finds itself in a landfill — obsolete gadgets that were important stepping stones to the smartphones and tablets we use today. The museum is home to the largest collection of computing artifacts in the world, including computer hardware, software, documentation, ephemera, photographs, oral histories, and moving images.
My oldest son and I were mesmerized by the vintage computers and the exhibits that explained their place in computer history when we visited. The two younger kids? Not so much. They only seemed interested in the latest and greatest, when it comes to technology. But that, too, offered a glimpse into what makes Silicon Valley tick.
Actually, I’ve known about this place for a long time. I spent a memorable summer working for my uncle’s coffee factory in Mountain View. On our lunch break, we would watch planes take off from Moffett Field. I don’t recognize the place now, but I do recognize the people. There’s a certain attitude that I call standoffish optimism. Instead of “What have you done for me lately?” they ask, “What can you do for me in the future?”
Nowhere is this future focus on display more than the campus of Stanford University, where we ended our tour of Silicon Valley. Stanford is a master-planned university with its imposing Art Deco, Spanish and Greek revival buildings. My son and I spent hours wandering the campus — we were fortunate enough to have found accommodations at the Clement Hotel, just across the street from Stanford — and had a chance to meet and talk to students.
I don’t think the folks we met would be offended if we said they seemed preoccupied, as if a part of them was here in the present and another part was off in the future, thinking about the next thing. Students experimented with drones and futuristic toys on the Quad. It felt a little like Starfleet Academy.
It was then that I realized why Silicon Valley’s most influential tech companies don’t want to become tourist traps. Innovation isn’t confined to a single institution or company. It is all around you in San Jose, Mountain View and Palo Alto. Maybe it’s something in the air or a contagion that has infected the population. That can’t ever become a tourist attraction, and it’s why Silicon Valley will always be the world’s most elusive tourist attraction.
If you go…
Where to stay
There’s no location more central than the Fairmont San Jose, a luxury property just across the street from the Tech Museum of Innovation. If you’re staying a few more days, check in at the Staybridge Suites in San Jose, which is really close to the airport and has excellent laundry facilities. And for a real upscale experience, try the all-inclusive, all-suites Clement Hotel in Palo Alto.
What to do
On the Stanford campus, check out the Cantor Arts Center. Don’t miss the exhibition on corporate design, which influenced Silicon Valley in so many ways. For a day of fun, head over to California’s Great America in Santa Clara, which has a mind-boggling selection of roller coasters, each one scarier than the one before. Don’t forget the Winchester Mystery House, which set a standard for Silicon Valley eccentricity that this place has tried to live up to.
Where to eat
Head over to San Pedro Square Market, San Jose’s urban center, for a selection of the best restaurants in town. We had a memorable pizza from Pizza Bocca Lupo — just like the kind you get in Naples, Italy.
When I was knee-high to the cattle roaming near my Midwestern home, my grandfather gave me a block of old barn wood for my birthday. Burned into it was that famous Helen Keller quote, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” My grandfather knew a thing or two about growing things in the dirt, and about his precocious granddaughter.
Later, in a relatively abbreviated period of time, I went from a deliciously luxurious life spent marinating in grand adventures, near and far, to the sometimes austere and certainly crazed life of a single mama running her own business and running after a tiny human.
Where do great adventures factor in?
Do I still take that Chamonix ski trip, but this time pack in my kiddo instead of my ice tools? Do I throw caution to the Montana wind and buy a ticket to New Zealand? Or do I now buy two tickets and download 20 hours of cartoons to the iPad for the flight? And do I realize a lifelong dream of learning how to sail, press pause on my Montana life and allow the winds to carry me around the globe…albeit this time with a tiny-human sized life jacket aboard?
The answer is simple.
Yes, yes and YES!
I’ve made many mistakes at this parenting game that I've tackled on my own.
But what I am most proud of, what really sends the gooey, chocolate center of my heart into palpitation, is when my daughter runs up to me and says, “Mama, let’s go on an ADVENTURE!”
Now, to a nearly 3 year-old the term ‘adventure’ means a slew of different things. We often load up on crusty bread and ‘adventure’ on our bikes to the MSU duck pond and share carbs with our webbed friends. We also ‘adventure’ to nearby Yellowstone National Park for geyser gallivanting, to practice our elk calls and then spend the evening bouldering on grassy slopes high above Gardiner with Electric Peak on the horizon.
And most recently, ‘adventuring’ has included Kaia’s inflatable dragon floatie that we’ve launched for many aquatic missions across Montana’s rivers and lakes (Lake Upsata is a recent favorite…full of lily blossoms, loons and trumpeter swans!).
As my daughter grows older, she continues to astound me with her simple wisdom. She is correct in that ‘adventuring’ does not always have to include lengthy plane rides, schlepping gear up a far-flung mountain or river, and scaring myself silly in general. All of that is good in moderation, but what we are so lucky to enjoy in Montana is the spectrum of adventure. From meandering ambles scouting for bear grass on the Whitefish Trail in northwestern Montana, to leisurely canoe paddles in the stunning Missouri River breaks, to dawn patrol backcountry ski days filled with homemade muffins and fresh powder tele turns in Hyalite just south of Bozeman…we can fill our boots with adventure in any fashion we choose.
All we have to do is walk out our front door.
Becky Edwards is a runner, climber, skier and all around mountain lover who resides in the shadows of the Bridger Range with her family. She owns a communications and marketing consulting company: www.SunSnowCreative.com and is a founder of www.MontanaMountainMamas.org.
Could We be… A SCUBA Family???
I’m a skier. Raised in New England, I cut my teeth on the icy slopes of the White Mountains. Eventually I moved west and learned to ride powder, ski the trees and pop through double-black chutes. My dream was always to imbue my family with the same passion for flying down snow covered slopes.