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Nature Vacations: 10 Outdoor Adventures for Families

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Families are so busy juggling science projects, carpools, and after-school activities in our daily lives that we often don’t take time to connect with nature, or with each other. Nature-focused vacations enable parents and children to unplug from technology and everyday stresses while using all our senses to create lifelong memories. To reignite children’s sense of wonder, here are 10 of the best nature vacations for families.

Nature vacations like farm stays help kids connect with nature
Nature vacations like farm stays help kids connect with nature (Photo credit: Scottie Jones)

1. Farm Stay Vacations

With the help of USDA grants, in 2011 Scottie Jones, owner of the Leaping Lamb Farm in Oregon, launched FarmStayUS.com. This website connects travelers with farmers and ranchers for farm stay vacations in the United States. The directory lists working farms and ranches where nature lovers can experience firsthand where our food comes from and what it takes to run a farm.

Jones says, “When families first get here, they all have these portable devices. But that’s it. No one turns them back on.” Instead, kids and adults brush donkeys, bottle-feed lambs, play in the hay loft, and throw rocks into the creek. A favorite activity is collecting fresh eggs from her chickens. She says, “It’s like Easter every day, even for the parents.”

I agree! I was so taken with the idea of a farm stay vacation after talking to Jones for this story, I booked a stay at her wonderful farm with my husband and two kids. Read my Leaping Lamb Farm review to learn more.

Horseback riding in Vail, Colorado in summer
Horseback riding in Vail, Colorado in summer (Photo credit: Jack Affleck)

2. Dude Ranches

A dude ranch vacation gives families a chance to experience the wilderness on horseback. DudeRanch.org matches vacationers with ranches.

The site promises, “Your appreciation of nature, family, and friends will be renewed. You’ll find that good riding, good food, and good friends will leave you peaceful and content. You’ll discover the luxuries of silence, the wind on your face, and the stars shining brightly.”

Activities vary from those you might expect like canoeing, archery, and river rafting to more surprising options like yoga, zip-lining, and spa treatments. One activity that remains constant is horseback riding in the great outdoors.

Camping vacation
Camping trips are a great way to connect with kids outdoors (Photo credit: Wollwerth, Depositphotos.com)

3. Camping with Kids

For those seeking affordable outdoorsy vacation opportunities, you can’t beat a family camping trip. Whether tent camping, cabin camping, or RV camping — spending time surrounded by nature is revitalizing for all ages.

Fill days with fishing, hiking, and playing campfire games. Then gather around the campfire at night for s’mores making, songs, and spooky stories.

New to camping? Learn tips for camping with kids from an expert and look at what camping gear to buy for your first trip.

Connect kids with nature during a beach vacation
My daughter on a beach in La Jolla, California (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

4. Beach Vacations

What better way to relax and unplug than by lazing on a beach and listening to the waves roll in and out? Beach vacations are great for water play like swimming, surfing, and stand-up paddle boarding. Get beachy ideas with this list of the best beach hotels for families.

Beach-focused retreats also give kids an opportunity to interact with nature by exploring tide pools and building sandcastles. Even if you don’t want to get wet, beachgoers can ride bikes along boardwalks, go for strolls along the sand, or fly kites on the shore.

Planning a West Coast summer vacation? Discover the best beaches in California for families. For the ultimate surfer town experience, plan a Huntington Beach, California family vacation.

Enjoy deep-sea fishing, boating, and way beyond with these 21 things to do at Hawks Key Resort in the Florida Keys.

For a chillier, yet beautiful beach getaway, read my tips for Cannon Beach, Oregon with kids.

A trip to the Big Island of Hawaii is full of nature exploration opportunities. In addition to beautiful beaches with white sands and plentiful water sports, your family can go snorkeling with sea turtles and explore intriguing lava fields. Read about visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with kids.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park view from a helicopter
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park view from a helicopter (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

5. National Parks

The U.S. National Park System boasts a total of 423 National Park sites. That includes National Parks, Monuments, Seashores, and more. These span across 84 million acres in each state and the American territories, including parks in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam.

National Parks offer hiking trails, historical lessons, and much more. You can stay within the parks at lodges or campsites or simply stop by for a few hours of nature play. If you plan to visit National Parks sites at least three times within one year, then purchase an America the Beautiful Pass at your first stop or online.

Considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, read my tips for exploring Grand Canyon National Park.

From Denali National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains and beyond, check out the best National Park in the USA for kids.

Fall in the Adirondacks
Adirondacks State Park in fall (Photo credit: Nyker, Depositphotos.com)

6. State Parks

National Parks get a lot of glory, but there are also 6,600 State Park sites in the U.S. These cover a whopping 14 million acres of land. Find State Parks in your home state using this map. Note that the America the Beautiful Pass does not include State Parks, Forests, Monuments, or other State sites.

In New York State at the Canadian border, find the always fascinating Niagara Falls. This State Park is one of the best places for nature lovers in North America.

For a nature-focused vacation on the East Coast, consider a trip to the Adirondacks with kids in Upstate New York. Set on over 6 million acres, New York’s Adirondack State Park is bigger than Yellowstone, Yosemite National Park, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and the Great Smokies combined.

Snowshoeing with kids at Northstar Ski Resort during a wintry nature vacation
Snowshoeing with kids is a fun way to enjoy nature in winter (Photo courtesy of Northstar California)

7. Wintry Nature Vacations

Just because the weather is chilly, it doesn’t mean you can’t get outside! Snowy vacations among mountain peaks provide outdoor enthusiasts with plenty of ways to play.

Adventurers love to downhill ski, snowboard, ice skate, and snow tube in the great wintry outdoors. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are wonderful ways to connect with the natural world, too. Check out these winter outdoor activities for families.

Ski resorts abound in the U.S. Take a look at these cool things to do at Northstar Ski Resort with kids at Lake Tahoe in California. Or, hit the slopes with these things to do in winter in Park City, Utah.

Hike with a llama in Vail, Colorado in summer
Hike with llamas at Vail Ski Resort in summer (Photo credit: Jack Affleck)

8. Ski Resorts in Summer

Of course, ski resorts are a no-brainer for winter nature travel. But don’t overlook these mountain destinations for summer play. Your family can enjoy activities off-season at ski resorts like zip-lining, boating, fishing, horseback riding, and even hiking with llamas!

Hiking with llamas is just one of 14 summer activities I recommend in summer in Vail, Colorado, America’s largest ski resort. Also located in Colorado, discover fun things to do in summer at Keystone Ski Resort.

Further north in Canada, there’s plenty of summer fun in Whistler.

A family of giraffes at the Phoenix Zoo
Kids connect with wild animals at zoos, like these giraffes at the Phoenix Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

9. Animal Encounters

Give kids an appreciation of wild animals by visiting a zoo, aquarium, or animal sanctuary during your travels.

The San Diego Zoo is one of the best zoological parks in the nation, renowned for its expansive habitats and successful conservation efforts. Not far away is the educational and always fun Birch Aquarium at Scripps. In fact, a San Diego family vacation is full of animal encounters and other outdoorsy adventures.

Whale watching is another exciting way to connect with nature. View humpback whales, dolphins, and other marine life in their natural habitat during a boat ride to the Channel Island National Park from Ventura, California.

Viewing the world’s largest animal, the blue whale is one of the many nature-focused things to do in Loreto, Mexico. Two more possible animal encounters in Loreto include snorkeling with sea lions and birdwatching.

Animal experiences abound with these fun things to do in Miami with kids. View alligators from an airboat, see marine life at the Miami Seaquarium, kayak with manatees, hand-feed spider monkeys at Monkey Jungle, and more.

Your family can even go swimming with Manatees in the wild in Crystal River, Florida.

Toddler climbing Toni's Treehouse net ladder at San Diego Botanic Garden
My son when he was a toddler Toni’s Treehouse at San Diego Botanic Garden (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

10. Simple Nature Fixes

Even if you don’t plan your entire trip around nature, you can still infuse outdoor play into a typical vacation. Make time for a beach day or just spend time outside at a local park. Even hitting the links on a golf course gives an opportunity to spend time outdoors together.

Plan pitstops during your road trip to take in the natural beauty of your surroundings. Look for beautiful places where you can enjoy a picnic meal together or stretch your legs during a family hike.

I love to visit a botanical garden during family vacations, like the playful San Diego Botanic Garden or Keukenhof Gardens Near Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Taking time out from over-stimulating museums, shops, sites, and amusement parks will help everyone relax and reconnect. Isn’t that what a family vacation is supposed to be all about?

Kids feeding ducks and chickens during a farm stay vacation
My kids feeding chickens and ducks at Leaping Lamb Farm in Alsea, Oregon (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Why Plan a Nature Vacation with Kids?

Richard Louv, recipient of the Audubon Medal and author of the bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods, coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder. He defines this as “a societal term that refers to the human cost of alienation from nature. It’s the price to our mental and physical health, our ability to learn, our productivity and, particularly for children, our sense of wonder.”

Save These Outdoorsy Vacation Ideas!

For future reference, be sure to save these tips for nature vacations for families. Simply pin the image below to Pinterest. We hope you’ll follow Travel Mamas on Pinterest while you’re at it!

Amazing Nature Vacations for Families

Which of these types of nature vacations have you enjoyed? Let us know in the comments below!

A Note from The Travel Mama: This blog post is an updated and expanded version of an article I wrote for the TODAY show website in 2012. It is no longer on their website.

About Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama

Colleen Lanin, MBA, is the founder and editor-in-chief of the popular travel blog, TravelMamas.com. She is an expert in travel with kids and without. As the author of the book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents how to make the most of traveling with babies and children. Colleen loves sharing tips on hotels, cruises, spas, theme parks, and global lifestyle topics. When she is not traveling the world, she lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

Comments
  1. Marble Mountain Ranch says

    This would love by kids for sure. Great article! Thanks for this information.

  2. Ranchweb says

    Really great article! Now a days families are busy in heactic work scheduled and kids are busy in their school activities that we really don’t take time to connect with nature, so you need to go to vacation with family and dude ranch vacation are great experience for family vacation.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      My family is looking forward to doing our first dude ranch vacation this fall. Can’t wait!

  3. Great article Colleen! We have had young guests at Scurlock Farms Vacation Rentals that did not realize milk came from a cow or eggs from a chicken! Dan lets the younger kids “drive” a tractor of their choice and those kids are grinning ear-to-ear. Adults have enjoyed watching the hay equipment, never having seen a large round baler pick up raked hay, form a bale, then spit it out all wrapped up. We get as much enjoyment out of showing our guests farm life as they get experiencing it! It reminds me how blessed we are and not to take it for granted.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Thank you, Sheron. How funny (and sad) that some children don’t realize milk comes from cows or eggs come from chicken! If we’re ever out your way in Texas, we’ll need to come check out your farm stay!

  4. Jose Ugalde says

    Hola Colleen, I know Costa Rica is a great place for families. I have been guiding families for more than 7 years and i love to spend time with kids interested in nature. If you think about coming back to Costa Rica with your family, i could help you and take you around; I work as a driver/guide (I know it might sound expensive but remember there´s no middle person.This is my website : http://www.costarica-family-adventures.com , if you have any question do not hesitate to ask. Pura vida

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Gracias, Jose! Will definitely keep this in mind if we book another trip to Costa Rica!

  5. Jose Ugalde says

    This blog is great!! As a Naturalist Tour Guide in Costa Rica; i like when i have family and mostly CHILDREN interested in nature.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Jose – Thank you so much for your comment. My daughter and I went to Guanacaste, Costa Rica last year and we loved exploring the natural beauty of your lovely country!

  6. Amie OShaughnessy says

    In our world filled with digital obsession, this is more important than ever!

  7. We are doing a dude ranch this summer and we can’t wait. Our whole family needs a tech break!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      That’s exactly how I feel! I’m so looking forward to a tech break during my family’s farm stay this summer.

  8. Right up my alley! I love these types of vacation, and so do my kids. Some of our favorite trips have been to farms and dude ranches.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      I wish my kids loved nature as much as yours do, Amy! I always have to BEG them to go for a hike or do anything outdoorsy with me. Then, of course, they love it but I wish they went more willingly.

  9. Ellen Lanin says

    I visited the farm of my friend Helen’s grandma on Rice Lake in northern Minnesota many times when we were kids. Native Americans harvested the wild rice in the lake. I think they camped out on her property. We explored the farm on our own. Happy memories.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      We can’t wait to do our own farm stay in Oregon this summer! I think this will be so good for the kids…and their parents!

  10. Laurence Wilson says

    Environmental education is necessary for kids. We should give some time for out-dooring with our children. So that they can play, learn & grow in the nature. Thanks COLLEEN, for sharing this article.

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