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Outdoorsy Vacations for Families – How to Connect Kids with Nature While Traveling

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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 of our senses to create lifelong memories. To reignite children’s sense of wonder, here are nine outdoorsy vacations for families.

Outdoorsy vacations like farm stays help kids connect with nature

Outdoorsy 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. The directory lists working farms and ranches where families 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.

VHorseback 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 wilderness from 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.

Dad and kids around a camp fire

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 take a look at what camping gear to buy for your first trip.

San Diego, California beach scene

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. 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, beach goers can ride bikes along boardwalks, go for strolls along the sand, or fly kites along shores.

For the ultimate surfer town experience, plan a Huntington Beach, California family vacation. Or, for a chillier, yet still beautiful beach getaway, read my tips for Cannon Beach, Oregon with kids. Get even more beachy ideas with this list of the best beach hotels for families.

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 422 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, discover my tips for exploring Grand Canyon National Park.

Hawaii is brimming with nature exploration opportunities. Read about visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with 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.

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

Snowshoeing with kids Northstar Ski Resort

Snowshoeing with kids is a fun way to enjoy nature in winter (Photo courtesy of Northstar California)

7. Outdoorsy Vacations in Winter

Just because the weather is chilly, it does not mean you can’t get outside! Snowy vacations provide families with a chance to ski, snowboard, ice skate, snowshoe, snow tube and more in the great wintry outdoors. 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 winter activities in Park City, Utah.

Hike with a llama in Vail, Colorado in summer

You can 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 outdoorsy vacations. 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, take a look at 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. Simple Nature Fixes

Even if you don’t plan your entire trip around nature, you can still infuse some outdoor play into a typical vacation. Make time for a beach day, go for a family hike, visit a botanic garden, or even just spend time outside at a local park. You could also give kids an appreciation of wild animals by visiting a zoo, aquarium, or animal sanctuary during your travels.

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

Why Plan an Outdoorsy 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.”

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)

Save These Ideas for Outdoorsy Vacations for Families!

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

9 Amazing Outdoorsy Vacations for Families

Which of these types of outdoorsy 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

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

Comments
  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Amie OShaughnessy says

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

  6. 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!

  7. 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!

  8. 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!

  9. 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!

  10. Marble Mountain Ranch says

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

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