The best thing about the Northern American great outdoors is that regardless of where you live, there’s something to see and do. In every time zone there are adventure favorites — places that have well-deserved reputations and draw families to them in the thousands year after year.
But each section of the country also boasts lesser-known locations and activities. Their lack of fame only cuts down on the size of the crowds, and not the size of the adventure.
In addition to the simple pleasure that family vacations outside can bring, nature is good for the physical, emotional, and intellectual health of the entire family. Getting your family outside during the summer, isn’t just a time filler. It can actually help kids thrive when they return to school in the fall.
Thus, taking the time and thought to get your family outside is about more than just memories; it directly impacts their ability to thrive both in and outside the classroom.
Fish the Sierras in PST
Those in the West have access to a wide array of geography. From the blazing sun of Death Valley to the redwoods along the coastline, the Pacific time zone is full to bursting with some of nature’s best.
The rivers of the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges supply much of the water California depends upon. Indeed, almost all agriculture located in central California depends upon the snowmelt of the rivers.
The rivers that run through the sierras are some of the best for a fly fishing adventure. Fishing is a great way to begin a conversation with kids about how they’re interacting with nature. In fishing, even just one’s shadow impacts the outcome, thus they’ll be able to start thinking critically about the smallest details of their outdoor experiences.
Identify Fish Species: What better way to teach kids how to identify fish than by doing it in the moment? This hands-on approach will serve to help kids remember the information in the long term.
Learn About Natural Habitats: Fishing provides the perfect backdrop to talk with kids about the different ecosystems that different animals call home. Their migration and lifecycle are of certain interest to young explorers.
Raft the Arkansas River in MST
The Mountain time zone is named for the Rocky Mountains that are located predominantly within the time zone. The Rockies provide the perfect backdrop for a summer vacation that can become a summer of adventure. While the mountains are impressive in and of themselves, the water that weaves among them is also worthy summer destination.
Colorado’s Brown Canyon boasts 12 miles of some of the best scenery the state has to offer. We’re talking mountains, more canyons, bald eagles, and even mountain goats. It’s the type of adventure a family would not soon forget.
To get the most out of your journey with kids be sure to:
Remember to Parent:
- lay out the ground rules
- remind rafters of them
- good guides will also play around with kids
However, don’t expect them to also enforce the rules. When kids raft, parents serve as an important level of guidance and protection to ensure that everyone aboard stays safe.
Let Your Kids Take Risks: One of the great things about rafting trips is that guides are there to lend expertise. If you’re unsure about whether or not your middle schoolers can navigate rapids, you can ask. Often, guides are more likely to see what they will be able to accomplish, which opens the door for parents to see their kids do seemingly risky things, and succeed.
Pack Everything on the Packing List: When you book a rafting trip, you’ll be sent a packing list. It may be tempting to think that some of the items are unnecessary or irrelevant, but rest assured that each and every item on the list is there for a reason. Failing to stick to the list could land you in a sticky situation.
Plan Some Time to Recoup: Rafting is exhausting. When planning your trip, budget for the time needed to stay close to the river upon finishing your voyage. There is perhaps no better recipe for a stressful trip home than a car full of drained kids and parents.
Birdwatch in James Audubon State Park in CST
James Audubon was a naturalist, ornithologist, and painter. He documented and painted birds in their natural habitat, discovered 25 species, and produced what is still hailed as one of the best ornithological works of all time, The Birds of America.
He lived and worked for much of his life in Kentucky, and that’s where you’ll find the state park named for him.
Mel White writes for the National Audubon Society, “Check out Kentucky for mountains rich with warblers and lakes with waterfowl galore … If birding had shrines, one of them would be located in Kentucky.”
Birding is unpredictable. It requires time and patiences. Not things kids (or many adults) are naturally good at. But it’s a game for the masses; anyone can bird watch, and thus anyone can be struck by the wonder it provides.
The National Audubon Society also has pointers to get kids into birding, and they include two primary things:
Teach Kids the Basics. Help kids recognize the markers of bird activity. Usually, birds can be heard before they’re seen. The first visual cues that you’re in the right neighborhood include nests, cracked seeds, and whitewash (poop). Give them binoculars to spot the birds!
Teach Them Games. With kids, the key is to make them active participants. Encourage them to recognize that their powers of observation are the key to finding birds. Some examples of birdwatching games include:
- Making a visual list of target birds before arriving at the park and distributing that list to all kids.
- Attempt to spot a bird of each color of the rainbow for a full ROYGBIV.
- Spot other items, like park signs, with the binoculars to teach proper usage.
Birding is never an obvious choice for families with children. But truly, it’s one of the best summer activities to boost kids’ appreciation for the small details around them in nature.
Hike & Camp the Peaks of Otter in EST
In the east, hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains and Acadia National Park is popular among families, both those near and those willing to travel. However, a lesser-known destination — the Peaks of Otter — offer views of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains that are a gem in their own right.
At the Peaks of Otter, there are six different trails with differing levels of difficulty. The most popular trail is to the top of Sharp Top, which offers a 1.5-mile trek to the summit. It is fairly strenuous and is best for junior-high-age kids and above.
For those with younger kids, there are several loop trails that also provide awesome views of the woodland area.
However difficult of a trek you choose, always remember when hiking with kids:
- For a lot of individuals, hiking is an acquired taste.
- When kids are younger, they may not appreciate challenging physical activity.
So, before heading to your destination consider how you can best motivate them. For younger kids, it may a be scavenger hunt along the way. For older kids, perhaps an activity of their choosing at the end.
Not only is the hiking spot on, the summer weather in the surrounding area is perfect for summertime camping. With kids, it’s best to adopt an ultra-light approach to camping and hiking. Minimizing the stuff maximizes the energy you have to embrace the experience.
Wherever you find yourself this summer, there is potential. Time in the summer moves differently for families with school-age children, and one of the best ways to make that time matter is to get everyone outside.
Because not only is time different in the summer, experience is different outside. Indeed, Harvard Medical School reports that spending time outdoors means:
- Vitamin D levels rise
- You exercise more
- You’re happier
- You concentrate better
- You may even heal faster
Concrete evidence of what we all already know to be true: getting outside is one of the best ways we can positively impact our kids for the long term. So, this summer, if you’re unsure of what plans to make to use time wisely, opt for an outside vacation. You’ll be glad you did.