Ask Me: Finding ‘More Complicated’ Family Adventures and Hiring Guides
I am writing to ask your advice on how to find more complicated active outdoors experiences for my kids. I live on the East Coast (small town, coastal South Carolina), but as a family we’ve been camping and hiking in the North Carolina mountains for some time now. My children are six and seven, and we are starting to head west to the national parks now that they are older. I love your photos of mountain climbing, bouldering, etc. and I’m wondering if you have suggestions for good places to introduce these activities to kids. We do not have your experience, so I’m guessing we would find a guide and if you have thoughts on that I’d welcome it as well.
I appreciate any time or thoughts, I love your website.
Thanks for writing and good on you for taking your kids on outdoor adventures and to national parks. You’re starting them young, which is smart.
Your question is a good one that I’m sure many parents contemplate.
When you’re planning a visit to a national park, search the park’s website for guide services and outfitters that are licensed to operate in that park. (See the Plan Your Visit tab in the left sidebar on any park’s home page, and from there you can dive into sub-menus of Things To Do and Outdoor Activities.) As some examples, you can find guided tours of all kinds in Yellowstone, guided hikes in Glacier National Park, river trips through the Grand Canyon, and climbing guides operating in Grand Teton National Park and on Mount Rainier.
There are many small guide services around the country that offer specific trips across a range of difficulties and lengths and have guides who are well versed in the human and natural history of a place, making the experience fun and interesting for adults and kids. Some of the best outings my family has had included rappelling down a slot canyon in Utah’s gorgeous (and less-crowded) Capitol Reef National Park (exciting and moderately difficult, but not as hard as it sounds) with a guide friend of mine; hiking two non-technical and dry slot canyons in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; spending a half day paddling kayaks through mangrove tunnels with a guide in the Everglades; and taking a snowcoach tour in Yellowstone National Park in winter (with a driver who kept up a steady and interesting monologue about wildlife and natural features) to cross-country ski through the Upper Geyser Basin/Old Faithful area (the skiing is mostly flat and easy).
Check out my “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You”
and “My Top 10 Family Outdoor Adventures.”
And don’t miss my ever-popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”
Don’t be intimidated if you’ve never done any of these activities; just tell the guide service or outfitter that you and/or your kids are novices, and talk to the trip organizer beforehand about your fitness and comfort levels and what they would propose doing with you. They routinely take beginners out on adventures; that’s a large part of their business, and so they usually understand what kind of experience people like you are seeking.
Guide services operating in national parks are required to meet specific standards, such as their guides being certified as Wilderness First Responders in the event of an emergency. Guides in technical activities, like rock climbing and whitewater rafting, should have specific training and professional certifications as well. These activities obviously pose risk, so it’s appropriate for you to ask questions about your guide’s experience and training before you decide to purchase their services; I’d want to know that. But for the most part, they are professionals following strict safety protocols. If they have trouble answering those questions, just find another guide service.
You can also find commercial guide services and tour operators in national forests and other public lands closer to home. (Some operate in Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve, for instance, not far from where I live; the lead photo at the top of this story shows my daughter, then six, rock climbing there.) They may have to meet different standards than operators in national parks, so ask them about their years of experience and training.
Look through park websites for ranger-led activities, like hikes, that are usually free or low-cost and ideal for families and inexperienced people; you’ll find them in virtually every national park and in some other public lands.
One example I highly recommend is a ranger-led dayhike through the narrow canyons of the Fiery Furnace area in Utah’s Arches National Park, a park where you’ll also find beginner-friendly hikes appropriate for young kids that are really scenic and exciting without demanding great experience. (See my story about our family trip there.)
Also, my brother-in-law recently told me about his family taking a ranger-led tour in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Here’s how he described it to me in an email: “The main cave is awesome, and we signed up for a ranger-led tour on Monday morning to the Hall of the White Giant, a part of the cave that was not discovered until 1966. The NPS only does this trip once a week, and it is limited to eight people. It is labeled ‘strenuous,’ but we thought, how strenuous can an NPS ranger-led tour be? It turned out to be really strenuous—four hours of serious caving: belly-crawling through tight passages less than a foot high, chimneying up vertical segments, climbing knotted ropes, some serious exposure in places. We all came out really spent—torn clothes, dirt everywhere, bruises and abrasions all over. Our two ranger guides were great, and both the journey and the destination were incredible. Kudos to the Park Service for offering such a challenging and rewarding trip. The on-line reviews of this trip from Trip Advisor are all 5-star, and similarly enthusiastic. The age limit for this tour is 12 and up, and is definitely challenging even if you are fit and adventurous. A really good taste of serious caving, not to be missed if you are ever in that part of the country.”
Make your kids want to go again. See my “10 Really Cool Outdoor Adventures With Kids.”
That leads me to another point: There are many outdoor activities you can do as a family without having to hire guides, including trips that you can take independently with support services provided by local outfitters. Most national parks can be explored by people with little hiking or outdoors experience.
For example, you can see many of the highlights of Yellowstone on your own with kids of any age, hike on your own on the well-marked trails to Yosemite Valley’s world-famous waterfalls, and take a multi-day float trip down the gentle Green River in Canyonlands National Park (which we did when our kids were six and four). Kids old enough to follow instructions and pay attention are safe—and thrilled—on one of the classic dayhikes of the entire National Park System, Angels Landing in Zion National Park.
When your kids are older and have the stamina for big hikes—maybe around age 12—the climb of Mount St. Helens is rugged and strenuous, but well marked, doesn’t require a guide, and is one of the most scenic and fascinating dayhikes in the country. When my son was 15, he and I made a guided ascent of a mountaineering route up the highest peak in the Lower 48, California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney.
You may be interested in my story “Are You Ready For That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself.”
You’ll also find lots of ideas at my All Family Adventures and All National Park Trips pages, and my menu of all Ask Me posts, where you’ll see all of the reader questions about family adventures that I’ve already answered.
I hope that gives you a good start. As you do more of these activities with your family, you’ll naturally get more comfortable with your own skills and judgment and you’ll learn where to find more activities for your family.
Thanks for writing and good luck.
Thank you so much for taking the time to write back, and everything you shared is exactly what we were looking for. I really appreciate your kind and thoughtful response.
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