Five Trips You Never Thought Of

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Family Vacations Guide

Five Trips You Never Thought Of

We're doing what this summer? How about chasing a few tornadoes, training like an Olympian, and learning to hang glide?

The Hogan Way


The steely thunderheads of a high-desert storm gather in the sky above Tsaile, Arizona, as we stand outside the small, humped building that will be our home tonight. A sonic boom of thunder shakes the air. "Hogans are waterproof, right?" my husband says, eyeing the darkening sky.

"Oh, completely," I assure him. Behind us, a lick of lightning slashes toward Tsaile Peak. "Of course, if a hogan is struck by lightning," I add, "it would need a ceremonial cleansing before we could use it. We'd have to sleep outside."

"Cool!" shouts ten-year-old Moira from inside the low door. Her two-year-old cousin has more important issues on his mind.

"Dirt," he says, for perhaps the fourteenth time. "Mommy, I sleep in it?"

"Yes, sweetie," I say. "That's why we're here."

He smiles hugely. "Thank you," he says.

Finding a truly authentic way to immerse your children in another culture has become a task of exquisite difficulty nowadays. So much "cultural travel" is ersatz or embarrassing: "teepee rooms" at a Best Western or Jungle World at Disneyland. So when I read that four Navajo families in Arizona were opening their traditional hogans to overnight visitors, I instantly decided to go.

Hogans, I knew, have been integral to the Navajo way of life for centuries. Marriages are consummated there, children blessed, sacred religious ceremonies performed. Traditionally, Navajo families built hogans both in the high country, where their sheep summered, and also in the desert, where the herds spent the cold months. Families traveled with their animals, sleeping in the one-room, dirt-floored dwellings.

And now we would do the same. "Hope you like mutton," Will Tsosie, our preternaturally cheerful host proclaims as he hands us the key to our rented bit of Navajoland. Our hogan sits at the foot of Tsaile Peak, under low, rolling hills, near a field filled with sheep. "Dinner's at seven," Will says and eases away.

Leaving us to contemplate our new home. It's one of the common styles of hogan--eight-sided, round-roofed, made of hand-hewn pine logs, and, of course, au naturel, flooring-wise. "Dirt," my son proclaims again. "I like dirt." Thankfully, you don't sleep on the ground; mats and Navajo blankets intervene. (Bring a sleeping bag.) Otherwise, the experience is extraordinarily "natural" and intimate.

As the sun sets, my son, Max, plays with Will's five-year-old grandson. Later, we have mutton stew for dinner and listen to Will's ancient aunt talk haltingly about the Beauty Way, a sacred ceremonial. Moira is riveted. "Girls dance?" she asks.

The old woman nods gravely. "Girls are important to Beauty," she says. Moira beams.

The next day, after a breakfast of cornmeal mush ("Dirt," my unepicurious son pronounces), we venture deep into the heart of Canyon de Chelly, the Grand Canyon–like chasm that's virtually out our hogan's back door. Anasazi Indians, who mysteriously vanished from the Southwest millennia ago, carved petroglyphs across the striated walls of this canyon. Fluffs of white cottonwood float by as Stanley, our Navajo guide, points out these frozen narratives of hunting and warring.

Stanley, however, is more impressed by a recent moment in history. "You stayed in a hogan," he repeats after we mention our accommodations. "You are fortunate. Our own children don't see them much anymore." He pauses, then muses. "You have the number with you? Perhaps I will take my son next week."

--Gretchen Reynolds

To reserve Will Tsosie's hogan as well as horseback and hiking trips into the canyon, call 520-724-3383. Cost for the hogan is $85 for one person, plus $15 for each additional person (kids under 13 are free); it's an extra $15 per person for lunch, $20 for dinner. Book truck tours of the canyon at the Thunderbird Lodge in Chinle (520-674-5841). The Navajoland Tourism Department (520-871-6436) can provide information about other hogan B&B operators and tours of Canyon de Chelly.




Sometimes seen as the poster sport for midlife crisis–suffering wackos, it may come as a surprise that hang gliding--especially the way it is taught at Lookout Mountain Flight Park--turns out to be a fine activity for families with older children. And you'll only need about a week of training to gain enough knowledge and experience to become a solo pilot. This top-notch facility about 20 minutes from Chattanooga, Tennessee, offers two ways to learn. The first is the traditional foot-launch approach, in which you learn to take off and land on a small training hill. (Lookout has both 65-foot and 125-foot hills.) The second is the aerotow, in which an ultralight plane tows you and an instructor in a tandem hang glider up to 2,000 to 4,500 feet, then releases you from the towline. This method allows you to make your first flights at altitude accompanied by a certified instructor, similar to how an airplane pilot learns to fly. Lookout's instructors recommend combining the two methods for a safe, fast, and thorough way to earn your novice rating, the minimum requirement for solo piloting.

Hang Gliding
Lookout Mt. Flight Park

The Eagle Package ($999) includes nine high-altitude tandem flights, all the foot-launch training you need, and three solo flights from the mountain over the course of five to seven days, depending on wind conditions. Lookout's 44 acres in the valley directly below the mountaintop launch area serve as its landing zone--and as a small resort complex with cabins ($39 per night), a bunkhouse ($15 per person), tent sites ($5 per night), a swimming pool, and a restaurant/clubhouse. Children must be ages six and up to ride tandem and must weigh at least 85 pounds to take foot-launch lessons. Contact or 800-688-5637.


Tornado Alley

You've seen the movie. Now, take the vacation. Live Twister for 12 days, as you and a van full of other weather junkies roll through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and eastern Colorado--searching for explosive super-cell thunderstorms, vivid lightning, large hail, and if you're really, really lucky, violent, cow-tossing tornadoes. This isn't just any van--it's a twister-stalking Terminator, with an on-board Doppler Weather Radar System, satellite TV for round-the-clock Weather Channel reception, and a GPS tracking system.

Each morning, your group, led by Todd Thorn, a longtime storm chaser, will analyze data and forecasts. Then you'll drive--all day if you have to--through Tornado Alley to reach the area most likely to see powerful afternoon storms. Thorn figures you'll probably witness a good severe thunderstorm at least every two to three days (though some lucky tours have seen a whopper every day), funnel clouds once a week, and a tornado every couple of weeks. If, heaven forbid, the weather is fair, you'll kill time at whatever national parks, monuments, museums, lakes, or beaches are close by.

What kind of people go on storm-hunting vacations? The English love them, Thorn says. "They only get to see fog and drizzle at home." Tours cost $2,000 ($1,500 for second person in party), which includes lodging in area motels. Meals are on your own. Kids must be 13 or older and accompanied by an adult. Trips begin April 23, May 7, May 21, June 3, and June 17, and depart from Oklahoma City or Denver. Call Storm Chasing Adventure Tours, 303-888-8629;



Oh, Pioneer! Indulge your B-western fantasies and take the family on a covered-wagon trek this summer. Wagons West, based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, offers two-, four-, and six-day trips through the spectacular Mount Leidy Highlands and Bridger-Teton National Forest in the foothills of the Tetons. The converted hay wagons, each of which can carry up to 12 people, are equipped with rubber tires for a comfortable ride--authenticity is nice, after all, but only to a point. You'll roll about ten miles a day, then circle up in midafternoon. Once you've made camp, you can rope dummy steer heads, play volleyball, pitch horseshoes, dunk in a cold creek--or just set and chew on a long piece of grass and spit every now and again.

Meals are cooked in Dutch ovens over an open fire and eaten under a canvas fly off the side of the chuck wagon. At night, there's storytelling, singing, and cowboy poetry around the campfire. Participants may choose to ride saddle horses for half the trip and can sleep either in the wagons on folding bunks or in two-person tents. Two days: $325 adults, $285 kids under 14; four days, $625/$530; six days, $825/$725 (ten percent discount for families of four or more booking four- or six-day trips). Trips leave every Monday from June through mid-August. Call 800-447-4711.


New York

You may be grappling, as most of us eventually must, with the sad realization that you are never going to represent your country in the Olympics--not even as the lone archer from Togo, or from wherever it was you thought you might cook up a long-lost dual citizenship. Because the Olympic Regional Development Authority understands those yearnings, it has developed a program that allows you and your kids to experience Olympic sports in authentic Olympic venues surrounded by real Olympic athletes. The Gold Medal Adventure Day Camp offers five hours of daily sports activity in and around the pretty Adirondack town of Lake Placid, where many athletes live and train in world-class facilities.

You'll attend a bobsled push clinic at U.S. Bobsled Federation headquarters, learn the basics of luging on ice and on wheels, in-line skate around the Olympic Speed Skating Oval, and work on some upright aerial moves at a freestyle skiing trampoline clinic. You'll tour venues--many of which will be busy with Olympic athletes-in-training--and also do some kayaking and mountain biking. Tours run from mid-June to mid-September, Tuesday through Friday. You can participate for one, two, three, or all four days. Packages cost $55–$190 for all activities and lunch (accommodations in area lodges not included). By the way, if your kids show promise during, say, the luge clinic, they may get a call from a recruiter. Hey, now that would be be the Parent of an Olympic Athlete. Contact 800-462-6236, ext. 250, or

--Meg Lukens Noonan

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