Our Favorite Places

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations, Summer 1996

Our Favorite Places
By Kathy Martin

Archaeology Expedition
Sure, it's educational. But the real reason you're here is more primordial: to make like a kid and dig in the dirt. The Anasazi excavation expeditions offered by eastern Arizona's White Mountain Archaeological Center will give you and your kids a hands-on orientation to the mysteries of the ancients who lived here a thousand years ago. Among the Raven Site Ruin's two kivas and 800 rooms, high on a knoll above the Little Colorado River, families can devote a day, several days, or a week to excavating prehistoric trash-pottery shards, bone tools, shell pendants, stone fetishes-from the ruins of Anasazi middens. They can hike in the volcano-studded White Mountains to see petroglyph and shrine sites; work in the field lab cleaning, sorting, and cataloging the daily finds; tour the ethnobotanical garden to see what the Anasazi farmers grew (corn, squash, beans, sunflowers, wild grapes, prickly pears); or perfect their coil-and-scrape technique, a prehistoric method for making pottery. Evening lectures by staff archaeologists enliven the history of the area, a significant Indian trading community inhabited as early as A.D. 1000 and as late as A.D. 1450 by the Anasazi and Mogollon Indians.

The White Mountain Archaeological Center is four and a half hours east of Phoenix, near the New Mexico border. Six-day programs run Monday through Saturday from May 1 to October 15 and cost $59 per day for adults, including lunch; $37 for kids nine to 17. You can reserve an on-site bunkhouse for lodging if you bring a group of eight to 18 people (families are encouraged to join other families), eating all meals in Chow Hall (the nightly cost goes up to $83 per day for adults, $61 for kids). Tent-camping is available at the center within walking distance of the site ($12 per night); so are a few self-contained RV camping areas. You can camp at Lyman Lake State Park (520-337-4441), six miles north of the center, or let a field staffer recommend one of the motels in nearby St. Johns or Springerville. Call 520-333-5857 for information and program reservations.

Adventure Camp
Any summer camp that starts with a ferry ride or seaplane flight across Washington State's sparkling Puget Sound to an uninhabited island is getting things off on the right foot. The Island Institute (on private Spieden Island in the San Juan group, an hour from Seattle) knows how to keep kids-and tagalong parents-happily occupied for a full week. During the institute's Marine Adventure Camp, families whale-watch, hike, fish, wade, swim, cruise, dive, snorkel, and sea kayak, all in the name and company (your campmates will be naturalists and marine biologists) of good science. From day one, your family is plopped into the water to investigate shore-based animal and plant life; wade and snorkel the tide pools and kelp beds; and observe whales, otters, and seal rookeries aboard sea kayaks or a 43-foot expedition boat. You'll then recover your land legs on island hikes in search of nesting bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and imported bighorn sheep. During free time, families can take off as a group and explore the islands, scout out one of the Free Willy movie locations (right off Spieden Island), or record their marine discoveries with underwater photos and fish prints, an ancient Japanese art using textile ink that, by the way, makes for great T-shirt designs.

Facilities are rustic but comfy: Campers bunk on cots or mattresses in roomy, safari-style tents (BYO sleeping bag), eating group meals and taking hot showers in a spiffy log lodge that also has an outdoor pool, a Jacuzzi, and shelves full of bird and fish books. A few private cottages are available at an additional cost. Camp weeks run Saturday to Friday ($795 per person, with significant discounts for families; six- to eight-year-olds come for half-price; kids five and under stay free), with a three-night getaway option ($375) as well as single-day activities. The program runs weekly from June 22 through the end of August, with a few weeks set aside for advanced camping programs (ages 18 and older) and a special Project Orca for teenagers. All meals and activities are included, except scuba diving: The institute offers a four-hour resort course for kids 12 and up ($75) and a full two-week certification course for ages 15 and up ($1,640) in August. Call the Island Institute at 206-463-6722.

Across the savanna they come: a small herd of wildebeests, followed by a pair of gemsbok and a lone greater kudu. Zebras nibble the prairie grass. A cheetah pops out of the woods as a white rhino basks in the sun. This scene unfolds right in front of your open safari vehicle-deep in the heart of Texas.

At the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in the Texas hill country, your African-style family safari takes place on a range that's home to 1,100 free-roaming exotic and endangered animals. This 2,700-acre ranch, an hour and a half southwest of Dallas, participates in the Species Survival Plan, a worldwide managed-conservation program, and serves as a breeding ground for ten endangered species: cheetah, Grevy's zebra, two kinds of rhino, two types of oryx, addax antelope, and three wolf species. But you'll also get up close and personal with giraffes, llamas, gazelles, sandhill cranes, emus, ostriches, prairie chickens, white-tailed deer, jackrabbits, and armadillos of the native Texas variety. Most visitors settle for the two-hour, self-guided driving tour, but during a family overnight Conservation Camp you'll travel with a naturalist guide in an open Land Rover to areas that aren't on the Scenic Wildlife Drive; take nature hikes and night walks; hunt for fossils; visit the vet clinic; touch a rhinoceros; and feed giraffes by hand. Itineraries are tailored to group interests: If the kids are fans of Canis lupus, you'll spend more time with the wolves; if they're fascinated with the Arabian oryx, you'll bone up on oryx life. Even toddlers can get chummy with a pot-bellied pig, goats, sheep, or tortoises at the petting pasture.

You'll spend nights in screened bunkhouses on a hill overlooking the animals' valley ($55 per person per night; BYO sleeping bag); you can also bring your own tent and sleep outside ($45 per person). Sorry, no kid discounts-dinner and breakfast are included, though. A Wilderness Camp overnight option features a five-mile guided hike to a remote campsite ($58 per person per night; BYO backpack and sleeping bag; tents are provided).

Both camps operate year-round for groups of ten or more (bring your neighbor's family or ask the center to set you up with a smaller group), and you can stay from one to six nights. Ask about the center's annual Wolf Howl evening in June, which includes seminars, a campfire dinner, wolf-lore tales, and a wolf-calling contest. Call 817-897-2960.

Language study high in the Rockies of northern New Mexico? Sounds like torture-if you think it means conjugating irregular verbs in a fluorescent-lit classroom while sunny mountain trails and bracing outdoor air beckon. But at the Santa Fe Language Institute's Family Spanish Immersion Program in Taos, New Mexico, you and your offspring will learn to hablar espa±ol while you hike and picnic in the spectacular Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with nary a vocabulary quiz to distract you. The institute's modus operandi is to immerse adults in the language via conversational dialogue and role playing, not grammar, while the kids learn at their own pace through Spanish games and stories.

During the five-day vacation, you'll work on fluency in the spoken language and Southwestern and Latin American culture: Historians, folklorists, and the Mexican consul are guest speakers, and your field trips include tours of a nineteenth-century Spanish colonial hacienda, Taos Pueblo (where you might catch a traditional dance), and other cultural and historical sites of the Southwest. Your base, the Hotel Edelweiss, in the heart of the Taos Ski Valley, is only a minute or two from trailheads and chairlift rides up the mountain. And there's horseback riding and Rio Grande rafting nearby.

The Family Spanish Immersion Program is scheduled for July 26-31, 1996, and costs $1,595 per adult and $300 per child, age four to 12; included are accommodations, instruction, materials, excursions, and meals, including gourmet Spanish-style dinners for parents (Anne Marie Wooldridge, an owner of the Hotel Edelweiss, trained with the White House pastry chef) and a special menu for the kids. Day care for kids under three runs about $5 per hour per child. Call 800-983-6469.

History Adventure
Old Wild West meets new Wild West during the Nature Place's weeklong Colorado Natural History Adventure. From base camp on a 6,000-acre property at 8,600 feet in the Rockies, prehistory groupies can dig for fossils and investigate 35-million-year-old tree stumps at Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument, while the social studies set reenacts the human history of the area by touring an 1800s homestead, where they dip candles, bake bread, and press apples for cider. Then everyone can try newfangled activities like a high-ropes course, darkroom photography, or an astronomy program with a 17.5-inch telescope.

In between old and new come the classic adventures: canoeing and kayaking, wildflower hikes, bird walks, and the optional bagging of a Fourteener. And by the closing campfire sing-along, most families will have joined at least one field research team in mapping bird and mammal nests, surveying pond and stream life, or collecting bugs.

The Nature Place, 40 miles west of Colorado Springs on the back side of Pikes Peak near Florissant, is part of the Colorado Outdoor Education Center, designated a National Environmental Study Area by the National Park Service. Families sleep in studio apartments with fireplaces, kitchenettes, lofts, decks, and picture windows with views of the Rockies; apartments sleep four (larger groups should request two apartments).

The main lodge serves home-cooked meals in a large dining room with a view of Pikes Peak and has an indoor pool, Jacuzzi, and exercise/weight room, plus outdoor tennis and volleyball courts and a putting green. But you'll likely find the younger set loitering in the Interbarn, a kid-friendly ecology center with rocks and fossils, a walk-in plant cell, and a seismograph. Family programs run from June 29 to July 5, July 13 to July 19, and July 31 to August 6; cost is $690 for adults, $500 for ages five to 15 (kids under five are free), including all meals, facilities, and field trips. Call 719-748-3475 for more information.

Sea Turtle Watch
It's the ultimate science project: witnessing a prehistoric ritual of an ancient reptile. On Ossabaw Island, a wild barrier island off the Georgia coast just south of Savannah, this solemnity is an every-night occurrence from late May through mid-August. Huge loggerhead sea turtles drag their 300-pound bodies across the hard-packed sand to dig nests with their flippers and lay clutches of precious eggs before making their exhausted way back to the water.

On Wilderness Southeast's four-day Turtle Watch program, you patrol two miles of beach, observing and meeting with scientists who are recording the nesting patterns of this threatened species, protecting the loosely buried eggs from other animals, and sometimes helping the mama reptiles back to the water.

During the day you can sleep late, explore Atlantic salt marshes, hike maritime oak and palm forests, and comb the beach for some pristine additions to your seashell collection. Rather than sunning throngs from Savannah, most of your daytime company will be wading birds: Ossabaw Island is a 25,000-acre heritage preserve owned by the Torreys (the family protects the island by limiting access to very few visitors each year).

Families sleep in two- or four-person tents at a base camp on the beach; bring your own sleeping bags and pads. The recommended minimum age for the trip is 12, but younger children who are sturdy walkers and up for primitive camping and staying up late will do fine.

Remember that this is the Southeast: Daytime summer temperatures can reach the 90s, and the sun is intense-so pack plenty of sunscreen and protective clothing. But at night, when you'll spend most of your time on the beach, temperatures are generally in the 60s. Two trips are scheduled for 1996: May 30-June 2 and June 6-9. The cost is $440 per person (ask for special discounts for children under 16), including meals and transportation between the island and Savannah. Call 912-897-5108.

Copyright 1996, Outside magazine

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