Family Vacations, Summer 1998
Boston: Carter Notch Hut, White Mountains
It's not exactly a half-pipe in the sky, but even the surliest pre-teen will have to admit that the Rampart rock field, just past the Carter Notch Appalachian Mountain Club hut, is very, very slick. A massive jumble of Humvee-size boulders at 3,288 feet, the Rampart is full of caves, some of which harbor snow well into summer, and secret passageways to explore. This is the carrot you'll use to get your kids to press on during the steep final third of the three-hour, 3.8-mile hike (suitable for an energetic eight-year-old), which begins just north of Pinkham Notch in New Hampshire's Mount Washington Valley.
The "hut" is actually three structures — a common building with a full kitchen where families prepare their own meals from food they've carried in, and two bunkhouses with eight rooms, each with four to six beds. The below-timberline hut also serves as a good jumping-off point for day treks to Carter Dome (about an hour and a half away) and the summit of Wildcat Mountain (a little over an hour's hike, but quite steep). Park at the Nineteen-Mile Brook trailhead off New Hampshire 16, about three hours north of Boston. Rates are $14 per person per night for AMC members, $18 for nonmembers. Call 603-466-2727. — Meg Lukens Noonan
San Francisco: Austin Creek State Recreation Area
The first time we traversed the winding road that climbs 1,200 feet to Bullfrog Pond Campground in Guerneville's Austin Creek State Recreation Area, my husband and I could barely make out the famous redwood trees for the rain pummeling our windshield. If we had had kids in those days, we undoubtedly would have pulled a U-turn and hightailed it to more hospitable accommodations.
Fast-forward five years. We're on the same road, dry this time, but one-year-old Will is raising a ruckus in the back seat. For the umpteenth time, my husband and I revisit the merits of camping with a toddler. We decide to stay — a good choice, it turns out.
Even full, the campground felt secluded because most of the drive-in campsites are carved out of the redwood forest to form a series of discrete rooms. Each site has a fire grate and picnic table, and there are flush toilets and potable water in the common area. We spent the ensuing two days exploring much of the 5,000-plus acres of the Austin Creek area and the adjoining 805-acre Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, with their more than 20 miles of well-marked hiking trails through shady woodlands, chaparral, and meadows. Nearby Armstrong Woods Pack Station (707-887-2939) offers daily horseback excursions as well as overnights and three-day pack trips for families with older kids. You can also fish or kayak on the Russian River five miles away. The park is a 2.5-hour drive north of San Francisco. The 23 drive-in campsites ($12 per night) are on a first-come, first-served basis; four backcountry sites cost $7 per night. Call 707-869-2015 or 865-2391. — Ginny Graves
New York: Cape May
Since my daughter, Jaya, now ten, was a baby, we've spent the waning days of each summer in Cape May, New Jersey. Cape May is nothing like its honky-tonk neighbors on the Jersey Shore: It's home to the country's largest collection (600 in all) of Victorian houses — the town is a National Historic Landmark — and it's in the path of thousands of migrating shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds.
This is our yearly tradition: We rent bikes in town and ride three miles west to Cape May Point State Park. First we tromp up the 199 steps of the lighthouse for a spectacular view of the coastline. Then we cross the parking lot to hike and birdwatch along the mile-long Blue Trail, which wanders through freshwater marshes. After grabbing a sandwich at the nearby Cape May Point General Store, we picnic on one of the small lifeguarded beaches; watch the ferry cross to Lewes, Delaware; collect beach glass, and, if we're lucky, witness dolphins arcing past. At some point we head down to the harbor and board the Skimmer (609-884-3100), a flat-bottomed, glass-sided pontoon boat, for a tour of the salt marshes and tidal creeks. Last summer we watched the sky fill up with herons heading to their island rookery.
Cape May is three hours by car from New York City. Cape May Reservation Service (609-884-3191) can match you up with a B&B, hotel, or motel. Try the Queen Victoria (609-884-8702), a B&B situated a block from the beach in the center of the historic district; it has 21 rooms and suites, among them a suite for a family of four that rents for $320 per night, including daily beach passes, beach towels, and use of the inn's bicycles. — Beth Johnson
Chicago: Starved Rock State Park
What kid wouldn't like scrambling up a 125-foot sandstone butte to gaze over the Illinois River and imagine himself one of a band of besieged Illiniwek Indians? My six-year-old sure did. At Starved Rock State Park, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, you can explore nine designated stream-fed canyons on 15 miles of trails, canoe along the river, and cast for white bass. Hike to the waterfalls at French, La Salle, and Ottawa canyons; en route, watch for white-tailed deer and red-tailed hawks. The 1.6-mile round-trip trail to the top of Starved Rock and into French Canyon is usually crowded; head instead for Hennepin Canyon (6.2 miles round-trip) or Illinois Canyon (9.4 miles round-trip). Fifty-eight campsites ($11 per night) are first-come, first-served; 75 others can be reserved by mail for a $5 fee; call 815-667-4726. River's Edge Canoe and Boat Rental rents canoes for $10 per hour, $35 for a full day. Starved Rock Lodge (double rooms, $71-$80; cabins, $58-$80; 815-667-4211) is a 1930s-era stone-and-log lodge on a high bluff in the park. Reserve early; its 72 hotel rooms and 22 cabin rooms book up months in advance. — Debra Shore
Denver: Rocky Mountain National Park
If you had the choice of spending the day among caged beasts at the Denver Zoo or a weekend with free-ranging fauna in Rocky Mountain National Park, which would you choose? Right, that's what our three kids said, too. Late spring to early summer in the park is lambing season, when bighorn sheep descend from the Mummy Range to Horseshoe Park, and the kids love it when the Bighorn Brigade stops our car to let the sheep cross the road.
Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in North America at an ear-popping 12,183 feet, has sweeping vistas, but it's hard to appreciate them in bumper-to-bumper traffic. A better way to reach the summit is via the less-traveled, nine-mile gravel Old Fall River Road (it usually doesn't open until July 4), with its hairpin turns and waterfall views. Starting the ascent in the afternoon (from the Fall River Entrance Station, take U.S. 34 to Endovalley Road to Old Fall River Road), we reach the visitor center at the summit by dusk — in time to watch wapiti and pika forage in the alpine tundra — and then head down Trail Ridge Road after the crowds have left. From there we head to Estes Park to pick up an Estorito burrito at La Casa, then return to the park. The park's main campgrounds tend to fill up by 8:30 a.m., but the kids prefer a backcountry site anyway. Their favorite is Goblins Forest, marked by twisted pines, just 1.2 miles up the trail that leaves from the Longs Peak Ranger Station. Contact Rocky Mountain National Park at 970-586-1206. — Jane McConnell
Seattle: Lake Crescent, Olympic National Park
The glassy waters of eight-mile-long Lake Crescent look alarmingly cold, clear, and spooky for a very good reason: They are. Which is probably why, every summer, plenty of families wind up here on the northwest shoulder of the Olympic Mountain range. The always frigid lake and its surroundings are an appetizer sampler plate of the best of the Olympics. From a base camp on the lakeshore, either at Fairholm Campground ($10 per night) or the nearby Lake Crescent Lodge ($72-$150, double occupancy; 360-928-3211), vacationers can canoe or boat or pursue lunker trout. Within walking distance of the lodge are the Moments in Time Trail (an easy half-mile loop) and the Marymere Falls Trail (an easy two-mile round-trip), which leads to a waterfall. A half-hour away by car are trails to Soleduck Falls (easy; 1.5 miles round-trip) and the Spruce Railroad Trail (easy; eight miles round-trip), a converted railroad right-of-way on the lakeshore open to hikers and mountain bikers. Lake Crescent is 20 miles southwest of Port Angeles on U.S. 101, about three hours from Seattle. Contact the park at 360-452-0330. — Ron C. Judd
Tucson: Chiricahua National Monument
Don't mention the words "history" or "learning experience" when the kids ask where you're going for the weekend. Just tell them they're going to hang out in the same mountains where Cochise and Geronimo once outwitted the U.S. Cavalry. The Chiricahua Mountains, named for the Apache tribe that called them home, rise to nearly 10,000 feet in far southeastern Arizona. The 11,985-acre Chiricahua National Monument, 120 miles from Tucson, is a weird land of gigantic rock spires and balanced boulders in the northern part of the range. From the 18-site campground near the visitor center, a paved road winds eight miles to an overlook at Massai Point. Get a close-up view of the rock formations on the half-mile trail, or try the 3.3-mile Echo Canyon Loop, suitable for ages five and up.
Within the monument, car camping is allowed only in the campground, but the rest of the 450-square-mile range, part of Coronado National Forest, is crisscrossed with access roads and plenty of established campgrounds and primitive campsites. There are also about 240 miles of trails throughout the high country. For families with older kids, the 5.5-mile Greenhouse Trail (near the Herb Martyr Campground and the junction of forest roads 42A and 713) winds past a 365-foot-tall waterfall on its way to Chiricahua Peak, at a cool 9,796 feet. It's easy to imagine Apaches still watching from the hills. Entrance to the monument is $6 per car; camping at the visitor center's campsites costs $8 per night. Call 520-824-3560, ext. 104, for information. — Jonathan Hanson
Washington, D.C.: Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
You hear stories that the pirate Blackbeard once hung out on Assateague, the 37-mile-long barrier island famous for wild ponies, waterfowl, and buried treasure. Treasure-seekers still comb the salt marshes for his gold, but when my mother and I visited Assateague with my infant son in tow, we came hunting for Assateague's natural wealth — remote, windswept beaches covered with dunes, solitary great blue herons, and the occasional peregrine falcon searching for shorebirds.
The place to see it all is the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the southern side of Assateague Island. We rented bikes (on the neighboring island of Chincoteague) to pedal the easy 3.75-mile wildlife loop, which winds through a marshy landscape that could double as the set for Jurassic Park. But instead of velociraptors, great blue herons skimmed the pine trees. A snowy egret deftly tossed a fish into the air and swallowed it whole. A family of wild ponies grazed in the marsh. And tiny sika, which resemble deer but are actually oriental elk, bounded away as we coasted toward them.
On July 29 you can watch more than 100 wild ponies swim the quarter-mile saltwater channel from Assateague to Chincoteague Island, where the new foals are sold at auction. Hikers and bicyclists have the wildlife loop to themselves from dawn until 3 p.m., when the paved road is closed to cars. The refuge has two visitor centers — one near the entrance (757-336-6122) and another at Toms Cove (757-336-6577). The $5 entrance fee is good for seven days. From Washington, D.C., it's roughly a four-hour drive to the refuge via U.S. 50 east to U.S. 13 south to Virginia. Take Virginia 175 east onto Chincoteague Island, then follow the signs to Assateague Island. — Anne Goodwin Sides
Los Angeles: Ojai Valley Inn
There's a lingering phenomenon at dusk in Ojai that the locals call the "pink moment," when the striated facade of the Topa Topa Mountains, looming just above town, glows a distinct rouge and the world seems to stand still. Whether you've spent your day boulder-hopping between swimming holes in Sespe Creek north of Ojai, bass fishing at Lake Casitas, pedaling the flat, ten-plus-mile bike trail that runs through town, or nudging a gentle mare on a trail ride, the pink moment is a time to revel in your choice of getaway. Just 90 minutes northwest of Los Angeles (20 minutes from Ventura on California 33), Ojai is ideally situated in a valley amid giant California oaks and vast groves of citrus trees.
The best game in town for families is the Ojai Valley Inn. Kids 3-12 can attend the inn's Camp Ojai ($65 per day including lunch) for swimming, pony rides, games, and Native American storytelling. Adults have a fitness center to get sore in and the brand-new Spa Ojai in which to mend. Bikes are complimentary (it's a two-minute ride to the town bike path), and the inn's wranglers conduct trail rides on their nearby 800-acre ranch. The inn's fare — fresh fish and game — is fine, but also try the wholesome grub in a garden setting at the Ranch House Restaurant, about five minutes from the inn. "Best of Ojai" packages at the inn (800-422-6524) start at $337 a night for double occupancy (kids 18 and under are free) and $487 for a four-person room, including use of the spa and one activity per day per person — such as a spa treatment, a tennis lesson, a round of golf, horseback riding, or a fishing trip. Charges are applied for activities beyond the one-per-day package as well as for activities for kids staying free with their parents. — Bob Howells
Dallas: Fossil Rim Wildlife Center
Put the kids in the car in Dallas and tell them you're driving to Africa for the weekend. Yeah, right, they'll say, but an hour and a half later, when you reach Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, they just might think you figured out a way to beam the car across the ocean. There you'll be, face-to-snout with giraffes, zebras, rhinos, gemsbok, gazelles, greater kudu, and wildebeests, all wandering in a landscape that looks astonishingly savanna-like. Fossil Rim's 2,700 acres are a refuge for some 1,100 animals representing 60 species, about half of which are gravely endangered in the wild.
New this year are special Family Conservation Camps (June 27-28, July 10-12, and August 1-2), which will take your clan on behind-the-scenes wildlife tours, hikes, and fossil hunts. On the property are five lodge rooms and a number of safari tents, but you'll be roughing it this weekend in one of eight rustic bunkhouses that each sleep up to 14. Rates have not yet been set. Call 254-897-2960, ext. 210. — Leslie Weeden
Illustration by Philippe Weisbecker