Outside magazine, Family Vacation Guide
Ten top-ranking parks you might not have heard of — but then, no one else has either
Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Colorado
Even though you're 1,000 miles from the nearest beach, in southcentral Colorado's San Luis Valley you can find the next best thing: Great Sand Dunes National Monument, home to the tallest dunes on the continent and a veritable theme park of sand.
Blown in from the foothills of the Rockies, these 750-foot-high mounds of caramel-colored sand are marbled like frosting on a cake into long, swirled grooves. The best way to explore them is to simply wander, nomadlike. There are no designated hiking trails in the main dune mass, but you'll find plenty of routes to the top: Just pick a line and start walking. From the main parking area, it's about a three-quarter-mile climb to the "summit," but the deep sand will make it feel farther. Along the way, you'll crest high ridges, traverse steep sand faces, and drop into deep, wind-carved valleys — their soft sand walls perfect for log-rolling and somersault races.
If the 360-degree views from the top aren't reason enough to make the ascent, bring toys: The stiff winds are ideal for kite-flying, but beware the sudden gusts that can (kite willing) launch you into the air and propel you off the crumbly cornices. For an unexpected taste of winter, haul your snowboards or skis up via backpack and then hop on for the dizzying descent. And what better place is there to construct the most lavish of all sand chateaus? Whatever your activity, bring an extra CamelBak: The closest water source is Medano Creek at the base of the dunes.
Once you're suitably sand-plastered, leave the dunes behind for a ramble through the adjacent shrublands. The half-mile Montville interpretive trail leads you from the prickly pears of the high desert into the piñon- and juniper-dotted foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. More ambitious is the seven-mile round-trip climb through a high alpine meadow to 9,500-foot Mosca Pass.
The monument has one designated campground with 88 tent sites available for $10 per night on a first-come, first-served basis, as well as seven official backcountry sites on the grassy fringes. Pitching your tent amid the dunes is also permitted, as long as you're beyond the first ridgeline — and you don't mind sand in your scrambled eggs. During the summer months, the visitor center offers nightly slide programs on the monument's geology and its resident mule deer, pronghorns, and nocturnal kangaroo rats. Just outside the park on Colorado 150, Great Sand Dunes Oasis sells crucial desert supplies like groceries, gas, and "precious gemstone" souvenirs. But your best memento will be the pebbly, caramel-colored debris you'll still be scraping out of your ears long after returning home.
Great Sand Dunes National Monument is open year-round; there's a $3 per person entrance fee, under 16 free. Call 719-378-2312.
— Katie Arnold
Sawtooth National, Recreation Area, Idaho
Just northwest of venerable Sun Valley, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is one of the most highly concentrated stretches of alpine splendor in the Lower 48: Forty peaks of at least 10,000 feet jut from this 756,000-acre landscape (think Wyoming's Tetons, with a lot fewer visitors). Summer's primary activities are hiking, camping, fishing, and slack-jawed gaping — and combining all four in grand style via horsepacking treks into the Sawtooth Wilderness Area, the roadless preserve within the National Recreation Area.
Headquarters for all this central Idaho fun is the town of Stanley, at the junction of Idaho 21 and 75 in the northwestern corner of the Recreation Area. Most people come here to embark on raft trips down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and, in the process, often overlook what lies just beyond. From Stanley, home of most of the local outfitters and supplies, a long string of beautiful alpine lakes and valleys extends southward, along the eastern wall of the Sawtooth Range. Camping and fishing are in the west-side area at Redfish, Little Redfish Lakes, Stanley Lake, and Alturas Lake (the best and most popular campgrounds are Salmon River, Glacier View, and Redfish Outlet, all within about 15 minutes of Stanley), but the true gems are found at the ends of trails. The classic day hike is the somewhat steep 10-mile round-trip to Sawtooth Lake, which, if it's in the proper mood, reflects the gnarled face of 10,190-foot Mount Regan (this hike is best for strong kids or young teens).
Frequent visitors say the best way to get into the real backcountry of the Sawtooths is via horse. Deb and Jeff Bitton's Mystic Saddle Ranch (888-722-5432; 208-774-3591 in summer) in Stanley is a well-established outfitter offering three- to 10-day trips into the heart of the Sawtooth Wilderness Area. Serious anglers can hire Mystic Saddle to pack people and gear in to a pristine alpine lake, then return to haul it all out. Expeditions range from $397 to $1,710 per person (minimum age is six), everything included.
Families making a short trip of it can see much of the Sawtooth chain by driving Idaho 75, a National Scenic Byway, between Stanley and Sun Valley. Allow a full day for exploring around the 8,701-foot Galena Summit or along the upper Salmon River. (Drivers can pick up an interpretive cassette-taped tour at the Stanley Ranger Station and drop it off at the Sawtooth NRA Visitor Center north of Ketchum, or vice versa.) If you're not camping, check in to circa-1930 Redfish Lake Lodge (doubles, $54-$58; cabins, $117-$278; 208-774-3536), which has family-sized cabins and lodge rooms right on Redfish Lake. For information, call Sawtooth NRA Headquarters, 208-727-5013.
— Ron C. Judd
Stehekin, North Cascades National Park, Washington
Kids and their parents might disagree on what most to like about this outpost (population: 70) that serves as a southern gateway into North Cascades National Park. My husband loved its remoteness: At the fingertip of 55-mile-long, less-than-two-mile-wide Lake Chelan 185 miles from Seattle, Stehekin is a remote base from which to launch hikes into the rugged valleys of north-central Washington. I liked the floatplane ride we took along the length of the lake, which carves its way from the orchards of eastern Washington right into the snow-crowned ridges of the Cascades. My seven-year-old daughter liked riding the rental bikes ($12-$15 per day) at our lakeside base at North Cascades Stehekin Lodge; my four-year-old son loved riding in the tug-along buggy; and we all appreciated the fact that the only road in Stehekin, which runs just five paved miles up the town's narrow riverbed valley, is populated by four times as many bikes as cars. You see, you can't drive to Stehekin. You've got to fly or take a multihour ferry ride from the town of Chelan, at the other end of this 1,500-foot-deep glacial fjord.
Once there, we rented a small outboard-powered skiff and putted beneath granite cliffs, scanning the steep stands of fir and pine for bears. We biked an easy three and a half miles to 312-foot-high Rainbow Falls and took an icy dip in the pool at the bottom. We discovered that this place has the biggest, fullest blackberry bushes we'd ever seen; my daughter filled her baseball cap three times over on one hike.
Our simple room at 28-room Stehekin Lodge had no TV or phone, but it did have a view out to the water. And both kids approved of the Stehekin Restaurant's dinner buffet, with its home-style dishes like roast beef and mashed potatoes.
With more time we could have gone rafting or fishing for rainbow trout on the Stehekin River and horseback riding. But we had a floatplane to catch. While we waited, the kids hung out at Stehekin's information center, where they learned the difference between a crow and a raven and made Native American-style raven masks. Six months later, my daughter still pulls out that mask, makes wild flapping motions, and does a pretty good raven call.
To get to Stehekin, drive 170 miles from Seattle to Chelan, and from there, take the floatplane (Chelan Airways, $120 round-trip, kids 2-11 half price; 509-682-5065) or ferry (Lake Chelan Boat Company, 509-682-4584). Rooms at Stehekin Lodge run $77-$108; call 509-682-4494.
— Tracey Minkin
Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California
It's right there in the name: big, BIG trees. But while millions flock to Yosemite and Kings Canyon-Sequoia national parks to gape at the world's tallest trees, the equally splendid Calaveras Big Trees State Park, three miles east of Arnold on California 4, welcomes fewer than 250,000 visitors per season to its 6,300-acre expanse. Maybe the crowds stay away because the biggest tree here is "only" 250 feet tall — slightly smaller than its counterparts in the other parks. But when you're craning your neck in wonder at a tree nearly the size of the Statue of Liberty, what difference do a few feet make?
Most visitors to Calaveras head straight for the North Grove, which rewards you with views of several towering sequoias the minute you pull into the parking lot. But to actually spend some time alone in a grove of these mind-boggling trees, keep driving another nine miles through the park along W.W. Smith Memorial Parkway to the more remote South Grove. Even on a busy weekend, this corner of the park remains peaceful. You can hike the 5.25-mile, out-and-back South Grove Trail through a lush understory of dogwood and azalea in the shadow of numerous large sequoias on the way to the 25-foot-diameter, 250-foot-tall Agassiz tree. The trail is gentle enough for most kids, but long enough to let you know you've really been hiking. Stop along the way to stand inside the burned-out Chimney tree and gaze out its crown at the blue sky. Amazingly, the tree still lives despite having lost its insides to fire.
There's more to the park than big trees, though. One of the prettiest river canyons in the entire Sierra Nevada divides the park roughly in half. Tumbling from pool to pool under massive trees and giant ferns, the trout-filled Stanislaus River is good for swimming and fishing, and there's easy access from the Memorial Parkway bridge to riverside hiking trails. During spring flows, it's a terrific whitewater run, with solid class IV and IV+ challenges — a bit ambitious for most families. Those who dare can contact the outfitter Beyond Limits Adventures (minimum age 14 in spring, 12 in summer; 800-234-7238). Two campgrounds, both with flush toilets and hot showers, provide a total of 129 campsites ($16-$23.50 per night; call 800-444-7275 for reservations). The North Grove Campground is closer to the main highway; Oak Hollow is farther from the actual big trees but much less busy. There is no lodging in the park. Call Calaveras State Park at 209-795-2334.
— Andrew Rice
Tettegouche State Park, Minnesota
After being mashed sardinelike amid coolers, sleeping bags, and slobbery family pets, it's no wonder that kids crave gratification the minute they step out of the car. One place they'll find it is in northern Minnesota's Tettegouche State Park along Lake Superior's north shore. Cut in half by U.S. 61, Tettegouche at first looks anything but spectacular, with just a parking lot and a very average picnic area visible from the road. But ditch the car, head immediately to the park's two-and-a-half-mile shoreline, and the kids will be squealing, yelling, and pointing in every direction, trying to figure out where to go first in their newfound garden of earthly delights.
Close to the parking area, a series of well-marked trails will lead you a few hundred yards down to the mouth of the Baptism River, where perfectly round pebbles make wonderful plunking noises when they're thrown by the dozens into the calm-water pools. Later, backtrack up the same trail, north past the parking lot through birch and pine forest, up a steep, rocky incline for about a mile, and you'll reach Shovel Point and what seems like the top of the world. From this 100-foot-high cliff, the blue expanse of Lake Superior stretches to the horizon, and the sheer face of Palisade Head, a basalt monolith and a favorite of rock climbers, drops 300 feet straight into the lake.
The other nine-tenths of 9,000-acre Tettegouche is hidden in the aspen, white pine, Norway pine, spruce, fir, and northern-hardwood-forested Sawtooth Mountains, rising in some places to an impressive — by Minnesota standards — 1,620 feet. For a quick sampling of the backcountry, take the mile-and-a-half hike on the east side of the Baptism River that climbs past two waterfalls to a suspension bridge over 70-foot High Falls, the highest waterfall in Minnesota. Kids with longer legs will want to tackle the six-mile loop that winds around three inland lakes, two ridgetop lookouts with views of Lake Superior, and Tettegouche Camp, a former-hunting-lodge-turned-public-use-cabin. If six miles isn't long enough, hikers can hop on the 220-mile Superior Hiking Trail from various points in the park.
Tettegouche has one campground with 28 drive-in sites and six walk-in sites with showers and flush toilets. There's also a 14-site cart-in campground (all sites, $12 per night) on the shore of Lake Superior; the park provides two-wheeled carts for parents who need to ferry tired kids plus a carload of gear. Tettegouche Camp, on the shore of inland Mic Mac Lake, is a three-mile hike from the main trailhead and has four rustic log cabins with kitchenettes that sleep from two to six people, with water accessible from an outdoor hand pump ($60-$90 per night for two, $10 each additional person; fee includes the use of canoes, paddles, and life vests). Call 800-246-2267 for reservations, 218-226-6365 for information.
— Stephanie Gregory
Manning Provincial Park, British Columbia
If you've just walked 2,500 miles up the Pacific Crest Trail, there'd better be a pretty special kick-back-and-soak-your-feet finale. Manning Provincial Park, which straddles the Washington-British Columbia border in the north Cascades, fits the bill nicely. The park's gorgeous meadows and forests provide the final, sweet steps to through hikers on the famous Mexico-to-Canada trail. But families will be relieved to find they can soak up the same wilderness without straying too far off a major highway — Canada Highway 3, which bisects the sprawling park.
About two and a half hours east of Vancouver and four hours northeast of Seattle, the 204,000-acre park is equally pleasant for stays of a half day or a long weekend. For the short version, just follow Canada 3, which serves as its own interpretive tour of the wet west side and dry east slopes of the Cascade Range. In July and August, follow the partly paved access road (follow signs for Blackwall Peak/Three Brothers Mountain) north of Canada 3 for about ten miles to a parking area below 6,768-foot Blackwall Peak. A number of trails, including the less-than-a-mile Paintbrush Trail, lead to eye-popping scenes of alpine wildflowers backed by snowy peaks.
Manning is home to four of B.C.'s always-well-maintained campgrounds: Hampton (99 sites), Mule Deer (49 sites), Coldspring (64 sites), and Lightning Lake (155 sites). This last, set in evergreen forest on a chain of four small lakes, is a stunner. The lake environs provide several days of grand exploring by canoe, which can be rented near the campground at the day-use area. Or head out on the Lightning Lakes Trail, which winds up the seven-mile-long valley, gaining only 325 feet on its way to the other lakes. The 3.5-mile walk from Lightning Lake to Flash Lake, where massive peaks loom all around, makes a good family day hike. For an overnight adventure, trek on to Strike Lake Camp (five miles) for the best trout fishing in the valley. Campground reservations (800-689-9025) are strongly recommended for all Manning campgrounds. The only lodging in the park is centrally located Manning Park Resort (doubles with two queen beds, U.S.$65; standard two-bedroom cabins, $89; 250-840-8822), which has 41 rooms in a lodge-style building plus assorted cabins and chalets just off Canada 3. Day-hiking trails start right at the lodge, and most of Manning's attractions (including the Lightning Lakes chain) are a short drive away. Call the Manning Park Visitors Centre, 250-840-8836.
— Ron C. Judd
Mount Blue State Park, Maine
We arrived at the trailhead two hours later than planned. Which would have caused big problems if the mountain we were about to climb was, say, Mount Washington. But this was Tumbledown, at the edge of Mount Blue State Park, and stunning views of craggy western Maine and New Hampshire's White Mountains waited a mere 1.5-mile hike away. After climbing for only a little over an hour, we found ourselves alone at the summit, where there's a pond for fishing and swimming. Just two hours to the west, Mount Washington and the White Mountain National Forest see seven million tourists each year, while a mere 50,000 come to Mount Blue's 5,021 acres of the stuff that earns Maine its designation as the Pine Tree State.
Tumbledown was a good choice, but, really, we couldn't have gone wrong. The park, two hours north of Portland, Maine, and roughly four hours from Boston, encompasses four other kid-friendly mountains within a ten-mile drive of your campsite on Webb Lake — Little Jackson, Blueberry, Bald, and Mount Blue, each under 4,000 feet in elevation, and each accessible via trails most children can handle (no trail is longer than 3.3 miles to a summit view).
Rent a canoe, rowboat, or paddleboat for $2.50 an hour and share the park's 2,146-acre Webb Lake with the loons. Kids under 16 will find fishing rods free at the park's welcome center. Or kick back at your campsite, one of 136 at $13 a night for residents ($17 if you're from out of state), each with a stone hearth and a canopy of white pine.
The park's interpretive program runs five days a week (from Wednesday to Sunday) and puts to use a nature center complete with a life-size moose model (though you may see some of the real thing wandering through the park); gold-panning, night walks, and a junior ranger program also keep kids busy. Call Mount Blue State Park at 207-585-2261.
— Catherine Buni
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Florida
On my first visit to St. Joseph Peninsula, which faces the Gulf of Mexico from a perch on Florida's Panhandle, I almost mistook the sand for snow. That's how white and fine the deserted beaches are on this largely undiscovered sliver of sand, which shoots north from an elbow-shaped bend at Cape San Blas. The state park occupies 2,500-plus acres at the northern end, including nine miles of gulf beaches and ten miles along St. Joseph Bay. A paved road extends only partway into the park, leaving a sizable wilderness preserve at the tip. Beyond bay and beach, behind mounds of sand that sometimes spill onto the road, are pine flatwoods and sandpine scrub. The peninsula attracts migrating birds in autumn, especially hawks, and monarch butterflies; resident mammals include deer, foxes, and bobcats.
Even in summer, this refuge remains amazingly crowd-free. It's tempting to hang out all day on the beach, where waves are small and child-friendly (thanks to an offshore shelf, which intercepts swell), and the summer water temperature averages 87 degrees. Out in the gulf, artificial reefs and wrecks, even a toppled lighthouse from the mid-19th century, make for great scuba diving. You can choose from dozens of dive sites, including the Empire Mica, a British tanker torpedoed by the Germans during World War II. Around the boats and reefs, you'll see schools of angelfish along with grouper, snapper, and a nurse shark or two. Drop by Captain Black's Dive Center, across the bay in Port St. Joe (850-229-6330), to get maps and gear or to book dive, snorkel, and fishing trips (dive trips, $40-$125 per person; fishing, $195-$300 per day). Snorkeling in the clear bay waters ($29 for adults, $16 for kids 12 and under) reveals a prolific underwater world of dolphins, stingrays, sea horses, crabs, sea urchins, scallops, and starfish.
Canoes can be rented inside the state park ($15 per day). Broke-a-Toe's Outdoor Supplies and Services (850-229-9283), with outposts at Cape San Blas and Indian Pass Peninsula, offers half- and full-day guided sea-kayak trips out to 12,348-acre St. Vincent Island, a National Wildlife Refuge (where you'll spot loggerhead turtles, wild turkeys, alligators, and deer), and trips up local rivers and bayous ($30-$75 per person).
Other nearby attractions include Cape San Blas Lighthouse (six miles south) and the historic town of Apalachicola (26 miles east), a great place to stop for fresh seafood.
The park's eight bayside cabins rent for $70 a night in summer; reserve up to 11 months in advance. Of the two campgrounds, 59-site Gulf Breeze is close to the beach but has less shade (and more RVs), while 60-site Shady Pines enjoys a woodsier setting.
Primitive camping is permitted on the wilderness preserve, but you must set up behind the dune line (adults, $3 per night; kids under 18, $2 per night). Contact St. Joseph Peninsula State Park at 850-227-1327.
— Parke Puterbaugh
October Mountain State, Forest, Massachusetts
William C. Whitney, Secretary of the Navy under President Grover Cleveland, was a generous man — albeit an eccentric one. As a present for his son Whitney in 1899, he purchased some 11,000 acres of land in the heart of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts and imported moose, elks, and buffalo, along with a few exotics. Yes, dear old dad had created a New England safari for his son. But young Whitney wasn't much of a hunter and rarely ventured into the thick forest, so the land was soon turned over to the state. Now expanded to 16,127 acres, it remains the largest protected green space in Massachusetts.
Most out-of-towners who venture to the Berkshires head to the Mount Greylock State Reservation to see the state's highest peak — thus leaving these dense woods and hidden ponds remarkably crowd-free. Families can find solitude canoeing on Buckley Dunton Reservoir, a small body of water (only 190-plus acres) tucked into the hardwoods and stocked with bass and pickerel. For a longer paddle, follow the Housatonic River as it snakes its way along the state forest's rim all the way south into Connecticut. You don't have to worry about reaching the state line; the four-mile quietwater run (one way) within October will tire even the most energetic child. (Contact the State Forest office for information on canoe rental and shuttle service, 413-243-1778.)
A nine-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail (an ideal section for family hikes because of its relative ease) winds through stands of hemlock, spruce, birch, and oak. From the south, the AT crosses U.S. 20 at the state forest boundary, and enters the park near Greenwater Pond. Parents of preschoolers should opt for the new three-mile Washington Mountain Meadow Trail, an easy interpretive path through wetlands. Mountain bikers can choose from nearly 60 miles of fire roads. One of the best is County Road, where multiuse doubletracks splinter off in every direction (the Arcadian Shop in Lenox rents bikes for about $25 per day; call 413-637-3010).
While canoeing, hiking, and biking, chances are you'll see deer, beavers, maybe even a bald eagle. But, as the locals will tell you, there have been some bizarre sightings of animals in this neck of the woods. Whitney's animals were supposedly shot by hunters to place above the mantelpiece...or were they? That deer you spotted just might be a gazelle or an impala.
Forty-five developed campsites ($6 per night; call 877-422-6762 to reserve) are available near the shores of the Housatonic. Contact October Mountain State Forest at 413-243-1778.
— Stephen Jermanok
Douthat State Park, Virginia
It was one of Virginia's first state parks and remains one of its finest, but you wouldn't know it by the crowds — there aren't any. Secluded in the Allegheny Highlands of western Virginia, 4,493-acre Douthat, a National Historic Landmark, is remote enough to deter the tourist hordes that invade the rest of the state each summer. Families can fish, swim, and hike in relative privacy within a wilderness that was once frequented by Thomas Jefferson.
The park's centerpiece is 50-acre Douthat Lake, which is surrounded by the George Washington National Forest and stocked with brown, brook, and rainbow trout. Your children will love the special kids-only fishing area (under 12; must be accompanied by an adult with a permit) at the lake's south end. You can rent canoes, rowboats, and paddleboats lakeside, or swim from a sandy beach. Trout season runs from early April through late October; fishing permits are sold at the camp store on the lake.
The park also encompasses an exceptional 40-mile network of trails that was blazed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. A good family hike is the four-mile circuit that zigzags upward through cool woods to a small waterfall and returns along the lake's edge, following the Heron Run/Middle Hollow/Pine Tree/Blue Suck Falls/ Heron Run trail sequence. For a more challenging hike, the Stony Run Trail to Tuscarora Overlook to Blue Suck Falls is a calorie-burning, ten-mile round-trip that leads to awesome lake views.
The trails are accessible from the campground rimming the lake's north end (the choicest of three camping areas that have a total of 74 sites). Refurbished log cabins north of the lake, another legacy of the CCC, sleep two to six and come with living room and kitchen; weekly rates run $330-$492 in summer. You can hook and cook your own dinner, or try the Lakeview Restaurant, which serves up pastas, salads, and sandwiches.
A half-hour drive from Douthat via Virginia 629 and up a winding grade (Virginia 39) is Warm Springs Pools (540-839-5346), enclosed by white wooden rotundas designed by Thomas Jefferson in the late eighteenth century. It's worth the trek and the $12 hourly fee for the experience of soaking in heavily mineralized water that effervesces at body temperature. Call the park at 540-862-8100.
— Parke Puterbaugh
© 1999, Outside Magazine