Most families plan one big blowout vacation each summerwhich still leaves a lot of summer left to enjoy. Our advice: Think weekends. Our seven getaways are active enough to keep older kids entertained, yet won't be daunting for the younger ones. And they're close to major cities, so you won't have to miss a single day of work. (Well, maybe just one.)
Get your paddle on: sunset on the waters off Catalina Island
Sea Kayak around Catalina Island
A draconian permit system and countless logistical challenges (the island allows no cars, for one) make planning your own paddling trip around Catalina Island rather time consuming. Enter Catalina Island Kayak Expeditions, which offers a three-day, two-night excursion that's perfectand easyfor families with teens. You and the clan bring only sleeping bags and personal items; the company handles the details and provides everything else you need, down to the grub and the sleeping pads.
On Friday morning, board the high-speed catamaran, next to the Queen Mary berth in Long Beach, for the 20-mile, 55-minute open-ocean ride to Catalina. While you're being geared up with a sit-on-top kayak, the group's tents and provisions will be chugging along by support boat to a campsite on the island's lee side at Goat Harbor, your base camp for the weekend. "Your personal craft is loaded with nothing weightier than lunch and snorkel gear," promises outfitter owner Mary Stein.
You and the kids will spend two days paddling (at your own pace) about 13 miles of unspoiled and otherwise inaccessible coastline. Guides will regale you with island lore: After William Wrigley bought the island in 1919, for example, he flew his Chicago Cubs here for spring training. The lucky paddler might spy a blue whale; guaranteed sightings are harbor seals and seabirds like cormorants and pelicans.
If the water levels cooperate, plan on exploring an eerie but beautiful sea cave. You can snooze, swim, and snorkel near Goat Harbor, or hike to the island's interior, home to groves of ironwood trees, native only to Catalina. You might even see one of Catalina's resident buffalo.
FERRY TIME FROM LOS ANGELES: one hour
WHO CAN GO: No experience is required, but the trip is best for active adults and teens 14 and older. Families with younger kids can kayak a half-day and then hang out in Avalon, the island's only town, the rest of the weekend.
COST: $345 per person.
CONTACT: Catalina Island Kayak Expeditions, 310-510-1588; www.kayakcatalinaisland.com
Mountain Bike in Tennessee
Grinders in the mist: Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains
While the rest of the South is making a beeline to crowded Great Smoky Mountains National Park, steer your weekend assault vehicle, with bike rack fully loaded, to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, near Oneida, Tennessee. Just 80 miles northwest of Knoxville on the Cumberland Plateau, which rises a good 1,000 feet above the surrounding areas, the 117,000-acre park straddles Tennessee and Kentucky and offers stunning vistas, a grab bag of geological artistryfrom stream-cut gorges and cliff overlooks to sandstone arches, chimneys, and rock sheltersand mile after mile of kid-pleasing bike trails.
Stop for maps at the Bandy Creek Visitor Center, near the park's Tennessee entrance, and choose a route. You'll find plenty of options, including two mountain-bike-only singletrack loops (Duncan Hollow Trail, 5.3 miles, and Collier Ridge, 8 miles), old railroad-bed trails, rugged jeep roads, and more than 200 miles of horse trails (watch itthe horse trails are muddy and often littered with you-know-what). When you tire of biking, try hiking or rock climbing, take a guided horseback ride, or go canoeing or fishing for catfish and smallmouth bass on the Big South Fork River.
The pool at the Bandy Creek Campground is a big draw for kids, but with 190 sites, it's not exactly idyllic. For cushier lodging, try the stone-and-log cottages at Pickett State Park, 12 miles north, which come with appliances, cooking and serving utensils, and a fireplace with firewood. Leave the sleeping bags at homethe cabins even come with bed linens.
DRIVE TIME FROM ATLANTA: five hours
WHO CAN GO: Riders older than seven should be able to handle trail elevation changes, which are steep but short.
COST: No entry or permit fees. Bandy Creek campsites, $15 per site for up to six people. Pickett State Park cottages, $95 for two bedrooms. Reservations required for both.
CONTACT: Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, 423-286-7275; www.nps.gov/biso ; Pickett State Park, 877-260-0010; www.tnstateparks.com/pickett
Raft the Cache la Poudre
Seeing white: taking on Colorado's rapids
Say "whitewater" in Denver and most people think of the Arkansas River. Instead, consider the Cache la Poudre. Just an hour north of the city, Colorado's only Wild and Scenic River is off the radar screen of most area rafters. And what the Poudre (locals pronounce it "pooder") lacks in big water, it makes up for with high-speed, steep-gorge technicality and stunning scenery.
Bob Klein, a longtime guide at A Wanderlust Adventure, will meet you and your brood Saturday morning at Vern's Restaurant in La Porte, just outside Fort Collins. Get there early for a full-on breakfast, or pick up a Frisbee-size cinnamon roll to munch on the 40-minute bus ride to the put-in a couple of miles above Grandpa's Gorge, near Rustic. Hang on for 21 miles and a full day of near-continuous Class III and IV rapids. And keep your eyes open: The Ponderosa-covered canyon ledges are loaded with bighorn sheep and deer; even bear sightings are a possibility.
After you're drenched, spend Saturday night camping in Colorado State Forest State Park, the area's best-kept backcountry secret, about 90 minutes west of La Porte. Watch for moosethe local herd numbers 600as you drive the winding, narrow road to a remote car-camp site known as The Crags. The next day, hike the short but steep trail to Lake Agnes and its glacier, girded by the exposed Never Summer Range.
DRIVE TIME FROM DENVER: one hour and change
WHO CAN GO: In early June the minimum rafting age on full-day trips is 14; by the end of June, the river mellows enough for preteens. A relatively calm stretch makes a good half-day option for kids as young as seven.
COST: Full day: $91 per person; half-day, $41 per adult and $35 per kid age seven to 12. The Colorado State Forest State Park entry fee is $5; campsites are $10 apiece for up to six people and two tents.
CONTACT: A Wanderlust Adventure, 800-745-7238, www.awanderlustadventure.com ; Colorado State Forest State Park, 970-723-8366; www.parks.state.co.us/state_forest
Ride Horseback through Vermont
One hoof in front of the other: horseback riding across Vermont
Sign on for a two-day, two-night trip in the Green Mountains with Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm and you'll ride the Ducati of horse breeds by day and snooze in spindle-leg feather beds by night. You and the gang will spend six hours each day in the saddle, exploring forests of white birch and maple near 4,393-foot Mount Mansfield, the highest in the state; you'll return each evening to the Mad River Inn, with private baths and an outdoor Jacuzzi (soak that saddle-sore caboose while stargazing).
Don't expect one of those elephant-walk affairs, where the horses shuffle nose-to-tail down the path. You and the kids will be cantering across meadows, fording streams, and trotting down dirt roads or wooded mountain trails, with stops to rest, eat lunch, and take unscheduled dips under waterfalls and in swimming holes. Karen Winhold, who owns the farm with her mother, June, welcomes riders from veteran to novice, but you'll at least need to know how to walk, trot, and canter.
The Winholds' sturdy Icelandic steeds make the trip especially kid-friendly. Bred by the Vikings 1,500 years ago, these horses are small, gentle, and surefooted, inspiring big-time confidence in even the younger riders. (Don't worry, burly folks; one of these strong animals can easily carry a 250-pound adult.) The breed is known for its two unusual gaits: the tolt, a smooth running-walk up to 30 miles per hour (you're more likely to be thrown from a rocking Barcalounger than from a tolting horse), and the faster skeid, a smooth but soaring gait that makes riders feel as if they're flying.
DRIVE TIME FROM NEW YORK: five hours
WHO CAN GO: Kids age ten and up with riding experience.
COST: $475 per person, including all food and lodging
CONTACT: Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm, 802-496-7141; www.icelandichorses.com
Sail in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge
Red, white, and you: sailing Florida's ocean blue
You live in Florida, where water is the dominant geographic feature. So how are you going to spend an active family weekend? Riding the wet stuff, of course. Hone your sailing skills or simply enjoy the ride when you join Jim Edwards, owner of the Bow to Stern Sailing School, and his familywife Stephanie and daughters Nicole, 5, and Alexis, 4on their 52-foot ketch for a weekend cruise on Florida's southwest coast.
On Friday evening, you'll sleep on the boat, moored on Marco Island, 110 miles west of Miami. Your berth is up front: a cozy den with a double bed and bunks and your own shower and head (boat talk for toilet). Next morning, you'll cruise into open waters on a due-south course along the coast and through Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Kick back on deck and enjoy your blue backyard, the Gulf of Mexico. You'll sail past dolphins, manatees, and stingrays; above water, look for ospreys, egrets, herons, and even bald eagles. The youngest passengers can play spirited games of hide-and-seek or take turns on the rope swing dangling from the boom; older kids can jump in the water when the boat is anchored or take the wheel under Jim's supervision when the sails go up.
A five-hour push brings you to your Saturday-night anchorage on a tiny island, Indian Key State Historic Site. Relax on the beach, or bring a mask and fins and go snorkeling. After dinner (Jim will hire a cook for the weekend, or you can bring and cook your own provisions), let the gentle lapping of waves rock you into dreamland. On Sunday morning, you'll sail back to Marco Island.
DRIVE TIME FROM MIAMI: two hours
WHO CAN GO: Swaddle 'em in a PFD (life vest) and kids of any age can sail.
COST: From $525 per couple per day; fees for kids negotiable.
CONTACT: Bow to Stern Sailing School, 941-571-5360; www.learnsailing.com
Rock Climb Near Mammoth Lakes
The spread-eagle shuffle: rock climbing at its finest
Yosemite is the obvious California climbing choice. But for a change of rockand an atmosphere that's welcoming for climbers of all ages and abilitiestry the Mammoth Lakes area. Clark Canyon, with its 60-plus midgrade climbs, easy access (most routes are a ten-minute hike from the parking lot), and jaw-dropping views of the nearby Sierra, is a choice spot for families. No wafer-thin geological hiccups here; the rock in Clark Canyon is volcanic tuff, so your kids will have plenty of solid holds to wrap their fingers and toes around.
Ellie Hawkins, owner of California Rock, has been guiding and teaching in the region for 30 years, with clients from rank amateurs (dads who don't know a carabiner from a carburetor; kids who've skipped rocks, but never climbed them) to the totally rock savvy. Arrange to meet Ellie at Mammoth Mountaineering Supplies in downtown Mammoth Lakes on Saturday morning, and then it's off for the 40-minute ride, most of it on dirt roads, to the spectacular orange canyon with 200-foot walls.
Hawkins knows climbing and she knows kids. "I go slow and let the confidence build," she says. "But kids never cease to amaze. In no time they're ready for Lil' Squirt [5.7], then Rock Candy [5.8]." Because the climbs are all one-pitch, turns in the family climbing rotation come satisfyingly quickly.
At night, you'll camp under cottonwood trees just outside the canyon and listen to Hawkins weave her climbing tales around a crackling fireif it's not too dry, of course.
DRIVE TIME FROM SAN FRANCISCO: six hours
WHO CAN GO: If the kid can walk, the kid can climb. Hawkins's youngest client was three.
COST: $100 per person per day for overnight trips, gear and instruction included. Pick up groceries at Von's market in town before you head out.
CONTACT: California Rock, 760-366-2301; www.californiarock.com
Cave in Indiana
Back in 1883, Blanche Hiestand and her little brother, Orris, wandered into a cemetery on Samuel Stewart's property in Marengo, Indiana, about 40 minutes west of Louisville, Kentucky, slid down a sinkhole, and fell into Marengo Cave. A week later, old man Stewart was charging folks a quarter for a peek at the Hiestands' discovery. The cave was designated a national landmark in 1984, and today admission for a spelunking tour has jumped to $18 per person (equipment and guide included). But Marengo remains a kid's best bet for exploring the limestone underworld of southern Indiana.
Guides for Marengo's Underground Adventure provide helmets, lights, and knee-pads, and show you how to scramble over boulders, wade through underground streams, and squirm through crawl spaces with only the wavering light from your helmet to part the darkness. You'll even learn a thing or two about cave ecology and conservation. Your kids will rave breathlessly about the epic nature of this safe, two-hour tripand you'll all be wet and muddy by the time you're through.
Two other caves within 40 miles of Marengo offer additional guided tours. Squire Boone Caverns, discovered by brothers Squire and Daniel Boone two centuries ago, is one of very few caves in the country with rushing rivers and waterfalls; Wyandotte Caves is noted for its exceptionally large chambers and passageways. Like Marengo, these caves offer a variety of programs for different ages and levels of adventure.
If one day of caving is enough, spend the next day canoeing along the Blue River, which is three miles east of Marengo. Explored by the Boone brothers in the early 1800s, the waterway along limestone bluffs and through deciduous forest is calm enough to paddle on your own. When it's time to get wet, the campground at Patoka Reservoir, 20 miles east of Marengo, has options for swimming and fishing, too. You'll also find many hotels in the area.
DRIVE TIME FROM CHICAGO: five hours
WHO CAN GO: Kids age ten and older can take an Underground Adventure tour.
COST: Cave admission, $18 per person; canoe rentals, $21 per person per day. Drive-in campsites at Patoka Reservoir, $16. Reservations are strongly recommended for all Marengo activities.
CONTACT: Marengo Cave National Landmark, 888-702-2837, www.marengocave.com; Cave Country Canoes, 888-702-2837, www.cavecountrycanoes.com; Squire Boone Caverns, 812-732-4381; Wyandotte Caves, 812-738-2782; Patoka Reservoir, 812-685-2464