Going Big

Five wunderfamilies show how children are no impediment to real, no-holds-barred, self-supported adventure.

Here, in the chronicles of their trips—scaling a stormy alpine spire, biking a desert canyon, sailing through a remote archipelago, traversing a 12,000-foot pass, and paddling a wide, arctic river—families who stay together play together.


Bagging the Bugs: A mountaineering initation in Canada's Bugaboos turns stormy.

"What's that mountain, dad?" asked 13-year-old Ben. "Can we climb it too?"

I couldn't see the peak from my ledge, but did wonder where he got his drive. That day alone, we had already pushed hard for 12 hours, inching our way almost 2,000 feet up a cliff in British Columbia's spectacular Bugaboo Mountains. We had just summited cleaver-shaped Snowpatch Spire and I was exhausted, mostly from the anxiety of shepherding a junior-high schooler up the thing. Still ahead of us were several dangerous rappels and a long, steep glacier descent.

Fortunately, our ropemate, Rob Hart, enjoyed a better view. "Ben, don't you recognize Pigeon Spire?" he asked. "That's the peak you thought would be too easy. You've already climbed it!"

"That's Pigeon Spire? It's huge!"

Together with four of my closest friends, I had brought Ben along for a mountaineering education. He was a talented sport climber, and the four of us—who had all once been guides—wanted him to experience firsthand our own perspectives about more traditional alpine climbing.

After driving up from Montana, we started with a short but grueling hike, 2,500 vertical feet in two miles, to the Conrad Kain Hut, built by the Alpine Club of Canada and named after a turn-of-the-century guide who pioneered many classic Bugaboo ascents. This was a perfect base, close to several glaciers where we could teach Ben about roped snow travel, cramponing, and ice-ax self-arrest—essential skills he'd need for the week ahead.

Our first major objective was 10,450-foot Bugaboo Spire, a monolith that offered a famous, moderately challenging rock climb up its South Ridge—the Kain Route. This, of course, disappointed Ben, who was pushing for an even harder test piece. Still, as we approached the summit, he learned that the word moderately was debatable. At one point we had to sneak across a frightening, extremely exposed traverse that offered no footholds. Although rated a "mere" 5.6, for a long time it had been considered the hardest pitch in North America. Even Ben was humbled by Kain's hobnailed accomplishment.

Next up was the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire, which we'd heard was the region's showcase climb, with fabulous views and exposure. Rated just 5.4 with good protection, it seemed a great place for Ben to practice high-mountain leading skills such as placing nuts. But he was outraged. "I didn't come all this way to do easy climbs," he pouted.

What Ben didn't yet realize is that sunny-day sport climbing is vastly different from alpine mountaineering. He'd soon learn that lesson the hard way, albeit under protest. Although we set off for Pigeon in warm dawn light, clouds began rolling in, and soon our goal was shrouded in fog. No wonder Ben didn't recognize this shapely spire when he later viewed it from Snowpatch.

After a brief debate about weather, we continued. At least it wasn't snowing, and periodically the clouds seemed on the verge of clearing. Once we were off the glacier, the rock was deliciously varied, leading up a blocky, sometimes sharp ridge with big holds that lured us quickly upward. We divided into two teams of three and climbed continuously, without stopping to belay. Instead, the leader of each rope would place enough nuts in different cracks—or slings over rock horns—so that there was always an anchor between each team member. The middle climber would pass these, clipping the rope back in behind him, and the bottom person would remove them. Every few hundred meters we regrouped to let someone else, sometimes Ben, forge the route.

In less than two hours we had passed two prominent false summits and stopped to belay the final, hardest pitch. Ben, who could climb 5.1 back home, begged for this exposed and dramatic lead. Since the weather still appeared to be holding, I let him try. At first, he did well. Then, just as he reached the trickiest moves, from which a retreat would be both difficult and dangerous, it started snowing—hard.

"Watch me!" screamed Ben, who suddenly noticed both the new ice on his tiny footholds and the vast distance between his feet and the glacier below. He needn't have worried about my vigilance; already my heart was pounding. Fortunately, Ben regained his composure and continued upward, powered by adrenaline. A few feet higher he finally grabbed a good hold, then scrambled to the summit, from which our companion team had already rappelled. After joining him on the very top, Rob and I assessed the situation.

Visibility had now dropped almost to zero, a wind was driving snowflakes due sideways, and in addition to shivering, Ben was getting a migraine. Atop a lonely Canadian mountain, these would be serious conditions for anyone, much less my 13-year-old son.

I fed Ben Excedrin and we started down. The other team was waiting beneath our rappel and they were equally worried. By now, two inches of snow buried every horizontal surface and we crept downward tightly roped. It seemed forever before we reached the glacier (which I kissed). When we finally reached the hut, well after dark, several other climbers said they thought we might've needed to be rescued.

"Not us!" shouted Ben, who'd recovered from his headache and was eager to recount our epic. A few days later he'd boast even more about Snowpatch Spire, which he finally admitted was as hard as he wanted to try. I've noticed that since then Ben has never again sneered about an "easy" mountain climb. I guess we elders accomplished our mission.

IF YOU GO

On Your Own Only Experienced mountaineers should climb in the Bugaboos without a guide. From the Bugaboo Provincial Park trailhead, hike about three hours to the Kain Hut at 7,500 feet. Make reservations for CN $18 (about US $12) a night through the Alpine Club of Canada, 403-678-3200; www.alpineclubofcanada.ca. You can also camp in limited, nonreservable spaces at the Applebee site, a ten-minute walk from the hut, for CN $5 (US $3) per person. For more info, check out Bugaboo Rock, published by The Mountaineers.

Guided Options Canadian Mountain Holidays (800-661-0252; www.cmhmountaineering.com) offers climbing excursions from its luxurious Bugaboo Lodge. There's daily helicopter transport to certain sites, including one near Pigeon Spire—making this an easy day climb. Three-day mountaineering packages start at CN $1,822 (about US $1,217) per person, which covers lodging, meals, helicopter shuttles, guide fees, equipment, and round-trip transfers from Banff. Trips allowing kids—some take them as young as eight—depart June 25; July 1, 13, 25; and August 6, 18, 30.

When to Go Mid-June to early September. The weather's typically more stable toward the end of summer.

On River Time: A family slows down and melds with the northern wilds on a float down the Yukon.

This is what we came for, I think. Finally here, in the arctic night, perched above the Yukon River across from the town of Dawson. All this way, all the driving and airports, the schlepping of baggage, the hustling of children, and the days of confined spaces. It all funnels down to this immense boreal valley full of its brawny, storied river. Come morning everything will truly simplify, it will all fit inside the canoe hulls, and the Yukon River will bear us away for two weeks and nearly 300 miles.

In the morning we actually do clamber into our two canoes, crammed tight with gear and three children eight years old and younger. Another couple, friends who recklessly joined in for this crash course in family outdoor living, climb into their canoe. The thick river sandpapers against the hulls. We are swept away.
The Yukon, for this entire stretch, is flatwater, unchallenging paddling. But it is a tremendous, Mississippi-size volume of current, moving at a surprising speed. Upwellings boil to the surface in blistering outbursts of power. There are eddies behind rock points big as city blocks. The river is brown and gritty with sediment, full of tree trunks and sticks and tannic froth. Dirty hunks of ice still rest along the shoreline well into June.

We paddle past rock scarps that fall sheer into the river. Distant mountain ranges float on the horizon. Old prospecting camps and abandoned settlements decay along the banks. The weather this first day is hot enough that the kids vault over the side and gasp for breath in the frigid water.

In a few easy hours we have been borne nearly 30 miles along, to what will become our preferred site for river camps, the gravel tip of an island. These open, breezy spots are largely free of bugs. More important, the kids explode into spasms of play that last for hours. At this one they call us over to see a line of lynx tracks in wet sand. They bring us pretty rocks and feathers by the pocketload. They build nests out of sticks and grass.

That night, in the late, cooling twilight, we lie side by side in the family tent. Eli, eight, is naked on his belly, asking what he should write for his first journal entry. "Oh yeah," he says, "the lynx tracks!" Sawyer and Ruby, seven and five, prompt him with their vivid bits of the day. Outside, the call of a hermit thrush, a ruckus of ravens, the hissing river, the never-dark night.

It takes three or four days to achieve river time, to really arrive. By then, campsites and events start to blur together. The moose in the alders at a lunch spot, a claustrophobic prospector's cabin we walked up to, the clouds of mosquitoes at a tributary where we stopped for fresh water. And by then our collection of keeper rocks fills up a sleeping-bag stuffsack.

More than 100 miles downriver and across the border into Alaska, it comes to me that time is flowing the way the water flows, neither dawdling nor hurrying. It is an attitude threshold I've been waiting to cross.

About then, too, the weather shifts from sunny and warm to gray and stormy. For the next week it rains intermittently—showers at night, half-day drizzles, gusty thunderstorms. We are repeatedly seduced by sucker holes that dissipate into more daunting weather. And the river keeps rising.

We take to stabbing marker sticks at the waterline to measure the rise—as much as an inch an hour. We paddle along with a parade of flotsam. At night we hear the roots of trees grinding over shallows and by morning our campsites have been appreciably diminished.

But the kids take it in stride. They have become bug-resistant, weather-hardy, boreal river rats. They pull on rubber boots and slog around in the drizzle and mud. For them the encroaching river and transformed campsites are an exhilarating drama. The passing rafts of trees are an endless target-practice challenge. They busy themselves in shallow side channels, erecting dams and adding to logjams.

Big, arctic, horizon-spanning country with a behemoth flow rustling through it. Country that my children prove themselves more worthy of each day.

When, too suddenly, we reach our final night, poised a few miles upstream of Circle, Alaska, our camp rests on another gravel bar. The kids spend the bugless afternoon playing naked in the shallows. After dinner, it is my wife, Marypat, and I who give way to fatigue and head for the tent first.

Outside, in the lambent night, the kids are raucous with their play, making a final fort. They are dusty as aborigines, creatures of the North.

IF YOU GO

The Basics Getting to the Yukon River is the hard part. Once you're on the water the trip is straightforward. From Anchorage it's a 400-mile drive to the put-in at Dawson via the "Top of the World Highway." You can also fly to Dawson from Anchorage or Fairbanks, or take the Alaskan Highway.

The river between Dawson, Yukon Territory, and Circle, Alaska, is roughly 270 miles of easy, fast paddling. No permits are required, but you need to check in with U.S. Customs when you pass through Eagle, 100 miles along.

Outfitters Guided trips are hard to come by, but you can rent canoes, rafts, and other gear, and get plenty of travel advice, from Eagle Canoe Rentals (907-547-2203). A canoe package, including a boat, paddles, and PFDs,costs US $270 and can be picked up in Dawson and left in Circle.

Resources Yukon River: Dawson to Circle, by Mike Rourke (US $16 from Rivers North Publications, 250-845-3735; hss.sd54.bc.ca/Rourkes/homepage.htm) is a good mile-by-mile river log. For more information, contact Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve: 907-547-2233; www.nps.gov/yuch.

Hi, Sierra! An 11-year-old flatlander is introduced to California's rugged trails.

It didnt' start well. A mile from the trailhead, Jevin stopped. As in wouldn't move an inch. At age 11 he'd hiked plenty of times—only the year before we'd done a 40-mile loop on Michigan's North Manitou Island—but having grown up in the Midwest he had little experience with mountains or thin air. And they were kicking his butt.

Taking a tween into the backcountry has required my wife, Cindy, and I to seriously adjust our pre-kid get-there-or-else attitudes. Tweens don't pace themselves; they're either full-steam or no steam. They don't like to talk through emotional distress. Instead they clam up. They can be as goal-oriented as any adult, but sometimes the goal gets wonderfully lost in the moment.

"So is this it?" I asked my son.

"What? Is this what?"

"The end of the hike. We can head back to the campground and watch videos all week. Like the camping-trailer crowd." I paused.

"We don't have a VCR, and we don't have a camper," he said.

"What about car camping? We can just car camp."

He finally shouldered his pack with determination.

"We don't have a car. Grandma dropped us off," he said. "And I'm not a car camper."

Our route was a 46-mile loop in the Sierra Nevada from Cedar Grove at about 5,000 feet through Paradise Valley to Woods Creek (which we'd follow to the John Muir Trail) and up to Rae Lakes. Then we'd head over nearly 12,000-foot Glen Pass and back down Bubbs Creek to our starting point. That was the plan, at least, but we were overloaded, especially after stuffing two mandatory bearproof food canisters into our packs at the trailhead.

Our first night was supposed to be spent at Paradise Valley's northernmost camping area. We didn't make it. We barely made six miles when we'd hoped to hike ten. The 1,500 feet took their toll, and Jevin was way past my cheap pop-psychology tricks. The amazing thing was that after an early dinner and a little wood-gathering, he got a sudden energy burst and wanted to climb some of the nearby glacial boulders. High above our campsite we watched the sunlight crawl down the eastern side of the valley.

The next morning we made a pact. No more killing ourselves. Each day we'd hike until we were tired. That morning we hiked five miles and stopped for lunch, then decided to stay put for the night. Now 12 miles behind "schedule," I kept the shame of our pokey pace to myself. The kid was finally having fun.

That evening we were rudely introduced to the subject of a long-time controversy in the Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks: pack mules. Earlier a mule train had deposited what looked like a moving van's worth of mammoth tents and lawn chairs in the campsite next to ours. As we filled our Sierra Stove with pinecones and twigs to cook our dinner, the other group fired up both bonfire and radio and commenced partying.

We ditched the mule crowd early the next morning. Cindy and I took it easy and let Jevin lead. Whenever I could see he needed a kick in the pants, I offered to take over as "group leader." But he'd have none of that and kept moving.

John Muir described Kings Canyon as "a rival to Yosemite," and we could see why. We passed towering cliffs and waterfalls, and as we climbed higher, giant sequoias and lodgepole pines turned to western junipers and mountain hemlock. We looked for black bears, but all we saw was scat.

On the third night, still some ten miles off our itinerary, we took a vote. We could finish the loop, which meant pushing harder for the next two days, climbing the pass, and then doing two ten-mile days to catch our ride. Or we could simply hike to the lower Rae Lakes area and head back the way we came. The loop lost.

But the next morning Jevin changed his mind. "It's all about bragging rights, Dad," he said, and picked up the pace.

So we spent the next two days hiking hard, swimming in clear high-country lakes, and getting mentally ready for Glen Pass. On the morning of our sixth day we were there—a moonscape of rock, patches of lingering August snow, and lifeless emerald pools of near-freezing water. It felt like we were going straight up.

Jevin didn't make a peep until the top, and then he was all whoops and smiles. A hiker coming up the other side told him he had never seen someone so young at that elevation. Jevin just nodded and moved off to a rock by himself, breaking out his last berry-flavored PowerBar in celebration.

Heading off the pass, we passed a team of pack mules going in the other direction.

"How about hiring them next year?" I said.

"Yeah, if you want to cheat," Jevin said.

By noon we were drained and hiked in silence. Stumbling into Junction Meadow after dark, we ate quickly and collapsed in our tents. The next morning my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. We were 11 miles from the trailhead and our ride was picking us up at 3 p.m.

We hiked hard and it hurt. Jevin was miserable and let us know it—until we caught sight of the ranger station. Pride suddenly suffused his face and he broke into a run, not stopping until he reached the porch where two rangers were sitting. He barreled up the steps, lost his footing, fell face first, and then stood up laughing.

"It's a good thing you didn't do that yesterday, or we'd be scraping you off the side of a rock," I said when I caught up.

"Wouldn't have happened," he replied. "I was paying attention back then."

And I believed him.

IF YOU GO

Reservations and Permits The Rae Lakes Loop is one of the most popular hikes in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, so you're strongly encouraged to make reservations. Backcountry permits are required and can be picked up for no charge at the Roads End Contact Station, 5.5 miles beyond Cedar Grove. Reservations can be made for $10 up to three weeks prior, for trips between May 21 and September 21 (fax or mail only: 559-565-4239; Wilderness Permit Reservations, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, HCR89, Box 60, Three Rivers, CA 93271).

When to Go August is the prime month. Stream crossings can be a problem in May and early June, and snow may make Glen Pass impassable until late July.

Bear Precautions The National Park Service now requires the use of approved bearproof containers, available at the trailhead (roughly $3 a day to rent or $75 to buy). Kevlar models are not approved.

Nearby Lodging Cedar Grove Lodge (559-335-5500; www.sequoia-kingscanyon.com) is open May through late October and has 21 rooms ($92 a night), a camp store, laundry facilities, a snack bar, and $3 showers.

For more information Call the parks' Wilderness Office at 559-565-3766 or visit www.nps.gov/seki.

Bliss in the San Blas: A monthlong idyll exploring the unspoiled islands of a Panamanian archipelago.

There were 11 people crammed into our tiny dinghy—my wife and two daughters sandwiched between seven Kuna Indians. As we wound our way up the Azzcar River beneath a dark, green canopy of mango trees, I felt as if we were in a budget version of The African Queen. My daughters were laughing and chattering with five Kuna children by speaking that miracle kid lingo that transcends all languages. Elacio and Humberto, the children's fathers and our guides, were pointing out the parrots that screeched overhead and the crocodile trails that parted the grass along the banks. I watched the kids draped over the rubber tubes of our dinghy, dangling their toes in the water. Elacio must have caught my concerned expression. Not to worry, he reassured me, the crocodiles were not man-eaters, though they were known to snatch the odd chicken or dog. Still, I couldn't help thinking that, from water level, our merry expedition looked too much like a giant, floating corn dog, smothered with tasty tots.

Bound for Elacio's finca (farm), we had embarked from the village of Azzcar, where Elacio's wife, tattooed and bedecked with nose rings, had stood waving goodbye to us from the rickety bamboo dock. Our family had been living aboard a catamaran in the Caribbean for the past year, and had just arrived in the San Blas Islands, an archipelago stretching along Panama's Caribbean coast from the Canal to the Colombian border. The float on the Azzcar was a side trip in a month devoted to exploring the San Blas's 300-plus dots of paradise.
With only occasional Kuna villages of thatched huts sprinkled along the chain, the green palm islets and white-sand beaches are mostly uninhabited. The diminutive Kuna Indians (only slightly larger than Pygmies) own the islands and are struggling to preserve their culture by fishing from dugout canoes, or cayucos, and growing fruits and vegetables on their mainland fincas. Imagine visiting this forgotten corner of the Caribbean: no beach condos, no tiki bars, no jet skis, and no poolside reggae bands playing knockoff Jimmy Buffett to tourists covered in oil. Here, a turquoise ocean blended with a sultry sky to suspend the islands around us in midair.

We'd nicknamed one tiny islet "Starfish Island." In the warm water near shore, my girls had carefully collected great, burnt-orange starfish and worn them as mermaid crowns or, holding them lightly in their hands, waited for the tenuous extension of soft tentacles to tickle their palms. Starfish Island, hardly 200 feet across, had given us a booty of tropical riches, including buried treasure. My older daughter, Sawyer, age eight, had hidden precious possessions (hair ties and colored rocks), and we had trooped through the silver palms and mangroves to follow her burnt-edged treasure map to where X marked the spot.

Snorkeling along the shore of another island, I'd pulled my younger daughter, Riley, age five, down through the water to gaze into the metallic eyes of a six-foot nurse shark. She'd surfaced shouting through her snorkel with her eyes wide. We'd snared great red crabs—one claw the size of my fist and filled with enough sweet, succulent meat to spill out of a steaming crab omelet for four. Fishing, we'd caught an octopus that produced a mayhem of squirting water, tangled suction cups, and screaming daughters until we managed to get The Thing off the hook. We'd spent an entire afternoon building an epic sand castle that rivaled Buckingham Palace. Then, huddled by our beach bonfire, we'd told scary sea-monster stories and watched luminescent sea worms swirl and corkscrew in the surf.

When I think of the time we spent in the San Blas Islands, it's a certain image from the trip up the Azzcar that I recall most warmly. The kids are up ahead, still wet from collecting tadpoles in the river. They laugh as they bite into golden mangoes and the juice dribbles down their chins. They walk hand in hand with the tiny Kuna children up a path cut through a towering stand of bamboo. We are in a rainforest 3,000 miles from home, and yet, as a family, as close to home as we ever get.

IF YOU GO

Getting There Nonstop flights to Panama City depart from Miami, Atlanta, Houston, New York, and Los Angeles. To get to the San Blas Islands, fly out of Albrook, Panama City's domestic airport, to Achutupu, where you can snorkel or take a short boat ride over to Dolphin Island, one of the more popular beach destinations. Aviatur offers flights daily at 6 a.m. for about $60 round-trip (011-507-315-0307). The intrepid can hop a Kuna merchant ship from Colsn and make leisurely stops at islands down the line. Either way, it's best to secure a place to stay on any island before you go, as the limited number of lodges can fill up quickly.Travel agencies like Panama Jones (888-726-2621; www.panamacanal.com) and Lost World Adventures (800-999-0558; www.lostworldadventures.com) provide tour packages and can help you make reservations.

When to Go Panama's equatorial climate varies little year-round, except during the mid-April-to-December rainy season, when clouds and afternoon showers cut the heat.

Resources For more information, call the Panamanian Tourist Office (IPAT) at 011-507-226-7000, ext. 112, or log on to www.pa/turismo/sanblas. Check out Lonely Planet's Panama guidebook or www.lonely.planet.com/destinations/central_america/panama/. To sail through the islands, contact a yacht-charter broker who can book you crewed and provisioned boats starting at around $1,500 per person per week. Try Russell Yacht Charters (800-635-8895; www.cruisinginparadise.com) or find crewed boats on the Web at www.caribbeancharter.com

Romper Rim: Pedaling 80 miles through Utah's Canyonlands with five toddlers.

The mound of gear was gargantuan. Next to the equipment we'd normally take on a four-day mountain-bike ride were Pack 'N Play cribs, car seats, toddler chairs and toddler tables, portable high chairs, and little Linus and Lucy sleeping bags, complete with matching pads. "Looks like we're going to have to take another vehicle," said my friend Mike as we tried to shoehorn everything inside two four-wheel-drive trucks. He was right. Such last-minute changes are common when trying to squeeze an 80-mile bike trip into a long weekend. But our foray to Utah's White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park was far from normal. It had the added component of the under-four set: Our group consisted of ten adults and five children between the ages of three months and four years. Though we had them outnumbered two to one, we'd soon find that keeping them happy was as tiring as the bike riding.

Call us crazy if you will. After all, it's hard enough having five toddlers in your living room for a birthday party, let alone for four days and miles away from civilization. But as longtime river runners accustomed to camping, we weren't about to let the fact that we now have kids foil our annual outing. Instead of taking them on whitewater, we took them on the White Rim. With shuttle rigs along—which now numbered three instead of two—the theory was simple. The kids would mostly ride in the four-wheel drives and the adults would take turns biking and driving—which meant averaging 20 miles a day. With the overabundance of gear, it also meant hours of packing and unpacking at each campsite.
We didn't set off on day one until well after noon, but we quickly settled into a routine: drive or bike a few miles, and then stop to console the kids. Luckily, our 19-month-old daughter, Brooke, adapted quickly. When not eating pretzels or fitting shapes into box openings, she either slept in air-conditioned comfort or stared at the passing spires and side canyons. The other kids, two per car, played together along the way. The day's only crisis occurred after lunch, when four-year-old Stuey threw up, requiring a pit stop from the clean-up crew. That's when we unloaded the Burley trailer and offered Brooke a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately it didn't last long, as bumps, sand, and fatherly fatigue saw her quickly back in the car.

At camp that evening—atop a mesa overlooking the serpentine canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers—the kids wasted no time in finding natural sandboxes and playing Follow the Leader over coffee table-size rocks. Eventually, they settled around a miniature table to throw spaghetti while we tried to refuel after a long day of pedaling and parenting. We roasted marshmallows and the kids clapped gooey hands to Raffi's "Baby Beluga" on guitar.

For us, the biking during the next few days was not as technically interesting as the buffed Colorado singletrack we were used to back home. After all, the White Rim Trail is also known as the White Rim Road, depending on which type of pedal you push. But the doubletrack route is about as scenic a bike ride as you can ever do. Massive rust-colored sandstone blocks pop out of desert sands sprinkled occasionally with sagebrush and prickly pear. In certain sections, wind-strafed canyon walls loom above you on one side, while on the other, hairpin turns give way to 1,000-foot drops.

Dramatic plunges notwithstanding, a bigger concern on this trip was the unforgiving heat and utter lack of shade. Although Canyonlands storms can come on as suddenly as temper tantrums, blue skies held for the entire trip. The kids never ventured far without hats and sunscreen, and during day two's lunch we huddled in the only shade we could find—that of an outhouse.

The last morning we woke early to a band of children staring into our tent like cattle over a fence. They wanted Brooke to come out and play, and since another adult was already up brewing coffee, we gladly let her. That morning we bathed in the Green River, our first chance in four days to clean up with anything but wipes. After a five-mile climb up switchbacks, we were back on top of the rim and at the ride's end. We toasted with sippy cups and the cooler's last beers and—call us crazier still—made plans to do it all again.

IF YOU GO

On Your Own The White Rim Trail in Utah's Canyonlands National Park follows a layer of white sandstone for 108 miles along the Colorado and Green Rivers. Secure your own backcountry permit by faxing your request at least two weeks in advance—earlier if you plan to go in the spring or fall—to the park's reservation office (435-259-4285). You can't reserve by phone, but call the office at 435-719-2313 or visit www.nps.gov/cany for more information. Permits are $30 for a maximum of 15 people and three vehicles, plus a $10-per-vehicle park entrance fee. Support vehicles are highly recommended as there is no water along the trail.

Camping Camp only at designated sites, which have outhouses and are surprisingly kid-friendly despite occasional cacti.

Outfitters Nichols Expeditions (800-648-8488; www.nicholsexpeditions.com) offers standard five-day White Rim mountain-bike tours for $735 per person with discounts of 10 percent for groups of four or more signing up together. The fees include support vehicles, guides, meals, and permits, but not bike rentals, which are $130 extra. Kids 11 and older are preferred. Visit www.nps.gov/cany for a list of more outfitters working in the park.

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