The Best Vacations in North America
From a barrier island off South Carolina’s coast to a remote ski town in British Columbia, we’ve rounded up our (and our kids'!) favorite places to chase adventure this summer
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We polled Outside editors and writers on some of the best trips they and their families have ever taken.
Bulls Island, South Carolina
The alligators were hard to spot at first. But as soon as my nine-year-old twins, Cooper and Addie, saw one, they couldn’t stop seeing them. Sometimes it was just their eyes and snouts poking out of the water. Other times the lazy dinosaurs were full-out tanning on the sand. In theory we came to this uninhabited barrier island 25 miles north of Charleston for its beach, seven miles of undeveloped white sand facing the Atlantic Ocean. But it was this inland hike, where suddenly we weren’t the top of the food chain, that had the biggest impact on us. Bulls Island is part of the lush 66,000-acre Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and is accessible only by private boat or Coastal Expeditions’ daily ferry from the tiny town of Awendaw. Camping isn’t allowed, but 35 miles south you’ll find James Island County Park, which has 124 campsites (from $33) and modest vacation cottages (from $169). —Graham Averill
Addie’s Take: “I really liked how I didn’t get motion sick on the boat.”
Johns Brook Lodge, Keene Valley, New York
Early in her life, my daughter Oaklee’s refusal to sleep in a tent meant that my wife and I couldn’t either. But two summers ago, we discovered Johns Brook Lodge, a nearly century-old refuge in the Adirondacks’ High Peaks Wilderness. Operated by the Adirondack Mountain Club, the four-bunkroom outpost sleeps 28, offers meal service in the summer, and is accessible by foot from the hamlet of Keene Valley. After a rolling 3.5-mile hike up the Phelps Trail, the forest opened to reveal the unassuming lodge. Inside, the great room was abuzz over a family-style dinner of barbecued chicken and roasted veggies. For the next couple of days we explored the surrounding wilderness, splashing in ice-cold streams and climbing 4,240-foot Big Slide Mountain for panoramic views of the 12-mile-long Great Range. I am happy to report that the trip was Oaklee’s first step to becoming the seasoned camper she is today. From $75 —Peter Koch
Oaklee’s Take: “I loved climbing a ladder to bed because I got to sleep in the top bunk.”
Zion National Park, Utah
“It’s virtually flat,” I told everybody. While that was true, what the description of Zion’s Canyon Overlook Trail failed to mention was that the footing can be dicey and the mile-long route skirts an airy ledge. At the midway point, I could tell that my kids, Lily, Beck, and Nina, ages seven, five, and two, would rather be back at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort, with its zip line, climbing wall, mini golf, pool, and hot tub (suites $513; camping from $34). But I also knew that the final view was one of the most stunning in the park. When I first visited Zion 20 years ago, I was floored, and I wanted my family to have the same reaction. Which they sort of did. “It’s so beautiful,” Lily said. Beck agreed, before asking to do the bungee trampoline at the hotel again. Nina, who was awake the whole trek, promptly fell asleep. At least my mother-in-law was all smiles. —Sam Moulton
Lily’s Take: “The hot tub in the rain was the best. We learned how to count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder to know if it was safe.”
Punta Mita, Mexico
The easy flight into Puerto Vallarta and the hourlong drive to the quiet beach town of Punta Mita felt like a manageable undertaking with my daughter, Nora, then age two, and our nine-month-old son, Otis, in tow. We rented beach toys and floaties from a company called Baby Vallarta, so the kids were too busy building sandcastles with my husband to notice me wading out to a waiting boat. It was my turn on the shuttle we’d arranged through local surf shop WildMex to chauffeur us to La Lancha, a mellow offshore break just minutes from Punta Mita’s taquerias. Unlike touristy Sayulita, 11 miles north, Punta Mita feels sleepy and low-key, and you can snag a two-bedroom place with a pool steps from the sand for just $150 a night through Airbnb or VRBO. El Cafecito de Mita was a daily stop for ice cream for the kids and much needed espresso for me. —Megan Michelson
Nora’s Take: “We drank out of those big balls—what were those? Coconuts? The juice tasted kind of gross.”
San Diego, California
In December, my wife and I had just -welcomed a third child, Zevi, and we were looking for an easy destination with something for the whole family. That’s a concept San Diego has been marketing successfully for decades. It’s got the world-famous San Diego Zoo, gorgeous kid-friendly coastal hikes in Torrey Pines State Park, and a string of beaches that cater to everyone from beginner boogie boarders to expert surfers. But if you’d asked my oldest kids, Olive, 11, and Cash, eight, we were visiting for one reason only: Legoland. To children it’s a heavenly theme park with massive Lego installations and scary-fun roller coasters. To parents it’s a hellscape of consumerism 40 minutes north of San Diego in Carlsbad. We indulged them, but if you ask me for the ideal family itinerary for a week in the area, I’d say: skip Legoland, spend the afternoon catching waves on the legendary reef break and easy shore breaks at Swami’s Beach in Encinitas, watch the sunset and the hippie drum circle in the parking lot, and then head across Highway 1 for the ridiculously good ice cream at JoJo’s Creamery. Repeat for six days. No one will be disappointed. —Christopher Keyes
Olive’s Take: “I loved boogie boarding, but you have to watch out for the big waves.”
Nelson, British Columbia
I was wading through a U-shaped cave filled with steaming mineral water, carrying Nora, who was six months old at the time, when she started giggling with delight and pointing toward dripping stalactites. My husband and I came to Nelson for the skiing—Whitewater Ski Resort and Red Mountain are within an hour of town—but our après soak at Ainsworth Hot Springs, which overlooks Kootenay Lake and the Purcell Mountains 45 minutes north of town, was definitely Nora’s favorite part. She cried when it was time to head back to town. For us adults, Nelson’s bohemian feel—with its lakeside ceramics studios and hipster coffee at Oso Negro—made for a killer home base. Whitewater has great ski programs for children three and older and a toddler play area in the lodge. Since Nora wasn’t walking yet, we brought my mom along to help babysit, so we could sneak off to the powder-stuffed glades and stellar backcountry access. The poutine in the resort’s Fresh Tracks Café was as much of a draw as the skiing, and in town the Alpine Inn has family suites and ski-and-stay deals (from $122). —M.M.
Nora’s Take: “The best part of ski trips is always the hot chocolate and hot tubs.”
Point Reyes National Seashore, California
I’ve developed a strong distaste for car camping. Mostly it’s the incessant noise of unlocking vehicles and slamming doors, which, of course, reaches a crescendo just as my wife and I are trying to get the wee ones to sleep. Thus my growing appreciation for bikepacking—not the hardcore version in the hinterlands, but the kind involving flat fire roads and two-burner stoves. A couple years ago, when our boys, Oliver, Sawyer, and Adrien, were seven, five, and two, we biked a stretch of Point Reyes National Seashore, just over an hour northwest of our home near San Francisco. Our ragtag two-wheeled convoy departed from the park’s Laguna Trailhead and skidded into the Coast Campground ($20), two miles away, like heroes. After two days of exploring, we rolled back out the way we came, wondering if we would ever car camp again. —Michael Roberts
Oliver’s Take: “The coolest part was the hill above the campsite where I could spy on everyone. Did you know I was doing that?”
Hanalei, Kauai, Hawaii
The surfing, hiking, and beach strolls brought us to the north shore of Kauai with a then 14-month-old Nora, who learned to walk barefoot on the beach and ate her first star fruit at the Hanalei farmers’ market. We rented a house through Airbnb that came with surfboards, cruiser bikes, and a wagon to tow kids. Or, if you book one of the cabins at Hanalei Dolphin Cottages, on the Hanalei River, you can paddleboard to the ocean right from your porch. The island was hit with devastating floods in April 2018 but has been steadily recovering, with most of Kauai reopened and in need of tourists. One attraction that’s still closed (but expected to open mid-2019) is the famed Kalalau Trail, a 22-mile round-trip that passes the secluded beaches and steep waterfalls of the rugged Na Pali Coast. Until then, you and your little ones can still experience the iconic shoreline from a Napali Coast Tours catamaran. —M.M.
Nora’s Take: “I don’t remember the trip, but I’m sure I liked the shave ice the best.”