Stay-Fit Family Vacations: Good for You and the Planet

In these tough economic times, you may have chosen to forgo your traditional summer vacation or concluded that now is not the time to splurge on a beach resort or spendy theme park. I’ve got good news: You may find that the best family adventure is the one you do under your own power. Kids invariably enjoy physical activity, and when you do it together in appealing natural places, you’ve got a shared experience rich in meaning and memories.

It's the perfect time for it: As summer hits the halfway mark and its inevitable slide toward the start of another school year, parents start hearing the dreaded pronouncement, “I’m bored!” As temperatures soar, so can tempers and the tendency to hang out indoors in front of the Wii, X-Box or TV. So plan a family escape that will not only diffuse mid-summer frustrations, but also promote fun and fitness in the process.

A “fitness vacation” is cheaper, better for your body and the environment, and can be done anywhere, including close to home. On top of these bonuses, there are exceptional deals right now on flights and lodging, as travel service providers strive to fill space through last-minute bargains. So think about these possibilities, for a week or a weekend, and help your kids keep the summer doldrums at bay.

Climb a mountain

Here in Colorado where I live, “bagging a Fourteener” is a popular pastime. Colorado has 54 peaks in excess of 14,000 feet. Some of them, like Mt. Elbert or Quandary Peak, are certainly within reach of a family’s efforts if the kids are middle-schoolers or teens. But you don’t have to aim that high to enjoy the satisfaction of reaching a summit and surveying the view.

Sauk Mountain

Skagit Valley and North Cascades from the summit of Sauk Mountain

Our family just got back from the Black Hills of South Dakota, where we climbed the granite knob of Little Devils Tower. The ascent yielded a 360-degree sweep of pine forests, distant plains where wild buffalo roam, rock spires nearly two billion years old,and the back side of Mt. Rushmore —not to mention a sense of accomplishment for my 11-year-old daughter, who managed the climb as ably as her 14-year-old brother. Even their younger cousins, ages 5 and 7, made it to the top like nimble baby mountain goats. The delight of reaching a summit, as opposed to merely hiking, is the reward at the end. I can still recall the thrill, and the relief, of emerging into the subalpine meadows atop Sauk Mountain in the North Cascades after switchbacking relentlessly through thick stands of fir. I took many hikes with my dad, but this ascent, when I was about 12, stands out.

For resources in your region, check out books like Best Summit Hikes in Colorado: An Opinionated Guide to 50+ Ascents of Classic and Little-known Peaks from 8,144 to 14,443 Feet by James Dziezynski; Summit Routes: Washington's 100 Highest Peaks: Routes For Hikers, Scramblers, And Climbers by Scott Stephenson and Brian Bongiovanni; and Peak Experiences, Hiking the Highest Summits of New York, County by County (Trail Guidebooks) by Gary Fallesen.

Bike a backroad

Some of our favorite family vacations have incorporated bicycles in one way or another. Whether it’s toting them along for tooling around a campground, or as a more deliberate approach to a destination, bikes are a refreshing, efficient and carbon-free way to get around. We found bicycles essential to our enchanting experience of Michigan’s Mackinac Island a few years back. Since the island is car-free, we rented cruiser bikes to ride alongside horse-drawn carriages on the 8.2-mile paved trail around the island’s perimeter, detouring occasionally to explore inland trails through the woods.

Most recently we sampled a section of the George S. Mickelson Trail in South Dakota’s Black Hills, a 109-mile rails-to-trails route that follows the historic Deadwood to Edgemont Burlington Northern line. With 14 different access points along the gentle grade, visitors can hop on and off the trail easily, stopping to discover Wild West towns like Hill City and Custer. The trail boasts more than 100 railroad bridges and four tunnels, with frequent glimpses of bison, pronghorn antelope and whitetail deer. We took our own bikes along, but rentals are readily available at towns along the route. You can also book a package trip through Black Hills Central Reservations that includes bike rentals and two-nights lodging for a family of four starting at just $330.

Paddle a kayak

Bryn and Leif kayaking

My husband Leif and daughter Bryn in Puget Sound. Credit: Wendy Redal

An outfitted kayak trip, like those offered by Explorers’ Corner, is a spectacular family vacation. From the aquamarine waters of Belize to the Adriatic’s crenellated Dalmatian Coast to more northerly climes like B.C.’s Queen Charlotte Islands, a multi-day paddling adventure provides a more active and intimate way to experience these magnetic natural locales than a standard land-based visit or package tour.

But it’s easy to enjoy the same pleasures on a simple day outing, too, like the one our family shared on Puget Sound in June. At Owen Beach in Tacoma’s 702-acre Point Defiance Park, one of the largest urban parks in the U.S., we rented kayaks for an hour’s paddle opposite Vashon Island. Our double boats cost $17/hour on a weekday and $21 on a weekend, but with more time we could have economized on a multi-hour or all-day ($50/$60) rental and paddled Commencement Bay to the Puyallup River, or over to Brown’s Point for a picnic on the beach before heading back (keeping an eye out for seals and otters bobbing in the silver water). Short-term kayaking options abound; Maine is a phenomenal destination, with its multitude of lakes, rivers and coastal islands (see Maine Kayak for ideas). To discover what’s available near you, search the Internet by plugging in “kayaking” with the name of a favorite lake or seaside destination and see what pops up.

Snorkel the sea

When a baby sea lion swooshed up alongside my daughter Bryn and peered in her mask during her first snorkeling experience in the Galapagos last January, her screams of delight bubbled up through her snorkel, amusing everyone around her. She was hooked. Then 10, she had discovered a whole new world beneath the sea. Each day held new wonders: marine iguanas munching on algae, penguins zipping past like bullets, graceful sea turtles, and myriad schools of fish moving in unison.

My son, Kjell, was equally thrilled by his encounter with a school of 10 hammerhead sharks. And I was reminded of the amazing introduction to snorkeling that I'd had as a teen in Oahu’s Haunama Bay, prompting future forays off the Florida Keys, St. John in the Virgin Islands and Grand Cayman’s incredible Cayman Wall. (For recommendations on the best snorkeling sites in the Caribbean, go here.)

San Cristobal

Snorkelers and sea lions spend time together on San Cristobal in the Galapagos. Credit: Wendy Redal

On our Classic Galapagos trip with Natural Habitat Adventures, I was rewarded not only by what we were seeing beneath the waves, but also with how toned my thighs were becoming after a week of daily snorkeling excursions! The tropics may be most alluring, but with a wetsuit, more temperate waters can also hold fascinating displays for undersea explorers. At Brackett’s Landing near the Edmonds ferry dock, just north of Seattle, the Edmonds Underwater Park features 27 acres of tide and bottom lands with features and trails developed specifically for divers. Several sunken wooden boats are home to all types of sea life, including Dungeness crabs, rockfish, anemones and wolf eels. The marine preserve and sanctuary is the most popular of the 10 that make up Washington’s underwater park system, with the best visibility in August and September.

These are just some ideas to get you started — the possibilities for a fitness vacation are truly endless. Think, too, about rollerblading, snowshoeing, self-paddled river-rafting, or horseback riding (you’d be amazed at how much work your legs do on a horse!). Just get the gang going, while you tone up and ‘green up’ in the process!

Feature photo courtesy of John Flesher. Redal family cycling the coastal trail around Mackinac Island.

Get more economical, ecological travel ideas Wendy Worrall Redal's eco-travel blog for Gaiam.

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