Sometimes you just want to go to the beach. Swim, lounge, nap, enjoy a cocktail at 4:59 p.m. It’s a relaxing vacation but, let’s be honest, not very memorable. It’s not the kind of time you’ll look back on later in life and say, that trip sure was something, wasn’t it? “Bucket list,” “epic,” “once in a lifetime” — these are the descriptors for a different type of vacation. One that requires planning and prep. One that requires patience and some fortitude. An experience that becomes core to the family lore — bringing everyone together with repeated retellings, long after we’ve settled back into our routines at home.
This list is your launching pad: 22 family-friendly adventures for the bold. The trips all have been experienced by the editors and adventurous friends of the editors of Fatherly, who can vouch that they’re the kind of adventure you’ll talk about for years to come. These are all suggested with a big caveat: Don’t jump into anything that isn’t labeled “Easy” if you’re new to the activity. Families with young children (under 6) should probably stick to Easy or Moderate. And don’t plan a trip based solely on the write-ups below. Planning is part of the fun. Get inspired, do some research, and then call a park ranger (you will find no more helpful person to give a kind but firm real talk). The world awaits.
Motor to a private island, paddle down the Mississippi, rip through serious whitewater, and packraft through a mountain pass.
Reserve Your Own Island In The Adirondacks
Location: Upstate New York
At roughly 6 million acres, Adirondack Park could encircle the Everglades, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon and still have tons of room to spare. Designated as a conservation area in 1892, the Adirondacks are a unique mix of private and public land, half of which is constitutionally protected as “forever wild.” For a gentle introduction to the rugged splendor of this region, you can’t beat island camping on the Saranac Chain of Lakes, which offer the feel of a wilderness escape that’s also just a short paddle and drive from the historic village of Saranac Lake.
There are 87 campsites scattered across the islands and shoreline of Lower and Middle Saranac Lakes — and all of them are reachable only by boat. Most campsites have a rustic outhouse and a stone fire pit, and that’s it. Because the camps are set far apart from one another — and because there’s a prevailing culture of responsible, respectful use — you won’t see other tents or necessarily even hear other campers. By day, paddle to one of the micro islands for a picnic lunch in the shade and swim off the great granite boulder piles. By night, cook over an open fire and listen to the loons.
Paddle Through Canyonlands National Park On The Green River
Before they converge to form Utah’s wildest whitewater, the Green and Colorado Rivers meander gently toward one another for some 100 miles, through vast desert and high-walled canyons. Stillwater Canyon (on the Green River) begins roughly at the boundary of the Canyonlands National Park, and continues for 52 miles through some of its remotest stretches, with otherworldly excursions to rock formations like the Doll House and the Maze, and opportunities to view petroglyphs and sacred sites of the Ancestral Puebloan people.
Because it’s a tough, steep drive down to the launch point at Mineral Bottom, Stillwater Canyon tends to be quieter and less crowded than the Colorado — and as its name suggests, you can expect four to six days of mellow flatwater paddling. Canoes must take out at Spanish Bottom, at the top of Cataract Canyon, where the Class II-V rapids begin.
With no designated campsites, you’ll have to scout them out — in high water in early summer, they may be fewer and farther between. In low water in September and October, sandbars expand camping options, but paddlers may encounter short rocky stretches and minor rapids.
Tackle The Whitewater In The Nation’s Newest National Park
Location: West Virginia
New River Gorge was the hidden secret of whitewater enthusiasts, Appalachian adventurers, and birders for decades. No longer. In 2020, New River Gorge National Park told a nation what a sizable group of outdoors enthusiasts already knew — one of the most pristine, rocking places in America, full of roaring rivers, mountain biking, hiking, pristine woods, and some gnarly BASE jumping off the world’s longest single-span bridge was everyone’s for the taking.
You have all sorts of Whitewater here and can choose by experience and how adrenal you want your trip to be — whether the more mild upper New River (Class I-III) or the bumpier, heart-pumping lower New River (Class II-IV). If you’re experienced and ready for one of the best runs of whitewater anywhere, the upper Gauley River is for you. Just make sure you’re in shape and ready for one wild ride.
Hike Up, Float Down The Delaware River
Level: All In!
Hike in, camp, float out. There’s no more romantic way to adventure — and when you pick a gentle river like the Delaware and a hilly but entirely surmountable (and vista-full) hike like the Delaware Water Gap via Appalachian Trail, you can bring the kids along. The best part: It’s a boating adventure that doesn’t need someone to pick you up. You just float back to where you began.
Start here: Kittatinny Point. Take the Appalachian Trail for 4.8 miles north. Go to: Sunfish Pond to the Worthington State Forest Campground on the Delaware River along the Garvey Spring Trail (1 mile). Float: Along the Delaware River back to Kittatinny Point.
Camp Under The Stars In The Florida Keys
Level: All In!
Between the Everglades National Park and the curved arm of the Florida Keys are thousands of islands — many of which are privately owned, and many of which fall within the boundaries of state and national parks. From remote micro-keys to the popular spoil islands of the Intercoastal Waterway, there are both reservable campsites (with some amenities) and rugged backcountry sites that take skill and determination to reach.
The water trails winding through this scattered archipelago — including the Ten Thousand Island Wilderness Refuge and the mangrove forests of Everglades National Park — offer abundant opportunities to see marine wildlife, including dolphins, manatees, and sharks. But permits, careful planning, and prior experience are required.
More accessible are the Spoil Islands of Indian Lagoon (reachable only by boat, but no reservations necessary). And for families looking for a remote camping adventure without all the paddling, book the ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park, 60 miles off the coast: Snorkel crystal-clear waters by day and sleep under the clear glow of the Milky Way at night.
Click Read More for adventures all across the country.