Guided Adventure Trips Add Value to Family Vacations
Rafting the Rocky Mountain rivers in Canada's wilderness with Austin Adventures.

If time is more important than money when planning your next family vacation, turn to one of these top purveyors of guided, organized trips for the adventure of a lifetime.

When our family prepares to go hiking, it begins something like this:  before leaving the house, my husband, Rich, and I scour through the pantry, collecting lollipops and miniature chocolate bars which we secretly stuff into our jacket pockets. Now don’t be fooled — these treats are not for snacking purposes. When it comes to hiking, we know the best (and perhaps only) incentive to keep our children, Nicole, 14, Emily, 11, and Simon, 7, moving onward, and definitely upward, is by running ahead and stashing these sweet incentives — under a rock, up in a tree, nestled in some leaves. As they move step by step along the wooded trail in pursuit of a sugary reward, we tell them when they are getting ‘hotter’ or “colder.” Despite the payoff, our kids typically chime in anyway with their favorite tune…”Is this hike almost ooooover?”

The Value of Other Adults Being Guides

But all this changed on a recent family adventure vacation to Yellowstone National Park. There we were, watching our kids charge ahead on a pristine hike called Storm Peak — across a meadow, through a forest, and along a lake where the hovering, gray clouds shot bolts of lightening far off in the distance. With our energetic guide, Amy, leading the pack, we came across bear and elk scat, skipped rocks on the lake, and were met by our other guide, Jay, who appeared along the trail with a tray of apple slices, graham crackers, Nutella spread and whipped cream (OK, so it’s a bit more enticing than lollipops and chocolate.) To top it off, Simon, king of the kvetchers, won the “best hiker” award as he led the way much of the time and wasn’t carried once!

We had initially decided to take a family adventure trip, hoping that a guided group experience would encourage our children to delve into nature, outdoor activity, and leave the whining behind. And that’s just how it went. I loved watching our children use nature as their playground. Whether skipping rocks, carving a branch, or analyzing animal tracks, our family was having fun in the purest sense, with no need for anything that works on batteries. “Families have discovered that adventure travel trips help them find time to talk, discover, and laugh together,” says Larry Mogelansky, executive director of the Adventure Collection, an association of adventure travel companies, based in San Francisco, California. “The bonding time between parents and children and the fun of shared adventure can pay solid dividends back home.”

Whether it’s biking through Yosemite National Park, rafting down the Rogue River, or hiking in the Canadian Rockies, an increasing number of those taking adventure trips are taking their kids along too. “In the last five years, there have been more and more opportunities for families to take adventure trips because tour operators are making accommodations to include children, like bikes for smaller riders and two-seat kayaks,” says Chris Doyle, director of the Seattle-based Adventure Travel Trade Association. “This is certainly a trend that is gaining momentum.”

For parents who don’t mind leaving the details to others, one of the biggest benefits of signing on with an outfitter is that almost everything — from meals and activities to transportation and equipment — is taken care of for you. Here are a few that can make planning an adventure trip for your family a fairly effortless process.

Austin Adventures – Adventure Travel

Where They Go:  Montana, Wyoming, Utah, California, Alaska, British Columbia, Costa Rica
What They Are Known For:  Multi-sport trips for families (activities depend on the specific trip destination).
What’s New:  Family trips to Yosemite National Park, British Columbia and Vancouver, a Green River rafting adventure in Utah, lodge and camping combination trips in Montana.

We chose Austin-Lehman Adventures as our outfitter for the variety of activities and their effort to match families with similarly aged children. With two guides and two other families, our six-day Yellowstone Family adventure included hiking, white water rafting, horseback riding, and lots of great family time. Our guides, Jay and Amy, were young and energetic and one of them was always willing to hang back with the children if any were too tired to participate in an activity. On the way to one of our walks to see Yellowstone’s geysers, Simon fell asleep in the van and Jay offered to stayed with him so the rest of our family could go on the walk. Simon slept soundly for a while, but when we got back, we woke him up to see the bison crossing the road. All were happy, and rested.


Where They Go: Europe, Asia, Latin America, North America (Rockies, East & South)
What They Are Known For: Biking trips and multi-sport trips for any age children
What’s New: A fleet of custom titanium bikes for kids, and trips to Tuscany and the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia,

I wanted my kids to see the national parks but I didn’t have the energy to figure it out,” remembers Susan Neul, a single mother from Summit, New Jersey, who took her first family bike trip to Yosemite National Park with her daughters, Stacy and Stephanie, when they were 8 and 11. She chose Backroads because it offered a camping trip that was an all-inclusive, group experience which would make the planning and traveling easy. “My girls get tired of each other’s company so this was perfect because there were four families. It was stress free, and the kids stay so active that they get tired and sleep great,” says Neul. In addition to the great group dynamics, the guides took care of setting up camp and cooking meals, loading the equipment, and entertaining the kids. When Neul signed up for a second Backroads family trip to Death Valley the following year, she feared it would be a let down after the success of the Yosemite trip. But she reports: “It was even better!”

Sierra Club Outings

Where They Go:  Utah, California, Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, Idaho, New Hampshire, Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Florida, and British Columbia
What They Are Known For:  Experienced volunteer leaders and trips highlighting wilderness conservation.
What’s New:  Lodge-based trips in Alaska and California for families with young children.

Many adventure outfitters have minimum ages, but the Sierra Club offers an enticing taste of adventure for families with preschoolers. Tina and Scott McClelland from Oceanside, California, started taking family vacations last year with their three children, Samuel, 5, Mark, 3, and Mary, 2. Their first trip was to a Mexican beach resort, and the second was five days on the Sierra Club’s Tots at Tamarack Lodge trip. “We are trying to give our kids a love of nature, and this trip was one of the few that would take kids as young as ours,” says Scott McClelland. Designed for children one and older, the Tots at Tamarack Lodge trip takes travelers on flat, stroller-friendly trails and brings them back to the lodge in the early afternoon for nap time. There are campfires, walks among the giant sequoias and the trip leader, Vicky Bray-Johnson, put in an appearance in a bear suit. “When we asked Samuel which trip he liked most, he answered that he’d like to go back on the ‘bear trip,'” says McClelland.

Butterfield & Robinson

Where They Go:  France, Italy, Ireland, Germany, Latin America, Thailand and New Zealand
What They Are Known For:  “With the Kids” program of age-specific adventure or walking trips geared to toddlers, tweens and teens.
What’s New:  Trips to Belize, Costa Rica, the Black Sea, Dalmatian Coast, Greek Isles, Massachusetts, Spain, Quebec and Germany, and teen trips for the over 15 set.

Butterfield & Robinson provides adventure trips for active travelers, and it now offers 90 different itineraries in 60 destinations, including 26 different trips for families traveling ‘With the Kids.’ Trips come in very specific (0+, 5+, 8+, 12+ and 15+) age categories and are designed so that the family shares an adventure experience in the morning, with kids’ activities organized each afternoon. This allows parents to linger over lunch or pedal those extra few miles. On trips with younger children, there are always additional support vans and extra guides. Adventure trips can also work well for intergenerational travel, and in the case of Hope Bennett, a grandmother of twelve from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, her Butterfield & Robinson trip to western Canada region with three of her grandchildren was a memorable one. “In the morning we went bear watching or hiking in a rainforest and our guides always had snacks and would tell us about the plants and trees,” says Bennett. “They told us exactly how to behave when we were tracking the bears. I had so much faith in the guides. It was very exciting for all of us.”


Where They Go:  Rivers in California, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, and Canada
What They Are Known For:  Whitewater rafting trips.
What’s New:  Family-friendly launches designed for children ages 4 and up, and for ages 7 and up.

Last year, the Herring family from Orlando, Florida took a rafting trip on the Rogue River in Oregon with their three children, Michael, now 8, Kevin, 11 and Morgan, 13. When they weren’t maneuvering down the class II and III rapids, the boys would hike, fish, or just climb rocks with the other kids. But overall, it was the lack of TV, computers, and electronic toys that contributed to the peaceful nature of this family vacation. “The trip was very bonding for our family,” says the boys’ father, Mark Herring. “I am so busy when we are home, but on this trip, I would lay out with the kids, looking at the stars and counting satellites. When the trip was over, nobody wanted to be back.” The Herrings chose the company O.A.R.S. after exploring its website and learning how the company has adapted a growing number of its trips for families. “Although most of our trips are appropriate for families, our ‘Family Friendly’ departures include whitewater rafting, easy sea kayaking or multi-sport activities, knowledgeable guides with a knack for the needs of family groups, and a designated ‘Fun Director’ for each trip,” says Steve Markle, a spokesman for O.A.R.S.


Where They Are: Saddlestring,Wyoming
What They Are Known For: A Western dude ranch where guests over age 5 are assigned their own horse for the week.
What’s New: Two recently constructed family cabins

For some families, one activity is all they need which is often why people go to a dude ranch. Although fishing is often an option, the focus is always on the horseback riding. “Ranches have always been a family destination, but in the last 10 years, 50% of our 108 members have beefed up their children’s programs to make them more active and interesting,” says Colleen Hodson, executive director of the Dude Ranchers’ Association in Cody, Wyoming. Fourteen years ago, Jane Bernstein was invited on a trip to the HF Bar dude ranch and she had been eagerly waiting for years to take her three children, Joby, 10, Jimmy, 8, and Katie, 7, and her husband, Rick, back to HF Bar. Last August, the Bernsteins, from Mamaroneck, NY, rode horses together with a wrangler every day for five hours (three in the morning, two in the evening) and in between they played games, swam in the pool, and joined other families in activities like Frisbee golf and water balloon fights. “This was our best family vacation ever,” says Bernstein. “There is no place to spend money and there are no decisions to make about when and what to eat. The bell rings three times a day and you go to the dining room and eat what’s served.” Bernstein also discovered that horseback riding was a great activity for her children’s varied ages. “Sports like hiking and skiing can be tough when one of the children is slower than the others, but when you get on a horse, it evens everyone out,” she says.

Adventure Trip Planning Details

Embarking on an adventure vacation is an opportunity for family members to explore activity, nature, and simply being together without the typical day-to-day distractions. And for us, it turned hiking into a stress-free activity back in Yellowstone. But when I think back to last summer’s trip, there was one particular incident when I did get really irritated: why was all this tourist traffic moving so slowly when all I could think about was getting to the hot springs we’d soon be soaking in? As we finally approached the hold-up — a herd of bison crossing the road — I couldn’t help but smile and suddenly become very patient.

Rates for a family adventure trip can vary widely depending on the activity, type of accommodations (camping versus hotel), and number of days. For the best selection of adventurers and rates, plan ahead and book early — online discounts really do exist.

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2 Replies to “Organized Family Adventures: 6 Great Vacations”

  • Great article & very practical. Thanks for all the tips – I’ll be thinking about them for a while as we work on our website redesign.

  • These are all great options and sound like lots of fun. We've been planning to visit New Zealand and the Butterfield & Robinson vacations seem to be right up our alley.Thanks for the suggestion it sure beats me stressing over the details.