Who says family vacations are boring? Moms and dads everywhere are discovering plenty of ways to keep the family engaged, from whale-watching and hiking to winter sports like snowshoeing and ski-biking. Here's how you can get in on the action.
Thar she blows!
One of the most enjoyable family adventures we know of revolves around some of the largest creatures on earth: whales. Among the most popular places to see whales is off the coast of Cape Ann, about 45 minutes north of Boston. Aboard 100-foot motor vessels from Yankee Fleet, marine mammal-lovers speed nearly 12 miles into Massachusetts Bay to glimpse 70-foot humpback whales breaching and gorging on small fish. Including travel time, each trip lasts about four hours. When the whales aren't around, relax on comfortable chairs below deck and dine on homemade chowder from the galley. Just make sure to have a camera ready when the captain shouts, "Ahoy!" Obviously this is an only-in-summer-type activity. Price: $41 for adults; $26 for kids.
Landlubbing families, fear not -- there are whale-watching options for you, too. A number of beaches in the northwest corner of Washington state are great spots to watch orcas (killer whales) from shore. Perhaps the best spot is a 36-acre paradise called Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island. Here, after a picnic lunch, families can wander out onto granite boulders, sit on blankets, and scan the Strait of Juan de Fuca for telltale orca dorsal fins. Rangers report the whales travel in families of their own and regularly swim within 10 yards of land. Day use of the park is free.
Hit the trails
On Mount Tamalpais, north of San Francisco in Marin County, most springtime hikes bring families face to face with hillsides covered in wildflowers. These flowers offer a kaleidoscope of colors: pink, yellow, purple, and blue. Of course, California poppies dot the landscape with orange, too. For the most vibrant colors, take the 4.3-mile loop hike from the Pantoll trailhead. Though the going is sometimes strenuous, views of the Pacific Ocean (on a clear day) are breathtaking. Bring lots of water. Day use of the trail is free.
Hiking in Grand Canyon National Park offers a different kind of landscape -- dry, barren, extreme. Most visitors choose the South Rim, which bustles (some say too much) with lodges, restaurants, museums, shops, and a full complement of ranger programs. To hike into the canyon from the South Rim Visitor Center, the safest route is the Bright Angel Trail, which offers water, shade, and restrooms along the way. Round-trip treks vary in length up to 12 miles; for families with smaller kids, the paved Bright Angel Point Trail is 1-mile round-trip. Hike in the morning to avoid afternoon sun. Price: $20 per vehicle for a seven-day pass.
Splishing and splashing
The city of Wisconsin Dells, Wis., is famous for its water parks, and Noah's Ark Water Park is considered the granddaddy of them all. The outdoor attraction offers more than 15 different rides, including the Black Anaconda (which drops tube-riders at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour) and Slidewinders (which allows parents and children to ride down slides in pairs). Late last year, the park added Noah's 4-D Dive-In Theater, which incorporates drenching water squirts, water cannons, and water drops into each performance. In between rides, grab cotton candy or nachos at any of the park's snack bars. Price: $32.99 for adults; $26.41 for kids.
For cold-weather fun, visitors to Edmonton, Alberta, flock to the World Waterpark, an expansive indoor water park in the hulking West Edmonton Mall. The park was built in 1985, but recently added the Raging Rapids ride, an enclosed slide that sends daring tube-riders through strobe-lit darkness, and the Tropical Typhoon, a dizzying funnel-slide that spins the adventuresome in circles before dropping them into a splash pool. There's also bungee jumping, hot tubs, and a Caribbean-themed interactive area for parents and toddlers to enjoy together. New this spring: a tipping bucket big enough to soak an entire basketball team. Price: $29.95 for adults; $22.95 for kids up to 10.
Good cold fun
In winter, one of the easiest family adventures is snowshoeing. Perhaps the most accessible spot to take the family for this activity is Montana's Glacier National Park, where rangers offer free and interpretive guided hikes. The hikes leave Apgar Visitor Center, near West Glacier outside Whitefish, and rangers lead guests into the backcountry to follow the tracks of coyotes, owls, voles, and other local critters (sometimes deer and elk). The walking is relatively easy; no trek wanders more than two miles from the trailhead. At the end, hot cocoa awaits. Price: $15 per vehicle for entry; snowshoe rentals are $2 a pair.
For more adventuresome families, there's snow-biking, a new sport that is churning up some serious powder in Western Canada. Snow-biking combines mountain biking with "skijoring" -- pitting participants on tricycles with small skis instead of wheels. At Marmot Basin, in Jasper, Alberta, families can rent the bright-yellow bikes for a full or half day and take them out on the very same slopes as skiers and snowboarders. For parents with back or knee problems, the snow bike's shock-absorbing suspension system makes the ride extra easy on the joints. Kids, however, may tire of sitting when they could be shushing down the slopes. Price: $50 for full-day; $40 for half-day.
---Matt VillanoPhoto credits: (1) Photo by Minette Layne. (2) Photo courtesy of World Waterpark.