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Taking the kids: Family fun at national parks

  • Story Highlights
  • Packaged trips tailored to families can make national park visits smoother
  • High-end tour companies and non-profits offer family adventure vacations
  • Being with other families takes some pressure off parents to entertain kids
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By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services
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(Tribune Media Services) -- Boring ...

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Organized national park tours take the stress out of planning a family vacation.

That was 17-year-old Stephanie Little's reaction to her family's vacation plans to head to Yosemite National Park. "She's really kind of a beach bum," explained her mom, Michelle Little from their Oklahoma home.

Anyone who has toured the national parks with their kids -- and that includes me -- knows that despite the spectacular scenery (to grown-ups anyway), the up-close encounters with wildlife (put down that video game and look at that moose!) and the invigorating hikes (how much longer?), there are still the inevitable travails of traveling with children.

All the worse when it's hot, crowded, you've spent a ridiculous amount of money on gas and a sullen teen who would rather be tanning is part of the mix.

That was why, even though it cost more, the Littles opted to leave all the planning to Austin Lehman Adventures, www.austinlehman.com, which organized the entire trip, from booking hotels and scouting restaurants for dinner to arranging rock-climbing lessons and gourmet picnic lunches prepared by knowledgeable guides. "I can't tell you how much more fun I had when I didn't have to worry about all the details," said Little. "It was the easiest vacation I ever had!"

The best part: the other families on the trip who had kids of a similar age. Stephanie Little was suddenly a very happy camper, as were her two younger sisters. "And because the days were planned, there was no bickering over what we were doing each day," Little said.

Maryland grandparents Ann and Ron Camp remember those stressful family vacations all too well, even if they were decades ago. That's why when the Camps, now in their 70s, decided to take their five oldest grandchildren to tour the Western national parks, they signed on for an eight-day Tauck Tour, www.tauckbridges.com, designed specifically for families. In fact, according to Ann Camp, half of the 40 people on the trip were kids. "All we had to do was get there," she said. "They did everything else. We saw a lot more than we would have otherwise."

Most important, they all had a terrific time. These trips are not inexpensive -- The Tauck trip was more than $2,000 per adult, slightly less for the kids but the Camps and the Littles maintain the cost was worth every penny. "I didn't have to spend time on the phone or online trying to make sure everything was set up," said Michelle Little. "What a treat for me to just enjoy myself!"

Of course, you can plan a successful national parks trip on your own. (Start at www.nps.gov and link to the parks you want to visit, and see what special family activities are offered.) The park rangers will be glad to suggest kid-friendly hikes and activities. "It was really easy," said Maryland mom Anne Hefter, who arranged a recent five-park, one-week trip for her family, staying at each park one night and driving between the parks in the heat of the day. She used MapQuest to plan their trip. "The only time the kids watched TV was in the car," she said.

But growing numbers of busy families are leaving all the navigating to others, signing on for organized tours that take them to Yellowstone, Yosemite, Bryce and Zion National Parks and, of course, the Grand Canyon.

Nonprofits like the Appalachian Mountain Club, www.outdoors.org, and upscale private outfitters like Abercrombie & Kent, www.abercrombiekent.com, Tauck Tours and Austin Lehman Adventures report increased interest in organized family trips, especially to the national parks. The Sierra Club's, www.sierraclub.org/outings, trips for grandparents and grandkids are especially popular. National park institutes, like the Yellowstone Association, www.yellowstoneassociation.org, and the Canyonlands Field Institute, www.canyonlandsfieldinst.org, among others, also offer family trips and activities.

Tauck Tours notes that two of its Western family trips enjoyed double-digit growth last year and continue to grow: Backroads, an active travel company, reports that their family travel is up 25 percent this year and Abercrombie & Kent boasts a similar increase in the number of families opting for trips in the American West, while the Appalachian Mountain Club has added more affordable family adventure camps, just more than $1,000 for a week for a family of four, to meet the demand. These camps in Maine, New Hampshire and New Jersey combine daily activities (canoe trip anyone?), evening events, lodging and meals.

"You get a richer experience than you would traveling independently, thanks to experienced and knowledgeable tour guides," promises Tauck Tours' Tom Armstrong.

"Too much togetherness on a vacation can wear a family's patience quite thin," adds Austin Lehman's Dave Wiggins. "Having other like-minded families along can make it a more enjoyable time -- with less pressure on the parents to be the fun makers."

Some families may not have been on a hike, much less camped, in years and may feel more comfortable letting experienced guides lead the way -- whether baiting the kids' fishing hooks, on a hiking trail or on a river raft. (Hire a Registered Maine Guide, www.maineguides.org.)

The Hefters, for example, opted for an Abercrombie & Kent rafting trip in the Pacific Northwest that proved ideal for three generations. "It was great that someone else was totally in charge of the food and the tents," Ann Hefter said. "It was almost too cushy!"

"Families have less time to plan and appreciate being able to make one call to us and having everything taken care of," observes Janine Sieja, of Santa Fe Mountain Adventures, www.santafemountainadventures.com, which can organize everything from a family cooking lesson, a tour of Bandelier National Monument or a mountain treasure hunt complete with GPS technology.

"There is no way I could have put together something like that," said Dave Laposata, whose Washington, D.C., family gave the New Mexico mountain treasure hunt an enthusiastic thumbs up. "For sure it cost more, but that old adage of you get what you pay for applies here."

(For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.) E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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(For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.)

Copyright 2009 EILEEN OGINTZ, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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