This year is shaping up to be an expensive one for travel. As gas edges near $4 a gallon, airlines struggle and hotel prices escalate, this summer may be one to opt for simple adventures that are low in cost and resources but high on adventure and camaraderie. For our family, nothing fits that bill like a traditional camping trip, with opportunities to hike, play and look for wildlife.
From the time our kids were toddlers, we’ve pitched our tent in scenic surroundings and explored all that was within close range – water, woods and trails have provided hours of impromptu entertainment. And there’s nothing like an evening campfire, coupled with tracing constellations in the black night sky, to unwind together.
While we live in Boulder, Colorado, we’ve vacationed all over the country, often camping or hiking along the way. Here’s a sampler of four of my favorite laid-back locales that are big on nature adventure and family fun. Maybe one of these is close to you.
Great Sand Dunes, Colorado
At 8,200 feet in southern Colorado, you don’t expect a sandy beach scene reminiscent of southern California. Yet that’s just what it looks in May and early June as shallow Medano Creek flows across the warm sand sheet at the base of the tallest dunes in North America. Just inches deep in places, to a foot or more in faster-moving channels, there are places for babies to splash and older kids to “raft” safely on air mattresses. Though little known, Great Sand Dunes is our newest national park. Camp among the junipers and twisted pines at Pinon Flats at the edge of the massive sand mountains.
Snowy Range, Wyoming
Camping at Brooklyn Lake or Sugarloaf in the Medicine Bow National Forest off Hwy. 130, the Snowy Range Scenic Byway west of Laramie, puts you at timberline in the shadow of imposing granite peaks. Miles of gentle trails meander through this fairyland of alpine lakes filled with trout and meadows strewn with wildflowers. Our kids were fascinated by the pink algae on the snowfields that smells like watermelon! And the Milky Way here at night is unsurpassed.
Cape Alava, Washington
In Washington state’s far northwest corner, hike the boardwalk trail from Lake Ozette three miles through the thick hemlocks and cedars to the beach at Cape Alava. An easy backpack will let you camp near the shore amid seastacks and rocky cliffs. Explore the piles of driftwood and look for old Japanese glass fish net floats washed ashore by winter storms. You can make a triangle loop by hiking three miles down the beach to Sand Point, then three miles inland via another rainforest boardwalk back to the parking lot at Ozette.
Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona
Snag a spot in one of the many Coconino National Forest campgrounds along Oak Creek and make it your base for exploring the red rock high country between Sedona and Flagstaff. The main attraction for kids is undoubtedly nature’s best water slide: at Slide Rock State Park, a smooth channel of natural sandstone provides a gentle yet exhilarating chute through a series of refreshing pools. You won’t avoid crowds here, but for $10 a carload and this much fun, who’s complaining?