Jul 11 2008

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Affordable family travel in the great outdoors

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By Alistair Wearmouth

With gas prices now averaging $4 per gallon nationally, families are increasingly on the hunt for local or regional options to offset summer vacation sticker shock. The good news, though, is that you shouldn’t have to look too hard to find something intriguing and affordable in (or near) any number of the country’s thousands of public-land units, whether that’s a crown jewel in the national park system or some little-known state park. Better yet, roaming these pristine spaces doesn’t necessitate a serious love of granola, Gore-Tex, and self-denial. You can choose from rudimentary campsites, historic mountain lodges, even nature’s answer to the ritzy all inclusive resort. Read on for more ideas, scaled by comfort level:

Camping

Camping with kids is a kick, though leave your Everest Base Camp ambitions at home and plan on keeping things simple, low-key, and fun. The younger your charges, the less you should care about killer views, lung-busting trails and soulful outdoor fulfillment. Find a nice place to pitch your tent, one that doesn’t require hours in the car, and just be sure to pack enough gear to keep you safe, warm and well-fed. And don’t sweat the details: Backpacking purists may scoff, but car-camping means you can load up everything and the kitchen sink if that’s your style — just as long as everyone’s happy. The Recreation.gov Web site is your one-stop shop for public campsites throughout the United States.

Lodges and cabins

Many state parks, recreation areas, national forests and national parks offer cabins and lodges in addition to their more basic camping facilities. So if you’re allergic to the canvas, you can still get your outdoor fix without forgoing a proper roof over your head. Some places, like the ridgetop Skyland Lodge in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, are more like comfortable mountain motels; others, like Yosemite’s famous Ahwahnee Hotel, plop you in the lap of some serious wilderness luxury amidst some of America’s most stunning scenery. At the more basic end of the scale, thank Roosevelt’s New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps for a literal forest of sturdy cabins in places including Maryland’s Cunningham Falls State Park or Yosemite’s Housekeeping Camp (neighbor to the aforementioned Ahwahnee Hotel). For something a littler more adventuresome with older kids, check out repurposed fire lookouts in national forests throughout the Pacific Northwest. Reservations for cabins, including fire lookouts, can also be made at www.recreation.gov.

All-inclusive state park "resorts"

While the commercial camping scene is dominated by large outfits like KOA and the uber-kid-focused Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park campgrounds, state entities have been muscling in on the scene with some of their own well-tended outdoorsy resorts. South Carolina’s Hickory Knob State Resort Park mixes cabins, camping and motel accommodations in a lakeside spread that includes mountain-biking trails, fishing, boating and an 18-hole golf course. Kentucky’s Natural Bridge State Resort Park, with cabins, camping and a 35-room lodge, puts you on the doorstep of the state’s landmark sandstone rock formations without scrimping on mod-cons like Wi-Fi access or an 80,000-gallon swimming pool.

Year-round ski resorts

Over 130 ski resorts currently operate within the bounds of U.S. National Forest Service land, including New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley (within White Mountain National Forest) and California’s Mammoth Mountain (within Inyo National Forest). And with the four-season concept being such big business, existing ski-base infrastructure translates to easy summer access to nearby trails, lakes, mountaintops — not to mention tantalizing seasonal packages that bundle a robust selection of comfortable lodging choices with complimentary access to activities like lift-served mountain biking, bobsledding runs, bungee rides, whitewater rafting, fly-fishing and horseback riding.

Related Orbitz resources:

Alistair Wearmouth is an editor at Away.com. With two
young children now in tow, his travel perspective has shifted
seismically from digging out the best backpacker hostel in Kathmandu to
coping strategies for toddlers on a trans-Atlantic flight. His world
travels have taken him through Europe, India, Nepal, Japan, Southeast
Asia, the Canadian Rockies and beyond.

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