YMCA of the Rockies; Estes Park, Colorado
Patrick Norton/ Aurora Photos
Bordering Rocky Mountain National Park on three sides, this YMCA-owned family getaway, about two hours from Denver, is famous for its affordable summer programs for kids ages 3 through high school. In 2014, the programs, which are broken down by grade, run from June 2 to August 15 and cost $30 per day. (Lower-priced half-day sessions are available for preschoolers.) There are plenty of adult and family activities too. "It's similar to visiting a national park, but with more organized family programs," says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, a family-vacations expert at about.com and mom of three.
Fun for all: Young kids go on nature scavenger hunts for bugs or wildflowers; older ones take guided hikes through Rocky Mountain National Park and enjoy a cookout lunch in a wooded picnic area. "While our children were with the counselors, my husband and I were able to complete the more difficult 10- to 15-mile hikes," says Victoria Jacobs, a mom of four kids under age 11. Archery lessons, pony rides, zip-lining, and nature crafts are also on the regular schedule, depending on the age of the kids.
Nice nests: You can choose from a cabin (all of them offer a kitchen and at least two bedrooms) or a lodge room that sleeps five or six. "We've vacationed here more than a half-dozen times, and we've always seen elk and deer right outside our cabin door," says Jacobs. (Rates for a two-bedroom cabin start at $139 per night while a lodge room starts at $124 per night during camp; ymcarockies.org.)
Sunriver Resort, Oregon
Once the snow is gone, prices at this popular ski resort nestled in the Cascade Range of central Oregon melt too, and it turns into a kid-friendly nature paradise during summer and fall.
Fun for all: The 250-mile-long Deschutes River flows through the resort, which has its own marina. Families can rent a canoe ($65 for up to three people) or a raft ($155 for up to six people) for a leisurely float. The resort shuttles you back to the marina after the two-hour, 6-mile ride. The drop-off children's programs for kids ages 3 to 10 include trips to the marina, fish hatchery, and stables ($65 for full days, $45 for half days). Visit the on-site Sunriver Nature Center, which has native-animal exhibits, a creature cave where kids can touch one of the reptiles, and microscope stations where they can examine rocks, fur, and feathers up close. Then follow the Sam Osgood Nature Trail past forest and wetlands ($4 for adults, $3 for kids ages 2 to 12). The resort also offers more than 35 miles of paved bike paths (with rentals available) and two dozen or so hiking trails.
Nice nests: Families prefer Lodge Valley Suites, with two queen beds in a loft area plus a pullout sofa and a full kitchen. (Summer rates for Lodge Village Suites start at $219 per night, guest rooms start at $149 per night; sunriver-resort.com.)
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
You can visit two national parks -- Grand Teton and Yellowstone -- by using this mountain city as your home base, says Jennifer Emmett, editor of the National Geographic Kids National Parks Guide U.S.A. and mom of three. Most of the family programs run from mid-June to early September. But some activities are offered throughout September, and it's much less crowded.
Fun for all: Start at Grand Teton National Park, which contains the Jackson Hole airport. Your kids will marvel at bison, moose, bald eagles, and antelope that you can see right from the car. Hop on some of the more than 200 miles of hiking trails in the park; the short, flat 3-mile loop at Hermitage Point is ideal with young kids. Animal programs and free guided hikes with park rangers are also available; look for details in the park's newspaper. From Grand Teton, it takes about an hour to drive to Yellowstone's south entrance. Old Faithful Geyser -- a must-see -- is about 40 miles farther. It erupts about 17 times a day, so while you're waiting you can walk along some of the closer trails nearby and see smaller geysers. (The National Park Service posts the estimated eruption times so you know when to be back.) Another highlight: Take North Rim Drive to get a great view of a 308-foot waterfall (nearly the height of Niagara Falls). And while you're in that area of the park, hit the Mystic Falls and Fairy Falls trails to see more waterfalls, gurgling geysers, and hot springs.
Nice nests: In Yellowstone, consider staying for a few days at the Old Faithful Inn (summer room rates start at $109 per night; Yellowstonenationalparklodges.com) and then move farther into the park at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins (summer rates start at $130 per night; yellowstonenationalparklodges.com). In Grand Teton, book a cabin at Colter Bay Village, which has a Junior Ranger office on-site. (Summer rates start at $72 per night; gtlc.com.)
Rankin Ranch; Walker's Basin, California
If your kids love horses, they'll flip over this all-inclusive dude ranch in the south-central part of the state, two and a half hours or so from L.A. It's about half the cost of some other dude ranches and doesn't require a full week's stay. Its season runs from the end of April to late September.
Fun for all: Every 4- to 11-year-old can take part in the drop-off children's club; kids catch frogs, race boats they've made, and more with the counselors. (For an extra charge, younger kids can join in the activities with a babysitter.) But the main attraction at Rankin Ranch is the horses -- and guests ages 6 and up can ride twice a day (once on Sundays) through the meadows and hills for an hour at a time. (Four- and 5-year-olds stay with the camp counselors.) Most of the kids and adults have never ridden before, so don't worry if you're a beginner. In between riding, you can go hiking or biking while your little campers are entertained by scavenger hunts or make nature crafts. Kids take part in activities before dinner (so you get to enjoy an adults-only patio party) and then have their dinner with fellow campers. Afterward, they head over to a nearby farm to bottle-feed a calf and collect eggs from a chicken.
Nice nests: Basic cabins have a queen bed, a twin bed, and a day bed (which can be made into two twins) while deluxe ones offer two queen beds and a kitchenette. (All-inclusive daily rates start at $150 per adult, $110 per child ages 6 to 11, $80 per child ages 4 and 5, free for 0 to 3; rankinranch.com.)
Glen Rose, Texas
Dinosaur fans will adore the nature activities in this town about a 90-minute drive from Dallas.
Fun for all: Stop by Dinosaur Valley State Park, where you'll look for tracks in the Paluxy riverbed. From the Visitor's Center, two trails lead to the tracks -- take the easier one on the left if you have kids under 5. Outside the park, swing by Fossil Rim Wildlife Center (fossilrim.org), where you can see 1,000 animals roaming the 1,700 acres. In your car (or a tram), you can take the 91/2-mile drive, feeding giraffes, ostriches, and other animals on the way ($21 for adults, $15 for kids ages 3 to 11, free for 0 to 2).
Nice nests: Sleep inside Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. (Lodge rooms with two beds start at $100 per night, including breakfast, and tent cabins, designed to resemble ones in Africa, start at $125 per night; fossilrim.org.)
This tiny town in the northern part of the state lies in the heart of the Redwood Coast, a 90-mile stretch famous for its giant redwood trees.
Fun for all: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park boasts more than a dozen hiking trails. At less than a half mile, the Circle Trail is one of the easiest and leads you to the "Big Tree," which is 304 feet tall. The park is also home to Fern Canyon; 50-foot walls are covered in ferns and surrounded by a creek. "My four kids loved climbing on the footbridges and scrambling over logs, and they laughed with delight when they stepped in the shallow stream and got a bit wet," says Danya Paxman, of American Fork, Utah. In Myers Flat, visit Humboldt Redwoods State Park; you can drive through a fallen redwood log and explore a two-story tree house.
Nice nests: Stay at Redwood Adventure & Elk Meadow Cabins, three-bedroom cabins with a kitchen, two baths, and a view of elk in the meadows. (Cabins start at $199 per night; redwoodadventures.com.) Or consider the Lost Whale Inn, in nearby Trinidad. Its picturesque private trail leads to tide pools with sea creatures. (Rooms start at $199 per night, including breakfast; lostwhaleinn.com.)
The Tyler Place Family Resort; Highgate Springs, Vermont
Set on 165 acres of woods near Lake Champlain, The Tyler Place, an all-inclusive family resort, is open from Memorial Day to the Saturday after Labor Day.
Fun for all: Kids in nine age groups from babies to teens take part in the morning and evening nature-focused children's programs with activities such as fishing and hiking, while you enjoy a yoga class, try zip-lining, or just chill out in a hammock with a good book. In the afternoon, families hang on their own or take part in group activities such as a trip to a nearby farm or paddleboating on the lake. At night, you have dinner as a couple -- much of the food is locally grown -- and then you can head back to the room or pay a little extra for one of the counselors to put your kids to bed while you join other parents for a trivia night or a bonfire.
Nice nests: All lodging options have a fridge and at least two bedrooms, one with a king or queen bed and another with twins or bunks for the kids. (Rates, which cover lodging, kids' program, food, and most activities, start at $113 per night per adult, $84 for kids 2 1/2 to 11, and $70 for younger kids; tylerplace.com.)