Spend your summer vacay showing kids animals and sea creatures in their natural habitat. Family-travel experts nominated their favorite mountain, woods, and beach destinations, and then Parents dug up details to pick the heads of the pack.
YMCA of the Rockies; Estes Park, Colorado
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.)
Jekyll Island, Georgia
The most budget-friendly of the four barrier islands collectively known as the Golden Isles, this 7-mile-long unspoiled getaway about an hour north of Jacksonville, Florida, makes it easy for families to interact with nature rather than just look at it. "Since there are marshes, forests, and a beach, a trip here is practically like visiting three destinations," says Nancy Schretter, managing editor at familytravelnetwork.com.
Fun for all: Loggerhead sea turtles are the big draw for families, and the island's Georgia Sea Turtle Center gives a great chance of spotting one during June and July on one of the center's guided nighttime beach walks ($14 per person; kids must be 4 or older to participate). Before the walk, families can tour the center, which rehabs sea turtles from all over the country, and may even be able to watch surgery ($7 for adults, $5 for kids ages 4 to 12, free for younger kids). The 4-H Tidelands Nature Center also offers several reasonably priced family programs, including seining -- a naturalist casts a net in the water and talks about all the sea creatures uncovered ($5 per person, free for kids 3 and under). To explore on your own, head to Driftwood Beach, where tree branches preserved by saltwater create a natural playground. The Nature Center also offers 90-minute to two-hour family guided nature walks through the beaches, maritime forests, and salt marshes; kids may spot animal tracks and many species of birds ($5 for adults, $3 for kids ages 8 to 18, free for younger kids and no more than $25 per family). Or rent bikes (including dual tricycles that are perfect for two kids) from your resort or Great Dunes Park and hop on the island's 20 miles of paths.
Nice nests: Stay at Villas by the Sea Resort and Conference Center, which features condos with a full kitchen. (Summer rates for a one-bedroom condo start at $189 per night; villasbythesearesort.com.) If you're planning a trip for later in the summer, the Holiday Inn Resort at Jekyll Island is expected to open in August. While activity directors entertain your kids (potty-trained to age 12) at the free drop-off club, you can take advantage of organized nature walks. The hotel has a pool and a splash area, and babysitting is also available. (Rates start at $99 per night for a room with two beds; suites that have a kids' private bunk-bed area, patio, refrigerator, microwave, and activity table start at $199 per night; hijklresort.com.)
Hatteras Island, North Carolina
This getaway contains the bulk of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, more than 50 miles of protected coastline with generally warmer water and less wind than beaches even slightly to the north. Most of what makes this barrier island special is free. Part of the Outer Banks, Hatteras offers nature activities that are mainly government-funded.
Fun for all: Free summer programs include a hunt to find sea-turtle nests, nighttime walks to look for glowing marine plankton, and fishing on a pier with a ranger. During the summer, children ages 5 to 13 can also complete the Junior Ranger booklet to earn a badge. Stop by Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the north end of the island to hop on the 1/2-mile North Pond Wildlife Trail; it crosses a pond that's filled with turtles. For swimming and shelling, bring your umbrella to Coquina Beach -- that's where the lifeguards, restrooms, and changing facilities are located. Explore Hatteras Island's maritime forest by walking the 3/4-mile Buxton Woods Trail, where you might spot river otters, red-tailed foxes, and marsh-dwelling birds such as falcons and owls. The island is home to more than 300 bird species.
Nice nests: More than 80 percent of the lodging in the Outer Banks is vacation rentals. "You can find a nice two-bedroom condo in the summer for as low as $1,400 per week," notes Holly Austin, operations manager of Hatteras Realty by Wyndham Vacation Rentals (wyndhamvacationrentals.com). Camping is popular too. Set up your tent or bring your RV to Hatteras Sands Campground, a five-minute walk from the beach. (Tent rates start at $37 per night.) Or rough it just a little in the newly renovated air-conditioned cottages with a fridge, TV, queen pullout, and two twin beds. Restrooms are outside. (Cottages start at $75 per night; hatterassandscampground.com.)
Sanibel and Captiva Islands, Florida
Family Vacations: Sanibel Sea School
About an hour from Fort Myers, these neighboring barrier islands -- with no stoplights or buildings taller than a palm tree -- are a paradise for pint-size shell collectors. Hello, free souvenirs! Summer is off-season, so the beaches are less crowded and the rates are lower -- sometimes by as much as 50 percent.
Fun for all: Most of the 15 miles of the island's beaches slope gradually to the sea during low tide and have calm water, so they're great for little swimmers. The Sanibel Sea School offers drop-off morning and afternoon adventures for kids ages 6 to 13. During certain summer weeks sessions will be held for kids as young as 4. Popular programs focus on sea horses, manatees, sharks, and dolphins; your kid may even get the chance to help dissect a squid or an octopus ($55 for a half day, $110 for a full day). You can also take a 90-minute Dolphin Watch & Wildlife Adventure through Captiva Cruises ($28 for adults, $18 for kids 2 to 12, younger children are free). Manatees typically hover along the docks as you're boarding and it's extremely likely that you'll see dolphins. Visit the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which spans 8,000 acres and is home to alligators, snakes, tortoises, armadillos, and many other animals ($5 per vehicle,$1 for hikers and bikers). Stop at the education center for interactive exhibits where kids can "build" a bird with puzzle-like pieces and make nature-inspired etchings. Walk or bike (the island is bike-obsessed) on some of the short trails on your own, where you might spot manatees or rare birds such as the roseate spoonbill, which has pink wings. Avoid going on a Friday, when the wildlife drive is closed.
Nice nests: On Captiva, stay at South Seas Island Resort, situated on a 330-acre wildlife preserve. It offers environmental-education programs through the Sanibel Sea School and has several pools, two waterslides, and a 2 1/2-mile shell-filled beachfront. (Summer rates for rooms with two beds start at $199 per night; southseas.com.) In Sanibel, if you want to have more space and cook some of your meals yourself, consider renting a condo. Search by budget and size at sanibelislandvacations.com. Or set up camp in tents or with an RV at Periwinkle Park & Campground; it's just a half mile from the beach and offers parrot shows three times a week. (Camping fees are $50 daily per couple, $5 for kids ages 6 and up, free for younger children.)
Since Brewster is on an inlet, it boasts some of Cape Cod's warmest water. Beat the crowds by visiting in May or late August.
Fun for all: Every one of the town's eight public beaches is on the bay. That means lots of tide pools, especially at low tide. But Breakwater Beach is popular with families of young children because it has very calm water and a wide stretch of sand, as well as tide pools galore. To find out what all those sea creatures are, sign up for a Mudflat Mania tour with The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History; families take a 20-minute walk to the tidal mudflats and use nets and pails to catch small crabs, worms, snails, and more. A naturalist IDs the finds for the kids, who usually keep all of them in their pail until it's time to go back, then return them to their habitat ($7 for adults, $5 for kids up to age 12). Go hiking or biking on the paved trails through the tall pines at Nickerson State Park, comprising more than 1,900 acres. When kids need to cool off, they can dip their toes in the Kettle Ponds, which were formed by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago.
Nice nests: Stay at Ocean Edge Resort & Golf Club, which is located on the 26-mile Cape Cod Bike Rail & Trail; you can rent bikes at the resort. There are free family programs, indoor and outdoor pools, and babysitting for a fee. (Rates start at $195 per night for a one-bedroom villa; oceanedge.com.) Or camp at Sweetwater Forest Campground, which has six playgrounds, horseshoe pits, tractor-pulled hayrides, and catch-and-release fishing derbies for kids. (Rates start at $32 per night for a family of four; sweetwaterforest.com.)
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Parents magazine.