Outdoor adventures aren’t just for Olympians and other fit athletes. If you want to connect with nature during an active pursuit, look to pastimes that nearly anyone on your family can participate in. Don’t be timid if you haven’t tried these activities before. Easy hikes and kayak trips, hot air balloon adventures, shooting river rapids and even hang gliding are things nearly all of us can do with a bit of encouragement and guidance from the right tour outfitter. Here are our picks for five weekend excursions that your whole family will be glad you tried.
1. Kayak on a glacial lake
Photo © State of Alaska/Brian Adams
If you visit Skagway, Alaska, from May through September either on a cruise or on your own, you can combine a scenic ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway with kayaking on a glacier lake. Take in the breathtaking views as you’re whisked away to pristine Lake Bernard at the edge of historic Fraser in British Columbia, Canada.
Guides give expert instruction before participants slide into stable, two-person kayaks, zip up the protective covering designed to keep them warm and dry and paddle onto the glacier-carved lake. from there it’s smooth sailing across the same cold, clear water that Klondikers paddled across more than a century ago.
Marvel at vistas of snow-capped mountain peaks surrounding the lake. Paddle over gentle waves to coves, and admire alpine plant life while breathing in crisp mountain air.
2. Ride a hot air balloon over Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Photo courtesy of Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association/Scott Larson
The Hot Air Balloon Rodeo is a summertime staple of Steamboat Springs, Colorado (usually held in mid-July). Visitors can roam the launch grounds early in the morning to watch as balloons inflate and perhaps even join ground crews in preparing brightly colored balloons for flight. Then watch as gleaming balloons paint the Yampa Valley sky at sunrise.
But even if you can't attend the rodeo itself, you can plan a ride of your own all summer long ($$). Several participating hot air balloon companies offer exciting rides over the Yampa Valley with views of green mountains stretching for miles around. Your pilot might even thrill riders by dipping the basket into Bald Eagle Lake. It’s a special way to experience Steamboat Springs and adds to your appreciation of the skilled balloon competitors.
For another look, attend the Balloon Glow in the evening. Spectators can walk among beautiful displays of tethered balloons that illuminate the evening sky with brilliant colors.
Driving distances: 30 minutes from Glen Eden and Hayden, Colorado | 1 hour 30 minutes from Walcott, Colorado | 2 hours 20 minutes from Laramie, Wyoming
3. Go whitewater rafting in Taos, New Mexico
Photo courtesy of Los Rios River Runners
While prime time for exciting whitewater fun is late April through early July, you can still shoot the rapids from late summer through early fall ($$). The Taos Box Canyon is one of the premier Class III and IV white water runs of North America, if you’re up for the challenge.
Entirely contained in the black lava walls of the Rio Grande Gorge (which range up to 1,000 feet high), the Box begins with 2 miles of fairly gentle Class I drops—a warmup before 9 miles of more difficult rapids that require precise boat handling. You and your mates will learn to paddle as a team, execute 15-foot drops and flow with the current as you wrap up the ride with 5 miles of Class IV drops with names such as Powerline, The Gut and Pinball. Afterward, celebrate success and trade splash stories during a gourmet lunch that’s included in the package.
Calmer rafting and flat-water trips are available for the less adventurous or families with young children.
Driving distances: 1 hour 20 minutes from Santa Fe, New Mexico | 2 hours 15 minutes from Albuquerque, New Mexico | 3 hours from Pueblo, Colorado
4. Hang glide in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Tourist Development
Soar through the clouds feeling free as a bird while gliding through the sky over Lookout Mountain Flight Park in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in late spring through early fall ($$). After being strapped into a protective harness, first-timers ride tandem with an experienced instructor.
The ride starts when an ultralight plane tows the glider and its two passengers up to 3,000 feet and then releases it for a gradual descent (about 12 to 20 minutes). Bask in the quietness of air-propelled flight without having to jump off a cliff while hanging onto the kite-like structure.
While the instructor maneuvers the craft by catching thermal air columns and wind drifts, you just stretch out and relax for the duration of this magical ride. Floating through clouds gives an incredible sensation of freedom—at the mercy of the winds, yet controllable with body movements. Soon, the glider drifts down, and you’re safe on the ground again—looking up where you just floated through the sky.
Driving distances: 1 hour 35 minutes from Knoxville, Tennessee and Marietta, Georgia | 2 hours from Nashville, Tennessee and Birmingham, Alabama
5. Hike the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona
Photo courtesy Sedona Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau
Sedona is known for stunning vistas of red rock formations, natural arches, deep gorges and lofty peaks. Dramatic landscapes surrounding this Arizona town just beg for exploration—and excellent hiking opportunities are within easy reach.
Popular hikes include Bell Rock Trail, a leisurely stair-step climb up and around the prominent bell-shaped landmark. Fay Canyon Trail goes through a gorgeous box canyon to a red rock arch ($). Take an exciting walk across Devil’s Bridge, a massive 54-foot-high sandstone arch just inside the Red Rock–Secret Mountain Wilderness. The best part is that you can visit Sedona year-round, just prepare for hot temperatures in the summer months.
Driving distances: 2 hours from Phoenix and Sun Valley, Arizona | 3 hours 30 minutes from Tucson, Arizona | 4 hours 20 minutes from Las Vegas, Nevada