Editor’s Note: As the pandemic evolves, travel rules can shift at a moment's notice. Be sure to read the health and safety protocols and requirements for visitors to any destination, as well as those of airlines, car rentals and hotels before you book, and again before you travel.
Outdoor adventures aren’t just for athletes. If you want to actively connect with nature, look for adventures that all your family members can participate in. Easy hikes and ATV tours, kayak trips, hot-air balloon adventures, shooting river rapids and even hang gliding are activities most everyone can do with a bit of encouragement and guidance from the right tour outfitter.
Here are our picks for six exhilarating and affordable weekend getaways that your whole family will be glad you tried.
1. Ride a hot air balloon over Steamboat Springs, Colorado
The Hot Air Balloon Rodeo is a summertime staple of Steamboat Springs, Colorado (usually held in mid-July). While the launch site won’t be open to the public this year, visitors will still be able to watch as gleaming balloons paint the Yampa Valley sky at sunrise from the Ski Town Ballfield and Meadows Parking Lot, from your hotel balcony or other local public open spaces.
Even if you can't attend the rodeo itself, you can plan a ride of your own all summer long ($$$). Several participating hot air balloon companies, such as Wild West Balloon Adventures, offer exciting rides over the Yampa Valley with views of green mountains stretching for miles around. Your pilot might even thrill riders by dipping the basket into Bald Eagle Lake. It’s a special way to experience Steamboat Springs and adds to your appreciation of the skilled balloon competitors.
For another look, attend the Balloon Glow in the evening. Spectators can walk among beautiful displays of tethered balloons that illuminate the evening sky with brilliant colors.
NEA member travel benefits: Fly in to Yampa Valley Regional Airport (HDN) or Denver International (DEN) for Steamboat Springs. Check pricing on NEA Travel’s portal for the best prices on airfare. For summertime discounts, check the hotels page at NEA Travel. For around $125/night this July, you can stay at the La Quinta Inn by Wyndham Steamboat Springs or the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott. Or splurge a bit and stay at The Inn at Steamboat or the Sheraton Steamboat Resort Villas for about $175/night.
2. Go whitewater rafting in Taos, New Mexico
While prime time for exciting whitewater fun is late April through early July, you can still shoot the rapids from late summer through early fall ($$$). The Taos Box Canyon is one of the premier Class 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 (some 800 feet high), the Box begins with 2 miles of fairly gentle Class I drops—a warmup before 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 miles of Class IV drops with names such as Power Line Falls, the Rock Garden, Rio Bravo and Sunset. 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.
NEA member travel benefits: Fly in to Santa Fe Regional Airport (SAF) and Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ). Find great airfare prices through NEA Travel’s portal, and check the hotels page at NEA Travel for discounts to save on your accommodations. Dreamcatcher Bed and Breakfast, near Taos Plaza, is just one of the hotels you can book at NEA Travel at a discount. You’ll pay about $150/night. Or, stay at any of these properties for less than $100/night: Hampton Inn Taos, Sagebrush Inn & Suites or the Hotel Don Fernando de Taos (part of Hilton’s Tapestry Collection).
3. Hang glide in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Soar through the clouds feeling free as a bird while gliding through the sky over Lookout Mountain Flight Park in Chattanooga, Tennessee—year-round though hours vary per season ($$$). 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.
NEA member travel benefits: Check NEA Travel’s portal for great airfare deals before flying in to Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport (CHA). Also check out NEA Travel’s hotels page for summertime discounts. For less than $100/night, you can stay at the Wingate Inn Chattanooga. For about $165/night, upgrade to the Hilton Garden Inn Chattanooga Downtown or Hampton Inn & Suites Chattanooga/Downtown. But, if you want to splurge, try The Edwin Hotel (part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection). It’s about $235/night and is close to the Tennessee Aquarium.
4. Hike the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona
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.
NEA member travel benefits: Fly into Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (FLG) or Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX). For hot deals on airfare, check NEA Travel’s portal. Also check the hotels page at NEA Travel for summertime savings. Although there are some expensive resorts in Sedona, you can find discounted hotel rooms at NEA Travel. Try the Wildflower Inn at Bellrock, Bell Rock Inn by Diamond Resorts or Ridge on Sedona Golf Resort by Diamond Resorts—all with rooms starting under $130/night.
5. Kayak on a glacial lake
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 glacial 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.
NEA member travel benefits: Fly in to either Juneau International Airport (JNU) or Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport (YXY) before boarding Alaska Seaplanes to Skagway Airport (SGY). Enjoy the best prices on airfare at NEA Travel’s portal.
6. Explore the Smoky Mountains in an ATV
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country, with 12.5 million visitors in 2019, thanks to its magnificent mountains filled with diverse flora and fauna, along with relics of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. You can hike, bike or ride a horse, but if you want a more active take on the Smoky Mountains, take an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) tour ($$) in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. (Note: You’ll need to be at least 16 years old to join most tours, and others might impose a height requirement.)
Bluff Mountain Adventures offers tours for all skill levels. Drive through streams, rugged terrain and over mountainsides, stopping for photo ops of the spectacular Bluff Mountain views.
Jayell Ranch, off Veterans Parkway near Dollywood, offers a 12-mile guided ATV adventure through rolling foothills, muddy wood trails and creeks, with beautiful Smoky Mountains views.
Most tours cost between $59 and $79 per person.
NEA member travel benefits: Get your ticket to McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS), Asheville Regional Airport (AVL), Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSP) or the Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) at NEA Travel’s portal. And, check NEA Travel’s hotels page to book and save on your next accommodation. A fun place to stay is the Lodge at Mill Creek, near Dolly Parton’s Stampede dinner theater. Rates start at $78/night. Other well-reviewed hotels include the Glenstone Lodge for about $115/night and the Best Western Toni Inn starting at around $130/night.