Best adventurous summer vacation ideas for the family

Ian Carroll

It’s almost that time of year again. Kids are finishing school in no time and summer is just around the corner. It’s time to plan your summer vacation. What would your kids love to do and see? Anything you and your partner have been dreaming of doing for years? Well, this summer is the perfect opportunity to check off another box on the bucket list.

But if you’re having trouble thinking of ideas, or just want to daydream about summer vacation, then we’ve got your back. That’s because today we’re going to cover some of the best ways you can spend summer vacation this year. For adventure-loving families, adventurous summer vacations are a must. That way you really feel like you’ve had a break from your day to day life.

If you’re not the type of family to go on a cruise or stay in an all-inclusive resort, then this list is for you. We’re going to stay off the beaten path and check out some truly unique possibilities. From wild coastal adventures, to high mountain expeditions, and everything in between. Best of all, several of these trips will only cost a fraction of the price of your average Caribbean cruise.

West Coast road trip

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA.
Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA.

It’s no secret that the West Coast of the United States is home to some of the most scenic landscapes on the planet. Whether you’re from the West Coast or another part of the US, this trip is well worth your summer vacation.

Although it can be done in as little as a week, this trip could easily last a month. During the summer, the southern latitudes of California can get pretty hot. So, some people elect to skip the southern coast and start somewhere further north such as San Francisco. You can get a camper van or live-in vehicle, stay in hotels, or camp all along the coast.

Important stops are virtually endless, but here are some of the noteworthy ones. Cities include San Diego, Santa Monica, and San Francisco. Check out Big Sur for some impressive coastlines and beautiful views. Redwood and Yosemite National Parks, I mean, obviously. The Oregon coast also holds a number of gems on your way north to Portland. In Washington, hit the Hoh Rainforest out on the peninsula. Then dip into Seattle for a bit before making your way up north to the small, coastal town of Bellingham where you can head out to the San Juan Islands. But we’ll talk more about them later.

East Coast road trip

The West Coast may be full of impressive beaches and wild landscapes, but the eastern coast of the country is no less spectacular and home to a lot more history. If you’re from the East Coast, you may feel like getting away, but to just about anyone else, it’s a cornucopia of historic and scenic stops.

New York City is a must see for anyone from out of town.
New York City is a must see for anyone from out of town.

Although the southern end of the coast in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas can get really hot in the summer, they still make great places to see. After all, there are great beaches to explore and water sports to try out. As you move north, check out historic cities like Boston, New York City, and the capital of Washington DC. Or, if you’re into nature, head inland to the Appalachians or hit the northern coastline. Maine is a great place for a wilderness adventure and coastal expeditions.

When it comes down to it, there are way too many individual stops on the East Coast to mention them all. You’ll have to decide which ones speak to you and do some thorough research in order to plan your route. Although camping isn’t as abundant here as it is on the West Coast, it’s still a great option. Or you can stay in hotels, or airbnb’s along the way.

Do a family thru-hike

If you have a really adventurous family, there’s no better way to bond then to head out into the wilderness together. This trip obviously isn’t suitable for small children or the faint of heart, but nature-loving teens might be all about a couple days or weeks out in the woods.

family vacation
Go hiking with the whole family.

The definition of ‘thru-hiking’ is variable. And I’m not suggesting that you hike the whole Pacific Crest Trail with your family this summer. That would be monumental. Not only would it take months and thousands of dollars to achieve, but it’s also just a physical feat beyond the ability of most people.

However, there are lots of great, week-long or just multi-day hikes to be had around the US. There’s no point in traveling too far to find one, either. If you’re on the west coast, then crossing the Cascades makes for a great week or two in most parts. If you’re near the Appalachians, then trekking a segment of the Appalachian trail might be a good option. However, there are lots of great wilderness areas across the middle of the country too.

Visit Alaska

During the summer, it might not be the best time to visit the southern latitudes. The desert of California and Arizona or the tropical heat of Florida might be a little too intense. However, heading north is a great idea. The Alaskan summertime is one of the most special and enchanting getaways in the United States. Although it’s a bit far away, it’s well worth the visit if you can make it.

Alaska is home to some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world.
Alaska is home to some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world.

Even if you consider yourself to be an outdoorsy family that spends plenty of time in nature, Alaska is something else entirely. The kids have probably never seen the ‘midnight sun’ which is in the sky for over eighty days in the Alaskan summertime. For that reason, many prefer to go on the early or later end of the summer.

Plus, the nature you’ll see this far north is unrivaled in the continental United States. From grizzly bears, to herds of elk, rivers overrun with salmon, and birds beyond count, Alaska is a nature lover’s paradise. If you’re looking for a trip to really impress the wonder of the natural world upon your kids, spending time in Alaska is a great way to do it.

Cross the country

There’s more to do in your car than just cover the coastline. If your family likes to travel and see new places, then crossing the country can be an incredible experience. Not only is the US one of the most diverse countries on the planet, but it’s also one of the largest. As you cross through states, you’ll cross-cultural, historic, and climatic boundaries. You’ll see people of all sorts, and wildlife of widely diverse natures.

Road trip planning is a lot of fun.
Road trip planning is a lot of fun.

You can rent a car or camper van and make this whatever type of trip you like. There are too many possible routes to take. After all, each state has its own unique offerings that will speak to different people. Nature lovers, inevitably tend to shoot for passing through a couple of the best though.

Colorado is world renowned for its high mountain hiking, beautiful landscapes, and Aspen ‘blooms’. Although, Aspens usually turn starting in mid-September, so you’re not likely to be able to see them on your Summer vacation. Utah is next door to Colorado and home to some of the most stunning desert landscapes in the US. Not to mention the abundance of trails and national parks to explore. These states are just a tiny segment of your total route though, so you’ll have to plan the rest on your own.

Sail the San Juans

If your family hails from the seaside, then sailing might be the best way to spend your summer vacation. There are countless coastal destinations to hoist your sails around the US. But the San Juan Islands off the northwestern coast of Washington State are a place unlike any other.

Lopez Island, one of the San Juan Islands, Washington – Cdc~commonswiki – CC BY-SA 3.0
Lopez Island, one of the San Juan Islands, Washington – Cdc~commonswiki – CC BY-SA 3.0

That’s because San Juan County has more coastline than any other in the United States (408 miles of it!). All of it is just begging to be explored. There are port towns on the bigger islands and excellent options for accommodation and eating, as well as smaller, uninhabited islands. There are over 1,000 acres of nationally protected land in the San Juans. Plus, jet skis are banned throughout the entire county. It all adds up to one of the most scenic and peaceful places on the American Coast. Great for whale watching and enjoying some real peace and quiet.

Visit Acadia National Park in Maine

There are countless National Parks in the US which you should make a point of visiting at some time in your life. However, one of the best ones to check off during the summertime is Acadia National Park in Maine. That’s because Maine can get pretty cold other times of year. However, during the summer time, it’s a paradise of natural wonder. As one of the least densely populated states in the country, Maine is full of wild places to explore. Acadia is a great example of just how much there is to see.

The Bass Harbor Head Light located in Acadia National Park, Maine – Author: Chandra Hari – CC BY-SA 4.0
The Bass Harbor Head Light located in Acadia National Park, Maine – Author: Chandra Hari – CC BY-SA 4.0

Acadia is one of the oldest and most visited National Parks in the country. In 2016, along with the National Parks service, it celebrated its 100th birthday. The park is composed of about 49,000 acres of the seashore, mountains, islands, and nearly endless hiking trails. You can go rock climbing, biking, kayaking, camping, you name it. As long as your family likes being outdoors, you’ll love Acadia.

We wouldn’t want to skip the cultural side of the area though. Although the park itself is all protected land. You can find restaurants and galleries galore in the nearby town of Bar Harbor. Be sure to get some seafood while you’re in the area. It’s some of the best in the world. Maine is particularly famous for its lobster. Legend has it that they used to be so abundant here that they were considered poor man’s food. You could just go to the beach and pick them up off the sand for dinner. Nowadays, they’re one of the hottest commodities in the sea.

Visit Colorado and climb a ’14er’ or two

We’ve already mentioned how spectacular Colorado is once today. But once just isn’t enough for this vast and wild state. Holding one of the highest elevations in the United States, summer is a great time to visit Colorado so that you don’t get stuck in the snow. But don’t get me wrong, the state is great for winter getaways as well.

Maroon Lake and Maroon Bells, pre-dawn photo – Author: John Fowler – CC BY 2.0
Maroon Lake and Maroon Bells, pre-dawn photo – Author: John Fowler – CC BY 2.0

However, in the summer, hiking, biking, kayaking, climbing, and camping are the name of the game in Colorado. With wildly diverse landscapes from high mountain desert plateau on the west to deep alpine forest across the Rockies, there’s a bit of everything in the state.

One of the best things for nature lovers is to climb the famously high mountain summits that Colorado has to offer. There are over 50 distinct peaks that broach 14,000 feet here. That’s almost three miles above sea level! The craziest part, is that you don’t need to be a grizzled alpine climber to make it to the top of many of them. There are a number of 14ers (as they’re called) that are easily climbed in a day or less. That’s because of roads, not superhuman strength. This can be a great way for the whole family to accomplish some big goals together without killing the kids.

Just the tip of the iceberg

Although there is almost a lifetime’s worth of vacation ideas on this list, we have barely scratched the surface of what’s out there. The United States has so many great landscapes and wild places to offer, it would be a crime to not see a few of them.

Get the family out on a vacation together this summer.
Get the family out on a vacation together this summer.

So, put one or two of these trips on your list for this summer’s family vacation. Then tick off another one next year. Vacations don’t plan themselves, after all. If you let the summer slip by without any quality family adventure time, that’s a whole year worth of missed opportunity. So, get out there and see the world with the people you love the most.

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ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival