500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights 29 hiking, biking and riding trips throughout the world. These picks below are located in three of the most beautiful parks in the western United States.
What: Monument Valley: The Iconic Wild West Landscape
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Kayenta, Arizona
When most of us think of the American West, this is what clicks into our mental Viewmasters: A vast, flat sagebrush plain with huge sandstone spires thrusting to the sky like the crabbed fingers of a primeval Mother Earth clutching for the heavens. Ever since movie director John Ford first started shooting westerns here in the 1930s, this landscape has felt familiar to millions who have never set foot here. We've all seen it on the big screen, but oh, what a difference to see it in real life.
If you possibly can, time your visit to include sunset -- as the sheer walls of these monoliths capture the light of the setting sun, they truly seem to catch fire. There are three ways to tour the area, which is also a Navajo reservation: driving the 17-mile Valley Drive; hiking with a guide; or on horseback. Guides are usually local Navajos, born and bred to this barren landscape. If you drive, you can take your own car; but it is a rocky, rutted dirt road, so I personally would opt for a jeep or van tour. (Hold out for one that visits backcountry areas that are otherwise off-limits to visitors, including close-ups of several natural arches and Ancient Puebloan petroglyphs.)
Sticking to the Valley Drive takes you to 11 scenic overlooks, once-in-a-lifetime photo ops with those incredible sandstone buttes for backdrop. Often Navajos sell jewelry and other crafts at the viewing areas, or even pose on horseback to add local color to your snapshots (a tip will be expected).
John Wayne -- John Ford's favorite leading cowboy -- roamed these scrublands on horseback, and seeing it from a Western saddle does seem like the thing to do. Local outfitters run everything from a guided 1-hour trail ride to an overnight campout. One of the most comprehensive tour companies (jeeps, hikes, horses, you name it) is Sacred Monument Tours (tel. 435/727-3218; www.monumentvalley.net), but plenty of other operators can be booked from the visitor center. Although most of the park lies in Arizona, it is right on the state border, and you enter it from Utah. Just outside the park, Goulding's Museum and Trading Post is furnished as it was in the 1920s and 1930s when the moviemakers first discovered the area; there are also displays about the many films that were shot here.
Be sure to get a map so the kids can learn the eccentric rock formations' names -- imaginative names like The Mittens, Three Sisters, Camel Butte, Elephant Butte, the Thumb, and Totem Pole. And as you stare at them, take an extra moment to imagine the forces of nature that have sculpted the soft desert stone into these incredible shapes. It's an only-in-America panorama that the kids won't ever forget.
Contact: U.S. 163, 30 miles north of Kayenta (tel. 435/727-5870; www.monumentvalleyonline.com).
What: The Redwood Forests of California
Who: All ages
Where: Crescent City, California
It's hard to explain the feeling you get in the old-growth forests of Redwood National and State Parks. Everything seems big, misty, and primeval -- flowering bushes cover the ground, 10-foot-tall ferns line the creeks, and the smells are rich and musty. It's so Jurassic Park you half expect to turn the corner and see a dinosaur.
The scientific name for these massive conifers is Sequoia sempervirens, cousins of the giant sequoias (see Sequoia National Park). Sheathed in rough reddish bark, miraculously fire-resistant, their stout straight trunks shoot up 100 feet or more before a canopy of branches begins; they often reach a total height of more than 300 feet. Among the planet's most ancient individuals -- the oldest dated coast redwood is more than 2,200 years old -- they only grow in temperate rainforests, meaning nowhere but the U.S. Pacific Coast. In 1968, the federal government created Redwood National Park (nowadays combined with three state redwood parks) to protect what's left of this seriously endangered species. The relative isolation of this stretch of coast helped the forests survive intact, but it also makes for a long drive.
The most spectacular display is along the Avenue of the Giants, a 33-mile stretch of U.S. 101 through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park (tel. 707/946-2263; www.humboldtredwoods.org). Environmentalists bemoan the tacky attractions along this route, but youngsters love 'em -- from south to north, hollow Chimney Tree, where J. R. R. Tolkien's Hobbit is rumored to live; One-Log House, a small dwelling built inside a log; and the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree. More dignified landmarks include Founders Grove, honoring those who started the Save the Redwoods League in 1918; and the 950-year-old Immortal Tree. Don't settle for looking at all this out your car window -- from many parking areas you can ramble on short loop trails into awesome redwood groves.
The other cluster of parks begins another 100 miles or so farther north, threaded along U.S. Highway 101. The most scenic drive parallels 101, along the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, passing through redwood groves and meadows where Roosevelt elk graze, and Coastal Drive, which has grand views of the Pacific. But again, the truly spine-tingling experience requires getting out and hiking through these soaring perpendicular woods. Pick up a park map to find your way to Tall Trees Trail, a 3¼-mile round-trip to a 600-year-old tree often touted as the world's tallest (get a permit at the Redwood Information Center in Orick); the self-guided mile-long Lady Bird Johnson Grove Loop; the short, very popular Fern Canyon Trail; or, for the littlest hikers, the quarter-mile-long Big Tree Trail, a paved trail leading to -- what else? -- a big tree.
Contact: U.S. 101 (tel. 707/464-6101; www.nps.gov/redw).
What: Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks: Giant Trees of the Sierras
Who: All ages
Where: Visalia & Fresno, California
Only 200 miles by road from often-overrun Yosemite National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks still feel like untrammeled wilderness. Only one road, the Generals Highway, loops through the area, and no road traverses the Sierra here. High-altitude hiking and backpacking are what these parks are really all about; some 700 miles of trails traverse this terrain of snowcapped Sierra Nevada peaks (including Mount Whitney, which at 14,494 ft. is the highest point in the lower 48 states), high-country lakes, and alpine meadows. For families, though, there's one main attraction: the largest groves of giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada.
Though they are two separate parks, Sequoia and Kings Canyon are contiguous and managed jointly from the park headquarters at Ash Mountain -- you hardly know when you're leaving one and entering the other.
Of the 75 or so groves of giant sequoias in the parks, the two most convenient to visit are Grant Grove (in Kings Canyon near the Big Stump park entrance), and Giant Forest (in Sequoia, 16 miles from the Ash Mountain entrance). In Grant Grove, a 100-foot walk through the hollow trunk of the Fallen Monarch makes a fascinating side trip. The tree has been used for shelter for more than 100 years and is tall enough inside that you can walk through without bending over. In Giant Forest, the awesome General Sherman Tree is considered the largest living thing in the world; single branches of this monster are more than 7 feet thick. Other trees in the grove (each of them saddled with names like General Lee or Lincoln) are nearly as large, creating an overall effect of massive majesty. Giant Grove has some 40 miles of intersecting footpaths to wander; the 6-mile Trail of the Sequoias will take you to the grove's far eastern end, where you'll find some of the finest trees.
While Sequoia's raison d'être is those incredible trees, Kings Canyon encompasses the deepest canyon in the United States: Drive to Road's End on the Kings Canyon Highway (open late May to early Nov) to stand by the banks of the Kings River and stare up at granite walls rising thousands of feet above the river.
This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Family Travel Message Boards today.