500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights 29 hiking, biking and riding trips throughout the world. The six picks below are located in some of the most beautiful parks and public spaces in the world.
What: Climbing Ben Nevis: The Crown of the Highlands
Who: Ages 10 & up
Where: Near Fort William, Scotland
In the middle of the Scottish Highlands, Ben Nevis, at 1,342m (4,403 ft.), is the tallest mountain in Britain. Even if you've tackled higher peaks, don't sell Ben Nevis short: The 16km (10 mile) climb is a difficult 8 hours to the summit even along the most popular route, a pony track. The final 300m (984 ft.) is really steep terrain, but having gone this far, few can resist the challenge of going all the way. The trail is much rougher but more scenic if you come up out of lovely Glen Nevis, with its clear rivers and cascading waterfalls, soft meadows and moorlands. The summit is flat and covered with loose stones, sloping off gently to the south, but a series of jagged rock precipices plunge down the northeast side, a challenge suitable for only the most expert rock climbers. Before going, check in with the staff at the Fort William tourist office, 6km (33?4 miles) northwest of the mountain; they can give you advice as well as maps, and they'll pinpoint the best starting places. Note that the unpredictable Scottish weather adds to the challenge: Dress in layers and bring along a waterproof jacket (stout-soled shoes are essential). The mean monthly temperature of Ben Nevis falls below freezing; snow has been reported at all times of year, even during the hottest months of July and August. Howling winds are frequent.
Hikers head up expecting a panoramic view, but that same fickle weather means they're often disappointed -- be prepared to appreciate the beauty of whatever you see up there, even if it's a dramatic cloak of swirling mist. If you're so lucky as to have clear weather, you can see the Irish foothills some 193km (120 miles) to the southwest, the Hebridean Isle of Rhum 148km (92 miles) to the west, the Glencoe peaks directly south, and the Cairngorm peaks to the east. If some members of your party vote against climbing, they can still get a pretty darn stunning view by taking the cable car to a panoramic viewing area about halfway up.
Location & information: Fort William, 4 hrs. from Glasgow.
Fort William Tourist information Centre (tel. 01397/703781).
Read more about Fort William.
What: Mount Kilimanjaro: Africa's Great White Mountain
Who: Ages 12 & up
Where: Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania
It's an unforgettable sight -- the snowy plateau of Mount Kilimanjaro, rising above the Tanzanian plains, just south of Kenya. Named Oldoinyo Oibor, or "white mountain," by the Masai tribesmen and Kilima Njaro, "shining mountain," in Swahili, it's Africa's highest mountain and one of the world's largest free-standing peaks, a triple volcano thrusting out of equatorial jungle and moorland. As world-class peaks go, it's a relatively easy climb -- the lower slopes are downright gentle -- but you don't need to go all the way to the summit to get the Henmingway-esque thrill of exploring Kilimanjaro.
To ascend the mountain is to pass through radically different climate zones. Kilimanjaro National Park encompasses shouldering moorlands and the barren snowy summits, and the base of the mountain is surrounded by the lush, steamy Kilimanjaro Forest Reserve. Enter at the Marangu Park Gate -- you should already have obtained park permits and hut reservations (available through a licensed tour operator or local hotels in Moshi), but at the park gate you'll hire a guide, and possibly a porter (you won't be allowed on the mountain without a guide). Park fees are substantial, but they include hut accommodation on the mountain; guides and porters ask ridiculously low wages, hoping for generous tips on top. If you book with a tour operator (which I recommend), most of this, along with a cook to prepare all meals en route, will be included in your package.
It takes 5 to 7 days round-trip to reach the summit, staying in mountain huts all the way. With kids, though, you may be content to abbreviate this trek, going only partway up the well-traveled Marangu Trail. You'll spend your first night on the mountain in the wooden A-frame huts at Mandara, a 3- to 4-hour 12km (7½-mile) walk from the gate through misty, mossy rainforest. On your second day, hike across grassland to the gardenlike Maundi Crater; scramble up to the rim for panoramic views of the barren highlands towering above you. If you're not gung-ho mountaineers, head back down from here, or go on to Hotombo Hut that night and Kibo Hut the third night before turning around. Above 4,000m (13,000 ft.), the mountain suddenly becomes steeper and more barren, with rocky scree underfoot -- it's not a technical climb, but it's a strenuous steep hike.
Location & information: Kilimanjaro International, 56km (35 miles).
Kilimanjaro specialists include Tanzania Odyssey (www.tanzania-web.com), Destination Africa Tours (www.climbingkilimanjaro.com); Roy Safaris, Arusha (tel. 27/2502115; www.roysafaris.com); and Tanzania Serengeti Adventure, Arusha (tel. 27/2544609; www.habari.co.tz/tsa)
What: Mount Fuji: Scaling the Symbol of Japan
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Japan
The Japanese call it "Fuji-san," as if it were a dear old friend. It's not only the tallest mountain in Japan -- an almost perfect cone 3,776m (12,388 ft.) high, its majestic peak usually swathed in clouds -- it symbolizes the very spirit of their country. Today, about 600,000 people climb Fuji-san every year, mostly on July and August weekends. It's not like climbing Everest, a challenge for the expert mountaineer; you'll see everyone from grandmothers to children wending their way up those level slopes. It's the quintessential Japanese experience.
You don't need climbing experience to ascend Mount Fuji, just stamina and a good pair of walking shoes. Six well-established trails lead to the summit; another six lead back down. Each is divided into 10 stages, with the actual climb beginning around the fifth stage. From Tokyo, Kawaguchiko Trail is the least steep and easiest to get to. Take a shortcut directly to Kawaguchiko's Fifth Stage by bus from Shinjuku Station (be sure to book in advance); the trip takes about 2½ hours. From this starting point it's about a 6-hour climb to the summit, with another 3 hours to make the descent; at the top, a 1-hour hiking trail circles the crater.
The highlight of the classic Fuji climb is to watch the sunrise from the peak, which in summer means being there by 4:30am. There are three ways to accomplish this: Take a morning bus, start climbing in early afternoon, spend the night near the summit in a mountain hut, and get up in time to arrive at the peak at sunrise; or alternatively, take in the sunrise from your hut -- that still counts, honest! -- and then climb to the top. Then there are the night climbers, who get off the bus at the Fifth Stage late in the evening and climb through the night using flashlights, timing it to hit the summit at sunrise. The mountain huts have futons for as many as 500 hikers each and serve simple Japanese meals (dried fish, rice, soup) if you aren't carrying your own grub; they're open July to August only and you must book early.
It may be disconcerting to get off the bus at the Fifth Stage and see a crush of souvenir shops, blaring loudspeakers, and tour bus hordes -- hardly the atmosphere for a purifying ritual. But don't worry, most of those tourists aren't here for the climb. You'll soon find yourself on a steep rocky path, surrounded only by scrub brush and a few intent hikers below and above you. Settle into your stride, and after a couple hours you'll find yourself above the roily clouds -- as if you are on an island, barren and rocky, in the middle of an ocean. Ah, there's your spiritual high.
Location & information: Narita International, 48km (30 miles).
Yumoto Tourist Office (tel. 0460/5-8911); To book a hut, call the Japanese Inn Union of Mount Fuji (tel. 0555/22-1944).
Read more about Mt. Fuji.
What: Dune Walking in the Sahara
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Ksar Ghilane, Tunisia
Some 4.5 million Europeans, mostly French, vacation each year in Tunisia, offering their oiled bodies to the sun on the powdery white sands of Djerba. This sybaritic North African island has some of the most spectacular beaches in the world -- but it's a pity that few tourists bother to travel on to the fantastic desert landscapes to the south. They're missing the thrill of setting foot on the waving dunes of the Sahara, crossing the shifting sands to an abandoned fort. And for kids, there's even a movie tie-in: exploring a town where Star Wars Episode IV was filmed.
Granted, it's a long, thankless drive -- 3½ hours from Djerba to Ksar Ghilane, an oasis at the very edge of the Grand Erg Oriental, one of the Sahara's two great sand seas, and it's best to hire a driver so you don't lose your way on these deceptive desert tracks. But when you arrive, the kids will immediately get the concept of an oasis: Rising up out of the desert, a hot spring here feeds a swimming hole and a greenness of tamarisk trees. As befits the desert, you'll stay in tents, although quite luxurious tents, air-conditioned and with private bathroom -- it certainly beats a Motel 6. The highlight of your stay in the oasis is a 2km (1.2-mile) walk through the shifting dunes, as smooth and clean as a toddler's cheek, following a trail of camel turds to an abandoned fort worthy of Lawrence of Arabia. Kids will understand the importance of turbans here, which they'll need to wear against the blowing sands. (If they're young, you can arrange for an all-terrain vehicle to meet you and drive you back; doing the trek on a camel is a more exotic option.)
Tour packages often combine the Ksar Ghilane expedition with a trip around the amazing Ksour district to the east. "Ksour" is the plural for "ksar," a traditional mud-and-stone structure built by the ancient Berber people -- communal granaries, where every family in a village had its own chamber for storing grain. In later times, the villages adapted these granaries, turning them into forts against foreign invaders. Most of these ksour are crumbling and abandoned, haunting relics left in the desert when their inhabitants moved to modern towns with electricity and water mains. You can visit several ksours in the course of a day's desert drive: The best preserved is Ksar Ouled Soltane, four stories high; Guermessa is another spectacular Berber site, virtually undiscovered by tourists.
For your ksours circuit, do as the tour operators do and base yourselves in the modern town of Tataouine, which has the best travel amenities. (It's no coincidence that the name was borrowed by George Lucas for an entire planet in Star Wars, for the nearby village of Ksar Haddada will be instantly familiar to the kids as the setting for Luke Skywalker's hometown in the original Star Wars movie).
Location & information: Djerba, 3½ hrs.
TunisUSA (tel. 800/474-5500; www.tunisusa.com)
What: Traipsing through the English Cotswolds
Who: Ages 4 & up (Ramble), 10 & up (Cotswold Way)
Known for its picturesque villages of golden-stone cottages, England's charming Cotswolds hills are popular with motorists keen on gardens and antiques. But the best way to explore this rolling countryside is on foot, following a meandering 167km (104-mile) path called the Cotswold Way (www.nationaltrail.co.uk) that cuts across farms, streams, cottage backyards, and swaths of forest. The payoff is spectacular panoramas and a time-warp sense of being back in medieval England.
The path stretches from Chipping Campden, at the northern edge of the Cotswolds, to Bath, and is easy to follow thanks to bright yellow signs at every intersection. The southbound route (Chipping Campden to Bath) involves slightly less uphill climbing and is less well traveled, so you won't find yourself in pedestrian "traffic jams." Regardless of the direction you follow, it's a significant undertaking to do the whole route: Tourist officials in Chipping Campden report that most participants take between 7 and 8 days to walk the entire path, often emerging blistered, sunburned, rain-drenched, and exhausted. (Of course, with kids you may opt to do only a section of the route.) Bring a raincoat and sturdy shoes.
Most of the route avoids traffic arteries completely, guiding you through forests and fields and along rocky escarpments where views sweep out over medieval wool villages. At least a dozen historic towns en route can be visited via short detours. Every tourist office in the Cotswolds carries the Ordnance Maps and specialized walking tour guides you'll need to locate the Cotswold Way, and local souvenir shops eagerly provide mementos like Cotswold Way T-shirts and an official-looking certificate announcing the direction you've walked the path.
For less intrepid hikers, another option is the Great Cotswold Ramble, a 4km (2½-mile) mostly paved walk from the car park in Upper Slaughter to the village green at Bourton-on-the-Water, along the course of the River Eye. (Once you're at Bourton, you'll find several kid-friendly attractions -- a motor museum, model railway exhibit, model village, and birds-only zoo called Birdland.) Follow signs for the Warden's Way; from Lower Slaughter on south, the Warden's Way follows the route of the Fosse Way, an ancient Roman footpath.
Location & information: Moreton-in-Marsh, 2 hrs. from London. Cheltenham, 2¼ hrs. from London.
The Ramblers' Association, Camelford House, 87-90 Albert Embankment, London, SE1 7TW (tel. 020/7339-8500; www.ramblers.org.uk); Cotswold Voluntary Wardens Service, Shire Hall, Gloucester (tel. 01451/862000).
Read more about The Cotswolds.
What: Wunderhiking in the Black Forest
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Triberg, Germany
One of the richest timberlands in the world lies in southwestern Germany, where the mountains are thickly planted with conifers, their arrow-straight trunks so close together that sunlight barely penetrates to the woodland floor. This is the famous Black Forest, home of traditional woodcarving, cuckoo clocks, and dense chocolate cake, and its fairy-tale atmosphere is irresistible. You can sample its beauty by driving the 144km (89-mile) scenic Schwarzwald Hochstrasse (Black Forest High Rd., Rte. B500) north-south from the fashionable 19th-century spa of Baden-Baden to Waldshut on the Rhine. But hiking is the best way to explore its forested heart. On a village-to-village walk, you pass through sunny panoramic pastures and deep, fragrant pine woods, where you almost expect Bambi and Thumper to spring out of the next glade.
Clearly marked signs guide you across this easy trail, which starts at Triberg, traditionally the birthplace of the cuckoo clock. A series of hotels, beginning with the Parkhotel Wehrle (see below), have coordinated to map out a route and convey your luggage for you, so you can hike with only a small rucksack. You can hike from 1 or 2 to 10 days, even more if you have the time. Distances between hotels range from 20 to 27km (12-17 miles), and restaurants and farmhouses offer food and refreshment en route.
If you only want a day hike, climb up to the highest waterfall in Germany, Wasserfelle Gutach, just outside of Triberg. This lovely cascade drops some 160m (525 ft.), spilling downhill in seven misty and poetically evocative stages. They're only accessible on foot, and only from April through November. Park your car in designated lots in the town center, near the Gutach Bridge, then follow a sign-posted trail that, round-trip, requires about an hour of moderately difficult hill climbing. Even if you don't make it to the top, there are some very satisfying waterfall vistas partway up.
Triberg can be crowded and touristy, another good reason to get out and hike instead of wandering around town. Being in cuckoo-clock country, however, it may be hard to resist three Triberg-area attractions that promote this trade as well as related crafts like woodcarving and music boxes: the Schwarzwald-Museum of Triberg, Wallfahrstrasse 4 (tel. 07722/4434); the world's largest cuckoo clock at the shop Haus der 1000 Uhren (House of 1,000 Clocks), up the B33 on the road to Hornberg at An der Bundesstrasse 33 (tel. 07722/96300; www.hausder1000uhren.de; open Easter to Oct); and the Deutsches Uhrenmuseum (German Clock Museum), 10 miles south on B500 at Gerwigstrasse 11, Furtwangen (tel. 07723/920117).
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.