My two children seem to prefer animals to people and whenever we plan a family adventure, there has to be at least one animal component to make the experience complete. Animal adventures can range from farm stays to visiting animal shelters, wildlife encounters in parks to full-blown big game safaris -- and everything in between. You don't have to spend a fortune or travel half way around the world to indulge in some one-on-one time with your kids and some furry, feathery, or slimy critters. Here is a selection of kid-friendly animal encounters that you can share with your children, no matter how young they are.
A little under two hours' drive from Eugene, OR you'll find the world's largest sea cave which also happens to be home to a huge population of Steller or Northern Sea Lions. Sea Lion Caves (tel. 541/547-3111; www.sealioncaves.com) on Oregon's central coastline is home to several hundred cute and noisy Steller Sea Lions and a smaller herd of California Sea Lions throughout the year. In the colder months they spend most of their time in the caves keeping warm and in spring and summer, you can view them sunning themselves, breeding and congregating on the rock ledges just outside the caves. An elevator transports you and your family down some 200 feet from ground level into the caves themselves so be sure to bring warm clothing as it can get rather cool inside the caves. There's also a lighthouse viewing area for looking out on to the rock ledges and the Pacific Ocean beyond. The Caves, located 11 miles north of Florence, OR are open daily (except Christmas Day and Thanksgiving) and admission for adults is $11, seniors pay $10 and children aged three to 12 are $7 (two and under are free).
Moosehead Lake, Maine (tel. 888/876-2778; www.mooseheadlake.org) is, as the name suggests, the perfect place to take your family for a bit of moose spotting in Maine. Located a 90-minute drive from Bangor and three hours from Portland, the lake offers year-round activities but from May to early September, the moose are out in force. The best times to see moose are early in the morning or around dusk, especially in May and June. Because moose prefer shady, wet areas such as bogs and marshes, a boat ride is often the best way to catch a glimpse at these beautiful beasts. You can choose to go it alone and drive along scenic roads that surround the lake to get your moose fix (locals suggest driving to Kokadjo, north of Greenville on Lily Bay Road or Lazy Tom Bog, just past Kokadjo for the best viewing opportunities) or book a guided moose safari from one of a dozen or so local operators, who sometimes offer guaranteed moose sightings. One such company is New England Outdoor Center (tel. 800/766-7238; www.neoc.com).
The three-hour (morning or evening) guided moose tour from Twin Pines aboard a luxury pontoon boat costs $49 per adult and $39 per child aged five to 12 (under fives are free). A full-day tour including lunch is $109 and $89 respectively. Tours by canoe, touring kayak or nine person war canoe are $69 per person for a minimum of four people. They can also arrange a guided moose and wildlife overnight canoeing trip including all meals and snacks for $269 for adults and $189 for children aged under 15 with a minimum age of five required. Apart from seeing moose, the tours often include sightings of bald eagles, loons, osprey, great blue heron, Canada geese, whitetail, deer and the occasional black bear.
Yellowstone National Park, WY (www.nps.gov/yell) is home to a wide array of native and reintroduced wildlife species including bison, coyote, elk, moose, wolves and bears and the spring is the best time to see the animals with their young. Again, you can discover the park on its own, or opt for a tour with naturalists and specialized guides to improve your chances of seeing specific animals. Bison are always on the move within the park but the most recommended areas for bison viewing are Hayden Valley along the Yellowstone River, the Fountain Flats area, the Mud Volcano area, the Lamar Valley, and on the banks of the Madison, Firehole and Gibbon Rivers. It costs $20 per car for entry into Yellowstone for a week. There are several tour companies that run one-day and multi-day trips within the park seasonally. Teton Science Schools (tel. 307/733-1313; www.tetonscience.org), a local education provider offers a selection of wildlife adventures including their two or three-day Spring Wolves and Bears Expedition which start on May 10 and May 26, 2009. Although seemingly expensive, these are unique experiences led by area and wildlife specialists and the trips sell out quickly each year. For $650 per adult and $495 per child (12 and under), the tour focuses on Greater Yellowstone's predators in the Lamar and Hayden Valleys, where bears hunt and wolves have their dens. Participants travel to the best sites for viewing bears and reintroduced wolves plus they will also get to experience Old Faithful, the colorful Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a waterfall more than twice as high as Niagara Falls, and the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. Accommodations, meals, transportation and touring are included. If you only have one day, Yellowstone Safari (tel. 866/586-1155; www.yellowstonesafari.com) can take your family on a private guided safari tour that will be tailored to your individual needs. It can combine wildlife viewing with photography opportunities, waterfalls, park landmarks, geysers and hiking and is priced from $650.
The San Juan Islands are located off the coast of Washington state, just across the Haro Strait from Victoria, British Columbia and are known as the best place in the country to experience the majesty and playfulness of Orca whales. The waters surrounding the islands are also home to harbor seals, bald eagles, great blue herons and a variety of other sea birds. The islands are accessible by ferry (www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries -- $10.95 each way per adult and $8.80 for children 18 and younger) from the town of Anacortes, about 90 minutes drive from Seattle. You can also fly from Anacortes or Bellingham to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island for $53 each way right on San Juan Airlines (www.sanjuanairlines.com). Once there you and your family can embark on a kayaking adventure with San Juan Safaris (tel. 800/450-6858; www.sanjuansafaris.com) who offer either a three-hour wildlife kayaking trip open to families with kids aged from six years, or a five-hour Orca search safari for those with older children, aged 15 and up (if you have younger kids who you believe can handle more than four hours paddling in the water, you can make a special request). Your guide will give you and your family a lesson in paddling and safety techniques prior to helping you into your kayak. The three-hour wildlife trip around Friday Harbor is priced at $69 per person 12 years and up and $45 for younger children). It runs twice daily from April 14 to September 30. The Orca Search by sea kayak tour around Roche Harbor is priced at $89 per person and runs once daily during the same dates. They also offer whale watching boat tours for those who do not want to kayak (or those with younger children) for $75 for adults and $45 for children aged two to 12 (under twos are free).