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Learn, Stay and Play: 7 Educational Family Vacations

Surf, sail, dig and create unforgettable family memories on a learning vacation

Published on: March 01, 2017

boy on boat
At the helm of the 'Adventuress'

While my family loves relaxing as much as anyone, our favorite summer vacations have often included opportunities to learn a new skill together. We’ve ridden horses on an Oregon beach, participated in art workshops at Camp Huston in Gold Bar, visited museums, learned to fly-fish in mountain rivers and studied the historic journey of Lewis and Clark and their guide Sacagawea. 

Beyond offering the sheer adventure of trying a new experience, a learning vacation can have a lifelong impact. A child may discover a new strength or hobby, and a family may find a new activity to do together. And learning adventures, we’ve found, lead to great family stories that become even better in the retelling.

The Pacific Northwest has endless opportunities for exceptional family vacations with activities that are educational, from surfing and kayaking to woodcarving and digging fossils. Here are some of our favorites.

glacier national park
Glacier National Park Photo credit: Flickr

1. Study glaciers: Glacier National Park

You may know about the glaciers of Alaska, but your family doesn’t have to go that far to explore glaciers this summer. Head to Glacier National Park, a stunning 1,500-square mile wilderness area in Montana’s Rocky Mountains.  But go soon. NASA has predicted that by 2030, due to climate change, the famous glaciers of the national park will be gone. About 25 remain now.

The journey to Glacier is half the fun if you take the train. It’s also a greener way to travel. Instead of driving from Seattle (about 10 hours), travel from Seattle to the East Glacier Park entrance station in 15 hours via Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Once you’re there, you can tour the park in a vintage red 1930s bus by booking a tour with Red Bus Tours. Tours sell out, so make reservations early. If you do drive, don’t miss the spectacular 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, which takes you into the heart of the park, where you may see wildlife such as bears (yes, grizzlies, too), mountain goats, elk and bighorn sheep.

Kids can learn about the climate and glaciers firsthand by becoming Glacier Junior Rangers; while at the park, all they need to do is complete five of the activities in the Junior Ranger booklet, available online to print out and take.

Your family might also enjoy a boat trip on Lake McDonald with Glacier Park Boat Company or a scenic trail ride on horseback with Swan Mountain Outfitters.

Stay: Stay in a real log cabin at Abbott Valley Homestead, located near the park’s west entrance (around $175/night). Or bunk inside the park at one of the park’s charming rustic lodges, which you can access by bus service.

2. Dig it: A dino-mite adventure in Montana

Got a fossil fanatic in your family? Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Montana, 839 miles east of Seattle, offers daylong Dino Dig programs, through which your family can join the museum’s paleontologists on a real scientific search for dinosaur bones and other fossils.

Participants excavate bones, learn how to collect and record scientific data, safely collect and transport fossils and learn about basic local geology and surveying techniques in surrounding eastern Montana, the location of many dinosaur specimens and other fossils. The fee is $200–$230 per day, per person; participants must be 11 or older and be able to walk for short distances and sit on the ground.

The museum also offers three-hour Junior Paleontology programs in the summer for younger kids, ages 5–13.

Other activities nearby include spotting prairie dogs and visiting the Phillips County Museum. You can also observe dinosaur descendants by bird-watching at the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge.

Stay: Make the nearby Maltana Motel or Country Inn your home base; or camp or stay in a cabin at Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs, where you can also soak in the springs.

Picture this: Idyllwild Arts Summer Program Photo credit: Idyllwild Arts

3. Get creative together: Art or music camp

Enjoy a week of creating art, music and drama together from June 17-23, 2017 at Family Week at Idyllwild Arts Summer Program in California’s San Jacinto Mountains near Palm Springs. Families with kids ages 3 and older can take classes in drama, book arts, painting, jewelry making, improv acting, ceramics and photography. Schedule as many (or as few) classes as you wish, and be sure to include time for relaxing by the pool and hiking. The family rate for four people is $4,585, and the rate includes classes, accommodations and all meals.

Closer to home, Fort Worden State Park, a historic former military base in Port Townsend and the spectacular coastal backdrop for the movie An Officer and a Gentleman, is a learning family’s dream. All summer, Centrum, an arts center based at Fort Worden, runs workshops in everything from singing to jazz to fiddle and swing music. Kids ages 13 and older are welcome to participate in the summer music workshops; some of the workshops also including a “kids track” for younger children. In your downtime, explore Fort Worden’s lovely beaches, its historic bunkers or the charming Victorian town of Port Townsend.

You can also take a family woodworking class at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking, such as a two-day class in July in which families work together to build a birdhouse. Or take an art class at the Port Townsend School of the Arts.

Stay: Stay at Fort Worden in one of the former officer’s houses (book early) or rent a house in Port Townsend.

4. Go fish: Suncadia Resort

Suncadia Resort, located 80 miles east of Seattle, is a perfect base camp from which your family can explore all kinds of outdoor adventures while staying in the comforts of a resort.

For example, learn to fly-fish with the resort’s “walk and wade” guided fly-fishing trips, available anytime, with instruction from Troutwater on the nearby Cle Elum and Yakima rivers; the trips are suitable for the whole family. Kids can also take fly-fishing classes designed just for them.

You can also enjoy a trail ride by horseback with the resort’s partner, Three Peaks Outfitters, or go river rafting on the Cle Elum River, with a kid-friendly meal included. Or rent a bike and explore the resort’s miles of paved trails, with or without a guide; book some relaxation time at the spa; or take a dip in an outdoor or indoor swimming pool, which boasts an exciting waterslide.

If you want the kids to learn while you relax, Suncadia offers Campcadia for guests ages 4–12 for full-day or half-day sessions of activities such as canoeing, arts and crafts, and hiking.

Stay: Accommodations range from units at The Lodge at Suncadia, starting at $199, to entire vacation homes that rent for much more.

Learning adventures, we’ve found, lead to great family stories that become even better in the retelling.

5. Sail away: Adventuress

Want to spend your family vacation sailing around the San Juan Islands while learning about Puget Sound’s spectacular environment? Nonprofit Sound Experience offers just this dream vacation on its historic 133-foot-long schooner, Adventuress, with trips departing from Anacortes.

More than 100 years old, Adventuress is a National Historic Landmark, a sailing ship that carries 24 participants and a crew of 11–13. Kids will get in touch with their inner pirate while learning a variety of sailing skills — and even have a chance to climb the rigging. In addition to being the perfect setting for gaining sailing skills, Adventuress is an on-water environmental lab and classroom that offers hands-on lessons on issues affecting Puget Sound.

At night, guests stay in cozy, dormitory-style bunk accommodations, with delicious vegetarian meals prepared in the ship’s licensed kitchen galley.

Options include a three-day member vacation from Aug. 25 to Aug. 27 for parents with kids ages 8 and over ($1,170 for a family of four); or a “Road Scholar Intergenerational” trip from July 16 to July 21 or from July 30 to Aug. 4 ($899 per adult and $749 per child) that’s aimed at grandparents and grandkids. Fees include lodging, meals and instruction; kids must be 10 or older. Sign up to be a member ($120 for a household) and you’ll also get access to three-hour sailing trips from various Northwest ports, including Seattle, year around.

6. Forage and play: Alderbrook Resort and Spa

Stay at Alderbrook Resort and Spa on Hood Canal this summer, less than two hours by car from Seattle, and your family can learn to forage on a weekly free, guided tour led by one of the resort’s chefs. Take a hike into the beautiful surrounding forests to learn how to identify and gather wild berries, mushrooms, nettles and more. Then enjoy a chef-led cooking demo and eat some of the bounty.

Alderbrook also offers complimentary outdoor art classes for the whole family, and boasts a heated indoor swimming pool, spa and a waterfront activity center with kayaks and paddleboards. Or play hike and seek by going geocaching on the property; Alderbrook offers complimentary GPS devices. You can also sign up for family-friendly outdoor activities in nearby Olympic National Park, including a four-hour hike on the popular Staircase Loop Trail with a guide.

Stay: Lodging options at the resort in the summer include view rooms for four from $249 and charming cottages for $500 a night.

Beach time: Surfsand Resort Photo credit: Surfsand Resort

7. Surf’s up! Cannon Beach and Seaside, Oregon

Who needs Hawaii? Learn to surf this summer on the Oregon coast at beautiful Cannon Beach or Seaside. Cannon Beach Surf offers personalized, private surfing lessons to families with kids ages 4 and older who can swim. Lessons start at $125 per person for two and half hours, and there are discounts for additional participants. Just a few minutes north of Cannon Beach in Seaside, Oregon Surf Adventures offers instruction for would-be surfers all summer, including a free family surf camp in partnership with the nonprofit organization Seaside Oregon Family Adventures Surfing on June 30.

While in Cannon Beach, also try a Farm and Sea Discover Tour with Astoria’s Dirty Tours, which spotlights the little-known world of coastal agriculture, with stops at family lavender, dairy and organic farms; oyster farms; and microbreweries ($100/person, which includes a boxed lunch).

More epic family activities abound: Ride horses on the beach on a trail ride with Cannon Beach’s Sea Ranch Stables; stretch out at a yoga class at Cannon Beach Yoga Arts; or get creative at an art summer camp, with classes for the whole family for ages 3 and older, July 10–14, 2017, offered by the Cannon Beach Arts Association.

Stay: Surfsand Resort, adjacent to Cannon Beach Surf, is a dog-friendly resort beloved by Northwest families for its location right on the beach, complimentary kid activities, beach cruiser bikes, evening beach fires with s’mores and indoor pool and free meals for kids ages 10 and younger when the family dines at the resort’s Wayfarer Restaurant. For families that want more space, privacy and full kitchens, houses are available to rent through Beachcomber Vacation Homes.

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