Summertime is the time to go big, travel, and make once in a lifetime family memories. Or that’s what everybody says.
So what if you’re not lucky enough to have a week of paid vacation? Or the idea of planning and packing for a big family trip is so stressful that it throws you into an ice cream binge? Are our kids missing out because their summer isn’t some bucket list national tour? I say no.
Luckily, you don’t need to go into a sugar coma from all the stress of planning outdoor family adventures. They’re right at your back door! No week long road trip or credit card debt required.
It’s easy to overlook what’s right in our backyard but public lands are the easiest cheapest and closest outdoor family adventures you can have.
Public lands are just what the name says, lands by owned by us — the public. This includes national lands like National Parks, wildlife refuges, scenic byways, and monuments. But it also includes our state and local parks. They’re everywhere!
So what are the benefits of these public lands over some big road trip?
There are close.
You don’t need a planning session to get there. You just need a half a day and an adventurous spirit.
Being closer costs less in gas money but many are also FREE entrance as well. Our taxpayer dollars have already gone into these lands so why not use them? When there are entrance fees, they’re pretty reasonable, especially compared to some theme park I can think of that’s a popular summer visit. And there are discounted state and national passes like the Every Kid in a Park program (current 4th graders) and the America the Beautiful annual passes.
You get more time together.
A small jaunt means you can go every weekend!. And when family time should be measured in quantity and not Pinterest-worthy quality that makes a big difference.
It’s a new and unexpected adventure.
When you head to all the usual summer vacation spots, you know what you’re getting into and you know what to expect. Which is great sometimes. But when you head out into public lands you will find something new and unexpected.
You might actually learn something.
Public lands do not just give you recreation, many will teach you about area history or culture. Here in Oregon, we have lighthouses, ghost towns, and caves. Not to mention all the interpretive signs like the one we read about burial customs on Memaloose Island at Memaloose State Park.
One of my kids favorite stops this summer visiting family was the Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite near Greybull, Wyoming. Now I grew up in that area and have never stopped there before but we saw the sign and pulled over.
And it was great! It was a short stopover of only a couple hours and just five miles out of the way we were already headed. We saw fossilized dinosaur tracks, got a little bit of area history, and took home a few shell fossils (allowed per the sign at the sight). The kids were ecstatic, showing everyone their fossils and explaining all about the little prehistoric shrimp digging in the ancient lake bed. It ranks right up there for our summer adventures even though it made barely a blip on the “big trip meter”.
Where to find public lands
Now that I’ve convinced you that you need to get a taste of your public lands TODAY, how do you actually find them? Where do we find some of these hidden gems that are, well… hidden.
Unfortunately I haven’t found any great all-in-one public land list for the United States but luckily our national and state governments have a pretty good list. You just have to know where to look for it.
Social media is a great place to get inspiration for local family outtings. Just follow your local agencies and see what they are posting. Like this sea star posted by Oregon State Parks (@oregonstateparks) on Instagram. The caption highlighted the guided tidepool walks at some of the coastal state parks. Didn’t even know they were available!!
Public Lands websites
Check out these other websites and apps to find public land near you!
There are just too many local parks for me to list here but there are certainly hidden gems there as well. So search around and see what your county and city have to offer.