Fun with kids
Want to have a good time with your children? Then go back to basics.
© Beth Gauper
A girl jumps on the rocks that line Duluth's Canal Park.
When it comes to travel, it costs a lot less to make kids happy than parents think.
Oh, kids are happy to let adults spend money on big-ticket trips — Disney World, Six Flags, the Wisconsin Dells.
But what do they prefer? It's elemental, my dear parents: rocks, water and sand.
No matter where I took my own kids, they always gravitated to places where they could poke around on their own — cobblestone beaches, sand dunes, river gorges, rock outcroppings.
When they were little, they'd squat and start sifting through pebbles wherever we'd stop. When they were older, they'd eschew arcades and entertainment centers to jump between boulders or slide down dunes. It was amusing — and easy on the wallet, too.
When they got older, I had them rate the local trips we've taken over the years, and their choices were surprising. The Badlands and Black Hills were the top pick for Peter ("Climbing is fun," he wrote on his survey), followed by Duluth ("climbing") and Milwaukee, where we climbed on lakefront rocks and saw a Brewers game.
For Madeleine, Minnesota's North Shore was No. 1 ("so fun"), followed by a tie between Duluth ("Everybody loves Duluth"), the Circle Tour of Lake Michigan ("very good trip") and Door County ("lots to do; beautiful").
Wisconsin Dells made their Top 10, barely, but the Boundary Waters and Circus World Museum in Baraboo didn't, though I know they liked them.
It could be because those places don't have a lot of rocks, but I think it's also because the "attractions" aren't as attractive to kids as their own explorations. My kids, anyway, would rather explore on their own than be shepherded around by a parent or guide.
Their favorite week of the year is spent at a lake resort in northern Minnesota, because they get cut loose to find their own fun. The place has everything they like: rocks, water and sand, plus other kids.
When they were little, they splashed in the water and played with a shovel and bucket in the sand. When they grew older, they swam to the raft, paddled kayaks and biked on the nearby trail. Now, they play cutthroat volleyball, hang out in the wood-fired sauna and stay up late with the other teens.
© Beth Gauper
Children play along the Oak Street Beach in Chicago.
Whatever it is, the kids decide what they'll do. One year at our lake resort, kids were flitting all over the place as I sat on the beach with Michelle Rademacher of Blaine, whose young daughter, Carly, rarely was seen without a fishing rod in her hand.
"We went to Disney World this year, and I asked my kids, 'If you could go to Disney World or the cabin, which would you pick?'" Rademacher said. "And they said, 'The cabin.' "
My children's Aunt Lynn lives in Orlando, so they've done Disney and more. They've seen the sights in Europe and Mexico as well as New York, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, Arizona and Washington, D.C. But if they had to pick one place to go, it'd be Minnesota lakes country in a heartbeat.
For them, that's where all good things come together. This area has a lot of the things kids like best,and here are some of them.
Use search engines to find a resort you'll like: On the Congress of Minnesota Resorts web site, for example, I get eight possibilities when I ask for a housekeeping resort that's near a bicycle trail and has a playground, sandy swimming beach, recreation room, lodge and sauna.
If I leave out the sauna, it gives me 45 resorts.
If you can't afford a week at a resort — expect to pay $1,000 for a nice two-bedroom cabin for four at a good resort — ask about partial weeks; many resorts allow short stays at the end of summer.
© Beth Gauper
A child plays on the rocks in Gooseberry Falls State Park on Minnesota's North Shore.
Some campsites in national and state forests have their own pine-fringed beaches, like the ones on Cass Lake's South Pike Bay, which is on the paved, 17-mile Migizi Trail, where kids can bike or skate.
There's just something about kids and rocks. My kids have loved them ever since they could crawl, maybe because they were both so close to the ground. Even today, my tech-loving daughter is thrilled by ordinary pieces of basalt, not to mention quartz and agates.
Duluth is a lode of climbing rocks, which can be found along the shoreline in Canal Park and also on the eastern
edge of town, on Brighton Beach in Kitchi-Gammi Park (see Duluth rocks!).
Farther up the North Shore, the volcanic outcroppings of Lighthouse Point in Two Harbors are good for clambering around, and so is the rock at Gooseberry Falls State Park (bring old sneakers or water shoes).
The pebble beach in front of Lutsen Lodge holds all kinds of treasures, and agate-seekers should check out the mouth of the Beaver River, just east of Beaver Bay, and Cutface Creek Wayside, west of Grand Marais (see Beaches of the North Shore).
The best playground of all is Artists Point in Grand Marais, a collection of cobblestones Peter once called "my idea
of the perfect place to play" (see Charismatic Grand Marais).
If you have time, keep going into Ontario and around to Michigan and Wisconsin: The Circle Tour of Lake Superior is
one of the very best trips to take with kids, even small ones, because there's always a pebble beach to stop at.
For older kids and adults, there are fur posts, shipwrecks, lighthouses and ore boats to watch. For more, see Circling Superior.
For a special trip, head west to the Badlands, whose stark moonscape of peaks, gullies and buttes fascinate children, especially those who are fans of "Star Trek" and "Star Wars."
Eighty miles farther west, go into Custer State Park on the Needles Highway to climb at Cathedral Spires, where kids can scramble among the rocks like the mountain goats that live nearby.
If you go in late summer, you also may see bison bulls in dramatic displays of rutting. But be careful — not only will these big boys have no time for tourists, but they're also a lot faster than they look and can turn on a dime.
For a trip in Minnesota, drive over to Interstate State Park at Taylors Falls, where your little Pebbles and Bam-Bam
can explore a rocky playground that includes the Devil's Parlor, the Bake Oven and the 67-foot Bottomless Pit
(see Sightseeing on the St. Croix
Sights of the St. Croix).
In Wisconsin, just south of the Dells, explore Devil's Lake State Park (see Devil's heaven).
© Beth Gauper
At Crow Wing Crest resort in northern Minnesota, children take a running leap off a raft.
When my daughter said the Circle Tour of Lake Michigan was her second-favorite trip, I was shocked, because she's generally not fond of following her mother from one new place to another.
But she liked it all, citing the meat pasties on the Upper Peninsula, the hilltop fort and pebble beaches of Mackinac Island and the sand at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (see Lake Michigan with kids).
Unlike Minnesota's North Shore, the leeward side of Lake Michigan has sand, tons of sand. It's lined by beaches, including
Sleeping Bear Dunes, a 35-mile-long playground.
Kids in particular like to do the Dune Climb, up a 150-foot inland dune that seems to rise out of nowhere (see Grand sand).
They like to walk to the 450 Dune, a sheer wall of sand that falls 450 feet into Lake Michigan. They like to hang out at the mouth of the Platte River, where they can run down small dunes into the crystal-clear water and dart between the warm Platte and cold Lake Michigan.
My friend Rebecca took her three children on a trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes, camping in the state parks that line the coast, and she reports they adored the dunes — climbing and digging but mostly playing soccer on them, even sacrificing swim time so they could play more.
And of course, they loved taking the S.S. Badger car ferry across Lake Michigan between Ludington, Mich., and Manitowoc, Wis.
© Beth Gauper
In Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, girls run into the Platte River near its mouth on Lake Michigan.
There are more big dunes on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in the little fishing village of Grand Marais. Just to the west,
at the edge of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the 300-foot Grand Sable Dunes rise at the edge of Grand Sable
Lake (see America's freshwater Riviera).
They're a stop on the Circle Tour of Lake Superior. On the other end of the national lakeshore, in the town of Munising, there's a good swimming beach at Sand Point, with a delicate 50-foot waterfall to see on the way (see Michigan's Pictured Rocks).
In Duluth, hike the four-mile Park Point Trail, on the spit of sand that created Duluth-Superior Harbor.
Starting at the airport, across the Aerial Lift Bridge from Canal Park, it passes through a thicket of red pine and emerges
onto sand dunes, which my kids like to schuss down on their feet, like snowboarders.
There are smaller dunes beyond, but watch out for poison ivy. At the end of the trail, at the Superior Entry, a breakwall
curves around a polished-pebble beach that also holds a trove of bleached driftwood (see Walking in Duluth).
Most of these places cost nothing to visit. Time, however, is precious. Go now, because soon enough, your kids will be gravitating not to rocks and sand but to iPods and cell phones. And that will be a hard place, indeed.
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