Watching your kids ‘ride the bull’ through whitewater for the first time, or ‘cowgirl up’ after bouncing off a horse, is the stuff of family memories. So, too, is learning something – how to navigate waters, harness wind, or find balance on uneasy terrain – in the natural elements of a place.

In that spirit, here are experiential trips to stretch comfort zones, forge bonds and immerse the whole family in learning regional American pastimes:

A Father pushes his little daughter into a wave on a surfboard.
Southern California is the ideal place to learn to surf, and most instructors offer group lessons. © Byba Sepit / Getty Images

Surf’s up, SoCal

In Southern California, surfing isn’t a subculture, it’s mainstream. Schools have surf teams, specially-designed parks encourage practice, even 'sharks' in suits catch waves before and after work.

Beach breaks along the greater San Diego shoreline are perfect for ‘popping a stand’, and surf lessons abound. For newbies, a 2-hour lesson is recommended to understand ocean wave mechanics and master the basics. Most instructors offer group lessons, perfect for you and your kids to tally wipeouts and wager on who will be the first to ride a wave.

The learning curve may be steep, so soak in the moment: dolphins cresting in the distance, pelicans skimming the surface, and your kids paddling hard for a wave.

After surfing, admire locally made boards at Surfy Surfy or Bing Surfboards in Encinitas. Savor a family day at Moonlight Beach and search tidepools for starfish and octopus at Swami. Birch Aquarium at Scripps in La Jolla is small, but its outdoor, ocean-view patio and hands-on exhibits are ideal for appreciating all things aquatic.

A group of horseback riders of all ages meanders through a meadow at the base of a mountain near Grand Teton National Park.
Driving cattle around the dude ranches of Wyoming demands grit and horsemanship. © Peter Adams / Getty Images

Wrangling in Wyoming

In some swaths of the American West, hillsides bloom with wildflowers and red rocks echo with hoof beats. Wyoming, with towns like Dubois (that claims it is ‘where real cowboys work and play’) wears a hard-earned belt buckle when it comes to saddling up in the wild west. The state also boasts some of the oldest dude ranches in America, putting the giddy in ‘giddyup’ for the cowboy and cowgirl at heart.

If it’s bow-legged swagger you’re after (and if you’re committed to the long haul), driving cattle through mountain meadows demands grit and horsemanship, but drums up thrill and meaning. Sharing hard rides and meals in a remote and humbling landscape segues smoothly to sharing stories and companionship.

Off the Dubois ranches, the Wind River Valley is a trove of geological and cultural wonders.  Yellowstone National Park, National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center and Dubois Historical Museum captivate young imaginations with petroglyphs, geysers and other remnants of olden days.

Dare the kids to enter the ‘mutton busting’ (sheep riding) competition at the summer rodeo in Dubois, or pick up fancy steps twirling and heel-toeing at the Tuesday night square dance sponsored by the Episcopal Church.

Looking up at a family of four in a ski lift chair, with two large sets of skis on the end representing parents and two small sets in between representing kids.
With a couple of lessons to practice turning and stopping, most people feel comfortable taking to some of the easier slopes in New Hampshire. © Noah Clayton / Getty Images

Snow sports in New Hampshire

When learning to ski or snowboard, the size of the mountain matters less than the time spent on the slopes. Accessibility makes the cluster of runs around North Conway, New Hampshire an ideal hub for beginners, and its small-town charisma serves up a quaint taste of New England.

Day one is awkward, with crossed skis, crashes, and bruised bottoms. But power through – with a couple lessons to practice turning and stopping, most folks feel comfortable gliding down cat tracks and beginner runs on their own. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

True snow bums go beyond snow-play, so meander to nearby resorts while nursing sore muscles. Exhilarate in a coaster ride at Cranmore. Cozy-up under wool blankets in a sleigh ride at King Pine. Zip through wooded pathways on a snowmobile at Bretton Woods, or set your own pace while snowshoeing and cross-country skiing at Whitaker Woods.

A young boy wearing a bright blue life jacket ties a rope on a sailboat, with the sail towering above him
Young shipmates can learn the language of sailing and knot-tying on the coastline of North Carolina. © Ann Cutting / Getty Images

Set sail: Inner & Outer Banks, North Carolina

There are few sensations as satisfying as the sound of wind filling a sail or the lift of a sailboat into movement. It’s especially nice when it’s your own crew chasing the air. Coastal North Carolina, with its gentle inlets, estuaries, sounds, and speckled rim of islands draws people to its waters, eager to catch their own wind or drop anchor on a beach accessible only by sea.

In towns like ‘Little’ Washington, New Bern and Oriental, Kids as young as 6 or 7 learn sailing in Optis or Sunfish. These small boats, capable of beach-launching, help beginners master technical skills. Great for tandem and relatively inexpensive to rent, a family beached along the Pamlico Sound could be sailing in no time.

For a more involved excursion, charter a boat and captain and spend your days and nights lulled by rocking waves. Young shipmates can learn the language of sailing and knot-tying.

On land, North Carolina treasures its maritime history. In addition to ocean life exhibits, Roanoke, Pine Knoll and Fort Fischer Aquariums house details of shipwrecks, pirates and hurricanes. Washington’s Estuarium displays antique commercial fishing and sailing boats. Beaufort’s Maritime Museum offers classes in wooden boat building, and the town performs an annual Pirate Invasion! Arrr!

A group of kids smile as they ride in a whitewater raft down a green river in a canyon in Idaho.
Whitewater outfitters guide and teach paddling along the river runs of Idaho. © Paul Richer / Getty Images

Paddling Idaho

Water carves the landscape of thirsty Idaho, snaking and shaping its way through tight canyons. Make your home base in Boise, Garden Valley, Donnelly-Cascade or McCall, and your family will be plugged into the central artery for paddling whitewater.

Winding alongside the Payette River, Highway 55 has put-ins for running everything from Class II novice waves to Class V expert rapids.

A handful of outfitters guide and teach along the Cabarton, Main, Lower Main, South Fork, and Canyon runs. After learning to read the river with a raft guide, up the ante by paddling solo in an inflatable or hard-boat kayak.

Off-days, picnic along beach banks and study experts maneuvering class V rapids on the North Fork. Or plan your trip around the North Fork Championship and spend a weekend camping, cheering and carousing with the world’s best. Kelly’s Whitewater Park in Cascade and Boise Whitewater Park are also exciting spots to catch boaters surfing and cartwheeling.

A father watches from a short distance as his small son learns to catch a wave while surfing close to the shoreline.
When learning a new skill starts to seem frustrating, take your cues from the indefatigable spirit of your children. © Stephen Simpson / Getty Images

Choose your own adventure

Gaining new skills involves its fair share of blunders, but when frustration creeps in on fun, turn to your kids. Their infectious zeal and willingness to fail will have you back in the saddle, or skis, or kayak in no time. These unique regional American pastimes, from every corner of the country, are sure-fire ways to make lasting family memories.

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