Planning and Pulling off a Family Trip
Updated: Aug 5
When my sister and I first talked about doing a family trip, we were feeling fairly ambitious. We imagined that we could plan a shortened and relaxed version of one of our typical trips. “Sibling Trip Lite,” perhaps. Maybe instead of 15 miles per day, we’d do 10 per day at a much-reduced pace. But when I FaceTimed my folks to discuss options it became immediately clear that family backpacking would require not just more concessions, but an entirely different approach to planning than I was used to.
I should first clarify that my parents are in pretty good shape for their age. My mom is 69 and my dad is 72 and hiking long distances while carrying weight is not normally a big deal for them. But in February my dad had a pretty gnarly crash while skiing and tore his Achilles, so he’s still recovering. Not fully understanding the implications of this injury and recovery, I started giving him some options over the phone as we scanned our respective maps.
How far is it to Red Castle?” my dad asked.
“Oh, probably 10 miles each direction," I guessed.
“That’s too much,” he quickly responded. “What about Amethyst Lake?”
“I think that one might be six and a half each direction,” I responded.
“That’s a little better,” he said.
“Take a look at Allsop Lake,” I suggested.
“Isn’t that a further drive?” my dad asked.
“Yeah, maybe 30 minutes further,” I admitted.
“That’s too far.”
It started to become clear to me that one of my dad’s primary backpacking trip qualifications, aside from it being an Achilles-friendly jaunt, was convenience. My mom said that she was after “the whole backpacking experience: camping, cooking, hiking, exercise, and being together.” Listening to these qualifications, I abandoned my attempt to find an isolated and quiet spot in the mountains, and we eventually settled on a loop in the heart of the busiest part of the Uintas, just off of Mirror Lake Highway. I told them that we might not find much solitude there, but they weren’t at all worried about that. Convenience, aesthetic beauty, and family togetherness held precedence over any other values. I was starting to understand how to plan a family trip.
When the day of the trip arrived, I had a morning errand to run so my mom, dad, and sister left before me. “Alright, see you at Meadow Lake,” I said as they pulled out of the driveway waving. By 4:30 I was at the trailhead making a last-minute decision to carry a couple of heavy beers because family trips are more about gathering together and enjoying food and drink than they are about packing light and walking far.
I stepped onto the dusty trail below indigo clouds and the massive gray dome of Bald Mountain and followed their recognizable footprints west. Streaks of blue virga tried to fall somewhere and the wind suggested their soon arrival. Boardwalks cut across meadows with blooming false hellebore, various paintbrushes, lupine, daisies, asters, and yarrow, so I knew my mom would be happy when I reached Meadow Lake a couple of hours later.
Miraculously, the lake we chose was not all that busy. Besides the four of us, there were only two other groups: a pair of fishermen nearby and a strangely quiet group of boy scouts on the far side of the lake. Once we had eaten and chores were over, my mom, sister, and I walked out to the edge of the lake and looked out over the water and the mounds of gray quartz-sandstone domes beyond. A hole must have opened in the clouds somewhere in the west because suddenly a persimmon light melted across the mountains.
“Alpenglow,” I casually noted. My mom looked straight up. She scanned the clouds straight above, gray and uneventful. Then her head lowered and it hit her.
“Oh wow!” she exclaimed. She yelled for my dad and asked me if I thought it would last.
“I ain’t God,” I had to admit. I have no idea how the world works.
She dashed back to camp to get my dad who was already walking towards us. He nodded, somewhat impressed.
The next day’s hike would take us over a pass where bluebell and columbine grew from cracks in the rock. It was slow going for my mom, easily distracted by pale, salmon-colored paintbrush. On the other side, we would leave the official trail for two miles in order to close the loop. I had walked this section before and knew my parents could handle it. Late afternoon we quit the trail at another flowery meadow and then followed the smooth polish of a glacial moraine into the forest.
It started out mellow enough, with evidence of trails here and there, disappearing where dead lodgepole had fallen across it or where bright green whortleberries had grown over it, making me wonder again and again if there ever even was a trail or if each spot of bare ground longer than about 10 feet simply sparked my imagination. But even where there was no ghost trail, the terrain was easy. At least I thought so.
We went slowly out of necessity. I checked on my dad frequently and he seemed to be doing just fine. He said that his feet were sore but that the off-trail hiking wasn’t a big deal as long as he took it easy so that he could be mindful of each step. Again remembering that a primary goal of the trip was for everyone to have a good time, emotions such as impatience became impossible. This is one of the most important things to remember about family trips. When mutual enjoyment becomes one of the things most valued, all decisions thereafter can be made with that value as the foundation.
Descending another steep slope through fallen trees and big gray rocks I began to hear my mom making subtle noises that sounded vaguely like frustration. My sister and I both heard the message loud and clear as if an alarm had sounded and turned around simultaneously and walked back to her to ask if she was alright. She said that she was tired and sore and hot, and the subtext was that she didn’t feel particularly comfortable with the uncertainty of off-trail hiking.
At the bottom of the hill, we found the lake I’d been shooting for, a nameless pool of solitude bounded on all sides by lush meadow. This was where I wanted to camp because it was one mile from an established trail in each direction, meaning it was nearly guaranteed to be far from the screams of boy scouts. My dad immediately took off his shoes while my mom silently walked the edge of the lake searching for possible campsites. While my dad said that he was sore and tired and ready to be done, my mom returned with less than a five-star review of the place. Too buggy. I told them that it was up to them, that I just wanted everyone to be happy.
Right away my dad started putting his shoes back on and we began to navigate toward the nearest maintained trail and Dean Lake. I could tell that taking a compass bearing and heading nearly due east further stressed my mom. It was something about the uncertainty inherent in statements like “This seems like the best way,” or “Let’s try this.” I began to wonder if it would be easier on those prone to uncertainty-stress to make navigational declarations with more certainty, or if off-trail travel should just be reserved for those less stressed by the unknown. Likely I should have planned an even simpler, on-trail loop. Oh well. Now I know.
It only took 45 minutes to reach the lake and my mom, sister, and I jumped in right away to cool down. I laid back and drifted out into the cool water, gazing up at the endless blue. I knew right away that this moment, this shared sensation, would be the high point of the trip, the part we would talk about the most when it was over. My dad, having taken the time to gather a towel and dry clothes, missed the sun window and walked up to the shore of the lake just as we were exiting the water and the ground was darkening with the shadow of a big, blue storm cloud. He half-heartedly tried to lower his body in anyway, muttering, “I hate cold water.”
The next morning, as my mom was cleaning Cream of Wheat out of her pot, she said, “We did it, we pulled it off. It was a good trip. Very pretty and not too busy.”
The prior day’s off-trail frustration seemed to be mostly forgotten as it was not mentioned at all in her optimistic summary. For me, that was the real accomplishment. The recipe for a good family trip—at least for this family—is short, moderately easy days, convenience, aesthetic beauty, good food, and togetherness. A sense of accomplishing something difficult should not be considered; I can save those inclinations for my own time. I had felt trepidation about the possible crowds and high-pitched wails of boy scouts, but even if these things had come to fruition, it would not have mattered as much as convenience, beauty, and togetherness. I’m now pretty sure I know how to plan a family trip. Let this writing serve as a reminder next year, because, as my mom told me, she now wants us all to do the Uinta Highline Trail.
Written by Ben Kilbourne
You can check out more of Ben's work on his blog benkilbourne.com