Rafting in Laurel Highlands
Courtesy: Go Laurel Highlands

9 Actually Eco-Friendly Activities for Families

Choose an eco-friendly destination—or even an Earth-sensitive day out—and you can accomplish several things at once. You’re helping the planet (especially if you choose a regenerative tour or project), you’re teaching your kids about nature, and you all get to have fun. After all, even the most screen-obsessed child can find delight in animals and the outdoors.

We chose several lesser-known spots across the U.S. where your family can learn about the environment, interact with wildlife and even help restore eco-systems.

Tennessee Safari Park

Alamo, Tennessee 

Zebras approaching a car in in Tennessee Safari Park
Courtesy: Tennessee Safari Park

This 5.5 mile car tour is located on a farm about halfway between Memphis and Nashville, making it a great option for families visiting either vibrant metro area. The team at the safari park focuses on robust breeding programs for a variety of endangered species and exotic hoofed animals. The space—the park occupies some 250-acres—facilitates breeding and conservation efforts that might be more challenging at a zoo, and the park works with many U.S. zoos and reintroduction programs to help increase the populations of various species. Kids can feed zebras, ostriches, and more as well as see lemurs, gazelles, kangaroos, and dozens of other creatures. tennesseesafaripark.com

Marine Discovery Center

New Smyrna Beach, Florida 

Children on boat tour with Marine Discovery Center
Courtesy:Marine Discovery Center

The Marine Discovery Center, located in a quaint ocean town on the Atlantic coast a short drive from Daytona or Orlando, has been working to restore the coastline, salt marshes, and estuaries of the Indian River and Ponce de Leon inlet since 2001.  They want visitors to experience “hands-on, feet-wet education” and conservation programming that emphasize Florida’s real ecosystems. They have a land-based discovery center with a nature trail and wildflower and butterfly gardens, and are known for their boat and kayak tours. The two-hour sunset cruise is a great choice for families, and showcases dolphins, roosting birds, and even manatees when the water is warm. If all the learning works up an appetite, the iconic JB’s Fish Camp is a popular family-friendly local spot along the Indian River. marinediscoverycenter.org

McKinney Roughs Nature Park

Cedar Creek, Texas

kids learning about snakes in McKinney Roughs Nature Park
Courtesy: LCRA Parks

There is plenty of adventure to be found in the Lower Colorado River Association park system, which comprises more than 11,000 acres of preserved land along the lower Colorado River, Guided nature tours with trained naturalists in the McKinney Roughs Nature Park teach kids about the natural world along the river– and how to survive in it. From what plants are edible to tips to build a shelter, children will leave feeling emboldened to continue exploring the natural world around them. lcra.org

Sea Turtle Hospital

Marathon Key, Florida 

juvenille leatherback turle at turtle hospital
Courtesy: Sea Turtle Hospital

Sea turtle populations have drastically declined due to humans disturbing their breeding grounds and affecting their habitats. They are also often caught accidentally in fishing nets. The Sea Turtle Hospital, located about halfway down the Florida Keys, is a terrific hands-on experience for families who are interested in increasing sea turtle populations. From hatching eggs safely to repairing shells damaged by boat motors, every action at the hospital is committed to these creatures’ well being. The hospital even has a turtle ambulance that rushes to the scene when an injured or sick animal is discovered. turtlehospital.org

Maui Ocean Center

Wailuku, Hawaii

Learning about marine life at Maui Ocean Center
Courtesy: Maui Ocean Center

This ocean center on the island of Maui has a broad range of programs for kids of all ages. As members of the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii, every action they take is centered on preserving the unique ecosystem of the Hawaiian islands. Take their behind the scenes tour to learn about coral spawning and how the marine naturalists care for and propagate sealife to replenish the damage to the natural ecosystem. A stay at the Four Seasons on Maui includes programs at the ocean center as part of their “edu-vacation” programs. Mauioceancenter.com

Mount Pisgah Arboretum

Eugene, Oregon 

Mount Pisgah Arboretum water garden Credit Melanie Griffin
Photo: Melanie Griffin

This 210-acre protected area in the Willamette Valley hosts a variety of family-friendly eco tours with themes such as pollinators, pond life, how plants talk to one another, and more. Kids will do activities such as crafts and learn how to be good ambassadors for the natural world around them. For families looking to stay in the area and explore more of the nature that Oregon has to offer, check out the restored vintage travel trailers park at The Vintages– recycling has never looked better. mountpisgaharboretum.org

McKenzie Regenerative Travel Project

Springfield, Oregon

Boy replaning trees in McKenzie River Valley
Courtesy: McKenzie Regenerative Travel Project

The McKenzie Regenerative Travel Project is Part of a new movement in ecotourism. Volunteers who travel to this area of the Pacific Northwest will actually participate in restoration of the McKenzie River Valley, which was decimated by the Holiday Farm Fire in 2020. Naturalists from First Nature Tours create tours with service activities, lodging, meals at local restaurants, and more. Kids can actually be a part of rebuilding the national forest as they learn about wildlife restoration and preservation, trail building, and more. cascadevols.org

Youghiogheny Float Trips

Laurel Highlands, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania

Rafting in Laurel Highlands
Courtesy: Go Laurel Highlands

This river boasts some of the wildest white water in America, and also some very calm sections that allow families to observe the ecology along this unique northern-flowing river. In fact the name itself means “a stream flowing in a contrary direction.” Rafts are guided by knowledgeable naturalists who can explain everything, assist with portage of the boats at each end and provide a packed lunch. This area is heavy in cabins and campgrounds of all varieties, ranging from swanky rentals to family-friendly Yogi Bear’s Jellystone campgrounds featuring a plethora of water slides and activities. laurelhighlands.com

Lost World Caverns

Lewisburgh, West Virginia

Lost World Caverns
Courtesy: West Virginia Department of Tourism

We usually think of ecosystems as being above ground—but there’s plenty hiding below as well. Kids and their grownups can venture 120 feet below the earth’s service in this historic cave that was discovered 80 years ago. The tour takes approximately 45 minutes, and the cave is a chilly 52 degrees year round, so dress accordingly. A guide sheet helps families identify different formations such as The Snowy Chandelier, a 30-ton compound stalactite that is presumed to be one of the largest in the country. A variety of living creatures can be found inside the cave ecosystem, as well as fossils and precious stones. The caverns are just a one hour jaunt from the nation’s newest national park, New River Gorge National Park, which is full of ecological marvels, lodging, and more. wvtourism.com

Meg St-Esprit is a journalist based in Pittsburgh who covers travel, parenting, education, and housing.