There's nothing quite like tucking a marshmallow-smeared, dirt-covered, thoroughly exhausted kid into a sleeping bag and hearing him murmur, "This was the best day, ever." It's camping, of course, an opportunity to trundle children, dogs, tents and food into Alaska's woodland areas for a little outdoor vacationing.
My own youthful summers included nights spent in an enormous canvas tent that kept our family warm and mostly dry as we toured coastal rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. My brother and sister and I built forts in stumps, caught rainbow trout from placid alpine lakes and played tag among vine maple trees, collapsing at night in our flannel-lined sleeping bags.
That kind of enthusiasm is easy to find while camping, and it doesn't take much to keep kids happy, even within a structured campground. Most children are satisfied with nature's play equipment in the form of rocks, sticks, water or an abundance of dirt. Add ancillary activities like trails, visitor centers, or canoe excursions, and an outdoor world around them suddenly expands.
We're lucky; the 49th state offers hundreds of campgrounds that range from spartan to fancy. It's a worthwhile family activity, even with very young children. Advancements in weatherproof clothing, shelters and planning tools make spending a night or two in Alaska's great outdoors easier than ever.
An excellent resource is the Alaska Public Lands Information Centers, located in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Tok, and Ketchikan. Joanne Welch, manager of the Anchorage center, says their goal is to provide the resources parents need to plan a great campout experience. Camping sites range from basic accommodations to flushing toilets to scheduled activities.
"With kids and camping, sometimes it's just about asking questions to select a location that best fits a family's personal needs," she said.
Try these five Alaska campground destinations, especially if you are new to camping, Alaska or parenting. All offer a range of services and access, and most accept recreational vehicles as well. Be sure to check with land management agencies before departing from home, however, as conditions or crowds can change rather quickly in many areas. Also be aware that not all campgrounds accept reservations, and holiday weekends fill up fast -- including the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.
Riley Creek Campground, Denali National Park
Located just inside the park entrance, Riley Creek is Denali's largest campground, with 147 sites serving both tents and RVs. Enjoy access to biking and walking trails, a small mercantile and National Park Service visitor services. Riley Creek also hosts nightly campfire programs, a great way for kids learn about Denali National Park's animals and history (www.nps.gov/dena). Reservations can be made through Aramark/Doyon, 800-622-7275. Nightly rates range from $14 per tent, $28 for large RVs. Open year-round, with no fees collected Labor Day through mid-May.
Eklutna Lake Campground, Alaska State Parks
Extremely popular with Southcentral Alaska families, Eklutna bustles from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. Located 26 miles from Anchorage near the Glenn Highway, with hiking, biking, kayaking and fishing on-site, Eklutna Lake Campground has 60 spots within easy reach of activities. Only the group site is available for reservations, so weekends can get crowded. It's worth it, though, since kids have tons of fun meeting up with friends, swimming and noshing on campfire-style dinners under towering trees. Kayaking for all ages and abilities is available through Lifetime Adventures (lifetimeadventures.net) and the Eklutna Lake Trail is 11 miles of cycling adventure, even for new mountain bikers (dnr.alaska.gov/parks/aspunits/chugach/eklutnalkcamp.htm). Fees are $10 per night plus a $5 a day parking fee if you don't have an Alaska State Parks permit.
Williwaw Campground, Chugach National Forest
Nestled in scenic Portage Valley, this campground offers tons of accessible family fun. Watch salmon swim from the Williwaw Creek viewing platform, or bike along the Trail of Blue Ice that leads all the way to Begich, Boggs Visitor Center at Portage Lake. With 60 sites suitable for tent or RV camping, Williwaw is a nice option for those wanting to take a day cruise from nearby Whittier or to establish a base camp for other Portage Valley activities. Reservations accepted, opens May 21 for 2014 season, $18 per single site. (Visit reserveamerica.com/camping and search for "Williwaw Campground.)
Tenderfoot Creek, Chugach National Forest
Need a little wow-factor? Tenderfoot Creek campground sits along placid Summit Lake near the top of Turnagain Pass, with sweeping views of surrounding mountains. Enjoy calls from loons, eagles, and kids as you canoe, fish or kayak these calm waters. The campground was recently renovated and provides gravel pads for tents and ample space for RVs. In addition to the miles of hiking trails available, it's a nice walk or bike ride to nearby Summit Lake Lodge for an after-dinner ice cream. Reservations can be made, but with only 35 sites, it's best to shop ahead. Opens May 21 for 2014 season. (Visit www.recreation.gov and search for "Tenderfoot Creek.")
Fort Abercrombie, Alaska State Parks
Located on Kodiak Island, this campground requires a bit of effort to reach, but once there, visitors receive a hands-on lesson in both history and environmental science in one very special place. Fort Abercrombie's campground is small, with only 13 sites that can be a tight squeeze for RVs, but it's a delightful place for tent camping. Enjoy beachcombing with the help of a state park naturalist, and be sure to visit the Kodiak Military History Museum overlooking historic WWII coastal defense structures. Listed on the national Register of Historic Places, this park and campground are well worth the extra time it takes to get there. Camping is only $10 per night, and the property is first-come, first-served. Pack up the kids and caboodle and sail aboard the Alaska Marine Highway to Kodiak (www.ferryalaska.com), or fly Alaska Airlines (www.alaskaair.com) or Ravn (www.ravnalaska.com) from Anchorage. (dnr.alaska.gov/parks). Open now.
Wherever you roam this summer, take along Welch's advice in order to make the most of any camping adventure. "Kids won't forget a camping experience. Cooking outside, waking up in the cool morning inside a warm sleeping bag, and sharing a natural environment, together. That's the stuff that counts."
Erin Kirkland is author of "Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th State with Children" and publishes AKontheGO.com, about family travel in Alaska. She lives in Anchorage.
Want to go? Try these tips for a successful campout
-- Plan ahead: In Anchorage, the Alaska Public Lands Information Center is located at 605 W. Fourth Avenue. Find directions to individual campgrounds, or purchase a handy campground map for $1 (alaskacenters.gov). If camping is a new activity for your family, consider testing your outdoor mettle at a campground close to home before venturing out for extended overnights.
-- Pack well: Camping with kids means lots of outdoor time, so clothing should be warm, waterproof and durable (or at least washable). Always bring boots or sandals for wading, long underwear for chilly days and hats for warm nights. One parent I know puts her kids in snow pants at night for an extra toasty sleeping bag experience. Long sleeves are helpful against Alaska's mosquito population as well.
-- Cooking is half the fun: What is camping without marshmallows, camper stew or bacon-wrapped-anything? Social media has introduced campfire cooking that rivals fine dining, but preparation is key. I chop and mix or freeze as many ingredients as possible before to leaving home, then allow our son to assist at the camp stove or fire pit. Plan for lots and lots of eating; appetites are strong in the great outdoors. Try recipes from the Alaska From Scratch blog (alaskafromscratch.com/2012/05/28/memorial-weekend-camping-trip/) or Campside Chef (campsidechef.com).
-- Set the scene: Camping is as much about atmosphere as it is location. Bring toys, card games, blank journals and crayons or markers, glow sticks for nighttime reading in the tent or RV (even in Alaska), craft supplies and musical instruments. Turn off technology, or better yet, lock it in the car. This is family time.
-- Mind the critters: Alaska's wild things enjoy the leavings of car campers like leftover food, smelly socks and half-finished sippy cups. Do your fellow human guests a favor and keep a clean camp, storing everything in a vehicle when not in use. Practice appropriate bear-aware behavior as shared by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (adfg.alaska.gov), and ask kids to be helpers in this endeavor.
By ERIN KIRKLAND
Daily News correspondent