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Outdoor Hotspots for Youth Groups

Estes Park, Colorado

In Estes Park, Colorado, there are plenty of wild creatures around to captivate any group of wild teenagers. Elk, coyotes, raccoons, badgers and other animals can often be seen wandering the streets of this town of just over 6,000.

“One of the biggest draws to Estes Park is the fact that we are surrounded by so much protected land,” said Brooke Burnham, director of communications, public relations and social media for Visit Estes Park. “It makes the wildlife watching unparalleled.”

Considered the headquarters of Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes is the ideal location for those looking to experience the Colorado’s outdoor paradise. The park offers 350 miles of hiking trails, winding past waterfalls, canyons and even glaciers.

“A great way to experience it is on one of the only drop-and-ride bike trails in the state: Trail Ridge East,” said Burnham, “drop-and-ride” meaning that an outfitter, New Venture Cycling, drops off riders 12 and older from a van at an elevation of 12,000 feet and lets them cruise the 29 miles downhill back to the base — after a picnic lunch, of course.

Trail Ridge East, along with many other activities in Estes, is offered to groups Memorial day through October. If your crew is looking for a winter escape, the region offers enough winter sports to keep even the rowdiest group from getting cabin fever; snowshoeing, skating and even downhill skiing can be found about an hour to the south.

In a thriving outdoor resort town, groups might not consider the local YMCA as a prime choice for lodging, but believe it or not, it is, as Burnham said, “extremely popular.” She said the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the famous youth organization owns 800 acres of land and has facilities that include cabins and more hotel-like accommodations, an on-site cafe and cafeteria, a mini golf, and a zip line.

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

“The entire town is built on tourism, and it is an absolute paradise for teenagers,” said Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. It’s no surprise, then, that the city invested several years ago in a conference facility called the LeConte Center that can hold up to 12,000 people comfortably. The primary clientele? Youth groups.

Whether planning a trip around a large conference or rally, or simply looking for an accessible weekend getaway, youth groups of all sizes flock to Pigeon Forge. The town’s many rentable cabins, some that sleep groups of up to 50, are plentiful year-round and a popular choice for youth groups on a budget. Those looking for a slightly more upscale experience should consider Dolleywood’s DreamMore Resort, which just opened this past summer.

“Also, there’s this great hotel called the Inn at Christmas Place,” said Downey, “and every single room is decorated for Christmas 365 days out of the year.”

Another appealing feature of Pigeon Forge is that there is equally as much to do indoors as out, making it a great destination in sun, rain or snow. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most visited national park, is just miles outside of the city and offers groups hiking, fishing, biking and more.

Pigeon Forge also has plentiful indoor recreation opportunities. Two major attractions are Dolly Parton’s show “The Dixie Stampede,” which takes place over a five-course dinner, and WonderWorks, an indoor amusement park. This park — half museum, half theme park — lets youth experience what it would be like to be inside a tornado or a hurricane, putting an educational spin on wild rides.

New River Gorge, West Virginia

Canopy tours are popular in rain forest destinations such as the Amazon and Central America, but teens can experience the same thrill of traveling through the treetops in an unlikely place: New River Gorge, West Virginia.

“The bridge tours and canopy tours are usually open March through October,” said Mandy Wriston, assistant director at the New River Gorge Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You must, must, must do a canopy tour if you come.” Adventures on the Gorge is a popular outfitter that offers groups the chance to tour the canopy of the area year-round, with special rates November through March and every Tuesday.

By bridge tours, Wriston was referring to guided walks across the New River Gorge’s most famous man-made landmark: an 850-foot-high steel bridge. For many years, trespassing on the trellises was illegal — for obvious reasons — but today, groups can walk across safely while harnessed.

The bridge is so famous that the town hosts an annual Bridge Day during the third weekend in October, with 200 different vendors, food trucks, artisans and others coming out to celebrate the iconic structure. This is the only weekend of the year when base-jumpers and rappellers are allowed to use the bridge to complete daring feats.

The New River Gorge is still a place deeply tied to its natural landscape. Youth groups of all skill levels will enjoy the plethora of activities available, including biking tours, paddleboarding and whitewater rafting.

If groups are looking for an interesting place to rest after a long day outdoors, a renovated bank in nearby Fayetteville, West Virginia, called Lafayette Flats is a good option. Built in 1906, the hotel began its life as a bank and sits in downtown Fayetteville directly across from the historic courthouse, close to shops, restaurants and other early buildings.