Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Come crisp mornings and falling leaves, we look forward to our favorite family fun fall activities, from the early days in September all the way to Thanksgiving by way of Halloween. Autumn is a time of the year when days are still long enough to go out chasing changing colors in forests and still warm enough to enjoy harvest festivals. It’s basically an invitation to throw on a sweater, brew a cup of tea, go outside to explore the bounties of nature and come back to a hot chili at nightfall.
This is our bucket list for the season.
Apples have got to be our favorite automnal fruit. We just can’t get enough of it! Of course, we could go around our local grocery stores and street markets to buy apples but it’s not nearly half as fun as picking apples off the tree. When my girls enter an apple orchard, they love reading the labels to ID apple varieties growing on trees. More often than not, we discover new varieties but there are also regulars we find in every orchard–Gravenstein, Cox, Pippin, Fuji, Bramley or Gala.
Where it gets interesting is when we find out about new apples that have been around for centuries, disappeared and are enjoying a fruity Renaissance. Arkansas Black is a beauty, Winesap is delicious, Knobbed Russet looks medieval, Reine des Reinettes is sweet and tart and the list goes on. It’s really cool to discover new tastes and textures in a fruit as common as the apple.
You can find local apple orchards on Pick Your Own (mostly up-to-date) but you’ll need to check individual orchard websites as each season brings different crops.
On par with apples as a great fall family day, chasing fall foliage is a must each year. The trick is finding where fall colors appear, when they peak and which types of trees will bring which colors. Our favorite trees include maples, dogwoods, birches, beeches, oaks, aspens and chestnuts. An easy way to find fall foliage is to head to your local arboretum or botanical gardens as they’re sure to have tree collections that look glorious in every season.
Last year, we visited the National Arboretum at Westonbirt in England and were treated to a true explosion of colors in the maple section. Stourhead in Wiltshire, a National Trust property, features world-famous romantic gardens with a wide lake and grottoes. For an easy fall foliage fix from London, we head to Burnham Beeches, Kew Gardens or Hampstead Heath. However, we travel further for our favorite autumn colors. We head to Scotland, where fall colors are absolutely amazing (hello, Perthshire) or to the Lake District (Derwentwater is a beauty).
From San Francisco, we love heading to Sonoma or Napa for fall colors. For the best golden maple colors in coastal redwoods, the Santa Cruz mountains are a must (hi, Butano State Park) but the true glory of autumn lies further east in the Sierras. Of course, the Yosemite Valley is splendid when the dogwoods and maples are ablaze, but the Eastern Sierras show the best displays of quaking aspens and cottonwood trees. For live fall color info, check out the well-informed website California Fall Color.
In Latvia, Gauja National Park reigns supreme when autumn colors spread to the forested hills around the river Gauja. From the top of Turaida Museum Reserve, climb to the top of the tower and embrace 360 views on the valley. For a short hike with your kids next to Sigulda, a walk to Gutmana Cave and to the cable car is a beautiful nature trail. In Estonia, Lahemaa National Park offers a riot of autumn Arctic colors to visitors, with the golden yellow color of beech forests in sharp contrast to the dark spruce groves of the park.
The best chili recipes come loaded with flavor and autumn goodness to reward nature walks with an easy night-in. We like to prepare our chili in a slow-cooker on Sunday mornings (if you don’t have one, slow cookers are a great and cheap option to come back home to a hot dinner after being out all day) and head out for a hike, knowing that our home will smell like heart-warming spices as we unlace our shoes in the late afternoon.
My husband swears by his own trusted recipe and most of my friends also have a tried-and-true chili recipe but for variety, you can check Southern Living’s 15 chili recipes, chili recipes on Martha Stewart or Gimme Some Oven’s 5-ingredient chili. Whatever recipe you go for, note that chilies are best made the day before (on Saturday evening as you watch a good program or read a good book) and reheated the next day. How’s that for motivation to go out with the kids on a cool autumn day?
Hazelnuts, blackberries, wild crabapples, elderberries, beech nuts, sloe berries, wild mushrooms, acorns, seaweed, pine nuts! All these wild foods are literally free meals waiting to be foraged in your wild backyard. Obviously, it’s important to always be able to ID wild foods positively before eating them, That’s where local foraging knowledge comes in handy with ranger walks, foraging classes and foraging forums.
Acorns and fairies will always be like peas in a pod to my girls and this cute tea set by Twig and Toadstool shows that acorns can be turned into any miniature playset for woodland creatures. Besides doubling as bowls, cups and lids, acorns can also turn into fairy hats and fairy baskets. If you’re lucky to have different types of oak trees in your area, you can even play with different sizes and colors of acorns. This Waldorf-inspired blog shows how to make autumn leaf acorn fairies and you can complete the set with DIY toy tree house furniture (instructions here).
I have a thing for sweet chestnuts. In fact, I love them to bits. I love gathering wild chestnuts under chestnut trees, prying them open with my shoes, picking them and bringing them home in a nice wicker basket. Once we’ve gathered a few kilograms of sweet chestnuts (only that variety is edible), we turn them into roasted after-school snacks or we roast them and use them in soups, cakes and breads. Roasted chestnuts freeze remarkably well and I always have a couple ziploc bags of them in my freezer to use when I need them later in the winter or spring.
A week or so before Halloween, we pile up in a car and head to a local farm to pick pumpkins in the field. It’s always more fun to make it a day out rather than a trip to the store. On the field, my girls measure and compare, trying to find the best pumpkin for their jack’0 lantern. We then store them outside in our yard and only carve them the day before Halloween in the evening, on the night appropriately called Devil’s Night. What comes next is a tasty by-product of carving pumpkins.
Don’t throw away the seeds when you carve your pumpkins! Save some, wash them gently in running water and be ready to add them to your kitchen cooking list. Not only are they seriously delicious, but pumpkins seeds are nutritious too. They are a very good source of phosphorus, magnesium, manganese and copper, as well as protein. We like to toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast them in the oven during 30 minutes or until golden brown. That’s the simplest way and it takes very little time to do once the pumpkin seeds are washed. Alternatively, you can go gourmet with this spicy roasted pumpkin seeds recipe.
As a consequence of #4 (Foraging wild foods), you can turn into a squirrel and can your wild harvest. One of the easiest ways to use fruits in the long run is to make preserves or jams but depending on what you foraged, you can also make syrups, fruit leather or (for the health apothecary in you) medicinal remedies.
It’s time to #OptOutside on Black Friday and follow REI’s example. In 2015, REI closed all 143 of their stores so that their employees and their families could spend time outside. Rather than binge-purchasing more stuff, use your Thanksgiving leftovers into yummy sandwiches and take the whole family outside. That means your kids, your parents, your grand-parents, your cousins, your uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces and more of your tribe. It’s a much more meaningful way to celebrate Thanksgiving as a family than spending money online or at a packed store.
The age-old art of pressing leaves can be the start of many fun crafting afternoons with your kids. Whether you decide to turn them into a pressed leaves placemat, a fall foliage wreath or into a nature journal of autumn leaves, pressed leaves are a fun and traditional way to celebrate the best autumn leaves by “freezing” them in time.
When you wake up to such views, isn’t it worth the effort?