What’s more fun than splashing in mud puddles and digging in dirt? Not much if you’re a kid. Don your ratty clothes and get down and dirty on these delightfully messy, New England adventures, guaranteed to provide loads of not-so-clean fun for your family.
Dig in the dumps
You probably won’t find a gem worth your kid’s college tuition, but prospecting for buried bling is a bucket load of fun for all ages. Head to Maine Mineral Adventures in Bryant Pond, Maine, (207-674-3440, www.digmainegems.com) to hunt for glittering chunks of mica, tourmaline, garnet, quartz, and more. You’ll get a pail full of dirt, with hidden treasures. What are those shining pieces of red, purple, green, and pink amid the dirt? Sift, rinse, and screen it to find out; there are bound to be a few beauties in that bucket; more than 63 minerals and gems have been found in the local mines. You can get an empty pail ($15) to fill from piles of mine dirt, or splurge for one of the specialty buckets that have been stocked with gems and minerals ($25, $50, and $100 buckets). When young tots get tired, they can play with toys in the sand and water.
Field trips to local mines are also offered, including digs at Mount Mica, the oldest gem mine in the United States and famous for its tourmaline (ages 8 and older only, adults $65, ages 8-16 $35). Visits to other local mines, where younger kids are welcome, can also be arranged; call or e-mail ahead to reserve a spot.
Head down under
This is scrappy, scruffy, dirty fun: Get down on your hands and knees and crawl through twisty, damp tunnels at The Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves in North Woodstock, N.H. (603-745-8031, www.lostrivergorge.com; adults $21, ages 4-12 $17). Here, the Lost River plunges underground into a boulder-clogged gorge, formed by retreating Ice Age glaciers. You’ll follow a boardwalk through the deep, misty gorge, climbing more than 1,300 stairs and descending some 300 feet. Along the way, you’ll have pretty views of forests, mountains, and waterfalls, and 11 caves to explore. You’ll have to squirm and wiggle your way through a skinny tunnel to reach the Judgment Hall of Pluto, an underground room at the base of a 20-foot waterfall. Crawl through puddles of water in the Cave of Odin (look Mom, I’m wet!); shimmy into the Sun Alter, a giant pothole, and enter the Cave of Silence, the only cave where the Lost River can’t be heard. The kids will dare you to enter Lemon Squeezer, the tightest and most difficult cave at Lost River. Double dare you.
For creepier — and just as dirty — fun, take a nighttime guided lantern tour ($33, ages 5 and up). The two-hour tour ends with a campfire and s’mores.
DIY-ers might also consider climbing and crawling among the jumble of rocks at New Hampshire’s Pawtuckaway State Park (603-895-3031, www.nhstateparks .org, adults $5, ages 6-11 $2), where hundreds of giant boulders form tunnels and caves. The Devil’s Den is the most popular, a 30-foot or so deep cave with a 10- to 15-foot ceiling.
Work the farm
Please, no germaphobes allowed on a visit to Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vt. (802-985-8686, www.shelburnefarms.org, adults $8, ages 3-17 $5), a beautiful, 1,400-acre working farm and National Historic Landmark overlooking Lake Champlain. Parents will enjoy the scenic views (the grounds were designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted) and learning about the inspiring work they do here to educate for and promote sustainability. But the draw for kids is the 15-minute tractor ride to the Children’s Farmyard, where the real, messy fun begins. In the Farmyard, you can watch a chicken parade, milk a cow, collect eggs, feed animals, groom a horse, brush a sheep, and clean a pig! If the kids still have energy, there are 10 miles of walking trails that weave through the historic farm.
Watch cheddar cheese being made and then stop by the Farm Store to pick up some to take home, along with fresh eggs, organic fruits and vegetables, and pasture-raised beef and lamb.
Slosh in the seaweed
Oh, what fun it is to splash in puddles and pools at the beach; even better to discover slimy seaweed and scurrying sea creatures. On a guided excursion with Maine-based Coast Encounters (207-831-4436, www.coastencounters.com) you’ll turn over rocks and look under seaweed to discover the miniature world of intertidal critters. Follow Coastal Carol (marine science educator Carol Steingart) to tidal pools along southern Maine’s rocky coast. Enjoy a hands-on experience with sea creatures, like crabs, sea urchins, sea stars, snails, and baby lobsters, on the three-hour (or so) excursions (adults $55, ages 5-18 $40). Steingart will arrange to meet your family or small group (between 2-15 people, 5 years and older) at a stretch of rocky shoreline, generally, located between Kittery and Bath.
Another great, family-friendly place to explore tidepools is Odiorne State Park in Rye, N.H. (603-227-8722, www.nhstateparks.org, age 12-adults $4, ages 6-11 $2). Wear water shoes, roll up your sleeves, and go at low tide to explore the Sunken Forest, full of shallow pools swimming with sea creatures. There are also touch tanks and exhibits at the Seacoast Science Center (603-436-8043, www.seacoastsciencecenter.org, age 13-adults $10, ages 3-12 $5), located on-site.