Visit Mirehouse, Keswick
Take spare clothes on a visit to this 17th-century manor house on the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake. There are so many natural play areas concealed within its wooded grounds that children will slip from one messy adventure into another. From the walled Bee Garden, with its heather maze and sheltered dens (perfect for picnics), you can hear shrieks coming from the adventure playground, where a zip-wire, rope climbers and balance bridges crisscross a gushing stream. The rhododendron-lined footpath passes a play fort and steeplechase, before crossing woods and fields to reach the lake shore. Leave time to explore the biking and walking trails in adjacent Dodd Wood, where telescopes are trained on Bassenthwaite's nesting ospreys between April and August.
• 017687 72287, mirehouse.com.House and garden: adults ?7, children ?3, family (2 adults and up to 4 children) ?18; garden, playground and lakeside walk: adults ?3.50, children ?1.50. House opens April-October on Wednesday and Sunday (plus Friday in August), 2pm-5pm; garden and playground open daily from March-October from 10am to 5pm
Compared with some of the pleasure boats that ply Lakeland's bigger waterways, the Keswick Launch on Derwentwater is affordable and flexible. Its wooden boats zip frequently between seven jetties, so you can stay on for a 50-minute circuit or hop off to explore pebble beaches and lakeside footpaths. A good starting point is the marina at Nichol End, where the dog-friendly cafe serves homemade pizzas and tables overlook the slopes of Skiddaw. An easy stroll takes you to the next jetty at Hawes End to catch a boat back. Or you can join the walkers heading for High Brandelhow via the 451m peak of Catbells – you need five hours, agile children and OS Explorer Map OL4 – for views across the Northern fells.
• 29 Manor Park, Keswick, 017687 72263, keswick-launch.co.uk. Hop-on/hop-off day tickets: family ?23, adults ?9.25, children ?4.50; single trips from ?2-?7.90 (children half price). Open 9am year-round, closing time varies
After jostling for space in the car park, most visitors to this National Trust site walk up to the waterfall, take a few photos, then walk back down. Better to come at it from above, by parking near the village of Dockray and following Aira Beck downstream. Ullswater twinkles in the distance as you descend into ancient woodlands with fells rising on either side. The beck tumbles over boulders and stepping stones, creating a series of natural pools where hours disappear in building dams, paddling and picnicking. The waterfall, once you reach it, is awesome: a 20m drop that can be viewed from above and below. The only downside is the walk back, but you could always hang out in the tea room while a kindly partner sprints back for the car.
• 017684 82067, nationaltrust.org.uk/ullswater-and-aira-force
From the terminus of the scenic Laal Ratty railway line that descends from the foothills of Scafell to the coastal village of Ravenglass (ravenglass-railway.co.uk), it is a mile's walk to Muncaster Castle, the home of the World Owl Trust. The aviaries in the walled garden are home to more than 49 species of owl, including unusual and endangered birds, such as the Ethiopian eagle owl and Haitian ashy-faced owl. There are 70 acres of grounds to explore – visit in May to see bluebells and rhododendrons in dazzling bloom – as well as the castle itself, said to be one of the most haunted buildings in England.
• 01229 717614, muncaster.co.uk. Adults ?13 (?7.50 owl centre and grounds only), children ?7.50 (?6), under fives free. 10.30am-5pm daily, 25 March-October, castle closed Saturdays
"No ascent is more repaying for the small labour involved" wrote Alfred Wainwright of Loughrigg Fell. At 335m, Loughrigg is one of the smallest of the Wainwright Fells, but its isolated position offers panoramic views across the central Lake District. With its easy-to-follow path and gentle contours, it is also a good choice for walkers with children. From Rydal – where you can visit Rydal Mount Wordsworth's home (rydalmount.co.uk) – a tranquil path follows the shore of Rydal Water past the gaping Rydal Cave framed by jutting, angular rocks. The route then follows Loughrigg Terrace, a delightful traverse overlooking Grasmere, before climbing to a rocky but undulating summit that is scattered with streams and tarns. Remember that a family-friendly fell is still a fell – and always take a map (OS Explorer Map OL7).
England's only mountain forest is a playground for trail bikers, and you do not need finely honed skills to enjoy the thrill of a two-wheeled descent. The 8km Quercus Trail is suitable for anyone who is reasonably confident on a bike (although you might have to get off and push in places). It meanders up, over and around the lower section of the forest, and while it does not scale the heights of the more advanced Altura Trail, it still rises far enough to provide views across Blencathra, Skiddaw and the other northern fells. If you don't have your own mountain bikes you can hire them at Cyclewise (minimum 14in wheel, minimum height about 4ft 8inches), which also runs family mountain-bike skills sessions during school holidays.
• 017687 78711, cyclewise.co.uk. Bike hire ?22.50 per day (?17.50 children); three-hour skills course ?105 for family of four (booking essential). Open every day, 10am-5pm
There is no better way to experience the majesty of Ullswater than under sail or oar. The Glenridding Sailing Centre offers family taster sessions from its base at the foot of Helvellyn. In a red-sailed wooden boat your children will feel like Arthur Ransome's swallows and amazons as they take turns at the tiller under the supervision of an instructor. Alternatively you can hire kayaks, take a picnic and explore the inlets and islands at the south end of Ullswater, which despite being Cumbria's second-biggest lake, is also one of its quietest.
• The Spit, Glenridding, 017684 82541, glenriddingsailingcentre.co.uk. Taster sessions from ?40 for one person per hour to ?400 for four people all day (under sixes free). Kayaks from ?10 per hour to ?45 per day
Buttermere has no jetties, no motor boats, no picnic tables … just a 1?-mile stretch of shimmering water surrounded by steep-sided fells and farmland. Walking around Buttermere takes two to three hours with children; the path is bumpy in places but manageable by all-terrain buggy (although you'll need to lift it over the kissing gates). The shoreline is dotted with mini beaches, some sheltered and mossy, others wide and pebbly: children may become so absorbed in pebble-skimming and paddling that they forget to ask when it's time for ice-cream. A kiosk lurks in the car park halfway round, or wait until you return to Buttermere village, where the tea room at Syke Farm sells ice-cream made with milk from its own Ayrshire herd.
• Syke Farm (017687 70277) is open from February half term until October/November, weather depending
A family session at Lucy Cooks is more than a good day out. It promotes the pleasure of cooking while teaching basic skills to encourage children's independence in the kitchen. Adults and children (aged 4-15) work together to produce a three-course meal, enough for a communal lunch with some leftovers to take home. In a six-hour session you might bake your own bread and whip up a red-onion relish to go with hand-made cheeseburgers. The cookery school, which is in a local-food hotspot next to the excellent More? The Artisan Bakery and the Hawkshead Brewery, will launch half-day children's courses in August (age 6 upwards), where adults supervise but can't join in.
• 015394 32288, lucycooks.co.uk. Sunday fundays take place once a month, ?125 per adult/child team (extra children ?62); children's courses ?70
Grizedale Forest near Hawkshead is known for its graded mountain-bike trails and Go Ape! treetop adventure course. But if you want to engage your brains as well as your muscles you could have a go at orienteering. This "thought sport" can be as competitive or communal as you like: the idea is to use clues in the landscape to navigate your way between set points or "controls". You can buy orienteering maps in the visitor centre (?1.50 each) and there are seven possible routes, from an easy-to-follow one-mile trail to a challenging four-mile course; there is also an orienteering trail for mountain bikers. Look out for views across Coniston Water through the clearings and for some of the 60-plus sculptures hidden among the trees.
• 01229 860010, visitlakelandforests.co.uk
Know of any other brilliant family days out in the Lake District? Add your recommendation in the comments below