Hikes for Young Children
Hiking with toddlers and young children under 5 is very different than hiking with adults or older kids. New hikers will find out how much they need to plan ahead. Experienced hikers will realize how much they have to adjust their expectations.
Little kids dawdle along the trail. They don't care about the destination. They care about what's right in front of them: the stream flowing under the bridge, the wildflower that's blooming, the root of the big tree underfoot. Toddlers and young children tend to have spurts of energy. They hike along energetically, then suddenly want to be picked up. Cold and hot temperatures confuse them and bug them.
Fortunately, hiking with small children is incredibly rewarding as well. Slowing down helps you appreciate all of the little things that make our ecosystem so diverse. And there is nothing better in celebrating a child's accomplishment or seeing something from a fresh perspective.
So what are the secrets for a successful hike?
- Choose a hike that is short and with a destination that would be interesting to a small child. Water is quite enticing; views not as much.
- Be flexible - Don't be so destination-driven that you ignore the signs that your child is ready to turn around. To create a life-long hiker, you want his or her first experiences to be good ones.
- Pack extra clothes - Always bring a jacket, hat and an extra set of clothes.
- Stop often for energy breaks - Food and water can be a great reviver and motivator.
- Pack a lot of patience and praise - It's all about the journey, so let them explore every nook and cranny while at the same time praising them for their little accomplishments.
WTA has compiled a list of hikes that are good choices for toddlers and pre-schoolers. These are hikes that could be done with a minimal amount of carrying, since kids this age often are too big or too wiggly for the backpack. Do note that every child is different - some will be able to do more, some less.
All of these hikes are in Best Hikes with Kids: Western Washington & Cascades by Joan Burton (Mountaineers Books). This book features 182 hikes suitable for children, and is an excellent investment if you like hiking!
Location: Near North Bend
Distance: 1.5 mi - 3.5 miles roundtrip
Elevation: 500' gain up to 1000'
Best Season: Usually accessible all year; the falls in spring is quite spectacular
Twin Falls is a great year-round hike to a beautiful waterfall. With its big pay-off at trail's end, Twin Falls is an ideal hike for small children. There are benches and a nice viewpoint of the falls at 0.75 mile, which is a good turn-around for smaller toddlers or if you opt to leave the baby backpack behind. But by hiking another mile (down and then up again), you will reach a sturdy bridge that crosses high over the water and between the two falls. Kids will be mesmerized by the waterfalls and the water all around them. Do note that this is a popular trail, and on weekends don't expect any solitude.
Franklin FallsLocation: Snoqualmie Pass
Distance: 2 mi. roundtrip
Elevation: 100 ft. gain
Best Season: July - October
Franklin Falls is a great hike to take with young children. It is short, with a gentle climb, and a pretty waterfall at trail's end. The trail starts just outside the Denny Creek Campground and travels along the South Fork Snoqualmie River to the falls. The path travels through the trees, gently climbing from the river. There are roots, some rocks and several stairs to climb up and over along the way, but it is still easy for even the youngest to hike. Fences and bridges keep wandering children from stepping over cliffs. The only difficult section is the final scramble to the beach beneath the falls - most kids will need supervision here! While you may notice the sights and sounds of I-90 above the falls, your kids will be interested in the falls and the rocky beach - great for throwing stones into the water or wading. Note that the spray and morning shadiness at the falls can be cool even on hot days. Bring jackets!
Boulder River WaterfallLocation: Off Hwy 530 near Arlington
Distance: 2.5 miles
Elevation: 250 ft gain
Best Season: Spring - Fall
Towering lowland old growth forest, impressive waterfalls, and a roaring stream make Boulder River a great destination any time of the year. Spring is one of the best times to visit, when run-off makes the waterfalls particularly powerful; later in the season they slow to a trickle. Beginning hikers and families will be rewarded by a spectacular and lacy waterfall at 1.25 miles, with a nice lunch stop just beyond.
Ebey's LandingLocation: Whidbey Island, near Coupeville
Distance: 2 miles roundtrip to beach or 3.5 mile loop
Elevation: trailhead sea level'; 200' gain & loss
This little preserve, tucked away in a rainshadow on Whidbey Island, has a bit of everything. Panoramic views of mountains and water. Twisted driftwood and old gnarled trees. Rare plants. Gray whales and shipping activity in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Bald eagles, hooded mergansers, harlequin ducks, and even something called an alligator lizard. Lots of things that children and adults can enjoy! Young children will probably be happy to hike 1 mile along the beach to Parego's Lagoon.
Older kids would be able to do the 3.5 mile loop. The best way to hike the loop is to go counter-clockwise, up the bluff and back down via the beach. On clear days, the bluff provides a 180-degree panoramic view of the Olympic Peninsula and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Mount Rainier, and the rolling farmland and prairie of Whidbey Island. After about 1.5 miles, drop down a very steep trail to the far end of Parego's Lagoon. Beware that this drop can be slippery and difficult for the very young or old. The return is a wonderful stroll south on the strip of beach between Admiralty Inlet and the lagoon.
Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk TrailLocation: near Olympia
Distance: 4 miles round trip
Elevation: no measurable gain
Best Season: year-round
Bring your binoculars on this fantastic new trail that features a one mile boardwalk that juts far out into the Nisqually Delta. What may be the longest continuous boardwalk on the west coast will delight children and adults alike. When tides are in, you will be walking over water; when tides are out, you will be walking over mudflats that are habitat to a diverse array of shorebirds and other creatures.
The trail features an observation tower, an enclosed viewing platform, several push-outs for those who want to linger with their binoculars and two covered viewing platforms. There are thoughtful touches like the areas with lower railings and mesh coverings to allow unobstructed views for kids and those in wheelchairs. The highlight is the Puget Sound Viewing Platform at the end of the boardwalk. It provides a 360-degree view of McAllister Creek, the Olympics, Mount Rainier and several islands in Puget Sound. One tip for parents: make sure the kids use the bathrooms at the beginning of the hike. There is nowhere to go while on the boardwalk!
Second BeachLocation: Olympic Coast
Distance: 1.5 miles roundtrip
Elevation: 80 ft gain, 100 ft loss
Best Season: Year-round
The ocean holds such great allure for children, and by hiking in just three-quarters of a mile you leave behind the crowds. Second Beach is a jewel, with seastacks along the beach and out in the ocean. This is a great place to tiptoe through the tidepools and see the sea stars and sea anenomes. Be sure to plan your visit accordingly and watch your children carefully around waves, rising water and delicate sea life. Bring a bucket and shovel for more sand fun!
Hidden LakeLocation: Lake Wentachee
Distance: 1 mile
Elevation: 300 ft gain
Best Season: June - October
It's easy and short and the lake is quite lovely! The trail is wide and conducive to parents and children walking side-by-side. It winds its way gently through a ponderosa pine forest away from all of the noise and bustle of Lake Wenatchee. Hidden Lake is only a scant half mile from the trailhead, and even toddlers can make the whole way on foot. There are several flat boulders to sit on and enjoy the quiet mountain lake. On warm days, older kids are likely to be swimming or floating in rafts. (2013 update: Before you go, check with the Lake Wenatchee Ranger Station. A 2012 storm closed the road about a mile from the trailhead.)
Red Top LookoutLocation: Teanaway
Distance: 2 miles roundtrip
Elevation: 350 ft gain
Best Season: June - October
There are few mountaintops in Washington that are accessible by such a short and easy trail. Kids will delight in actually climbing a mountain and will be encouraged along the way by the fire lookout perched on top. In mid-to-late summer, the lookout is manned and you may be allowed inside. But the views are just as good from the ground. What's more, this area is dotted with agates and you may be lucky enough to find one! If you do, please leave for the next child to discover. At the top, there is some loose rock, so please watch young children here.
Hummocks TrailLocation: Mount St. Helens National Monument
Distance: 2.3 miles loop
Elevation: 100 feet elevation gain to 2500 feet
Best Season: June - October
Away from the crowds around Johnston Ridge Observatory, the Hummocks Trail is one of those all-round trails that delights all members of the family. The loop winds gently up and down, through meadows, ponds and hummocks until it reaches the North Fork Toutle River (well below). Mount St. Helens is in sight much of the way, and the views are on par with those at Johnston Ridge. The foliage, the hummocks, the river and flowers make it look much more interesting that the barren blast zone does. The hummocks are fascinating as well - huge mounds of debris deposited by the 1980 blast. But what really captures childrens' interest are the ponds, where evidence of beavers have left their mark and frogs, dragonflies, caterpillars and butterflies cavort during the summer.
Beacon Rock State Park
Location: Beacon Rock State Park, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Distance: 2 miles round trip
Elevation: 600 feet elevation gain
Best Season: April - October
Located in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area east of Vancouver, WA is Beacon Rock, an enormous basalt monolith that is actually the core of an ancient volcano. Named by the Lewis and Clark expedition, hikers today can do something that Lewis and Clark could not: walk on a trail that takes you up 600 feet to the top of this great monolith. The mile-long trail to its summit provides outstanding panoramic views of the Columbia River Gorge and activity along the river. The trail begins with an easy climb through mixed forest, then ascends paths that were blasted out through solid rock and along wooden catwalks. Handrails line the route for the safety and comfort of hikers. The trail gradually climbs its way up a onto the sheer basalt cliffs of the rock itself, where the views are sensational. This trail is probably not for the youngest walker, but older kids will be thrilled by the adventure.
Exploring Washington's National Parks & Monuments
Olympic National Park, Rainier National Park and Mt. St. Helen's National Monument offer many great hikes for families with small children. Look for nature trails and short hikes near visitor centers. You'll get the added bonus of interpretive markers along the trail, flush toilets and cafeterias!