Up Close and Personal: Hiking With Kids

by Amanda K. Jaros

The Finger Lakes Region radiates scenic beauty. Adults may bask in views of rolling hills sloping into sparkling lakes, and revel under open skies alive with color, but kids see their world in an entirely different light. When we go hiking, rarely does my 11-year-old son comment on the vast landscape in front of him. Instead, he searches rocks underfoot for fossils, listens for rushing brooks, and points out every toad and chipmunk we scare up along the way.

Kids live in the here and now, and when they get up close and personal with nature they learn about themselves, build confidence and gain a deeper understanding of their environment. It’s not always easy to escape our daily routines and find time to head to the woods, but it’s a great opportunity to learn – and bond – with our children. Over the years, I’ve discovered a few things that help make these adventures successful.

Hike at a kid’s pace

Hiking is a great way to have fun and discover something new. When hiking with kids, they also love to get a little dirty – and water is a sure way for them to do that! My family enjoys the Finger Lakes Trail (FLT), particularly a delightful mile south of Mecklenburg which offers many places to stop and play in the stream. About a mile into this stream walk, a moderately-sized waterfall slips into a small pool and runs under a wooden bridge toward the main stream. It’s an excellent place to pause, skip rocks, build dams and enjoy a snack (Ours always includes something chocolate!) The trail gently rises and falls along the flow of waters exiting Cayuta Lake, and finally climbs steeply uphill into Connecticut Hill State Game Management Area.

Taking kids outside often means letting go of our adult expectations. When I hike alone, I move at a quick pace and rarely stop, eager to cover more ground. When I’m with my family, priorities shift; a good hike together means pausing often to throw rocks in the water and dig through damp seeps trickling down from the hillside.

This trail, like many others in the Finger Lakes, is an easy, generally flat walk. When my son was younger, I limited the elevation gain, pace and mileage of our hikes based on his ability. Now that he’s 11, we’re able to comfortably cover a few miles with medium-sized hills. I don’t want to push him too hard, but I also don’t want to underestimate him. If we’re feeling energetic, we’ll climb one of the steep Ithaca gorges we love. But no matter where or how far we walk, I make sure there are places for him to get in touch with the water and earth surrounding us.

Spark some wonder

The Finger Lakes National Forest, located on a north-south ridge between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, is the only National Forest in New York State. Its 16,000 acres contains one of my family’s favorite hikes: from the Blueberry Patch campground to Foster Pond. In spring, the just over a mile-long trail is lined with fascinating fungi of all shapes and colors. In fall, there are dozens of frogs and toads. And it’s a perfect cross-country ski trail in winter.

The problem some kids face when hiking is boredom, so I often bring my camera and encourage my son to bring his. We zoom in on tree bark, fern leaves or tiny orange newts. He takes aim at clouds, stick piles or the mud puddles we trek over. The photos serve as great memories and reminders to search for more information when we get home, but even more important, having a camera allows him to add his own personal perspective to the hike. He gets to take charge of this aspect of the hike, and for him, there’s nothing boring about it.

Choosing an enticing destination is also important. Foster Pond – large enough for swimming or fishing in summer, and encircled with wide grassy areas for picnicking and soaking in the sun – is a great motivator. It’s a fun place for kids and adults to hang out – when my son and I hike this trail, we always find it’s worth the effort to get there. Setting a reasonable goal, one that children can definitely achieve, goes far in boosting their confidence in the woods.

When we’re walking and my son asks the names of trees or birds, sometimes I know the answers, but often I don’t. Occasionally I bring a plant or bird identification book with me and we may look up some things, but I’ve realized that I don’t have to be an expert. Though we’re interested, knowing the names of things isn’t crucial – rather it’s the experience of being out there and looking closely, asking questions, and making discoveries together. I’ve found that it’s my love of nature and all its intricate details, more than the facts I can tell him, which sparks my son’s wonder.

Find a tech-free forest “home”

One of my favorite hikes in the Finger Lakes is a 1-1/2-mile segment of the FLT in the Danby State Forest. There is a slight elevation gain as the trail climbs through some stately red and white pine forests before reaching a large grove of tamarack pines. A small lean-to is tucked beneath the tamaracks, and it’s an ideal place to spend some time. There are a handful of these log-cabin-like, three-sided structures along the FLT and in some of the state parks where backpackers can stop for the night. Resting inside, we read the lean-to log book to find names and comments of other hikers who have passed through, and imagine out loud what it would be like to sleep there. My son thinks it’s almost like having a home in the forest.

The thing I love about this lean-to home is that there are no screens. My family enjoys our computers, video games, and TV shows like everyone else, but when I leave my phone in the car and we separate ourselves from technology, we step into a place where there are no distractions. With screens in every aspect of our lives, including my son’s school, I appreciate those unplugged hours. It’s just us moving at our own pace, under our own power.

I recommend hiking each of these trails several times, for each adventure offers the chance for a different experience: the weather alters the feel of the trail, sometimes we bring one of my son’s friends along, or we discover something we completely missed the last time. On various treks to the tamarack lean-to, we’ve made a fire in the fire pit to roast marshmallows, scouted trees to climb, and huddled under the dry roof to get out of a summer rain shower.

Whether I’m pointing out scenic vistas, or my son is getting me to build rock towers in icy streams, the days of his childhood that I especially want to hold on to are the ones when we’re enjoying the natural world together.

Other kid-friendly hikes in the Finger Lakes:

The Finger Lakes Trail is a 950-mile network of trails, and a part of the North Country Scenic Trail, which stretches from Allegheny State Park to the Catskills Mountains. The FLT crosses the southern tier of the Finger Lakes and offers miles of hikes for all experience levels. Find information and maps at fltconference.org.

State Parks such as Watkins Glen, Buttermilk Falls, and Filmore Glen all offer many beautiful trails. However, many climb the steep gorges which characterize this glacier-formed region of New York. When walking in these parks be prepared for more challenging hikes. Check out all of NY’s parks at parks.ny.gov.

The Finger Lakes Land Trust’s latest website – gofingerlakes.org – offers a free public service to help residents and visitors discover the best locations in the region for hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing, cross-country skiing and other outdoor recreation activities. It features over 55 locations and 650 miles of trails.

Three books to inspire your outdoor endeavors

The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson (Rachel Carson, 1965). Carson’s short poetic essay is a beautiful meditation on time spent aimlessly exploring the Maine coast with her nephew, and the deep love of nature
that both she and her young charge discover.

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv (Algonquin Books, 2005). In this ground-breaking book, Louv shares studies and science behind his newly-coined term “nature-deficit disorder.” He argues that just as they need clean water, good food, and familial love, children also need time to explore and play in the natural world.

Companions in Wonder edited by Julie Dunlop and Stephen Kellert (MIT Press, 2012). This collection of essays from a variety of naturalists, writers, and parents offers many perspectives on the joy, education-value, and bonding that we find when we spend time in nature with our families.

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