When hiking with a youngster, be prepared to slow down to what might be a fraction of your before-kids pace. It’s less about reaching a destination like a lake or the summit, and more about the experience.
“When hiking with a toddler, always be prepared to literally stop and smell the roses, climb the rock piles and inspect the ants,” said Edwards resident Cortni O’Brien, who often hikes with her husband and their son, Evan, who will turn 3 years old in August. “Sometimes I use the ‘Map My Run’ app on my iPhone to track our distance, and that little electronic voice calls out ‘Pace: 40 minutes per mile!’”
This past month marked a milestone for the family: Evan’s first “complete” hike.
“At Sylvan Lake last month, for the first time, we didn’t intervene at all and he was able to do the entire circuit unassisted and we had a great time,” O’Brien said. “That was a really proud moment. We rewarded him with a picnic afterward. It’s worth the drive down.”
O’Brien, who lives in Miller Ranch, also takes advantage of the nearby open space areas in Edwards — the Eagle River Preserve and Miller Ranch Open Space, both of which are relatively flat areas.
“We like the open space across from lower Homestead,” O’Brien said. “There are exciting bridges, and bonus, there are cows across the river that are usually out. We were never into backpacking because he was such a big boy so it’s nice to be out with him now. Those are two really good starter trails for the very beginning hiker.”
‘They’re going to wander’
Mary Ellen Gilliland, author of popular book “The Vail Hiker,” says that attitude is everything when it comes to hiking with the under-5 crowd. “Your attitude towards a toddler hike is process oriented, not goal oriented. Children aren’t going to walk, they’re going to wander. You have to be relaxed. You don’t want to say ‘Come on, let’s go’ constantly.”
Instead, let the kids set the pace.
“Let them pursue whatever attracts their attention, which might seem very boring to us,” Gilliland said. “I took my grandson who is 18 months old for a walk. Every once in awhile he plopped down, took a stick, drew lines in the dirt, scraped the stick on a rock. He had a great time.
“To get kids used to being outdoors and the hiking activity, let them hunt for things,” she continued. “Some children know their colors. Have them look for red flowers, yellow flowers. Bring a magnifying glass and let them look at lichen on a rock, or at an interesting leaf or bug. Young children, 12 to 24 months, will stroll and wander and they will want to examine everything.”
Gilliland, who raised her first child in Vail and hiked often with her, suggests bringing the basics for any hike, no matter how strenuous. Bring sunglasses for both you and the child, as well as a hat to shade their face. Make sure everyone is wearing a good layer of sunscreen.
“In the backpack, pack plenty of health snacks, water, an extra jacket,” she said. “Maybe pack a water bottle that’s a spray bottle if it’s hot. For the younger ones, say up to 3-and-a-half, it’s smart to bring a child carier back pack for when the little one gets tired.”
In general, make the hike very sensory, stopping to smell a flower or crush sage brush leaves in your fingers.
“Feel the cold on the lower side of a rock, experience the breeze on your face. Anything sensory is fun. For older kids, one great thing is to bring a friend, it’s a great incentive and motivator.”
Let a child in a backpack touch things along the way.
“You might want to stop and let them feel the leaves of a passing bush or tree and feel the bark on an aspen tree, or some moss on the north side of a tree,” she said.
Gilliland and some Eagle County moms weighed in on five great hikes to tackle with children under the age of 5.
1. Eagle-Vail Trail, access via Stone Creek Trail
The Eagle-Vail Trail has five access/exit points over the course of two miles, according to “The Vail Hiker.”
“If the kids need to bail out along the way, you’re very close to civilization,” Gilliland said. “I’ve got kids hikes in ‘The Vail Hiker’ and this one is suggested for 4 to 8 year olds. It’s rated easy and the elevation gain is 200 feet.”
The Stone Creek Trail begins at the cul-de-sac at the top of Eagle Drive, on the east end of Eagle-Vail.
Edwards resident Nanci Alamonte has been hiking the Stone Creek Trail (also called Paulie’s Plunge) portion of the Eagle-Vail Trail with her children, 5-year-old Noah and 8-year-old Milaina, for years. “Milaina has been hiking it since she was quite little. She calls it her ‘favorite trail,’” Alamonte said. “We always take the branch that goes down to the stream. The kids love that. They play in the water and have a snack and then we walk back. It’s fairly flat and it’s not too hard for them.”
2. Village to Village Trail, from Beaver Creek to Bachelor Gulch
Rated easy, the Village to Village Trail in Beaver Creek can be hiked to Bachelor Gulch (3.6 miles one way) or all the way to Arrowhead (perhaps if the little one is in a backpack and mom and dad are feeling ambitious). The elevation gain is 850 feet.
“It has a climb at the beginning and then it’s a meander on this great, easy road,” Gilliland said.
You access the trail by walking up Elk Track Road in Beaver Creek.
“From Red Tail Camp, the trail heads across the hillside, through meadows and aspen groves into Bachelor Gulch and Arrowhead,” according to www.beavercreek.com. The multi-use trail is open via Strawberry Park only, according to the site.
If this trail is too much, then start out with the mile-long Five Senses Trail in Beaver Creek. The trail begins at the base of Chair #6, crosses Beaver Creek and follows the road to Flood’s Fishing Ponds and the Beaver Lake Trailhead. Signs along the trailhead discuss the five senses, making it perfect for little ones.
3. Sylvan Lake, 10 miles south of Eagle
The easy lake loop (1.5 miles) around Sylvan Lake is a good destination for young hikers since it’s flat.
“There’s the interest of the lake and crossing little bridges and differences in terrain,” Gilliland said. “It varies and changes enough that it makes it interesting. This would be a good one for a child in a backpack. Or for other children doing their first hike, just pick a segment of it. There are picnic tables along the way, and sometimes the lure of a wonderful snack and a hike to a picnic table is something fun for young children.”
There’s plenty of wildflowers blooming this month as well and there are “fabulous views of Mount Eve and Adam Mountain,” Gilliand said.
Remember this is a state park, which means it’s a fee area and you must display a pass in your vehicle.
“Stop by the Ranger Station to get a Junior Ranger backpack,” recommended Heather Bernard Hower via a Facebook post asking moms to weigh in on the best local hiking trails.
4. The North Vail Trail, Buffehr Creek to Red Sandstone
Access the trailhead for this portion of the North Vail Trail about .2 miles up Buffehr Creek Road. You pass a beaver pond on this portion of the trail.
“This is fun for young hikers,” Gilliland said. “ I would say the 4-year-old group would be great. It’s an easy hike and it’s not too long.”
5. Cross Creek, located off Tigiwon Road, south of Minturn
The Cross Creek trailhead is located about 1.7 miles up Tigiwon Road. It’s about a mile hike in to the bridge and there’s only 200 feet of elevation gain, which is why Gilliland lists it as a good kid’s hike in “The Vail Hiker.” Because of the sometimes tight trail, she wouldn’t recommend doing it with a child in a backpack.
“Kids aren’t that view oriented — they don’t seem to go for views like adults do — but it has gigantic rocks and a cool forest,” she said.
Which is why this is a good hike for kids with a vibrant imagination.
“It sometimes feels like a fairy place where trolls live under the bridge,” Gilliland said. “It has a magical aspect to it.”
For detailed directions and information on these hikes and more, “The Vail Hiker” is an invaluable resource. The Bookworm of Edwards carries the book year round. Gilliland warns to be very careful hiking with children around streams and rivers this time of year because of high water levels due to melting snow.