Tips to help you connect your family to nature!
Let’s hit the trail with your “Littles” on three easy hikes close to home. Spring, early summer, and fall are glorious times to get outside and hike. Families with even the youngest of hikers can sometimes be flummoxed as to where to go to have a great experience. Appropriate distances and interesting easy terrain are needed—so, let me inspire you with three beautiful doable hikes in three counties here in Western Colorado.
Mesa County boasts a super interesting, close-to-home hike for the youngsters: The Mica Mine Trail. The round trip distance is 2.6 miles and it’s rated easy. It includes some lovely shade and minor rocks to climb over, making it enjoyable for both adults and rambunctious kids. The trailhead for Mica Mine is shared with Rough Canyon and is right on Little Park Road (for a map and route description go to GJhikes.com). Why choose this easy short hike to get out with your kids? Oh so many reasons! There are some beautiful vistas of towering cliffs, and the trail crosses the tiny Ladder Creek enough times that everyone gets to hone their stone stepping skills if the water is running; there are many wildflowers, trees, shrubs, and birds to identify; and at the end there is the holy grail of mica! Enough slivered mica crunches under-foot at the mine itself that it can become a tactile fun science opportunity. No child has been disappointed in my experience. There was recently a rock fall near the trail, but it hasn’t hampered access, and it could be a good geology conversation about the rocky hillside’s “angle of repose” and potential triggers. Jumping into imaginative scenarios with kids adds to the fun as well.
In Delta County check out the beautiful 3.2 mile (round trip) Crystal Overlook hike above the northern edge of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (outside the actual National Park’s North Rim). Travel on Hwy 92 towards Crawford and keep going—eventually you’ll pass the turn off for the Black Canyon National Park, but stay on Hwy 92 through beautiful ranch country and finally onto the Black Mesa. Sixteen miles south of Crawford you’ll see the turn off and trailhead for Crystal Overlook. Park there and head on out on a well-traveled trail. At the trailhead there is a Curecanti National Recreation Area sign that depicts the trail as strenuous and 5 miles long. I beg to differ: it’s only 3.2 miles, and is an easy trail unless it’s very hot. There are three pitches where you will indeed feel the climb, but they are short. And, there are 3 benches for resting and viewing the San Juan Mountains along the way.
Why choose this hike? The visual rewards are just exceptional and younger hikers definitely appreciate the sensory experience. Views of the West Elk Mountains, the San Juan Mountains, and the Cimmaron Valley are inspiring—and then it’s the destination that holds the most magic. The end of the trail is a safely guard-railed overlook down 1800 feet into the Crystal Reservoir of the Black Canyon. Keep on the trail to the very end. Your only choice point will be an unmarked fork that takes you up to a dead-end lookout point bench on the left, or you can skip that and stay to the right to get directly to the Crystal Reservoir overlook. Our favorite thing is to pack a picnic lunch and head out in the morning, enjoying our repast at the high overlook before heading back. Make sure to pack sunscreen and take water bottles for everyone.
Montrose County is very special indeed. It encompasses all types of terrain, vistas, and levels of exertion for hikers. For the younger hiker we recommend the Black Canyon National Park’s aptly named Oak Flat Loop. This trail is within the park’s main south access and departs from the visitor center. Approximately 2 miles in length, it takes you to wonderful vistas of the canyon over mostly easy terrain amidst rock and gambel oak trees. Definitely take this hike counter clockwise so that the steepest part is in the downhill direction with a much easier ascent. You don’t go to the bottom of the canyon—but you do get to beautiful views, and shady areas that do not obscure the sightline, plus you are away from the large groups of visitors in other areas of the park. Why choose Oak Flat Loop? The river and rock vistas; the “below-the-rim” experience; the sense of adventure; eagle and peregrine falcon spotting across the canyon; and the shade.
Three counties, three beautiful hikes. A great way to get out there close to home and introduce the younger generation to the experience of Mother Nature’s rewards. Take a hike, and take the kids!
Color Sunday has come and gone, and less dependable weather makes it harder to get outside with children. Luckily many local parks are easy to access and provide the means to experience nature safely close to home. This can be a family fun challenge: create a parks checklist and have a goal and reward for getting to them all!
The City of Grand Junction Parks and Recreation Department has a wonderful resource listing all 36 parks alphabetically in the Grand Junction area (https://www.gjcity.org/residents/parks-recreation/parks/). Under ‘Parks” click on each park name and it will give you specifics about the size of the park and amenities available. For example, Autumn Ridge Park is a smaller park of 1.5 acres with picnic tables and grills; Canyon View Park is 110 acres with sports fields, playground, shelters, trails, restrooms and more.
Fruita has a similar website (https://www.fruita.org/parksrec/parksites) that describes each of its 12 parks including a bike park with beginning and intermediate skill-building bike pump tracks. The section on this website under parks and trails lists popular hiking and bike trails, giving you the opportunity to take in gorgeous scenery and local wildlife.
On the east side of the Grand Valley, several five-star parks are available in Palisade. Enjoy walking or riding bicycles under the trees along the paved path at Riverbend Park, having a picnic near the play equipment at Veteran’s Memorial park, or romping in the green space at the Palisade Community Center park. Addresses can be found by googling Parks and Recs near Palisade, CO.
The City of Montrose website (https://www.cityofmontrose.org/266/Parks-Trails-Sports-Facilities) lists 29 fabulous parks, open spaces, concrete and single-track trails, and a water sports park. By clicking on the ‘interactive map’ and ‘view larger map’ you can see each park with amenities, including the 4.25 acre Montrose dog park located in Cerise Regional Park where you can let Fido play in a safe fenced-in area.
Six parks in and near the town of Olathe are listed on their website (http://www.townofolathe.org/town-of-olathe-parks.html). A variety of facilities are available from Olathe Community Park at the south end of town to the Onion Park on Olathe’s north side. The Olathe Town park on 5th street has a spectacular new playground purchased through a Colorado Health Foundation grant.
The City of Delta has 11 parks on their interactive map (https://cityofdelta.net/parksites). Clicking on the name of the park, either on the map or on the list provided, takes you to a detailed description of each fabulous park, including year of establishment and amenities present.
The North Fork area includes a listing of 18 parks near the towns of Crawford, Hotchkiss, and Paonia (http://www.northforkrecreation.com/parks.html). These descriptions include the Black Canyon National Monument and Crawford State Park, as well as the Delta County Fairgrounds adjacent to the Doctor Maloney Nature Park and its new disc golf course. Crossroads Park next to the North Fork Pool on Bulldog Street, has two new bike skill-building pump tracks, as well as single-track trails maintained by the North Fork chapter of the Colorado Mountain Bike Association (COPMOBA).
The Surface Creek area, including Orchard City (Cory, Austin, and Eckert) and Cedaredge, have some beautiful parks and recreation facilities. Information can be found on the internet about these facilities: Orchard City Town Park (https://www.orchardcityco.org/36/Orchard-City-Town-Park), Cedaredge Town Park (350-398 SW 2nd Ave, Cedaredge, CO 81413), and the Surface Creek Trail in Cedaredge (https://www.hikingproject.com/trail/7058563/surface-creek-trail).
These are just a few of the great variety of outdoor resources available close to home. Remember to obey local park rules and be respectful of others’ nature experiences. Get outside with your kids and enjoy all these amazing parks have to offer!
Color Sunday, September 29, 2019, is just around the corner, and with it come the opportunities to get out into nature and experience the amazing yellows, oranges, and reds that come with aspen fall foliage. Aspen trees are amazing for more than just their beautiful leaves. They provide winter feed for elk and habitat for black bear and other species unique to Colorado. The following are three of our favorite family hikes on nearby public lands. Pick a trail near you or go to the FOYAN website for more hiking ideas in your backyard.
If you live in or near Montrose, one of our absolutely favorite fall hikes with children lies just to the south near the town of Ouray in the Uncompahgre National Forest. An easy 3.5 mile loop combines the Portland Trail with a portion of the Upper Cascade Falls trails. It explores the basin below a huge amphitheater of eroded cliffs rising through mature aspen trees above the eastern side of Ouray and features scenic viewpoints to appreciate this formation along with the peaks of the San Juan Mountains rising to the south and west of town. Our children always enjoyed looking for magic: bear claw marks on the aspen bark, feathers on the trail, and snail shells nestled in the rocks along the path. You can always soak off the trail dust in the Ouray pool afterwards!
How to get there: From Montrose drive south on highway 550 for 45 minutes to Ouray. Continue past Ouray for about a mile to the Amphitheater Campground and turn left onto the campground access road. The turnoff is past the second switchback leaving town. Follow the paved road into the campground keeping left at all intersections. The trailhead, marked for the upper Cascade trail is located at the top of the campground. Check out more details about this hike, and possible extensions into a longer hike at: hikingwalking.com and search for the Portland Trail description, under featured destinations of Southwestern Colorado.
Delta County residents can travel east to the West Elk Wilderness area taking the Kebler Pass Road (Colorado 12) towards Crested Butte. The Cliff Creek Trail, featuring a hike to Beckwith Pass, is a 4.7 mile round trip to the top of Beckwith Pass and back, and wanders through one of the largest Aspen groves in Colorado. This hike is rated moderate because of its elevation gain of about 1000 feet over 2.35 miles to the summit of the pass, but it is easy even for young hikers if you take it slow with a few snack breaks. The wildflower fields, mature aspen stands, and amazing views are worth the trip! This year the wildflowers have outdone themselves and are as tall as most hikers as you make your journey up this magical trail.
How to get there: From Hotchkiss drive east on Hwy 133 to the Kebler Pass turn off, following Hwy 12 for 17.9 miles. You will pass the Lost Lake Campground turnoff and turn off on the signed Cliff Creek trailhead. Drive up the dirt access road for 0.2 miles to the trailhead parking area. A trail description and trail map can be found at www.hikingwalking.com under central Colorado featured trails, Beckwith Pass via Cliff Creek.
Mesa County residents have the Grand Mesa National Forest right in your backyard! After driving up through the Pinyon-Juniper, Oak brush, and finally into the Aspen, you reach one of the most beautiful hikes on the Grand Mesa. The 2.8 mile Mesa Lakes trail loop begins at the Mesa Lakes Campground above Powderhorn Ski Area. You can add another 0.7 miles with a short out and back to Lost Lake, which involves a moderate climb with stunning views. This trail has the added value of fishing opportunities at Mesa Lake, South Mesa Lake, and Lost Lake.
How to get there: From Grand Junction, head west on I-70 to exit 49 for Highway 65 South towards Mesa/Collbran. Go 25 miles to Mesa Lakes Lodge. Drive into the lodge area and turn left just before the cabins. Follow the paved road to a parking area just beyond the trailhead. A map and short description of the Mesa Lakes trail can be found on www.alltrails.com/trail/us/colorado/mesa-lakes-trail.
Fresh air, exercise, family bonding, and exploring nature are just some of the benefits of hiking with your children. If you are at all uneasy about this family outing, here are a few tips and tricks that will help you have fun and ensure your kids will want to go again and again!
For the kick-off hike, pick an easy and interesting trail, go slow, and be enthused – it’s contagious! A destination hike can motivate kids to keep going to reach an endpoint - an overlook, cave, rock art, or waterfall. When you reach that point, have lunch, a special treat, or a fun activity like an energizing jump into a swimming hole. Also, at the end of your hike, have a good refreshing treat waiting in the cooler.
Plan lots of stops to observe and play. The best kid-friendly hikes usually involve scrambling over rocks or boulders, wading through shallow creeks, or walking around a lake. Your kids can practice skipping stones, discovering aquatic bugs under wet rocks, naming wildflowers, or spying fish darting about. Definitely have dry socks and shoes at the car!
Glance off-trail and look around often. A shiny object can get a curious child off course - that’s a good thing! Observation is a great skill, and improves with practice. The more you look, the more things you will see. Point out a lizard scurrying in the shade of a rock, a strange sound in the forest, the soft feel of moss on a log, the earthy scents of a decomposing log. Guide your child’s interaction with nature and try to appeal to all their senses.
A hike can combine the best parts of being in nature – freedom, adventure and discovery. Take breaks often. Pick a boulder or a log to rest, enjoy the view, and have a snack -the best part of a hike! Pack lots of light snacks – nuts, protein bars, and fruit. Surprise your kids with a few unexpected incentives to keep them going like Skittles, gummy worms, or Smarties. Take more water than you think your family will drink and drink it often.
Remain upbeat through the meltdowns and whines. Your kids will feed off of your energy, but be flexible. Change your plans if things are not working out. Remember that you are trying to introduce your family to a nature outing; they won’t want to go again if they aren’t having fun.
When boredom sets in, distraction is the name of the game, and there are lots of trail games to keep everyone occupied and hiking. Your family is also having fun together! Here are a few to keep in mind.
Some additional trail tips:
Blogs for spring!
Ethnobotany with Kids
Kids in the Garden-Oh Yeah! (8/2020)
DIY Summer Camps for Kids (7/2020)
Birds of a Feather (6/2020)
Hiking with Children 101 (8/2019)
Kids, Dogs, & Hikes: A winning combination (11/2020)