Tips to help you connect your family to nature!
Courtesy: Passionate People Team (passionatepeople.invacare.eu.com)-Five Fabulous Wheelchair Activities for Kids.
It’s not easy growing up in a world that isn’t always designed with your needs in mind. The challenges of everyday life can be considerable for kids with disabilities, and they also have to learn how to operate in a world that can be inaccessible while at the same time learning all of the other standard kid things that are part of becoming an adult. Time spent outdoors can bolster mental and physical health, build resiliency, provide educational opportunities, and contribute to a kid’s overall wellbeing, but finding ways to spend time in nature can be a challenge for those with limited mobility.
If your kid has trouble with balance and proprioception, or if they use crutches, a wheelchair, or another mobility aid to get around, there are a lot of opportunities to still get outside in safe and accessible ways here on the Western Slope.
We have a number of excellent parks in and around Montrose, Delta and Grand Junction. The Fish Tale trail in Ridgway State Park provides wheelchair accessible fishing access on the shores of Ridgway Reservoir. Fishing is a wonderful and fun outdoor activity to share with your kids, and provides hours of entertainment as well as a direct connection to nature when you do catch a fish. See our previous article on fishing with kids for more details on equipment, fishing licenses, and other things you need to know if you’re planning to take your kids fishing. Ridgway State Park also has wheelchair-accessible campsites and picnic areas if you want to make a longer weekend trip.
You have to love the Uncompahgre River Walk in Montrose. What a highlight of our community thanks to the efforts and planning of the Montrose Recreation Department. There are two paved designated access point to the river trail that are van-accessible with striped access aisles. A good map and description can be found on All Trails. One of the access points is the West Main Trailhead, just beyond the W. Main Street (State Route 90) bridge over the Uncompahgre River. The path heads north for approximately 1.5 miles and ends just beyond the Colorado Outdoors development. To the south, the trail crosses the river twice as it runs through Cerise Park, Baldridge Park, and Ute Park. For most of the route, the trail remains on-corridor and passes behind the Ute Indian Museum where the surface changes from concrete to gravel shortly after. The trail provides spectacular vistas of the San Juan Mountains to the south, the Uncompahgre Plateau to the west, Grand Mesa to the north, and the Cimarron Ridge and rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison to the east. You may spot a bald eagle or two fishing the river during the winter!
Confluence Park in Delta provides 7 miles of trails along the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers through the riparian cottonwood galleries. Approximately 4 miles of the trails are four feet wide, on grade and constructed with smoother surfacing that doesn’t get muddy. There is an ADA accessible fishing peninsula to entice your child to try a little fishing; and it’s a great place to spy snow geese and other winter waterfowl on the lake.
Don’t forget about our incredible National Parks. While some of them have truly accessible trails that allow people with limited mobility to experience the parks, there are always beautiful views to be had at the various lookouts and visitors centers. Our own Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park here in Colorado is not accessible as far as the interior goes, but most folks go just to look at it anyway—it’s a pretty incredible view! There are a number of accessible viewpoints where you can get the full experience including the Visitors Center, Pulpit Rock, Chasm View, Sunset View, Tomichi Point, and just driving along the canyon looking out the car window.
Venturing a little farther afield, to the top of Colorado National Monument, the National Park Service has not only a nice paved path around the Saddlehorn Campground that provides a pretty outdoor setting and beautiful views, but they also have the wheelchair-accessible Alcove Nature Trail. This is a dirt trail, but it’s wide and level to allow access for people with limited mobility. Note: As of November 2021 the park rangers said the trail has experienced some damage from runoff during recent rain events, so it may not be as accessible as usual right now. They do plan to fix it, but could not provide an estimated timeframe.
Arches National Park out in Utah has a number of stunning scenic areas along the loop road that will provide quite a view, and they also have a fair amount of trails and facilities that are wheelchair accessible (a detailed list can be found on the NPS website, and park staff can always guide you in the right direction once you’re there).
National Parks are fee-based, so you do have to pay to get in. However, be aware of the Interagency Access Pass; this pass is honored nationwide at all Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and US Fish & Wildlife Service sites and is free to those with a medical determination and documentation of blindness or permanent disability. This pass grants access for the pass holder and any accompanying passengers in a private (non-commercial) vehicle, as well as significant discounts on camping and other amenities.
There are some great opportunities to spend time outdoors, without the need to navigate sometimes treacherous terrain found on many hiking trails in Grand Junction area. Canyon View Park and Lincoln Park both have nice, long paved trails, as does Long Family Memorial Park in the Fruitvale area.
And don’t forget about the wonderful Riverfront Trail we’re so lucky to have here, it’s a great and accessible way to cover a lot of ground on a comfortable trail right by the beautiful Colorado River. Take a detour onto Watson Island, a popular place to play disc golf, and you can meander around several pathways while spending time outside.
A little farther west, in the James M. Robb Colorado River State Park, is Connected Lakes. This is a beautiful area with paved trails that meander around several inviting lakes, which is an excellent place for anyone to walk and is wonderfully accessible for wheelchair users. Since it’s in a state park the visit does require paying for a state parks pass; if that’s a limiting factor, Colorado Parks & Wildlife has the Centennial Program to provide parks passes at very low rates for income eligible Colorado residents (more information is on their website at cpw.state.co.us/centennialprogram).
If you’re looking for something a bit more rugged than the paved trails mentioned so far, there is a dirt trail out at the Lunch Loops area that’s been specifically designed for handcycles called “Short & Cranky” which is more accessible than your typical Tabeguache-area trail. It is still a mountain bike trail, though, so don’t expect perfectly smooth sailing—but that’s part of the fun! If you don’t have access to a handcycle, it also makes a good hiking trail that’s a bit more mellow and less steep than other trails at Lunch Loops.
Even farther west, the Fruita Paleo Area provides a short (under a mile) sandy but level trail with over 20 interpretive signs describing the area’s geology, fossils that have been found there, and the dinosaurs that once inhabited the area. The trail isn’t perfectly even and may not be entirely accessible for wheelchairs, but it does provide a short, easy hike with some very interesting natural finds for those with limited mobility.
While not on the Western Slope exactly, our neighbors to the east in Aspen have a few options that could be a new venture and worth the drive!
You may have heard of the iconic Maroon Bells, a breathtaking pair of peaks that have been the muse of many a photographer and painter. Below their towering, majestic forms lies Maroon Lake, which is worth a trip of its own just to see the incredible views. The upper part of the trail is paved and entirely wheelchair accessible; the lower section is gravel and fairly level, and may be suitable for wheelchair access as well with some assistance.
Also near Aspen are the Braille and Discovery Trails. They start from one parking area, but are two separate trails. The Braille Trail was designed specifically to be used by people with visual impairments, with a rope along the trail to serve as a tactile guide and interpretive signs for both sighted individuals and braille readers that teach about plants and animals in the area. The Braille Trail is not wheelchair accessible. Its partner, the Discovery Trail, is a short loop (around a quarter mile) with a packed sand/rock surface providing accessibility to wheelchair users. It also has several wheelchair accessible picnic areas along the route, so be sure to pack a good lunch to enjoy!
It’s important for anyone to have access to and spend time on our public lands and in the outdoors, and even more so for kids with disabilities who are facing some unique challenges as they grow up in a world that isn’t always easily accessible to them. Whether you’re visiting a local city park or one of our 63 incredible National Parks, take the time to get your whole family outdoors to experience our awe-inspiring natural world. Everyone is happier when they spend time outside!
Looking for ideas on getting kids with disabilities outside? Check out: Fabulous Wheelchair Activities for Kids (passionatepeople.invacare.eu.com), Plant a Seed and See What Grows (seewhatgrowas.org) and Outdoor Activities for Kids with Special Needs (https://www.cerebralpalsy.org/blog/outdoor-activities-for-children-with-special-needs)
The summer evening bat exodus from the Orient Land Mine (San Luis Valley) which hosts the largest colony of Mexican Free-Tailed Bats in Colorado. Bats eat millions of insects every night intercepting migrant pests before they can lay eggs, saving huge amounts of money for farmers. (Credit: Umkehrer (istock)
That is, if you happen to be an insect! These night stalkers have been known to eat upwards of 1,200 insects per hour, and that includes mosquitoes. These warm blooded, nocturnal creatures are often associated with the spookiest of holidays. Any guesses as to the animal in question? Why, bats, of course!
So how did bats become the creepy representatives of Halloween? Let’s start with a couple of myths:
Bats drink blood, right? Well, not exactly. There are only three species of bat that feed primarily on blood (the “vampire” bats), while the remaining ~1,400 species feed on things like insects, rodents, and nectar. Vampire bats are where the group as a whole got their connection to Halloween. When these bats were first observed lapping up the blood of cattle in Central and South America they were quickly given the label of “vampires.” This idea was made concrete when Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) depicted vampires’ shapeshifting into bats. Additionally, rumors have it that witches used bat blood in their “flying” concoctions. It’s no wonder bats have gotten a bad rap!
Here are a few more myths regarding bats:
Who needs pesticides when we have bats? The natural pest-control services provided by insect-eating bats in the United States likely saves farmers at least $3 billion a year, and yet insectivorous bats are among the most overlooked economically important, non-domesticated animals in North America, according to an analysis in the journal Science.
From deserts to rainforests, nectar-feeding bats that drink the sweet nectar inside flowers pick up a dusting of pollen and move it along to other flowers as they feed. Bat pollination is critical for a wide variety of plants such as giant cacti, agave and many commercial plant products.
Bats often cover vast distances each night. When they happen to cross clearings and defecate in flight, bats can scatter seeds of native plants, helping to naturally re-vegetate disturbed landscapes.
With more than 1,400 species, bats are the second largest order of mammals. In Colorado, we have 18 bat species that can be found in every habitat—from the eastern plains to the high mountain forests and western deserts, from rural Colorado to downtown Denver. Some are here year-round, and some only migrate through the state.
The bats you are most likely to see here on the Western Slope of Colorado are the Big Brown Bat (year- round residents hibernating in places like mines, caves, fissures and other places in winter), the Silver-Haired Bat (migratory – they fly south in winter) and Townsend’s Big-Eared Bat (year-round residents hibernating in winter). Guides will help you positively identify bats. One from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) is called “Bats of the Rocky Mountain West.” CPW monitors bat populations as part of a nationwide effort to detect changes from threats including White-Nose Syndrome and wind energy development. To learn more, visit: https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/Bats.aspx
This time of year, the only bats you are likely to see are the child- sized, black bats slinking around your neighborhood on October 31st. However, in spring and summer, there are many places where you can observe bats. Bats seek out a variety of daytime retreats such as caves, rock crevices, old buildings, bridges, mines, and trees. During the evening, they are on the hunt for insects near light sources and along creeks and drainages.
On the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the San Luis Valley, the Orient Mine hosts the largest colony of Mexican Free-Tailed Bats in Colorado. As the sun sets each summer evening, black clouds billow from the mouth of the abandoned iron mine when it’s time to hunt. There are extraordinarily large numbers—100,000 male bats on average—from June to early July in the mine. By the end of October, the colony’s population will swell as high as 250,000 as the ladies and their pups meet up with the guys in preparation for winter migration.
Since bats are surprisingly helpful creatures, what can you do to help the bats in your neck of the woods? This a perfect time to get some great ideas! National Bat Week is celebrated each year during the last week of October, this year from October 24-31, 2021. Visit www.batweek.org to learn more about these critters and discover ways to help improve the environment for bats. BatsLIVE – is an online, distance learning adventure and a one-stop resource for learning about bats with lesson plans, recorded webcasts, and multimedia tools all focused on bats. Do you want to know more about the disease devastating our bat populations? Watch the film “Battle for the Bats” to learn more about White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) and the important role that the public can play in bat conservation.
This Halloween, while you are looking forward to those sweet treats, consider “treating” the bats in your neighborhood with a place to roost. Building a bat house is a fun family project. The National Wildlife Federation website (https://www.nwf.org/garden-for-wildlife/cover/build-a-bat-house) provides easy instructions and information on the best placement location to meet the needs of these voracious mosquito eaters.
Bats have a bad rap, but the more you know, the more fascinating these little critters get. Now that we’ve cleared up some of those Halloween myths, let’s “Go to Bat for Bats!” and keep them coming back to our neighborhoods.
Students from Paonia Elementary enjoy a fall hike on the Grand Mesa National Forest.
It can be a bit daunting to choose an area to explore with kids in our nearby national forests, to say nothing of deciphering maps and determining appropriate trails for youngsters. Between the White River, and the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, there are over 5 million acres of U.S. Forest Service lands here in Western Colorado; so vast that one may become overwhelmed with the plethora of opportunities. To narrow that down a bit I want to share with you my favorite “Hiking Gems” for kids here in our beautiful backyard on the Grand Mesa National Forest. As there are two counties splitting the Grand Mesa, I’ll give you a peek at hikes by county.
At the top of Delta County is the Land o Lakes Trail on the south side of Highway 65. This is a very short hike but gives the best view of Island Lake and the topography all around. Kids like it because it’s SHORT, handicapped-accessible, and it boasts not just a view but lots of trees and flowers to identify--don’t forget to bring The Rocky Mountains Field Guide reference book or tri-fold, both of which are available at the Grand Mesa Visitor Center.
Also at the top of the Grand Mesa is the cross country ski area called appropriately County Line, which sits on the Delta and Mesa County Line. It’s advisable to do some planning by visiting the Grand Mesa Nordic Council website (gmnc.org/trails/skitrails) where you can print the map for all three ski areas. For the kiddos, I recommend the easy hike around the dog loop trail for a wonderful woodland experience, or the Overlook Trail for those able to cover more distance. The San Juan and Raggeds Mountain vistas are gorgeous from the overlook viewpoint. Mountain biking on the County Line Ski Trail system is also great fun for those of you who love the sport. I recommend reaching out to COPMOBA for recommendations based on the age and skill of your kids (www.copmoba.org).
The most famous of the Grand Mesa trails is the iconic Crag Crest Trail found just up the hill from the visitor center—there is a Crag Crest parking lot sign on Highway 65, so you can’t miss it. Crag Crest is renowned for the views, the wildflowers, trees, and the varied landscape. In fall, the golden, fiery orange leaf colors can be simply gorgeous. The almost 11 mile loop may be too much for most youngsters, and even the 6 mile one way trek can be a lot. But, no one says you can’t hike out of the parking lot and up the trail as far as you want to go—you might just get close enough to the rocky top to really take in the beautiful vistas. It’s truly an exhilarating hike for everyone!
Also on that side of the Grand Mesa is Island Lake. There you find a well-marked shoreline trail, taking off directly across from Island Lake Campground and going along the south side of the lake. Due to some higher-than-normal winds in past years, there are still downed trees. , but they’re easy enough to climb over or hike around. Watch for informational signs that tell fish stories that are indeed true AND remarkable. Access the trailhead via Forest Service Road #110, and park just past the trail entrance in the boat ramp parking area.
In addition to the lake trail, you can walk into the Island Lake Campground and over the hill to the east where you’ll find Little Gem Lake with beautiful wild grasses, wildflowers, and peaceful waters just perfect for skipping stones and picnicking. Or, take a walk all the way through the campground heading south. There you’ll find an improved off-road vehicle lane to the Granby Reservoirs with many lakes on this 8 mile one-way hike. Consider it an all-day affair; go the distance or just a little ways, and toss in your fishing line when you stop for lunch. It’s easy walking! .
The visitor center boasts the super kid-friendly Grand Mesa Discovery Trail. It departs from the visitor center and travels through woods and meadows, providing views of two lakes, seasonal wildflowers galore, and a few panels with nature information along the way (be sure to pick up the Discovery Trail pamphlet before you head out). The trail is only a third of a mile, so even the littlest can participate. While you are there, make a stop at the visitor center to learn the facts, history, and some of the excitement that Grand Mesa has to offer.
The turn-off to the visitor center continues on to the Ward Way picnic area just past the campground. There you can pick up the Baron Lake Trail which passes Alexander Lake and takes you to Baron Lake. Its 1.3 miles one way but there are two places to stop and throw in a line. Or just rest a spell and examine the bug and fish life in the two lakes. Shore access is unhindered, and an easy spot for kids to play and explore.
Now let’s go hiking on the Mesa County side, starting at the top and working our way down.
As previously mentioned there are some great hikes following the ski trails, and while the Sky Way Ski Trail system of the Grand Mesa Nordic Council has more ups and downs and rocky business, it has a completely different view. Again, print out the map online and follow the trail to the Sunset Overlook. It’s just so gorgeous on a blue sky day in the fall—you’ll be looking down off the Mesa towards all the geologic outposts of the Bookcliffs on the Grand Junction side of the mountain. So worth the view, and it will be a new view to those who are not skiers in this area.
Down the hill a bit is the Mesa Lakes and Jumbo Lakes area. There are multiple hikes in the area, all of which are kid-friendly. Turn into the Mesa Lakes area to access the 1.5 mile Mesa Lakes Shore Loop Trail. Stop for a toe dip in the cold water. This trail intersects with Lost Lake Trail for an additional 1.5 mile hike. This is one of my very favorite hikes to take with kids. It’s a bit more challenging than the Shore Trail. You can cut off the beginning hike by driving to the Glacier Springs picnic area at the same turn off as Mesa Lakes. Here the fun begins over basalt fields and through forests, and finally to the hidden gem of Lost Lake. While you are here, call out for an echo, cast out for a fish, or just get out your pen and paper and write a few Lost Lake inspired haikus. It’s a truly lovely place.
Further south is the turn off for Jumbo Lakes Campground with two big pools of water: Jumbo Reservoir and Sunset Lake. The campground is between them and has parking. It’s a super fun outdoor playground for kids with creeks, bridges, lakes and varied terrain to explore. There are lots of stone skipping possibilities as well.
If you are interested in a longer moderate level hike with lots of different terrain you can take off from the Mesa Lakes area on the Glacier Springs Cut-Off trail and head out to the Rim View Trail, or you can start at Sunset Lake in the Jumbo Lake Campground area and hit the Rim View Trail. It’s an out and back hike with wildflowers and rocks, and the ultimate view as you get past the connector trails. Bring your lunch and plan a picnic on a viewpoint of your choosing—you will not be disappointed.
For the ultimate adventure with your kids, I’d like to recommend a one day backpacking trip. In actuality you can go for a couple of days on this trail if you wanted. Just off of Lands’ End Road you’ll find Carson Lake area and by taking the footpath across the dam you’ll find the Kannah Creek Trailhead. Hike downstream on the trail until you are tired and have gone far enough (considering it’s an uphill climb out in the morning). Find a flattish spot near the creek and set up camp. My grandson still considers this his most “wild” adventure and can’t wait to show this quick overnight out of doors adventure to his younger sister. The Kannah Creek Trail goes all the way down the mountain, but I don’t recommend it for the kids. The sounds of the wind in the tall trees, the water rushing down the mountain, the birds, and the crackling fire (when safely constructed and extinguished) make for a perfect, easy, fun introduction to backpacking.
Most of this trail information and maps can be found on line at https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3812898.pdf with a printable brochure and map. Included on the map are road and route numbers. I’ve hiked all of these trails and I know you and your young folks will enjoy getting outdoors to discover the hiking gems of the Grand Mesa. Don’t be daunted by the vastness of our forest service lands—you got this, so get out there, and bring the kids!
We are so fortunate to live in a place surrounded by public lands here in Western Colorado. Lands open to the public include National Forests, Bureau of Land Management areas, National Parks, portions of National Wildlife Refuges and Colorado State Parks and Wildlife Areas. Within most of these areas, there is a vast array of established trails open for you and your family to access. But once you’re hiking on the trail, how do you know if you’re following the right path?
Once you choose an area to explore and you have selected a trail on a map, or from one of the many trail apps such as COTREX (Colorado Trail Explorer), knowing how to identify trail markings will help guide you on the trail you intended to be on - a key factor in having an enjoyable outing.
There are numerous trail markings that help you know you are on the right trail. Most trailheads will have an information kiosk with a topographic map of the area and a “You Are Here” mark to let you know you are at the correct place. Other important information will be provided on this information board, such as reminders about keeping your dog in control, or warnings of recent bear sightings. In addition to the path beneath your feet, most hiking paths in heavily wooded areas are marked with trail blazes on the trees along the trail. A traditional trail blaze resembles the lowercase “i” carved into the bark of a tree by an axe or a knife. These marks are falling out of favor for environmental reasons but are still found on older established trails. More recently developed trails are marked with painted blazes. These are arranged in certain configurations to help you know where the trail leads:
Here in Colorado, you also might see colored blazes indicating different uses of trails. Blue paint, poles, diamonds, or arrows on wooded trails indicate cross country ski trails. Orange paint, poles, arrows, or diamonds indicate snowmobile or ATV trails. Other trails, such as those on BLM land, national parks, and other public lands, usually have markers with universal international symbols indicating the approved use for that trail. Some trails will have multiple uses, so be sure to be aware if you are hiking on a trail that may also be used by bicyclists or horses. On multiple use trails, common sense should prevail with respect to trail etiquette. As a general rule, hikers and cyclists give way to horses.
If you are in a desert or alpine area, trail markings called cairns, or simply stacked rocks, are often used to indicate the correct trail where it crosses barren landscapes and the path may not be clearly evident. Rock pillars have been used throughout history for navigation and marking sacred spots by people around the world. There has been a lot of discussion recently about making sure people do not construct random piles of rock for several reasons. In the back-country of Colorado, rock cairns are meant to be used for navigation without disturbing the natural environment. A constructed or complex rock arrangement, could cause confusion for other hikers as to the location of the official designated trail. These random arrangements diminish the wilderness experience, and violates the Leave No Trace principles followed by hikers and backpackers.
Wherever you go with your family, make sure you always let someone know where you are going and “Know before you go.” Check in with the management agency about trail conditions and conditions of the roads accessing the trailhead. Be prepared! Make sure you have the 10 essentials in your daypack like water, food, extra clothing, raingear, a map, a headlamp, and a basic first aid kit. Then follow the trail markings and enjoy your time in Colorado’s backcountry!
Nothing like the thrill of catching a big one- even if it is a carp!
Whether you’re a lifelong angler, or you’ve never picked up a rod and reel in your life, fishing can be a great way to spend time with your family and get outside to enjoy nature. What better way to spend a morning, or a whole day, than hanging out by a lake or river with a picnic and your kids, enjoying the chance for quiet and conversation? It can also be great for kids who are learning some life skills like patience, and the rewards thereof. Additionally, fishing is a fantastic way to teach kids about the fish, their habitat, their interaction with other plants and animals in the ecosystem, their life cycle, and so much more. The opportunities for outdoor education are endless!
As far as new outdoor activities go, fishing also has a fairly low barrier to entry. If you’re just starting out you can get a basic fishing rod and reel for about $20, and an adult fishing license for about $46 per year for the first one, and $36 for the second; kids under 16 generally don’t need a fishing license, except under special circumstances (e.g. if they’re planning to use more than one rod at a time, in which case they would need a second-rod stamp). That means that your family could get started with fishing for under $70, which will set you up for almost unlimited days spent by the lake or river. Go to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website (cpw.state.co.us) for a list of locations that sell fishing licenses, or for instructions on how to get your fishing license through the myColorado mobile app.
As you plan your entry to the world of the angler there are some safety considerations when fishing with kids, so plan for these potential issues in advance. Of course the most immediate danger for children is the water itself—make sure your kids are always supervised around the water, and consider having them wear lifejackets even if you aren’t fishing from a boat.
Sun exposure is also a concern, so cover up, use lots of sunscreen, and make sure everyone is staying well-hydrated throughout the day.
Another thing to think about are the fishing hooks—they’re great for catching fish, but they can also catch an unsuspecting bit of skin, or worse, if you’re not careful! There’s a handy device called a Hide-a-Hook Bobber™ that covers up the hook while casting, and it may be a wise investment to prevent any injuries. A sidearm cast is better and safer than an overhead cast for beginners, so if you are going to teach your kids to do their own casting you may want to teach the sidearm technique (there are plenty of YouTube videos available for you to learn, if you’re not sure how). You might also just do the casting yourself, and leave the bobber-watching and fish-reeling up to your kids instead. As long as they have a job, they’ll be happy spending time with you outdoors.
As you get ready for your fishing trip make sure you pack not only the fishing gear you’ll need but also sunscreen, sunglasses and hats, plenty of water, snacks or a full picnic lunch, bug repellant (especially if you’re headed up to the Grand Mesa!), and a first-aid kit. Be prepared for any adverse weather conditions as well, and pack a rain jacket if you’ll be any distance from your vehicle, and warm clothing for the shoulder seasons.
Now the obvious question is, where should you go to find the fish? This is a subject that’s best left to the experts—call or stop in at your local fishing store, and they’ll be more than happy to offer some suggestions well-suited to your kid’s age(s), the kind of fishing you want to do, the time of year, the time of day you plan to fish, and how far you want to drive. The folks at the fishing store have probably been doing it for years and will know your local area the best, and they’ll be excited to help a new generation of anglers get started in the sport. They’ll also be helpful in setting you up with your new fishing gear!
Fishing is an activity that can involve the smallest toddler up through grandma and grandpa, and it’s a great excuse to get everyone outside, enjoying time spent by the water, having a picnic, and getting the whole family chatting. It’s no wonder fishing is one of the most popular activities in the country, and it’s never too late for you and your family to get started. Grab your rod and reel, pack your lunch, and head to the water! It’s guaranteed to be a fun day for the whole family.
Wherever you are, you are standing in a watershed! But, how do you explain a watershed to a 9 year old? Observation is a good start. A roof catches the water from a rain storm and as it runs off the roof, it flows into gutters, drainpipes and eventually into a barrel, or a storm drain in the street. Now, imagine the hillsides of a big valley being the roof of a shed, and the melting snow runs down the slopes into small streams eventually flowing into larger rivers. The area of land encompassing the hillsides is referred to as the watershed. From a bird’s eye view, drainage patterns in a watershed resemble a network similar to the branching pattern of a tree. Tributaries, similar to twigs and small branches, flow into streams, the main branches of the tree eventually to the larger tree trunk. Like all other branching patters (e.g., road maps, veins in a leaf), the drainage pattern consists of smaller channels merging into larger ones.
A watershed is an important concept! In the west, water availability depends on the amount of rain and snow throughout the year. In Colorado, the snowpack or total seasonal accumulation of snow on the ground is the predominant source of runoff supplying our major rivers with water. In this part of Colorado those rivers are: the Gunnison, the Uncompahgre, the San Miguel, the Dolores and of course the Colorado River. The last few back-to-back below average water years, started to build drought conditions which intensified with a dry spring and hot summer. Last summer was one of the driest years on record and created drought conditions that sparked some of the worst fires in our state history. Because of the consequences of drought, understanding and caring for our watershed becomes very important.
Water availability is also dependent on the condition of the land within the watershed. Watershed health is a function of appropriate land uses which affect the amount infiltration, runoff, the quality of the water flowing into a river and ultimately what we drink! Local foresters often provide a very effective visual demonstration to help students understand how land use can affect water quality. Using 2 (half) culverts set on a slope, one with sod (substituting for trees shrubs, grasses) and the other with no plants, only soil; one student pours one gallon of water from the top of each culvert and their classmates capture the water that runs off the bottom of each culvert in a clear flask. Their observations? The water sample from the vegetated (sod) culvert is clear compared to the murky water sample from the non-vegetated culvert. Proof that vegetation slows down the runoff so the precipitation seeps into the soil. The roots of the plants function as a filter catching the sediments and nutrients, ultimately providing better quality water. Land use matters! Roads, housing developments, shopping malls, parking lots, timber harvesting, improper grazing and wildfires remove vegetation and can cause increased soil erosion which ultimately affects the quantity and quality of runoff within the watershed.
Watersheds, river dynamics and western water management are such important concepts to understand that two non-profits and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have contributed funding to provide opportunities for students to learn about them. The mission of these entities are a bit different but all three encourage actions to protect our watersheds. “Forever Our Rivers” champions community engagement in river health, with efforts generating the interest, people power and funding needed for healthy river ways. “The Gunnison Round Table” (associated with DNR and the Colorado Water Conservation Board) is involved with water planning for current and future in-basin uses. Friends of Youth and Nature facilitates opportunities for youth to learn about the environment and become active stewards of our natural resources. All three have collaborated this year to establish funding to bring over 1200 students to events with interactive water learning activities on the Western Slope.
“Water in the West” is the newest Colorado River Water interactive exhibit at the Eureka Science Museum in Grand Junction. The hydrology exhibit includes 12 different lessons about water, from turbulence and dissolved oxygen to measuring flow rate. Approximately 700 gallons of water flow through a 40- foot- long feature that mirrors the Colorado River. Water rushes through irrigation gates to orchards, flows through fish ladders, is diverted into dams and canals and is tubed away in a model of a transmountain diversion.
A few weeks ago, fourth graders participated in the annual Montrose Natural Resource Festival sponsored by the Shavano Valley Conservation District. Groups of students rotated through stations where they learned about various natural resource concepts through demonstrations and hands-on activities led by resource specialists. Not surprisingly, many stations focused on aspects of water: Your Water – Your Watershed, explaining ways water users can cooperate to protect water resources (The Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership); The Importance of Trees in Our Watersheds (Montrose Forest Products) , A River Runs Through It – Simulating the dynamics of a river system in a big sandbox (Delta Conservation District), The Importance of Aquatic Invertebrates in the Food Chain (BLM/San Juan Mountain Association); The History of Colorado Water Laws and Why Measuring Flow is Important (Colorado Division of Water Resources), and, Preventing Pollution in our Watersheds (City of Montrose).
The goal of these environmental education events is for our youth to learn how interconnected and complex our water systems are. The Colorado River Basin is huge, encompassing parts of seven U.S. states and two Mexican states. There are a myriad of land uses, and land conditions within this huge basin as it flows from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains over 1400 miles into the mostly dry Colorado River Delta at the tip of the Gulf of California. Many people rely on that water for so many uses – drinking water, agriculture, industry, power, recreation and fish and wildlife habitats. Do we have enough water to share? How do you measure it? How do you decide how much everyone gets particularly in a drought? How is water stored? How much evaporates? Does dust on snow affect spring snow melt? How can you restore and protect watersheds? What are inner basin water transfers? Western Colorado students are introduced to a lot of concepts related to water in the west, and the more they know, the more questions they have! Mission accomplished- inspiring critical thinkers! Next time you have a conversation with a fourth grader, ask them why they think water in the west is so complicated?
River Runner is a very cool water tool that tracks a raindrop anywhere in the contiguous United States! Watch where it ends up! Check out “Color Me a Watershed” and "Branching Out” – Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) activities to demonstrate watershed concepts to students in the classroom.
“Who likes pickles?” asked Jan Congour, a second grade teacher at Northside Elementary. Her students gathered around the raised garden bed, each nibbling on a sprig of dill freshly emerged from the soil. This was the scene at morning recess, as the students learned about what herbs they like, and how to grow some of the things they like to eat in the 14 raised beds at the Northside Elementary Learning Garden.
The school’s garden project and outdoor classroom just got a $5,000 award to expand its outdoor learning space from Friends of Youth and Nature (FOYAN), a non-profit that promotes, supports, and facilitates opportunities for youth and their families to go outside, explore and embrace nature, and experience new activities in the outdoors. Funding of this award is partially from the El Pomar Foundation San Juan Regional Council and donations from supporters of FOYAN. El Pomar Foundation and FOYAN donors believe in the value, particularly now, of having access to experiences in our outdoor spaces that contribute to our youth’s well-being.
The funding has been used to purchase and install a shed, so tools and supplies can be close to the garden area, hoop structures to extend the garden’s growing season, and materials to build compost bins. The funding has also been used to purchase shade sails, white boards, and seating for outdoor classroom areas. Student teams submitted designs for the outdoor classrooms to the school’s Garden Team for selection. The students were given a STEM challenge to design and help build compost bins. As part of the STEM challenge, the students researched the proper mix of greens and browns to put in the right stuff for a healthy, pest- proof compost that they will eventually work into the soil.
The Learning Garden is a school-wide effort and has had four successful growing seasons. Each grade plants and maintains at least one garden bed with two to three vegetable varieties. Northside families, students, staff, and volunteers care for the garden in the summer. Each fall, the school hosts a harvest celebration where students and their families pick vegetables and learn more about the garden project. They also get to taste some of their rewards made into smoothies, juices, sautéed vegetables and snacks. This spring, second grade classes sold seed packets as a fundraiser to assist with the purchase of garden supplies. The seed packets were filled with seeds the second graders had harvested from the garden this past October.
The Learning Garden provides an opportunity for the Northside teachers to incorporate conservation concepts such as helping students understand where the valley’s water supply comes from and watershed related issues. The students also learn about nutrition, recycling, composting, and how to minimize their carbon footprint. Congour believes that “kids can learn many intangible lessons from working in the garden such as cooperation, nurturing, problem solving, sustainability, and stewardship of the Earth.”
One component of FOYAN’s mission is to promote healthy lifestyles. “The Northside school garden project is an excellent fit with FOYAN’s mission, particularly with the incorporation of the Live Well resources through Montrose Valley Food Partnership and nutrition lessons through the Denver Urban Garden Curriculum,” explained Anne Janik, FOYAN board member. Many community members are helping to make this garden project a success including seed donations from High Country Gardens and Valley Food Partnership and individual donations to FOYAN that are returned to the donor’s local community. But, the key to the Learning Garden’s success is the hard work of the Northside teachers, Garden Team, students, and families!
Growing delicious food has already made an impact on these second graders! When the students were asked what their favorite vegetables were in the garden? “cilantro, tomatoes, and chilis“ were the winners!
Wearing his adventure vest, full of pockets to stow away treasures, this explorer is ready for the A-Z scavenger hunt!
A few weeks ago I was asked to watch my niece and nephew for the afternoon. I was thrilled and had big plans to take them for hikes, jump on the trampoline, order takeout, and other fun things only the “Cool Aunt” could provide. But what I was quickly reminded of was that I would have to compete against the Almighty Screen in order to get to play with my niece and nephew. After a mild effort, I was ready to throw in the towel and just be okay with making spaghetti and watching the kiddos “game” on their virtual devices. Their tablets were pointed at the ceiling broadcasting voices of neighborhood children simultaneously plugged into the game and subsequently checked out of the present moment. Then, a small opportunity presented itself − the tablet-encased voices were shouting, “We have to go and eat dinner!” This meant I might have some leverage to persuade my niece and nephew to play with me, a non-digital entity. I quickly suggested a walk in the sunshine, which was ignored. Then I suggested riding bikes, which got me a “maybe.” When I brought up the idea of a scavenger hunt, I finally got a reaction! My nephew leapt off the couch and, ran upstairs to put on his adventure vest which was full of pockets and made him look like he could have been Steve Irwin’s assistant. My niece, who rarely wears shoes, was off the couch looking for her flip-flops. Although not true adventure wear, I wasn’t going to stop our forward progress into the outdoors.
1 point for the Cool Aunt!
We ran around the front yard looking for clues and quickly putting them in a pocket of the adventure vest. We climbed over bridges, stormed through gates, looked under rocks, and absorbed a good hour’s worth of Vitamin D. For our next go around, my niece suggested a version of a scavenger hunt that would let us all play at the same time and more importantly would expand our adventure beyond the familiarity of the front yard. As we made our way around the block my nephew asked, “Can we go as far as we want?” I gleefully said “Yes,” and the memories of trying to get him off the couch just a few hours earlier quickly faded from all of our minds. Later, I would hear things like, “I like looking closely at the tree bark because it is so interesting,” and, “we may need flashlights because I don’t want to quit!”
Another point for the Cool Aunt.
The Cool Aunt A-Z scavenger hunt:
As Michele Hart – the “cool aunt” discovered with the right enticement, - you too can get those kids off the couch and their screens. From close-to-home forays to summer-long hunts, an outdoor scavenger hunt introduces a healthy dose of competition while giving kids a chance to be free to explore and learn to observe!
There are all kinds of ways to set up a scavenger hunt for younger and older youth. Here are some additional ideas:
Clue and Route-based Teamwork: When you want to take a team-based approach, you can hide a list of clues or riddles, one leading to the next, with a prize waiting at the end. The kids work together to solve the clues; for example, “This tree has strips of bark that peel off and burn easily making it an excellent fire starter. Go here for your next clue!” (Destination: juniper tree.) And the next clue: “Now that you’ve found the juniper, look for the home of earthworms, vegetable scraps, and grass clippings.” (Destination: compost pile.). Tailor your clues to your kids’ age group and interests—and get creative with your prizes: s’more fixings, fishing gear, or just simple bragging rights.
Season-Long Treasure Hunts: These are the granddaddies of all outdoors scavenger hunts: the season-long activity accomplishment checklists! These involve visiting a string of locations and/or accomplishing a certain set of activities within a season (summer vacation, for example) or beyond. Items might include: spend the night out under the stars, catch and release a fish, go canoeing, reach the top of a mountain, build a shelter out of natural materials, spend the night in a canyon, etc. There are over 100 things every kid absolutely has to do before they are 12! For instance, have you peeked under a rock in a creek to see what’s underneath, walked a tight-rope on a log, dug for worms, danced in the rain, waded in a stream or spotted the big dipper? These are just a few of those 100 things. Need the list? You can download it from Generation Wild – The List. Most of these things you can do in a park, or in your backyard. You don’t have to go far to have fun outside - you just need to go!
Start a summer tradition with your family - simple quests for the littles and more complicated hints possibly riddles for the older kids - or have teams composed of multiple age groups for even more comradery. After all, no matter what your age, who doesn’t love a scavenger hunt?
To see the results of the A-Z scavenger hunt visit FOYAN Facebook. For some great hip pocket trail games and links to the backyard bucket list- go to our home page (www.friendsofyouthandnature.org)
Getting kids involved in growing their own food is great for their education and development, and a ton of fun for both of you! What better way to teach kids about where their food comes from, and the importance of healthy and local foods than growing your own veggies at home? Having to water, weed and care for living things also conveys to your kids an important sense of personal responsibility.
You can bring your kids into the entire process—start your garden planning early, and allow your kids to make gardening choices (with your guidance) so they feel ownership of the project. What kind of vegetables do they want to grow and eventually eat? If you’re using pots, what size of pots will those plants need? Where in your yard should you put them so they have the kind of sun or shade conditions they need to thrive? How often do you need to water them, and whose responsibility will it be to make sure they’re getting enough water? How will you tell when they’re ready to eat? And, perhaps the most fun question, what are you going to cook with each vegetable when they’re ready?
There are so many ways you can involve your kids in the garden planning and care, and they’ll learn a lot in the process. Here are 5 quick and easy ways you and your kids can get started with a backyard garden.
1 - Potted Plants
Building a garden bed is time consuming and takes up a lot of space. If you’re not ready to take the leap to a full-on garden bed, potted plants can work just as well! There are a lot of vegetables that will grow in pots including tomatoes, beets, leafy greens like chard and kale, hot or sweet peppers, lettuces, onions, and even beans (as long as you have something for them to climb on).
Just make sure the pots you use are big enough for the plants you want to grow—tomatoes, for instance, will need at least an 18-24” pot—and use a high quality potting soil that’s made for vegetables, so they’re getting all the nutrients they need.
Sun-loving vegetables like tomatoes and peppers should be in a bright, sunny place, but make sure more delicate plants like lettuces and spinach have a little bit of shade to provide relief from the heat.
2 - Mini Herb Garden
Another great way to bring the garden into your kitchen is with herbs. Not only will your kids get to participate in the growing process, but planning the meals you’ll make becomes even more fun!
One idea is to start with some of your kids’ favorite foods, and ask them to help you research what herbs they’ll need to make it. Do they love lasagne or pizza? Oregano is critical to the Italian flavor. Are they big on pesto? Basil can be your crop of choice. Start with the final product, and work backwards to help them figure out what ingredient you’ll need to make it happen.
Herbs are great because almost all of them will thrive in small pots, which are convenient and can usually be grown indoors. You could do a number of different herbs—thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary, etc.—or just stick to one that requires a larger amount, such as basil to be used in a batch of pesto. In addition, many of these herbs can continue to be grown in their pots indoors year round, providing fresh additions to your daily cooking beyond the normal summer garden.
Your kids can help pick out or decorate fun pots, fill them with soil, start seeds or transplant already-started herbs, and pick out the spot where the plants will be happiest as they grow.
3 - Colorful Lettuce Garden
Lettuces will thrive in cooler temps, like the current early spring season or in the fall, and they’ll provide a continuing source of salads for your dining room table. They are easy to start from seeds, and there are so many interesting and colorful varieties to choose from.
Lettuces have fairly shallow roots, so you can get away with a long and low container to house your whole lettuce garden. Have your kids help you pick out a variety of colorful and unique lettuces from the seed pack selection at your local nursery, fill your container with high quality soil, and plant rows of various lettuces to create a beautiful and tasty little crop of salad greens.
Salad greens are a perfect farm to table connection—clip off some lettuce leaves, whip up a quick vinaigrette, and combine them into a fresh salad in less than 5 minutes.
4 - Crop o’ Carrots
Anybody who’s never had a carrot straight out of the garden is missing out. I still have vivid memories from when I was little, pulling fresh carrots straight out of my mom’s garden and washing off the soil with the garden hose for a quick summer snack.
You’ll need a little deeper pot for carrots, since they’re a root vegetable, but about 12” of depth will be sufficient for your micro-crop of carrots. They’re incredibly easy to plant, just get some good soil and stick the seeds in the ground. One easy method of planting carrots and other small seeds is with a clean salt shaker; shaking the seeds from a salt shaker will help you to prevent over planting these tiny seeds. Before you know it, you’ll start seeing little carrot tops peeking their heads out above the soil.
The only way to know whether they’re ready is by pulling one out, but of course, “ready” is a matter of opinion in this case. Tiny carrots are just as tasty as giant ones, and the longer you wait the more rewards you’ll reap—what a great way to teach kids the benefits of patience.
5- Pallet Garden
This is a really neat way to create a space-saving and beautiful garden for a small backyard. Many businesses have stacks of pallets that they’re happy to get rid of—with a quick search on Craigslist you’ll be able to find many more pallets than you’ll ever need. These pallets can be repurposed into a fun and economical vertical or horizontal garden with just a little work.
I won’t go into all the details of making a pallet garden, because there are hundreds of how-to guides you can find online with a quick Google search, but the basic process involves stapling landscape fabric inside the pallet to create multiple vertical rows for planting your vegetable garden. The main thing to be careful of in general, but especially with kids, is that pallets can have sharp nails and splinters, so be very conscious of that when you’re picking out pallets and building your garden.
You can get your kids involved filling it with soil and planting all of the vegetables, or even a sweet treat like strawberries, and an especially fun thing you can do with them is paint and decorate the pallet to make it beautiful.
So there you have it—5 quick and simple ways to get a garden started with your kids, and teach them about their food and where it comes from. Have fun, and enjoy the fruits (or vegetables) of your labor!
Oh yes, we do love Girl Scout cookies...and their annual cookie sale fundraising event is happening right now! But the Girl Scouts are about so much more than cookies. I recently rediscovered Scouting for Girls, published by The Girl Scouts, Inc. in 1926, and my interest was piqued to take a look at how girl scouting has evolved and adapted to getting young girls outside in our world today.
Girl Scouts were originally started in England as the Girl Guides. Juliette Low brought the idea to the U.S. and founded Girl Guides in America, with the first troop in Savannah, Georgia in 1912. The name change to Girl Scouts was made in 1915, at the same time as the establishment of the national headquarters in Washington, D.C. The first national convention was held in 1915 as well, and Juliette Low’s Girl Scouts program was introduced and embraced by the public for a “growing army of girls and young women who are learning in the happiest way how to combine patriotism, outdoor activities of every kind, skill in every branch of domestic science, and high standards of community service”. The motto--”Be Prepared”; the slogan-- “Do a Good Turn Daily.”
Today’s Girl Scouts are very active on Colorado’s Western Slope with 30 troops in Mesa County, 4 in Delta County, and 3 in Montrose County. While the initial motto and slogan is still important to daily life, they have since updated to the more comprehensive mission of “Building girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place.” I spoke with Ashley Douglas, Regional Volunteer Support Specialist, to get some insight into girl scouting in our current times. Girls are still organized into troops with an adult troop leader, and they work together and individually towards earning skill-building badges in many areas of interest including one close to Friends of Youth and Nature’s hearts with outdoor learning experiences. The badges are organized by type of activity and by age group. The age groups range from kindergarteners named the Daisies, through to grade twelve, aptly named the Ambassadors. All the activities are age-appropriate so I took a look at the junior group, consisting of fourth and fifth graders. Within the Outdoor Badge section, the activities are very broad such as Animal Habitats, Gardener, Outdoor Art Explorer, Eco-Camper, Geocacher, and so on. You can dig deeper to learn all about the badges and the requirements at www.girlscouts.org. There are requirements for each badge, and troop leaders provide support to learn and experience each requirement. For example, the Junior Eco-Camper badge requires a scout to learn how to protect the environment when going on a camping trip, learn the seven principles of leave no trace, plan meals with the environment in mind, build a minimal impact campsite, and learn how to take a hike with a focus on conservation. Once the badge is earned the Girl Scout will have gained skills that can be applied during their entire life and be passed onto future generation--all while having a wonderful time and sharing in the experience of the great outdoors.
Many Girl Scout troops engage in activities that bring out the whole family, such as a recent outing on skis and snowshoes on the Grand Mesa. Sixty families signed up! Because of concerns due to COVID-19, the girl scouts worked with the Health Department to make certain their activities were safe by taking various precautions such as forming small groups, wearing masks, and being outdoors at safe distances. The coordination for this type of activity falls to a volunteer group, the Western Slope Outdoors Committee, made up of troop leaders and parents. The snowshoe/ski day was a big success for girls and their families due largely to the efforts of these volunteers.
In the foreword of Scouting for Girls 1926 edition, Robert Baden Powell (the founder of Boy Scouts Association in Britain circa 1908) states that he “used Scouting--that is, wood craft, handiness, and cherry helpfulness--as a means for training young soldiers when they first joined the army.” He would continue to use these training methods as a boon to boys and society in peacetime as well. Soon the girls wanted their own organization, and the Girl Guides were born. Today, as well as in the early days of Girl Scouts, being helpful to others is very much a core belief and behavior. Ashley Douglas, the local Regional Volunteer Support Specialist, said the girls and young women take the idea of community service to the next level with action. The Take-Action community service can best be explained with this example: A troop might decide a problem in their community is the proliferation of trash scattered around their favorite park. Community service could be to spend a Saturday afternoon picking up the trash. Take-Action is to first identify the root cause of that problem, for instance, it might be that there are not enough trash cans in the park. The girls could then develop a sustainable solution to the root cause of that problem by going to City Council and asking how they can help get more trash cans in the park. Twenty years ago the Take-Action approach to community service was introduced as part of the silver and gold awards. Now, Girl Scouts of all ages are creating Take-Action projects, and it becomes second nature to them as they grow up--creating wonderful adult public service thinkers and do’ers.
If you are looking for ways to inspire a young girl to get outdoors, explore Mother Nature, learn and have fun, the Girl Scouts may be a perfect fit. Scouting creates a family that lasts a lifetime and provides experiences to build on for that lifetime as well! If you are interested in learning more, finding a troop, or volunteering, go to the Colorado website for Girl Scouts, www.girlscoutsofcolorado.org, or reach out directly to Ashley Douglas at 970-628-8009. And meanwhile, support your local troop by enjoying those cookies--it is cookie season!
Blogs for Fall!
Favorite Fall Hikes With Kids (9/2019)
Three Beautiful Hikes with Kids in Three Local Counties (5/2020)
Getting Outside with Kids at Local Parks (10/2019)
Hiking with Children 101 (8/2019)
Kids, Dogs, & Hikes: A winning combination (11/2020)