Tips to help you connect your family to nature!
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!
Cross Country Skiing? With kids? You bet! This fantastically fun activity is a life skill that can open doors for your family winter after winter. Here are a few tips to make your cross-country ski trips fun for the whole family.
The magic of cross-country skiing is that you can enjoy this activity no matter what your skill level. Beginners will experience the thrill of fresh snowflakes on their cheeks while they master the art of the diagonal stride—the basic method for moving forward down the tracks. More advanced skiers can work on perfecting their glide, coordinating their poles and skis, and learning how to move more quickly across the snow. We are very fortunate to have several areas on the Western Slope that provide excellent cross-country ski terrain close to home.
If you do not already have cross-country ski gear, ski packages can be rented locally at several shops near you from experts who will help fit you with properly-sized skis, poles, and comfortable boots. Cross-country ski boots fit just like a hiking boot or tennis shoe—they are very comfortable and allow your foot to move in a natural motion with only the toe of your boot fastened to the ski. This allows for a natural walking motion as you move down the trail. These local shops have cross-country ski gear near you:
Be sure to ask them to show you how to attach and release your boots from your skis, and how to put your pole straps on your wrists.
Once you have your gear, you will need to decide where to go. It is important to bring extra clothing and healthy snacks (see https://www.friendsofyouthandnature.org/bundle-up--for-winter-fun.html). Although you can have fun in the snow on any snow-covered hiking trail, for beginners it is more fun to learn on a groomed track. There are several volunteer organizations that groom cross-country ski trails for the public. Be sure to make a donation at the trailhead if you are able, to help these organizations with fuel and grooming costs—or better yet—become a member to ensure these services can continue to provide us with quality trails! Grand Mesa Nordic Council offers groomed trails on the Grand Mesa at three different trailheads. County Line trailhead, located at the Delta/Mesa county line on Grand Mesa is the most beginner friendly with short gentle trails that loop through the spruce and fir forest on Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forest. The Black Canyon National Park outside of Montrose also grooms the snow-covered road just past the visitor center—be sure to call first to see if it has been recently groomed. Cerro Summit has trails groomed by the city of Montrose. There are also volunteer groomed trails on the Dave Wood Ski Trails west of Montrose, Top of the Pines outside of Ridgway, and Ironton, outside of Ouray.
Once at the trailhead, you are ready to go! This may sound silly, but the most important first step in having fun while cross-country skiing is learning how to fall down and stand up. Learning how to stand up properly after a fall will make your whole day much more fun! The key is to untangle yourself (sometimes by putting your feet up in the air), put your skis next to you so they are parallel, scoot your body around to the front of your skis so your knees are on your skis and you could kiss the tips of your skis if you wanted to. Then put one knee up so you are kneeling on just one knee, and finally, stand up. If you are in the correct position you won’t even have to use your poles to help you, as you are using your leg strength. As you move down the trail, keep your knees slightly bent and bouncy. Practice bending your knees so you can touch your hands to the snow and you will ensure your feet are in the correct position—flat on your skis and stable. You start down the trail by ‘walking,’ using very short bouncy steps to get used to the glide, and keeping your nose over your toes. Then pretend you are running across the playground or soccer field using very short steps transferring your weight from one ski to the other. On the first flat stretch you have, take your poles off your wrists and ski using short running steps down the trail without your poles. This allows your body to trust your legs. As you get comfortable without poles, you can then add them in combination with your stride. Use your arm motion the same way you do when walking or running—opposite arm (pole) with your opposite leg (ski). As you get more and more comfortable with this motion, your body will naturally start to extend your stride on your skis and you will soon be gliding down the trail. Voila! You are now cross-country skiing using the basic motion called the diagonal stride. Many instructional videos can be found online for more information.
As you learn to cross-country ski, a whole winter world will open up to you and your family. There are many other resources to help you get started. The Nature Connection out of Hotchkiss has scheduled several “pop-up” ski days (Jan 23, Feb 19, Feb 27, Feb 27) where they will offer basic lessons and cross-country ski gear free for youth and with a nominal charge for accompanying adults. You need to call to reserve your gear and get more information at 970-872-5910. Grand Valley Nordic Ski Club is offering cross-country ski lessons for youth ages 5-13 every weekend with experienced coaches on Grand Mesa starting on January 9 through March 6th. More information can be found at https://gvnsc.com/youth-programs and scholarships are available for those in need. The Grand Mesa Nordic Council offers individual and small group lessons. In addition to these three programs, Odin Recreation out of Mesa, CO is offering a program called “Odin Recreation Mountain Education” in cooperation with Powderhorn Ski Area. Contact Toby at email@example.com for more information about this exciting program.
Wild winter fun on cross-country skis is the most natural movement you can do across the snow! There is nothing like it, and it will provide years of fun for your whole family.
Yes − there are rangers that specialize in snow! Their jobs involve protecting the natural environment, evaluating snow conditions for avalanches and providing warnings of avalanche danger, monitoring snow accumulation to predict spring runoff, skiing/boarding down ski areas to make sure everyone is safe, protecting wildlife and their winter habitats from disturbance, and; search and rescue when people go missing. What does a job like this require? A keen interest and knowledge of earth science and a passion for winter and the outdoors are a must. Most snow rangers develop a love of winter at an early age and continue to build personal experiences in the outdoors eventually pursuing academic classes and other certifications. The key is developing a love for winter and the outdoors at an early age, and that is what the Junior Snow Ranger Program is all about.
Developed by the US Forest Service in 2012, the Junior Snow Ranger program is intended to inspire youth to embrace a relationship with the winter environment, and to become stewards of the land. The Junior Snow Ranger activity booklet is targeted for 4th and 5th graders, however, children and adults of all ages can take away something from the program. You can download the booklet by searching the web for “Junior Snow Ranger”, which takes you to a Forest Service webpage. When the booklet is completed, parents can mail in the certificate and your child will receive an official Junior Snow Ranger bandana, card and patch.
The booklet is filled with activities that will help you and your child learn about the winter environment such as: how to become a snowflake sleuth, how to identify animal tracks in snow and how to observe what’s happening in their “hood.”
There are plenty of things to observe in nature this time of year! Surprisingly you can spot quite a few critters that are very active in the winter months. These animals have strategies to help them survive cold temperatures and short days. You may observe a short- tailed weasel or a snowshoe hare whose coats have amazingly transformed from the dull browns of summer to pure white! They are now camouflaged to visually blend in with the snow in order to protect themselves from predators. Many animals add to their insulation this time of year with thicker fur, puffier feathers or extra layers of fat. These are just a few of the “cool” adaptations animals have in winter.
Ever wonder how avalanches happen? The Junior Snow Ranger Booklet explains the science of snow and how strong snow layers on top of weak layers within the snowpack can be triggered to slide. The booklets even provides instructions on how to create your own avalanche. And you can meet Cutler, the avalanche rescue dog!
People have been having fun in winter for years! Over 5,000 years ago people of Nordic and Asian cultures watched snowshoe hares and lynx easily travel across the snow with their huge feet. They figured a way to make their own snowshoes, and were then able to travel long distances across frozen landscapes. Give it a try and follow the directions in the booklet to make your own snowshoes similar to those that were once used in some Native American cultures.
If there is enough snow- you and your friends can build a snow fort complete with your own artistic touches of snow sculptures or snow angels out front. Or, make frozen bubbles! There are lots of other ideas and games in the booklet to get you acquainted with the winter environment.
Want to know how much snow is in your backyard? Or how much water will result when the snow eventually melts? Scientist call this “snow-water equivalency” and you can figure it out with a yardstick, a measuring cup and of course, a little math!
Safety in the outdoors is important all the time, but in winter, it is imperative! To become a Junior Snow Ranger you need to know a few important concepts such as: “dressing like an onion” in layers (base, middle and outer layer); go exploring with a buddy, never alone (an adult is a good companion); stay on marked trails and designated areas and always pay attention to signs and instructions; pace yourself – don’t go too fast, and figure out when you need to turn around to get back; go with someone that knows first aid and can identify hypothermia and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar); and make sure you have the “10 essentials” for your pack ( outwear, drinking water, map/compass, pocketknife, sunscreen, duct tape, whistle, headlamp, and a space blanket). And, remember to “hug a tree” if you feel like you are lost. Staying near a tree offers some protection from the elements, and keeps lost children in the same place, which makes it easier for searchers to find them.
A winter outing can be a great time to try a new challenge like walking with snowshoes or cross-country skiing. There are several places where you can rent snowshoes or cross-country skis in Montrose, Cedaredge, Grand Junction, Hotchkiss, Ridgway, Telluride and Ouray. Odin Recreation at the entrance to Powderhorn has ski rental and offers instruction. Visit the “Need Gear?” section the FOYAN website (friendsofyouthandnature.org) for a list of gear providers in Montrose, Mesa, Delta, Ouray and San Miguel Counties. Ridgway State Park has snowshoes that can be used within the park. It is best to call ahead for availability and to reserve rentals under Covid-19 protocols.
And if your children become hooked on growing up to be a snow ranger, track down and interview one. Lucky for us, the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre Gunnison National Forest has several on staff! This may be just the endeavor to spark a life- long enthusiasm for winter in your child, and may lead to a future snow ranger caring for our public lands.
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)