My sons are split when it comes to hiking. My oldest - with his long legs - loves to hike; in Nepal, the locals insisted that he was part sherpa. My youngest - not so much. But with the right motivation, he, too, will pull on his hiking boots and hit the trail.
After years of hiking with my kids, I’ve discovered that the trails that they enjoy the most - where I hear no complaining - have either a variety of terrain, an element of surprise or a big payoff. That or the hike itself satisfies their need for adventure or desire to feel accomplished.
The following six hikes are favorites that are sure to please your family.
1/Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah
No one said that it was going to be easy, but some way, some how, hike to Delicate Arch, the unofficial symbol of the state of Utah. This 3-mile hike in Arches National Park is admittedly strenuous with an initial climb of 480 feet. It certainly didn’t help that on the day that my family, including my 4- and 7-year-old sons did this hike, it was 106°F by the time that we reached the parking lot. There’s also a 200-yard rock ledge at the end of this hike, where you’ll need to keep a careful eye on the kids. But man, the payoff! It’s truly a memorable sight. The hike will take you about 2-1/2 to 3 hours.
KidTripster Tip: Bring more water than you think you’ll need; I’d recommend at least 1.5 liters per person.
2/Emerald Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Our favorite hike in Rocky Mountain National Park starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead. For little ones, a short .6-mile walk quickly rewards with views of Bear Lake. Continue on the trail another half-mile to lily pad-covered Nymph Lake. Be sure to climb the boulder on the far side of the lake for an overhead view. Hike another half-mile to picturesque Dream Lake before finally reaching Emerald Lake, another .7-mile down the trail. Here you’ll stand at the tree line with an elevation of 10,135 feet. My son’s goal of finding snow in the middle of summer - achieved! Know that the hike gradually climbs; the farther you go, the fewer people you’ll see. The hike is 3.6 miles round-trip.
3/Sipapu Bridge Trail, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Of all the trails that my family has hiked in Utah (and there have been a lot!), the trail to Sipapu Bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument is our favorite. A little over a mile round-trip with an elevation change of 500 feet, this trail has three wooden ladders, stairs, switchbacks, and short steep sections of slickrock. Best of all, you’ll likely never pass a single soul.
KidTripster Tip: Keep an eye on little ones as some parts of the trail are steep with drop-offs. But it is completely doable, as my 4-year old easily hiked this trail.
And what a payoff! Sipapu is the largest and most spectacular of the three natural bridges at the monument. (It’s the second largest natural bridge in the world behind Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon.) The opening nearly could house the dome of the United States Capitol! Its name means “the place of emergence,” an entryway by which the Hopi believe their ancestors came into this world. It’s considered middle-aged as far as bridges go, older than Kachina Bridge but younger than Owachomo, both of which can be seen in this park. Formed thousands of years ago by a river - not wind (like arches) - Sipapu will someday collapse and erode as part of the endless cycle of change. Best to get there while you can!
KidTripster Tip: Once you make it to the bridge, sit in the shade of Gambel's oak grove and have a snack while admiring the bridge’s beauty.
The hike will take about an hour.
4/The Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah
The Narrows is an unforgettable gorge with soaring walls, sandstone grottos, natural springs, and hanging gardens in the upper reaches of Zion Canyon in Zion National Park. It measures 16 miles long, up to 2,000 feet deep, and at points, only 20 to 30 feet wide. However, it’s a hike not to be taken lightly. And for that reason, I’d only recommend attempting it with motivated teenagers.
You begin the hike on the paved Riverside Walk that follows the Virgin River. This trail is popular and quite crowded. The herd starts to thin when you reach the river crossing. From this point on, hiking The Narrows means hiking in the river. In fact, at least 60-percent of the hike is spent wading, walking or swimming in the water.
KidTripster Tip: Before you attempt to hike The Narrows, make sure to check with park rangers at the visitors center. There is a real and serious threat of flash flooding in the gorge, especially in mid-summer and fall. It’s safest to hike when there’s little chance of rain in the forecast, and the river is low, clear, and relatively warm.
If you heed the warnings and prepare well for the conditions, this hike likely will be the most memorable of your trip.
Photo courtesy: Robin Mueller
5/Colter Bay, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
There are various scenic hikes in the Colter Bay area of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. My family likes the one that leads from the visitors center out toward lily pad-covered Heron Pond. During the summer, you’ll see beaver dams, butterflies, oversized dragonflies, and meadows blanketed in wildflowers.
KidTripster Tip: Bring your camera! This hike has great spots for family photo ops with the mountain range in the distance.
6/Mossy Cave Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Most visitors to Bryce Canyon National Park will spend their time hiking among the hoodoos. But I’ve got an even better, more family-friendly hike off the beaten path. The Mossy Cave Trail leads to a waterfall, which on a hot, summer day is like the Holy Grail. My sons, ages 4 and 7, played, kicked, and splashed in the water for nearly an hour - moments of pure joy. And the rocks! The slickrock here is a beautiful shade of pink, and the pebbles in the water are hues of pink, yellow, and coral, reminiscent of Miami. It's truly a spectacular spot.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to national parks with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s RV.