Hiking with kids can be a memorable way to spend quality time in nature, but it’s not always a walk in the park. Whether your family is new to hiking or you consider yourself a skilled hiker, there is a lot to consider before taking your kids along for the adventure.
That extra effort is well worth it, though. Research shows that spending time in nature has a positive impact on physical, mental and emotional health — from improving mood to lowering stress and increasing feelings of happiness. For children, exposure to nature can have a lasting effect. Some studies have found that kids with regular access to green spaces, such as trails and parks, have a reduced risk of psychiatric disorders as an adult. Outdoor play is also shown to improve attention and cognitive function, inspire creativity and help kids learn about the world.
If you’re ready to hike with your kid, but don’t know where to start, you’re in luck. Eve Kutchman, prevention education and outreach manager, and Payton Billingham, exercise physiologist in the Lifestyle Medicine Program at Children’s Hospital Colorado, share everything you need to know about hiking with kids — from how to prepare to what to bring and trails to check out near Denver and Colorado Springs.
Tips for hiking with kids
Preparation is key when hiking with kids. Before you head out, tell them what to expect. If your kids are old enough, get them involved in packing snacks, water and anything else you’ll need (more on this below). This will not only get them excited for your adventure, but also helps them understand what they might experience and how to stay safe.
Choose trails that are appropriate for your kid’s age and skill level
Kids are meant to move. According to Billingham, children should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day. “If your child is new to physical activity, start off slowly and with a shorter duration,” Billingham says. “As they get comfortable and build their fitness, you can increase the duration, intensity and frequency of activity.”
Billingham recommends looking for a kid-friendly trail with a mild to moderate incline and plenty of flat ground. Your child might not be ready to hike a fourteener right away, but a leisurely stroll along a paved path could be just right. If you’re not sure if your younger child can make it through an entire hike, Billingham suggests bringing a carrier or even a stroller if the trail is accessible, so they can take breaks while you log some miles.
Teach your kids hiking etiquette
Introduce your kids to the principles of Leave No Trace so they can learn to respect the environment, wildlife and others who are enjoying the great outdoors. While kids are natural explorers (and wanderers), it’s important that they stay on the trail to not only protect themselves from unseen dangers, but also prevent the surrounding vegetation from being damaged.
Billingham recommends playing “follow the leader,” encouraging your kid to step where you step as your hike along the trail. She also suggests bringing binoculars — a fun way for kids to see into the distance without venturing off the path. If you notice your child is getting tired or becoming distracted, consider breaking for a snack and letting them explore an area along the trail more closely.
Have a plan in case your child gets lost
Before you set out on a hike, remind your children to stay within eyesight at all times. If you do get separated, tell them to find a tree, rock or other identifying landmark, and stay beside it until help arrives. Stress to your kids not to wander, as it’s easier to be found if they stay in one place.
Billingham and other outdoor experts recommend that every hiker carry a safety whistle on the trail. While whistles can be fun, remind your kids that they should only be used in emergencies. Your family can decide on a whistling signal, but generally, three quick blows indicate to others that someone is lost or in danger.
As your child gets older, you can teach them how to read trail signs and maps and how to use a compass. “With older children, establish check points along the trail and teach children to read trail signs, as this will help orient them to where they are,” Billingham says.
Talk about what to do in case of a wildlife encounter
In Colorado, it’s not uncommon to spot deer, elk, snakes or bears while hiking, even in relatively urban areas. While seeing wildlife can be exciting, it’s important to keep your distance and respect their space to avoid a potentially dangerous encounter.
Billingham suggests making a game out of wildlife-spotting to keep your kid engaged and teach them about the animals they may notice along the way. “Encourage kids to stay quiet and count how many animals they can see or hear along the trail,” she says. “You can even keep a sticker book or journal of all the wildlife you see.”
Watch the weather
Keep your eyes on the forecast to ensure that you won’t be encountering any inclement weather while on your adventure. In Colorado, storms can gather quickly and pose a safety risk, especially at higher altitudes. If you hear thunder, even in the distance, that’s your sign to move to lower elevations and seek shelter.
Follow these recommendations from the National Weather Service to keep yourself safe if you’re caught in a thunderstorm while hiking:
- Take shelter in an enclosed building with plumbing and electrical wiring, which can better conduct electricity if the structure is struck by lightning, or in an enclosed vehicle. Partially open structures, including trail shelters, picnic pavilions and convertible vehicles are not considered safe.
- If you're unable to find shelter, seek protection in a valley or depression in the terrain or under a grove of dense trees. Stay away from isolated trees, open spaces and water sources. Remove any metal from your person, such as packs or hiking poles, and place them at least 100 feet away.
- If you’re exposed to the elements, crouch down with your weight in the balls of your feet and your feet together. Keep your head lowered and your ears covered.
Kutchman also cautions families to pay close attention to extreme heat and high UV index. During the summer months, it’s best to avoid hiking during the hottest parts of the day. If your or your child starts exhibiting symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, such as cramps and fatigue, our experts recommend taking breaks in the shade to cool off.
Make it fun
At the end of the day, you want your kid to enjoy hiking, so they’ll be excited to go with you again. Here are some tips on how to make the hike fun for everyone:
- Incorporate games, such as a nature scavenger hunt. This can encourage your little one to keep going, even when they’re tired.
- Allow time for kids to explore. No one likes feeling rushed. Move at your child’s pace and you’re more likely to have a positive experience.
- Expect challenges along the way. It’s OK if your kids aren't happy the entire time.
- Bring a fun and unexpected treat that your kids enjoy. Give it to them on the way back to the car, when they might be feeling tired.
- Take pictures and enjoy the journey. You’re making memories!
Your hiking packing list
To ensure that you have a successful, safe and happy hike, our experts recommend packing these essential items:
- Sunscreen: Apply a generous layer of sunscreen on exposed skin 20 minutes before sun exposure for optimal protection. Reapply as directed, as well as any time you get out of water.
- Bug repellent: Apply bug spray to exposed skin before setting out on a hike, especially if you’ll be around lakes, rivers or other bodies of water — this is where you’re most likely to find mosquitoes. Bug repellent can also shield against ticks, which hide in grasses.
- Clothing layers: This could include jackets, raincoats, long pants, extra socks and other clothing items that help with Colorado’s quickly changing weather.
- Snacks or lunch: It’s always a good idea to pack snacks or lunch for longer hikes. Our experts recommend avoiding foods with lots of sugar and instead focusing on healthy snacks, such as precut fruits and veggies and protein-rich foods to keep kids energized along the trail. Picnics are always fun, too.
- Water: You can never have too much water, especially with kids. Fill up a water bottle for every person (and dog) on your hike.
- Sturdy shoes: Avoid blisters by wearing proper shoes for the trail you’re hiking. Closed-toe, comfortable hiking boots with ankle support are a must for rocky trails, but sneakers might work just fine for paved or well-groomed paths.
- Safety whistle: Have each of your kids carry or wear a safety whistle while you hike in case they get separated from your group or come across wildlife.
- First-aid kit: Falls happen, especially on rocky or slippery trails. Be prepared with some cleansing wipes and Band-Aids so you can care for any cuts and continue on your way.
5 kid-friendly hikes near Denver
Ready to hit the trail? Whether you’re looking for sweeping views, paved trails or a bit of a challenge, there are many trails across the Denver metro area that kids can explore. Here are a few of our favorites:
Lake Loop Trail at Crown Hill Park
Located in Wheat Ridge, Crown Hill Park offers 10.2 miles of easy hiking trails, along with mountain views and plenty of bird-spotting. Take your kid for a stroll on the Lake Loop Trail, a paved pathway that circles the park’s centerpiece, Crown Hill Lake, and is just 1.2 miles round-trip. This trail is both bike- and stroller-friendly and handicap-accessible, which makes it perfect for all types of families. Plus, there are a number of benches along the route where you can rest and enjoy a snack before returning to your car.
Creekside Trail and Creekside Loop at Lair o’ the Bear Park
Lair o’ the Bear is one of the most popular kid-friendly hikes near Denver — and for good reason. With more than eight miles of trails that wind along a bubbling creek and plenty of picnic areas, you can hike as much (or as little) as your kid wants and still feel like you’re getting away from it all. From the Lair o’ the Bear Park Trailhead lot, walk along the Creekside Trail and the Creekside Loop for an easy 1.2-mile route that is mostly shaded and allows for ample opportunities for exploration. Just note that the park gets quite crowded, especially on weekends, so arrive early to beat the rush.
Pine to Peaks Loop at the Bald Mountain Scenic Area
Just 15 minutes outside of Boulder, Bald Mountain Scenic Area’s Pine to Peaks Loop offers a perfect kid-friendly hike with the added reward of summiting a peak. The one-mile trail is a relatively mild uphill trek that offers scenic views of the Great Plains and Continental Divide. Plus, picnic tables are conveniently located near the trailhead.
Fountain Valley Loop at Roxborough State Park
If you want to experience towering red rock formations without the crowds at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre, head to Roxborough State Park. The 2.5-mile Fountain Valley Loop is a moderate hike that offers groomed trails, historic buildings and incredible views. Depending on the weather, strollers and wheelchairs can be also used on the trail. Note: Entry fees are required for all Colorado State Parks. A day pass for one vehicle is $10.
Kriley Pond at Golden Gate Canyon State Park
Your kids will delight in visiting Kriley Pond at Golden Gate Canyon State Park. Not only is this destination easy to find — it’s near the park’s entrance and offers two parking lots and a handicap-accessible fishing dock — but it also offers a quick 0.7-mile, out-and-back trail to explore. Don’t forget to bring your fishing rods and a valid Colorado fishing license and try to catch a rainbow trout or walleye. Note: Entry fees are required for all Colorado State Parks. A day pass for one vehicle is $10.
5 kid-friendly hikes near Colorado Springs
Some of the most spectacular Front Range hikes are near Colorado Springs. Here you can find waterfalls, red rocks and plenty of wildlife to delight your kids while you get some fresh air and exercise. Here are some trails our experts recommend:
Seven Bridges Trail in North Cheyenne Cañon Park, Manitou Springs
Don’t let the mileage fool you. The 5.78-mile Seven Bridges Trail makes for a perfect day hike for kids, even in the summertime. The moderate, hiking-only trail follows along a mountain stream that will keep your little ones entertained, while the trees provide cover from the hot sun. The trail gets its name from the seven bridges that dot the path. Ask your little ones to count them as you walk and see how many you can cross before they’re ready to turn back.
Mount Cutler Trail
Just a few miles from downtown Colorado Springs lies the Mount Cutler Trail, an easy 1.7-mile route that is frequented by families. This out-and-back hike leads up to a saddle on the ridge with views of the famous Seven Falls. Your kids will feel accomplished after making the journey up the hill, where they can rest on the bench and take in their surroundings before returning to the trailhead.
Perkins Central Garden Trail in Garden of the Gods
Garden of the Gods offers 21 miles of trails to explore, but one of the most family-friendly hikes is the Perkins Central Garden Trail. This 1.5-mile paved path is perfect for all ages and offers an opportunity to explore a portion of the famed park with relative ease. Enjoy views of some of the park’s highest rock formations while strolling along the well-maintained path. Plus, if you’re looking to extend your adventure, you can connect to other trails to continue exploring.
Fountain Creek Nature Trail
The Fountain Creek Nature Trail is an easy, 0.7-mile loop that is a perfect introductory hike for kids. The path circles a pond and is a great place to spot wildlife, including birds, turtles or white-tailed deer. Because this trail is reserved for walking and running only — no bikes, dogs or horses allowed — you can feel comfortable letting your child lead the way. Don’t miss the Nature Center, which provides interactive exhibits that showcase the history of Fountain Creek Regional Park.
Rainbow Gulch Trail
Rainbow Gulch Trail near Woodland Park is a 2.6-mile, out-and-back trail that’s suitable for hikers of all skill levels. The trail meanders along a river and ends at the stunning Rampart Reservoir, where you and your kids can splash along the shoreline while enjoying a snack or lunch. This hike is a great option all year long, but it’s especially beautiful in the springtime, when the fields along the trail are dotted with wildflowers, and in the fall, when you can see the golden aspen leaves.