Family-friendly hiking trails in Maryland

September 09, 2013|By Kristy MacKaben | For The Baltimore Sun

It was pretty much a given that Joe Vogelpohl's kids would love hiking. As a ranger at Patapsco Valley State Park, Vogelpohl spends most of his days on trails and often takes his children, Isaac, 4, and Cecelia, 1, along on weekends. Cecilia is usually strapped to Vogelpohl's back, while Isaac can hike four miles, walking most of the way and being carried every now and then.

"We have done lots of hiking," says Vogelpohl, who lives in Sykesville. "I started them early."

He lets his children set their own pace and encourages exploration and detours along the way. Isaac often stops on the trail to skip rocks in the stream or look for bugs. Sometimes they bring their fishing poles and stop for 15 minutes to fish along the trail.

Not every kid has a park ranger for a parent, but almost every kid can be a hiker, and Maryland has many options for family-friendly nature outings.

"I certainly feel like any kid that can walk is ready to hit the trail," says Nancy Ritger, naturalist and program manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a nonprofit outdoor recreation and conservation organization based in Massachusetts.

If parents are prepared and fully engage the children, the hike will be a positive experience, and something the kids will want to do again, says Ritger.

"No kids want to be on a forced march with their parents. Keep the focus not on being out for four hours, but doing a lot of different things to use all of their senses," says Ritger. "The goal is to have fun."

Front packs and backpacks are ideal for holding babies and toddlers. Once they can walk, children should be allowed to explore, and at least walk for part of the hike, Ritger says.

Kids are generally capable of "hiking their age," meaning a 5-year-old should be able to hike five miles, says Jennifer Chambers author of a children's hiking book, "Watershed Adventures of a Water Bottle." Her newest guidebook, "The Best Hikes for Kids: Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia," is expected to be released soon.

It's important, however, to start slow and simple, says Chambers, who lives in Silver Spring with her husband and two children, who often hike long distances. The distance a child can hike is dependent on his or her temperament, physical ability and experience with hiking, she says.

Playing games like "I spy" or scavenger hunts along the trail can also keep kids interested and engaged, Chambers says. Bring along a bug box to search for critters, or encourage kids to find things along the trail of certain colors or shapes. Race to different mile markers, or skip, jump or hop to make the hike more interesting.

Water and snacks are also essential to preventing meltdowns. Chambers often let her children create their own trail mix using whatever ingredients they could find in the house.

To keep younger children motivated to keep on trekking, Heather Connellee of Pylesville, author of "Best Easy Day Hikes in Baltimore," advises working highlights into the day.

"With kids it helps to have motivation to get them to a specific point, something to work towards, a goal," she says.

For older kids, a hike is great way to recharge their relationships with their families.

"It really is a bonding experience on many levels," says nutrition consultant Susanna DeRocco, a Towson mother of two sons, ages 10 and 13. "The boys spend some non-specific time with each other, my husband and I get to catch up, we get to connect with our boys and we all bond with nature. As corny as that may sound and as difficult as it is to sometimes get there, it is well worth the effort."

She added that hiking is also a good alternative to that ubiquitous screen time that takes up so much of children's lives.

"The more kids can spend time in nature, the better.  Whether it is the fresh air or the sunshine and scenery, there is something about the out-of-doors that is just so life-affirming," DeRocco says. "Kids need to be able to play, get dirty, explore, dream and wonder.  What better place to tap into these reserves than in nature? We also don't look at phones or texts while we are together.  We may take some pictures, but technology is 'off' so we can tune into our surroundings."

Six kid-friendly hikes in Maryland

1. Rocks State Park: Falling Branch Trail, Pylesville

Distance: 1.1 miles up and back

Park at: 1099 Falling Branch Road, Pylesville, 410-557-7994

What you'll find: The waterfall is the highlight of this short and easy hike in Harford County. The 1.1-mile hike follows Falling Branch Stream until it reaches Kilgore Falls, the second-highest vertical waterfall in Maryland, and the backdrop for a scene in the movie "Tuck Everlasting." "This hike is great for kids," says Heather Connellee, author of "Best Easy Day Hikes in Baltimore." "I've taken my nieces and they love it. There's a little boardwalk and a creek to hop over and of course there's the gorgeous waterfall."

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