Hey, Take a Hike!
A tenderfoot's guide to making tracks: Tents and trails, packs and boots, gadgets and grub, and everything else your family will need
CAR CAMPING | BACKPACKING
After a day on the trail, there's no place like home base
Six years ago, when our son, Tom, was five years old and our daughter, Mary, two, we set out on our first family camping trip. Fairly avid campers before becoming parents, my wife, Patricia, and I had strapped ourselves onto the just-get-through-the-day wheel of caring for small children, and hadn't camped together since before our son was born. Like our kids, we felt as if we were starting from scratch.
B.K. (before kids), we'd always used backpacking tents, and tried to camp as far away from plumbing and parking lots as possible. Now, driving east from Portland toward Mount Hood on a sunny afternoon in early September, a rented six-person tent jammed into the back of our minivan and the kids dully eyeing the passing fir trees from their car seats, we were less interested in primal contact with nature than with convenient access to a reasonably clean toilet.
The ranger at the Mount Hood Information Center, 35 miles east of Portland, pointed us to the Lost Creek Campground on the mountain's western flank, just a ten-minute drive away. There we discovered a clean, spacious, quiet campground nestled within a thick second-growth forest, with a brand-new, walk-in section of creekside campsites. Lost Creek purled just 50 feet from our picnic table; a paved, half-mile nature trail wound through the adjacent forest; and Mount Hood loomed above us, visible through trailside clearings.
That first weekend we spent getting to know our big rented tent, freeing jammed sleeping-bag zippers, and reacquainting ourselves with our camping stove. The kids loved it. Driving home, P. and I agreed that, with this first trip successfully under our belt, we should branch out and explore all the other marvelous places to camp around the Portland area. But the following June, we unanimously decided to return to Lost Creek. At the end of the summer, we went back a third time. Every year since we've repeated the pattern, opening and closing the summer with a weekend at Lost Creek, almost always returning to the same campsite.
Our June trip serves as a shakedown cruise for more ambitious camping and backpacking trips we'll take later in the summer. We focus on sharpening dormant outdoor chops like putting up and taking down the tent, checking the nylon for frays and rips, and taking note of missing stakes and grommets. P. pokes the toes of the kids' hiking boots and decides whether they can make it through another season. I untangle fishing line and lay in a new supply of hooks and sinkers. We taste the air inside the tent to discover which sleeping bag we forgot to have dry-cleaned over the winter. We try out new recipes.
But aside from its practical payoffs, Lost Creek serves as a repository for family lore: We remember the birthday cake getting squashed under the ice chest, and the raccoon making off with the bacon for the Father's Day breakfast. Sometimes P. packs photos from former Lost Creek expeditions. The kids rib me about how much darker my hair was five years ago, and how much more there was of it; I laugh at how little they were. Together we marvel at how a walk on the nature trail once seemed to them the height of adventure.
Now, of course, we employ the campground as a base to explore the surrounding Cascades, but after the day's adventure we always return to the campfire at site C-4. Eventually we crawl into our sleeping bags, lulled by the familiar rush of the snowmelt water, secure in the knowledge that none of us, child or adult, will ever outgrow Lost Creek. --John Brant
Mount Hood Information Center, 503-622-3360; Lost Creek campsites, $12–$24.
MORE GREAT CAR-CAMPING TRIPS
HEART LAKE, ADIRONDACKS, NEW YORK
With its sweeping views of the High Peaks region, Heart Lake is prime real estate in New York's Adirondack wilderness. So prime, in fact, that the Adirondack Mountain Club maintains its rustic retreat, the the 46-room Adirondak Loj, on its shores. AMC's wilderness hospitality also includes 35 campsites, two cabins nestled in the woods, and 16 lean-tos (lean-tos numbers 5 to 8 are right on the shore). Families can swim, canoe, kayak, and fish in the small lake, or take guided hikes with naturalists from the nearby AMC Nature Museum.
Farther afield, the fairly steep, mile-long trail to the 2,800-foot summit of Mount Jo ascends through a forest of white birch, topping out at a rocky outcrop. For such a short climb, the rewards are big: Up above stand the two tallest mountains in New York State--Mount Marcy (5,334 feet) and Mount Algonquin (5,114 feet). After this little warm-up, hit the red-marked Indian Pass Trail. This 8.3-mile trail traverses deep forest before snaking through a narrow chute, where cliffs rise some 1,000 feet on either side. The vertical rise is only 674 feet, but walking on this rugged rock as it bisects the High Peaks will certainly make you sweat. If you want to bag one of the big boys, take the eight-mile-round-trip trail to the top of Algonquin (allow about six hours), which offers the finest views from within the High Peaks, without Marcy's standing-room-only crowds. --Stephen Jermanok
Campsites cost $18 per night; lean-tos, $21. To reserve, call 518-523-3441.
COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT, COLORADO
This airy perch atop 9,500-foot Uncompahgre uplift, overlooking the Colorado River valley between Fruita and Grand Junction, is about as close as a person can come to seeing the same view a peregrine falcon gets from its cliffside nest. Plateaus, mesas, and deep valleys sweep away into colorful space.
JC Leacock/Photographers Aspen
The year-round, 80-site Saddlehorn Campground ($10 per night) in the uplift is an easy walk from the visitor center and commands a respectable--even slightly daunting--seat on an exposed sandstone rim. Nestled among juniper and piñon, the nicely spaced sites are equipped with grills, flush toilets, and picnic tables. The Saddlehorn rock formation is fun for kids to explore right from camp, as is the half-mile Window Rock loop trail leading to a rock arch with views of the valley, canyon, and red-rock formations.
Rim Rock Drive, a 23-mile paved loop through the heart of the monument's 20,000 acres, provides access to a handful of short walks even toddlers can handle--Ottos Trail (.75 mile), Coke Ovens Trail (.75 mile), and Devil's Kitchen Trail (half a mile). You can find great rock climbing at Devil's Kitchen, or stop along the road to scramble on good friction rock. Teens can take on the more rigorous challenge of trails like seven-mile (one way) Liberty Cap; kids ten and up can enjoy plenty of vertical on the 6.5-mile (one way) Monument Canyon Trail.
The loop road itself is an exhilarating road-bike tour. The monument doesn't allow off-road cycling, but mountain bikers can head for BLM lands two miles from the monument's East Grand Junction entrance. --Alan Kesselheim
Pick up supplies in nearby Grand Junction or Fruita, where you'll also find rafting and mountain-bike outfitters. Campsites are first-come, first-served; contact Colorado National Monument at 970-858-3617 or www.nps.gov/colm/.
CUSTER STATE PARK, BLACK HILLS, SOUTH DAKOTA
Drive on past South Dakota's Reptile Gardens and Corn Palace, linger only briefly at Mount Rushmore, then get to the real article in the heart of the Black Hills. Custer State Park is the best place for families with younger kids to base themselves--you'll find a family-style restaurant, boat rentals, a store and gift shop, rock climbing, hiking trails, and fishing in Sylvan Lake.
Pitch your tent at the 39-site Sylvan Lake Campground and explore from there. Day hikes from camp get you to Little Devil's Tower and Cathedral Spires (three miles one way), and with more effort, you can climb Mount Harney, at 7,242 feet the highest point east of the Rockies (a moderate hike). The 14-mile-long Needles Highway (South Dakota 87) on the edge of the park, with narrow tunnels blasted through granite surrounded by fantastic spires and fins, is spectacular enough that nobody will be reading in the car. Almost any pulloff along the road offers access to scrambling rock (also premier technical climbing) in forests of needles and other formations.
You can mountain bike a section of the 111-mile Centennial Trail (22 miles are within the park) that traverses woods and prairie plains, or a portion of the less strenuous, 14-mile Mickelson rail trail, which winds north to south around the Black Hills.
Thirteen miles west of the campground on South Dakota 16, go spelunking at Jewel Caves National Monument, which has surface trails, a small museum, and tours ($18); 30 miles from the park is Wind Cave National Park, which also offers tours and hiking trails. Drive an hour east from the park on I-90 into the exotic, otherworldly terrain of the Badlands, where bison and bighorn sheep roam. --A.K.
Contact the Black Hills National Forest Supervisor's Office, 605-673-2251; www.fs.fed.us/r2/blackhills. Call Sylvan Lake Campground at 800-710-2267. Call Jewel Caves National Monument at 605-673-2288. Call Wind Cave National Park at 605-745-4600.
CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT, FORT CANBY STATE PARK, WASHINGTON
Lewis and Clark and company, by all accounts, were a hardy, wool 'n' leather bunch. But let's face it: If they were trudging to the Pacific in 2000 instead of 1805--with a gaggle of kids in tow, to boot--they'd be right up at the front of the yurt-rental line with the rest of us.
Modern visitors to Fort Canby State Park at Cape Disappointment don't have to squint too hard to imagine this 1,882-acre park on a spectacular, wind-torn triangle of land at the mouth of the Columbia River looking just as it did two centuries ago. But nose around awhile, and you'll find enough modern convenience to make even the most recalcitrant young recreators accept a few marching orders.
And the marching is good from each of Fort Canby's 250 campsites (or a handful of fully equipped, all-season yurts), tucked into a thicket a short walk from several miles of silky sand beaches. The North Head Trail (three miles round trip) leads through scrubby forest to the top of North Head, where a 102-year-old lighthouse is occasionally open for tours. From here, look south at all Fort Canby has to offer: A long jetty separating the Columbia from the Pacific, a lake and picnic area, two dozen miles of trails, ample cycling territory, a series of scary old military bunkers, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and another lighthouse atop Cape Disappointment. --Ron C. Judd
The park's campsites ($12–$17 per night), plus three yurts and three rental cabins ($35 per night), each equipped with beds, electric heat, and lights, can be reserved up to 11 months in advance. For campground reservations, call 800-452-5687. For additional information on the park, call 800-233-0321.
Family-friendly trails where the solitude is worth the schlep
In the foothills of New Hampshire's White Mountains, where my family and I lived for a dozen years, I didn't have to invent the fireside ghost stories that make camping unforgettable; the ghosts were all around us, in the form of a lost Indian tribe, plane wrecks, a drowned trapper, and an embittered doctor who's cursed with immortality. You expect family backpacking trips to be all sing-alongs and quiet comfort? George and Dorothy never did.
"Tell about the planes, Dad," my daughter, Dorothy Jr., would say whenever we hiked up the Appalachian Trail to 2,300-foot Moose Mountain. Now 15 and a lover of airplane trips, she nonetheless hasn't tired of hearing about the planes that have crashed around Moose Mountain, a kind of Bermuda Triangle of the air where pilots lose their bearings in the fog and dark. We lived near Dartmouth College and would hike up from Three Mile Road, a dirt lane seven miles from campus. The summit of Moose is two and a half miles of rigorous hiking from the road--rigorous but hikable; my son, George, who's now 11, made his first unassisted climb when he was four.
We'd rarely see another soul, at least of the living variety. It was the souls of the dead that made Dorothy and George snuggle closer in their sleeping bags, their blond heads almost touching. We'd sometimes spend the night on Moose's granite top, where the fire circle has a ragged square of aluminum from a commercial plane that went down in 1964, killing half a dozen Dartmouth administrators. Campers use the piece of fuselage as a firebreak. Sleeping next to it takes some courage, sometimes too much of it.
We often would choose to hike down the other, north side of Moose to a three-sided shelter maintained by the Dartmouth Outing Club. (It's a third of a mile off the Appalachian Trail and well signed.) Here I'd tell them about the next mountain north--Smarts, named after a poacher drowned by indignant Indians. Or we'd remember the Abenaki, a woodland tribe who took shellfish and largemouth bass out of the local waters and had ghosts of their own, mountain gods who enforced their privacy by killing summit trespassers.
But George, who adores a good ghost story, would inevitably ask to hear about the legend of Doc Benton, a brilliant eighteenth-century doctor who worked without sleep in an unsuccessful attempt to save his dying wife with an elixir that bestowed immortality. His wife died just as he was completing the potion; he downed it himself, and to this day stalks the woods, raving and lonely. George would recite the ending all over again next morning, after we'd packed up and headed down a logging road back to Three Mile and our car.
"The Doc" remains the last story of an evening around the campfire, even now that we live in New Mexico. I'm grateful for that time in New Hampshire, because those backpacking trips taught us everything we were supposed to learn--the ingenuity required to cross a flooded stream, the frugality of space that dictates which things you carry, the sheer joy of effort. Our hikes took us up all 48 of New Hampshire's 4,000-foot mountains. But our first love was little Moose Mountain and its lovely dark soundtrack: screech owls that cry like a cat--or person--under torture; eastern coyotes, inbred with wolves, which raise a yipping howl after a kill; and, half-spoken in water and wind, those voices that won't ever leave us alone. --Jay Heinrichs
The Dartmouth Outing Club (603-646-2428; www.dartmouth.edu ) rents everything from backpacks to tents to canoes, as well as rustic cabins (Appalachian Trail shelters are free). For more information, contact the Appalachian Mountain Club in Pinkham Notch Visitor's Center (603-466-2721, ext. 116; www.outdoors.org ).
MORE GREAT BACKPACKING TRIPS
BELLY RIVER VALLEY, GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA
Most summertime visitors to Glacier National Park don't make it this far north, but backpacking families will find a two- to four-day trek to the Belly River Valley well worth the extra road miles. The valley is one of Glacier's most scenic, and most family-friendly, thanks to an established backcountry campground that serves as a base for exploring the surrounding region.
Better yet, it's only a bit over 12 miles round trip from the trailhead near the border crossing on Montana 17 (Chief Mountain International Highway) to your destination, Gable Creek Campground, a gorgeous spot with Rockies peaks looming in every direction. The hike's elevation gain is only about 800 feet, nearly all of it along a one-mile section on the way out. Campground amenities include pit toilets, fire pits, and food-hanging devices. Most stronger kids could do this trip as an overnighter, but you'll want to schedule an extra day or two for exploring. Other backcountry camps can be found farther up the valley, within about two to four miles, but your best bet is to leave the heavy camping stuff here and spend the rest of your time day-hiking.
On your second day, leave the campground and walk southwest on the Stoney Indian Pass Trail to a string of three alpine lakes in the Mokowanis River drainage (they're at 2.5, four, and just under eight miles one way). The next day, head due south from camp on the Belly River Trail to 60- to 80-foot Dawn Mist Falls (about 2.5 miles) and Elizabeth Lake (3.5 miles). If you're up for it, continue to the end of the trail at Helen Lake, about seven miles (one way) from camp. --R.C.J.
Backcountry permits are required, and some can be reserved by mail beginning April 15; early reservations are recommended. Contact the Glacier Park Visitors Center at 406-888-7800; www.nps.gov/glac.
VIRGINIA–NORTH CAROLINA SOUND AND SEA TRAIL
On a mile-wide, 30-mile stretch of barrier beach connecting Virginia and North Carolina, this unofficial trail passes through one of the last undisturbed coastal areas on the eastern seaboard. Although the terrain is flat, unforgiving elements--sun, wind, sand, and insects--make this a trek best suited for older children.
Arrive early at the 5,000-acre Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge (entrance fee, $2) near Sandbridge, Virginia, to hike south along five miles of hard-packed sand and gravel, and your reward might be a crimson sunrise. Once you hit False Cape State Park, you'll find 4,321 acres of pristine coastal wilderness ideal for beachcombing, bird-watching, and fishing. Four miles farther you can set up camp at one of 12 primitive campsites on the bay or ocean (pit toilets; six sites with potable water and six requiring a one- to three-mile hike to fetch it; racks for hanging food against raccoons and foxes). The next day you can explore 7.5 miles of short trails within the park that lead to wooded swamps, maritime oak and pine forests, and Wash Wood, once a shipwreck settlement with cypress-wood dwellings, now an environmental education center.
In North Carolina, a 12-mile walk on Carova and Swan beaches through the 4,000-acre Currituck National Wildlife Refuge leads to the nearest road, North Carolina 12, in the Outer Banks. Wild horses--descendants of Spanish mustangs brought here in the 1600s--and sometimes loud ATVs (evoking visions of Mad Max) rove this lawless-feeling strip. But more often you'll be buzzed by formations of pelicans. There is no camping here, but 2.5 miles south along the beach, the Inn at Corolla Light ($169–$295 for a family of four in one or two rooms, including breakfast; 252-453-3340) is a good place to wash away the salt. Its sports center includes tennis and volleyball courts, a spa, a fitness center, and bicycles. --Dean King
Contact Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, 757-721-2412; False Cape State Park, 757-426-7128; Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, 252-429-3100.
ALLEGHENY TRAIL, DURBIN TO DILLYS MILL, WEST VIRGINIA
Six of West Virginia's ten highest peaks lie near the million-acre Monongahela National Forest. With elevations above 4,500 feet in this rugged section of the Appalachians, this is not a place for the inexperienced. But the 23-mile stretch of the 300-mile Allegheny Trail that laces its way through Monongahela from the tiny town of Durbin south to Dillys Mill holds more in store than just wind-ripped mountaintops.
On day one, start at the Greenbrier campground, where you can leave your car and obtain supplies. The trail winds eight miles around 3,480-foot Little Mountain to an overlook above the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the world's largest movable telescope. On day two, you'll descend the short path (less than a mile) into the town of Cass on the Greenbrier River, beside the ruins of a lumber mill. Cass has a store, a café, and a train depot from which you can ride behind a mighty coal-burning Shay engine up Back Allegheny Mountain on some of the steepest track in North America.
On day three, hike five or six miles south from Cass along riverside paths and old logging roads, and camp anywhere along the trail; the area is a good base for exploring the nearby hawk observatory and Lake Sherwood. There's also a lakeside Boy Scout camp about 13 miles from Cass, where you can rent cabins and make use of the day-hiking trails. The trail comes out at West Virginia 28 in Dillys Mill, where you can shuttle back to your car; call the Elk River Touring Center for shuttle information. --D.K.
For a copy of the Hiking Guide of the Allegheny Trail, send a check for $8 to West Virginia Scenic Trails Association, Box 4042, Charleston, WV 25364. Contact the Elk River Touring Center at 304-572-3771 and the Boy Scout Headquarters (cabins, $30 per night for up to ten people) at 800-272-6880.
PARADISE VALLEY/LAKE ANNETTE LOOP, BANFF NATIONAL PARK, ALBERTA
If the Crayola-run-amok wildflowers along the Paradise Valley Trail really are, as the nature guides suggest, false hellebore, we hesitate to ponder what the real stuff looks like. Then again, the summertime floral blanket gracing this valley is just the bottom layer of wonder on one of the most memorable two- or three-day Rocky Mountain backpack treks a family can find in Banff National Park.
From the Paradise Creek Trailhead (one drainage basin southeast of Lake Louise), follow the Paradise Valley Trail through forest for about three miles to a trail fork. Decision time. Hikers with younger kids--or older ones who already look pooped--should stay right, on the path of least resistance. It continues another 2.75 miles or so and about 400 vertical feet up the valley, past the Giant Steps (a series of waterfalls), to Paradise Valley Campground, the area's only backcountry camp, at beautiful Horseshoe Meadow. If your clan still looks fresh, however, go left for an unforgettable, highland route to the same destination. The mileage is about the same, but the highland route gains an additional 350 feet in elevation and offers stunning scenic rewards, including Lake Annette, a gorgeous reflective mirror of the mighty north face of Mount Temple.
Whichever route you take to Horseshoe Meadow, elevation 6,600 feet, plan to camp here and spend a day just lounging and soaking it all in--or day-hiking to nearby sights. The Giant Steps are an easy 1.2-mile round-trip day hike away. A more challenging side trip from camp is the three-mile round-trip climb to Sentinel Pass. At 8,550 feet, it's the highest trail point in Banff--and the view is exactly what you'd expect.
On the third day, take one last look around and return, at a leisurely pace, via whichever route you skipped on the way in. The loop trip totals about 11.2 miles (sans side trips), with an elevation gain of about 1,200 feet. --R.C.J.
Wilderness passes are required, and camping quotas may be in effect during peak season. Reservations must be made 90 days in advance ($10 fee); pick up camping permits ($6 per night per person, $30 maximum) at the park's information centers (Banff, 403-762-1550; Lake Louise, 403-522-3833).
We talked with Lance Machovsky, a veteran climbing, mountaineering, and ski-mountaineering guide; owner of Bear Valley Sport Shop in Bear Valley, California; and father of two:
When in the backcountry with kids, what is the number-one thing to be on the alert for?
"Exposure to the elements. The little things in the beginning of a trip are more insidious than you think. If you don't address issues like sun exposure, dehydration, or a pebble in the shoe right away, they become big things later on."
What is the best way to avoid losing your kids?
"Stay with them. It's that simple; just don't let them wander off. It's age-dependent, of course, with younger kids needing tighter reins. You can also clip a bell onto the younger ones."
What should you do if a child does, in fact, get lost?
"Have a contingency plan worked out ahead of time. Kids should have a necklace with a whistle and should know to sit down and blow it until somebody shows up. Let them know that running around doesn't work at all, and if they sit tight, they'll be found."
What can a parent do to avoid mutinous troops?
"Kids need simple, tangible goals, so don't try to do too much. Lighten up, and be willing to change your plans along the way. Remember that you're trying to spend time together and have fun, and that beating your personal best for miles hiked in a day is not the point."
What about avoiding boredom?
"You've got to bring familiar things from home to make your kids comfortable. Their favorite pillow, book, and snacks go a long way toward humanizing a totally foreign place. Also, getting them involved in planning the trip and organizing gear gets them excited." --P.D.A.
Illustration by Calef Brown
|Pleeeeease MOM! . . .I WANT IT.|
THE SPY CAM
Austin Powers would covet this: The new Spy Cam ($20) from Wild Planet Toys is a miniature camera mounted on a pair of Oakley-inspired wraparound sunglasses. The shutter is released by air pressure via a remote hand pump, and the camera uses a 110-film cartridge for daylight spying only. "These things are so cool," says Ryan Patterson, age ten. "You feel like a real spy when you hide behind trees and take pictures without even putting a camera up to your face." Contact 800-247-6570 or www.wildplanet.com. --L.T.B.