by Chris Proulx
Majestic views abound in the White Mountains. Some you can find via train, chairlift or tram. Others practically seek you out as you drive the main roads. They’re all good, but there’s something special about the view you’ve earned with your own two feet. Pride in accomplishment makes everything better, for everyone, at every age.
For this reason, hiking with young children can be particularly rewarding. A child’s first on-trail adventure can reward him not only with exclusive scenery but with increased confidence and a potential life-long connection to a healthy, inexpensive activity. But as any parent knows, the difference between a positive and negative experience for a child can be thin. This margin is reduced even further on a hiking trail. Here are some tips for keeping your child’s White Mountain hiking experience positive.
Choose the Right Trail
Those who hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine usually cite the White Mountain section as being the most difficult. Much of the terrain is rugged, steep and frequently exposed to harsh, rapidly changing weather conditions. You wouldn’t introduce your child to baseball by throwing him 90 mph fastballs. It’s probably an equally bad idea to choose any mountain named after a president as his first ascent. Instead, plan a trek with a high chance of completion. Easy terrain (good footing), low elevation gain (under 1,000 feet) and short distance (3 miles or less round trip) is a good way to start. Finish a hike like this and now you have a base level to which to add challenge on your next hike. Of course, for young kids, finishing even the easiest hike can be a challenge of physical and mental stamina. So…
Motivate with Stories
Kids need context. Why are they hiking? Where are they going? A trail with a magical destination like a waterfall, swimming hole or lofty view can turn a nature walk into a quest. Research things you’ll encounter along the way — a stream crossing, a bridge, a giant boulder — and make them stages of the adventure. Even better, incorporate each into a story that unfolds the further your child hikes. Many of the area’s trails have long, romantic histories filled with diverse characters like Native Americans, 19th Century pioneers, artists, lumberjacks and scientists. Infusing these histories into the hike can both educate and entertain young minds.
Distract with Discovery
Refrains of “are we there yet?” can happen on the trail just like in the car. And just like in the car, you can use a variation of the alphabet game to keep your kids’ minds off the travel time and on the present surroundings. One variation is animal tracking. Pick up a free guide to local animal tracks at a White Mountain National Forest ranger station or visitor center, then see who can find and identify a track along the way. Finding a track can be tough on a dry, heavily hiked trail, but it’s an exotic mission that captivates. Developing a strategy for finding them (examine each mud puddle, for instance) and your child will be on the lookout for the next opportunity. Another variation with a higher rate of success is the color game. This one was taught to me by Forest Service Education Specialist, Clare Long. Obtain a swatch book of paint colors at a store, then, for each shade in the book, try to find its match in nature.
Prepare for Conditions
There is a chance of adversity on every outing into the woods. You are entering a wild environment. Cold, wetness, black flies, flooded stream crossings, advancing dark, fatigue, hunger and thirst are just a small sample of things you may encounter on the trail. Minimize risk by being prepared for the day’s weather, trail conditions and seasonal factors. Follow “hikeSafe” guidelines (hikesafe.com), knowing that, ultimately, you are responsible for getting yourself safely out of the woods.
Trails to Try
You’re ready. The kids are ready. Now, where should you take them? Here are a few diverse trail options — all family-tested.
The Discovery Trail
A wheel chair friendly one-and-a-half mile gravel path with no considerable elevation change, the Discovery Trail is little more than a stroll, but it’s a wonderful introduction to the resource that is the White Mountain National Forest. Located off the Kancamagus Highway, it’s a showcase of what the Forest is, how it’s managed and why. As you walk you encounter 10 interpretive displays explaining various elements of the ecosystem as they appear before you. It’s a lesson in how the National Forest is managed to maintain diverse wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and renewable natural resources. Kids will race from sign to sign eager to make the next discovery.
The bed of a former logging railroad, the Lincoln Woods Trail is long, wide and flat. Children and adults alike will enjoy crossing the 180 foot suspension bridge over the East Branch Pemigewasset River to start the hike, and finding old wooden railroad ties that still exist on parts of the trail. To reach the end, kids will need stamina and patience — it’s a 3 mile straight shot without views. For those who can make it, another half mile hike along the Franconia Falls Trail delivers you to a series of small sparkling waterfalls with natural slides and deep pools. Keep in mind that while swimming makes a great reward for hiking on a hot summer day at low water levels, water always adds safety concerns. And though flat, the return trip adds another 3.5 miles.
Here is a short trail to a great view. The trail to Artists Bluff starts across the street from Echo Lake Beach in Franconia Notch State Park. It’s a half-mile walk up stone steps to a flat ledge where one gets a beautiful perspective of the notch, including Cannon Mountain, Mt Lafayette, Eagle Cliffs and Echo Lake. You can combine this with other state park activities like swimming, canoeing or a ride on the aerial tramway for a full day of fun.
(David Govatski photo)
Here is an easy walk around a small lake where wildlife sightings are common. The trail starts behind the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch. Travel the loop in either direction around the lake. A short offshoot trail on the lake’s northwest side takes you to a red bench with views of the Presidential Range. When the hike is done, have some fun on the AMC’s playscape, a playground made from natural elements designed to develop hiking skills.
Also near the AMC Highland Center, the Mt Willard Trail is a former carriage road that takes you to one of the most dramatic views in the White Mountains. The trail is somewhat steep, gaining 900 feet in elevation over 1.7 miles, but the terrain is easy to manage. At the top you’re treated to a birds-eye view of the distinctly U-shaped Crawford Notch.
The Kancamagus Highway presents numerous hiking opportunities for kids of all ages and abilities. For those looking for a little challenge, try the Boulder Loop Trail. It starts just off the highway on Passaconaway Road near the Albany Covered Bridge. The loop is approximately 3 miles long, passing glacial erratics (huge boulders that are fun to climb) on the way to a summit 900 feet in elevation with great views of the surrounding mountains and Swift River. Expect a round trip of two-and-a-half hours with elementary school-aged children, including time for exploring the boulders, snacks and photos at the top.
These sites are all part of the Recreation Tour on the Weeks Act Legacy Trail, a free, self-guided driving tour celebrating the story of the the White Mountain National Forest. The tour features 40 sites of interest across 100 miles. Themes include Conservation History, Ecology and Wildlife, Family Activities, History and Cultural Heritage, Recreation, and Water. Download an audio tour, print maps, get GPS coordinates or take a virtual multimedia tour at weeksactlegacytrail.org.
About the Author
Chris Proulx is the owner of Borealis Productions, an independent media production company based in Conway, NH. He is the media producer of The Weeks Act Legacy Trail, the station manager of White Mountains TV and the father of two young hikers.