Grand Valley Family: Hiking 101

 Photography by  Eric Landis

Photography by Eric Landis

Humans are made to hike. Bipedal creatures, our bodies move best when we put one foot in front of the other. While we can all agree that walking is as natural to us as breathing, there are those people who argue that “hiking isn’t fun.” And those people, my friends, are often called “children.”

    According to Chris Pipkin, an outdoor recreation planner with the Bureau of Land Management, the Grand Junction field office alone administers nearly 700 miles of recreational trail in portions of Mesa and Garfield counties. With so many trails from which to choose, hiking is one of the Grand Valley’s most accessible outdoor activities. To enjoy yourself on a hike, you simply need good shoes, a trail, and snacks. 

    Unless you’re going with kids. Then you also need a realistic attitude. You will need to recognize that children approach hiking differently than adults, that they are motivated in unique ways, and that there are steps that parents can take to ensure family hiking harmony. 

Tip #1: Kids Don’t Care About Calories

While adults often hike for exercise, kids hike for adventure. Children usually don’t care about how many miles they’ve traveled, the steps they’ve logged, or the calories they’ve burned. Children hike to explore and have an adventure.

    This means that smart parents choose trails that are ripe for exploration. Pick trails near water or in deep canyons. Look for natural or historical features that will keep your kids interested in taking that next step. 

    Along with choosing a fun trail, it’s also important to be realistic about how far your kids will hike. Especially with younger children, lowball your mileage estimate. Leave plenty of room in your schedule to allow for starts, stops, detours, and delays. Remember that the fun is in the journey, even if more than half of the journey involves throwing rocks in a lake. 

Tip #2: Kids May Need Motivation

Because kids hike for fun, and enjoy hiking more when it actually is fun, experienced parents hit the trail with motivational “tools” at the ready. 

    Motivating younger kids can be as easy as distraction. Draw inspiration from the landscape surrounding you, and create a story together. Alphabet games (like looking for things along the trail that start with A, B, C, and so on) offer great distraction, as does asking your child to document the hike with your phone or camera.

    With older kids and teens, motivation is all about giving them control. Charge older kids with choosing a trail and planning the day. Turn them into trail bosses, with responsibility for setting the pace, pointing out interesting sights along the way, and deciding when it’s time to go home. 

Tip #3: Plan, Prepare, and Go

Nothing puts a damper on outdoor adventure quite like saying “Let’s go for a hike!” and then taking 45 minutes to gather up the family gear. De-stress family outings by keeping a daypack ready with sunscreen, basic first-aid supplies, extra socks, a space blanket, a whistle, plastic bags (if going with a dog), and snacks. When it’s time for hiking, grab this pack, fill your water bottles, and go. 

    Plan on eating and drinking at least every 60 minutes, sometimes more. Taking time for snack and water breaks keeps everyone in the family properly fueled and helps you and your kids set goals. For example, as a family you might agree to hike to “the next bend in the trail where we can see the canyon” before having a snack. 

    It’s also important to know where you’re going. Many, but not all, trails in the Grand Valley have a map at the trailhead. Take a photo of the trail map to carry with you, or use a trail app such as All Trails. If Internet coverage is iffy where you are going, download and print a paper map at home.


Recommended Family Hiking Trails in the Grand Valley

For these recommendations, we turned to the BLM’s Chris Pipkin and Ryan McConnell, stewardship coordinator for Colorado Canyons Association. For more information, check out gjhikes.com.

Trails Less Than 2 Miles

• Big Sister Trail starts at the Tabeguache/Lunch Loop trailhead. Share the first part of the trail with mountain bikers, then climb the hiking-only trail to the top of Big Sister. 

• Fruita Paleo Area Trail in the Fruita Front Country has interpretive signs providing information about area fossils. It’s about 1 mile long.

• The Trail Through Time is jointly administered by the BLM and the Museum of Western Colorado. Look for dinosaur fossils and excavation sites. 

• Colorado National Monument has numerous short hikes, many of them accessed from Rim Rock Drive. A favorite is the Alcove Nature Trail, a 1-mile round-trip near the Saddlehorn Visitors Center, where you can pick up
a trail guide.

Trails Greater Than 2 Miles

Many of the finest trails in our area are part of longer trails and trail systems. Choose how far you want to go, and turn around when you hit your halfway point. 

• Mica Mine Trail is a very popular spot, beloved by kids of all ages and perfect for larger groups. The winding 2.6-mile route follows a shallow creek for wading and splashing. Encourage little hands to take a piece (but not too many) of mica to remember their adventure. 

• The Fruita Front Country includes the Devil’s Canyon trailhead, with options for hiking canyon rims and bottoms. Mr. Williams Geology Trail is a 2.5-mile loop with trail signs that teach local geology in a kid-friendly manner. D3 Trail is a 7-mile round-trip to a deserted cowboy line shack.

• Pollock Bench Trail, located in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, is a 7.4-mile loop featuring dramatic canyon views and interesting, mixed terrain. Some sections are narrow and close to the rim, so keep young ones nearby.

• McDonald Creek Canyon Trail is a 4.8-mile round-trip hidden gem in Rabbit Valley leading you down a canyon to the Colorado River. Views of Fremont Indian petroglyphs along the way provide extra interest and the opportunity to teach children proper rock-art etiquette.

Rules for Responsible Hiking

While our arid landscape may look barren from afar, the desert is actually a specialized and complex ecosystem that deserves our respect and protection. 

Hike only on designated trails, and don’t shortcut. Going off trail harms fragile plants and wildlife habitat. 

Don’t bust the crust.     

Leave prehistoric or historic cultural artifacts or rock art as you find them. Do not touch!

Never leave your mark by carving or tagging rocks or trees. 

Keep your dog on the trail with a leash or voice control, and scoop the poop.

Loud voices and music disturb wildlife and other hikers. Be respectful.