Winter Hiking with Children

Bear Canyon Trail
Skye pauses along the Bear Canyon Trail

My daughter’s winter break is winding down and the day after tomorrow she’s going back to school for the last half of sixth grade. It was a beautiful winter day today, sunny and mostly clear, calm, with temperatures in the mid-40s. I took her on a one-hour walk along the Bear Canyon trail, directly south of NCAR in south Boulder.

I started thinking about what kinds of contemplative activities we could do together along this hike that I would recommend later for parents and their kids on similar winter days. The most obvious ideas came first—asking her to tell me what she thought the animals and insects were doing this time of year. She’s 12, so her answers came easily and with a lot more sophistication than I expected. She named a burrowing insect that hibernates in winter, and described what prairie dogs might be doing when it’s cold out and the ground is covered in snow (“mostly hanging out in their deep burrows, coming out occasionally to try to find grass”). We saw birds flittering about, but not as many as there are in the spring and summer. Even though we didn’t hear any insects, she did spy one lone grasshopper warming himself on a large boulder.

Everything is quieter on a winter hike. The snow muffles much of the ambient sound anyway, but the silence is mostly due to the low population of birds and insects this time of year. The sound of the water trickling through the half-frozen creek underscored the quiet and felt soothing, like listening to a fountain.

Up ahead, only minutes after we started on the trail, Skye pointed out the two cone-shaped hills below NCAR and asked if we could climb to the top of the tallest one.

“It’s bigger than it looks. It’s also harder to walk up there than it seems.” I warned.

bear canyon hill
Skye summits the first hill south of NCAR

She didn’t believe me until we were much closer and she realized that the hills were quite steep and quite tall. But she wanted to try, so I stepped back and watched her as she trudged upwards. She made it as far as the first summit, looked around, then beckoned me.

“Come up here, mama!”

No thanks, I said. I’m not in the mood to suck air on that steep walk up. I’ll just stay down here and take photos…

This gave me an idea for hikes with older children such as Skye. They already have an idea of what animals are doing in winter and may find the activity of talking about that a little anticlimactic, but Skye’s desire to scale the hill was interesting. I asked her why she felt she wanted to get to the top, and how she felt when she was there.

She said she wanted to see all the way around, and when she got up there, she felt tall with achievement. It reminded me of the scene in the movie “Into the Wild” when Alexander Supertramp scaled the rocky hill above his campsite near the Salton Sea.

animal tracks in snow
Animal tracks are easily seen in snow

When she returned to the trail I asked her to look around and tell me where she would love to explore, if she could. She pointed up at a north-facing slope on the other side of the creek, where animal tracks led into the trees.

“I want to go there, because it looks mysterious. I want to know what’s on the other side of that hill.”

We couldn’t go there because we couldn’t cross the creek, and neither could any other hikers, so we knew that the tracks crossing the slope could only be wild animal tracks—most likely deer or fox tracks, maybe coyote. The tracks were everywhere. That’s one of the features of hiking in snow that’s fun for kids—seeing where animals roam around in the fields and forest when no one is looking.

We were just about ready to turn back when the trail narrowed and was enveloped in shadow. Skye wanted to keep going because she said she loves darkness. I asked her why and to describe the kind of darkness she’s referring to. She said she likes dark woods, small rooms, or going outside after sunset. I kept asking her how it makes her feel and what it reminds her of, and why it soothing to her.

This could be a question you might ask your older child on a hike. Ask them to look around, especially if you’re in a location where you can see far down valley or up at the mountains. Where would they like to explore, assuming there could easily get there or fly up there? Why? How does it make them feel to look at it?

When I’m taking a walk or jogging in the morning and see a dark, misty cloud cover the Front Range mountains I’m drawn to them the same way Skye was drawn to the shadowed hills on the other side of the creek.  I want to be there. I want to explore that mystery, to be in the middle of that gray darkness, to feel what it must feel like to be surrounded by shrouded peaks. There’s something comforting and thrilling about it that compels me to stare at it until I feel it in my bones.

Our walk today was brief. Just enough time to breathe in some fresh air and see what nature is up to this Monday in January. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about hiking with my child it’s this: keep it relatively short. Have a reward at the end. Today, it was lunch at Subway.

One thought on “Winter Hiking with Children”

  1. Perhaps more tweens and teens would be interested in hiking if parents avoided hokey convos! Contemplative hiking is a great way to experience personal growth and to improve relationships with one’s children and spouse.

    I live in Southern California, in a suburban housing development. I enjoy jogging through local trails that wind through eucalyptus groves, rosemary bushes and chapperal. Some of your suggestions have taken my runs to another level. For example, when a bird flies faster than I can run I appreciate the wisdom of nature’s mechanics. When I find myself unable to “see” anything around me, but instead become inwardly focused on my bills or boyfriend troubles as I stride, I know it is time to study the landscape and re-focus. There is always something to be discovered simply by being outdoors, but for those of us looking for more, your specific guidance is ingenious.

    Thank you!

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