One of 10-year-old Gavin Hudkins’ favorite things to do when hiking is find different rocks. His mom, Sarah Hudkins, said the budding geologist loves bringing them home to identify.
“The last hike he did, he actually hiked out a mile and a half with a huge rock in his backpack because he wanted to bring it home, and we have it displayed by our front door.”
Sarah and her husband, Jason Hudkins, who have been hiking with their kids since their twins, Trenton and Shayla, 19, were 4 years old, have found that planning ahead and doing activities on hikes like collecting rocks or geocaching makes hiking with kids a more comfortable and fun experience.
The family spends most of the year in Washington, but comes to Alaska every summer. Recently the family has been doing a lot of geocaching in Washington, and they’re looking forward to trying it in Alaska this summer.
“Especially, to get (Gavin) out on the trail and get him motivated to keep moving to be able to hike and find a geocach. … I think it’s exciting for (kids) to find something at the end of the trail,” Sarah said. “It’s something to look forward too.”
With a 9-year age gap between the twins and Gavin, Sarah and her husband have been “dividing and conquering more,” going on separate hikes based on the difficulty of the hike on the kids’ age and skill level.
Jason and Shayla went on a two-night hiking trip one week, and, following that, he took Gavin on his first backpacking trip — a 2-mile overnight hike with little elevation gain.
“When you’re going out to do something, and maybe you have different age groups of kids, if you’re having a family day, trying to find something that makes everybody happy is always kind of a struggle,” Sarah said.
Sarah said when her family comes to Kenai in the summers, they often hike the Skilak Lake trails.
Michelle Ostrowski, education specialist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, agreed that the Skilak trails are good ones for families.
Ostrowski especially enjoys taking youth groups on Hidden Creek Trial located on Skilak Lake Road. The trail is 2.6 miles roundtrip. It goes to Skilak Lake and through the burn area left from a human-caused fire in May 1996.
“It’s a nice hike because it brings you through seeing the forest succession,” Ostrowski said, “so you’re kind of seeing the forest starting over.”
Two other shorter, kid-friendly hikes are Centennial Trail, 2.2 miles roundtrip, and the Keen-Eye Trail, which is a quarter-mile roundtrip or — with the addition of another loop — a three-quarter mile roundtrip hike. Both trailheads are located at refuge headquarters on Ski Hill Road.
Another option Ostrowski said is Burney’s Trail, a 1.2-mile roundtrip hike. The trailhead is at Hidden Lake Campground. At the end of the trail, hikers can see Hidden Lake, Skilak Lake and the Kenai Mountains.
Because of roots and narrow boardwalks, strollers cannot be used on refuge trails, so Ostrowski suggests hikers use child carriers for very young children.
For older, more experienced kids, Ostrowski said a good option is Seven Lakes Trail, 8.8 miles roundtrip. Hikers can start at either end of the trail — Kelly Lake Campground or Engineer Lake Campground. The trail offers lake and mountain views.
Ostrowski said that even if a child doesn’t hike the entire trail, she thinks it’s important just to connect kids with nature.
When she takes youth groups out on a hike, Ostrowski has them stop and investigate their surroundings using binoculars or magnifying glasses.
“I’ll have a really rowdy group that if I just give them … the magnifier and show them how to use it, they’re great for 10 minutes or more just investigating and looking,” Ostrowski said.
Ostrowski said buying a field guide and making a game of checking off the different plants on the trail in the guide can be a fun way to get kids to interact with nature. Journaling, sketching and taking pictures are other ways to for kids to document and have mementos from their hiking adventures, she said.
Safety is important too. Recommendations from Ostrowski and Sarah include: bring bug spray, sun block, a whistle, water, snacks, bear spray and a first aid kit. Make sure kids know to stick with the group and to not run if there is a bear or a moose, Ostrowski said. Kids should also be reminded to stay on the trail so plants and habitats don’t get trampled, she said.
They both said to start small with expectations of how far and how high the kids can hike.
“Kids have little legs,” Ostrowski said. “Even if you only go 200 feet on a trail with a 3-year-old, they are going to have a great time.”
Sarah’s other tips are to be patient and make sure the kids enjoy it.
“If the kids enjoy it the first time, they’ll want to go back and do it again and again,” Sarah said.
Kaylee Osowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.