The purpose of a hike is to make swift, steady progress toward your scenic destination, right?
Maybe for you, Dad. For your children, the purpose of a hike is to balance on logs, jump on stumps, throw rocks, snap twigs, splash in streams, examine bugs, run out of sight, demand to know if we’re there yet and, of course, melt down.
“A mixture of laughter, awe, pride, frustration and patience” is how Jessica Becker describes the experience of introducing her young daughter to outdoor exploration in her new book, “Little Feet Hiking: Columbia River Gorge.”
It’s the fourth book in Becker’s thoughtful and detailed self-published “Little Feet Hiking” series, all available at Vintage Books (6613 E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver). Earlier volumes cover kid-friendly outings in the Vancouver and Mount Hood areas.
Becker’s books aim to nurture children’s love of getting into nature by teasing out the most kid-friendly aspects of many local hiking sites. She counsels parents to manage their ambitious expectations in favor of happy but modest adventures that whet kids’ appetites for more.
Keeping hikes fun and interesting for kids
Adapted and expanded from “Little Feet Hiking: Columbia River Gorge” by Jessica Becker
Talk about the interesting things you see.
Talk up the next big thing ahead.
Count steps, sing songs, tell stories.
Play I Spy with colors or plants.
Try a short “listening walk,” then discuss what you heard.
Count tree rings or study lichen on downed logs.
Bring tools like magnifying glasses, tweezers, binoculars (or glued-together toilet paper rolls, which still help with focus).
Write or draw in nature journals.
Measure and identify animal tracks, scat.
Practice animal walking: hop like a bunny, stalk like a cougar, flutter like a butterfly.
Promise to stop for snack or lunch — and mean it.
On the web: littlefeethiking.com
Yes, she said, that often means chucking grown-up ideas about focus, speed and scenery while kids get fascinated by pebbles and pinecones — or bored and cranky despite the grandest vistas.
Becker can relate. The great outdoors were not her childhood happy place. Lurking right over her Florida back fence were venomous snakes and at least one alligator, she said.
But when Becker was in her 20s, she took a random sojourn to Portland and discovered the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
“I was just mesmerized by it all,” she said. “The Gorge is where I learned to hike, where I figured out that I love hiking.”
Becker moved here as quickly as possible and delved deep into outdoor exploration and study. She met her husband on a backpacking outing, and the couple decided to raise their daughter in rural Clark County, a great place for exploring, they figured.
But Becker was injured in a car accident that made it impossible to carry her 1-year-old daughter around anymore, she said. After that, her priority became locating local trails that were still safe enough for a freestanding, toddling child.
That challenge became her field of expertise as hiking friends and parent-outing groups like Hike It Baby started treating her like a trailhead encyclopedia and encouraged her to write a book.
“Little Feet Hiking: 25 Confidence-Building Hikes for Little Kids Around Vancouver, Washington” appeared in 2018. Since then, Becker has written three more books and revised the first with updated information in what’s become an ongoing project that follows the seasons.
“What I typically do is spend summer and fall scouting out hikes,” she said. “I take my daughter on all my scouting hikes. I wouldn’t ever recommend a hike I hadn’t tried, and hadn’t tried with her.
“Then in November through April, I write. My daughter goes to bed and it’s my after-9 p.m. gig,” she said. “I stay up too late.”
Hiking guidebooks that check a kid-friendliness box as an afterthought can be misleading, Becker said. They also tend to overlook prime sites that only need some parental ambition adjustment to become excellent kid visits.
For example, below the Gorge’s towering Coyote Wall hiking site is a flat, paved, abandoned access road that’s probably all a young child needs for a starter hike: easy walking, great views, spring wildflowers and kid-sized Lower Labyrinth Falls along the way.
At popular and steep Cape Horn, Becker recommends bypassing the main trailhead and all its switchback climbing in favor of a back way (Strunk Road). It deposits you one easy meadow ramble away from the Nancy Russell Overlook, which offers a sweeping vista over a reassuringly safe stone wall.
“I don’t like scary edges,” Becker said. “I like staying away from scary edges.”
Becker’s books are written with children age 10 and below in mind, but she refrains from grouping hikes by age.
“One 4-year-old may be super-sturdy and great on their feet and not run off, and another 4-year-old may be the complete opposite,” she said.
Instead, all hikes in Becker’s books are rated by difficulty (or parental-hovering) level, from 1 (easy, flat, safe for wobbly toddlers) through 2 and 3 (trickier terrain, requiring hand-holding) to 4 (greatest challenge and need for independence).
Becker’s own toddler got surprisingly good at zooming down a whole mile or two of trail. Then her growing curiosity slowed her down.
“At 4 years old, our kiddo was so interested in the natural world that she wanted to know everything and did not make it very far down the trail,” Becker writes. “Now, at 7 years old, (she) can hike farther and gets excited about flowers, views, and history, which takes our hiking to the next level.”
Becker said she likes to push her kid just a little bit by setting achievable goals along the way.
“The next waterfall is only half a mile ahead, can we make that? But I also know when not to push her,” she said. “Your kid’s not going to have fun if you’re uptight and upset about getting to the next waterfall.”
Make it really tense and joyless — we’re looking at you, Dad — and your kid may not want to try hiking again. Flexibility is all, Becker said. Sometimes parents have to be willing to keep smiling and turn around.
“I’m huge on preparation,” Becker said.
That means maps and trail guides, bug repellent and sunscreen, extra layers of clothing, rain protection, more food and drink than you think you’ll need.
“You’ll probably need them,” she predicted.
Check online weather forecasts for as close to your destination as possible, she said. Clark County or Portland weather reports won’t tell you about real conditions near Hood River or The Dalles.
Safety precautions are even more crucial when hiking with children, Becker said. Hazards like cliffs, snakes and poison oak mean grown-ups should usually take the lead in the Gorge.
Here are a few of Jessica Becker’s favorite hiking spots for kids, both near and far from Vancouver. Her four books feature dozens more.
- Lucia Falls Regional Park (Level 1): A great testing ground for the littlest hikers, with a stroller-friendly loop beside the parking lot and more trail segments to add on if your hiking newbie is ready.
- Salmon-Morgan Creeks Natural Area (Level 1): A deep, dark old-growth forest in a Clark County neighborhood just southeast of Battle Ground.
- Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Level 1): The huge riverside bird sanctuary at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge is about to reopen after an upgrade. “That’s an amazing place for birding and I’m excited that they’ve added new trails,” Becker said.
- Vancouver Lake North (Level 1): Just north of the lakeside playground is a calm trail through beautiful cottonwoods.
- Washington State University Vancouver’s Cougar Trails (Level 2): Lots of little loops, streams, woods and meadows, all tucked below campus.
- Tarbell Trail (Level 2): A diverse hike near Silver Star Mountain with beautiful views of Mount St. Helens and plenty of clear-cut stumps for climbing and jumping, Becker said.
- Goat Marsh Lake (Level 3): A scientific research area that straddles old-growth forest and volcanic ash on the south side of Mount St. Helens. Not steep, lots to see. “We’ve seen whole herds of elk and not many people there,” Becker said.
In the Gorge
- Nellie Corser Wildlife Area (Level 2-3): An obscure old-growth oasis that’s a short drive up Duncan Creek Road from the Skamania General Store. According to Becker, the site is a veritable biology showcase with a short, easy trail that’s perfect for kids.
- St. Cloud Day Use Area (Level 1.5): A flat mile-long walk through historic apple orchards leads you to the Columbia riverside and great views of the Franz Lake Wildlife Refuge, which is full of birds, coyotes, beavers and at least one black bear, Becker said. Kids will enjoy the mud.
- Emerald Falls (Level 2): Park at the Oregon side’s Wyeth trailhead to visit a sweet, uncrowded waterfall while bypassing the permit-required waterfall corridor. The Civilian Conservation Corps campground here makes for a good history lesson.
- Klickitat Rail Trail at Lyle (Level 1) or Swale Canyon (Level 4): A wide, flat, scenic trail that’s paved at the start and continues north from the town of Lyle for miles. The Swale Canyon section is a great place to visualize trains chugging along, a century ago.