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Fall Hiking 

Published October 1, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

  • matt krebs/green mountain club

With its beautiful foliage and crisp, mostly mosquito-free air, fall is a great time to tackle the trails. But choosing the right hike to attempt with kids can be tricky.

Matt Krebs, publications coordinator at the Green Mountain Club, says it all depends on how old your children are.

For parents with babies, hiking is more about the grownups, who can walk while toting their kids in backpack carriers. But the little ones' needs still count — infants should be dressed for the weather. And parents should look for hikes with easier terrain to avoid slipping.

Hikers with toddlers and preschoolers in tow might enjoy short hikes to waterfalls, wildlife-viewing spots or vistas to keep kids' interest, Krebs suggests. "The key at this age is keeping them excited," he says.

Families with school-age children can begin to take on some of the bigger mountains. Krebs says his own kids both hiked Mt. Mansfield at age 4 and New Hampshire's Mt. Washington at ages 4 and 6. But not all young hikers are so motivated. Picking routes with interesting landmarks that aren't too far apart can help to keep them engaged and allow them to see progress toward their goal.

Around age 10, most kids can attempt almost any trail as long as the distance is scaled to their age and the circumstances. Says Krebs: "If they've just played five straight days of soccer and are already worn down, they will not be very happy on a hard hike."

Krebs' No.1 tip? Keep it fun. Parents should be ready to turn around if the kids aren't feeling it. And kids should help with the planning so they're invested in a successful trip.

Lastly, Krebs recommends that families celebrate their successes. "We always have treats at every summit and go out for ice cream after every adventure," he says of his own brood.

In the spirit of Krebs' advice, here are eight fall family hikes organized by age group. Find more detailed descriptions of many of these trails in the Green Mountain Club's Day Hiker's Guide to Vermont or on vtstateparks.com.

For Families With Babies

Owl's Head (Groton): This moderate hike can be shortened by driving to a parking lot that's within a half mile of the summit. Fabulous views of Lake Groton, Kettle Pond and the mountains surrounding them reward those who make it to the top. A gazebo there is also a neat place for kids to explore. Access the full trail through New Discovery State Park, which charges a day-use fee until Columbus Day of $4 per person (14 years and older) and $2 for kids 4 and up; kids 3 and younger are free. The access road off of Route 232 is a few hundred feet away and stays open until winter. Round-trip distance: 3 miles (or 1.1 if you drive to the parking lot).

Mt. Philo (Charlotte): This hike offers great views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks from several lookout points. The Rock Trail leaves from the entrance to Mt. Philo State Park, which charges a day-use fee (same as above) until Columbus Day weekend. You can also reach the lookouts by driving the park road and hiking a short distance; the road closes when the park shuts down for the season. There’s a bathroom at the top when the park is open. Round-trip distance: 2 miles

For Families With Toddlers and Preschoolers

Mt. Mansfield Ridgeline (Stowe): Driving to just below the summit can be a tough concession for parents who love to hike, but it's a great way to get kids to the top of Vermont's tallest peak, home to one of the state's few alpine zones. The car ride up on the Toll Road offers spectacular views of the mountain. Then, from a parking lot, the trail wends 1.5 miles along the far side of the broad mountain to the summit, known as the Chin. Hikers should be comfortable navigating some rocky terrain; small children will need help over a few rock scrambles. The toll is $19 per car and driver plus $6 per passenger; kids 5 and under are free. The road closes on October 18, or earlier for inclement weather, so call before you go. Round-trip distance: 3 miles.

Mt. Ascutney (Brownsville): This defunct ski mountain, now a destination for hikers and mountain bikers, has five trails that lead to the summit. Its best feature for young families, however, is the road that leads you within .65 miles of the top, which closes for the season on October 18. From the road, the Slab Trail is the best option for families with young children because it’s the least strenuous route. All of the routes from the bottom, ranging from 2.7 to 4.6 miles each way, offer multiple points of interest like waterfalls and vistas. For more information, maps and trail descriptions see the Mt. Ascutney website (www.ascutneytrails.com).

For Families With Young School-Age Kids

White Rock (Middlesex): Neighboring Mt. Hunger dwarfs this Worcester Range peak. But the views from White Rock's broad and more easily earned summit are expansive: The White Mountains are clearly visible to the east and the Green and Adirondack mountains to the west. The hike can be strenuous at times, with a steep, rocky section near the summit. Round-trip distance: 4.8 miles.

Wheeler Mountain (Barton): This hike includes sections of trail that cross slabs of open rock, offering vistas to keep children — and parents — interested. The summit offers great views of the dramatic cliffs of Mt. Pisgah and the Green Mountains beyond. Round-trip distance: 2.6 miles.

For Families With Older School-Age Kids

Sunset Ridge to Mt. Mansfield Summit (Underhill): Access this difficult but incredibly rewarding trek from Underhill State Park (day-use fee until Columbus Day weekend, same as New Discovery). From there, take the Sunset Ridge Trail to the summit of Mt. Mansfield. After the park is closed, the hike becomes a little longer from the parking area outside of a closed gate. Along the way, check out the views from Cantilever Rock and enjoy the unique terrain after crossing the tree line about halfway to the summit. Round-trip distance: 5.6 miles.

Sterling Pond (Cambridge): This challenging hike starts with a rock staircase and features many steep and rocky sections. It leaves from the very cool caves of Smugglers' Notch on Route 108 and tops out at Sterling Pond, a beautiful alpine pond with shoreline access. The uphill hike is very steep, but the rock scrambles keep it interesting. Round-trip distance: 2.2 miles.

Hiking & Hunting

Fall is a great time for hiking, but it's also hunting season. Hunters customarily avoid hiking trails, but stay extra safe by following these tips:

  • Wear vivid colors, visible from all sides, like a bright orange cap or jacket. Put orange garments on kids and pets, too.
  • Don't wear white, as it could be mistaken for a deer tail.
  • Stick to established trails, as these are well-known by hunters.
  • Avoid hiking in popular hunting areas.
  • Talk among your group to make hunters aware you are near.
  • Find hunting season dates on the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department's website

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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Sarah Galbraith


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