Family-friendly hiking trails in Maryland

It was pretty much a given that Joe Vogelpohl's kids would love hiking. As a ranger at Patapsco Valley State Park, Vogelpohl spends most of his days on trails and often takes his children, Isaac, 4, and Cecelia, 1, along on weekends. Cecilia is usually strapped to Vogelpohl's back, while Isaac can hike four miles, walking most of the way and being carried every now and then.

"We have done lots of hiking," says Vogelpohl, who lives in Sykesville. "I started them early."


He lets his children set their own pace and encourages exploration and detours along the way. Isaac often stops on the trail to skip rocks in the stream or look for bugs. Sometimes they bring their fishing poles and stop for 15 minutes to fish along the trail.

Not every kid has a park ranger for a parent, but almost every kid can be a hiker, and Maryland has many options for family-friendly nature outings.


"I certainly feel like any kid that can walk is ready to hit the trail," says Nancy Ritger, naturalist and program manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a nonprofit outdoor recreation and conservation organization based in Massachusetts.

If parents are prepared and fully engage the children, the hike will be a positive experience, and something the kids will want to do again, says Ritger.

"No kids want to be on a forced march with their parents. Keep the focus not on being out for four hours, but doing a lot of different things to use all of their senses," says Ritger. "The goal is to have fun."

Front packs and backpacks are ideal for holding babies and toddlers. Once they can walk, children should be allowed to explore, and at least walk for part of the hike, Ritger says.


Kids are generally capable of "hiking their age," meaning a 5-year-old should be able to hike five miles, says Jennifer Chambers author of a children's hiking book, "Watershed Adventures of a Water Bottle." Her newest guidebook, "The Best Hikes for Kids: Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia," is expected to be released soon.

It's important, however, to start slow and simple, says Chambers, who lives in Silver Spring with her husband and two children, who often hike long distances. The distance a child can hike is dependent on his or her temperament, physical ability and experience with hiking, she says.

Playing games like "I spy" or scavenger hunts along the trail can also keep kids interested and engaged, Chambers says. Bring along a bug box to search for critters, or encourage kids to find things along the trail of certain colors or shapes. Race to different mile markers, or skip, jump or hop to make the hike more interesting.

Water and snacks are also essential to preventing meltdowns. Chambers often let her children create their own trail mix using whatever ingredients they could find in the house.

To keep younger children motivated to keep on trekking, Heather Connellee of Pylesville, author of "Best Easy Day Hikes in Baltimore," advises working highlights into the day.

"With kids it helps to have motivation to get them to a specific point, something to work towards, a goal," she says.

For older kids, a hike is great way to recharge their relationships with their families.

"It really is a bonding experience on many levels," says nutrition consultant Susanna DeRocco, a Towson mother of two sons, ages 10 and 13. "The boys spend some non-specific time with each other, my husband and I get to catch up, we get to connect with our boys and we all bond with nature. As corny as that may sound and as difficult as it is to sometimes get there, it is well worth the effort."

She added that hiking is also a good alternative to that ubiquitous screen time that takes up so much of children's lives.

"The more kids can spend time in nature, the better.  Whether it is the fresh air or the sunshine and scenery, there is something about the out-of-doors that is just so life-affirming," DeRocco says. "Kids need to be able to play, get dirty, explore, dream and wonder.  What better place to tap into these reserves than in nature? We also don't look at phones or texts while we are together.  We may take some pictures, but technology is 'off' so we can tune into our surroundings."

Six kid-friendly hikes in Maryland

1. Rocks State Park: Falling Branch Trail, Pylesville

Distance: 1.1 miles up and back

Park at: 1099 Falling Branch Road, Pylesville, 410-557-7994

What you'll find: The waterfall is the highlight of this short and easy hike in Harford County. The 1.1-mile hike follows Falling Branch Stream until it reaches Kilgore Falls, the second-highest vertical waterfall in Maryland, and the backdrop for a scene in the movie "Tuck Everlasting." "This hike is great for kids," says Heather Connellee, author of "Best Easy Day Hikes in Baltimore." "I've taken my nieces and they love it. There's a little boardwalk and a creek to hop over and of course there's the gorgeous waterfall."

Along the way, hikers might spy white-tailed deer, red fox, wild turkey, blacksnakes and a variety of birds. Trekking to the waterfall and back will take about 30 minutes (not counting any dips in the swimming hole.) There are no bathrooms or picnic tables.

2. Elk Neck State Park: Lighthouse Trail, Route 272, North East

Distance: 2 miles up and back

Park at: Elk Neck State Park, 4395 Turkey Point Road, North East, 410-287-5333

What you'll find: Views of the Chesapeake Bay and promises of climbing a real lighthouse will keep little feet moving. "For kids, the lighthouse is really something to look forward to," says Connellee. The 35-foot Turkey Point Lighthouse sits on a 100-foot bluff, and visitors are welcome to climb to the top to admire the five rivers that meet the Chesapeake Bay.

While the lighthouse is a treat, there is much more to see on the 2-mile up-and-back journey.

The crushed-stone path is flat and easy. There are plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife along the way. Deer, foxes and squirrels and birds are common. Halfway to the lighthouse there is a raptor-viewing field, says Connellee. Hawks and bald eagles are seen regularly. Connellee says hiking the trail with kids would probably take about an hour, but take extra time for a picnic lunch on the lawn near the lighthouse.

3. Oregon Ridge: Logger's Loop, Beaver Dam Road, Cockeysville

Distance: 2.3-mile loop

Park at: Oregon Ridge Nature Center, 13555 Beaver Dam Road, Cockeysville, 410-887-1818

What you'll find: This hike is a bit more difficult for kids, Connellee says, but the reward of swimming in the quarry might be well worth the trek. The trail starts at a nature center, passes a pond and provides spots to overlook Hunt Valley. "This one is slightly more challenging, but there is a lot to offer," Connellee says. "There's a lot of solitude and it's so close to the Baltimore area, but you're a world away from everything."

Along with the swimming lake, there are playgrounds and picnic areas, as well as the nature center.


4. Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail (NCR)


Distance: 0 to 20 miles

Park at: Monkton Station: 1820 Monkton Road, Monkton 1207 Sparks Road, Sparks, 410-461-5005

What you'll find: This 20-mile flat trail, formerly known as the Northern Central Railway Trail, can be accessed at various points from Paper Mill, Phoenix, Sparks, Monkton, White Hall, Parkton, Bentley Springs and Freeland. Connellee recommends parking in Monkton at the site of the restored Monkton Station. There are restrooms, picnic tables and a cafe to enjoy lunch and ice cream. Visitors are welcome to dip in the swimming holes or float down the Gunpowder Falls River.

5. Cascade Falls Trail, Baltimore

Distance: 2.2-mile loop

Park at: Patapsco State Park: 5120 South Street, Baltimore, 410-461-5005

What you'll find: Hike along a stream, climb on rocks and wade in the water on the Cascade Falls Trail, right, at Patapsco State Park. Reach the waterfall a mile into the hike, then loop back to the parking lot. "It's such a great kids' hike," says Chambers. "It has great rocks and places to get into the water."

6. Cabin John Valley Stream Trail, Cabin John

Distance: 2.4 miles out and back

Park at: Cabin John local park, 7401 MacArthur Blvd., 301-299-0024

What you'll find: Hiking along the Cabin John Valley Stream is the draw of this trail. The entire trail is nine miles, but Chambers suggests catching the trail at MacArthur Boulevard. There are rocky beaches and one sandy beach to access the stream.

The best part of the trail? A giant boulder. "The kids can climb up and be king or queen," Chambers says.

Don't forget the snacks!

By Susanna DeRocco

Hiking is hungry and thirsty work, so be sure to keep your young ones fueled -- and, let's face it, motivated -- by having plenty of water and quality snacks on hand. Because when your kids are acting tired and cranky, they might just be dehydrated and hungry.

Here are a few guidelines for refueling in the great outdoors:

Snacks should have nutritional value: Stick with whole foods that contain some healthy carbohydrates (oats, fruits and vegetables), a bit of protein (legumes, jerky) and some healthy fats (nuts, seeds, nut/seed butters). These are great sources of energy for the body.

Produce some produce: Fruits and vegetables are loaded with fiber, are hydrating and contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Choose snacks that travel well: Apples, clementines, carrots, and granola bars are good choices that can withstand the elements and the jostling in your backpack.

Don't forget about morale:  First-time trekkers? Some dark chocolate in your trail mix may be just the ticket to keeping your newbie hikers motivated.

Here are a few simple ideas for healthy snacks on the trail:

Trail mix with nuts such as almonds and cashews, seeds, dried fruit, unsweetened coconut, dark chocolate or low-sugar, high-fiber cereal.  A favorite combination of ours is almonds, dried cherries, pistachios and dark chocolate chips. Be careful with pre-packaged mixes; they may contain hydrogenated oils and tend to be more expensive than making your own.

Low-sugar/homemade granola bars Larabars are made from just fruit and nuts and are great in a pinch.

Apples and nut butter

100 percent real fruit leathers

Mini sandwiches, such as peanut butter or almond butter topped with sliced strawberries or apples on 100 percent whole wheat/oat bread

Vegetables Celery or carrots with peanut/almond butter or hummus for dipping

Legumes Steamed or roasted edamame, roasted chickpeas

Jerky (turkey, salmon, vegan)

Now get outside!

Susanna DeRocco is the owner of Healthy Bodies, Happy Minds; she works with schools, families and individuals to help them make meaningful, long-lasting changes toward a healthier lifestyle.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun