The steep climb to the peak in Rocky Mountain National Park wasn't easy, especially after we'd gotten soaked in the rain. But the panoramic Colorado vista was worth every aching muscle -- at least to the adults in the group. The kids couldn't have cared less.
They were too busy chasing each other down the trail, hunting for rocks and big sticks and complaining that they were starving. So much for the beauty of nature.
"Don't be angry if the kids aren't as enthralled with the wilderness as you are," says Dave Wyman, who lives in Los Angeles and leads families on camping and hiking trips to West Coast destinations such as Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and Yosemite National Park. "Have some patience," he advises.
"Parents need to understand that a child's awe at an ant hill is just as legitimate as a parent's awe at the top of the mountain," agrees Maureen Keilty, author of "Best Hikes With Children in Colorado" and "Best Hikes With Children in Utah" (the Mountaineers, $12.95 each).
"When you're hiking with kids, you've got to let go of the idea of always getting to the top of the peak," adds Ms. Keilty, herself the mother of a preschooler.
She recalls leading one group of kids intent on hiking to a hot spring in the national forest near Durango, Colo. -- until they spotted a young owl learning to fly. "We sat watching that owl for an hour as it swooped from branch to branch," said Ms. Keilty, who lives in Durango. "The hot spring lost all importance."
So on trails in national forests and state parks all over the country this summer, parents may find themselves looking down at anthills more than up at glorious vistas. They'll have plenty of company as families take to the woods in ever-growing numbers.
"It's a combination of this generation of parents being more active and the raised consciousness about the outdoor world," explains Charles Hardy, a Sierra Club official who oversees the ,, club's trips, including its always-popular family outings.
Seattle-based Mountaineers publishing house has found such interest in the subject that its "Best Hikes With Children" book series has expanded to 13 titles.
"The idea is enjoying the day together. The quality of time isn't measured in how far you go," says Mr. Wyman, who runs Family Adventure Tours (213) 939-2819. His tip: Plan many stops. And bring along books, crayons and paper so the younger kids don't get bored during rest breaks and lunch.
Author Maureen Keilty's tip: Start modestly, no more than a 1,000-foot gain in altitude per mile. When the kids begin complaining a lot, head back. Don't leave home without a water bottle, a jacket, sunscreen and hat for each child. Make sure everyone is wearing sturdy shoes or hiking boots and well-padded socks.
Snacks also can make the difference between a great day or a disastrous one. Ms. Keilty suggests having some "surprise" treats to pull out when the whining gets tough to take. She adds that kids -- even preschoolers -- must be taught to remain on the trail and to stay put and "hug a tree" if they get separated from the group.
Even for a short hike, a first-aid kit is a must, as is rain gear. Nothing is worse than a scraped knee and no bandages in sight. You also don't want to be caught -- as we were -- halfway up a mountain without jackets when a hailstorm hits. And don't get caught in the dark without a flashlight.
But don't feel you've got to be loaded like a pack mule, either. Even a 3-year-old can carry a small day pack with his water bottle and windbreaker. He'll want to help anyway.
Many kids also like to take fanny packs because they're easily accessible for stashing the treasures they find along the way. Working on a collection -- as long as the kids aren't taking anything they shouldn't from the area -- or a scavenger hunt is a sure way to stave off boredom on the trail. Hand out lists and pencils for them to check off their finds: for example, a lizard doing push-ups.
"Singing lots of songs helps," says Stephanie Meismer, who grew up hiking in Colorado and has led her share of Girl Scout hikes there. "Kids like weird facts about what they're seeing," adds Ms. Meismer, a June Northwestern University graduate. Stories and legends about the region help keep them going too.
That's why it's worth a stop at the park's visitor center before heading out on a trail. Pick up pamphlets about animal tracks, flora and fauna of the region. Ask which trail might be a good bet for kids: not too steep but with plenty of variety. Climbing rocks is always a hit.
"Children love water," says Ms. Keilty. "Look for a trail that leads to a lake or waterfall."
Just make sure no one falls in. And don't forget the granola bars.