2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner
Thursday, July 24, 2014

Gazette Premium Content Start early to infuse love of Colorado outdoors

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The weekend's clear, the weather's cooperating and the mountains are calling.

As a parent who loves the outdoors, you want nothing more than to be outside with your children, introducing them to the satisfactions of an afternoon hike in solitude or an evening around the campfire, looking up at the stars.

They, on the other hand, want nothing more than to look at a tablet computer.

It's a familiar battle for parents, which is why Jeff Alt, author of "Get Your Kids Hiking," suggests a not-so-familiar tactic: Give in.

Allowing your kids to bring their devices outdoors sounds counterintuitive, but it may help nudge them out the door and can even enhance their experience if used properly, said Alt, an author and veteran hiker who advises families on how to enjoy the outdoors together as part of a recurring program at the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.

"There's applications that play back a birdcall to help you identify it . or you can record a birdcall yourself and bring it back to identify later," said Alt, who added, "You can try geocaching."

That's an increasingly popular hobby involving scavenger hunts in which clues and GPS location devices are used to narrow down the search for a hidden cache.

It's all in the name of filling your weekend excursions with games. But that's only one strategy worth pursuing when it comes to creating a new generation of outdoors enthusiasts.

The first step is simple, seasoned onlookers say: Start early.

In fact, start while they're still infants, says Tony Parker of Littleton, author of the "The Best Front Range Hikes for Children," a Colorado Mountain Club Guidebook published in May.

"My wife and I hiked before we had children, and we didn't want to give it up," Parker said. "We actually had them in packs, or carriers, behind us."

In "Get Your Kids Hiking," Alt advises using a front-facing sling until a child is at least 6 months old, then switching to a child carrier.

Introduce a child to the rhythms of walking outdoors by taking a walk around the neighborhood at the same time each day, added Alt, who encourages keeping young children on regular schedules.

Bringing babies into the outdoors requires plenty of preparation, so you won't want to stray too far from the trailhead or roads. But you're likely to see a payoff as your child gets older.

"They're absorbing everything - even when they're not speaking or moving, they're absorbing," Alt said. "As they become more alert and they start staring at things, you start labeling them: 'Bird!'"

During breaks in your hike, let them touch the grass with their hand or smell a flower.

"You're capitalizing on all their senses," Alt said

Parker, an information technology worker by trade, said he and his wife developed a routine for changing diapers during hikes with infants, even fashioning a portable baby-changing station from a backpacker's inflatable sleeping pad.

Battles with a reluctant child can often be resolved creatively, Alt said.

If your child likes the idea of using a GPS-based wilderness app, you can pick one together and collaborate on planning your trip in advance. If the devices are on hand, just remember to set reasonable limits.

Alt said: "We let them have their electronics, but we limit the amount of time that they can have their electronics."

Be sure to listen to your children and gauge whether the hike you've picked out is appropriate for their abilities. The more advanced trails can wait for later.

To quell boredom, consider allowing your child to invite a friend, or invite their entire family along. The trade-off of giving up one-on-one time with your child can be offset by a rise in general spirits, Alt said.

Ensure children have fun in the outdoors by making sure you bring plenty of food and water, and don't forget the snacks: Children burn energy more quickly than adults and they don't have the same reserves, so frequent snacking is a must. Flavored powders can help keep your children hydrated.

Remember also to bring plenty of sunscreen and insect repellent, especially in areas with ticks, which can bear disease.

When all else fails to motivate and the mountains are calling, remember that old chestnut, Alt said.

"There's always the promise of ice cream at the end."

TRAILS AWAIT

Here are five hikes within an hour's drive of Colorado Springs, as suggested by Troy Parker in "The Best Front Range Hikes for Children."

Bear Creek Nature Trail: With mostly gentle slopes and great views of the foothills, this 1.1-mile hike is the perfect introduction to hiking. Consider picking up a self-guided tour brochure from the Bear Creek Nature Center, which features interactive displays, wildlife dioramas and interpretive brochures. Details: The nature center is free; 245 Bear Creek Road in Colorado Springs.

Boulder Creek Trail: Part of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, this 4.5-mile, round-trip hike begins at Hornbek House, a homestead built in 1878. It features a barn, sheds and a root cellar, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Details: Admission is $3 per adult and free for children 16 and under; to get there, take U.S. 24 west for 35 miles to Florrisant and turn right on County Road 1. Continue 2 miles to Hornbek House parking lot.

Cheesman Loop, with Cahill Pond Cutoff: A 4.6-mile trail though meadows, wetlands, a Douglas fir forest, blue spruce and aspen groves of Mueller State Park, which is cited by Parker "as one the best areas to hear bugling elk in September and October." Details: $7 per vehicle; take U.S. 24 west to Divide, where you will turn south onto state Highway 67. Continue nearly 4 miles to the park entrance, where visitors must pay $7 per vehicle. Trail begins at Grouse Mountain Trailhead parking lot at the far end of the park.

Dome Rock State Wildlife Area: Dome Rock is famous for its wildlife, from falcons and red-tailed hawks to beaver, mule, deer, elk and bighorn sheep. Due to sheep breeding, some of the best trails are closed from Dec. 1 to July 15. The author suggests a 4.5-mile route consisting of Willow Creek, Sand Creek and Fourmile Creek trails, but younger hikers will also enjoy Twisted Pine Nature Trail. Details: Free; to get there, take U.S. 24 west for 26 miles to Divide, where you turn left onto state Highway 67. Stay on Highway 67 for 5 miles and turn on County Road 61, or Rainbow Valley Road; Continue until you see the trailhead on your right.

Puma Point Trail: This gentle 
 .9-mile trail atop Wilkerson Pass offers "grand views in every direction," encompassing the Collegiate Peaks and South Park to the west and the nearer Sawatch and Mosquito Ranges. Interpretive panels describe the history, geology, flora and fauna of the region. Details: Free. To get there, head west on U.S. 24 for 48 miles to the top of Wilkerson Pass and turn left into the visitor center near the top.



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