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Kids Lighten the Load on Rockies Hiking Trip : Two Boys Help Experienced Backpackers Get the Most From a Weekend in Colorado

July 04, 1993|MARY MAPES McCONNELL | McConnell is a Colorado Springs, Colo., free-lance writer who specializes in adventure travel.

ASPEN, Colo. — We'd only hiked a quarter-mile when Hunter asked if we could go wading. To a child, it was a perfectly logical question. To me, it was a revelation. After years of what could only be called speed hiking and endurance backpacking with adult male-led expeditions, I knew instantly that I was going to like backpacking with kids. Within minutes, we had unbuckled our packs, kicked off our boots and stepped into Maroon Lake, a basin of cold mountain water just west of Aspen and within sight of Colorado's trademark Maroon Bells mountains.

Late last August, my friend Bonnie and her sons Kelly (age 7) and Hunter (age 5) invited me to share this three-day adventure into Colorado's high country. Bonnie, who worked for several years as a wilderness educator leading youngsters into the back country, had taken her kids on hikes since they were toddlers. Recently, the boys had graduated to backpacking. During our brief excursion, I--who do not have kids of my own--realized that backpacking with children is not only easier than most people think, it's also more fun.

We began by planning the trip together. After much discussion, the kids chose the Maroon Bells--Snowmass Trail from a guidebook on Colorado trails. It was only two miles from Maroon Lake to Crater Lake, where we planned to camp, but the route presented some strenuous hiking because of an altitude gain of nearly 1,000 feet. We bought a topographic map published by the U.S. Geological Survey, and Bonnie showed the children how its contour lines scrunched together between the two lakes. That meant the trail was steep and would be harder to hike than walking over flat ground. Kelly and Hunter also helped plan the menu, shop for groceries and pack. When the day came, we drove from our homes in Colorado Springs to the town of Aspen, where we boarded a Roaring Fork Transit Agency bus for the 45-minute ride to popular Maroon Lake Campground. From there we started our trek.

It was a Kodachrome day in the Rockies, and the grassy meadow beyond the lake was brilliant with wildflowers. We stopped to count the butterflies and smell the blooms (some nearly shoulder-high to a child): red Indian paintbrush, yellow goldeneye, lavender bluebell and green gentian. Balancing our packs, we stepped across a brook and eventually found ourselves in a dense grove of quaking aspen. Both children walked quietly so they could hear the leaves flutter in the breeze. It was the last week in August, and some of the coin-shaped green leaves were already turning gold.

By noon, we'd gained enough altitude so the kids could look back down at Maroon Lake and try to estimate how far we'd come. Hunter said that this part of the trail was like climbing stairs. A sign erected by the National Forest Service warned hikers of changeable mountain weather and advised us not to try climbing the Maroon Bells themselves. These richly colored, conspicuously layered peaks, each rising to an altitude of more than 14,000 feet, are made up of crumbly sedimentary rock that poses dangers even to experienced mountaineers.

Farther on, the path wound around giant boulders, and Kelly went on ahead to scout out a shady place off the trail to stop for lunch. We pulled off our boots again--this time to check for blisters. Hunter was wearing the leather hiking boots his older brother had outgrown, and he giggled when Bonnie tickled his feet. Kelly had opted for high-top tennis shoes, which provided just enough ankle support for a short trip like this. We all drank from our plastic water bottles, and Kelly used his jackknife to prepare cheese and crackers. Hunter unzipped the side pocket of his backpack and brought out his teddy bear for a look around.

Hunter's pack weighed in at just under nine pounds, about 20% of his body weight. He carried a change of clothes, rain gear, pajamas, sleeping pad and snacks. Kelly toted a few more items, but each child's pack was light enough to prevent fatigue. Bonnie and I shouldered the tents, cooking gear and food.

Back on the trail, we admired bright red clusters of sumac berries and tasted the last of the summer's crop of Lilliputian-size wild raspberries. Finally, we crested a glacial moraine made up of sharp, jumbled rocks and caught our first glance of Crater Lake. This tiny "hanging lake," like the bigger Maroon Lake in the main valley below, had been formed by meltwater from a receding glacier.

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