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OUTDOORS INSTITUTE

Step, step, step, stop

Hiking with kids? Try easy trails with lots to see along the way.

March 09, 2004|Julie Sheer | Times Staff Writer

Forget the big picture when trying to get a kid hooked on hiking. Scenic overlooks can't rival the little things like lizards, rocks and water holes that are closer to their field of vision and will stoke their curiosity about the outdoors.

"Adults take lizards for granted. They're cute, and they do this push-up thing with their front legs," says Elizabeth Neat, a volunteer who leads inner-city children on Sierra Club hikes.

Show some enthusiasm, and keep an open mind about what kids find interesting on the trail. "Listen to them. Try to remember when you were young," Neat says.

John Doyle has been hiking with his adolescent kids since he toted them in a carrier when they were infants. "Point out things to kids," says Doyle, an experienced hiker and Scoutmaster from La Canada Flintridge. "Teach them to observe the beehive of activity going on around them that's hidden unless you look for it."

Even the mere evidence of animals can be a thrill. Deer tracks are more likely to be spotted after it rains. More birds and animals are around in the mornings and evenings than during the middle of the day. Bring binoculars and a guidebook, or easy-to-carry laminated cards with illustrations of animals, plants or trees.

Neat tells children that hiking quietly may lead to a critter sighting.

Trudging up a steep, dusty trail isn't everyone's idea of a good time. Keep a slower pace when hiking with kids and don't force a child who's too young or inexperienced to bag a peak. The worst thing you can do is take children on a hike that's too long or too difficult. It's a sure way to guarantee they won't want to hike again, Neat says.

Expect those age 2 to 5 to walk for a while but be prepared to carry them when they get tired, says Doyle.

Nature trails such as those at Franklin Canyon Park in Beverly Hills and Rancho Sierra Vista Satwiwa in Newbury Park are perfect for introducing wee ones to hiking. A child's endurance will increase bit by bit but it may be slow going at first. With a 4-year-old, expect a 5-mile trek to take a good chunk of the day.

Doyle recommends Griffith Park to those new to hiking with kids because there's a variety of trails to choose from and "you can't get too lost."

Kids also like hikes with an interesting destination, such as a waterfall. Creeks and bridges are always a big hit, Neat says. Topanga State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains provides both on a short walk to Trippet Ranch via Dead Horse Trail.

Neat also recommends loop hikes, which kids find more intriguing than retracing their steps out and back. And do mix it up.

Doyle has hiked with his kids all over Southern California, from Strawberry Peak in the Angeles National Forest to the Point Mugu overlook in the Santa Monica Mountains beyond Malibu.

For hiking destinations with other attractions, Peter Strauss Ranch in Agoura has a short loop hike, a large grassy area for picnicking and an outdoor amphitheater for do-it-yourself plays. Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades has plenty of easy trails with great views, a historic house that kids love to explore, weekend polo matches and a large lawn where deer are often spotted in late afternoon.

Bring sunscreen, water and lunch, and take plenty of breaks. Set a good example for kids by teaching them not to disturb plants or animals.

If anything, hiking with children is a reminder that, first and foremost, being outdoors is for enjoyment. As Neat says, children don't care if they reach a final destination: "The journey is it."

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To e-mail Julie Sheer or read her previous Outdoors Institute columns, go to latimes.com/juliesheer.

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