Masthead: Kaweah Range

Sierra Nature Notes, Volume 2, June 2002

Family Nature Explorations — A Resource Kit
by Michael Elsohn Ross

A long-time Yosemite resident and environmental educator, Michael has authored a number of children's books on natural history.

Whether a gentle stroll on a trail or a more challenging backcountry hike, kids can have a great and rewarding adventure with the right preperation.

Going on a nature exploration with kids is always an adventure. Children have a natural curiosity, which constantly leads them into discoveries. Parents, grandparents, and other adults who explore nature with kids can support youthful inquiry by being equipped with some handy resources.

Kid Hikes in Yosemite
Yosemite, for instance, has hundreds of miles of trails, but where are the best places to walk with young people? Hiking with kids can be a challenge, but a pocket size guide to hiking, Easy Day Hikes in Yosemite, provides all the information for choosing the best routes. The guide lists everything from the ever-popular Vernal Falls trail to lesser-known strolls such as Lukens Lake, McGurk's Meadow, and the Merced Grove of Big Trees. A good rule of thumb for hiking with children is to make their first adventures easy enough to accomplish, but still a bit of a challenge. Even toddlers can manage a flat mile walk. Just be prepared to stop often and have plenty of snacks and drinks available. It is also wise to carry a map of the area you choose to hike in. A whole array of maps are available that cover different segments of the park. The Happy Camper Handbook has a great section of basic hiking tips and comes with a flashlight and rescue whistle that kids can carry in their pack.

Time for quiet contemplation is important on any fun trip.

Trail Explorations
Children easily make discoveries along the trail. They find bugs, animal burrows, pinecones, and flowers. Even if you are a novice naturalist you can expand children's awareness by encouraging them to use their senses more fully. Try some of these simple activities:

Besides being pretty, each flower has unique colors and patterns. What colors or designs can you see? Make a game out of seeing how many colors or shapes you can see on a walk. Count the number of petals on a flower or legs on a bug.

Explore with your nose. Sniff pine bark, flowers, and leaves. Feel the world with your fingers. Test the temperature of a stream or lake. Sit quietly in the forest and feel around you with your eyes closed.

Tune in your ears. Listen carefully in a place far enough from the road that you can hear bird songs and other sounds. With your eyes closed count how many different sounds you can hear.

Each of these experiences will deepen your park experience.
In addition you can also teach park stewardship. For example explain that collecting pines cones, arrowheads, or other cool items is against park rules for a good reason. It's important to leave these potential collectibles for other kids to find when they walk the same trail.

Exploration Tools
A variety of tools will help your kids be better explorers.

The World of Small, Nature Adventures with a Hand Lens
This handy book comes equipped with a bright blue magnifying lens and ideas for discovering the miraculous worlds of tree bark, ground moss, bugs, dirt, rocks, flowers, and much more. Just turn the pages to reveal one eye-popping activity after another.

Greet a Tree
Many adults feel a bit like dummies when it comes to telling one tree from another. Lucky for us there is a great little guide titled the Pacific Coast Tree Finder that turns this uncomfortable situation into a fun game. Though decoding tree names using a plant key can be a frustrating experience, the tree finder makes it as easy as it can get. (Which probably will be easier for your kids than for you!).

On Track
Kids are sharp observers and often notice animal tracks in snow, mud, or the sandy shores of a pond or creek. A little detective work using the Audubon Society Pocket Guide to Familiar Animal Tracks of North America is exciting, especially if they confirm that those size 12 feet belong to a local black bear!

An economy model is just fine for kids to use as long as they are clean and in relatively decent shape. Large birds such as raven, robins, and jays often stay in one place long enough to fix your binoculars on them. Climbing to the top of a mountain or the bottom of a valley is infinitely easier through the lens of binoculars than your own two feet. Tasco, Bushnell, and Swift all make adequate entry level binoculars. Magnifications of at least 7 or 8 are best for young people who might have difficulty keeping a 10 power pair steady enough to get a clear view.


Back in Camp (or room)
After a long day on the trail you may be ready for a siesta, but the kids might still have plenty of energy left. You can keep them on path to exploration by letting them play games or color the pages in the Yosemite Fun Book. Listening to Yosemite by Song on CD or cassette is a great way to learn a bit more about Yosemite as well as add a new repertoire of tunes to your campfire fare. For story time Two Bear Cubs is a fun Miwok tale that explains the origin of El Capitan. For the older kids Legends of the Yosemite Miwok offers some authentic, and at times a bit gruesome, stories. For classic adventure stories you can’t go wrong with a few chapters or choice passages from The Wild Muir. This collection of some of John Muir’s most entertaining writing includes everything from his near fatal climb near Yosemite Falls to his adventures with the little dog Stickeen in Alaska.

The items listed above are some of the most useful ones for supporting a self-guided expedition with kids. Collect some of them bit by bit, and before long your kids will be teaching you.

Michael Elsohn Ross has lead field classes for the Yosemite Association since 1977 and is the author of over 35 award-winning books for young people, including The Happy Camper Handbook and the World of Small.

Further Reading
Tracks, Scats and Signs (Take-Along Guide)
by Leslie Dendy, Linda Garrow (Illustrator)
With this Take-Along Guide you will learn how to spot, and identify, common clues that 17 wildlife species leave behind in the woods, in the fields and along ponds. It's a fun way to turn everyday walks into exciting mysteries. And make you a nature detective!

Online hiking guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Kid's Activities in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Check out all Kid's Books at the Yosemite Association Bookstore

General Tips for Hiking with Kids
Tips for hiking with kids
(with thanks to Dorothy Greco, mother of three):

• Apply sunscreen, and supply a hat.

• Be sure to pack snacks and plenty of liquids. Avoid caffinated beverages. Salty treats will replenish liquids lost to sweat better than sweet things.

• Honor their limits. Rest when they need to. Turn back before you planned if necessary. Pushing a child beyond his/her physical limit will not be fun for anyone.

• Before you go, show them photos of plants and animals they might see along the way. Help them "see" acorns, leaves, flowers, and animal prints. Some kids might enjoy bringing a small pad of paper and pencils so they can draw what they see.

• Many children will be motivated by a special something at the end of the hike; a waterfall, unusual rock formation, or pretty picnic spot.

• Be alert to trail traffic. If possible, choose hiking-only trails to avoid conflicts with cyclists and equestrians. If you hike a multi-access trail, be sure your children are acquainted with trail etiquette.

• Before your trip, choose a strategy for bathroom needs. Bring soap and a towel to clean up.

• In the San Francisco Bay Area, check out tips for hiking around San Francisco at Bay Area Moms.

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Masthead Photo from:
Kaweahs From Trailcrest, Kings Canyon National Park
© 2009, Howard Weamer