How to Blaze a Trail with the Family

Break out of the typical family-vacation mold with a hiking trip that even toddlers can tackle. One couple and their 3-year-old get you on track.
woman on hike with daughter

June is not a nature girl. Don't be fooled by my 3-year-old daughter's mess of curls, ragamuffin wardrobe, and fondness for picking neighbors' flowers. Until she was 2, she bristled at the feel of grass on her skin. Recently, she boycotted our downstairs bathroom for months after spotting an ant crawling between the tiles. She hates dirt, is mildly obsessed with Neosporin, and has memorized every train stop connecting our Jersey City, New Jersey, station to Manhattan.

This occurred to me when I booked a family hiking trip in New Hampshire's White Mountains last summer. But nostalgia got the better of me. My husband, Jake, and I had trekked through those peaks when I was six months pregnant with June, spending three nights in huts built and operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), one of the country's oldest nonprofit conservation and recreation organizations. Back then, the huts' narrow triple bunks, bring-your-own-sheet rule, and crowds of unshowered strangers added to the adventure.

Now, I was seven months pregnant with our second kid. We desperately wanted to revisit the trails but weren't sure we could hack the huts with our little adventurephobe in tow. So when I read that the AMC was rolling out a program called "Kid Spoken Here" -- with family hikes, meals, nature activities, and discounted private rooms at the Club's Highland Center Lodge (starting at $274 per night including meals for four) -- we hit the road.

Day 1: Paradise Found

We arrived a little before 5:30 p.m., cranky and stiff from the car ride. But the second we stepped out, June started running, something she's rarely motivated to do back home unless someone's dangling a cookie in front of her. This time, the attraction was the wildflower field in front of the lodge and a drinking fountain whose copper crank she fiddled with until water shot into her smiling lips.

Lugging our bags through the Highland Lodge lobby, we passed kids galore. A dry-erase board by the check-in desk listed the day's activities, with names like Fun on the Water, Get Outdoors!, Nature Noggin, Make Your Own Pie, and Night Explorations. June led the way to the room. "Bunk beds!" she yelped. "And the top bunk has a rail on it!"

She was still waxing rhapsodic about the beds as we cruised down to the lodge's dining room, a bright space of communal tables where we chatted up a volunteer naturalist. June sacked out shortly after, while Jake and I huddled on our bed beside a tiny, dim light, poring over a trail map. With no TV and a sleeping kid 2 feet away, we were snoring by 9 p.m.

Day 2: Uphill From Here

Our early night may be why we didn't balk when June began somersaulting through our blankets at 6 the next morning. The hike we had planned was fairly easy. Considering my pregnancy and the fact that Jake was likely to be wearing June on his back the whole time, we figured we'd walk about 2 1/2 miles up to the Mizpah Spring Hut, eat the bagged lunch Highland's kitchen staff had packed for us, and be back well before the forecasted storms rolled into the area.

After stopping at the breakfast buffet and swinging by the lodge's L. L. Bean gear room, we signed out a Kelty backpack carrier that put our hand-me-down version to shame. The Crawford Path trailhead up to Mizpah was a few minutes' walk away.

Taking a Family Detour on Our Hiking Adventure

father on hike with son

As Jake and I trekked straight uphill over large rocks that followed a small bubbling waterfall, June stayed in the Kelty. Which made it irritating every time she whined, "I'm tired."

"Hey, check out the shiny flecks in these rocks," I said, handing June a hunk of granite. She deemed these "jewels" impressive enough to warrant getting out of the pack. She took my hand and soon began scampering over small boulders, even letting go of me occasionally to scale them on all fours. Sure this slowed us down, but I was grateful for the chance to swig water, catch my breath, and see my little girl negotiating an uphill trail for the first time. We finally reached the hut by 12:30 and tore into our lunch bags. Flash forward two hours: After convincing ourselves that hiking back to the Highland Lodge would be too easy, Jake was squinting up at his pregnant wife as I crab-walked my way down from Mount Jefferson's 5,716-foot summit. The view was spectacular -- except for the green-gray storm clouds hovering in the distance. "I'm ready to get wet!" June declared, as the wind kicked up and the skies darkened. By now, we were practically jogging down the trail's rocky switchbacks as the rain came down in sheets. After covering 7 miles in eight hours that day, we made it back to the lodge, soaked but safe.

Day 3: My Mini Hiker

My ankles and hips throbbed when I woke, so we decided to do what most kids-in-tow families do at Highland Lodge: sign up for a leisurely family hike. This morning's sunny jaunt took us to the Zealand Falls Hut, AMC's lowest-elevation hut. Except for a staircase of rocks at the end, the 2.7-mile trail was blessedly flat.

Our guide, Jamie, cheerfully rattled off fascinating tidbits about the butterflies, berries, and beaver dams we saw on the way. Half an hour after hitting the trail, June wanted out of her pack -- and proceeded to hike the remaining 2 1/2 miles largely unassisted, finally grabbing Jake's wrists for that final rocky staircase. "I'm hiking!" she squealed throughout the walk. "And I'm not holding anyone's hand!"

After gobbling up another bagged lunch at the hut, June tackled half the return walk on her own feet. We made it back to Highland Lodge in plenty of time to check out the Kids' Power Hour, an action-packed, staff-led play period. I welcomed the chance to watch her fly a kite for the first time, as she yelled, "Come on, wind!" and paused to watch an 8-year-old cartwheel in the grass.

Day 4: A Ride on the Mount Washington Express

Much as I craved another hike on our last full day, I'd have felt we missed out if I hadn't included at least one of the area's classic family staples. The Mount Washington Cog Railway, built in 1869, shuttles tourists along to the summit of the Northeast's highest and moodiest peak. It was 40°F at the top, so Jake took June inside the Mount Washington Observatory.

June was content to ogle trinkets in the gift shop and crank out pressed pennies from a machine with Jake, while I strolled around outside, marveling at the blustery July weather 6,288 feet up -- and at the hikers emerging from the Appalachian Trail with wind-burned, ecstatic faces. One day, I thought, we would do this. Jake, June, this yet-to-be-named baby, and I.

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.

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