It was the third weekend of KC’s stay-at-home ordinance, and by Saturday morning at 8 a.m., I had already received several texts and Facebook messages: “We need to get out of the house… we are going insane!” “Which hiking trails do you recommend for beginners?” “Where should we hike if we want to bring our dogs?” “Is the trail you hiked last weekend good for strollers?”
These are some of my favorite questions to receive since we started hiking as a family in the fall of 2018. And while the 30+ hikes we’ve done in the KC area since then don’t make us professionals by any stretch, we’ve learned so much and love to share our experiences with others.
It takes effort to walk a family of five through several miles of trees, rocks, streams, and mud, but we’ve found that hiking allows us to breathe. It enables conversation. It is good for our bodies. It brings laughter. It heals. It strengthens our creativity. It teaches. The effort is always worth it.
There are a huge number of trails and trail systems in the KC area. So many that after all of our hikes, the list of trails we have done is still shorter than the list of trails we want to do. Hiking is appropriate for all ages and all fitness levels and requires very little investment to get started. Just shoes, socks, and a water bottle will take you pretty far, and that’s exactly how we started. So, if you’re curious, here are a few tips to help you and your family get started on a new adventure!
- Download a trail app. We used AllTrails (free version) when we first started hiking to help us to identify parks that had various trails within (ie: Kill Creek Park, Weston Bend State Park) as well as trailheads to larger trail systems in the area (ie: Mill Creek Streamway Park).
- Be prepared. You don’t want to end up two miles out and realize you should have put on sunscreen. Here are the necessities we always carry with us: water (one large water bottle per person, plus extra for when we return to the car), snacks, first aid kit, jackets, sun hats/ball caps, sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray, wet wipes, tissues/bandana (for personal hygiene), bag to carry and dispose of our trash. Winter hiking requires extra warm clothing. If I’m hiking alone with the kids, I also carry pepper spray (though I have never had to use it).
- Bring extras to enhance the experience. For younger kids, perhaps a Ziplock bag for them to collect nature items, binoculars, or a flashlight to explore holes in trees. For older kids, a compass and map or a sketchbook to write or draw.
- Snacks, candy, gum. All of the Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s, and Easter candy in our house goes into our hiking packs. We call it bribe candy: “Find three more blue trail blazes and you can have a Snickers!” Friends, how ELSE do you think we get our kids to hike more than 100 yards?! In all seriousness though, you do need healthy snacks for energy and nutrition.
- Skip the paved trails (at least at first). First-time hikers usually ask for easy trail recommendations, such as paved trails. We’ve found that paved trails are too predictable and boring for kids, who usually want to play, climb, jump and explore.
- Let the kids lead. Hikes where we try to knock out big miles usually end up being our more frustrating hikes. Let the kids set the pace, even if it is sloooooow, and let them stop and check out things that interest them. Hiking with kids isn’t about getting a workout – it’s about time together, exploring and enjoying nature.
- Play games! Some of our favorites are Follow the Leader, Simon Says, and I Spy. You could also make a really simple list of things for kids to find and check off, kind of a DIY Trail Scavenger Hunt (ie: find something poky, tall, pretty, rough, soft, alive, dead, brown, green, wet, etc.)
- Kids in the front, parents in the back. When your kids get comfortable hiking (and when you’re somewhat familiar with the trail), let them go up ahead… even FAR up ahead. They will feel like they’ve conquered the world when they reach the next milestone or see the next cool sight before you do.
Now that we are more than two years in and are starting to do more hiking on trips and vacations, we have invested in some additional hiking gear. Here are a few things we find helpful:
- Hiking boots: Our girls hiked in tennies or snow boots early on, but we eventually invested in hiking boots for each of them. We will pass them down, so the investment of $60-70 a pair is well worth it for their comfort. We recommend these and these. My husband and I both have these.
- Packs: We (and by we, I mean my wonderful husband) used to carry all the gear in one backpack. And stuff adds up (see Be Prepared above, x 5 people). That got old FAST, so this year we got each of our older girls their own hiking backpack for Christmas. They have a packing list on the inside flap that they can follow, which helps me with prep time before hikes. It’s fun for them to be accountable for their stuff, and they learn a lot, too… like whether or not it’s worth it to pick up and carry an 10-pound rock for 4 miles!
- Trekking Poles: You won’t need trekking poles on most trails in the KC area, but I like to have them while baby wearing on muddy or steep trails. I have these (my husband and girls don’t use poles).
- Baby Wearing: We introduced baby #3 to our family in October 2019, and early on, I wore her in an Ergo360 while hiking, which was perfect for her size and comfort. By the time she hit 6 months, we moved her up to this hiking-specific child carrier. It is so comfortable for both of us, and she loves sitting up high and seeing the sights. It will grow with her to 50 lbs.
Now you’re ready to hike! It can be overwhelming to research and choose a trail to get started, so here is a short list to try.
Top 5 Favorite Hikes in KC
- Parkville Nature Sanctuary: Old Kate and White Tail trails are our favorites. Both are dirt/rock. White Tail is more difficult (100+ rock/beam stairs, elevation gain), but more fun. Old Kate is more heavily populated, but the waterfall (after a rain) is lovely, and the kids can climb the rocks around it. Not stroller-friendly.
- Baker Wetlands: We’ve only done the gravel and grass trails, but there are paved trails as well. Beautiful in the early morning or late afternoon, especially. Marsh land with tons of wildlife. Flat, easy trails. Wear boots if it’s been rainy in the last 5-7 days. Stroller-appropriate (large-wheeled strollers).
- Cave Spring Park (William M. Klein Park): Fun hidden trail located in the heart of the city. Narrow, flat path winds through fairly dense woods. Don’t miss the cave and the chimneys! All the trails eventually connect to one another and loop back to the parking lot, so this is a fun place to let your kids lead the way! Not stroller-friendly.
- Black Hoof Park, Lake Lenexa: Beautiful loop trail around Lake Lenexa. Mix of paved and crushed gravel, some minor hills. 2-3 ‘social trails’ that divert from main trail and take you down to the lake. Fun playgrounds (when they are open) in a couple of spots on the loop. Stroller-friendly.
- Wyandotte County Lake Park: 15+ miles of winding trails through woods, along the lake, over streams, and over rocks and mud. Mixed use trails (hiking, mountain biking). Boy Scout Loop is our favorite trail. Trails are marked by color blazes and can be difficult to follow. Print or bring a photo of a map on your phone. Not stroller-friendly.
One of the major blessings of these pandemic times is that we are re-learning the importance of spending time in nature for our physical, mental, and emotional health. We are re-learning that nature is an important teacher for us and for our children. While playgrounds and other summer favorites might be closed, KC’s trails and parks have so much to offer you and your family … so lace up your boots and take a hike!
A native of North Iowa, Erin has called Kansas City home for over 15 years. She resides in western Shawnee with her husband Eric and their three children, Lilly (7), Cora (4), and Winnie (7 months). When she isn’t working full-time developing creative talent and leading culture initiatives for a tenured KC company, you can find Erin tending to her various flower and vegetable gardens, canning/cooking/grilling/eating, hosting bonfires and neighborhood gatherings, and exploring the many trails, museums, restaurants, and parks that KC has to offer.