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Where to Hike with Kids in California

How to (mostly) disconnect from everyone’s smartphones and connect with California’s natural wonders

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Posted 10 months agoby Matt Jaffe

With its mix of desert, mountain, and coastal trails, California boasts an incomparable assortment of hiking destinations. But in this era of smartphones and other gadgetry, how do parents inspire their kids to log off and tune into the real world?

On the most recent California Now podcast, Wendy Gorton, author of 50 Hikes With Kids California, offers tips for getting kids out on the trail, as well as a few prime destinations around the state—from the Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve to Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

“California is just such a diverse and magical place: 160,000 square miles. And if you go two hours, it’s completely different,” Gorton says. She offers a few easy tips for planning a family hiking vacation:

Monitor Your Kids’ Energy Level

Knowing your kids’ limits and anticipating when they’re going to hit the wall can make a huge difference on the trail. Gorton recommends employing a simple 1-10 scale with your children as a quick way to gauge their energy. “Kids are really responsive that way,” she says. “They’ll tell you, ‘Man, I’m a five right now.’ So that’s your cue as a parent and you can tell them, ‘Let’s find shade, let’s take a half hour, let’s hang out.’”

Use Technology to Your Advantage

While Gorton encourages families to limit their use of technology out in nature, she says select apps, such as iNaturalist, can keep everyone more engaged by simplifying plant and animal identification. “It enhances the adventure and can help you click a picture of a wildflower and identify it,” she says. “You start becoming these family naturalists and better appreciate all the plants around you.”

Make It Fun

In her book, Gorton worked with park rangers to identify five commonly observed features on each trail. That allows you to turn the hike into a scavenger hunt of sorts, during which the kids try to find and identify specific items as a way to motivate them.

Have a Reward

To keep kids going, it also helps to head out on a hike that leads to a specific destination or feature that serves as an identified goal. Gorton calls them “carrots.” On a hike that explores the San Joaquin River outside of Fresno, for example, a suspension bridge that looks upriver to an old 1920s powerhouse becomes the carrot that lures kids onward. “It’s a really sweet suspension bridge,” says Gorton. “Kids can’t get enough of it.”

And Speaking of Rewards…

Gorton says that you’ll often find intriguing small towns near California hiking destinations. By stopping into a local diner for pancakes or a bakery for a cookie, you’re able to give the kids a little something special for their efforts—and maybe make it easier to persuade them to hike the next time. Gorton says, “That’s one of my favorite parts of hiking, even as an adult. When I go explore a city or a new place and get a hard-earned treat or reward.”

For more ideas for outdoorsy family getaways, check out our articles on how to see California’s big trees, cool detours in the desert, and low-stress, high-fun family travel in the Golden State.

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