Hit the Trails: 5 Hikes for Kids 5 and Under

Seattle is the land of the uber-sporty. But getting out for a hike (even a short one) with the Pre-K crowd can seem a bit daunting, even if you have a garage full of gear that would make any REI employee weep with joy. That’s why we’ve rounded up our top picks for gorgeous and easy fall hikes with the 5 and under set. These awesome hikes will get your little city slickers some fresh air and remind you that outdoor adventures with wee ones are much less about the destination and much more about the “Hey Mama, it’s a huge slug!”

Dad hiking with babe

5 Must-Know Tips for Hiking with Little Ones from the Washington Trails Association: 

1. Adjust your expectations
Hiking with a wee one is about the journey, not the destination. You may not reach your destination. You may not even get much further than the end of the parking lot. If you’re hiking with a little baby, keep an eye out for fallen trees which make easy benches for nursing/feeding breaks. And if you were a power hiker before, be prepared to sloooooow down. Kids have short—much shorter—legs and it takes three or four of their steps to equal one of yours.

Greta Goes Hiking

2. Choose a short hike with minimal elevation gain and a fun destination
Kids have short attention spans and may get bored—not necessarily tired–quickly. A short and less physically demanding hike will increase your chances for a happy, successful hike. Plus, the lure of a fun destination will keep them going. Kids love water features, say a river, waterfall or a beach; a view of trees followed by more trees, not so much. Other great destinations might be a field of wild flowers, a primitive hut in the woods, or even a giant patch of blackberries to pick.

Hiking Ruby

3. Set aside extra time and be patient
Little kids like to dawdle, often focusing on what’s right in front of them right now: a frog leaping across the trail, the moss carpeting a tree trunk, the fish swimming in the stream. Explore every nook and cranny with them, and expect to answer questions. Your child is likely to have spurts of energy too. She’ll sprint ahead of you and then suddenly turn back whining and beg to be picked up. If the carrying gets too much, take a break and turn back if you have to. Remember, it’s all about the journey. And, if you have toddlers, it’s probably a good plan to bring a carrier along, even if they’re only in it part of the time. (An Ergo will do in a pinch and folds up nicely, but a sturdy baby hiking backpack will save your back and hips.)

Hiking babies

4. Dress for the weather
Check the weather forecast before you set off and dress appropriately. Lest you forget the First Commandment of hiking, we’ll remind you: layers, layers, layers! This is the Pacific Northwest so always bring a rain jacket regardless. Temperature variations confuse little kids so be prepared to layer or undress. And don’t forget about that very-likely-to-happen jump into a muddy puddle, or the errant dip into the stream. Always bring an extra set of clothes and socks and an extra jacket, even if they wait in the car for the ride home.

Boots on a hike

5. Take frequent breaks to refuel and reenergize
Take breaks when you need to rest tired feet, and bring lots of snacks and water to motivate kids to keep moving on the trail. Food and beverages are mighty motivators indeed. Perhaps the night before is spent “cooking” up some GORP together, or maybe they get to carry the camelback for part of the walk. Some of the best parts of hiking are the chats that happen during water and snack breaks, so take advantage of this sweet time to bond and check out the cool place you are visiting. And be prepared for the sweet sound of silence on the way home… they’ll be snoozing for sure!

Tired Hiker

Where to Hike
Twin Falls State Park
Where:  Interstate 90 near North Bend, 45 minutes from Seattle
Distance: 1.5 to 3 miles round trip, 300 to 500 feet elevation gain

Golden maples and multi-hued nurse logs (fallen trees that facilitate the growth of saplings) add to the restrained fall color on this trek through a moss-laden coniferous forest along the shores of the South Fork Snoqualmie River.  At 0.75 mile, benches and a nice viewpoint of the falls signal a good turn-around point for small toddlers; while older kids can carry on to a bridge that crosses over the river gorge between the falls.

Franklin Falls
Where: Snoqualmie Pass, 1 hour from Seattle
Distance: 2 miles roundtrip, 100 feet elevation gain

This easy trail starts just outside the Denny Creek Campground and follows Denny Creek the entire way to the falls. The path rises gradually through ancient trees with some roots, rocks, and stairs for little feet to maneuver around but it is still easy for young hikers. At trail’s end, little ones will need help with the final rocky approach to the beach at the base of the 70-foot falls. Be prepared to get wet!

Boulder River Waterfall
Where: Off Hwy 530 near Arlington, 1 hour from Seattle
Distance: 2.5 miles, 250 feet elevation gain

The Boulder River Wilderness is one of the last, low-country old-growth forests in the Cascades where fall color mixes with towering moss-draped firs and red cedars. At 1.25 miles, just past the wilderness boundary, a spectacular waterfall tumbles down the canyon walls into the river. This is a good spot for families to turnaround and/or stop for lunch.

Family in a Tree

Ebey’s Landing
Where: Whidbey Island, near Coupeville, 2 hours from Seattle
Distance: 2 miles roundtrip to beach or 3.5 mile loop, 200 feet elevation gain and loss

Ebey’s Landing offers one of the Northwest’s best coastal hikes with plenty to entice kiddos and adults alike. Wandering along a driftwood-strewn beach; watching gray whales and ocean vessels crossing Admiralty Inlet; sighting bald eagles and harlequin ducks; and viewing the snowcapped Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier. Young ones will happily hike the 1 mile along the beach to Parego’s Lagoon. Older kids can attempt the 3.5 mile loop up the bluff and back down via the beach.

Lake Ann (Rainy Pass)
Where:  Okanogan National Forest, North Cascades Highway, 3 hours from Seattle
Distance: 3.4 miles round trip, 700 feet elevation gain

An autumnal hike through this section of the North Cascades offers an abundance of late-season huckleberries and wide-open vistas. However, the highlight is the golden alpine larches that are usually at their peak mid-to late-October. At 1.3 miles from the trailhead, a side trail will lead to Lake Ann. In mild weather, frogs may still be milling around the edge of the lake but views of granite peaks and golden larches are guaranteed. Lake Ann is near snow level so expect snow from late October onward.

Whats your favorite trail to hit with your tots? Tell us below and then go visit the Washington Trails Association for more information about hiking with your kids. 

–Katie Gruver

Photos by: Katie Gruver, Nicole Dimmel, Daryn Nakhuda, Amy Riley Gadoury, Kristi Ellefson