Trails for everyone, forever

Home Go Outside Hiking with Kids Where to Hike with Kids Hikes for Young Children

Hikes for Young Children

Hiking with toddlers and young children under 5 is very different than hiking with adults or older kids. Learn about how you can make your child's first hikes rewarding and where to go. Ten destinations are featured.

Hiking with toddlers and young children under 5 is very different than hiking with adults or older kids. New hikers will find out how much they need to plan ahead. Experienced hikers will realize how much they have to adjust their expectations.

Little kids dawdle along the trail. They don't care about the destination; they care about what's right in front of them. The stream flowing under the bridge, the wildflower that's blooming, the root of the big tree underfoot-- these are all fascinating to little ones. Toddlers and young children tend to have spurts of energy. They hike along energetically, then suddenly want to be picked up. Cold and hot temperatures confuse and bother them.

Fortunately, hiking with small children is incredibly rewarding as well. Slowing down helps you appreciate all of the little details that make our ecosystem so diverse. And there is nothing better in celebrating a child's accomplishment or seeing something from a fresh perspective.

So what are the secrets for a successful hike?

  • Choose a hike that is short and with a destination that would be interesting to a small child. Water is quite enticing; views not as much.
  • Be flexible. Don't be so destination-driven that you ignore the signs that your child is ready to turn around. To create a life-long hiker, you want the first experiences to be good ones.
  • Pack extra clothes. Always bring a jacket, hat and an extra set of clothes.
  • Stop often for energy breaks. Food and water can be a great reviver and motivator.
  • Pack a lot of patience and praise. It's all about the journey, so let them explore every nook and cranny and be sure to praise them for their accomplishments.

WTA has compiled a list of hikes that are good choices for toddlers and pre-schoolers. These are hikes that could be done with a minimal amount of carrying, since kids this age often are too big or too wiggly for the backpack. Do note that every child is different--some will be able to do more, some less.

Snoqualmie Region 

Red Top Lookout

Location: Teanaway
Mileage: 2 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 350 feet

Red Top Lookout by journeycake.jpegVisit in fall to see the larches at their finest. Photo by journeycake.

There are few mountaintops in Washington that are accessible by such a short and easy trail. Kids will delight in actually climbing a mountain and will be encouraged along the way by the fire lookout perched on top.

In mid-to-late summer, the lookout is manned and you may be allowed inside. But the views are just as good from the ground. What's more, this area is dotted with agates and you may be lucky enough to find one! If you do, please leave them for the next child to discover. At the top, there is some loose rock, so watch young children here.

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide

Oxbow Loop trail

Location: Middle Fork Snoqualmie River 
Mileage: 1.8 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 56 feet

A view of the aquamarine Snoqualmie River bending around a turn. Photo by AKorn.
The bend in the river that gives this trail its name. Photo by AKorn. 

The Middle Fork Snoqualmie Valley is known for some physically challenging hikes, but this little gem is the perfect place for young ones to explore the forests along this mighty river. This loop trail is full of interesting geological examples, like the oxbow lake that it circumnavigates and offers great views of the Snoqualmie River and the forests along its banks. 

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide 

Eastern Washington

Big Meadow Lake

Location: Okanogan Highlands/Kettle River Range 
Mileage: 2.7 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: minimal 

A view through orange, red and yellow grasses to a lake. Photo by Bravo
A colorful lakeshore on the east side of Big Meadow Lake. Photo by Bravo

This 72-acre wetland is a great area to spot wildlife and a couple different options mean you can pick the best outing for your family. A short, accessible trail leads to an observation tower where you can look out over the lake or you can take the longer Meadow Magic Trail which circles the lake. 

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide 

North Cascades 

Skagit River LOOP TRAIL

Location: North Cascades Highway 
Mileage: 1.8 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 118 feet

A small patch of beach along the forested bank of the Skagit River. Photo by SnohJoe.
Explore the shores of the Skagit River on this loop trail. Photo by SnohJoe. 

This trail is just behind the North Cascades Visitor Center in Newhalem so families can learn about the area and then head out on trail. Along the way interpretive signs continue to offer opportunities to learn about the area. And if you still have energy after this loop, check out the Sterling Munro boardwalk that leaves from the northwest corner of the visitor center to get views of the Picket Range. 

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide 

Verlot Nature Trail 

Location: Mountain Loop Highway 
Mileage: 0.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 13 feet

A stretch of boardwalk winding through green and mossy forest. Photo by Doris Wang.
Short bridges like this one can make for interesting landmarks on hikes with young children. Photo by Doris Wang. 

Give young hikers an introduction to the Mountain Loop Highway on this trail that follows along the South Fork Stillaguamish River. Connecting two campgrounds, this hike can be a great activity during a car camping trip or a manageable day trip. Young hikers will stay engaged as they pass a sign talking about salmon and trout, an old mining cart filled with fake gold, a cross section of an old growth tree and some info on the history of the area. 

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide 

Puget Sound and Islands

Ebey's Landing

Location: Whidbey Island
Mileage: 3.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 200 feet

Ebey's Landing by Jeff Bottman.jpegEbey's Landing—seen here in January—is beautiful any time of the year. Photo by Jeff Bottman.

This little preserve, tucked away on Whidbey Island has a bit of everything. Panoramic views of mountains and water, twisted driftwood, old gnarled trees, and rare plants. Gray whales and shipping activity in the Strait of Juan de Fuca keep little hikers occupied with the view while bald eagles, hooded mergansers, harlequin ducks visit Parego's Lagoon.

Older kids would be able to do the 3.5 mile loop. The best way to hike the loop is to go counter-clockwise, up the bluff and back down via the beach. On clear days, enjoy a 180-degree panoramic view of the Olympic Peninsula and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Mount Rainier, and the rolling farmland and prairie of Whidbey Island. After about 1.5 miles, drop down a very steep trail to the far end of Parego's Lagoon. Beware that this drop can be slippery and difficult for the very young or old. The return is a wonderful stroll south on the strip of beach between Admiralty Inlet and the lagoon.

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide

Billy frank jr. nisqually national wildlife area

Location: near Olympia
Mileage: 4 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: minimal

Nisqually by klyph76.jpegPhoto by klyph76.

Bring your binoculars on this fantastic trail that features a mile-long boardwalk that juts far out into the Nisqually Delta. What may be the longest continuous boardwalk on the west coast will delight children and adults alike. When tides are in, you will be walking over water; when tides are out, you will be walking over mudflats that are habitat to a diverse array of shorebirds and other creatures.

The trail features an observation tower, an enclosed viewing platform, several push-outs for those who want to linger with their binoculars and two covered viewing platforms. There are thoughtful touches like the areas with lower railings and mesh coverings to allow unobstructed views for kids and those in wheelchairs. The highlight is the Puget Sound Viewing Platform at the end of the boardwalk. It provides a 360-degree view of McAllister Creek, the Olympics, Mount Rainier and several islands in Puget Sound. One tip for parents: make sure the kids use the bathrooms at the beginning of the hike. There is nowhere to go while on the boardwalk!

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide

Olympic Peninsula 

Rialto Beach

Location: Pacific Coast
Mileage: 4.0 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: minimal 

A long look down the stretch of sandy beach flanked by windswept trees on one side and ocean spray on the other. Photo by KatieJM.
The expansive beach here offers endless wandering in the sand. Photo by KatieJM. 

Many visitors to this stretch of Olympic Coast go wandering off to find the hole-in-the wall rock arch surrounded by rocky tide pools. This does make a great destination, but the rest of this beach will keep visitors enchanted and busy searching for eagles and other shorebirds along the forest edge and marine life among the waves. 

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide 

South Cascades

Iron Creek Campground Loop

Location: South Cascades-White Pass/Cowlitz River Valley 
Mileage: 1.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: minimal
A section of trail heading through green forest with a beam of light coming through the trees. Photo by Anna Roth.
Morning light at the Iron Creek Campground Loop. Photo by Anna Roth. 

This loop hike, which follows along the Cispus River for a good portion of its Mileage, is relatively flat and wide. It is a great jaunt if you're staying at the campground but also makes an excellent day trip to the forests of the South Cascades. 

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide 

Central Cascades

Silver Falls Interpretive Trail 

Location: Entiat Mountains/Lake Chelan
Mileage: 1.2 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: minimal

A rushing river flowing through a sunny opening in the forest. Photo by Bob and Barb
The rushing Entiat River along the trail. Photo by Bob and Barb. 

This trail leaves right from a campground, so it makes for a good activity during a camping trip. The trail offers exciting views of the rushing Entiat River along the way and the way is dotted with benches and signs to rest, snack and learn about the area. 

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide 

Hidden Lake

Location: Lake Wentachee
Mileage: 1 mile, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 300 feet

Hidden Lake by Brad Johnson.jpegHidden Lake. Photo by Brad Johnson.

This trail is easy and short and the lake is quite lovely! The way is wide, allowing parents and children walking side-by-side. It winds its way gently through a ponderosa pine forest away from all of the noise and bustle of Lake Wenatchee.

Hidden Lake is a scant half mile from the trailhead, and even toddlers can make the whole way on foot. There are several flat boulders to sit on and enjoy the quiet mountain lake. On warm days, older kids are likely to be swimming or floating in rafts.

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide

South Cascades 

June Lake 

Location: Mount St. Helens 
Mileage: 2.86 miles roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 445 feet

Close up of June Lake with trees in the background.
June lake is a great destination for young hikers. Photo by xhoosier60. 

This hike is a great introduction to the terrain around Mount St. Helens. On the way to the lake, enjoy glimpses of he mountain in the distance and the up close sights and sounds of Swift Creek. The lake offers a good place to eat lunch and rest up before heading back. A waterfall pouring into the lake on the opposite shore is an especially nice touch. 

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide 

Southwest Washington 

Balfour Klickitat Day use Area

Location: Columbia River Gorge 
Mileage: 0.75 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 150 feet

View through a split rail fence to the Klickitat River. Photo by Anna Roth

This trail through the site of an old ranch is a great place to spot wildlife. With native grasses and wildflowers there are plenty of opportunities to get familiar with the local flora and fauna. The Klickitat River runs along the trail as well, offering a counterpoint to the dry golden fields in summer. And for another great option in the area, check out the Whistle Punk Trail

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide