Never Too Young to Hike

By Bill Graham, photographs by David Stonner | March 1, 2017
From Missouri Conservationist: March 2017

It’s fun to share nature trails with kids. Parents or grandparents can help a child explore wonders like bristly caterpillars, nubby-capped acorns, and lacy flowers. And sometimes toddlers remind grown-ups to look, listen, and touch. In Kansas City and St. Louis, internet-linked Hike It Baby groups make it a point to get youngsters outdoors early for hikes on public lands, including MDC trails. Parents carry infants in slings, push baby strollers, or follow youngsters where curiosity leads them. One of the group’s slogans is “never too young.” Find a Hike it Baby group near you or start your own at

During a visit to the Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center in Kansas City, hike leaders Emily, Hamilton, Aspen, and their fellow toddlers explored a trail amid prairie grasses and sunflowers towering high above them. The youngsters poked their fingers at goldenrod blooms, wood chips, and any leaf catching their eye. A path led them to shrubs and trees where they crawled through holes carved in giant bur oak log sections. Watchful moms and dads, having almost as much fun as the children, waited for the next steps on the trail.

Accessible Trails Get Kids Into Nature

“This is a place where we can let them play in nature without having to worry about them running off too far into the woods,” said Kristin Fritchman of Olathe in the Kansas City metro area. “The trail is level, and we can let them out in nature and see them at their play.”

Conservation areas throughout Missouri provide places to hike, from short and easy-to-walk paved trail loops to long and more challenging dirt or woodchip paths. Disabled-accessible trails wind through woods and native prairie grasses. Nature and interpretive centers double as trailheads and offer parking, restrooms, and interpretative signs or nature exhibits. Many rural conservation areas have parking lots and privies at trailheads.

“I’ve been hiking with Emily since she was 1 month old,” Fritchman said. “The idea,” she said, “is getting kids out in nature early so they love it.”

Children Learn to Lead the Way

Family hikes get the grownups outdoors, too. As children grow older, walking and running on the paths, they often become leaders for the guardians trailing behind. “They’ll find things that we wouldn’t notice,” Fritchman said. “They will spot a caterpillar, snails, a turtle. It’s nice for us as adults to connect with nature, too.”

Chad Opela of Holden watched his daughter, Aspen, 2, as she veered off the trail to peer at flowers. She enjoys the hikes and getting outdoors in nature. Melody Valet of Raytown enjoys following her son, Gideon, on the toddler led hikes because the pace is slow and
grownups see more as they slow down, too. She helped organize the Kansas City Hike It Baby group because she wanted something that benefited her as well as her two children.

“I thought, wow, I can start something I can enjoy,” Valet said, “and here we are tagging along and loving being in the outdoors.”

MDC areas are among her favorite places to schedule hikes.

“It’s not just mowed grass like a park,” Valet said. “You get to see all the other stuff, like the bugs and bunnies.”

Grandparents Take the Lead, Too

Grandparents Tim and Pat Dade enjoy leading their family on hikes. Their favorite hike is through the oak-hickory forest along the 1.5-mile Habitat Trail at the Burr Oak Woods Nature Center in Blue Springs.

The Dades’ daughters, Brecklyn Findley and Jillian Littlejohn, grew up playing in a wooded area behind their house. Now, as moms, they want to introduce their children to the fun of finding wonders in the woods, and they enjoy being outdoors, too.

“I like being able to do this with my kids,” Littlejohn said, “and I’m thankful they can have these experiences even though we live in the city. I also like how they’re able to run and explore.”

The group passed an interpretive sign about plants and animals at a limestone glade, an open, rocky place in the woodland. Findley’s daughter Daden, 3, pressed up against the sign and asked for mom’s help reading it.

“She loves reading all the signs, or having us read them to her,” Pat Dade said. “She wants to know what they say and what animals are out there.”

Another pause in the hike came at a small pond along the trail. Three tadpoles were spotted. Curious eyes searched for watchable wildlife.

“They love turtles,” Dade said. Luke, Findley’s oldest child, moved up and down the pathway ahead of his cousins, a scout of sorts.

“I just like looking for stuff, looking for treasures,” he said.

The family maintains rules on hikes. Children must stay within eyesight of the elders. Littlejohn said one challenge is teaching their children not to blindly stick their hands under rocks, logs, or into holes in trees. “Look first, be careful,” they teach. But if a fall or some crawling dirties hands or clothes, no problem, the dirt washes off.
“I like these trails because the kids learn to appreciate nature and, really, life itself,” Pat Dade said.

Trails for Every Age and Ability

Whether digitally linked or independent, families using conservation area trails for hiking can start simple and move on to more challenging terrain as children get older and more adventurous. In the St. Louis area, all eight trails at the August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area (CA) are fairly level and easy to traverse. They range in length from less than .25 mile to 3.2 miles. But at the Weldon Spring CA in nearby St. Charles, three of the four trails in hilly, Missouri River bluff terrain are considered difficult. The 8.2-mile Lewis Trail there will thoroughly test a hiker’s stamina.

Also in the St. Louis area, Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center in Kirkwood offers the paved and disabled-accessible Tanglevine Trail’s .3-mile loop. But the center’s 1.2-mile

Hickory Ridge Trail is rated moderately difficult. A variety of trail lengths and challenges give hikers more opportunities and a wide variety of nature to enjoy. Seven trail loops leading through forest or to a wetland are rated easy to moderate at the Springfield Nature Center. In Cape Girardeau, a trailhead at the Conservation Nature Center leads through forest along the White Oak Trace Trail in Cape County Park North, doable for most families. The Ridgetop Trail loop is ideal for strollers and beginning hikers, while the steep grades and a gravel surface of the other portions are great for those who want a healthy challenge.

The Mark Youngdahl Urban CA in St. Joseph provides three hiking trails within the city. Across the state at Kirksville, an interpretative nature trail winds through native grasses, forest, a marsh, and a pond at MDC’s Northeast Regional Office. These are but a few examples of trails found at MDC’s offices, nature centers, or conservation areas throughout Missouri. Trails long or short, easy or difficult, they all connect people and families with nature.

Jamie Sperry of Prairie Village, Kan., said her son, Hamilton, enjoys the Bethany Falls Trail at Burr Oak Woods best because it passes through limestone rocks and bluffs.

“He likes to climb,” Sperry said. “At Burr Oak he gets some light, safe bouldering that’s just right for a 21/2-yearold. Then he likes to go inside the nature center and see the animals.

Use Your Browser to Get Closer to Nature

MDC has 14 nature and interpretive centers around the state.

Each offers trails and programs to help you and your family get into hiking. Programs teach where to hike and how to keep excursions fun and safe for people of all ages and abilities.

Once you’ve learned the basics, strike out on your own at hundreds of other conservation areas that have hiking trails. It’s a great way to discover and explore Missouri’s beautiful forests, woodlands, wetlands, prairies, and glades.
Find details for trails and scheduled hiking programs, including maps and driving directions, at Search for the centers and sort hundreds of other conservation areas for fun things to do outdoors.

MDC Nature and Interpretive Centers Near Kansas City and St. Joseph

  • The Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center in Kansas City
  • Burr Oak Woods in Blue Springs
  • Northwest Regional Office in St. Joseph

In Northeast Missouri

  • Northeast Regional Office in Kirksville

In Central Missouri

  • Runge Conservation Nature Center in Jefferson City

Near St. Louis

  • August A. Busch Memorial CA in Weldon Spring
  • Columbia Bottom CA in Spanish Lake
  • Powder Valley Conservation

Nature Center in Kirkwood

  • Rockwoods Reservation in St. Louis County

In the Bootheel

  • Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center

In the Ozark Region

  • Twin Pines Conservation Education Center in Winona

In Southwest Missouri

  • Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery near Branson
  • Springfield Conservation Nature Center
  • Wildcat Park in Joplin

Also In This Issue

The Department of Conservation helps Missouri communities hold the line against wildfires
Great Blue Heron eating a fish
A magnet for birds and birders.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler