Rain. It’s something a five year-old in California has little first-hand experience with, given the state's drought over the same number of years.
Creek beds. Bone dry, exposing an underbelly of boulders and fallen tree debris. A five year-old may never have seen its gushing streams.
Wild fires. Destructive and dangerous. But does a child know a forest fire can also bring new life and seed new flora?
Drought and fire-ravaged forests across California can be a laboratory for children to learn first-hand about complex weather and climate phenomena and the ripple effects they have on the surrounding natural habitat.
Taking an eco-hike with kids can bring not just physical benefits, but environmental learning too.
Want to try?
Here’s a sample day trip to to the San Bernardino National Forest to get you started:
Take an eco-hike with kids
There are two hikes in Running Springs, right off Highway 18.
1. Children’s Forest “Interpretive Loop,” San Bernardino National Forest
- A paved, wheelchair accessible, hiking path that is three-quarters of a mile long.
- Signs designed by children provide information and creative stories to explain surrounding flora and fauna.
- Piles of boulders allow for mini-excursions off the path to climb and take in views of the surrounding mountains.
2. Exploration Trail, San Bernardino National Forest
- 4.5 mile hiking trail – one way – that winds through the forest, starting from the main highway and ending at the entrance to the Children’s Forest “interpretive loop.”
- While unpaved, there is a carved path to follow. Not wheelchair friendly.
- The trail earns it’s name because of the endless off-path natural wonders to explore. Kids can scamper over rock formations, walk the balance-beam on fallen tree trunks or collect pine cones.
What they’ll get out of it
Environmental science knowledge
Get a up-close lesson in the impact of the drought, see the effects of wildfires through standing-dead-trees and plants that seed and spread after a fire, and witness the creatures that live in these extreme conditions.
Creative nature play
A playground expert has nothing on mother nature. The wild boulder formations, the fallen trees and uneven mountainside all provide a natural playground that children (and adults) will enjoy.
Allow children to explore, factor in time to let them just be in this natural environment and watch them create little micro-worlds where their imaginations roam as freely as they do, says Megan Oberdoerster, youth and interpretive services coordinator for the Southern California Mountains Foundation.
There’s no step-ladder to climb up a rock, there’s no soft-padded foam to cushion a fall. But there is the excitement and challenge of stepping outside a child’s comfort zone to see what their bodies are capable of.
Expect some slips, scrapes, and freaked-out “help me” cries, and remember that research shows kids benefit from these kinds of challenges. Hiking the exploration trail is as much about parents letting go and allowing kids to take some risks physical challenges for kids as it is about physical challenges for kids.
Children aged 13 to 17 can join the forest’s "Eco Leader" program. Run by the Southern California Mountains Foundation, the youth leadership program builds leadership skills and helps kids develop the skills to participate in “making real life decisions in forest management.”
The Southern California Mountains Foundation is a nonprofit group that runs the programs in the Children’s Forest, focusing on “health, stewardship and sustainability of our Southern California mountains and urban forests.”
When to go
The Children’s Forest has a visitor’s center especially for kids. There kids can color, use Play-doh, and experience the range of the forest’s animals through taxidermy creatures. The visitor’s center is staffed by youth volunteers but is only open from Memorial day to Labor day.
Keller’s Peak road, which leads to the Interpretive Loop and the head of the Exploration Trail, is open until the first snowfall of the year.
What to take
- Bring lots of water. There are no water sources along the way.
- For first time kid-hikers, long pants are advisable to avoid cuts from thorny brush on tender legs.
- Bring a small first aid kit as small scratches may bleed, and we all know how much little ones love a Band-aid to make it all better.
- Bring a bag to stash your trash as you hike.