The faint sun was finally beginning to burn through the soggy cloak of mist enveloping Claytor Lake State Park in southwest Virginia. As streams of light burrowed through the clouds, I beamed: I live for the sun. But as the temperature rose, I reconsidered my elation: One in our crew was already sweating, and we hadn’t even started our hike. No matter. Come heat or hail, we were going to explore Claytor Lake’s new Kids in Parks Track hiking trail.
A team effort of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation of North Carolina, the Kids in Parks program offers self-guided outdoor adventures aimed at reconnecting families with nature, encouraging physical activity and helping kids develop a life-long relationship with the natural world (think “ Last Child in the Woods ,” by Richard Louv). Kids can register their hikes online and earn increasingly enticing incentives for each one.
My husband and I, with our three tech-savvy but not totally tech-addicted kids — our son, 4, and daughters, 7 and 9 — were joined by local friends and their children, 3 and 5, for our first adventure. We started at the park gift shop, where we signed out free loaner backpacks stocked with field guides for everything from birds to wild flowers, a hiking stick, a compass, binoculars, a first aid kit and more. We city dwellers would at least look the part. After a brief stop so the kids could select gear, learn how to adjust the binoculars and read a compass — and squabble over who got first use of the coveted hiking sticks — we were off.
A park ranger directed us to Shady Ridge, a 0.66-mile kid-friendly trail close to the visitors center, picnic areas, a playground, restrooms and parking. On an information board at the start of the trail, we met trail guides “Track,” an eager hound dog, and “Kip,” a playful dragonfly, who offer information about the woods and woodland inhabitants. The board also features kid-friendly brochures with such titles as “Hide and Seek,” “The Need for Trees,” “Tree Tales” and “Birds of the Blue Ridge Mountains” that include pictures of what to look for, maps highlighting where to look and facts about plants and creatures in residence.
Excitement and confusion ensued as five pairs of eager small hands simultaneously grappled for the brochures. Amid the whines and cries came complaints of hunger and the heat. The five emergency breakfast bars in my bag would take care of the hunger. The cool woods would take care of the heat. I was counting on the adventure to take care of the rest.
Using the “Hide and Seek” brochure, which contained check boxes next to pictures and descriptions of items we were supposed to find, we all trained our eyes on the ground, searching for poison ivy, wildflowers, mushrooms, animal scat, insects, spider webs and more.
The younger kids quickly lost interest in the brochure and bounded off through the woods, raw energy and keen curiosity their only guides. The youngest triumphantly held up chunks of tree bark as big as her torso. Her big brother spotted a caterpillar’s nest in the trees tens of feet above our heads. Our son raced along tagging the trees marked with red paint to denote the trail and made fast friends with a caterpillar, while our 7-year-old crafted her own walking stick from a fallen branch. Our 9-year-old, the only one still using her brochure, reminded me (again!) that daddy longlegs (harvestmen) are neither spiders nor insects. She also suggested that I use the animal track field guide from the backpack to aid our quest for the elusive marks. Bent on checking off every box, she stretched her imagination and eventually found some tracks.
Roughly an hour later, our energy spent, we emerged from the woods with itchy legs and renewed complaints of hunger. As we headed back to the campsite, we encountered an entrance to a different trail. Our son, commanding a hiking stick taller than himself, eagerly asked if we could hike this trail as well.
Hours later, in the car on the highway heading north, with the oldest engrossed in an audiobook and her sister playing a game on an iPhone, our son began asking a series of questions: “Did we find something purple? How about the tree with woodpecker holes? Did we find that?” He read through the brochure, recalling the highlights of the trail and checking off the items as he remembered them.
The next day, our oldest registered her hike on the Kids in Parks Web site. Within a week she received her booty, which included a bandana (printed with questions encouraging outdoor exploration), a patch and a certificate. Within hours, our other two kids were registered and waiting.
Semedo is a freelance writer in Alexandria. Her Web site is EcoActiveFamily.com.
6620 Ben H. Bolen Dr.
Cabins, some on the lake, available for rent from $57 per night. Weekly rates available. Seasonal rates apply. Campsites, camping cabins, yurts, travel trailers from $45 a night. Minimum stay required.
5094 State Park Rd.
Less than three miles from Claytor Lake with rooms from $89, including free hot breakfast.
4941 State Park Rd.
Brick-oven pizza and Italian fare for lunch and dinner. Entrees start at $8.
4400 State Park Rd.
Free hiking, nature programs and geocaching. Weekday parking $2, weekends $3.
199 Hemphill Knob Rd.
828-271-4779 Ext. 246