Hiking is a great family pastime, to be sure, but the concept of “peak bagging” adds an exciting twist to these family strolls.
Nothing matches the exhilaration of standing on a summit, wind whipping through your hair, the world spread out at your feet. And because there are plenty of “family-sized” peaks from the Atlantic to the Pacific that can be conquered in a matter of hours, rather than days, the entire family can enjoy this feeling together. First, some words of advice.
Where should we hike?
Reaching the top of a peak doesn’t require a lot of equipment, expertise, or even physical fitness. All you need is the right destination. Start small and easy, with an objective that takes into account your family’s age range and level of experience. It’s a good idea to find a high point near home for “training,” then branch out to the classic summits in your region. Tailor your goal to the size of your kids, but don’t sell them short. Most three-year-old children can hike a mile or two, and pre-teens can easily triple that distance.
What equipment do we need?
For equipment, you’ll need sturdy footwear with good tread (athletic shoes are usually fine), a lightweight jacket, a hat, and sun block. A small daypack for granola bars and water is handy for anything longer than a couple of miles. Children 50 pounds and above can carry a light, small pack with water, snacks, and a jacket. If you end up carrying all of the weight, consider it a handicap to equalize your longer stride.
Any other pointers?
Leave word with someone as to your route and destination. Check the weather report before you go, but always be prepared for cold or rainy weather. Minimize the risk of being caught in an afternoon squall by getting an early start. Remember that altitude can play a big factor; Hikes that start at higher elevations (over 6,000 feet) require more experience and some acclimatization. If you are traveling from sea level, give yourself a few days to acclimatize.
Pace yourself and drink plenty of water. Pay attention to signage and stay on the trail, as mountain terrain is unpredictable. On many peaks, falling or straying off the trail is not an option, and children should always be kept close. Lastly, stick to a pre-determined turn-around time when it looks like your goals are too ambitious for the day.
Peak bagging has given my children (ages six, six, and nine) a connection with geography and forged stronger bonds with friends and family who join us. Here are my picks for the top ten family-friendly summits across the United States. Some are definitely for older children who have hiked, so use your best judgment.
10. Mt. Evans, Colorado
- 10. Mt. Evans, Colorado
- 9. Humphrey’s Peak, Arizona
- 8. Guadalupe Peak, Texas
- 7. Mt. Oberlin (via Clements Saddle), Montana
- 6. Stone Mountain, North Carolina
- 5. Tumalo Mountain, Oregon
- 4. Mt. Caroline Livermore, California
- 3. Harney Peak, South Dakota
- 2. Dog Mountain, Washington
- 1. Mt. Monadnock, New Hampshire
- Distance: 0.5 mile round-trip
- Difficulty: Easy (but don’t forget the elevation)
- Elevation: 14,264 feet
Mount Evans feels like the top of the world! Even infants can enjoy the spectacular view from the summit of this iconic Colorado “14’er.” From the top, the mountains that make up the Continental Divide stretch out for miles, with eagle-eye views of the eastern plains to Denver and Colorado Springs. The peak’s just two hours from Denver, a half-hour from I-70 near Idaho Springs. You can drive to the Summit parking lot and walk 0.25 mile up the Summit Trail to the top, or park lower down the mountain at Summit Lake for longer treks in the 3.5- to 5-mile range. Families with teenagers should consider the route that starts at Summit Lake and accesses the summit via Mt. Spalding and Evan’s northwest ridge. For a five-mile loop, descend the northeast face back to Summit Lake. The park is dog-friendly, so this is a good place to exercise both two and four-legged family members. Entrance to the park is $10 per carload. Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forests Travel Guide
9. Humphrey’s Peak, Arizona
- Distance: 8.8 miles round-trip
- Difficulty: Difficult (due to elevation change)
- Elevation: 12,633 feet
At least 13 Indian tribes consider Humphrey’s Peak and the surrounding San Francisco Peaks sacred ground. You’ll see why when you stand atop its lofty summit. To the north you can make out the rim of the Grand Canyon, to the west stretches the vast Coconino Plateau, and to the south you get views of the Mogollon Rim and Oak Creek Canyon. There are several routes up Humphrey’s, but the most family friendly is the 8.8-mile Humphrey’s Peak Trail that starts at the Snowbowl parking lot, about a dozen miles northwest of Flagstaff. The trail winds through Hart Prairie’s magnificent stands of quaking aspen and carpets of alpine Iris and blue lupine, then climbs through forests of pinion and juniper, old-growth fir, spruce and bristlecone pine, and finally spills you out to exquisitely delicate alpine tundra. Weather moves quickly at this elevation—get an early start and be prepared for wind, rain, and even snow year-round. This is a hike for families with older children, as the trail is steep and rocky, and it gains more than 3,000 feet. Coconino National Forest Travel Guide
8. Guadalupe Peak, Texas
- Distance: 8.4 miles round-trip
- Difficulty: Difficult
- Elevation: 8,749 feet
You won’t find crowds on this rocky sentinel; instead, keep your eyes open for remnants of the ancient limestone reef that makes up the world’s best fossilized marine beds. Guadalupe Peak is the high point in Texas, and it sits in Guadeloupe Mountains National Park, one of the most isolated national parks in the lower 48 states. From the top, the desert stretches for miles and miles, punctuated by jagged rock towers and sheer limestone cliffs. The sky is always wild here, with big white thunderheads forming up over the hot desert sand. About 110 miles east of El Paso, and just 10 miles from the New Mexico border, the peak is surrounded by some of the oldest fossil reefs in the world. The length of the hike may sound daunting, but the trail is well-marked. There are steep sections (and some airy cliff bands), so don’t make this your first family mountain climb. The trail passes lovely riparian oases, with lush green ferns hiding a hidden treasure (water) in the otherwise hot and dry terrain. The trail ascends 3,000 feet, so count on six to eight hours, and pack plenty of water. Plan your trip for the fall to see orange, red, and gold foliage that rivals leaf-peeping season in New England. Guadalupe Mountains National Park Travel Guide
7. Mt. Oberlin (via Clements Saddle), Montana
- Distance: 3 miles round-trip
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation: 8,064 feet
This is the best family-friendly hike in Glacier National Park, with an easy-to-follow trail that leads to a spectacular summit with gaper views. Glacier National Park’s rocky, snow capped peaks and dense forests are beautiful, but generally unattainable. Experienced mountaineers might scale the vertical cliff faces, but most mere mortals are limited to turn-out view points along the Going-to-the-Sun Road that bisects the park. Mt. Oberlin is not only easily accessible, but it affords some of the prettiest vistas in the area. From Going-to-the-Sun Road, park at the Logan Pass Visitor Center. The trail starts at 6,700 feet and you should plan on two to three hours round-trip. It is only 1.5 miles to the summit (about 1,500 feet elevation gain), but give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the panorama. You’ll want sturdy sneakers, but there is very little boulder hopping and the trail is fairly protected, with limited exposure. Glacier National Park Travel Guide
6. Stone Mountain, North Carolina
- Distance: 4.5 miles round-trip
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Elevation: 2,305 feet
In the fall, you’ll see some of the world’s most colorful foliage here in Stone Mountain State Park. This 600-foot high grey granite dome rises above the dense hardwood forests to the south of the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Roaring Gap. The hike is lovely year-round, but the best time is fall, when the surrounding forests are ablaze with color. The well-worn Stone Mountain Loop trail starts out steep, but there are plenty of rocky ledges to rest and enjoy the view. From the trailhead (accessible from both lower and upper trailhead parking lots), climb 0.75 miles to the summit. Easier terrain takes you past Stone Mountain falls, a gentle cascade that tumbles down granite slabs. Stone Mountain also attracts technical rock climbers; the trail affords good views of some of the most famous climbs. Blue Ridge Parkway Travel Guide
5. Tumalo Mountain, Oregon
- Distance: 3.6 miles round-trip
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation: 7,600 feet
With a perfect summit for picnics, Tumalo Mountain is a local secret for escaping the summer heat. From the top, you have best-seat-in-the-house views of the southern Cascades, Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top, and the Three Sisters. You can peer down on the ski slopes of Mt. Bachelor and across the endless volcanic plugs that make up Central Oregon. Tumalo Mountain is a shield volcano, so there are plenty of interesting lava formations to see. Follow the Cascades Lakes Highway for 20 minutes to the trailhead (across from the Mt. Bachelor entrance). The trail to the summit pushes through pine and fir forests, and then ascends the southwest flank of the volcano. The hike is relatively short, but the 1,200-foot elevation gain thwarts the faint of heart. Deschutes National Forest Travel Guide
4. Mt. Caroline Livermore, California
- Distance: 5-mile loop
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Elevation: 788 feet
Kids love the fact that Angel Island is accessible only by boat. Now a state park, Angel Island has a rich Native American, immigrant, and military history. The trail follows an old road and is partially paved—ideal for small kids, grandparents, and everyone in between. On the summit, you’ll see unforgettable views of the San Francisco Bay, including the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, and Alcatraz Sausalito. There are several ferries that provide access to Angel Island. You are dropped off at Ayala Cove, where you start the hike. San Francisco Travel Guide
3. Harney Peak, South Dakota
- Distance: 6 miles round-trip
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation: 7,244 feet
This is Indian territory straight out of the wild west. Mika-flecked rock glitters like gold along the trail up Harney Peak. You’ll pass secret caves and rain-filled ponds worn deep into the sparkling granite. Named for General William S. Harney, commander of the U.S. army troops in the Black Hills in the 1870s, Harney Peak is the tallest mountain in South Dakota and the highest point between the U.S. Rocky Mountains and Pyrenees. The summit rises above the rough-hewn peaks of the Black Hills and the granite spires of the Needles. The view extends to four states, with Mount Rushmore National Memorial to the northwest, and the dense forests and towering rock formations of the 71,000-acre Custer State Park to the south. The best family route is Trail #9 that starts at Sylvan Lake. Stop at the big flat rock about a quarter of the way up. From the rock, the peak looks impossibly far away. But the distance is an illusion; a couple more easy miles and you have the summit. Expect to see deer and maybe mountain goats, and don’t be surprised to happen on a buffalo or two, which, of course, you shouldn’t approach. A one-day vehicle pass to Custer State Park is $12. Custer State Park Travel Guide
2. Dog Mountain, Washington
- Distance: 7 miles round-trip
- Difficulty: Moderate (but steep)
- Elevation: 2,984 feet
The Dog Mountain trail starts at the Columbia River and climbs through lush forest to nearly 3,000 feet to bird’s nest views of the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens. Far below, the mighty Columbia carves its way through the rocky gorge; much of the landscape unchanged in the nearly 200 years since Lewis and Clark explored its fast-flowing waters. About an hour east of Portland, on the Washington side of the Columbia, Dog Mountain is known for its vast meadows of wildflowers, with bright yellow bitter root, purple lupine, and red Indian paintbrush that put on a banquet of color in the spring and summer. From the easy-to-find trailhead about 15 minutes from I-84 and the Bridge of the Gods, the trail is steep but easy to follow. The trail from the parking lot forks after about 0.25 mile—families should bear right, as that fork covers less steep terrain. Round trip distance is five to seven miles (depending on which trail you choose). And, of course, you can bring your canine friend. Columbia River Gorge Travel Guide
1. Mt. Monadnock, New Hampshire
- Distance: 5 miles round-trip
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation: 3,165 feet
Mt. Monadnock is the most climbed mountain in North America, taking backseat only to Japan’s Mt. Fuji as the most popular peak in the world. The reason? Just an hour’s drive north of Boston, in southeast New Hampshire, the accessible granite-capped mountain affords views of all six New England states. The expansive vistas from Boston to Mt. Washington have inspired the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain. There are steeper routes to the summit, but the Dublin Trail, which starts outside of Monadnock State Park, just off NH 101, has the gentlest grade. The Dublin Trail climbs 2.5 miles to the top, past magnificent hardwood forests and over giant bands of hard, gray granite. Elevation gain is about 1,600 feet. Kids from kindergarten up can do the hike, but you’ll want to hold younger kids’ hands on the summit slabs. In August, the wild blueberries are delicious. Entrance to the park is $4 for adults, $2 for children. Monadnock State Park Travel Guide