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Backpacking Trips for Kids

Taking children backpacking can be extremely rewarding, especially if you match the hike with their abilities. WTA has chosen ten excellent first backpack trips for kids - short hikes with lakes to swim in, snowfields to play on, berries to eat and areas for further exploration.

Taking children backpacking can be extremely rewarding, especially if you match the hike with their abilities. If you're taking your family out for the first time, choose a short trip with a nice reward. Make sure their gear is comfortable, easy to use and not too heavy. A successful trip will have them eager to go backpacking again.

Good gear is important, but you don’t need to buy expensive and fancy sleeping bags, pads and tent to start out. Inventory your hiking and camping gear to determine what you'll need, then ask to borrow friends' gear or rent from an outdoor store until you decide this is going to be an ongoing activity for your family.

Footwear is important. Kids should wear sturdy shoes or boots that fit the feet well and are broken in. Be sure the tread is strong enough to give them traction in steep places. Lightweight tennis shoes won’t do, but consider carrying in extra shoes or sandals so they will have a change of footwear for in camp.

Pack weight is also very important. The general rule is that the pack should weigh no more than 20 percent of the child's weight. For families with young kids, that means the parents will be shouldering large loads. Kids five and under are usually maxed out with water and snacks. Between six and eight, you might add a sleeping bag and clothes. Older kids can start carrying more. When they are just starting out, however, less is more.

So where should you go? Joan Burton, author of Best Hikes with Kids: Western Washington and the Cascades has recommended ten short backpacking trips for families. All of the following trails are popular day hike destinations, but even if you are joined by other hikers on the trail, when they go home, you'll have your pick of campsites.


Spring and Early Summer

East Bank Baker Lake

Location: Highway 20
Length: 4 to 9 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 500 feet
Best Season: May - October

East Bank Baker Lake. Photo by Bob and Barb.jpegEast Bank Baker Lake. Photo by Bob and Barb.

A low elevation North Cascades trail that makes an excellent early season backpack trip is the East Bank Baker Lake trail. For the greater part of the hike you are back from the lakeshore in forest, but you will see tantalizing glimpses of Baker Lake through the old trees.

In less than two miles, after dropping down from the trailhead about a hundred feet, you will come to a side trail leading to a small campsite, usually unused, which would make a good stopping point with very young kids.

At 5 miles is a delightful larger old campground on the water called Maple Grove. Formed by a long-ago rockslide, the camp is used by boaters on holidays, but is usually unoccupied at other times. You can tell how old the rockslide is by the size of the venerable big leaf maples. Plan to camp in the shelter of the trees, but look out at stunning views of Mount Baker to the north and Mount Shuksan to the east at sunrise and sunset from the lakeshore beach.

Fishermen and boaters course the lake, but they usually stay on the other side. Children can watch for jumping fish and listen for the call of loons. The trail continues for 10 miles for the length of Baker Lake. You can follow it for as long as you like, enjoying vistas of mountains, birds, and shoreline before returning to your starting point.

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide


Third Beach

Location: Olympic Coast
Length: 3.6 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 280 feet
Best Season: year round


Third Beach - a place to run, collect feathers, make sand castles and tidepool. Photo by KurtTheDirt.

A year round favorite on the ocean is Third Beach. It is a nearly level trail just over one and a half miles long, reaching a wide sandy Pacific beach. Campsites are partly protected from the wind in a creek ravine. But the wind does blow in from the ocean, creating the magical surf.

The adventure is in climbing over giant driftwood logs and exploring the shore and those enormous roaring waves. Your kids will love the tide pools, playing in the sand, and watching for gray whales and eagles. They will not want to go home.

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide


Lena Lake

Location: Olympics - East
Length: 5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1300 feet
Best Season: May - October

Photo by Stevie-643.

Lower Lena Lake, on the east side of the Olympics and dominated by a shoulder of The Brothers, is a popular and beloved backpack destination. At first the trail climbs through old second growth trees, but then it enters old growth forest on long switchbacks, crossing Lena Creek, the source of the lake’s water.

At three miles you come to the shores of Lower Lena Lake and a choice of camps. Because it is so popular you may need to go in early to get one. This is a large sub-alpine lake, formed by a long-ago rockslide that dammed the valley. The lake level fluctuates with the season like a small reservoir.

Wading and swimming are possible, but the water is usually cold. When the lake is full there will be a 150-foot climb over a rock buttress called Chapel Rock to reach the shore.

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide


Barclay Lake

Location: Stevens Pass
Length: 4.4 miles, rounftrip
Elevation Gain: 225 feet
Best Season: June - October

One nice thing about choosing a short backpacking trip is having time to hang out at the campsite and explore the surrounding area. Photo by Lost&Found.

An easy two-mile trail off the Stevens Pass Highway through old growth forest leads to shallow Barclay Lake. This popular place is guaranteed to have other hikers, but you may be the only ones camping near the lakeshore. (Mind the sign that says ‘Stay at least 50 feet back.’)

The trail is so short that, if necessary, parents can make two trips to bring in the gear. There is a sandy beach for waders and swimmers, and fishing for everyone.

> Plan your trip using WTA"s Hiking Guide


Pete Lake

Location: Teanaway
Length: 9 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 400 feet
Best Season: June - September

Pete Lake - a great place to swim or play. Photo by Kristinleclair.

Scenery, forest wildflowers,wildlife and a gentle trail await hikers on the Pete Trail in the Teanaway. The trail leads from the inlet to Cooper Lake, along the Cooper River for approximately four and a half easy miles.

If you're hot after setting up camp at Pete Lake, consider wading, swimming or even fishing. There are many places to explore. Be sure to scout out the area and determine how far the kids can stray. If you spend two nights here, there are numerous options for day hiking. Bring a good map and have fun!

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide


Greenwater Lakes

Location: Near Mount Rainier
Length: 4.4 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Best Season: May - October

The Greenwater river rushes down under a footbridge on the Greenwater Lakes trail. Photo by zoshyii.

Greenwater Lakes, off Highway 410, makes a magnificent old growth forest hike or backpack early in the season. Along the trail are three log bridges with whitewater rushing beneath them. The mossy forest has spring flowers and ferns.

The two lakes are shallow and safe for water play with a river running through one of them and many ducks and birds to watch. Campsites are excellent, but may be taken early on weekends. No reservations are required, but camping is on a first come first served basis.

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide


Mid-Summer and Fall

Chain Lakes

Location: Mount Baker
Length: 4 to 9 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 600 feet out and back; 1600 feet for the loop
Best Season: July - September


Resting at Middle Chain Lake. Photo by logiebear.

The Chain Lakes at the end of the Mount Baker highway offer gorgeous scenic campsites and the chance to move camp from lake to lake along the chain of four. It even allows for a loop trip. Snow banks won’t melt out until late July or even early August, so save this one for late summer and always prepare for snow.

There are excellent camps at Iceberg, Hayes and Arbuthnot Lakes, but be sure to camp at least 200 feet from water and use existing campsites. The meadows here are very fragile. Kids will enjoy playing in the lingering snow fields and poking around the shores of Hayes and Arbuthnot, which have black sand beaches, a reminder of Mount Baker’s volcanic activity.

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide


Independence Lake

Location: Mountain Loop Highway
Length: 3.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 400 feet
Best Season: July - October

Independence Lake. Photo by Ryan Clubb.
A great day at Independence Lake with unbelievably blue waters. Photo by Ryan Clubb.

Independence Lake is a short hike (a little more than one mile!) to a mountain lake, this one off the Mountain Loop Highway. The trail neither gains nor loses much elevation, but does have some roots and rocks along the way. You may need to help a toddler for this distance.

The reward is a lake large enough to swim in, which has at least six good campsites. Kids love wading and swimming in Independence Lake on warm summer days, and older kids who wish to explore can day hike the tough route to North Lake.

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide


Sheep Lake - Sourdough Gap

Location: Chinook Pass
Length: 5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 500 feet
Best Season: Mid-July - October

Sheep Lake from Sourdough Gap. Photo by hikeswith3..jpegA backpacking trip to Sheep Lake offers great day hiking excursions. Photo by hikeswith3.

Backpack a short section of the Pacific Crest Trail just outside of Mount Rainier National Park. The trail starts at Chinook Pass and parallels SR 410 along for more than a mile until it breaks away to Sheep Lake and beyond to Sourdough Gap.

The trail has been blasted into a steep and rocky hillside, but it is a short section, level and has been built for horses. You'll want to keep the kids close here. There are also meadows and views to keep everyone interested along the way. There are several campsites at Sheep Lake around the shore and above the outlet. Set up camp and consider climbing the one mile up to Sourdough Gap and exploring further.

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide


Indian Heaven Wilderness

Location: South Cascades
Length: 5 miles or more, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1000 feet
Best Season: September - October

Indian Heaven Wilderness. Photo by bennettbeingthrown.jpegWho loves huckleberries? Everyone, and the Indian Heaven Wilderness is renowned for its plethora every season. Photo by Bennetbeingthrown.

The lakes of the Indian Heaven Wilderness make ideal easy backpacking destinations. The entire wilderness is a park-like oasis, filled with more than 30 shallow lakes, a children’s paradise in the South Cascades. You can access the wilderness from either its east or west side.

If you start from the Cultus Creek Campground on the east side, expect a steep 700-foot gain in the first mile. After that there are only moderate ups and downs throughout the wilderness. Once you reach Cultus Lake, the first lake and possible camp, you may find the kids don’t want to go on. Assure them that other lakes just as wonderful lie close by. You can make a loop trip in two days to see many of them, one right after the other.

The only problem may be the bugs. Be prepared with good insect repellent suitable for kids’ skin, and long-sleeved shirts and full-length pants, or wait to hike here in September after the bugs are gone. Hiking then has the added advantage of being berry season - this place is full of them!

> Plan your trip using WTA's Hiking Guide