Take a Hike: Family hiking hacks and trails off the beaten path

Sara Korber-DeWeerd

Having survived a spring of learning from home, many families are wondering what summer will bring. Will the continued presence of COVID-19 force them to postpone summer vacations? 

Uxbridge mom of two Emily Fortna planned her family’s vacations long before the coronavirus was a concern—one to Costa Rica and another with extended family on an Alaskan cruise, both of which may have to be postponed. “While we haven't actually canceled our vacations for this summer, we have been preparing our kids for a much quieter summer than originally planned,” she said. 

Canceled vacation plans aren’t the only change we may experience. Kids are already wondering if beaches, parks, and campgrounds will be open. Will they be able to congregate for neighborhood play dates? What will become of the summer tradition of the multi-family outdoor barbecue? 

As we cautiously resume the rhythms of daily life, at least one outdoor activity has remained open and accessible—hiking.

Whether you enjoy scaling a peak or strolling a wide-open path, getting outside and into the woods is a pastime that has grown in popularity in recent months. Research reveals many health benefits of spending time in the woods. According to the U.S. Forest Service, “exposure to forests strengthens our immune system, reduces blood pressure, increases energy, boosts our mood and helps us regain and maintain our focus in ways that treeless environments just don’t.” It’s no wonder more families are seeking treescapes to enjoy these days.

Throughout Massachusetts’ stay-at-home advisory, state parks remained open. Yet the significant increase in visitors to state parks at times made social distancing difficult and even forced state police to close them during peak hours when they reach capacity. 

“We tried going on a few trails early on but were uncomfortable with how busy they were and people not adhering to good social distancing, so we have mostly been walking and biking in our neighborhood,” said Fortna. 

Many parents have reported similar situations. Determined to stay active and make the occasional escape from home, families are on the hunt for “off-the-beaten-path” trails that may be less populated and easier to navigate.

Choosing a trail

Recently, friends introduced us to a new hiking app that’s perfect for hunting down lesser known trails. The AllTrails hiking app designed for IOS and Android devices allows users to search for hiking trails utilizing multiple browsing categories such as top trails nearby, best views, and trail suitability for dogs, kids, and even strollers. Users can also search for trails by skill level and outdoor activity such as mountain biking or hiking.

Once a hike is selected, the app offers a summary of the trail including average foot traffic and difficulty of the terrain, and provides directions to trail parking areas. An optional mapping feature tracks movement on the trail so hikers know if they’re still on course. Even if the GPS signal is lost while in the woods, downloaded maps in the app can still track hikers’ movement. 

Another great website, Atlas Obscura, claims to be “the definitive guide to the world’s hidden wonders.” It can be used to locate often overlooked sites in an area. We discovered the Holy Hill of Zion trail when we searched for Bancroft Castle. Hiking the two together created the perfect afternoon in the woods for our family. Atlas Obscura’s “Know Before You Go” section offers information about where to park and how to locate a tucked-away site or trail head. 

When choosing a trail, our family’s first rule of thumb is that there has to be something for everyone. While four of us would love a challenging hike to a breathtaking view, our littlest guy still fatigues quickly. We’ve learned to choose trails he can easily manage. A well-marked trail is also a plus, since we don’t have to worry about all keeping the same pace. The big kids can hike ahead while the little ones navigate at a comfortable pace with a parent. 

The easier the trail, however, the greater the likelihood that older kids will get bored, so a trail with the promise of something to see is a must. Many trails in the Bay State are also historical sites. The short hike up to Bancroft Castle in Groton or the longer trails that surround Quabbin Reservoir, for example, offer interesting historical sites that give a sense of destination when the hike doesn’t lead to a stunning view. 

The panorama from Bancroft castle doesn’t offer high peaks, but it does reveal the remains of an early 20th century summer cottage and a beautiful view of rolling hills, antique farms, and Lawrence Academy in Groton. Once privately owned, the property is now open to the public. 

The 7.2-mile Dana Common Trail near Quabbin Reservoir is wide, perfect for mountain biking or hiking. The destination? Well-preserved foundations of the original town center that was moved to make way for the construction of Boston’s water supply.

Many hikes offer multiple loops; we always enjoy a trail that has the possibility of picking up or connecting to a longer loop. When we reach the cut off for a new trail we can decide to keep going or head back to the car, depending on how everyone is feeling. From the ruins of Dana town center, bikers and hikers can continue past the common for beautiful views of the reservoir. Shaker Hill offers a short hike to the historical gathering place of the Harvard Shaker community. But hikers with a little more energy can also hike down the opposite side of the hill and pick up a loop that winds through a field and follows a picturesque lane. Walking beside the stone perimeter wall, we could imagine Shaker famers using the well-worn path to check on their fields or to visit a neighboring farm. A quick drive through the area afterwards also offers additional historical sites from the Shakers, such as the infamous “lollipop” graveyard.

Keeping kids engaged

On longer hikes, playing games along the way helps our littlest one avoid boredom that leads to complaining. Bringing a small football to toss back and forth as we walk and playing variations of I Spy are simple activities our son enjoys. 

For kids interested in nature and wildlife, packing a nature book, such as the “Smithsonian Handbooks Series Birds of New England” allows them to look up the names of the different types of wildlife they discover. Younger kids may enjoy a simple scavenger hunt attached to a small clipboard that allows them to check off their finds as they walk. 

Our girls, 13 and 11, enjoy hiking with digital cameras. They “collect” images as they hike and share their photographs with us later on. Games like these help kids to slow down, pay attention, and observe what’s around them, nurturing their natural curiosity and wonder.

With all the fresh air and exercise, it’s likely little trailblazers will get hungry. Packing snacks and water for the trail is always a good idea. Bear in mind, however, that the trails recommended here do not have restroom facilities and, as of this writing, even state park restrooms are closed to the public. With short hikes, we hydrate before leaving home and keep our water bottles in the car for when we return.

Be flexible

Though not necessary, it can be less stressful to hike during off-peak hours. 

One weekend we opted to skip hiking on the first warm, sunny day we’d had in a while, and instead hit the trails the following day, when the forecast called for clouds and cool temperatures; we encountered only a few people that afternoon. 

Finally, remember that not every hike is a win. Northbridge mom of two Mandy Priore says her family had to leave a local state park earlier than planned, when the trail became too crowded with visitors. “It wasn’t enjoyable anymore,” she said. 

Nearby Rhode Island mom Elisabeth Goodson took up hiking with her family of five last spring. “We learned the hard way to start small with our hikes and not try to conquer a mountain all in one day, but to build up to it.” Last summer she and her family made the trip to Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain, and she and her husband set a goal of hiking New Hampshire’s Mount Washington together. But with COVID-19 making summer plans uncertain, they anticipate they’ll stay closer to home this year. “The plan is to keep it low-key and do great things in our area.” 

With an open mind and some fail-safe strategies, family hiking in this time of social distancing can prove to be healthy, relaxing, and fun.

Happy Trails!

All trails are labeled ‘easy’ in the AllTrails app

  • Bancroft Castle, Groton (listed on atlasobscura.com)

  • Bish Bash Falls Trail, Mt. Washington, MA (2.1 miles; listed on AllTrails)

  • Dana Commons, Gate 40 on Hardwick Rd., Petersham (7.2 miles hike or mountain bike; listed on AllTrails)

  • Gooseberry Neck, part of Horseneck Beach State Reservation in Westport (1.7 miles; listed on AllTrails)

  • Hassanamesit Woods Trail, Grafton (2.8 miles (or take a shorter cutoff); listed on AllTrails)

  • Holy Hill of Zion, Harvard (listed on atlastobscura.com)

  • John Wing Trail, Cape Cod Museum of Natural History near South Dennis (2.2 miles; listed on AllTrails)

  • Tri-State Marker, Douglas (Douglas State Forest—5.4 miles, or pick up a shorter hike to the marker in Thompson, CT—part of Airline State Park, also site of the Great East Thompson Train Wreck, (1.7miles); listed on AllTrails)

Family-friendly trails in the Bay State