Hikes with Kids, With Scavenger Hunts Along the Way!

Authors Alison Humphreys and Wendy Gorton Share Their Favorite Central VA Hikes in their New Book

The benefits of spending time outside are more crucial than ever, especially for children. With screens becoming an omnipresent part of daily life, the simple joy of being outdoors is often overshadowed. Hiking offers an excellent way to counterbalance this trend, providing incredible physical, mental, and emotional benefits for kids. 

For Authors Alison Humphreys and Wendy Gorton, their mission to make hiking accessible and welcoming for all children is clear in their new book: 50 HIKES WITH KIDS. 50 HIKES WITH KIDS features 50 of the most interesting and kid-friendly destinations in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. With its lakes, rivers, seaside dunes, and mountain trails, the mid-Atlantic region is a magnificent natural playground, and Humphreys and Gorton are the perfect guides to introduce kids to these beautiful and diverse landscapes.

By why hiking, specifically? Humphreys and Gorton’s goal for this bright, fun-filled guide is to help caregivers foster curiosity and a love of nature in kids, and that it helps raise our next generation of naturalists by putting the guidebook in their hands. According to them, experiencing the wonders all around us creates lifelong habits of seeking out adventure, appreciating the gifts nature gives us every day, and caring about keeping our natural resources clean, beautiful, and accessible for many generations to come. 

Not to mention, hiking is a fantastic way to promote physical fitness, including confidence as little legs learn to explore on their own. The varied terrain of trails strengthens muscles, improves cardiovascular health, and enhances overall stamina. For children, whose bodies are in crucial stages of growth, this kind of exercise is invaluable. It promotes healthy bone development and improves balance and coordination. Regular physical activity from an early age also sets the foundation for lifelong health and fitness habits.

Beyond the physical advantages and perhaps even more important, hiking has profound effects on mental health. The natural environment provides a break from the overstimulation of urban and digital landscapes. This shift can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and stress, which are increasingly common even among young children. The rhythmic pace of hiking allows for relaxation and mindfulness, fostering a sense of calm and well-being.

For children, spending time in nature can also stimulate creativity and imagination. The unstructured play that often accompanies hiking—whether it’s pretending a fallen log is a pirate ship or spotting shapes in the clouds—encourages cognitive development and problem-solving skills. Additionally, the sense of achievement they feel after completing a hike boosts their self-esteem and confidence.

50 HIKES WITH KIDS is designed to equip caregivers with the tools they need to spark a love of adventure in children. The book, which will be available on-sale starting July 9, 2024, features easy-to-read trail maps, intuitive directions, elevation and length details for every hike, restroom information, and places to grab a snack nearby. Plus, scavenger hunts for each trail make it fun for even the youngest trekkers to learn about local flora, fauna, and geology. Hikes include the Alapocas Run, the Calvert Cliffs, Theodore Roosevelt Island, the Blue Ridge Tunnel, and Harpers Ferry—including a few well-loved hikes in our area.

Navigate Your Way Along Crabtree Falls

Length: 3.7 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 1,086 ft.
Hike Time + Explore: 2.5 hours
Difficulty: Challenging—a longer trek on a packed-earth path with high elevation gain
Season: Year-round; best during fall foliage.
Get There: From milepost 27 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, take VA-56 east for 6.6 miles and follow the signs to Crabtree Falls to the parking lot.
Google Maps: View Here
Restroom: At trailhead
Fee: $3 per vehicle
Treat Yourself: Grab some pre-hike snacks at Montebello Country Store, a couple miles east on VA-56.

Blue Ridge Parkway, George Washington National Forest
(434) 263-7015, (540) 291-2188
Facebook @BlueRidgeNPS

Your Adventure
Adventurers, today we will climb over 1,000 feet of elevation to see the waterfall with the highest vertical drop east of the Mississippi River. We’ll travel through the historical homelands of the Monacan, Shawnee, and Occaneechi. The falls is named after William Crabtree, who settled in this area in 1777. The first overlook is just a few hundred feet from the parking lot, along a paved trail. Take it if you like, then come back to the paved path and take a right to follow the Crabtree Falls Trail, a packed-earth but slightly rocky trail. Continue along the trail, passing another overlook over the lower section of the falls. Wind your way along the trail’s inclines and switchbacks until you reach a third overlook for the top of the lower falls. Next, arrive at the base of the middle falls, a single drop of about 90 feet. Wind up the mountain until you reach the base of the upper falls and a fourth overlook. This is a strenuous hike, so power up on benches at the overlooks and vistas over the Tye River Valley. At the top, cross a bridge and enjoy amazing views from the summit and surrounding area, called Crabtree Meadows. When ready, retrace your steps back down. Want more? Camp at the Crabtree Falls Campground afterward.

Scavenger Hunt
Pear-shaped puffball
Can you spot these mushrooms? They grow in large clusters on decaying wood from July to November. While the outside is yellow to brown, the inside is pure white, like a marshmallow. How many mushrooms can you count on one log?

Apioperdon pyriforme (pyriforme is Greek for pear-shaped)
Image Credit: Alison Humphreys and Wendy Gorton

Wood fern
Did you know ferns are among the oldest plants on Earth, first developing hundreds of millions of years ago? Wood ferns like to live in forests, fields, and wet areas and thrive in moist, rich, well-drained soil. They can even grow on rock surfaces in moist, shady woods. Look underneath a frond to find their spores, which help them reproduce.

Genus Dyrpteris on top of boulder and steps
Image Credit: Alison Humphreys and Wendy Gorton

Mantleslug
This is a species of mollusk. It got its name because the mantle (the outer wall of the body) is unusually large and covers the entire dorsal (top) surface. They consume fungus and can often be found beneath loose bark on downed trees after it rains. Gently peek under some logs or branches to see if you can spot one!

Philomycus has smooth, shiny skin
Image Credit: Alison Humphreys and Wendy Gorton

Crabtree Falls
This falls is commonly referred to as the tallest waterfall in the East, but that is not really accurate, since it is actually a series of smaller waterfalls. There are three sections—can you spot them all? The lowest section is the tallest and has many drops; the middle section is a single drop through a crevice; and the upper features the largest single drop, over a massive 60-foot cliff.

Cemetery
Betsy and Achilles Fitzgerald raised ten children at Crabtree Falls. They lived in a one-room log cabin several hundred yards east of where these tombstones are located. The trail you are hiking takes you through the same areas where the Fitzgerald family once lived and worked. What chores would you need to do each day if you lived in a small cabin in the woods?

Pioneer graves—can you read the inscriptions?
Image Credit: Alison Humphreys and Wendy Gorton

Meander Along Blackwater Creek

Length: 5.6-mile lollipop loop
Elevation Gain: 279 ft.
Hike Time + Explore: 2.5 hours
Difficulty: Moderate—a longer hike on packed-earth and paved paths with mild elevation
Season: Year-round; best in fall for foliage.
Get There: Take Langhorne Road in Lynchburg to where it intersects with Old Langhorne Road. The Awareness Garden parking lot is on the east side of the road, and the trailhead is at the far end.
Google Maps: View Here
Restroom: At trailhead
Fee: None
Treat Yourself: Cookie skillets await you at Rookie’s, just a few minutes north on Norfolk Avenue.

Blackwater Creek Natural Area
(434) 455-5858
Facebook @lynchburgparks

Your Adventure
Adventurers, today we will meander along the winding Blackwater Creek, through a forest, over a suspension bridge, and under an old railroad bridge on the historical homelands of the Monacan and Occaneechi. Begin by walking past the Awareness Garden (a special garden for those whose lives have been affected by cancer) on the flat, paved Blackwater Creek Trail, and soon turn right onto the packed-earth Elk Trail. Go over a small wooden bridge, turn left for the Creekside Trail, and go over the Upstream Swinging Bridge. Hike past a bend in the woods along the side of the creek, crossing a few rock scrambles; you will see the Downstream Bridge on the left. Continue winding through the woods, passing under a railroad bridge overhead before arriving at Six Mile Bridge and then Blackwater Bridge. Turn left to cross over the bridge. After exploring and having a power-up stop, follow Blackwater Creek Trail all the way back to the trailhead.

Scavenger Hunt
Upstream Swinging Bridge
This long, swinging suspension bridge sits high over Blackwater Creek. Don’t be nervous—we know this bridge is tough because it was the only bridge in the park to survive a 2018 flood! In fact, three other bridges that were destroyed during the flood are being rebuilt and modeled after the design of this bridge.

Do you dare walk across this swinging suspension bridge?
Image Credit: Alison Humphreys and Wendy Gorton

Inky cap
Look for these mushrooms—they start off a whitish-cream color and darken as they age. Over time, their caps go from being bell-shaped to flat. Then their flesh begins to ooze into a black goo that, amazingly, can be used as ink for writing! Would you ever write with ink from a mushroom?

Coprinus atramentarius grows on wood
I
mage Credit: Alison Humphreys and Wendy Gorton

Sycamore tree
Look up on this trail and you might be able to spot a sycamore tree—the largest species of deciduous tree in the eastern United States. The bark has a camouflage pattern consisting of a grayish-brown outer bark that peels off in patches to expose the light-gray-to-white wood underneath. Rip a piece of paper out of your nature journal, hold it over the bark, and use your pen or pencil to make a rubbing.

Identify Platanus occidentalis by its seed balls that fall to the ground in spring
Image Credit: Adina Munteanu

Six Mile Bridge
You will get to walk under the Norfolk Southern Six Mile Bridge No. 58, also known as the Six Mile Bridge. This is a historical Pratt truss railroad bridge that was originally constructed around 1853. This massive structure is 1,860 feet long and 150 feet high and was part of the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Would you want to ride a train across this high bridge?

Trestle bridge above part of the trail
Image Credit: Alison Humphreys and Wendy Gorton

Black rat
Look closely in the woods and you might be able to spot this mammal with relatively large ears and a tail that is nearly always longer than its body. Since the black rat is an agile climber, it often lives in high places, such as trees in forested areas. It mostly feeds on fruit, grain, cereals, and other vegetation.

Rattus rattus has an average lifespan of one year
Image Credit: Carlos Aranguiz

Make Your Way Around Bear Creek Lake

Length: 3.8-mile loop
Elevation Gain: 174 ft.
Hike Time + Explore: 2 hours
Difficulty: Moderate—packed-earth path and mild elevation, but a longer hike
Season: Year-round; best in summer for swimming at the beach.
Get There: From US -60 in Cumberland, take Forest View Road north 3.3 miles and turn right on Oak Hill Road. After 0.9 miles, turn right on Bear Creek Lake Road. Park at the beach parking lot.
Google Maps: View Here
Restroom: At the beach
Fee: $7 per vehicle
Treat Yourself: Enjoy a dragon fruit lemonade and a scone from the Cumberland Coffee Co., just off US -60 on Stony Point Road.

Bear Creek Lake State Park
(804) 492-4410
Facebook @vaspbearcreeklake

Your Adventure
Adventurers, today we will hike around a man-made lake in Cumberland State Forest on the historical homelands of the Occaneechi and Monacan. You will walk along the water and through the forest for much of the hike, giving you the opportunity to see many species of birds and wildlife. Consider bringing your bathing suit and taking a dip at the designated beach area by the trailhead, or cast a fishing line—the lake is filled with many types of fish. There are also two playgrounds along the path. Start on the Channel Cat Loop by the beach area, heading south. Trek on wood stairs, go over a small wood bridge, and turn right on the Lakeside Connector Trail. Hike until you reach the Kestrel Trail. Turn right to stay on the Lakeside Connector Trail and cross a long wood bridge over several streams. Turn right as you continue to loop around the lake. At the intersection with a dirt road, turn right on the road, then quickly turn right to stay on the Lakeside Trail. Scramble over some rocks before turning right at the Lost Barr Loop and walk across two small wooden bridges. Next, leave the trail, turn right, and walk in the grass along Oak Hill Road—be sure to keep little explorers close by. Take the next right on Bear Creek Lake Road, head into the parking lot, and take the Channel Cat Loop again. Walk over three more small wood bridges, turn right, and you will arrive back at the trailhead. Reward your feet at the end by soaking them in the lake! Happy here? Consider camping at one of the state park’s campsites.

Scavenger Hunt
Beaver
Have you heard the phrase “busy as a beaver”? Beavers are very busy at night—one beaver alone can chew through an 8-foot-thick tree trunk in just 5 minutes! You might not spot a live beaver on your hike, but look for evidence of them—such as tree trunks like this.

Tree trunks chewed by Castor canadensis
Image Credit: Alison Humphreys and Wendy Gorton
Alison Humphreys and Wendy Gorton

Fly agaric mushroom
This is of the most recognizable fungi in the world, due to its distinctive red cap and white stalk. They are usually found growing beneath pines, spruces, or birch trees between late summer and early winter. They are toxic for humans to eat, but some animals, like red squirrels and slugs, can eat them.

Amanita muscaria is a gilled mushroom
Image Credit: Alison Humphreys and Wendy Gorton

Hairy woodpecker
Try to spot this small but powerful bird foraging along trunks and the main branches of large trees. The hairy woodpecker has a long, almost thornlike bill that it uses to tear off bark and drill holes in search of insects. Its search creates a wavy pattern—can you see traces of this bird’s presence on any nearby trees?

Dryobates willosus makes smaller holes than larger species of woodpeckers
Image Credit: K Quinn Ferris

Christmas fern
Can you find a frond of one of these ferns? The frond has a stalk (like a stem), and its little fingerlike leaves are called pinnae. They grow opposite each other along the stem. Since they can be found all year long, including in winter, they are often used for decorating holiday wreaths, hence the name “Christmas fern.” Have you ever decorated your home for the holidays with this fern?

Taken from 50 Hikes with Kids: Virginia and Maryland© Copyright 2024 by Alison Humphreys and Wendy Gorton. Published by Timber Press. All rights reserved.

Find 50 HIKES WITH KIDS, out on July 9.

About the Authors

Alison Humphreys holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology and is a college professor and licensed psychotherapist in private practice. She has made a career of helping individuals and families improve their quality of life and has spoken at several national conventions on the topics of mental health and education. Alison homeschools her four young children, with an emphasis on hands-on, child-led learning and unstructured time in nature.

Wendy Gorton holds a master’s degree in learning technologies and is a former classroom teacher. She is a global education consultant who has traveled to more than fifty countries to design programs, build communities, and inspire other educators to do the same. 

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