Fall Hiking | Kids VT | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published November 1, 2011 at 4:00 a.m.

There's no reason to pack it in for the year just because the state parks have closed their gates. Even in the off-season, trails are open for walking and snowshoeing with children. With a few added layers and safety precautions specific to hunting season, cool-weather hiking offers unique benefits.

My favorite: not having to fend off swarms of stinging insects. In these cooler months, you can experience nature DEET-free.

And because the bare trees expose the changing forest and its inhabitants, "you are likely to see deer and other woodland animals more easily than in the summer," said Rochelle Skinner of Vermont's Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation. "Watching squirrel behavior is quite amusing."

A note of caution, though: Hunters benefit from that exposure, too, and they're all over the Vermont woods in November, shooting bear, deer and wild turkey. That means you need to dress your kids in orange, prevent them from bounding ahead and be prepared to explain that rifle report when they ask, "What was that?"

Twin 3-1/2-year-olds William and Wesley and their mother, Jennifer, joined my 9-year-old son and me recently to explore the Groton State Forest Nature Trail. The dynamic Ws took turns finding red and blue trail blazes along the self-guided 0.6-mile loop.

We examined mossy rocks and waxy-looking mushrooms and took turns guessing who might be living down the deep, dark holes we found. A giant glacial boulder captivated us; it was covered on all but one side with lichen, moss and other plants.

Our best evidence of animal life was a large pile of owl "pellets" that Jennifer eagerly pulled apart to reveal the bones of a recently consumed rodent. The kids loved hearing about how owls regurgitate their prey.

The winter months are the best time to spot moose, which move to higher elevations, and members of the weasel family such as ermines and minks, according to the state's conservation education coordinator Rebecca Phelps.

"One of the very best treats about winter wildlife is the tracking," Phelps said. "This is the only time when you can reliably see what animals have been there before you."

We didn't see any moose or mink on our hike, so we might try it again when the trail is dusted with a thin layer of fresh snow.

"Fit Families" is a monthly feature that offers easy and affordable ways to stay active. Got an idea for a future FF? Email us at ideas@kidsvt.com. Kristin Fletcher is a former sports editor for the St. Albans Messenger and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus who lives in Cabot. She has two children, 12 and 9, and works for Re-Bop Records.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.