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Hiking with kids on the Westwind Trail at Helen Putnam Regional Park

Tips for hiking with kids in Sonoma County parks

By Tina Luster

Thought your hiking days were on hold once you became a parent? Think again!

Sonoma County’s Regional Parks provide plenty of safe and doable adventures for little ones of all ages. And when it comes to enjoying the outdoors, we believe there’s no such thing as too young. Getting youngsters into nature now makes them more likely to enjoy the outdoors later — and to become lifelong fans and stewards of our natural resources.

Still, taking small children places requires special consideration, and park trails are no exception. So we’ve put together a few tips to help families prepare.

Choose Your Adventure

Child running on West County Trail

The first step is knowing where to go. Two of Sonoma County’s kid-friendly and centrally located parks are Riverfront Regional Park near Windsor and Ragle Ranch Regional Park in Sebastopol. Both offer flat trails, varied terrain and convenient restrooms. Riverfront has redwood groves and beautiful lake views. Ragle Ranch has an excellent playground, grassy fields and shady picnic spots.

For the youngest of the younger set — babies and small toddlers — strollers may be a necessity, and that means smooth non-graded trails are probably best, like those at Spring Lake Regional Park in Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley Regional Park in Glen Ellen. These flat, paved trails are ideal for strollers, and for antsy toddlers to climb out and explore on two feet. For a full list of accessible county trails, including West County Regional Trail and Cloverdale River Park’s paved one-mile trail through riparian forest, visit our Find a Park page and click on “Accessible Areas.”

When it comes to meeting up with friends at parks, better playgrounds make for better playdates. Besides Ragle Ranch Regional Park, Taylor Mountain Regional Park in Santa Rosa has an outstanding new playground called Red Tail Play Area. Meet up there before or after a hike, and the kids will sleep soundly that night. Maxwell Farms Regional Park in Sonoma also has a large playground and easy access to a nature trail along Sonoma Creek.

Pack With Love

Father hiking with child in backpack

Parents usually remember to bring the basics: water, snacks, layered clothing, hats, blankets, etc. They may also want to bring a towel and change of clothes to leave in the car, especially for kids who like to splash in a stream, stomp in a mud puddle or just generally get dirty.

For children still in diapers, bring something to pack out the dirty diapers. (If the park’s trash containers are full, please don't stack your trash on top; instead take your trash home to throw away.)

Kids giving you push-back? Don’t want to go? Here’s a tip: depending on the child’s age, a little buy-in can go a long way. For example, letting your child help with preparations by picking favorite snacks, choosing which hat to wear, perhaps packing their own little backpack, and so on, can generate enthusiasm with fickle youngsters.

Safety First

Family hiking at Tolay Lake Regional Park

For highly mobile kids, the biggest danger while hiking on trails is getting separated. To guard against this, we recommend clipping a safety whistle onto each person’s shirt, jacket or backpack. Make sure your children know what to do if they become separated: Stay put and blow the whistle! You might have them practice at home first, giving three sharp bursts, for example, as a signal.

When packing, why not throw in a small first aid kit for unexpected boo-boos. Make sure it includes tweezers for splinters and bandages for blisters. On hot days, be sure to bring extra water and sunscreen.

Pathways to Fun

Child looking at wildflowers at Crane Creek Regional Park

For kids and families who love games, Sonoma County Regional Parks has created free, bilingual, family-friendly scavenger hunts and quests available for download. Print out copies for every family member. These quests help families identify plants, animals and other features they might see along the trail.

Note that every park in the Regional Parks system has its own web page with downloadable maps. Older kids can use these to learn the basics of map reading. Older kids also may want to bring binoculars, cameras or guidebooks to help spot and identify the wildlife they see. Our wildflower guide is useful to have on hand during wildflower season.

Above all, embracing a spirit of flexibility will make your outings more enjoyable for everyone. We believe it’s best to let young kids set the pace when hiking (even if that means “hiking” is more like “exploring”) and to try not to do too much too soon. The more fun they have this time, the more likely they’ll want to return — leading to an enjoyable new routine for the entire family.

Know Before You Go:

Tina Luster is a marketing specialist for Sonoma County Regional Parks.

Published: June 2021