Nina Palmo knows disasters. Small ones, at least. Growing up in Finland and later in Michigan, she spent much of her leisure time with friends and extended family around one campfire or another, which meant experiencing all the highs and lows of nature’s whims: gorgeous sunsets and magical stargazing along with temperatures that drop and rain that dampens the fire. “Sometimes the mosquitoes were terrible,” she says. “Sometimes our tent collapsed.” Palmo, who now lives in Austin, has encountered plenty of hurdles as she’s trekked all over Texas with her two kids, ages ten and twelve. “At the time, it’s like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe this is happening,’ ” she says, “but some of the best memories are formed when you are up against the challenge, and you struggle a little bit, and you figure it out, and you overcome it. Those lessons in resilience turn a little bit of a disaster into a fun experience—or at least a good story.”
In her recently released book, 50 Hikes With Kids: Texas, coauthored with Wendy Gorton, Palmo revels in all the adventures that come with the family hike, sharing advice on where to go, what to bring, and when to start. In effect: right away.
When the kids are babies, she told me, strap them onto your back and take them out into the neighborhood to get them accustomed to seeing nature. When they’re toddlers, take them out and let them climb on rocks and logs and make a mess. (Start with very short walks, she suggests, so they want to return.) In elementary school, bring them to the same spot at various points during the year so they can enjoy it during different seasons and feel a sense of stewardship over the land. As they get older, in their preteens and teens, it becomes more important to bring friends along, as well as to get buy-in ahead of time. Teens can help decide where to go and prepare for the trip, predicting scenarios that might throw a wrench in the fun (don’t forget to bring a pack of cards, for example, if rain or heat might force you to stay inside). Adolescents may also want to focus their own hiking experiences around their interests, whether those are journaling, history, geology, waterfalls, or dinosaurs.
And always, always bring snacks—preferably unusual ones that the kids don’t get every day. If that rain cloud starts pouring, you may need some extraspecial treats to save the trip. Palmo shares a few of her favorite hikes below.
40 Acre Lake Trail, Brazos Bend State Park
Location: South of Houston
Length: 1.4-Mile loop
This trail has one major attraction going for it: alligators. When Palmo and her kids visited, six-to-eight-inch baby alligators wandered around, with a mother alligator usually waiting nearby, her eyes poking out of the water. Note: this is not a hike for toddlers, who might like to wander toward the pretty alligator—better for them to try one of the park’s guided events. “What nature brings is sometimes unexpected,” Palmo says. “Just remember, we’re one of the species on earth. And sometimes you give the other ones the right of way.”
Limestone Ledge Trail, Dinosaur Valley State Park
Location: Glen Rose
Length: 2-Mile loop
Imagine primordial monsters including Acrocanthosaurus and the twenty-ton Paluxysaurus jonesi walking through the riverbed as you walk the Limestone Ledge Trail. Drought conditions in the past few years have led to the discovery of more uncovered tracks that are usually hidden by the Paluxy River. “How often do you get to see a real dinosaur track?” Palmo says. “My kids loved it.”
Lone Star Hiking Trail, Sam Houston National Forest
Location: North of Houston
Length: 2.4 Miles round trip
Palmo isn’t suggesting you take on the entire Lone Star Hiking Trail, which, at 128 miles, is the longest continuously marked and maintained footpath in Texas, winding through Sam Houston National Forest. For little legs, she suggests an approachable section from trailhead eleven toward Double Lake Recreation Area, to give kids a taste of what’s possible. “I’ll also give a plug for out-and-back trails for younger kids,” she says. A loop can seem interminable. It’s easier for them to conceptualize a walk to a lake, as on this hike.
Unofficial Dune Hike, Monahans Sandhills State Park
Length: 1.3-Mile loop
Because of the sand dunes, the landscape changes with the wind on this unofficial hike. There’s no marked trail, but two landmarks will guide your way. Start at the Pump Jack Picnic Area. “Climb to the top of the dunes and head right (southeast),” writes Palmo in the book. “You’ll soon spot the windmill at the Sandhills Picnic Area. Stay on the dune crests and walk to the windmill. When you get there, follow the dune crests around back to the pump jack.” Sledding down the dunes will be the highlight for many families. Bring plastic sleds from home, or rent them at the visitors center.
Rock Garden Trail, Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Length: 5 Miles round trip
In the second-largest canyon in the United States, after the Grand Canyon, Palmo likes this ambitious hike, which starts at the bottom of the canyon and climbs 777 feet to the rim. More appropriate for preteens and teens, she says, “it’s a cool accomplishment that they can check off the list.”
Turkey Pass Trail, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
Location: Near Austin and San Antonio
Length: 3.1-Mile loop
This hike on the massive pink granite dome takes walkers around the Enchanted Rock summit, and they can head straight to the top—or skip it if they’re not feeling energetic. On a misty morning, the view of the Hill Country is otherworldly, as though you’re wandering on Mars.