Story and photos by Paige Campbell
Becoming a parent is no reason to turn in your hiking boots. Children are naturals on the trail, in fact, and as long as you adjust your expectations, there are plenty of trails that are completely doable for hikers of all sizes, and very much worth doing.
A favorite is the Molly’s Knob Trail at Hungry Mother State Park in Smyth County, Va. This 1.7-mile turnaround is challenging enough for kids to feel like they’ve earned the big payoff at the top, but short enough that even with frequent breaks for little legs, the excursion can fit into a comfortable half-day. The path is consistently wide enough to hold a child’s hand and walk side-by-side, and though it’s not paved, a sturdy jogging stroller can handle it too, with just a few narrow spots and rocky patches.
The first segment of the trail takes you on a steady climb along the edge of the forested hillside above Hungry Mother Lake. When you swing left deeper into the woods, you near the .4 mile mark where Molly’s Knob Trail intersects with the Ridge Trail, a short but steep trail that branches off to the right and connects to a trail encircling the lake.
At this junction, a wooden deck makes a good pit stop and also gives the first glimpse of the round, wooded knob itself. If your kids are very small or new to hiking, you’ve still reached a destination and a nice photo op, so there’s no shame in calling it a day at this point.
From the deck, Molly’s Knob Trail begins the next slow-but-steady ascent, flanked on both sides by poplars, red oaks and mountain laurel. After another half mile, you’ll be able to peek through the leaves to your right for a preview of the lush valley you’ll see from the top.
At 1.3 miles, take Molly’s Vista Trail when it branches left off the main trail, and follow the purple blazes up the homestretch. It gets a little steeper here; quick switchbacks have you covering a lot of altitude. But with less than a half-mile to go, even the weariest little hikers can be cheered on (or piggybacked) the rest of the way.
The summit view extends far and wide in all directions, with layers of mountaintops stretching back to the horizon. There’s space for little ones to poke around, and no steep drop-off to worry about. It’s a knob, not a cliff, so parents can relax while kids explore nearby.
Remind children that while it’s tempting to dash back down the trail, injuries are more likely on the descent. Take your time and stay together as you make your way back to the park, where a playground, swimming area, restaurant and snack bar provide plenty of options for the rest of your day. And hey, those amenities might also prove a nice incentive for reluctant hikers. There’s nothing wrong with coaxing your kids along with the promise of an ice cream sandwich at the bottom.
LENGTH: 3.4 total (1.7-mile turnaround).
DIFFICULTY: Moderate, with a few more difficult stretches.
DIRECTIONS: Take the main park road to Lake Drive and turn right. Stay on Lake Drive until it bends sharply to the left, up the hill and away from the lake. Parking is on the left, trailhead is on the right.
CONTACT INFO: Hungry Mother State Park, (276) 781-7400, dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks.
PARKING FEES: Weekdays, $2; Weekends and Holidays, $3
For tips on hiking with kids, click here.