If your kids are like mine, they’re naturally observant and curious—which can make everything from a simple walk in the woods to a challenging mountain hike an opportunity for questions. Lots of questions. We polled AMC guides on the common queries they hear from kids on the trail. We’ll leave the answer to the most common one, “Are we there yet?” up to you.
WHO PAINTED THAT TREE?
Trail blazes—or patches painted on trees, posts, and rocks—mark the way for hikers. There is a specific color system related to these blazes. “White blazes mark the entire Appalachian Trail (AT), from Georgia to Maine, ” says Sara DeLucia, an AMC program manager. “In New Hampshire’s White Mountains, blue blazes mark trails that connect to the AT. Yellow blazes mark trails that do not connect to the AT or to other connecting trails.”
If you have gone more than a quarter mile on the trail without seeing a blaze, stop and retrace your steps to make sure you haven’t missed a turn. “Different regions use different color systems, so it’s important to look at guidebooks ahead of time to know what to expect,” DeLucia says.
WHAT’S THAT SMELL?
Like nature’s scratch-and-sniff stickers, a handful of tree species are hard to ignore come spring. Wood from freshly snapped twigs of the sassafras tree smells deliciously sweet, almost like crushed citrus fruit. The black birch, appropriately nicknamed “sweet birch,” is known for the wintergreen smell released when you scrape its soft bark with a twig. Finally, the sticky buds and young leaves of the balsam poplar smell like honey as they open.
WHAT’S THAT COMMOTION?
Known for being territorial, the red squirrel will trill when hikers pass into its domain. “I love stopping and having the kids look around for the animal making the noise,” says Katie Yakubowski, a guide at AMC’s Maine Wilderness Lodges. Red squirrels love evergreen trees and are often found high up in the boreal forest. “This alone is a great way to dive deeper into understanding forest zones and animal habitats,” Yakubowski says. “Kids start seeing differences in the forest, all because of a loud red squirrel.”
WHY ARE THESE TREES BENT?
Known as krummholz, which means “crooked wood” in German, high-elevation gnarled and stunted trees are shaped by their continual exposure to harsh conditions. These trees—of various species—separate the full-height forests found at lower elevations from the true alpine regions. Severe wind, ice, and freezing temperatures can make it difficult for these trees to grow tall, so they often grow horizontally into odd, crooked shapes.
HOW OLD IS THIS MOUNTAIN?
The Appalachian Mountains formed roughly 480 million years ago, during the Ordovician Period. This mountain range spans 1,600 miles, from current-day Newfoundland, Canada, in the north to Alabama in the south. The range gets its name from the Apalachees, a tribe of American Indians who once inhabited this region. While the Appalachians are the oldest mountain chain in North America, they are babies when compared to the oldest mountains in the world. The Makhonjwa Mountains, found in Swaziland, South Africa, are a whopping 3.5 billion years old!