This is an archived article that was published on in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Pointing this out can elicit a fair bit of defensiveness among national park advocates, but I think it's important to note: National parks have a lot of rules.

I have disagreed with some recreation experts who argue those rules should be relaxed a little bit in order to better engage children in the national parks. And while I still hold my position, I have to admit that I can feel the strictness more now that I am a parent.

Of all the parks I've visited with my daughter in our yearlong tour, Arches was the first one where I really felt the tension between kid-fun and preservation. That's because there is a particularly sensitive, ever-present hazard at Arches: Cryptobiotic soil.

That's the black, crystalline layer you find on the ground in desert conditions. It is home to organisms that support desert life through extreme conditions and prevents erosion. It takes many years to establish and is extremely fragile.

It's not just at Arches; it is all over the high desert. But Arches is where we found it most in places where my daughter Saskia reeeeeeally wanted to explore. Turns out it is not so easy to convince a 2-year-old to stay on the trail. Our first hike, to Broken Arch, required multiple false starts as we marched repeatedly back to the car. Time-outs were issued. Bribes were offered. I concocted an elaborate fantasy about how cryptobiotic soil is actually a large city of tiny fairy houses, and if she steps on it, she'll kill the fairies.


I can see this dispute from her perspective, truly I can. Here I had told her we were going to a "park," and not only were there no swings or slides, she couldn't even play freely outside as children do. I also struggled not to be thrilled that she wanted to explore. That's the love. That's the addiction. That's the whole point.

But seriously, kid, you cannot step on biological soil crust. There is no way to explain this so it makes sense to a toddler. "One footprint will crush an ecosystem that took decades to develop" is unlikely to persuade a child who wants to kill fairies.

Redirection, the parenting books advise. OK. That's a better option than spending an entire trip in the parking lot.

We just needed to find a less sensitive place to climb around. Fortunately, just south of the hike is Sand Dune Arch, which is like a playground on Mars. The patches of black soil crust there are disperse enough to seem special rather than restrictive.

It's easy to feel like the heavy when you take a kid to the great outdoors only to find yourself reciting a soliloquy of prohibitions. "You can't walk there. Don't pick that flower. Put down that rock. No forts allowed. Stop feeding the chipmunk. Those twigs can't go in the campfire. Yes, I know you were trying to help, but you'll have to put them back."

When we saw a pair of cute snowmen on a rock next to the trail during a brief snow accumulation at Arches, I realized I had reached my capacity for policing with the thought: "Yikes, are snowmen allowed?"

But after 12 national parks, I've learned these two things from Saskia:

1. She internalized each new rule quickly, forgot about the initial disappointment, and had a lot of fun. I was the only one who ever worried that following the rules would be a persistent drag.

2. It was worth anticipating the need to divert her attention from whatever isn't allowed. I learned to be ready with the promise of something even more funĀ­ — a rock to climb on, a stream to play in, an animal to search for, a Junior Ranger badge to earn. Just offering a snack usually was an adequate distraction.

I don't think we, the public, can decide to give certain places the highest level of protection and then be cavalier about visitor impact. Consistency is important, not just for 2-year-olds.

Besides, there is plenty of fun to be had without killing the fairies.

National Park Hike: Broken Arch Loop in Arches

This hike is great for families, especially during cooler seasons; there isn't much shade outside of the fins of Devils Garden, so it is quite hot in summer. I did the hike clockwise to teach my daughter about the fragile soil, though going counterclockwise would have given her a chance to climb around first. If you only want to do half of the hike, the southern half (counterclockwise) is more interesting — but the trailhead to the south is harder to find. You can find more details in our Hike of the Week. A map of the trail is available on Google Maps.

Previous national park trip reports

12 Months of National Parks — No. 1, Acadia: Small children love nature, but on their own level

12 Months of National Parks — No. 2, Capitol Reef: 'People shouldn't be here'

Find more Utah hikes in our trail database:

—Erin Alberty

Twitter: @erinalberty