Nature Detectives Kids Club

We’re not hiking…we’re solving mysteries here.

The first rule of hiking with kids is this: Never say “hike.” It’s a four-letter word. So earlier this week, when I took the kids on a hike to Walden Ponds, I told them we were going on an adventure. An outdoor nature treasure hunt. Arghhhhh! They were gung ho. It just so happens that Boulder County open space has created the perfect program to help parents finagle kids onto the trail. The Nature Detectives Kids’ Club, designed for kids 11 and under, gets families outside exploring nature.

At open space trailheads throughout Boulder County, you’ll find boxes filled with the program’s Mystery Guides. The colorful pamphlets have puzzles, activities, games, and questions about the area. We brought along pencils, picked up our mystery guides, and headed down the new boardwalk that snakes around Cottonwood Marsh. (Note: when we went, the boardwalk wasn’t yet completed. It should be open by July 2012.)

I was instantly in love with the program. The first activity was to walk quietly for five minutes and write down six nature sounds. It was so peaceful. I had my three kids plus a friend along. I can’t remember when I’ve been with four elementary-aged kids who’ve been quiet for five consecutive seconds, never mind minutes. (Well, it was mostly quiet. My older son griped that his sister had written down “Plane Noise” as one of her nature sounds. “That does not count!”)

Checking out a leopard frog.

In the hunt for animal homes (one of the activities), we found a bird’s nest in a tree and mama bird with a plump juicy worm in her beak. I’m certain that if we’d just been hiking along we wouldn’t have been looking up in the trees and we would have missed it.  The activity got us really looking and listening to nature. We also found snake holes, ant mounds, and the burrow of something truly large.  Possibly a R.O.U.S., or “rodent of unusual size.”

The vibrant wetlands at Walden ponds are the legacy of gravel mining operations that began here in 1958. Once the gravel mining pits were scraped down to bedrock, they were abandoned in the 1970s. As part of the reclamation program, rocks were piled up around the old pits and into islands. Water filled the ponds, cattails and cottonwoods grew up around the banks, and now the ponds are teeming with wildlife.

It’s an incongruous place. Abutting the 113 acres of wildlife habitat is a waste-water treatment plant to the north and mountains of gravel piled up to the south. It’s near Boulder’s airport, so planes regularly fly overhead. But if you can look past the surroundings, the ponds themselves are an incredible bounty of nature. Every time I’ve taken the kids, we’ve had memorable wildlife encounters: muskrats, snakes, great blue herons. The animals don’t seem to mind the waste-water treatment plant—nor do the kids.

Old snags and young hikers at Walden Ponds.

During this outing, we found leopard frogs, tadpoles, small bass, dragonflies, and water striders on the shores of Sawhill ponds. As part of another Nature Detective activity, we sat still for five minutes and each child counted the number of birds they spotted. We saw yellow-headed blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds, killdeer, and LBB’s (little brown birds). Later we saw a pod of white pelicans.

Back at the trailhead, the kids popped the pamphlets into a metal collection box. Once they fill out three Mystery Guides at different open spaces, the county will send them a prize. My son’s friend suggested it might be a DS. I think not. It’ll be something they can use as detectives of nature. A magnifying glass or a bug box. We ended up hiking for some two hours around the ponds, exploring and discovering along the way. The kids connected to nature in a way they wouldn’t have if we’d simply been on a hike. Now they’re hounding me to go on our next Nature Detective adventure. We’ll be going soon, and we’ll be wearing our hiking boots.

Here are the nine Boulder County open space sites where you’ll find the program. At the Nature Detectives Kids Club page, there’s info on each area and pdf’s of the Mystery Guide pamphlets.

Detectives with their Mystery Guides at Walden Ponds.

1. Agricultural Heritage Center

2. Betasso Preserve

3. Caribou Ranch Open Space

4. Carolyn Holmberg Preserve

5. Meyers Homestead Trail at Walker Ranch

6. Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat

7. Heil Valley Ranch

8. Mud Lake Open Space

9. Pella Crossing Open Space



  1. Pascale Fried says:

    What a great story about the Nature Detective Club!

  2. Love your story! My kids love being Nature Detectives too. It is such a great way to get them to appreciate nature and get them moving on the trail…and they don’t even realize they are hiking! Because of this program, I believe they now are always more observant of what is going on around them, which is cool. I didn’t know Mud Lake is one. We’ll have to get to that!

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