Our family has been taking trips to hike in national parks for the past three years. Over that time, we have loved getting to understand hiking culture. We started hiking like you start anything—unprepared, innocent, ready and able to make mistakes. Mistakes like starting a hike at the wrong end, so what is meant to be an easy descent from a peak becomes a brutal climb with no views. (No, we do not admit to doing this. And no, Husband Wally wasn’t recovering from a broken ankle when we did…not…do this.)

Or the biggest rookie mistake is thinking the length of your hike is how you decide whether you are capable of doing it—without factoring in elevation gain. If you don’t hike, just know that how much up there is in a hike is a massive indicator of how hard it will be. I still remember asking our hiking-est friends for a recommendation on a hike our kids could tolerate in 3rd and 5th grade and telling them I would guess something around 3-5 miles. Now that we have hiked more, I am shocked they didn’t burst into laughter. Since then, one of the most strenuous hikes we’ve done was just 0.4 miles—the hike to Lower Falls at Yellowstone, which is all switchbacks straight down and then up! One of the easiest physically was the Highline at Glacier from Logan Pass to the Loop—12 miles with only 800 feet of gain.

You see, hiking is a culture, and you learn things along the way. Some of the things are easy and natural to learn—like it is polite to step to the side and yield to hikers who are faster than you and approach from behind. Say hi to fellow hikers. If mom has to pee (only every half hour or so), find a quiet spot and have your husband and your children stand at the bends to tell people to hold on a second, your mom has business. Your children are willing to do this. When they refuse, you remind them that they are willing to do this because they grew inside you for 40 weeks and are the reason you have to go to the bathroom so dang much so they will do this for you as many times as it takes, dammit!

Some things you learn by getting curious, or by asking helpful experience hiking friends. These are things like, uphill hikers have the right of way. Or hydration backpacks are the best way to carry water. Or hike shapes are called out-and-back, loops, point-to-point, or lollipop. (Love so much “lollipop” as it describes so well an out-and-back with a loop in the middle.)

Over a few years of trips, we have gotten experienced enough to know which types of hikes we like and what we can handle. We’ve taken on some challenges with huge payoffs. We’ve pushed our kids to not only take on tough hikes, but to enjoy the process. We’ve learned the value of a snack stop, a steady pace, and most especially humor. We play with patterned stories and song verses to pass the time. On one hike when we were bombarded with a swarm of relentless mosquitos, WallyBen made up a very effective mosquito slapping run dance. On another, Husband Wally pulled his shorts up to his nipples and waited to see how long it would take for one of us to notice. We have fun.

The best part of hiking, for me, are the surprises. Marmots that pop out of no where. A hike where you expect just one big payoff, but it actually has views that just don’t quit. Last year, we got the surprise of a lifetime when we had to escape a moose running toward us on a trail in Glacier. Moose are now my favorite animal because of it.

This year—our third year of hiking—we went to all of Colorado’s national parks. I had my eye on one hike for our final day that would be the most challenging yet—Sky Pond Hike. It is 9.5 miles with 2,125 feet of gain, and at the end of the hike, you scramble 100 feet up a waterfall. It sounded epic, but we were unsure if we were up to the risks of this adventure.

One day toward the end of the trip, we were completing the end of a hike that chained together four beautiful lakes. We were descending toward the end of the hike when we encountered a mom and two teenage children rushing toward us.

“Have you ever had a moose come at you on a trail?!” the boy asked, eyes wide.

“Ummm, yes, yes we have,” Husband Wally answered, unsure where this was going.

“There are some coming toward us right now!” the family said, telling us that they had just seen one and have been running away from them for several hundred yards but the family of moose keeps following.

We explained the solution that we had learned last year in exactly this same scenario. Our hearts pounding, we proceeded around the bend with caution, ready to see the gorgeous, fierce giants heading our way. We peeked around and saw what was approaching: a beautiful family of mom and baby elk.

Although the threat was lowered, we led the family up into the trees at the side of the trail to let the “moose” pass. (Another hikers rule—elk, whose home we are traipsing through, have the right of way. Always yield the trail to elk.)

As they passed we explained to the family that elk, especially females with babies, likely do not want to stomp you into the ground. They are big—way bigger than deer—but also behave a lot like deer. They are more orange than moose, more gentle, and have way cuter white butts.

The family was breathing hard, pumped full of adrenaline, reminding me so much of our panic when we were in actual danger with a bull moose approaching last year. Once the elk passed, we hiked on ahead with the family trailing. As hikers passed heading in the direction of the elk, the family told them that elk may be ahead. They repeated over and over the dramatic story. They said they were being chased, they were sure they were going to die, and they are grateful to this family hiking in front of them. This family is from here, so they knew exactly what to do.

We were too shocked at their assumption to correct them. We were also extremely flattered. They looked at us and thought we were from the Rockies, that we were experienced, that we belonged there. They looked at us and saw hikers. We did a little self assessment and realized that perhaps, we were.

This validation gave us the courage to take on that epic hike the next day. And we did it—no problem. A hike had never felt so good.