Winter Fun and Games
Published: June 2009
By Meg Lukens Noonan
There's more to do than ever - on, off, and all over the slopes
Hard to believe, but just a decade ago a family vacation in the snow usually meant one thing: you and the kids skied, all day, every day. Off-slope time was filled with dips in a heated pool, Scrabble games in the condo, and maybe—if you were lucky—a few laps around an ice-skating rink. These days, winter resorts offer families a far more diverse menu of outdoor activities. Dogsledding, ski jumping, animal tracking, tubing, snowmobiling . . . the list goes on and on. Meanwhile, the traditional option—skiing—has become more kid-friendly than ever. Now the trouble is finding time to squeeze in that Scrabble game.
This fast-growing sport is no longer the exclusive domain of the pierced-eyebrow set. Almost every major ski area (exceptions are Deer Valley, Alta, Aspen, and Taos) welcomes riders of all ages on its slopes. Most resorts offer instruction to anyone over age seven, though kids as young as three can enroll in group lessons at Aspen/Snowmass, and Okemo Mountain Resort in Ludlow, Vermont. At Smugglers' Notch Resort in Jeffersonville, Vermont, a Me & Mom...Me & Dad program pairs a pro with your snowboarding child (age six or older); together, they teach you how to ride. The resort also has new classes that focus on terrain-park skills for all ability levels. Like the idea of learning en famille?Mount Snow, Vermont, runs two-hour private Perfect Turn family clinics designed to get the whole clan snowboarding. Once you've all mastered the art of riding "fakie," you'll be ready to make a pilgrimage to Heavenly and Squaw Valley USA, near Lake Tahoe, California, with their deep powder, gorgeous mountain views, and top-ranked snowboard parks; to Breckenridge, Colorado, where the half-pipe and other challenges on Peak 9 draw some of the best riders in the country; or to Vermont's Stratton Mountain to join boarders swooping down the lighted half-pipe—and the very slopes where onetime bartender Jake Burton Carpenter (now president of Burton Snowboards) developed the sport in the early 1980's.
It may be loud, but once you try it you'll probably concede that it's great fun. Mountain Madness Snowmobiles in Winter Park, Colorado, introduces children to the activity with miniature snowmobiles called Snoscoots, capable of going 25 to 30 mph. Kids over 11 can ride alone on a flat 3 1/2-mile track or a tight 3/4-mile go-cart-type course. Tiger Run Tours, based in Breckenridge, has guided two-hour trips into the Arapahoe National Forest, leaving from an abandoned mining camp and climbing along the Continental Divide to 12,000 feet—where there are spectacular views of 14,000-foot peaks. Drivers must be at least 16 years old and have a valid car driver's license; younger children may ride as passengers. Yellowstone Adventures rents snowmobiles and conducts tours into Yellowstone National Park. Trails begin in the snowmobile-happy town of West Yellowstone, Montana. In Vermont, join Killington Snowmobile Tours for outings through the Green Mountains. All skill levels are welcome.
The zany idea of riding large inner tubes downhill started to appear at ski resorts three or four years ago, and caught on in a big way. This winter Vail has enhanced its mountaintop tubing course with banked turns, rolls, and jumps. One of the longest tubing runs in the country is at Lutsen Mountains Adventure Mountain Tubing Park in little Lutsen, Minnesota. Its two snaking, luge-style lanes are suitable for kids seven and up; for younger children there's a scaled-down sliding area. Fraser Valley Tubing Hill, 10 minutes outside Winter Park, Colorado, is open weekday evenings, weekend days, and holidays. Tubes can be rented by the hour. Loon Mountain in Lincoln, New Hampshire, Sugarloaf/USA in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, and Hunter Mountain in Hunter, New York, all have lit tubing runs.
downhill ski schools
In these family-conscious times, you'd be hard-pressed to find a resort that doesn't offer special ski lessons for children of all ages and abilities. Some resorts, though, raise the bar each season, with standard-setting clinics and innovative teaching tools. Among these is Vermont's Smugglers' Notch Resort, which introduces skiing to young kids using unintimidating snow play and games. Teen programs wisely start in the afternoon and extend into the evening, giving participants something to do after sundown. Even two-year-olds can take lessons when a parent joins the instructor for a Mom & Me...Dad & Me session. Self-contained Snowmass, a few miles from Aspen, gives families the ease of ski-in/ski-out lodging; broad, well-groomed trails; and enough challenging terrain to keep strong skiers happy all day. Lessons range from private instruction for children as young as 18 months to clinics for teens, such as a Too Cool for School program where 13- to 19-year-olds ski gates, compete in races, and have on-mountain picnics. Snowmass also offers a speed-skiing clinic and an opportunity to compete on a speed course one day a week for skiers ages 13 and up. Vail and its sister resort, Beaver Creek, have the largest and possibly the best ski school in the world. Skiing and snowboarding lessons include snow games, on-mountain adventures, and special skill-building themed-terrain parks with log cabins, tepees, and mine shafts. The environmentally minded instructors emphasize the area's ecology. Also tuned in to nature is the Telluride Ski & Snowboard School in Colorado. Twice weekly the school hosts Environment Day, when a visiting naturalist introduces ski school kids to wild animals, from groundhogs to mountain lions. The KidSpa program at the Peaks Resort & Spa in Telluride holds activities—hiking, sledding, snow games, and more—for children ages six months to five years.
After they turn six or so, children can quickly pick up cross-country skiing; younger kids may enjoy being pulled behind a parent in special sleds available for rent at many large touring centers. Some resorts, such as the Izaak Walton Inn, built in 1939 just outside Montana's Glacier National Park, even have kids-only tracks and lessons that incorporate games into the learning process. The Izaak Walton Cross-Country Ski Center has 19 miles of groomed trails—and access to other skiable terrain in the national park. Youngsters with some experience can join half-day guided ski tours into the park; teens and adults may prefer the daylong outings. Mont-Ste.-Anne, 25 miles east of Quebec City, has the largest Nordic system in Canada, with some 225 kilometers of trails—and seven heated shelters along the way. Children's rental equipment and group lessons are offered. Advanced skiers can make overnight treks to wilderness camps equipped with bunks, stoves, and firewood. At the turn-of-the-century Telemark Inn, a remote, Adirondack-style lodge 10 miles from the village of Bethel, Maine, guests ski on 22 kilometers of groomed trails and in unlimited backcountry terrain in the White Mountain National Forest. Everybody in the family will enjoy skijoring—in which you are pulled on skis by a well-trained team of Siberian huskies.
Bored with tooling down the groomed blue runs?Why not scare yourself silly instead?The Utah Winter Sports Park, in Park City, offers two-hour ski-jumping lessons for adults and children who are at least intermediate-level skiers. Participants use their own alpine ski gear to progress from a five-meter bump to—with the coach's consent—a 38-meter leap. Reservations are accepted. Howelsen Hill at the Winter Sports Club in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, offers recreational-jumping lessons every Tuesday evening for adults and teenagers. Jumpers provide their own equipment (helmets are required). A heated lodge at the base of the jumps provides great viewing for family members who are more timid—or more sane.
In the past few years this sport has surged in popularity, thanks to new gear that is lighter, more compact, and easier to use than the old tennis-racket-shaped shoes. Many Nordic ski centers have adults' and children's rental gear and groomed or packed snowshoe trails—including Northstar-at-Tahoe in California; Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana; lift-served McCoy Park, atop Beaver Creek ski resort in Colorado; and the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont. The Norwegian School of Nature Life in Park City, Utah, offers moonlight tours, intermediate-level treks, and fun half-day family excursions. Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vermont, can arrange a four-hour snowshoe tour (with instruction) along a portion of Vermont's border-to-border mountain trail system in the Slide Brook Wilderness area.
Need a little Christmas?Nothing captures the spirit of the season like an outing by horse-drawn sleigh. One inspiring ride takes 20 passengers into the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming, to visit North America's largest winter concentration of elk (nearly 10,000 last season). The trip departs from the National Museum of Wildlife Art, which has hands-on kids' exhibits, from mid-December through late March. Many ski resorts offer sleigh rides: at Keystone Resort in Colorado, you can board a sleigh bound for the Soda Creek Homestead—part of the original 19th-century settlement in the area—for a steak dinner and live cowboy music; at Sun Valley Resort, huge draft horses pull riders to the Trail Creek Cabin, a former hunting lodge that serves a hearty dinner. At Adams Farm in Wilmington, Vermont, sleighs carry blanket-swaddled passengers across meadows and through woodlands, stopping at a log cabin for hot chocolate, games, and player piano music before returning to the farm.
Ever picture yourself driving a team of powerful sled dogs through the frozen countryside?Gunflint Lodge in Grand Marais, Minnesota, can make that fantasy come true. During its intensive Mushing Week (participants must be at least 12 years old), you'll learn to care for and handle the dogs while making 20- to 25-mile daylong forays into the Canoe Area Wilderness. Younger kids may sample dogsledding during the lodge's Best of the North weeks, which also feature cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowman building. Adventure Quebec, at Mont-Ste.-Anne in Beaupré, organizes 11/2-hour outings in which adults learn to drive a dog team. Children ages four and up are welcome to ride along. More ambitious mushers can take a guided overnight trip with Dog Sled Adventures in Mammoth, California, which includes a scenic ride through the woods and a kennel tour, with time for puppy petting.
bobsledding & luging
Hit speeds of 70 mph or more at Utah Winter Sports Park while riding a four-man bobsled manned by a professional driver and brakeman. The mile-long ride ($125 per person) must be booked ahead; call after October 1 for this season. Passengers must be at least 16. The park also offers Rocket rides ($27) aboard recreational luges designed to reach speeds of 40 to 50 mph on the Olympic luge track. (Kids must be at least 50 inches tall to ride.) At the Lake Placid Olympic Sports Complex on Mount Van Hoevenberg in New York, half-mile or faster mile-long plunges with bobsled pros are available throughout the season ($30-$100 per person). Children must be at least 48 inches tall to ride a bobsled. Lake Placid's similar luge course has rides on modified, self-steering sleds. Vail's amusement-park-like Adventure Ridge has a brand-new track for single-rider luging. For a different kind of thrill, non-lugers can take part in the latest winter sports, from snow biking (including a guided night ride with headlamps) to snow skating with a pair of sled dogs.
If you dream of being able to tell a beagle's footprint from a beaver's, check out the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, an 1866 hotel and Nordic ski center set on 15,000 acres in northern New Hampshire's Dixville Notch. This resort offers naturalist-guided tracking expeditions in which participants ski cross-country through stands of maple and birch, keeping their eyes peeled for the tracks of pine marten, moose, and foxes. Attitash Bear Peak at Mount Washington Valley in New Hampshire will teach you and your family how to track moose, otters, mink, beavers, and deer during two-to three-hour snowshoe hikes led by a staff naturalist. Children as young as five can participate. A more challenging tracking expedition, which in springtime yields evidence of the resident bear population, leaves from the summit of Bear Peak and is for experienced snowshoers over the age of 13. The $35 fee includes snowshoe rental; reservations are suggested. Lone Mountain Ranch gives guests the opportunity to join wildlife biologists researching the effects of the newly reintroduced wolves in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park in Montana. You'll travel with the biologists to Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel in the park, then spend the next day tracking radio-tagged animals, learning about wolves, and examining wolf-killed elk. Through Telluride Ski & Golf Club in Colorado, the U.S. Forest Service runs ranger-guided snowshoe tours, taking visitors from the top of the gondola to explore the area's geology and wildlife.
When the day comes—and come it will—when it's too cold, too wet, or too windy to go outside, wouldn't you give anything to have one of these places just around the corner?The $4 million La Source Aqua Club, at Mont Tremblant, Quebec, is an indoor water park designed to resemble a Laurentian lake—with three pools, rope swings into the water, and "cliffs" to jump from. Colorado's Silverthorne Recreation Center, centrally located between Copper Mountain, Keystone, and Breckenridge, has four wonderful indoor swimming pools, including one for toddlers and one with a 140-foot corkscrew slide. Mountain World, at Whistler in British Columbia, is a huge virtual entertainment center with simulated ski, snowboard, and golf machines, and lots of video games. The Avon Recreation Center, near Beaver Creek, has a full fitness center plus a 15,000-square-foot aquatics area with lap pools, a deep diving area, and a 150-foot slide that dumps into a lazy river.
Gliding on ice in the great outdoors is one of winter's finest pleasures. So what if you spend half the time on your derrière?Squaw Valley USA takes the sport to a new level: in order to reach the ice, you must first ride the tram up to the High Camp summit recreational area (rental skates available). From the mountaintop rink, the highest in the world, you'll gaze down on Lake Tahoe. For scenery, only Chateau Lake Louise, in Alberta, can rival that—part of the frozen lake in front of the hotel is devoted to skating, cross-country skiing, and broomball (rental gear available). An ice castle serves as the rink's centerpiece; the glorious Victoria Glacier is the backdrop.
Keystone Lake, in the village at Colorado's Keystone ski resort, is the largest outdoor skating rink in North America—so big it can accommodate recreational skating at one end while a hockey game goes on at the other. Skates, pull-sleds, hockey sticks, and other gear can be rented lakeside; lessons are also available. Also in Colorado, at Beaver Creek's new village rink, on top of the subterranean Vilar Center for the Arts, skaters can warm themselves by an open-pit fireplace. Idaho's outdoor Sun Valley Skating Center, built in 1936 behind the venerable Sun Valley Lodge, is as romantic as ever, especially at night. Instruction and skate rental are available.
the ultimate snow fort
On February 13 at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vermont (802/649-2200), an Arctic explorer and U.S. Army research engineer will share his expertise in constructing snow houses. Then you and your family are invited to help cut, carry, and stack blocks of snow to build a real igloo ($5 adults, $4 children, includes museum admission).
Stop in at Sugarbush Farms (800/281-1757 or 802/457-1757; free) in Woodstock, Vermont, to see how maple-sugaring is done. Watch sap being collected by workhorses, take the Maple Walk trail, and taste fresh syrup on snow. Call first: Depending on the weather, sugaring takes place anytime from late February to mid-April.
MEG LUKENS NOONAN, a correspondent for Outside magazine, lives in New Hampshire.
Adams Farm Wilmington, Vermont; 802/464-3762.
Aspen/Snowmass Aspen, Colorado; 800/215-7669 or 970/925-1220.
Attitash Bear Peak Bartlett, New Hampshire; 800/223-7669 or 603/374-2368.
Avon Recreation Center Avon, Colorado; 970/949-9191.
Balsams Grand Resort Hotel Dixville Notch, New Hampshire; 800/255-0600 or 603/255-3400.
Beaver Creek Colorado; 800/243-8053 or 970/845-9090.
Breckenridge Colorado; 800/789-7669 or 970/453-5579.
Chateau Lake Louise Lake Louise, Alberta; 800/441-1414 or 403/522-3511.
Dog Sled Adventures Mammoth, California; 760/934-6270.
Fraser Valley Tubing Hill Winter Park, Colorado; 970/726-5954.
Gunflint Lodge Grand Marais, Minnesota; 800/362-5251 or 612/388-2294.
Heavenly Ski Resort South Lake Tahoe, California; 800/243-2836 or 702/586-7000.
Howelsen Hill Steamboat Springs, Colorado; 970/879-0695.
Hunter Mountain Hunter, New York; 800/367-7669 or 518/263-4223.
Izaak Walton Inn Essex, Montana; 406/888-5700.
Keystone Resort Keystone, Colorado; 800/354-4386 or 970/496-4386.
Killington Snowmobile Tours Killington, Vermont; 802/422-2121.
Lake Placid Olympic Sports Complex Lake Placid, New York; 800/462-6236 or 518/523-4436.
La Source Aqua Club Mont Tremblant, Quebec; 800/461-8711 or 819/681-2000.
Lone Mountain Ranch Big Sky, Montana; 800/514-4644 or 406/995-4644.
Loon Mountain Lincoln, New Hampshire; 800/229-5666 or 603/745-8111.
Lutsen Mountains Lutsen, Minnesota; 800/229-5666 or 888/616-6784 or 218/663-7281.
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel Yellowstone National Park, Montana; 307/344-7311.
McCoy Park Beaver Creek, Colorado; 800/243-8053 or 970/479-5313.
Mont-Ste.-Anne Beaupré, Quebec; 800/463-1568 or 418/827-4561.
Mountain Madness Snowmobiles Winter Park, Colorado; 970/726-4529.
Mountain World Whistler, British Columbia; 800/944-7853 or 604/932-3928.
Mount Snow West Dover, Vermont; 800/245-7669 or 802/464-3333.
National Elk Refuge Jackson, Wyoming; 307/733-9212.
Northstar-at-Tahoe Truckee, California; 800/466-6784 or 530/562-1010.
Norwegian School of Nature Life Park City, Utah; 800/649-5322 or 435/649-5322.
Okemo Mountain Resort Vermont; 802/228-4041.
Peaks Resort & Spa Telluride, Colorado; 800/772-5482 or 970/728-6800 (KidSpa 970/728-2514).
Silverthorne Recreation Center Silverthorne, Colorado; 970/262-7370.
Smugglers' Notch Resort Jeffersonville, Vermont; 800/451-8752 or 802/644-8851.
Squaw Valley USA Olympic Valley, California; 888/766-9321 or 530/583-5585.
Stratton Mountain Resort Stratton Mountain, Vermont; 800/787-2886 or 802/297-4000.
Sugarbush Resort Warren, Vermont; 800/537-8427 or 802/583-2381.
Sugarloaf/USA Carrabassett Valley, Maine; 800/843-5623 or 207/237-2000.
Sun Valley Resort Sun Valley, Idaho; 800/786-8259 or 208/622-4111.
Sun Valley Skating Center Sun Valley, Idaho; 208/622-2194.
Telemark Inn Bethel, Maine; 207/836-2703.
Telluride Ski & Golf Club Telluride, Colorado; 970/728-7525.
Tiger Run Tours Breckenridge, Colorado; 800/318-1386 or 970/453-2231.
Trapp Family Lodge Stowe, Vermont; 800/826-7000 or 802/253-8511.
Utah Winter Sports Park Park City, Utah; 800/658-4200 or 435/658-4200.
Vail Colorado; 800/278-2372 or 970/476-9090.
Yellowstone Adventures West Yellowstone, Montana; 800/231-5991 or 406/646-7735.