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Winter Fun and Games

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.

cross-country skiing
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.

ski jumping
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.

sleigh riding
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.


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