Travel: Colorado with kids

A little planning can make for a family vacation minus the cliche food and activities.

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POSTOctober 6, 2013 

I should feel a palpable excitement as I sift through the dirt mere yards from the spot where paleontologists unearthed a trove of mastodon and other Ice Age fossils just three years ago. At the least, I should be basking in serenity as I conduct said sifting on a wildflower-laden hillside, in cloudless, 80-degree mid-July sunshine in the mountains above Aspen, Colo.

But I am annoyed, on hands and knees against my will, delaying my chief goal of the outing — reaching the 9,183-foot summit of the Rim Trail — in hopes of finding a piece of Lego, which is, like so much of the detritus running through my fingers, tiny and brown.

My 4-year-old son, Kai, was riding in a backpack playing with “Star Wars” figurines that my wife, Cathleen, and I had implored him to leave behind, for this precise reason. He dropped two pieces; we’ve found one.

But by now we know. We arrived in the mountains of Colorado — the three of us plus Kai’s 19-month-old sister, Christina, for four days each in Steamboat Springs and Aspen — with a concession and a conviction: With young children in tow, we won’t have the vacation of our (or anyone else’s) dreams.

But neither will we consign ourselves to a typical “family” vacation of pay-to-play attractions, fabricated environs and repulsive “kid-friendly” food. Heck no! We will immerse ourselves in nature, relax on our terms, eat with refinement, and the kids will love it all. Or so we keep telling ourselves.

DAYLONG MENTAL HEALTH BREAK

The town of Aspen sits in a valley about 160 miles west of Denver, in the foothills of the Elk Mountains. Aspen’s ski-and-summer resort areas are spread over four mountains, one rising straight from town, and the others — Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass — tucked into successive valleys to the west.

We’re staying in Snowmass, in a slope-side condo at 8,209 feet. Snowmass has its own village, which has just about everything you need but doesn’t begin to compare with Aspen, which also has everything you’d want.

On Day 3, weary after six days of balancing full family fun with fleeting, one-at-a-time mental health breaks, Cathleen and I hit the selfish button and drop both kids off at the on-site day camp. Liberated, we drive down a dirt road, descend into enveloping forest and set out on foot along the East Snowmass Creek trail. The narrow path rises through Aspen groves and mature pines, eventually affording overlooks of the creek as it trundles out of the high peaks.

We exchange long sentences without interruption, clock brisk miles of trail and worry not one bit about whose nose needs wiping or who might tumble off a cliff. In three hours, we see three other hikers. As the trail breaks into alpine meadows, two cowboys on horseback barrel past, each also leading a mule laden with supplies for a backcountry trip.

After returning, with 90 minutes before the kid camp’s witching hour of 4 p.m., I decide that I want to rent a mountain bike. In many places, this would entail a drive to a bike shop, a long transaction and directions to a distant trail. But here it’s a five-minute walk from the condo to Snowmass village, a 10-minute transaction and a short ride to the buttery on-mountain single-track.

A gasping climb and white-knuckle descent deliver me to the camp, where Kai is bubbling about his “new school” and “all of my new friends,” with whom he has planned his next birthday party, at Camp Aspen/Snowmass.

A BABY ON THE RIVER

We have friends who say that it isn’t worth the hassle and expense to haul little kids on these types of vacations, that they can’t tell Rock Creek Park from Rocky Mountain National Park, that we should shelve our own vacationing needs until the kids are older.

And then we have friends like Kurt.

“We took our kids through some pretty stout whitewater when they were that age,” he says, nodding at Christina as we tighten her life jacket on the banks of the Colorado River, 90 minutes outside Steamboat. “In retrospect, it’s a little scary.”

I strongly recommend acquiring a friend like Kurt. His house sits on a few acres outside Steamboat. He has good taste in music, coffee and beer. And his garage contains all manner of kid and adult toys, including rafts and kayaks. Today, we’re running a section of river that will, thanks to a feeble snow year, feature only playful rapids. And we’re doing this under the very nonchalant guidance of Kurt’s buddy Mike, who has decades of experience guiding river trips.

After some minor mayhem at the put-in — readying gear while Christina toddles amid the rafts, tubes and fly-fishing flat boats entering the water — we push off. Cathleen, the kids and I are by ourselves in an inflatable pontoon craft called a Shredder. Kurt and his 12-year-old son, Pablo, are paddling kayaks. Mike is piloting a raft with his girlfriend, Kurt’s daughter and his college-age niece and her friend.

As the put-in recedes behind us, it hits me that we are committed to three-plus hours on a river and that if the kids hate it, we’re stuck. But they love it, and our highest drama comes when the Shredder hits a rock (who is steering this thing?) and threatens, briefly, to flip over before it spins back into the current and harmlessly downstream.

The river winds through an arid landscape of sandstone outcroppings and hills dotted with pines and prickly brush, as in old cowboy movies. It’s peaceful, even with the parade of other people — although Cathleen notes that “there don’t seem to be any other babies” running the river.

We had paid an outfitter $30 to shuttle our car from put-in to take-out, so it’s waiting as promised. The drive back takes us through hauntingly empty landscapes, one gas-station-and-general-store town and two others not much bigger. Just outside Steamboat, with the wind billowing through a field of tall grass, we pull over to watch a thunderstorm light up the sky over the ski mountain.

A FAMILY HIKE

Steamboat is mellower than Aspen — smaller town, rolling mountains vs. arresting peaks, more beater cars and scruffy residents. But by and large, tourists and locals seem drawn to both towns for the same reason: to get outdoors.

One morning, we decide on a family hike up the Spring Creek trail, which starts a few blocks from downtown Steamboat. The steady stream of people, apart from being all white, represents an impressive demographic range: men, women, boys, girls, walkers in flip-flops, runners in minimalist gear, mountain bikers. As we start up, we make way for a group of girls ages 7 to 10 finishing a mountain bike class under the tutelage of two buff women instructors.

There’s still parenting, of course. Christina trips, falls, cries, recovers. Kai demands to keep an elk skull and spine that he pulled from the creek, then sheds all clothing and tromps along the muddy shore of a pond. We wait out a shower under a picnic shelter. But we’re outdoors, awash in stunning scenery, not hemorrhaging money or missing our kids.

On our last day in the mountains, we ride Aspen’s Silver Queen gondola, which rises from 7,945 feet to 11,212 feet in 14 minutes. We lunch outdoors at the Sundeck restaurant, mere specks in a vista commanded by muscular red-rock peaks still holding pockets of snow.

The area around the lodge has a loose summer-camp feel, with a smattering of people enjoying a bungee-assisted trampoline, a disc golf course, a climbing wall and a sand pit from which the wee kids can mine “gold” nuggets. We indulge our little ones with 15 minutes of that and then march them out onto a trail, up and away from the infrastructure, toward the wilderness.

Kai bounds ahead, stopping at the top of a rise to repeat something he’s heard a lot this week:

“Guys, check out this view! Incredible.”

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