Kids learning nature through fun at the top of Vail Mountain

Colorado state flower the Columbine atop Vail Mountain
Colorado state flower the Columbine atop Vail Mountain

By Eileen Ogintz

VAIL, CO — Who is ready for a challenge?

Maybe you want to soar for more than two miles more than 300 feet above the valley floor, the Rocky Mountains as the backdrop.

How about navigating up 36 feet on an outdoor rock climbing wall.

Hike one of Colorado’s famous Fourteeners–one of the 50-plus mountains that rise more than 14,000 feet–or hike to Vail’s famous Back Bowls through the wildflowers.

Mountain bike on miles of trails.

The ropes course at Adventure Ridge atop Vail Mountain
The ropes course at Adventure Ridge atop Vail Mountain

Try a ropes course or the alpine coaster. Welcome to Vail in Summer. With the second summer of Epic Discovery, in partnership with the U.S.  Forest Service and Nature Conservancy Vail, has upped the vacation quotient for even the youngest adventurers (there is a mini-zipline and adventure course). The idea is you learn about the mountain ecosystem throughout your adventure.

“The zipline was the best,” said six year old Creed Knowles, who lives in Greeley, CO,   and loved the Little Eagle kids’ zipline and was headed to the Marmot Mini tubing hill.

His older sister Riley, 11, had the most fun on the more complex Gore Range ropes course. “It was really challenging and a little scary–in a good way,” she said.

Smaller ropes course for smaller kids at Adventure Ridge
Smaller ropes course for smaller kids at Adventure Ridge

Elise Muhtar, 8, who lives in Denver, was most jazzed about the bungee trampoline.  The new Alpine Coaster, reported twins Sibley and Cecilia Garner, 11, was worth the long wait.

Of course this is July Fourth weekend, the resort’s busiest of the summer season. It’s family central at Adventure Ridge located at the top of the gondola at 10,350 feet. Wow what a view!

It’s also family central at the Four Seasons Resort which is halfway between Vail Village and Lionshead—a perfect walkable location on a pedestrian path. We’re staying in condo that is part of the hotel—the best of all words—luxury accommodations and all the amenities of a resort with the space a family needs and a kitchen that always makes travel easier.

Pool area at Four Seasons in Vail
Pool area at Four Seasons in Vail

After time at the top of the mountain, families decamp to the pool where there’s a DJ spinning tunes and smoothies and milkshakes at the ready.

At the top of the mountain, Besides the snow covered mountains all around us, families are eating barbeque and burgers in the sun; the kids are on the mini ropes course, trampoline and tubing hill. Some are in the Walking Mountains Science Center with interactive activities. How about matching animal tracks or scat (the plastic kind) to the animal? Check out the free nature hikes daily and full-day back country hikes (ask about pricing) for those who want an immersive nature experience—and an 8-15 mile hike.

Vail also offers guided hikes—we opted for one that took us more than five miles on the Ptarmigan Loop at altitude over 11,000 feet to Vail’s famous back bowls. After skiing here several times over the years, it looks a lot different in the summer. “The back side of the mountain is my favorite,” said Maria Magana, our guide. “It’s less crowded and a better wilderness experience.”

Indian paint brushes atop Vail Mountain
Indian paint brushes atop Vail Mountain

It sure was beautiful as we hiked through fields of wildflowers—Red Indian Paint Brush, purple Lupine, yellow Arnicus and a few blue Columbine, Colorado’s state flower. Mule deer ran in front of us into the woods. There were patches of snow leftover from last winter.

“I like hiking the best,” said Jessica Dickinson, 14, who lives in Chicago and has been spending parts of summers here for the past four years.

“I like the people,” added her brother Jack, 13.  “Everyone is so laid back and so nice.”

The thing about Vail in summer is that some activities are pricey (the zip line is $199) but others are free. Bring a picnic to save more money, suggests Renee Hamilton, here with friends and a gaggle of kids. “It’s so safe for the kids here,” she added. And for those too young for their own phones, bring walkie talkies so the kids can race around on their own but with parents keeping tabs on them.

“What’s nice is there’s a lot to do you don’t have to pay for,” said Rachel Knowles.  (This summer, one kid 12 and under rides the Gondola to the top of the mountain free with an adult; download the free Vail App with everything from parking updates to interactive maps, events and activities. )

Also check out the Vail Daily, suggests Nate Goldberg, who has lived here for 27 years and is now raising two kids here. Full Disclosure—he is a supervisor at Epic Discovery. His kids love to ride bikes, splash in Gore Creek and of course, watch the the famous Vail America Days July Fourth Parade.

Ziplining atop Vail Mountain
Ziplining atop Vail Mountain

“Half the people in town march in it and the other half watch,” laughed Ellen Grady, who has vacationed here with her three kids for more than a decade.

Her most important tip: Be prepared for the mountains! The right shoes (no sandals at the top of the mountain!) extra layers of clothes, a rain jacket, hat and sun screen.

“You don’t realize how variable mountain conditions can be,” she said. “The weather change in seconds…be prepared!”

Be prepared for crowds too, especially on a holiday weekend. No worries, though.

Even waiting in the food line, everyone is smiling.

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