December 17, 2011

January is National Learn a Snow Sport Month with more than 200 resorts offering free or discounted ski, snowboard, and cross-country ski and snowshoe lessons for beginners.

Many resorts are pulling out all the stops for families with increased programming, free lift tickets and free flights. If everyone in your gang are beginners, consider smaller mountains near where you live Hunter Mountain in New York, for example, Crystal Mountain in Michigan, Brian Head Resort in Utah, Bolton Valley in Vermont and Mount Rose on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. They will invariably be cheaper and less overwhelming for the kids—and you.

TakingtheKids Family Ski Guide is sponsored by Park City Mountain Resort

Several states also offer "passports" for kids of certain ages allowing them to ski free—once you have filled out the paperwork and paid a small processing fee— all season. They include fourth graders in New York ; fifth graders in Colorado and Vermont ; fourth and fifth graders in New Hampshire , fifth and sixth graders in Utah , and fifth, sixth and seventh graders in Maine . Check with your state to see what they are offering for your grade schoolers. From Jan 3-9, newbies receive a free learn to ski or snowboard lesson, free equipment and free beginner terrain lift at both Vermont and New Hampshire resorts.

I've written extensively about many of the top ski areas in North America (just search my columns and travel diaries for more information). Here are resorts in alphabetical order that are good bets for families this winter:

ALTA SKI AREA in Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon is adjacent to Snowbird (you can purchase a combined ticket) and is one of the most beautiful mountains I've ever skied. You will be transported back to the days before ski areas were all about glitz. Stay in an old-fashioned lodge that will entertain your kids after ski school and feed them early so you can enjoy a gourmet meal. Look for lift tickets to be less than at other major ski resorts, and Alta Ski Area continues to offer "Ski Free After Three." Head to the Sunnyside lift and you can access five beginner runs, two intermediate and one advanced run for free after 3 P.M. every day.

APPALACHIAN MOUNTAIN CLUB in New England offers snow-loving families a different kind of winter outdoor adventure, cross country skiing, snow-shoeing, and ice-skating. You can even plan a winter adventure with experienced AMC guides. Custom adventures are available at both AMC's Joe Dodge Lodge and Highland Lodge in the White Mountains and families can pick the activity, time and skill level at a cost of just $75 for a guide for the family.

BEAVER CREEK Colorado is a great resort for mixing luxury and winter activities. Well-heeled families love this Vail resort because it is smaller than Vail and more laid back while offering first-class service and a terrific ski school, not to mention the free fresh-baked cookies offered at 3 P.M. every day at the bottom of lift #6 (a great way to end the ski day!) Ultimate 4 offers kids a lesson with only four kids per instructor while the resort promises plenty of complimentary activities after the lifts close from rail jams and disco skating to family snowshoe tours and fireworks. Don't forget the lift-served tubing hill that opened two years ago. Visit during " Beaver Creek Loves Kids " weeks, including December 18 - Jan 1, Presidents' Week February 18-25, March 10 – 31, and Easter Week April 1-7 for special programs and activities.

BRECKENRIDGE SKI RESORT is in the middle of a historic Colorado town, and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. With over 200 restaurants, shops and more, Breckenridge is often dubbed the perfect mountain town. Check out new One Ski Hill Place, a new Rock Resort complete with its own bowling alley. If anyone in your family has any special challenges, head to the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center with a variety of special winter and summer programs. If you visit between January 24th and February 5th, you will be able to check out the 22nd International Snow Sculpture Championships. With the "Breck for a Buck" deal you purchase two nights/days and get the third for $1.

BOLTON VALLEY RESORT is the only Vermont resort to offer night skiing and riding (Wed, Thursday and Friday nights) when tweens and teens rule. You can also give your kids a lesson in being green—the wind turbine near the top of Vista quad produces an eighth of the resort's energy needs. You'll run into a lot of locals from Burlington here and because everything is walking distance-lodging, lifts, pool, it is an easy place to navigate with kids. Bolton's three terrain parks, the 300 acres of trails and glades are divided almost equally for novice, intermediate and advanced skiers and riders. Bolton Valley, having recently partnered with Burton, has introduced a "Learn to Ride" program, combining the most advanced equipment, instruction, and learning environments to provide an excellent snowboarding experience and bring your skills to a new level.

BROMLEY MOUNTAIN RESORT is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and is the only ski area in Vermont that faces totally south which means it could be warmer. Families love this mountain because it is more intimate with varied terrain including two new terrain parks and plenty of off-the-slopes action including outlet shopping, ice skating, sleigh riding, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing! Combine Bromley's $49 midweek/non-holiday ticket with Bromley's fantastic Family Friday deal, where each paying adult pays just $15 per kid for up to three kids, except for holidays, and a family of four skis for just $128—not much more than a single lift ticket costs at major resorts. Also, you can save $15 on Each Consecutive Day when you purchase your Multi-Day ticket online, you pay full price for day one, but then $15 less for days two and three.

CRESTED BUTTE MOUNTAIN RESORT combines a friendly, picturesque small town (just a few blocks long!), plenty of steeps and deeps and a new base area Adventure Park for a guaranteed-to-please experience. This year Crested Butte is celebrating its 50th birthday, and in order to celebrate, is providing a free lift ticket to you on your birthday (you have to be 18 years or older, and provide a valid ID at the Adventure Center to redeem your ticket). This mountain has long been one of my family's favorites. We think the fact that CB is harder to reach than some other resorts adds to the appeal. There's an eco-friendly synthetic "ice" skating rink (recycled from the American Museum of Natural History in New York where it was part of a display on climate change), bungee trampolines a climbing wall, and a zip-line that you can ski to, as well as a multi-lane, lift-served tubing hill. Families love the Children's Center and beginner learning area. Look for deals that include a free flight for every two you purchase and a free beginner lesson, lift ticket and rental for each person on the reservation when booking a lodging stay at Crested Butte Mountain Resort for two or more days.

COPPER MOUNTAIN . On slope, Copper's terrain is naturally divided for all abilities and includes fantastic bowl skiing. Off slope, three base villages have redefined the Copper experience with accommodations, restaurants, bars, shops, and a kids-only lodge. Copper is also home to the only year-round ski and snowboard program in the state. Offering winter day camps and week-long summer camps, Woodward at Copper has the Barn, the first indoor ski and snowboard training facility with trampolines, foam pits, and Snowflex jumps dedicated to terrain park and pipe progression. Campers develop their tricks in the Woodward at Copper Barn and progress in Copper Mountain's winter and summer terrain parks and pipe. This year Woodward at Copper is offering fully coached group sessions in the various on mountain terrain parks every day, from Nov. 25, 2011 – April 15, 2012. There are also free snow cat rides to Tucker Mountain, free snow-shoe tours daily, and kids ski free!

HEAVENLY RESORT in California overlooks Lake Tahoe. You can ski in California or Nevada! The kids will love the 60-foot jumps in Jackpot Terrain Park and the largest tubing hill in the west at Adventure Peak. New this year is a kid's adventure zone called Black Bear Hollow at the top of the Gondola. Right next to the Hollow is an entry-level terrain park with small rails, gentle jumps and boxes meant for youngsters to explore. You'll love the 34 miles of wide-open, groomed cruisers, and the option for tree skiing off of every lift, as well as sightseeing, ski bikes and snowshoeing. If your teens are angling to go in the back country, you can hire a guide from Heavenly's Adventure Sessions program, check out and find out what the locals know about . Pay for five nights lodging at Heavenly and receive the sixth and seventh night for free. Also, if you pay for a four-day ski lift ticket you will get the fifth day free.

JACKSON HOLE , WY not only offers the chance to ski and ride but to explore an authentic Cowboy town and Yellowstone National Park in winter when the crowds are gone. If it is your first time to the mountain, you can take a complimentary Mountain Host tour. This will help you get to know the mountain on groomed terrain with friendly Hosts. There is a special Beginner Center where pros guarantee that after your first beginner class, you can ski if you can't, you can repeat the First Day Learn to Turn class as often as you like. Try out the Rockies' first Stash Park, in Jackson Hole Wyoming. Created by Burton Snowboards and unique to only five other resorts in the world, the Stash uses natural elements to build terrain park-like features, giving riders a completely different kind of resort riding experience. The Stash has four different runs and over 50 total features. If you stay at the Village Center Inn 3 or more days, you can ski for free. This deal starts at $79/person.

KEYSTONE RESORT . Less than an hour from Denver, with three mountains where families can not only snag an inexpensive condo but get access to an array of discounted or free activities including skating and ice hockey, snowshoeing, snow biking, snow tubing, even Science Snow Tours offered by the Keystone Science School. Keystone is a Vail Resort, which means that its ski and snowboard school is first rate. Your kids will love the huge snow fort, the Kidtopia Festivals throughout the season, Disco tubing and more. Look for a variety of free night deals, even during peak times as well as discounts on a second person's lessons.

MT BACHELOR in Bend, Ore is the largest ski resort in the Cascade Range, offering 3,683 acres and 360 degrees of lift-accessible terrain. The mountain also boasts two tubing lifts and two beginner carpets, five terrain parks, groomed and tracked cross country trails, snowshoeing, tubing, sled dog rides and more. Kids, 18 and under, can ski free if an adult in their family purchases a multi-day ticket! If you are new to skiing or riding, check out the Ski or Ride in 5′ program: For $199 you or your kids get five lessons, five rental packages, and five lift tickets. Upon graduation' from the program, students 18 and under get a FREE season pass; adults get a FREE 12-day pass.

MOUNT SNOW RESORT provides a unique "back-to-base" trail system that keeps the entire family together. Mt. Snow, in southern VT, is a draw for young freestyle skiers and snowboarders who come for the only all-park mountain face in the east, Carinthia, equipped with 125 freestyle features in eight parks complete with natural obstacles (rock jibs) as well as recycled pieces (giant tires). For beginner park skiers, there is also The Grommet Park that has small jumps. Don't miss the tubing Park. January 8, 2012 is the annual Youth Pay Their Age Day for everyone 18 and under!

NORTHSTAR at TAHOE. Located on the California-Nevada border near Reno and is easy access from San Francisco or Sacramento. This year, Northstar is expanding its resort boundaries in two areas of the mountain, adding 170 acres of new side-country terrain that can be explored on guided backcountry and snow-cat tours. If you purchase your lift tickets online before arriving, you will definitely get the lowest price possible. Parents can split the cost of one lift ticket—switching off to take care of the baby. They can also haul the gear—and the kids—in complimentary wagons around the new base area, where you can skate free and make delicious, gourmet s'mores around the many fire pits surrounding the skating rink.

OKEMO , Located in Southern Vermont with easy access from Boston, New York and other East Coast points, Okemo offers free use of its lower lifts all season long and kids ski free on select days throughout the season when parents buy a regular priced lift ticket in advance—up to age 18! First time skiers and snowboarders can take part in the free program that includes a lower-mountain lift ticket, beginner group lesson and rental gear. It's available for ages seven and up every Monday through Friday. And, anyone interested in private lessons beginning at 12:30, 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. (Sun. through Fri., non-holidays) can receive a 20 percent discount off normal pricing. Okemo also has plenty of other options for fun in the snow right at the mountain—skating, tubing, skating, swimming, an alpine coaster and even a giant snow mound where kids like to play king of the mountain. Come midweek and save up to 30 per cent in lodging, get a resort credit and discounted lifts and rentals.

PENNSYLVANIA . The 22 member resorts of the Pennsylvania Ski Area Association are offering a $5 coupon off all Learn a Snowsport packages in January. At Ski Sawmill in North Central Pa, Friday nights are "family lights with adult lifts for just $17; kids tickets for $15 and rentals for $15. Stay at the new Mountain Inn and get free lifts! Check out Hidden Valley with a graduated three-lesson program designed to take kids and adults, from a newbie to an all-mountain skier; the third lesson is a private!

PARK CITY . Located in Utah, Park City is a short shuttle ride from Salt Lake City airport, which is home to three major kid-friendly resorts. The Canyons ; Deer Valley , where the luxe Montage recently opened and aims to cater to well-heeled families (no snowboarders at Deer Valley!), and Park City Mountain Resort , which promises there will be no more than 5 kids or adults in your group lessons. I've helped them develop a website for snow loving parents – please visit Snowmamas.com . You'll find plenty of bargains (especially at the Canyons), service and gourmet meals (especially at Deer Valley) and all of the terrain features your riders and free skiers could want (Park City Mountain Resort) which also offers night skiing and riding. You'll also have fun exploring the historic mountain town chock full of shops and restaurants. The National Abilities Center is designed to help all those in your family with special challenges. ( www.nac.org ). You can also have the chance to test your mettle on an Olympic bobsled run at the Olympic Park.

SMUGGLERS' NOTCH in Northern Vermont, not far from Burlington or Montreal, is known in New England for its top-notch children's facilities (including infant care) and off the slope activities including a zip line. It's offering a mostly inclusive Club Smugglers' Adventure Package this winter that includes lift tickets, lodging, ski and snowboard lessons for kids, for adult beginners and unlimited use of cross country and snowshoe trails as well as the FunZone Family Entertainment Center, tubing and more. Smugglers' Notch has also been working with Burton Snowboards to build the Burton Riglet Park, an on-snow play area on Sir Henry's Learning Hill with fun features designed for young snowboarders. One of the most exciting parts of the park is the "treehouse," an elevated platform with ramps that children can ride down, a balance area inside the treehouse and a lift chair that swings to help kids practice getting on and off the lift. Its three mountains encompass 1,000 acres of terrain. Come in January and get half off daycare for those under three.

SNOWMASS . One of the four fabulous mountains in Aspen, Co., Snowmass is where kids have their choice of peppermint S'mores, ice cream sundaes or every variety of Gummi après ski at the new Base Village. Snowmass, by far the largest mountain in Aspen, is family snow sports central with its $17 million Treehouse Adventure Center complete with its own climbing "wall" for pre-schoolers. There are free shuttle buses around the mountains and kids stay and ski free the entire month of March and April with the purchase of lodging and lifts by an adult for four or more days. Purchase adult rentals as part of the deal and kids rent free too. Check the website for other deals and also don't miss the resident Golden Eagle at the free Aspen Center for Environmental Studies .

SQUAW VALLEY USA has a newly renovated Children's Center and plans to transform the Belmont Park into a kids' terrain park complete with a snow fort, kid-friendly jumps, bumps and more. Squaw also provides a kids map designed to lead them on a grand adventure around the mountain. Kids will follow the map through Squaw Valley's kid-friendly terrain to find fun facts about the mountain's animals, history and natural habitat—free with any lift ticket. At Squaw you can hit the slopes until 9pm on weekends (9am to 7pm midweek). Come for spring skiing. The near 500″ of snowfall each season make it possible for the resort to remain open through the end of May every winter.

STRATTON is a favorite for East Coast families. Kids 17 and younger are invited to ski and stay free when two adults purchase a (2 night minimum) lift and lodging package. Kids can get free rentals too, when an adult purchases a rental. Kids love the tubing hill and that once they are eight, they can drive a mini snowmobile in the Sun Bowl Base Area. Parents love the village atmosphere of the base area, the 45 acre Learning Park and EZ Street, a three mile green run from the summit. Teens like the Wreck teen club with indoor skate ramp. We logged a lot of weekends at Stratton when my youngest was on a ski team there and never got bored.

Steamboat In Northern Colorado, Steamboat is recognized as a top family ski resort in North America thanks to its new Kids' Vacation Center, with its western themed play area and well-trained children's staff. The resort has long been an innovator for families with Kids Ski Free, Kids Fly Free and Kids Rent Free programs. Plus, with the ambiance of an authentic Western town known for breeding Olympians and its Old Town Hot Springs pool and slides, there's just as much to do off the mountain as on.

STOWE is home to Vermont's highest Peak, Mt. Mansfield and is known for it's postcard-pretty New England town, its "Famous Four" double-blacks, some of the longest intermediate cruisers in the East, and a group of beginner trails in the Toll House area. Spruce Peak is geared toward beginner and intermediate skiers and riders. Lower Spruce – the area nearest the Spruce Base Are Complex – is a great place to learn. Take time to visit the Ski Museum, or take a tour of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory! Stowe Mountain Lodge welcomes dogs as well as kids and is known for its farm-to-table cuisine. Check Go Stowe for lodging deals; Purchase your lift tickets at least a week ahead and save 15 per cent plus gain access to a range of deals. Snowshoe or cross country ski at the Von Trapp Family Lodge.

SUNDAY RIVER in Maine boasts a 50-plus year history, eight interconnected peaks, 12 hour skiing and riding every Saturday, a White Cap Fun Center with a tubing park, and a Sugaring House that will open in March so you get an up close and personal look of exactly how maple syrup is made—complete with samples. Many families come to Sunday River because of the Perfect Turn Ski and Ride School, During Children's Festival Week (1/9 -1/13), there will be scavenger hunts, live entertainment, movies, and themed Perfect Turn kid's lessons – with ids ski, snowboard, stay, rent, and learn all for free!

TELLURIDE , a historic southwestern Colorado mountain town, is so safe that local parents let 10-year-olds run around on their own. Kids routinely hop the free gondola from the mountain village for the 12-minute ride into town where they can go to a movie (there's one movie theater), get some pizza or a burger and some gummies at The Sweet Life. Visiting kids might learn a little Western history in the process. The entire town of Telluride - four blocks long and four blocks wide and nestled in a box canyon - is a federally designated historic district, and it couldn't be prettier with buildings dating back a century and mountain views in every direction. Even during the busiest week of the year, the ski school has only got about 225 children, ages three through 14, enrolled - perhaps a quarter of the size of other family-friendly resorts like Snowmass. Parents like the intimacy and that the vast majority of instructors in the ski school are veterans here who remember their kids from previous visits. It's also an easy ski school to navigate - right next to the town gondola in the middle of the Mountain Village. The kids get their rentals right in the building - the instructors take care of that too. Backcountry lovers will love the Black Iron Bowl—a hike-to playground is set against the dramatic backdrop of Palmyra Peak, adding eight runs adjacent to Prospect Bowl, including the wide-open Mountain Quail couloir, European-style faces, open glades and steep chutes. For a luxe experience that won't bust the budget this year check out the packages at Cappella Telluride including lift tickets, a night free and spa credit.

TAOS SKI VALLEY , Located in northern New Mexico with easy access from Albquerque or Santa Fe, is one of the last, most pristine, and still somewhat undiscovered ski areas in the country. It is still family owned and run. Not only is there great snow and an 18,000 square foot children's center, but you have the opportunity to explore Native American culture nearby—right at the Taos Pueblo, the only living Native American community designated both as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. There's plenty for the non-snow sports lovers in the group to do. And Taos Valley now welcomes snowboarders too.

VAIL has more than 5,000 acres to ski, including the famous Back Bowls and another 645 acres in Blue Sky Basin, the huge expanse of wilderness-like terrain that faces Vail's bowls. This resort offers intermediate as well as expert skiers moguls, tree skiing, and even some cliffs. No one in your gang will get bored here—even after the slopes close. There is a Tubing hill at Adventure Ridge, as well as kids snowmobiling, or a bungee trampoline and ski biking. For some fun on the mountain, check out Coyote's Den, a 50-foot long wooden ski-through feature and the teepee in Sherwood Forest. Also, check out the Nature Discovery Center at Eagle's Nest with programs led by naturalists. You can even take a moonlit snowshoe tour ! When it comes to ski lessons, for an extra fee, you can opt for the Ultimate Four, which guarantees kids 3-12 will have only for children per instructor.

WATERVILLE VALLEY RESORT in New Hampshire offers 250 acres to ski or ride, a big Nordic Center that is groomed daily and a Town Square just a short walk from most of the resort accommodations. There's even an indoor ice rink. Book online 24 hours in advance and you can get a Learn to Ski or Ride package for just $39 including a two hour-lesson, equipment and a lower mountain lift ticket. Look for "Town Square" events that include fireworks.

WHISTLER BLACKOMB in British Columbia is just 78 miles from Vancouver and was the official alpine skiing venue for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympics Winter Games. Whistler and Blackcomb are two side-by-side mountains, connected by the PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola, which together offer over 200 marked runs, 8,000 acres of terrain, 14 alpine bowls, and three glaciers. There's plenty of snow—over 430 inches a year—which means one of the longest ski seasons in North America. Check out the website for deals, including discounted airfare from certain cities and lodging deals.

WINTER PARK RESORT is only 67 miles from Denver and offers the state's longest continually operating professional ski school. The new Private Lesson Center allows your family to learn together—you can even take part in a 1.5 Hour Park & Pipe Special. There is an incredible variety of terrain spread across five mountains. Steeps can be found on Vasquez Cirque, bumps the size of small VW bugs can be found over at Mary Jane. Groomers are found on Winter Park Mountain with beginner terrain. Terrain Parks come by the handful as the resort has five, including the limited access park, Dark Territory. Look for packages that include free nights and free lift tickets. The Resort is also home to the National Sports Center for the Disabled which offers a variety of programs for those with special mental and physical challenges.

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