It is dumping snow and we're at 9,400 feet. But that's not stopping us from taking a little walk in the woods.
No worries. We've got snowshoes strapped to our boots, the right waterproof clothes and we're still smiling from the amazing lunch we devoured after our trek up about two miles to the Pine Creek Cook House (http://www.pinecreekcookhouse.com/) in the middle of the White River National Forest about 11 miles outside of Aspen, Co. (http://www.aspenchamber.org/).
"Weekends this place is packed with kids," said Christopher Keating, the general manager and executive chef and himself the dad of a 9-year-old son.
You can snowshoe as we did or cross-country ski (there are more than 30 km of groomed trails for all levels and a place to rent gear) or take a sleigh ride led by giant Clydesdale horses. Come for lunch or dinner, wearing a headlamp on the trail. In winter, kids can sled outside.
But the highlight — after the snowshoe in the wilderness — is the food — Pine Creek Smoked trout, wild game Momos (Nepalese dumplings), grilled hearts of romaine Caesar, grilled Quail salad, wild mushroom and spinach crepes, Colorado elk bratwurst, a smoked trout melt on sourdough and buffalo tenderloin.
All that locally sourced food might encourage the kids to try a small portion of something new. How about butternut squash ravioli or buffalo tenderloin?
Honestly, it was one of the best meals I've ever had in ski country — all the better because I had to "earn my lunch," as my daughters would say, snowshoeing up to the beautiful restaurant with the giant picture windows.
Of course, you don't need a gourmet meal to enjoy snowshoeing. It's fun to take a sandwich and hot cider with you in your backpack; it's fun just to get out and enjoy the back-country landscape away from the hustle and bustle of a snow sports resort. I try to take a day off from skiing each trip just for the experience.
In Stowe, Vt., at the Trapp Family Lodge (www.trappfamily.com) my guide was Kristina von Trapp Frame, granddaughter of Maria von Trapp, the young Austrian novitiate-turned governess-turned wife made famous by Julie Andrews in the 1965 film "The Sound of Music." Maria's youngest son and Kristina's dad, Johannes von Trapp, opened the first cross-country ski center in North America here more than 40 years ago and these days, plenty of families on snowshoes and cross-country skis, take advantage of 100 km of groomed and back-country trails.
Not only is snowshoeing or cross-country skiing good exercise and a lot cheaper than downhill skiing, it's a lot of fun with kids, says von Trapp Frame, who gets out with her kids often, listening for different birds (was that a woodpecker?), looking for animal tracks in the snow (squirrel or deer?) and stopping for a snack on a conveniently placed bench (M&Ms anyone?). The sport has grown so popular with snow-loving families that Tubbs Snowshoes now offers a huge assortment of snowshoes for kids (http://tubbssnowshoes.com/snowshoes?use=kids) and until Oct. 29 is inviting schools and nonprofits to enter an essay contest to encourage kids and teens to get outdoors in winter. Winners could win snowshoes for their entire class.
Jim Kravitz, the chief naturalist at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (www.aspennature.org) and the father of two young sons, explains that, like naturalist-led hikes, snowshoe walks are a great way to help visitors — kids and adults — delve a little deeper into the winter environment — learning about mountain ecology, avalanches and wildlife in winter. ACES, in fact, offers snowshoe tours every day in winter at the top of Aspen Mountain, as well as Snowmass Mountain, that include snowshoe gear and instruction. (Visitwww.aspennature.org for more information.)
Snowshoe tours are offered at many snow sports resorts around the country from Maine to California, as well as at Yellowstone National Park, where we came face to face with a huge buffalo and snow-shoed right by Old Faithful. (Read what I wrote about our snowshoe in Yellowstone).
You can snowshoe at Grand Teton National Park too; Since Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (www.jacksonhole.com) is only one mile from Grand Teton National Park, their Mountain Sports School is a licensed concessionaire of the park and provides guided snowshoe tours at the base of the Tetons.
Snowshoe at dude ranches, too, like the C Lazy U Ranch (www.clazyu.com) or Vista Verde Ranch (www.vistaverde.com) in Colorado, while in New Hampshire, the Appalachian Mountain Club (www.outdoors.org) offers a variety of winter family adventures that include snowshoe tours led by experienced guides; you can even snowshoe to a back-country mountain hut for an overnight with adventurous teens.
Snowshoeing is also a great way to get the non-skiers in your group outside to play in the snow, whether at home in winter climes or at a snow resort. That's what we did in Aspen when we took my sister-in-law who lives in Southern California out on her first-ever snowshoe. (The prospect of a gourmet lunch certainly helped entice her!) It's not difficult, doesn't require a lot of gear (you can rent snowshoes and even winter boots) and is fun whether you are six, 16 or 60. (You can make it as easy or as challenging as you like.)
In Aspen, we even learned a little history along the way. The 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army trained here outside Aspen before they went to Italy in World War II. There are still 30 back-country huts (http://www.huts.org/) in the national forest where you can spend the night.
Did I mention the bona-fide ghost town? In the mid-1800s there were some 2,000 people living and mining in the town of Ashcroft. Today, we snowshoe past about a half-dozen wooden buildings still standing from that era.
As the snow falls, we make our way along snow-covered Castle Creek, past quivering Aspens and giant Blue Spruce and Douglas Fir, all covered with fresh snow.
Thanks to all the exercise, we don't feel the least bit guilty about the scrumptious desserts at lunch — brownie pie, bourbon pecan pie and apple crisp — topped with ice cream, of course.
It was one of those rare winter days that I didn't want to end. None of us did. We were the last snowshoers back.