Taking a toddler to snowy peaks is doable, with the right amount of perseverance, planning, and acceptance that those plans may fall apart.
The arrival of a small human changes life in myriad wonderful and frustrating ways, and vacation time is no exception. Hikes get significantly shorter, evenings out end much earlier (you can forget about lingering over supper), camping is more challenging, and winter sports like skiing become out of the question. Or do they?
It is possible to bring a tot to the mountaintop, my wife and I recently discovered after five days in Aspen with our three-year-old son. It just won’t be quite the same as that trip when you were 21. Here are few things we learned along the way.
One thing we quickly remembered as fair-weather skiers is you need a lot of stuff—and that doesn’t exclude the little one. In fact, small skiers need even more layers, spare clothes, and accoutrements that will inevitably end up wet, lost, or mismatched. Was our son the one child wearing spare adult sunglasses strapped to his head? Perhaps. Did we have to direct a few Amazon parcels full of gloves and waterproof pants to our hotel on the first day? Maybe. But one way or another we all took to the lifts in most of the right gear.
With 20/20 hindsight, we might have started amassing clothes and accessories—not to mention half a CVS worth of lip balms and sun creams—a bit further in advance of our departure date.
Consider traveling between holidays while you still can
If you’re looking to avoid crowds, the gap between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a great time to travel. We had to scramble to wrap up work and home obligations to clear time off in the pre-holiday run-up, but sneaking off then paid dividends in terms of quieter slopes, streets, and restaurants—all of which make life easier with a toddler in tow. That flexibility evaporates once they hit elementary school.
Of course, December can be dicey in terms of snowfall, and it’s more fun to frolic in fresh powder than crusty ice or wet slush. So you might want to look at multi-region tickets, which buy you multiple last-minute choices. The Mountain Collective pass, for example, includes Aspen Snowmass and 16 other peaks such as Jackson Hole, Mammoth, and Sun Valley. The ticket gives you two days at each destination annually for around 500 bucks, or $99 for kids 12 and under, leaving you free to decide where to fly depending on the latest weather report.
Appreciate small mercies but be ready with a backup plan
As we landed in Aspen Pitkin County Airport and successfully found our driver for the short trip to our hotel, we heard horror stories of how the weather can sometimes divert planes to Denver International Airport, over three hours away. We had a few spare snacks, games, and books left over from the flight, but probably not enough to cover that kind of disruption. As seven inches of snow started to fall on cue, we realized we’d lucked out and made a mental note to prepare better for the worst next time.
The United States has no shortage of excellent ski spots, but some are better for families than others and a little research pays dividends. Aspen was a top choice for several reasons. The region encompasses four mountains, two of which—Snowmass and Buttermilk—are great for beginners and children. It also offers all sorts of activities for a range of ages, from indoor play areas to tubing, snowcat rides, the X Games action sports festival in January, bonfires, ice rinks, live music, and an alpine coaster. And if you want a morning indoors, the Aspen Recreation Center offers swimming, climbing, tennis, and more.
We stayed at the Limelight Hotel in downtown Aspen, which was right next to a huge park (perfect for snowman building and general snowball warfare), shops, restaurants, and trails. Our son loved staying there; wood-fired pizzas, s’mores kits, and hot tubs all went down a treat.
The city is really walkable so we didn’t bother hiring a car, instead using the hotel’s free shuttles, complete with chatty and knowledgeable drivers and that all-important child car seat, to get to and from the mountain. A network of free municipal buses also serves the area.
Ski school is the ultimate daycare
Tiny children are great companions for sledding and tromping around in the snow, but they can’t join you on the blue runs. There comes a point when you need to part ways for a bit. For us, that was where the child group lessons at Snowmass came in. We booked our son in for three days, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (prices start at $230 per day if booked in advance). They’ll take kids 2.5 years or older for a mixture of indoor and outdoor play and learning, and if they’re potty trained they spend a lot of time on skis.
We’re not exactly sure what he did all day—you wave the kids through a door and pick them up six hours later; parents are discouraged from distracting them—but his report card and instructor insisted he was pulling off snowplow turns by day three. We also realized, too late of course, that children’s ski clothes should always be labeled. Thankfully, Snowmass has stickers and pens on hand at the drop-off point (along with tissues, sanitizer, and all that good stuff).
Serious après-ski is best left to the childless
Several headaches into the trip I accepted this fact. That last glass (or two) of wine will combine with the altitude to really make a 7, 6, or 5 a.m. start difficult. The last thing you feel like doing with any kind of hangover is squeezing ski boots onto a writhing three-year-old to head out into the cold. (Thankfully some of the morning routine is made easy at Aspen; ski and pole rentals are delivered to pick-up points near the lifts, so you’re not lugging too much kit around.)
You may want to factor in some adult time off the slopes too
Finally, my wife and I were glad we decided to save one childless day to enjoy time off skis. Exploring the deserted John Denver Sanctuary, crunching through the snow-crusted Rio Grande Trail, and enjoying a rare grown-up conversation over a latte at Gorsuch Ski and Cafe—all this was made possible by having our son in ski school. It would have been lovely to have him along too, of course. But he had a gliding wedge to perfect.