The Aspen Center for Environmental Science offers free nature walks at the top of Ajax and Snowmass mountains all summer

The Aspen Center for Environmental Science offers free nature walks at the top of Ajax and Snowmass mountains all summer

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Ready to climb a mountain? Maybe you’d rather explore an ice cave, try a mountain bike or simply ride a gondola up the mountain.

The important thing, kids vacationing in Aspen and nearby Snowmass say, is being able to do something they can’t do at home.

For Hudson Jones, 11, from Texas, it’s hiking up Aspen Mountain, commonly known as Ajax. “It was hard but worth it when you get to the top,” he said, noting there are no mountains to climb in Austin. And when you get to the top, there are free games for the kids — giant checkers and chess, badminton, a sand play area for the little ones, a “spirit” house, which is a kind of tree house, to explore, ladder ball and, of course, plenty of hiking trails. There are lots of options at Snowmass Mountain too. “There is so much up here to do,” added Hudson’s twin Ellie.

The best part, other kids suggested, their parents felt comfortable giving them some space to explore on their own at the top of the mountain while they listen to a free bluegrass concert on a recent Sunday afternoon. “That’s a really good thing,” said Hudson Maebious, also from Texas.

“I really didn’t know there would be so much for the kids to do,” said Mika Devaney, here with two young kids from Fort Worth, Texas. “This is so far above my expectations.”

“There is always something new to do,” agreed Heather Madden, a Columbus, Ohio, teacher who visits here each summer with her 11-year-old twins and 13-year-old daughter Alexis, who noted souvenir shopping is good — like for stuffed bears and other animals you wouldn’t see at home.

Another significant plus: Compared to prime ski season, it can be significantly cheaper to stay in summer (and if you have young kids, in fall). One-bedroom condos on Snowmass Mountain start at just $100 a night; two bedrooms start at $175 — a 60 percent savings from prime winter season. If you prefer a hotel, The Hotel Aspen and Molly Gibson Lodge offer weekday summer rates that start at $279 a night, including breakfast, bikes to tool around town, internet and even free parking — a real plus in the middle of Aspen where spots can be hard to find. Fall rates start at just $149. And, even if you aren’t staying at the Westin Snowmass Resort (where rates also dip significantly in summer), you can get two hours of free camp for the kids while you pamper yourself at the spa or enjoy dinner at the Snowmass Kitchen. (Check out their craft cocktails!)

Even better, you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars for lift tickets to have fun in the summer. The Aspen Center for Environmental Science offers free nature walks at the top of Ajax and Snowmass mountains all summer. Visit their 25-acre nature preserve and educational visitor center at Hallam Lake where you can visit their resident golden eagle and other birds and borrow an Adventure Backpack with hands-on activities. ACES also operates Rock Bottom Ranch, an educational farm and wildlife preserve next to the Roaring Fork River in Basalt, about 15 miles from Aspen. Check out the new Eco-Ed trail system and learn where food comes from! And if you are looking for some adult time, there are terrific programs for kids operated by ACES and Aspen/Snowmass.

Summer dining on Aspen Mountain

Summer dining on Aspen Mountain

Here are seven other kid-tested (and affordable) fun things to do in Aspen:

RENT A PET for the day at the Aspen Animal Shelter and let the pooch lead you on a hike.

EXPLORE THE Maroon Bells, surrounded by National Forest lands, and the most photographed peaks in all of North America. Explore the glacial valley while surrounded by mountain peak, walk through fields of wildflowers and around Maroon Lake. Just make sure to bring rain jackets, as afternoon thunderstorms are common.

BIKE ALONG THE RIO GRANDE RAIL TRAIL, a rails-to-trails project built in the Aspen Branch of the historic Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. That stretches 42 miles from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. A lot of families stop at Woody Creek Tavern for tacos, salads or burgers and arrange to shuttle back the eight miles to Aspen. “You can’t go wrong at Woody Creek Tavern,” said Chicagoan Tom Smithburg, the father of twin boys.

CHECK OUT THE ICE CAVES (GROTTOS), a long cavern where small pools of water freeze and create an ice cave along the Grottos Trail.

GRAB A PICNIC AND GO TO A FREE CONCERT that’s part of the Snowmass Summer of Free Music Series The Kid’s Zone keeps little concert-goers happy with a bouncy house, hula-hooping, face-painting and more. Head to the top of Aspen Mountain on Sunday afternoons for Bluegrass Sundays where the kids have plenty of lawn games to keep them busy.

GO OUT FOR PIZZA to Brunelleschi’s in Aspen where kids can make their own pizza; Slice in Snowmass Village is another favorite because they can build their own flatbread, pizza or calzone.

SIGN UP FOR THE KIDS CALF SCRAMBLE before the Wednesday Night Snowmass Rodeo; stay for s’mores and music afterward.

On a recent Sunday, the top of Aspen Mountain was packed with families — the kids hula-hooping, playing lawn games, checking out the trails and listening to the bluegrass music.

Maria Karsner was at the top of Aspen Mountain on a recent Sunday playing cards with her four daughters, who range in age from 5 to 14. The family is about to move to Northern California from the East Coast.

“Everyone is happy,” she reported, adding that’s not always easy to accomplish on vacation with four kids. “This place is really special,” she said.

I think so, too.

(For more Taking the Kids, visit and follow @takingthekids on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Check out Eileen’s Kid’s Guide to Denver and Colorado Ski Country and the other kid’s guides to major American Cities.)