Jim Kravitz leads a nature walk above Aspen for ACES

Jim Kravitz leads a nature walk above Aspen for ACES

DAY Six — Got some chocolate?

If you are hiking with kids, chocolate is always a good thing, says Jim Kravitz, the chief naturalist at the aspen center for environmental studies (www.aspennature.org) and the father of two young sons.

Kravitz took us out on a six mile hike starting right in aspen along the hunter creek trail –a hike locals love but visitors might not find because it isn’t as famous as hiking around the maroon bells or up to the top of aspen mountain.

ACES, as the environmental center is known, offers a variety of winter and summer activities for families from custom hikes (a bargain at $40 an hour) to a free birds of prey program we dropped in on in the afternoon meeting the resident horned owl and golden eagle (did you know a golden eagle’s wing-span is six feet?)

For the past 40 years, aces  has offered every kind of program—summer camps, snowshoe walks at snowshoe, evening hikes to see beavers an ice age discovery hike at Snowmass to see where the great ice age mastodons were found, even a  hike (or in winter snowshoe) past the Ashcroft ghost town—yes a real ghost town where 3,000 miners once lived and lunch at one of my favorites pine creek cook house.

If you are visiting, there are lots of drop in classes for kids too—just 20 for a two hour class—learn about bears or beavers, the plants that make nearby Hallam lake so green, or even what makes bird of prey such great hunters.

Kravitz explains that the custom hikes and snowshoe walks are designed to help visitors—kids and adults—delve little deeper into the environment here, whether you are looking for wildflowers and identifying trees in summer or animal tracks in the snow in winter.

Got kids along? Stop to build a tower of rocks (or throw rocks into hunter creek). Pick up some paint chips at a paint store and have a scavenger hunt looking for colors, Kravitz suggests. “Keep them looking for things,” he explains.  “Remember with kids there is no concept of going on a hike for exercise!”

It’s about fun.  And a few treats, of course. That’s where the chocolate comes in.  I was glad to have someone like Kravitz show me the way. I wouldn’t have known which trail to take as we meandered up above Aspen taking the smuggler loops. Such close access to the wilderness straight from town is rare, Kravitz adds.  “Yhe people that come with us want to learn a little more. People always want to belong,” he said. And just like visitors want to go to restaurants that are locals’ favorites, it’s a good thing to learn about the natural history and human history.

If you’ve got kids, of course, you’ve got to remember that it will be a kids hike, Kravitz says. “Yhey are the common denominator.” So relax and enjoy the journey!

I love that aces makes it so easy—whether you want to take a stroll to see beavers or an ice age walk at Snowmass  ACES is located at a 25 acre preserve and nature center in the heart of downtown aspen.  There’s also rock bottom ranch in Basalt—with a 113 acre wildlife preserve and working educational ranch and farm where you can meet the animals, learn about sustainable agriculture and visit the farmyard.

There’s even a walk at the top of Aspen Mountain every day in summer and others at 3 p.m. We’re back at aces headquarters to meet the institute’s most famous residents—the golden eagle and snowy owl.  Both were injured and nursed back to health (the 30 year old eagle was found on Aspen mountain in its first year, its wing broken, and has lived here ever since).

Golden Eagle at ACES

Golden Eagle at ACES

“Wiggle your toes,” says naturalist Sarah Gruen to the audience of some 30 kids and their families.  She explains that golden eagles grab their prey with talons. A young boy is invited to dress up as an eagle (the talons are forks!). Did you know eagles can dive 200 mph to snatch some prey?

The kids are impressed. one asks if the eagles need skis to get around in winter? (no!). Another wants to know if they migrate south (no again). Does she have a name? (no, because ACES wants to emphasize that this is wildlife).   What do you feed her? (all sorts of goodies like rats, elk meat and quail) How much does she weigh?  (15 pounds)

The kids are engaged. so are the parents.  And that’s really what it’s about.