Sustainability Academy student at Children’s Farmyard
Sustainability Academy student at Children’s Farmyard

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Red maple, or hemlock?

The trees in the northern Vermont forest look a lot different when you’re looking at them 75 feet above the ground through branches that anchor zip lines — as long as 1,000 feet — on a zip line canopy tour.

“Our mission is to educate and inspire and help families connect with nature,” says Michael Smith, the managing partner of ArborTrek here in Jeffersonville, Vermont, near Stowe, who has built zip line courses around the world. Let’s not forget the chance for a shared adventure. Eight zips, two rappels (40 feet) and crossing two bridges 35 feet off the ground. That and the running commentary on the flora and fauna have made this a top-ranked zip line in the country and worth the $99.95 tab, said guests who were back for a second and third time.

Safety, of course, is a prime concern, with highly trained guides, courses inspected daily and harnesses checked and triple checked, said Smith, who is on the board for the Association for Challenge Course Technology. He notes that today there are as many as 1,000 zip line and aerial adventure parks just in the United States and Canada. A decade ago, there were no more than a dozen.

Families of all stripes and ages (kids can zip as long as they are at least eight and weigh 70 pounds. Some customers have been in their 90s) are attracted to the thrill and the chance for a shared adventure in the woods.

On the adjacent obstacle courses, since kids are clipped in, they can climb a tree without parents worrying they are going to fall. The lowest course allows parents with young kids to share the adventure — the zips are just a few feet off the ground and there are bridges, nets and ladders. The cost is just $29.95 for kids.

But the challenges get harder — more than 70 elements in all. Do you think you could cross an accordion bridge 28 feet above ground? Only half of those who attempt the most difficult parts of the course succeed, Smith said.

If you think visiting Vermont in fall is just about the foliage, glorious as it may be, think again. There are mountains to climb, golf and disc golf, kayaking, canoeing and mountain biking to try. Besides the 50 or so miles of trails around Stowe, Vermont, Smugglers’ Notch Resort in Jeffersonville has added beginner and intermediate terrain, along with an entire program to teach newbies. It’s a lot different riding a bike on a single track, avoiding rocks and tree roots, explained program director Rick Sokoloff, who gave my husband and our friend, Enesi Domi,15, a lesson one morning on a recent visit. “A lot more work than I thought it would be,” said Enesi, who preferred the rush of the zip line adventure.

It’s also not as expensive as you might think, especially if you avoid the peak foliage times and come midweek with young kids who are not yet in school. Smugglers’ Notch, with its roomy condos, for example, touts the cheapest rates of the year and half-price child care from infants through age seven in its Autumn Fest deal — so you can try the zip line or play golf while the kids are happily entertained in the well-appointed Treasures Center.

Trooper loves Topnotch
Trooper loves Topnotch

We opted to stay in Stowe, one of my favorite New England towns; its historic downtown looks like what you would expect a New England town to be — white church steeple, small shops and buildings dating back more than 200 years, and plenty of good restaurants like Crop, with its in-house brewed beer and locally sourced eats. Then there are the mountain views at the recently renovated Topnotch Resort, which is not only kid-friendly (think s’mores around the fire pit at night and indoor and outdoor heated pool) but also pooch-friendly and they fashion their menus at its two restaurants from local farms. (The heirloom tomatoes honestly were nearly too pretty to eat!) I loved that we were right on the town’s five-plus-mile Rec Path along the river. There are townhouses for larger family groups and a great award-winning spa that offers treatments for teens and kids should you want to bring them along. Let’s not forget the fresh-baked cookies every afternoon, the riding stables and tennis academy. “We don’t want to leave,” one mom with two young kids confessed.

That may be because “Stowe is a real mountain community with the same spirit it has always had, and a lot of history long before skiing,” says Chuck Baraw, whose family has run the Stoweflake Mountain Resort and Spa for more than 50 years. Young families will love the onsite playground and the complimentary apres-ski activities in winter.

Kids in Vermont leaves
Kids in Vermont leaves

Whatever your kids’ ages — and however long you have for a Vermont break this fall — they won’t get bored. Not with corn mazes to try, apples to pick, cider to sample, and, of course, the chance to tour Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory in nearby Waterbury. You can also watch glassblowers at work at Little River HotGlass Studio or tour a Vermont farm. For more ideas, check out the Taking the Kids Great Fall Getaways section.

Show kids where eggs and milk come from and teach them a lesson in sustainability at the nonprofit Shelburne Farms, about a 40-minute drive south of Burlington, where they can join the Chicken Parade, gather eggs at the fanciest chicken coop I’ve ever seen, card and spin wool, milk a cow, watch cheese being made, make friends with the baby goats, join in farm chores at the Children’s Farmyard or go for a walk on the hiking trails — the farm is some 1,400 acres stretching down to Lake Champlain. Teachers come from all over the country for workshops to help them learn how to inject lessons in sustainability into the classroom. Come Sept. 20 for Shelburne Farms 36th Annual Harvest Festival. Without the kids, opt for a stay at The Inn, the spectacular 24-room lakefront inn that was originally the family home.

The best part, says ArborTrek’s Mike Smith: The chance to let go in the woods and “scream your brains out.”

Just remember to break!