Learning about wildlife with ACES

Learning about wildlife with ACES

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Media Services

Who’s got the chocolate?

If you are hiking with kids, plenty of chocolate is always a good thing, says Jim Kravitz, the chief naturalist at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and the father of two young sons.

Kravitz took us out on a six-mile hike that started right in Aspen along the Hunter Creek Trail. This is 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. (Did you know a golden eagle’s wing span is six feet?)

After an epic hike across the 12,500-foot-high West Maroon Pass from Crested Butte, we spent a few days in Aspen at the Little Nell located at the base of Aspen Mountain and named for a 19th-century mining claim. Did I mention pets are as welcome as kids here, complete with a gourmet meal menu for pooches?

We hiked, fished, biked, got massages (the St. Regis Aspen spa even has an oxygen lounge) and ate very well. The first lady would approve. In my recent exclusive interview, she encouraged families to get outdoors this summer and stay active, while adding that a little indulgence on vacation certainly isn’t a bad thing. (You can read the full interview here.)

Standup paddleboarding is one of the many summer activities in Aspen

Standup paddleboarding is one of the many summer activities in Aspen

There’s no better place to combine activity and indulgence than in Aspen in summer. And it won’t bust your budget either. The Little Nell, for example, is offering free room nights and fly-fishing excursions, with rates as much as half-off peak winter rates. You can save even more on a condo rental in Aspen or Snowmass, with rates starting at $150 for a two-bedroom, www.stayaspensnowmass.com. At the St. Regis Aspen, kids eat free this summer. The historic Limelight — one of my favorite hotels in Colorado — is offering gift credits starting at $50 a night to use for adventures like bike rentals, fly-fishing and meals.

Lodging in Aspen, like in other Colorado ski towns is appreciably cheaper in summer and terrific condo deals in Aspen and elsewhere in ski country from Wyndham Vacation Rentals, but that’s not the only draw this time of year. There are festivals and concerts across the state, including free concerts on the Village Mall in nearby Snowmass Village and plenty of affordable activities guaranteed to please your gang, whatever their ages.

Like biking. Locals are huge mountain bikers, so we’ve at least got to give it a shot. We opt for the Rio Grande Trail — a rail to trail favorite of locals. The trail goes some 40 miles to Glenwood Springs, though we opted for a short nine-mile ride to Woody Creek Tavern — downhill all the way.

Even better, we don’t have to ride our bikes back. The Little Nell van comes and picks us up. Another morning we took a fly-fishing lesson. “If you come here in summer and don’t fish, you are really missing out,” said Will Hollister, who came here to ski for a season after college and has been here for eight years fly-fishing in the summer.

But my favorite was meeting up with the folks at ACES.

For the past 40 years, ACES has offered every kind of program imaginable — summer camps, evening hikes to see beavers, a hike past the Ashcroft ghost town. Yes, a real ghost town where 3,000 miners once lived.

ACES offers lots of inexpensive drop-in classes for kids, too. 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 are designed to help visitors delve a little deeper into the environment without giving up any of the fun. Stop along the hiking trail, he suggests, to build a tower of rocks.

I love that ACES, located in a 25-acre preserve and nature center in the heart of downtown Aspen, makes it so easy for visiting families to explore and make new friends — like the golden eagle and snowy owl, the institute’s most famous residents. They’ve lived here since they were both rescued and nursed back to health.

When eagles want a snack, the naturalist tells the giggling kids, they dive 200 miles to snatch some prey.

Wow! And all we’ve got to do is reach in a backpack. Another piece of chocolate, anyone?