On a hiking trail in the Green Mountain State

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services

The kids make it look so easy.

The steep climb up the slick rocks — 770 vertical feet — doesn’t phase them, nor scrambling without footholds or squeezing between two boulders. “Hard but fun,” a trio of 9-year-old boys declare, as they race ahead. “Definitely worth it,” their older sisters add, as they trail close behind them.

The only whining I hear on the trail is from grown-ups unprepared for the challenge. Even little ones are game, said Susan Gallagher of Wilmette, Ill., who is hiking with her husband, friends and kids, who range in age from 5 to 8. “They really have done great,” she said. Their only problem occurred when one sibling stepped on another’s heel.

We’re hiking up Mt. Mansfield in Stowe, Vt., (www.stowe.com) on a narrow trail that takes us from the top of the ski resort’s gondola across the alpine tundra to the Chin, Vermont’s highest peak, which towers 4,395 feet above sea level.

The views are spectacular. We can see Canada, New York, New Hampshire and Vermont. “Kids are really excited when they get up here,” says Hannah Court, a University of Vermont student working at the summit for the Green Mountain Club (www.greenmountainclub.com).

Vermont — and Stowe in particular — can offer as perfect a vacation destination as you’re going to find with kids this summer because once you get here you won’t have to guzzle gas. You’ll be too busy hiking, biking (Stowe has more than five miles of recreational path, complete with swimming holes where kids can jump in at will), fishing, playing golf or tennis, kayaking, eating ice cream (a must-see is the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour (www.benjerry.com). Go eat at Gracie’s Restaurant and Gourmutt Shop (www.gracies.com) with its excellent burgers and playful dog motif.

Did I forget anything? Hot-air ballooning, spas, (Stowe, with less than 5,000 residents, now has three, including the new wellness program at Stowe Mountain Lodge), an outdoor concert, alpine slides, the bungee trampoline at Spruce Peak at Stowe Mountain Resort. Come to Stowe the weekend of Aug 8 to 10 for the Antique and Classic Car Meet complete with parade, model car contest and Oldies Street Dance and Block Party. (Visit www.gostowe.com and check out the KidZone where local middle-schoolers give visiting kids the 411 on what to see and do in their town.)

If someone in your family has a disability, it does not have to deter you from an outdoors-oriented getaway. Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports (www.vermontadaptive.org) can arrange for you to kayak, canoe, horseback ride and more.

If it rains, there are plenty of kid-friendly museums like the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vt., (www.montshire.org) and ECHO, a new lake aquarium and science center in Burlington (www.echovermont.org).

Another plus about Vermont: No matter what your budget, you will find a fun place to stay, including a kid-friendly bed and breakfast like The Wildflower Inn (www.wildflowerinn.com), Smugglers’ Notch Resort (www.smuggs.com), with its roomy condos and morning-till-night organized activities, the brand-new deluxe Stowe Mountain Lodge (www.stowemountainlodge.com) complete with guided family hikes, spa treatments for kids and pampering for your pooch — ask about the packages that include a gas card — or the Courtyard by Marriott (www.marriott.com) in Burlington, which overlooks Lake Champlain. (Visit www.celebratechamplain.org.)

For a little nostalgia, stay at the Von Trapp Family Lodge (www.trappfamily.com) in Stowe where Sam Von Trapp, youngest grandson of Maria Von Trapp, made famous by Julie Andrews’ portrayal in the “Sound of Music,” will pose for a photo, when he’s not busy adding mountain bike trails to the extensive property. “It seemed the next logical thing,” said Von Trapp over dinner in a dining room packed with families.

Vermont (www.vermont.org) is the kind of place where the kids — and you — can step out of your comfort zone and try something new like kayaking or mountain biking, milking a cow, taking a harp lesson or joining a kids’ fishing derby at Trapp Family Lodge, even dog sledding in summer (www.dogsledridesvermont.com).

You won’t have to arrange organized (read that expensive) activities every hour of the day either and can kick back and explore on foot, on bikes, on rollerblades and in all variety of boats.

For example, if you are staying near Burlington, Vermont’s biggest city with just 40,000 people (about a 45-minute drive from Stowe and an hour from Montreal), you can play on and around Lake Champlain, which borders Vermont, New York and Quebec (and is, legend has it, also home to Champ, a mysterious water creature). Take a sailing lesson or a boat cruise, ride bikes on the Lake Champlain Bikeways, (www.champlainbikeways.org).

Stop for a crepe at Skinny Pancake (www.skinnypancake.com) right near the waterfront park. Stroll along the bricked streets — pedestrian only — of the four-block-long Church Street Marketplace, which offers plenty of shops and good eats. (We liked Leunig’s Bistro and Cafe (www.leunigsbistro.com) so much that we went there twice.

Just remember, if you are going hiking or biking, don’t forget to take along water and snacks, says Matt Hesser, the recreation manager at the Stowe Mountain Lodge. Hesser designs guided hikes with families in mind. Don’t make a hike into a forced march either, he adds. “For most kids under 10, an hour is enough!”

And if you’ve got young kids and you’re not governed by school schedules, consider a fall weekend getaway to Vermont, before the fall foliage crowd shows up in October. (Check out the AutumnFest package at Smugglers’ Notch resort (www.smuggs.com), which includes a free night and the lowest prices of the year.

“It’s my favorite time,” one local mom said.

See you on the trail. I’ll be the one gobbling the M&Ms.