Our Favorite Places

Family Vacations, Summer 1996

Our Favorite Places
By James Rodewald

Home of the oldest mountain- biking school in the country and smack in southern Vermont, Mount Snow offers some 140 miles of trails-from dirt roads to single-track-for every riding level. The routes traverse open valleys and hilly forests of evergreen, maple, and oak; a series of trails at the mountain's base lets riders get their tires dirty without long uphill grinds. Mount Snow's chairlifts are open from Memorial Day to Columbus Day, weather permitting; full-day lift access with your bike costs $28 and includes the $9 trail fee.

The mountain-biking school, founded nine years ago, will have two family sessions in 1996: July 27-28 and August 17-18 ($165 per person with bike rental, $149 without; daily lunch included). These family weekends consist of two half-day instructional sessions on how to ride uphill and downhill safely, turn on bumpy terrain, maneuver in and out of trees, and more. Families can either ride together or join groups commensurate with skill level. When you're not taking a class, try Crosstown, a good family trail that's relatively flat. The 20-mile route covers a jeep trail through a valley-with a bit of single-track mixed in as well.

The favorite campground for mountain bikers is Bald Mountain Campground, 20 minutes from Mount Snow off Vermont 30. Set in a mountain-ringed river valley, it has showers, water at every site, and beautiful views (campsites, $15-$18; call 802-365-7510). Noncampers can try the Cooper Hill Inn, a 200-year-old farmhouse just 12 minutes from Mount Snow with rooms and two-room family suites (two-night stay with breakfast, $152 for two; ages 12 and under pay an additional $15 per night; 800-783-3229 or 802-348-6333).

Bikes, both rigid and suspended, are available for rent (about $30 per day). There's a full repair shop at the Mount Snow Mountain Bike Center, where you can also pick up trail maps. Call 800-245-7669.

Even if no one in the family has gold-medal aspirations, mastering the tools of competitive mountain biking will make even the easiest of jeep trails a lot more fun. At any of Dirt Camp's 14 sessions, those skills can be learned, even if not mastered (hey-Moab wasn't built in six days). Families can check into a late-summer camp in Moab (September 1-6), when temperatures have cooled down from the height of summer. Instructors provide individualized attention during rides, as well as afternoon clinics for developing basic skills like falling, bunny hops, body positioning on corners, and preparing your bike for a race. The Dirt Camp philosophy emphasizes fun: Nothing is mandatory-this is camp, not school.

On your own, take a family cruise to the spectacular double arches known as Gemini Bridges; the eight-mile round-trip is dirt road most of the way, with very little single-track. All lodging (at the Canyonlands Inn) and meals are included in the camp's cost ($1,050 per person), as are all rides, demos, and instruction. Kids should be 14 or older. For more information, call 800-711-3478 or 303-499-3178; E-mail: dirtcamp1@aol.com.

Lake Tahoe is home to the Flume Trail, a 17-mile climb from 7,000 to 8,300 feet along a narrow trail with a sheer drop-off that rewards bikers with unparalleled vistas of Lake Tahoe. Guidebooks warn that it's too tough for kids, while a Forest Service rep reports that kids do it all the time: your judgment call. And if riding a cliff masquerading as single-track doesn't appeal to you, there's great riding here for all ability levels.

The West Shore Bike Path, a ten-mile paved trail, winds along the wooded West Shore of Lake Tahoe from Sugar Pine Point State Park to Tahoe City. Great views of the lake, nice beaches, and several small towns are accessible from the bike path, as are two connecting trails that branch north and east of Tahoe City. There's good off-road riding within a short distance from Sugar Pine Point: the McKinney-Rubicon Trail off Highway 89, dubbed a world-class off-road highway by locals; the more difficult four-mile (one-way) Ellis Peak Trail that hooks up with it; and the varied trails at Squaw Valley Bike Park, where a cable- car ride to the High Camp Bath and Tennis Club provides easy access to trails for all riding levels. A suggested route for families here is the High Camp Loop, a wide trail that cruises through sprawling meadows with lake views. Prices at the park are $19 for one ride, $26 for all day; call 800-545-4350 or 916-583-5585.

Camping is available at Sugar Pine Point (campsites, about $15; call 916-525-7982 or 800-444-7275), which has piped water, flush toilets, pay showers, and a swimming beach and pier for day use. Another nearby option, the Kaspian Campground (campsites, $10; call 916-544-5994 or 800-280-2267), gets some highway noise but offers proximity to trails. From there you can follow the paved bike path or tackle Blackwood Canyon Road, a four-mile gradual uphill grade followed by three miles of steep switchbacks toward Barker Pass. Where the pavement ends, the Ellis Peak Trail begins. This is not a ride for the faint of lung, but the views are spectacular. If you're feeling adventurous, you can always head for the Flume Trail-but pack your parachute. For more information, contact the Lake Tahoe Visitors Center at 916-573-2674.

Texas in the summer may sound like hell, but Kerr County, in the heart of Texas Hill Country west of Austin and San Antonio, is an exception. Even in the dog days, Hill Country nights are cool, with comfortable days and low humidity. The 5,400-acre Hill Country State Natural Area has more than 30 miles of trails, most of which are open to mountain biking. Three loop rides, all of which intersect and can be shortened to less-difficult out-and-backs, make up the bulk of the great riding here. The seven-mile North Loop switches from single- to double-track as it climbs through forest to Cougar Canyon Overlook. The West Loop offers two options: the 5.3-mile smooth double-track, with no big hills or obstacles, and the 6.8-mile track through a panorama of hills. The South Loop covers 6.6 miles and, starting at a county road, leads to double-track, then single- track down a rocky slope that crosses deep woodland groves.

Though there's plenty of challenging terrain, beginners should be fine if they hike around the most difficult sections. Campsites are primitive (no water or electricity), but the preserve's proximity to Bandera (a half-hour drive) and Kerrville (about an hour's drive) means easy access to civilization. Camping is by permit and is available only on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. The Hill Country State Natural Area (210-796-4413) is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Noncampers can stay at the funky Horseshoe Inn, three miles north of Bandera on Texas 173 (doubles, $35-$45; 800-364-3833) or the River Front Motel in Bandera, with 11 cottages suitable for families alongside a river where you can swim, fish, and canoe (doubles, $48 plus $4 per child; minimum two nights; 210-460-3690). For more information, call the Bandera Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-364-3833 or 210-796-3045.

A week of mountain biking in Crested Butte is great under any circumstances. Because the trail system is shaped like a wheel, you can head out in any direction on dirt roads or single-track-and those trails traverse the mountain, which means that neither climbs nor descents are particularly brutal. That said, there is a best time to be there this summer: Crested Butte's Fat Tire Bike Week, the granddaddy of mountain-bike festivals, celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this June 24-30.

The week's activities include special programs for kids ages seven to 13: group rides, two clinics covering single-track riding and how to maneuver over rocks and sticks, an obstacle course, and a bicycle rodeo (including the bike limbo and barrel racing). For adults there are clinics covering everything from proper breathing technique (which is crucial at this high altitude) to racing strategies, official bicycle polo, and several races. All activities, plus admission to the Saturday barbecue, are included in the $30 kids registration fee (adults pay $60, or $100 if they plan to race; call 970-349-6817 for information and registration).

For a good family ride, try Slate River Road, a relatively flat, ten- to 15-mile route that winds through fields of wildflowers en route to Paradise Divide and its stunning mountain vistas. In town, stop by the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame at the Heritage Museum (970-349-7382), which displays prototypes of early mountain bikes and the history of bike racing.

Though most nearby campgrounds don't open until July, Cement Creek Campground, five miles south of Crested Butte, opens in June (first-come, first-served; no reservations). Several condo facilities work well for families: Try the Three Seasons, with a pool and hot tub; Eagle's Nest town houses, with three levels and great views; or The Chateau, which has a clubhouse, outdoor pool, and hot tub. Rates at all three run $105-$146 per night for two- to four-bedroom units (one night is free with a seven-night stay). Call 800-821-3718 or 970-349-2448.

If planning a weeklong camping trip seems daunting, Backroads may have the answer. One of the few bicycle-touring companies that offers trips geared toward families, Backroads runs a five-day loop through the Sawtooth National Forest in central Idaho that's fully supported and extremely flexible. The trip starts at Boulder View campground, near Ketchum (about 155 miles east of Boise). Average mileage is 149, ranging from eight to 50 miles per day. There are three options: low-, average-, and high-mileage trips. If your family is divided into yearners for huge uphills and those preferring an easier day, there's always a short option with a van shuttle available. The routes wind through mountainous terrain and evergreen forest, with most on dirt roads rather than white-knuckle single-track.

Though kids as young as eight have done the trip, such precociousness is the exception. A better starting age is ten or 11. Trips this summer run July 21-26 and August 11-16; cost is $750 per person, including meals; there's a 20 percent discount for ages seven to 12, ten percent for ages 13 to 16; call 800-462-2848.

Copyright 1996, Outside magazine

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