“Look down at this, boys,” she says, kneeling to pick up what appear to me as tiny wisps of dry, inch-long pieces of grass camouflaged against the mud and dry shrubbery, now brown and bare in these last crisp days of fall. “What do you think this is?”
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They crouch down for a closer look at the patch in question, picking up pieces and rolling them between thumb and forefinger, when one asks, “Is it animal hair?”
“Yes,” she says. “This is a kill site. I think a mountain lion must’ve caught a deer or elk right here and carted off the body because I’ve never seen the carcass. Sometimes the cats will even drag a body up a tree. See if you can spot one as we hike.”They look up in stunned silence, studying the tops of pine trees with rapt attention a school teacher could only dream of in a classroom. Except Hasbrouck-Schmidt is a teacher, and the mountains are her classroom.
“Should we keep looking for answers on your scavenger hunt?” she asks, my boys returning their attention to the trail, temporarily giving up their morbidly curious search for lofty, feline snack stashes.
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This 2.5-mile, guided hike near Minturn, roughly 15 minutes southwest of Vail, is part of the family-friendly programming offered at the legendary Sonnenalp, a five-star hotel located just a 5-minutes’ walk from the Gondola One ski elevator.
To be sure, its stellar location and luxury service are some of the many reasons the Sonnenalp attracts visitors worldwide. But what truly sets apart this Bavarian Alps gem from the competition? Its outdoor-activities programs, offered exclusively to guests.
“The Sonnenalp Hotel is the only hotel in Vail that carries a special-uses permit with the U.S. Forest Services,” says Hasbrouck-Schmidt, a former elementary-school art teacher. “This allows us to offer some amazing experiences for our visiting groups. We are able to coordinate guided snowshoe (and hiking) trips for all levels in the National Forest.”Translation? The hotel holds a permit to 12 trails that on which only its staff can guide visitors. Sure, anyone in the public can access the trails independently—we encountered a couple fellow hikers and pups on the trail—but Sonnenalp is the sole concessionaire.
“Other hotels call all the time to see if their guests can pay for one of our adventures,” Hasbrouck-Schmidt says. “I always have to tell them, ‘No.’”
In addition to the “scavenger hunt” hike, guests can select from a variety of activities, from a hike-and-paint adventure with a local artist to a snowshoe journey with a stop at a “snow lounge,” complete with a fire pit, snacks and cocktails.
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Or opt for the popular weekly “alternative dining” experience: a 1-mile snowshoe hike to a cookhouse for an off-the-grid, four-course meal by the heat of a wood-burning stove, which runs through winter.For parents needing some kid-free time, the Sonnenalp Kids Club offers activities in a brightly-decorated, dedicated room filled with toys and art supplies for guests as young as 3 (toilet trained) and a game room next door, where older kids can play games like air hockey and ping pong. Some activities also take place outside, including guided hikes on Vail Mountain, to get the kids active and moving outside of the hotel.
The Sonnenalp philosophy is to offer unique programs that provide families unique, authentic experiences in the great outdoors.
“I look at it as: If I am trying to go out on my day off and enjoy (the outdoors), what would I be doing?” Hasbrouck-Schmidt says. “That’s what my goal is to provide my guests.”
The Sonnenalp Kids’ Club offers a full schedule of daily activities each week, from kids’ club and s’mores to a “pizza, movie and play night” (includes four hours of supervision with dinner for $50 per child).
About Sonnenalp Hotel
The inspiration for the Sonnenalp Hotel began around the turn of the 20th Century with the Sonnenalp Germany in Ofterschwang, Germany. Burgeoning from a modest bed and breakfast to a celebrated hotel and resort, the Faessler family brought their legendary brand of European hospitality and guest service to Vail some 40 years ago.
While the two hotels worlds apart, both Sonnenalps share a welcoming spirit passed down through five generations of Faesslers. Hotel accommodations range from standard hotel rooms to two-level suites and four-bedroom residences. For more information, visit the Sonnenalp Hotel website.
Free Family Activities In Vail
There are plenty of free activities and spots for Vail-area visitors, but two of our favorites are within short walking distance from the Sonnenalp Hotel.
First is the Colorado Snowsports Museum Hall of Fame, the newly remodeled museum housing an extensive collection of ski and snowboard artifacts, as well as history on the area’s famed 10th Mountain Division (about .4 miles east).
Second is the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens—named after the famous Vail-area resident and former First Lady—at 8,250 feet, the highest botanical gardens in the U.S., which celebrates the beauty and diversity of high-alpine flora (about .8 miles east). Open year-round.
Vail Family Food Faves
Our go-to dinner in Vail is at Pazzo’s Pizzeria, just a .3-mile walk east from the hotel, the ideal standby for carryout to enjoy the hotel by the room’s fireside.
For a fancier feast, my kids adored dining at the Terra Bistro, located in the Vail Mountain Lodge. I could go on about the amazing food—like the gnocchi with chestnuts and goat cheese or the Flat Iron chicken breast—but what my boys really remember is the list of kid-friendly mocktails like the Grape Ape (about .6 miles east).
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Note: Sonnenalp Hotel provided complimentary accommodations and nature hike activity for the purposes of this article.
Freelance writer Heather Mundt lives in Longmont, Colo., with her husband and two boys. She writes about traveling with kids on her site, Momfari.com, inspiring parents to get out and discover the world with their children.