Simon Says: Ski Kidtopia

The snow fort at Keystone is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to kid-friendly features.
The snow fort at Keystone is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to kid-friendly features.

So, maybe you are thinking about getting your kid started on skis?  Or maybe you already ski with your kids but are getting bored of Loveland? Regardless, I have one word for you if you have young children: Keystone. If you are a Denverite with the budget for an Epic Pass, you already know how awesome Keystone is (it’s a huge mountain and premier resort-what’s not to love?), but if you are like us (at least the way we were), Keystone is the last place on your list.  TOO EXPENSIVE, am I right? But as we bemoaned our son turning 6 (i.e. no more free lift tickets) and mulled over a decision between four packs at Winter Park or season passes at Loveland, a new option became available: the Keystone A-Basin Pass. Surprisingly, it’s one of the cheaper season passes out there, with the tradeoff being some blackout dates (i.e. the days we wouldn’t touch the mountain with a 10-ft ski pole because we hate the crowds).  It was a no-brainier for us, especially given that we had friends with a place to stay in nearby Silverthorne.  So, we took a deep breath and took the plunge, getting our first-ever season passes, hoping we didn’t just make a huge financial mistake. 

Where else does a bunny hill have views like this!?
Where else does a bunny hill have views like this!?

In previous years, we had skied and done lessons at Winter Park, Copper, Loveland and A-Basin.  We also know devotees to Breckenridge, Vail and Beaver Creek.  Experienced skiers all have their favorites, and for various, very good reasons. I have no intention of arguing with these folks. But for anyone with children, especially if they are wary of the schlep from the car with the gear, long and annoying lift lines, and children’s short attention spans (all of which applied to me), Keystone really is a “Kidtopia.”  Here are my 10 favorite things about Keystone:

1)    Close, free, “family” parking: we arrived nice and early (i.e. before 9 AM) but were concerned how full the lot was already… until the parking folks saw that we had four people in the car and directed us to super prime parking in the front!  Make sure you pack four or more in your car to take advantage of this feature.  If you don’t like the walk from the free parking, there’s also an uber-close skier drop-off point right at the gondola (and expensive paid parking there as well).

2)    Lots of free wagons: Near our free parking spot was a lovely collection of little wagons explicitly for hauling “gear and kids”.  Our son loves this – both riding and pulling.

3)    Clean and bright bathrooms: Our son would rather constipate himself than go in a public toilet, but these are an exception – plus, there are lots of stalls, so even on a busy day there is rarely a wait.

Riding the gondola is fun and great for sightseeing
Riding the gondola is fun enough to be it’s own activity

4)    Help with lift lines: Our son is super friendly; when we arrived he went right up to an attendant to say hello.  To my surprise, this staff person asked if our party was ready to get on the lift and then escorted us near the front of the line!  I don’t know if this is a policy for pass holders or the result of our son’s charms, but it certainly charmed me.

5)    Help on the lift: Of course, the enclosed gondola is a lovely, easy way to get to the top (or bottom), but even when we needed to take an open chair, I was impressed how adept the staff were at helping our little person get on, even when we forgot to ask. We have three years of experience with this, and I can tell you that you can’t find this consistency of skill at every mountain. We have many near misses of falls off of chairs (at other resorts) to attest to that.

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This isn’t your backyard snow fort!

6)    SNOW FORT: Yes, this creation at the top of the mountain really is quite something and has gotten more interesting and fun each year.  This year there are several slides, two mazes, tunnels, and lots of area to explore. Our son has spent an hour on it at a time, basically until we drag him off. When he has had it with skiing, we can take turns supervising him while the other person skis (yes, our Verizon phones work all over the mountain, unlike at some places).

7)    ADVENTURE ZONES: I’m putting these last two in caps because that is how our son would say them, with gusto.  There are several places at Keystone with neat, easy terrain set up for kids – tunnels, wide paths through the trees, mini bumps, you name it.  And where else is there a bunny hill with vista views, not to mention a covered magic carpet?

8)    Speed monitoring: As a nervous parent, I really appreciate the “School Yard”, a super long trail marked as a “family trail”- it, like several others, have large signs to this effect and are actually monitored for speed and by live staff.

Ice skating and cookie hour at Dercum was a big hit with our family
Ice skating and cookie hour at Dercum was a big hit with our family

9)    Cookie Hour at Dercum square skating rink: Every day at 4 PM they bring out a large tray of chocolate chip cookies.  Free.  Nothing tastes better than that.  Plus, Dercum is free to skate on if you have your own skates ($10 to rent for kids), and there are lots of traffic cones to push around the ice if your balance isn’t so good. Our son decided skating is now his favorite sport after an hour of fun there.  I think the cookies and fire-pit nailed it.

10) Kid-friendly staff: Wherever we went, staff were not only nice to our kid, they knew how to be helpful to us.  The pièce de résistance for me was the grandfatherly staff person who offered to haul our kid and gear for us (at least 100 yards) and then refused a tip.  Two tired mamas and an exhausted kid could then be a happy family, too.

…And I could go on. Honestly, there’s the tubing hill, the play structures at the base, the randomly handed out tissues and candies, the xylophones (no kidding)… Okay, it wasn’t all perfect: I was very disappointed that the Summit House didn’t have a microwave for our packed lunch (“it’s a restaurant”; you can go down to the Mountain House for the brown bag area and staff will warm up your burrito for you in the tiny microwave they have behind the counter).  Also, the pass we have only gives you a discount on food after 2pm. But that’s about it. I’m sold (no one even asked me to write this article!).

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Covered “magic carpets” at the bunny hill and tubing hills are especially nice on windy days

Okay, and then there’s that other mountain we can do, Arapahoe (“A”) Basin, especially when we want a break from swimming and biking come summer (it has been known to close as late as June!).  Nowhere can you park closer to the lift for free than A Basin, and the lodge has an accessible microwave.  Oh, and “buddy tickets” (for your friends who don’t have season passes) and the lessons are reasonably priced there.  In many respects, it shines exactly because it is a very different mountain experience than Keystone.

Regardless of your tastes, skiing and boarding are wonderful sports that are athletic and allow you to appreciate the beautiful outdoors, with opportunities to push and test yourself.  Most important to me, you can enjoy them with your children into their adulthood. Although downhill mountain sports aren’t the cheapest of pastimes, that payoff is worth the investment of time and effort to me.  And the kid-friendly features of a resort like Keystone make it all the easier to do.  Happy, safe skiing and riding, everyone!

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