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Gnarled birch trees flash brilliant yellow in Utah. (Photograph by Joe Haynie, My Shot)

Turn a New Leaf on Fall with the Kids

When it comes to fall foliage drives, New England gets all the attention – some of it undeserved.

If you’re traveling with children who are easily distracted (like we are), a simple trip along Vermont’s winding roads just won’t cut it. A never-ending chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs” from the adults will only reinforce your kids’ belief that foliage tours are for fuddy-duddies.

That’s why we dropped in to Cottonwood Canyon, just a short drive southwest of Salt Lake City. We stayed in a rental cabin only a stone’s throw from the critically acclaimed ski resorts Alta, Snowbird, Solitude, and Park City.

The foliage there provides a fascinating backdrop to the epic action-adventure that is Utah’s great outdoors.

Look! There’s a waterfall. What’s that over there? An elk? A bear! Mind that cliff.

Where else can you go for a half-mile hike and gain more than 400 feet in altitude without rock-climbing gear?

Our hike in the Wasatch National Forest started late in the afternoon. The mountainside was ablaze in autumn colors, with golden birch leaves mingling with the burnt orange and raging reds of the maples.

Our two oldest sons fancy themselves mountaineers, and blazed a trail ahead of us. Meanwhile, our five-year-old daughter took it upon herself to collect every rock and leaf she could find.

Why? Who knows.

My wife and I were made to endure fall foliage “adventures” with our respective parents, so we were sensitive to the fact that these tours — if presented in the wrong way — could turn fall into a dreaded season. It’s bad enough that it’s the time of year that school begins, summer vacation’s over, and the weather turns cold. That’s why we didn’t mention the words fall or leaves as we described the trip we would be taking.

And yet…

“Look at the leaves!,” screamed our middle child, Iden.

“Did someone paint them?,” our daughter asked.

“I need to get a picture of this,” our oldest son exclaimed, pointing his Sony Bloggy at a brilliant branch of bright-yellow birch leaves.

Is that all it takes? Give your kids a little peep of the leaves and the rest will follow?

Nah. It’s not that simple.

Drag your offspring into the woods in late September and they are more likely to feel more like Hansel and Gretel than future members of the Audubon Society.

So go with it. Make it an adventure and maybe, just maybe, they’ll understand what makes the changing of the seasons so special.

You can’t do it in one hike, or in one day. A few days later, we drove across Utah and checked into another vacation rental in Breckenridge, Colorado, where a different kind of fall was in full swing.

Late fall, or so it looked.

Some leaves had already dropped from the trees and snow could be seen on the mountaintops. The ski season begins in early November, we were told.

At such a high altitude, you can see autumn happening — and you can feel it, too.

It wasn’t at all like Lake Tahoe, where summer still seemed to be raging as we drove the winding road from our mountain chalet to Mount Rose a few days earlier.

To stroll along one of the popular beaches in Incline Village, Nevada, is to take in all the sights and sounds of a long-gone summer. There were paddle boarders out on the water giving the lake an almost Hawaiian feel, and even folks splashing and swimming along the coast. Once ski season starts (and, eventually, it will), they’ll be replaced by snowmobiles and ice skaters.

Yet, a funny thing happened on our drive from Nevada to Colorado: the kids played fewer video games and asked more questions about the landscape emerging around them.

Out West it’s hard to throw a rock without hitting a national park, which gave us plenty to talk about — from geological trivia to extinct prehistoric creatures. The kids had more and more to say, though we heard a lot less of the “are we there yet.”

Maybe that’s the real lesson of our foliage tour: Appreciating the outdoors isn’t something you should force or teach, it’s something that’s best experienced organically. Seeing the western states as the seasons turned – that’s something we wish our parents had inflicted on us.

Mom, Dad? It’s not too late.