Everyone has a favorite tree. I once knew an oak tree next to a freeway in Los Angeles that had one branch so big and flat I could crawl out and lie down on it, look up through deep green foliage and leave the humming circus of city life completely behind. The memory of that tree evokes an instant connection to the natural world. There are river canyons, red desert sands, mountaintops, and dripping caves that also live in my heart, all of which stir that same connection.
At an early age, Vail native Kim Langmaid laid claim to more than a tree. She claimed the entire mountain ecosystem as her sacred place. But growing up, she saw it threatened by rampant resort “progress.” In college, while working at the Vail Nature Center, which hosts educational hikes and classes, she witnessed thousands of “aha” moments as visitors unraveled the mysteries of nature and appreciated it as never before. For Langmaid, a vision of creating a natural science school crystallized, and she opened the Gore Range Natural Science School in Red Cliff in 1998. In August 2011, the school, renamed Walking Mountains Science Center, relocated to a new five-acre campus in Avon. With its opening, Langmaid realized her vision of a permanent site for scientific study that fosters stewardship of the natural world.
Emerging like willows from the ground along Buck Creek, the center’s organic buildings are at one with its surrounds. Glass walls are nearly all that separate indoor interpretation areas from an outdoor amphitheater and creekside learning spaces. At the pond’s edge, curious children overturn rocks to find caddis flies emerging from exoskeletons and comprehend the excited movement of trout nearby. Teenagers lie down in the wildflowers and sense the buzz of the insect world. Families join a hike along the creek in search of a beaver lodge or signs of ancient people who once called the place home.
Walking Mountains hosts programs that explore Vail’s natural beauty, and each event is a chance to plant the seed of connection that Walking Mountains seeks for everyone. “School” is almost a misnomer for the adventure and companionship its programs deliver. Disguised as fun, learning takes the form of summer camps (day or overnight), custom group hikes, or conversations over bottles of wine. In summer, kids’ and family programs offer insights into the valley’s natural neighbors—bears, foxes, big cats—teaching human dwellers how to be respectful and safe while sharing these natives’ world. Winter programs shed light on how animals and plants survive freezing cold and how to read animal tracks.
For those who’ve already discovered their “tree,” Walking Mountains helps retrieve that knowledge and explore the science of mountain ecosystems. For the generations who have yet to connect, Walking Mountains is the gateway, already steering young students toward discovery.
In the White River National Forest, wading knee-high through a meadow of columbines and lupine, a six-year-old boy is steered by his grandfather toward a stout aspen. With the help of a Walking Mountains naturalist, he feels the tree and gives it a good sniff, a little white from the bark rubbing off on his nose. Back at the far side of the meadow, blindfold raised, he squints at the stand of aspens, leaves shimmering in the breeze. A broad smile lights his face, and he points. “It’s that one! I know it ’cause of the stumpy places all in a row just below where that first branch comes out!”
His special connection with one tree is now part of his being, a tangible memory with inner roots that only grow deeper. Once planted, the Walking Mountains philosophy goes, such seeds become family, and we forever feel a sense of stewardship for what they represent.
Walking Mountain Science Center: 970-827-9725; walkingmountains.org
Walking Mountains offers summer camps, speaker series, school programs, custom group excursions, and more:
Spend an evening (Thu-Sat, 7 - 8 pm, through 8/31; free) hiking around Vail Mountain as the sun begins to set. Take in panoramic vistas of the Gore and Sawatch ranges as you learn about the critters that call this special place home.
This guided immersive walk through the woods (10am - 2pm, Aug 5; $10) -- a slow and mindful ramble geared to soaking in the sounds, scents and sights of nature -- offers a rare respite from e-mail and texts and screens and other distractions that dominate today's tech-connected world.
A local astronomy guru leads a three-hour tour of our night skies (8:45pm - midnight, July 26; $20) through the lens of a computerized telescope.
This guided hourlong stroll along the banks of Gore Creek provides a welcome escape from the heat and crowds on Meadow Drive during the Vail Farmer's Market (Sundays, 11am - noon & 1:30 - 2:30pm, through 9/29; free)