10/09/2012 07:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Fall Foliage Tours Turn A New Leaf (VIDEO)

When it comes to fall foliage drives, New England gets all the attention -- most of it deserved. But if you're traveling with children who are easily distracted, 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 into 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.

Out here the foliage is just a fascinating backdrop to an action-adventure epic featuring Utah's great outdoors.

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

Our hike in the Wasatch National Forest started late in the afternoon. The bright yellow and golden leaves of the birch trees mingled with the burnt orange and raging reds of the maples, making the mountainside look ablaze in autumn colors.

Our two oldest sons fancy themselves mountaineers, and for them there was plenty to scale even without any gear. (Not that we would let them anywhere near a real cliff.) Meanwhile, our five-year-old daughter took it upon herself to collect every rock and leaf not attached to a tree or to the mountain.

As children, both their parents endured fall foliage "adventures" with their perspective parents, so they were sensitive to the fact that these tours - if presented in the wrong way - could turn fall into the most dreaded season of the year. It's bad enough that school begins, summer vacation..
's over, and the weather turns cold. We didn't mention the words fall or leaves in a effort to prevent such a permanent condition in any of our kids.

"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 force them to appreciate the evidence of changing seasons and they are more likely to feel like Hansel and Gretel than future members of the Audubon Society.

Make it an adventure on the other hand and maybe, just maybe, they'll understand what makes this all 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, Colo. where a different kind of fall was in full swing.

Late fall, it looked like.

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.

Up here at altitude you can not only see the late autumn, 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 on the day of our departure a few days earlier.

To stroll along one of the popular beaches in Incline Village, Nev., is to still take in all the sights and sounds of a long-gone summer. There are paddleboarders on the water giving the lake an almost Hawaiian flair. You can even find folks splashing and swimming along the coast. Once ski season starts (and eventually, it will) they'll be replaced by snowmobiles and ice skaters.

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

As we learned, out west it's hard to throw a rock without hitting a national park and there was 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" mantra.

Maybe that's the real lesson of the fall foliage tour: It's not something you force or teach, it's something 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.