A Ranch in Winter by Eileen Ogintz
Think four-wheel drive — on skis.
I’m floating over five feet of snow in the wilderness on skis that are slightly fatter than traditional cross-country skis.
This isn’t the kind of skiing where a snowcat takes you up a ski slope so you can ski down in deep powder as fast as you can. Nor is this the kind of backcountry experience my kids enjoy where you sling your skis on your back and hike up the mountain for the glory of skiing down — “working for your turns,” as they call it.
Vista Verde Ranch (www.vistaverde.com), 25 miles north of Steamboat Springs on some 560 pristine acres at 7,800 feet above sea level, is a place to literally slow down and enjoy the scenery from the back of a horse or on snowshoes or backcountry skis away from crowds and cars. It’s also a good place to introduce kids to snow, if you aren’t sure how they’ll take to a major ski resort like Steamboat (www.steamboat.com) an hour’s drive away.
Atlanta grandparents Bill and Sally Smith brought their daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren from Atlanta for a few days for just that reason. They expected to go over to Steamboat to downhill ski part of the time, “But we never made it. We were having too much fun,” said Bill. “The kids loved every bit of it and didn’t want to leave,” he said, after the younger members of the family had departed.
Vista Verde Ranch has just nine well-appointed log cabins, each named for a surrounding mountain. Ours is called Farwell. (Think wood-burning stoves, oh-so-comfy beds with patchwork quilts, deck hot tubs and astounding mountain views.)
Of course, none of this comes cheap. Figure on more than $1,300 a night for a family of four all-inclusive, though there are much less expensive deals if you choose your dates wisely. (Come Jan. 2 to March 12 and pay regular rate for the first two guests and half off for additional ones.)
And if you don’t want all of the guided excursions, rates start at $195 a person, including meals, equipment and evening programs. At a major ski resort you could spend more without the personal attention. (Mention Taking the Kids and get an additional $50 off. The B&B rates work the same for the kids — first two people at rack rate, additional guests 1/2 off.)
There is room for just 45 guests; today there are just about 20 of us. There’s a new main log lodge with a huge fireplace that seems to invite you to stretch out on the big couches, as well as a new indoor arena — to help teach riding (there are 90 horses here). “It has gotten used 10 times more than we expected,” said Peggy Throgmartin, who, along with her husband, has owned the ranch for the last four years.
“This is my husband’s dream since he was seven,” said Peggy, adding that it took till they were in their 50s to make it happen — here at Vista Verde Ranch. Throgmartin, scion of an Indiana family business now in its fourth generation, and his wife searched all over the West for the right place to serve as a gathering place for their own three grown children. “We are a very close family and we wanted a place where the family would want to come. That was a big factor,” she said. “As soon as we drove up the driveway, we knew this was the place.”
The three young teens we’re traveling with were a bit more skeptical at first wondering if they’d be bored without downhill snow sports. I’m traveling with my cousins Carl and Dana Weinberg and their two kids, as well as another friend and her teenage son. We opted to try the ranch for a couple of days in the middle of a 10-day ski trip.
Maddie King, 11, whose parents oversee the activities, is convinced a kid would be crazy not to love the place. “It is a ball to get out in nature and have snow all over you,” she says. There’s nothing better either than having a snowcat pull you back up the hill you’ve just sledded down. Sledding, Maddie declares, is her favorite thing to do on the ranch.
True to her word, our teens perk up immediately. Because the ranch is all-inclusive, there are drinks and snacks in the cabin fridge — and the kids have their pick of activities, not to mention cookies. I love that for a few days, the only decisions we have to make is whether we want to ski or snowshoe or whether we want fish or lamb for dinner. (Or whether the kids want to eat with us or with the other kids.)
We spend the morning in the backcountry touring on skis, through the trees in the deep snow on National Forest land that surrounds the ranch. We end up at an ice cave built by local school children. So quiet! So beautiful!
“Nothing better than being outside on a day like this,” says our enthusiastic guide, Jeff Ballantyne, who spends summers fighting fires with the U.S. Forest Service. He gestures to the fresh snow, the quivering Aspens, the sun trying unsuccessfully to peak through the clouds as the snow continues to fall. There are 30 guest ranches in Colorado but Vista Verde is just one of a handful that is open in winter and summer. (For more information on ranches, visit www.duderanch.org).
One afternoon, we go out horseback riding — good thing we were dressed warmly. We take a tour of the ranch, past the original cabin built by homesteaders early on in the 20th century. It’s snowing gently; the air is cold and fresh. We’re limited to a narrow trail that the ranch staff has blown out for the horses, but I don’t mind the lazy pace. We mosey along happily.
The place forces you to get unplugged — there is Wi-Fi, but cell service is spotty. We go deep in the backcountry to snowshoe or ski where we won’t see another soul. Another plus: This is a safe place where kids can have some freedom and try new things — with or without their parents by their side.
The atmosphere is conducive to making new friends too, whether you’re nine or 49. All of the kids ate dinner together and then watched a movie while the adults shared a large table and an impressive meal that included tamales, guinea hen with rice pilaf, Napoleons filled with peanut butter pastry cream and an assortment of sorbets.
The good news: We’ll work off the calories snowshoeing tomorrow. The other good news: The teens are smiling.
For more on Eileen’s winter Colorado adventure, read her trip diary at www.takingthekids.com and also follow “taking the kids” on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.