By Moon Denver, Boulder & Colorado Springs author, Mindy Sink
Colorado is well known for its tall mountains and downhill skiing, but there is a lot more to do here in winter than fly down the snow-covered slopes. Consider dog-sledding, horseback riding, a stay at a luxury dude ranch, ice climbing, soaking in hot springs, and more activities as an alternative to alpine ski days.
Steamboat Springs is in the northwest part of the state and is known for not just ski hills but also ski jumping on Howelsen Hill Ski Area. There are two hot springs to choose from here—Old Town Hot Springs in town and Strawberry Hot Springs, a 7-mile drive up a dirt road from town (4-wheel drive required in winter). The hot springs can be a destination themselves or a welcome downtime soak after a day of physical activity.
For those who want to getaway for true winter serenity though, the Home Ranch is a mere 17-mile drive from Steamboat Springs in Clark. Dude ranches are usually considered summer destinations, but up here the magic really begins when the snow is falling.
The Home Ranch is an all-inclusive guest ranch with designation from Relais & Chateaux, an association of hotels and restaurants around the world that are known for their sophistication and unique dining experiences. Guests receive complimentary transportation when they fly in to the local airport in Hayden just outside of Steamboat Springs; there are direct flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Beach as well as Denver. The ranch is about a 3-hour drive from Denver when roads are dry.
The 14-room ranch includes guest cabins and a lodge with on-site amenities such as a Nordic hut with snowshoes, cross-country skis, and guides to show you around on the 20 miles of private trails; a hot tub (next to the pool for summer visitors and at some cabins); a tubing hill; a barn with horses that can be taken out for guided rides or fed during a sleigh ride. When the snow is piled so high that trail lights only glow from beneath the glistening white powder at night, the Home Ranch feels like a winter wonderland where each guest can unwind and recharge in solitude.
The Home Ranch in Clark
Every visitor is welcomed with freshly-baked cookies on a plate in the lodge, which is just a hint of what awaits guest for each meal. The ranch has its own farm so menus are a reflection of what is grown and raised here with a mix of the exotic, and guests can schedule a cooking class with the chef. While the ambiance is all Western, dishes are a blend of world cuisines with a wine list to match.
In partnership with a local outfitter, Grizzle-T Dog & Sled Works, ranch guests can plan for a morning of dog sledding in nearby Milner. For those who think they might be missing out on thrills skiing, give dog sledding a try! You can choose between experiences based on distance and time as well as whether you drive your own dog team or are driven by a guide. This family-owned operation is run by people with a history of participating in the Alaskan Iditarod.
When you return from the trails—whether from horseback riding through the snow, cross-country skiing, or dogsledding—the Home Ranch will have a hearty meal, a fine drink, and some live music all next to a cozy fire waiting just for you.
Ice Climbing Park in Ouray
The town of Ouray feels like it’s at the end of the road as it nestles right into the base of the San Juan Mountains. Downhill skiers head for Telluride, which lies to the west on the other side of the mountains, or hire a guide for backcountry skiing.
Ouray is known for its Ice Park, a non-profit manmade ice climbing venue that attracts world class athletes and novices alike. The trick to visiting this park is that opening and closing dates are completely weather-dependent. While the park is manmade, with its own “ice farmers” to “grow” and harvest ice daily, Mother Nature and town water rights play a role too.
While most of the ice climbing takes place in the Uncompahgre Gorge, there is a designated area outside of the gorge for young kids to try ice climbing too. The park does not provide gear or guides, which can be reserved nearby in the town. San Juan Mountain Guides can rent equipment and has a menu of ice climbing courses to choose from; Peak Mountain Guides also has expert ice climbers who provide half and full-day experiences as well as family packages in the park.
If the climbing has you chilled, drive five minutes to the town’s outdoor hot springs pool. The Ouray Hot Springs are open year-round with three pools open in winter. With 13,000-foot peaks surrounding you, maybe with snow falling gently in the warm pool, it feels like you’re in a snow globe world as you float and relax.
Ski Joring in Leadville
The town of Leadville was once a major gold and silver mining town in the mid to late 1800s, but then it went bust when the mines were empty of riches. The town lost its luster too, and it became a quaint pass-through as people drove to towns renowned for their alpine skiing such as Aspen and Crested Butte. Ski Cooper is a charming ski area with both Nordic and alpine trails and runs, which was founded by the members of the 10th Mountain Division in 1942, and it is just a 15-minute drive from Leadville.
At 10,200 feet above sea level—the highest incorporated city in the United States—Leadville faces unique challenges to draw regular tourists though.
In the 1940s, Leadville citizens adopted the unusual sport of ski joring (also spelled skijoring), in which a skier is pulled by a horse…down a snow-covered main street (aka Harrison Avenue). While you won’t be participating in this activity, just watching it is a thrill. During the competition, the skier and rider combination will go over manmade jumps, and through gates and rings. The event takes places during the annual Crystal Carnival in early March. As part of the carnival, there are the Harrison Nordic Knockout Sprints in which two skiers at a time compete by skiing the course on Harrison Avenue the night before the ski joring use this “track.”
Although the sport of ski joring originated in Norway, watching it here feels like you’re in the wild, wild west.
Moonlight Dinners at A-Basin
Arapahoe Basin (called A-Basin) is a ski resort, not a town, but in the 2018-19 ski season they introduced monthly dinners that don’t require any skiing. For the Moonlight Dinner Series, guests take a ski lift to the mid-mountain Black Mountain Lodge for a four-course buffet-style meal. Forget about the west and skiing as you dig in for “A Taste of Africa” or “Hawaiian Luau” and sample flavors of global cuisine.
Note that not all dinners include life service so guests will need to snowshoe or ski up and back down. Most dinners do include live music and entertainment too.
When it comes to winter in Colorado, adventures can be found off the slopes for those non-skiers or just skiers who want to try new things.
About the Author
Mindy Sink has roots on Colorado’s Front Range. She grew up in Boulder and moved to Denver right after high school. Growing up in the area herself, she has watched Denver grow into a full-fledged, world-class city. As a journalist, Mindy wrote about Denver and the greater Rocky Mountain region for The New York Times for more than 10 years, and her work has appeared in Sunset Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and other well-known publications. She is the author of Walking Denver and a co-author of Colorado Organic: Cooking Seasonally, Eating Locally.
Mindy explores Denver with her husband Mike and their daughter Sophie as much as possible. Whether riding bikes, visiting museums, hiking, or dining out, she is always thinking of the story she will tell about her experiences.