From a pre-dawn hot tub on a sheltered deck I could hear the squeak of horses' hooves in the snowy pasture next to my cozy log cabin. Gentle nickering and snorts were their way of welcoming me to this winter wonderland's hushed corner, and above us a meteor streaked across the twinkling sky. It was the beginning of my first day on an operating dude ranch in northern Colorado.
Vista Verde Ranch was founded in the 1930s and remains home to more than 70 horses that are used by guests, ranch hands and breeders. After my morning soak, I joined some of the staff and other guests for breakfast in the main lodge, a massive timber-frame structure that houses a fireplace big enough to stand in, to learn what my day would entail.
When I had arrived at the ranch the previous evening in search of some much-needed solitude for a long weekend, I walked into what is known here as Happy Half. For a half-hour prior to the evening meal wine and gourmet appetizers are served to guests who mingle and chat with well-informed staff members about what activities they would like to try the following day. I had mentioned an interest in taking a trail ride, and the ranch's general manager suggested I might first enjoy a riding lesson with one of the veteran wranglers. I was reluctant, having been on horses sporadically throughout my life. I'd hoped instead for the thrill of a snowy trail ride, but his sun-browned and smile-creased face coaxed me into accepting.
Thus my first day began with a horsemanship clinic that I had expected would be mostly review. I was delighted to find that I learned more in those two hours than I'd ever known about horses. I was soon walking and jogging on my mount with more focus and dexterity than I'd ever experienced. The time flew, and then it was time to climb onto a horse-drawn sled with another wrangler to deliver hay to the horses that had greeted the day with me. They were eager for their meal, and a few bold steeds chomped into hay bales to pull them right off the sled. Others were more patient and waited for us to pause and toss their dinner to them. We rocked and bumped slowly around the pasture and back to the barn when our load was gone.
Lunch at the ranch was a social affair for guests and some of the resident dude string and students who come to this remote area for summer or winter jobs. There I met the Ohio Group, a cross-country ski club who have made this ranch their annual gathering place. These mostly retired athletes energetically explained the difference between skate, classic and telemark skiing, all of which are available at Vista Verde, so I was ready when my afternoon activity began -- backcountry and telemark skiing.
My patient guide, Brandon, took his time to fit me into proper bindings and snow gators over snug boots at the ranch's well-stocked Nordic center. We drove down the road and across the Elk River, where he pointed out Mount Zirkel, a visible landmark at the Continental Divide, and Hahn's Peak, another nearby mountain. The ranch sits between these peaks in the Routt National Forest, and its guides trek with guests daily into the 3 million acres of wilderness on snowshoes and skis. My adventure began with simple moves to learn how backcountry skis function with their grippy bottoms and wide footprints, and in time I was telemarking down pine-filled slopes between frozen cascading beaver ponds covered with fluffy snow that made a soft landing for my not-so-skilled tumbles. We proclaimed ourselves on a moose hunt and successfully found evidence of their recent presence in the area. I couldn't wait to share my stories with the Ohio Group.
When the head ski guide overheard my enthusiasm at Happy Half, he commented about backcountry skiing, "Mother Nature does the grooming, and the same Mother Nature never shows up twice."
Despite my backcountry delight, I couldn't be so close to Steamboat Springs without taking time to downhill, too. So after a second morning of equine snuffles and whinnies heard from the therapeutic hot tub I headed into town with a supply-seeking ranch hand. There I rented skis, picked up a lift ticket and soared into a quintessential Colorado bluebird sky on the Thunderhead Express. From that point I picked up trails and lifts that took me all over the mountain. Lunch at the Four Points Hut included steamy chowder that warmed me to my chilly toes. A gregarious ski-school class of students from Florida, Alabama, Illinois and Australia invited me to join their group in their search of a bear den and a previously spotted porcupine napping in a pine tree. Not wanting to miss such an opportunity, I joined them on the run that was aptly named, "Why Not?"
Back at the ranch that evening, a pre-dinner steamy soak was necessary therapy for muscles that had been too long away from the kind of exercise they were experiencing this weekend. I only had one more day to enjoy my solitude at the ranch, but I was first in line at Happy Half to sign up for more activities that would take me out into the vast wilderness surrounding me.
"This is the kind of place that makes you redefine space," I overheard one guest say.
In addition to the Ohio Group, I met a newlywed couple and a seasoned wrangler from a neighboring ranch who taught me horse lingo with his equally qualified and delightful wife. I soon sounded almost like a local when I chatted about highline feeding, pack strings, snaffle bits and panniers. Dinner with these newfound comrades-in-snow -- grilled steelhead trout with beluga lentils, wild mushrooms, charred scallions and white wine beurre blank -- topped off another day in snowy paradise with lip-smacking style.
When I walked into the lodge on my last full ranch day, I found my name on the activities whiteboard next to the much-longed-for trail ride. I was also signed up for a short sleigh ride that included a warm lap blanket and steamy cocoa, a brief spin around the ranch on a fat-tired snow bike and one last backcountry/telemark moose hunt in the woods with Brandon.
It was hard to leave the peaceful ranch where none of the eight cabins has cellular, television or Internet access, and the only way to contact the outside world is through Wi-Fi provided in the lodge. I had been regenerated by the sweat and serenity I found at Vista Verde. Brandon had said to lean into my discomfort to find my growth when he taught me to telemark. I might have fallen more often than I leaned during my stay, but I left the ranch with a good bit of growth, too.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: Multiple airlines serve Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden, Co., a 45-minute drive from Vista Verde Ranch, or you can fly into Denver and rent a car or take a shuttle for the 3.5-hour drive across the Continental Divide.
Where to stay: Vista Verde Ranch offers winter activities primarily for adults but has two weeks of winter family time that include exciting activities for children. Their summer activities are all family-friendly: www.vistaverde.com
Where to downhill: Steamboat Springs at www.steamboat.com
Where to rent: Equipment is provided for ranch activities, but to find downhill equipment for a day on the slopes, go to Steamboat Pro Shop: www.steamboat.com.
Lesley Sauls is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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