This winter I decided to embrace snow. So when I was invited to experience the chilly thrills of Grand County, Colorado, I packed up my warmest clothes and flew to Denver to meet up with my little group of four snow friends. A two-hour shuttle ride later, we were in the Rocky Mountains. And boy, was there a lot of snow – more than twice the annual amount for late January. Grand County promised some of the best outdoor adventures in the Colorado snow. Let the snowventures begin!
Rocky Mountain National Park offers beginning and intermediate guided snowshoe tours each week. Volunteer Sam Crane led our expedition of 24 on the intermediate level hike. We only gained about 300 feet of elevation, but starting at 9,000 feet, my heart could feel every inch! Fortunately, Sam stopped frequently to tell us about the flora, fauna and geology of the area, and to let us catch our breath. As we gazed out over a frozen lake and dozens of white peaks, he narrated Colorado’s water wars. “You’re standing on white gold,” he said of the 120-inch snowfall.
We were especially intrigued by an aspen grove gashed by black bears. The deep and massive marks alerted us to the size of the resident bears. Luckily for us, they sleep in January.
Participants must bring their own gear. We rented snowshoes and poles at Never Summer Mountain Products in Grand Lake.
I’ve heard people question whether it’s cruel to make a dog pull a sled. But based upon my observations at the Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA of the Rockies, these dogs were raring to go. Barking, pawing at the ground, saying, “What’s taking you guys so long?”
This isn’t your city Y. The enormous ranch offers all kinds of fun family activities, plus food and lodging. The dogsled program is run by Steve Peterson, chaplain and head musher. Steve has 17 Alaskan huskies, a mixture of Siberian husky and various hound dogs not recognized as a breed by the American Kennel Club. But perfect for pulling sleds
Before experiencing the dogsledding, participants attend a 45-minute program about the sport. Tim Anderson regaled us with tales of wipeouts on his way to becoming a musher, and told us about the quirks of each dog. “They live to run. If they’re not running, they go nuts,” he said. One wall of the presentation room is covered by a family tree of sled dogs, with the late Yukon at the top.
The musher that day, Liv Kohnen, took us on sled rides one at a time. When it was my turn, I stood behind her on the sled, holding onto the handles – tightly. Those dogs took off like they’d caught sight of the world’s biggest Milk-Bone. Wiping out seemed like a real possibility. Tim’s words came back to me: “You never want to underestimate the dogs and their power.” Liv, however, was completely at ease, chitchatting with me while controlling nine dogs tearing down a path of gleaming snow. Originally from Saint Louis, the young musher has been working with dogs for two and a half years now. She plans to eventually have her own team of six. “I take care of Steve’s dogs now,” she said. “Seventeen is too much work!”
A complete ski newbie, I turned to ski instructor Sarai Reed of Devil’s Thumb Ranch for guidance. She belongs to a local family who is renowned for their Nordic skiing (aka cross country) prowess.
Devil’s Thumb Ranch is a knock-out property with 125 miles of trails. Winter brings skiers and snowshoers, while hikers and mountain bikers dominate the summer. The ranch’s image is luxurious but unpretentious and environmentally friendly. Indeed, Devil’s Thumb is one of the leading solar energy producers in the state.
I was a little nervous about trying to ski, especially since I was with three experienced skiers and didn’t want to hold them back. But Sarai was very patient and experienced. We went out on a fairly flat trail and she conscientiously split her time between us, skiing back and forth to instruct at our various levels. With her basic instructions on classic style Nordic skiing – knees bent, weight forward, push off with one foot, then the other – I managed to move along the snow like a jerky robot. But an upright robot, so I felt very successful. My more experienced comrades said she gave them excellent tips, too.
Best thing after skiing? A visit to Devil’s Thumb Spa for a massage or facial and some sauna time.
Ride a Snow Cat
Should a non-downhill skier bother to visit a major ski resort? Winter Park Resort offers the chance to take a snow cat tour for those of us more comfortable with skiing as a spectator sport.
Snow cats are tracked vehicles with enclosed cabs that are designed to move snow. Winter Park has 25 of them used to groom trails. While I’d seen one in The Shining, I’d never ridden in a snow cat.
My two favorite things about the tour were the chance to get an overview of a major ski resort’s layout, and the chance to watch skiers and snowboarders up close. At Winter Park, which opened in 1940, even the beginner slopes looked impossibly steep. Skiers ranged from tiny tots who didn’t have far to fall, to experts who flew down the slopes. Both skiers and snowboarders took extra chances with their lives and bones in several terrain parks featuring jumps and miscellaneous hazards. The tour also provides a crash course in ski fashions.
I’m more of a quiet-in-the-woods type of person, and I don’t love driving, so snowmobiling wouldn’t be my first choice of activities. But I took a tour up the Continental Divide and saw views I’ll never forget. Grand Adventures snowmobile tours has two-seater snowmobiles.
The machines are fairly easy to operate, but if you prefer being a passenger, opt for the backseat.
We climbed a couple of thousand feet to an elevation of 11,800, where we were pelted by ice pellets that stung our foreheads like needles. Grand Adventures had fitted us out in hideous, saggy-crotched one-piece suits and helmets, but at that elevation in January I prized warmth over fashion.
There we stood, wind zinging, postcard-perfect Colorado mountains everywhere we looked, laughing at the stinging ice and posing for cheesy photos in our stupid suits. Embracing winter. It was joyous.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.