The little sorrel mare plunges joyfully through the powdery drifts, like a carousel horse freed from its pole. Her shaggy winter coat is frosted with snow and when she pauses at the hilltop, she snorts steam and her sides heave with the effort. Yet, she tugs at the reins, seems eager to push on.
But not yet.
The view from here needs to be savored – silvery snow and dark evergreens are cast against the blue-jay sky over the Rocky Mountains near Granby.
It’s one of several unexpected treats to be experienced while visiting Colorado guest ranches in winter. Dude, or guest, ranches have long been a mainstay of summer tourism in the West. These days, however, a handful of ranches stay open at least part of each winter, finding ways to entertain visitors within their snow-clad confines.
At Devil’s Thumb, summer guests ride horses, hike, fly-fish and go on hayrides. In winter, it’s one of the state’s premier places for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, with more than 100 kilometers of groomed trails.
After a day on the trail, catch the afternoon sleigh ride, complete with a stop for hot chocolate and marshmallows toasted over an open fire.
Luxury log cabins and a remodeled main lodge create coziness with an elegant edge. And if you crave fine dining, it’s right here.
One of Grand County’s best restaurants, the Ranch House, may be located in a barn, but the cuisine is definitely upscale. Try the Colorado lamb, naturally raised beef or free-range chicken.
On its lowest level, there’s a gorgeous uncorking and wine-tasting room and private dining room. The cellar houses one of the finest wine collections in the state.
A European-style breakfast comes with your room, and includes hard-boiled eggs, cold meats, rolls, cereals, fruit and juices.
Though some guest ranches do away with horseback riding in winter, that’s not the case at C Lazy U, one of Colorado’s top-rated venues. It has an indoor arena for days when it’s just too cold or the snow’s too deep. But on nice days, guests get to ride into the drifted hills.
Guest also can ride out on the hay wagon in the morning and help feed the herds of well-tended ponies, which come trotting up to the wagon, eager for breakfast.
Or skate on the groomed pond, or borrow snowshoes or cross-country skis and head out for the broad pastures surrounded by hills.
But the highlight of every day is what might be called “the driveway luge.”
Guests choose their ride from a herd of Flexible Flyer sleds, load them in the ranch pickup and board a van, which takes them out to the highway – and the head of the 1/3-mile-long driveway. The wide ice-covered gravel driveway slopes gradually down toward the ranch, curving just enough to keep you alert. If you go off the driveway, most likely it will be into a soft bank of snow. But if you stay on it, you can reach speeds of 25-30 mph, which seems pretty fast when your face is about six inches off the ice and your knit cap is threatening to blow off.
This is fun with a capital F.
The driveway is closed to traffic while sledders indulge in this insanity.
All these activities help burn off the lavish meals served at the C Lazy U. Breakfast might be a fat three-egg, ham and cheese omelet with all the trimmings. Lunch is likely to be a choice between two entrees – following a salad and homemade soup, finished with … mmm … homemade peach cobbler.
Dinner might feature family-style platters of fried trout, rosemary roasted chicken, and fettuccine Alfredo followed by bowls of veggies and baskets of bread. And more dessert, of course.
The rooms are as sumptuous too. Fat, soft furniture and Western-themed bed linens fill spacious rooms. Don’t miss the chocolate horse lollipop on your pillow.
There’s also a family sledding hill and a heated outdoor pool -- a warm place to soak even in the snow. A workout room, rec room with game tables, and a huge fireplace in the lodge all draw guests who want to indulge in indoor activities.
Who would have thought there’d be so much to do on a ranch in winter?
Heck, you might even come back next summer for the fishing and mountain biking.
Not to mention that homemade peach cobbler.
To contact the ranches in this story:
Devil’s Thumb Ranch: 970-726-5632 or www.devilsthumbranch.com
C Lazy U Ranch: 970-887-3344 or www.clazyu.com
Linda DuVal is the former travel editor for The Gazette, a freelance travel writer and winner of several Lowell Thomas awards. She is the co-author of Insider’s Guide to Colorado Springs and writes a local Web site, Pikes Peak on the Cheap (www.pikespeakonthecheap.com).
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