Dan Galleri, mountain host at SolVista Basin, doesn’t know what it’s like to wait in line to get in the parking lot at a ski resort.
“If I showed up at a ski resort and had to wait in line, I’d be having a bad day,” said Galleri.
Apparently, Galleri isn’t exaggerating when he says he only rides at SolVista, 2 miles off U.S. 40, about 10 minutes south of downtown Granby. And he definitely hasn’t witnessed the throngs of spring-breakers crowding the big-name resorts across Summit and Eagle counties. Otherwise, he’d know that parking lot, ticket window and lift lines are just part of the experience, especially during the busy spring season.
It’s a different scene, though, at SolVista, one of Colorado’s eight “Gems,” smaller ski areas and resorts designated affordable and family-friendly by Colorado Ski County USA. Families hang out together, the sounds of highway traffic are completely
out of earshot, a great cup of coffee costs a joyous $2 and the people are downright pleasant.
One of the ways SolVista keeps it down to earth is with volunteer mountain hosts. Galleri and Ken Taylor can’t remember the year the Broncos beat the Packers in the Super Bowl, but they’re pretty sure that’s when they began their stint as volunteers. As two of the resort’s original hosts, they’ve been returning lost gear to their owners, flowing cars through the parking lot, guiding visitors to the best trails for their abilities and helping folks out since about 1998.
“Nobody tells us what to do, we just make sure that the guests have a positive experience,” said Galleri.
I joined the two for a sunny morning snowshoe tour. We didn’t come close to covering the 15-plus miles of Nordic and snowshoe trails, but I did make new friends. Taylor showed me the marks on aspen trees where deer scraped the velvet off their antlers. I learned about the area’s winter adventure races and how to identify evidence of pine beetles in the tree bark. We stopped to admire sweeping views of the Indian Peaks Wilderness and a few hours passed quickly. With so much silence, I forgot about the ski runs close by.
“Where I get the biggest bang is on a snowshoe trip,” said Galleri. “People are just always amazed — ‘This was so beautiful, I can’t believe I never thought of trying it before.’ They thank me for twisting their arm to go.”
In a place that gets 300-plus days of sunshine a year, arm-twisting really isn’t necessary. Reservations for a guided tour are recommended, though. For $23, you get gear, a lift ride to the top and a guide. Anyone’s welcome to trek up the ski runs, but a mere $5 gets you one lift ride that drops you off right by the trail system.
After lunch, Galleri was anxious to show off the runs on his home mountain. On the Quick Draw Express lift, we chatted with a young, Midwestern mom who admitted that Sol Vista was the only place she skis. “No, wait. Tell everyone it’s terrible,” she laughed, when she found out I’d be writing about it.
While some Coloradans don’t even know where SolVista is, others recognize it as one of the state’s best-kept ski secrets.
“So many people have driven by on (U.S.) 40 a billion times and never knew it was there,” said Galleri. “For years, though, Sol Vista was the only place I’d ever gone to. It’s the family part that I like the best. I starting coming here when my kids were little and I couldn’t ski with them. I guess it’s a dad thing, hoping my kids don’t get hurt out there by some maniac. We just don’t allow maniacs. It’s family-friendly. We do everything we can to make sure a family — mom, dad, kids, grandparents — have a good day.”
It’s not just Galleri, Taylor and the other mountain hosts looking out for the guests. Instead of laughing, the liftie actually encouraged me as I nearly wiped out getting off the lift. Galleri and I cruised down a mellow groomer, perfect for my fifth day of the season. Within minutes, Galleri spotted a lost scarf, and picked it up to pass on to ski patrol. No experts flew by at 30 mph, and when I was ready to graduate to harder terrain, an entire hillside of blue runs awaited.
SolVista consists of East Mountain and West Mountain, with about 1,000 feet of vertical drop from each. Between the two, learning lifts service a small bunny hill. Greens and gentle blues cover East Mountain and mostly blacks drop from West Mountain. The setup makes it easy for newbies to gradually advance to harder terrain. And the great part for parents is that everything funnels back into the Base Lodge
In time for the opening of the 2007-2008 season, the SolVista crew made $5 million in renovations to the lodge, which includes a remodeled cafeteria with indoor and stunning outdoor seating. Additions also include a sit-down restaurant, the Slopeside Grill. It’s casual enough for a mid-day meal, but it’s also a welcome (and affordable) break from burgers and fries. Huge windows allow parents a perfect view of the bottom of East Mountain, the bunny hill and the (free!) sledding hill.
Those who may have visited SolVista years ago would be shocked by the growth. New homes dot the ranch landscape and lodge renovations seem to have cut the base parking lot in half. You’d think such major development might turn away SolVista devotees. But not Galleri.
“I think (the real estate development) is going to promote even more of a friendly place, because the people moving here are just fantastic. They’re meeting more people from the neighborhood, and they all just seem to be happy. It’s almost like being at King Soopers, where everyone asks if you’re having a good day, if you’re finding everything OK. Everybody’s in a good mood and they pass it on.
Besides families, SolVista is making appeals to the mountain bike crowd. As the snow melts and the spring mud dries, the ski hill becomes a maze of downhill and cross-country trails, all built by local riders. Colorado mountain bikers visit the resort much for the same reasons skiers do — it’s an affordable local’s secret and a great place to ride.
If You Go
SolVista Basin at Granby Ranch www.granbyranch.com
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.
If you want to swap the sun for snow this vacation, then Colorado is the destination for you. Our beautiful snow-capped mountains offer some of the best alpine scenery this side of the Atlantic. Even more, the quality of Colorado’s snow is incomparable with European resorts. Spanish or French ski slopes are typically covered with hard ice in the mornings, making it very difficult to perform turns and get grip. By lunchtime, the sun has melted the ice into a slushy mess, which slows you down and is also difficult to turn in. Colorado’s dry climate creates snow that is soft and light all day long.
Colorado has ski resorts to cater to every taste and ability, from gentle slopes for beginners to slopes that only the most daring and skilled should ski. But no matter what resort you choose, there is nothing better than taking a hot bath, having a hot chocolate or even playing party poker in your cabin, while telling your friends on Facebook about your vacation so far.
And with Colorado’s elevation, it’s always a good idea to relax and take it easy during the first days of your visit. Keep in mind that the higher altitude makes you feel the effects of your alcoholic beverage much more.
After an evening of relaxation at a Colorado ski resort, you’ll be ready to hit the slopes for more fun tomorrow.
If you happen to ride a lift in Aspen with a ruggedly handsome man who, in a German accent, quizzes you about your ski clothes — “Are zay warm?” “Do zay fit well?” “Are zay functional?” — it may be winter-clothing tycoon Klaus Obermeyer keeping in touch with consumers of the industry in which he has been a leader for more than six decades.
The president of Sport Obermeyer skis every day in Aspen, his home since 1947 when he immigrated to the U.S. from Bavaria looking for a job as an aeronautical engineer. Instead, he found an opening as a ski instructor, falling back on a sport he knew and loved since first skiing on homemade skis crafted from runners of a wooden crate at age 3.
When he arrived at the then-tiny ski hamlet, it was almost deserted. “There was snow on the ground like I had never seen except maybe at 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) in the Alps,” he said over breakfast at The Wienerstube in Aspen. “When I put my ski down, flakes flew like feathers, it was so dry. It snowed almost every night, with the sun shining in the day — a paradise for skiers, but there were no people here.”
Undaunted, he joined his friend, Austrian racer Friedel Pfeifer, Pete Seibert (who later would discover Vail) and four others who made up the first ski school in Aspen. He lived at the Jerome Hotel, skating on skis through the streets to the mountain. He remembers being followed by packs of barking dogs that were left behind by miners. “There were more dogs than people in those days,” he said.
The single-chair number one lift from the base to midway had just been completed. The second lift was a rebuilt mining tramway that dripped grease on riders so frequently that the ski company obligingly picked up dry-cleaning tabs. To ward off the cold, Obermeyer wore a “long city coat” for the 15-minute ride to midway, and then sent it back down while he skied 2 1/2 minutes to the bottom and rode up again sans coat. “I had one warm ride and one cold one,” he laughed.
Eager to earn his $10-a-day pay, he scoured the slopes for students. People were reluctant to commit to lessons, he said, because “they froze like hell.”
Ski clothing then consisted of long underwear, a sweater and unlined shell and pants, hardly enough to keep warm in the best of conditions. To keep his classes filled and students happy, he began making down parkas for them after fashioning the first one from his goose-down comforter he brought from Europe. Later, he built machines and made the first quilted parka out of shavings from the floor of a textile factory in Munich.
Severe sunburn was another problem in the high-altitude of Aspen.
“People came here in February and March for a 14-day vacation and left after two days because they sunburned so badly,” he said. So he and Pfiefer concocted Sportana, “the first suntan lotion that really worked.” To foil the sun even further, he helped develop mirrored sunglasses with a French manufacturer using vaporized metal to block the sun’s UV rays.
No idea escaped Klaus Obermeyer. His turtlenecks were the world’s first with elasticized collars and shoulders. He was the innovator of a dual layer ski boot with a soft, warm liner inside a strong rigid shell. The list goes on and on.
“There was a lot of opportunity then,” he said modestly. “There was no supply because there was really no market. So it was easy to become a supplier with very little money.” Soon dealers heard about his products at the same time the sport exploded, and demand was created. It was a classic moment of being in the right place at the right time.
Today, after scores of awards honoring the clothing pioneer and his company, the innovation continues with fabrics made from bamboo and recycled materials. “We try to step lightly on the planet,” he
Sport Obermeyer makes clothing for preschoolers to adults and is based in Aspen. www.obermeyer.com.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.
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 pulls at the reins, seeming 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.
It’s one of several unexpected treats experienced while visiting Colorado ranches in winter. Dude and guest ranches have long been a mainstay of summer tourism in the West. These days, however, at least a dozen Colorado guest ranches stay open part of each winter, finding ways to entertain visitors with their snowclad wonders.
On this particular day at the award-winning C Lazy U near Granby, riders include a Loveland couple, whose grown children gave them the ranch weekend getaway as a gift.
Lorrie and Janice McLaughlin can’t believe how much there is to do.
“We thought we’d just come up here, sit in front of a fire and read our books or take naps,” Lorrie says. “We’ve hardly opened our books!”
Bundled up in winter coats and gloves, they’ve been on the daily morning hay ride to feed the horses in the pastures. They’ve been snowshoeing, and they’re planning on ice skating later on the groomed pond.
“It’s just been wonderful,” Janice says.
Though neither have been avid horseback riders before, they’ve enjoyed riding in the snow.
“I figure if I fall off, I have something soft to land on,” he says.
Guest ranches transform themselves for the seasons, yet use most of the resources they have at hand.
At Devil’s Thumb near Tabernash, west of Winter Park, summer guests ride horses, hike, fly-fish and go on hayrides. In winter, it becomes one of the state’s premier places for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Devil’s Thumb boasts more than 60 miles of groomed trails, so visitors can tromp or glide through new scenery each day. In winter, hay gives way to sleigh rides and hikers don snowshoes. (Don’t worry — anyone can do it!)
An experienced guide leads snowshoe or cross-country ski excursions, or you can grab a map and head out on your own. It’s a calm experience: Silence surrounds you and there are no lift lines to endure or impatient skiers to mow you down. If you choose to go with one of the guides, he or she will tell you all the local lore — how Devil’s Thumb (a rock formation that looks like a giant thumb sticking out of a mountain side) got its name — plus some local history, as well as identifying various mountain ranges you can spot from these high meadows.
After a day on the trail, you might catch the afternoon sleigh ride, complete with a stop for hot chocolate and marshmallows roasted over an open fire. If all that has taken its toll on your winter-soft body, opt for a massage to smooth away the day’s exertions. Devil’s Thumb has a full range of body therapies. New luxury log cabins (all with award-winning environmentally efficient geothermal heat) and a remodeled main lodge create coziness with an elegant edge. And if you crave fine dining, you don’t need to drive into nearby Winter Park to get it.
One of Grand County’s best restaurants, the inelegantly named Ranch House may be located in a barn and conjure images of chicken-fried steak, but the cuisine is definitely upscale. The Colorado lamb is a must-have dish, but everything else on the menu, from naturally raised beef to free-range chicken, is equally delectable.
And this is no ordinary barn, either. The Broad Axe Barn is an 1850s structure from Indiana that was moved here and restored. On its lowest level, there’s a gorgeous cherry-lined cask-shaped uncorking and wine-tasting room and a 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 — enough fuel to let you pursue another day of fun.
Though some guest ranches cut out horseback riding in winter, not all do. C Lazy U has an indoor arena for days when it’s just too cold for comfortable riding or the snow’s too deep for the horses to navigate. But on days when they can stay outdoors, guests get to ride into the drifted hills for an experience far different from summer riding.
Guests, like the McLaughlins of Loveland, can ride out on the hay wagon in the morning and help feed the herds of well-tended equines, who come trotting up to the wagon, eager for breakfast.
They also can skate on the pond, which is cleared for that purpose, or borrow snowshoes and head out for the broad pastures enclosed by surrounding hills. Cross-country skiing also is popular.
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 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 what seems like 25-30 mph, 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.
Depending on the number of guests participating, you can get in about three runs for the hour the driveway is closed to traffic while sledders indulge in this insanity. (Rumor has it the driveway luge was invented by a bored winter ranch staff after a few beers one night.)
You will need to participate in all these activities to burn off the lavish meals served at the C Lazy U. Breakfast might be a three-egg ham and cheese omelet, or even eggs Benedict, with sweet rolls, fruit, juice and toast or muffins. Lunch is likely to be a choice between two entrees, after a salad and homemade soup, with dessert to follow. Dinner will be a sumptuous affair, with 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 as the meals. Fat, soft furniture and Western-themed bed linens fill rooms as big as some houses. Don’t miss the chocolate horse lollipop on your pillow.
There’s also a sledding hill (not as wild as the driveway!) for kids and a heated outdoor pool, which is a warm place to soak even in the snow. A workout room, recreation room with game tables and a huge fireplace in the lodge all draw guests who want to indulge in indoor activities.
“I would have never thought there’d be so much to do (on a ranch) in winter,” Lorrie McLaughlin says. “We’re going horseback riding again this afternoon.”
“As long as we get back in time for the sledding!” Janice adds. They might even come back next summer for the fishing and mountain biking. Not to mention the homemade peach cobbler.
If You Go
At least a dozen Colorado guest ranches remain open some part of the winter. Some, such as Tarryall River Ranch, Sylvan Dale, Deer Valley and Peaceful Valley, offer simple retreats for those who want to curl up in front of a fire and read a good book, and maybe watch the wildlife wander across a snowy landscape.
Others, such as the Home Ranch, Vista Verde and Latigo Ranch, offer a full array of winter activities, including cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, ice skating, sleigh rides and snowmobiling. Some are open during the holidays, providing a picture postcard-style Christmas. A few, including Aspen Canyon, offer activities (guided snowmobile trips) but no accommodations that time of year.
For information about winter guest ranch rates and activities, contact the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association at 866-942-3472 or www.coloradoranch.com. The association will send you a free guide and answer questions.
To contact the ranches in this story:
C Lazy U Ranch: (970) 887-3344 or www.clazyu.com
Devil’s Thumb Ranch: (800) 933-4339 or www.devilsthumbranch.com
For all of my Colorado-born life, skiing has meant several things: Getting up early, throwing the skis in the car, fighting the Interstate 70 traffic and then schlepping same skis from the car to the slopes. Skiing, in general, meant a lot of work.
Of course, it was always worth it — powdery white snow, towering peaks and crystal blue skies. Skiing in Colorado is something quite special.
But it was usually just a one-day event, up to the slopes for some fun, and then back to work the next day.
It’s the same story for many Coloradans. Vacation for us often means beach-side holidays in Florida, cruises to the Bahamas or a trip to see Aunt Sue. We leave the ski vacations to those from out of town.
But if I may speak to my people for a bit (the rest of you may eavesdrop), we are truly missing out. Here’s why: Skiing and actually staying on the slopes is an entirely different experience.
Take, for example, a stay at the Lodge at Vail. This AAA Four Diamond property enjoys an envious location right at the base of Vail Mountain, one of North America’s largest ski resorts. (The lift is just outside the back door.)
In fact, The Lodge at Vail was instrumental in Vail Mountain’s development. When the ski resort opened in December 1962, the U.S. Forest Service stipulated that there be at least one lodge with a minimum of 30 rooms. It seemed a lot for a tiny ski mountain with just two chair lifts, one gondola and eight ski instructors. Ticket prices were only $5 back then.
The Lodge at Vail became that cornerstone property, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, The Lodge at Vail boasts 165 luxurious rooms and suites. This intimate boutique hotel has a distinctly alpine feel, with warm mahogany and marble accents throughout.
The accommodating guest rooms, with their plush duvet-covered beds, thick carpets and elegantly-appointed bathrooms, are a treat all themselves. Each of the property’s 46 suites offers one, two or three bedrooms, along with wood-burning fireplaces and walk-out balconies.
Imagine my delight at coming home to such a room after an active day on the slopes. There was no traffic to deal with or long drives to make. My sweetheart and I simply checked our skis with the ski valet near the lift, and made the 5-minute walk from the slope to our room. (So this is how the other half lives!)
After decompressing in our room, we headed straight for the hot tubs at the base of the mountain. The view alone is worth the trip, but that warm water does wondrous things for tired muscles. We watched from our relaxing mountainside pool as the sun slowly slipped from the peaks and the skiers disappeared from the mountain. Ah, the good life.
Another fantastic way to relax is with a massage at The RockResorts Spa. The facility is beautifully appointed, with soothing decor and comfortable seating areas. I was so relaxed after my 50-minute Swedish massage, that I could barely get off the table. That’s my measurement of a successful spa visit!
All that activity and relaxing can make one hungry. Fortunately, The Lodge at Vail has two distinct restaurants for guests to choose from.
Cucina Rustica is an Italian eatery with a menu featuring Colorado home-grown produce. The restaurant provides a huge buffet breakfast each morning, which is just the right way to start the day.
The Wildflower takes it up several notches, and was rated the number one restaurant in Vail by ZAGAT Survey. Chef Rahm Fama is known for his eclectic American cuisine, and uses seasonal herbs, spices and vegetables from the restaurant’s own
Vail Village and nearby Lionshead also offer a dizzying array of exceptional restaurants. We enjoyed fondue at the Swiss Chalet Restaurant at the Sonnenalp Resort, which features traditional European fare in a classic Swiss setting. And we headed to The Tavern on the Square at The Arrabelle at Vail Square when we wanted to kick back and enjoy some tasty comfort food.
Walking through Vail Village during ski season is an experience all its own. Filled with the sounds of European and South American languages and the sight of full-length furs and huge diamond rings, it feels, at times, like a whole different country.
But one look at the beautiful view of the Rockies and the welcoming smiles of the folks at Vail, and it’s easy to feel right at home again.
For many Coloradans, Vail has a reputation for being expensive, and it can be. But there are also many deals to be found.
The best hotel rates can be found right after the Christmas holidays and during the summer. The Lodge at Vail also runs promotions, such as buy two nights and get one free throughout the year. Other promotions provide free or discounted pricing on Tuesdays, when demand is lower.
After a stay at The Lodge in Vail, it’s easy to understand why so many people travel from around the world to visit Colorado. For those of us who live here, we’re just the lucky ones who get to call it home.
If You Go
The Lodge at Vail
174 E. Gore Creek Drive
Vail, Colorado 81657
877-528-7625 or 970-476-5011
Vail Valley Partnership
Vail Mountain Resort