A Winter Wonderland

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.

C Lazy U, an award-winning ranch near Granby, offers winter activities such as snowshoeing, ice skating, sledding and sleigh rides.

“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.

When you’ve had your fill of the 60-plus miles of groomed nordic ski trails at Devil’s Thumb Ranch, cozy up by the fireplace for a relaxing winter evening.

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.

At C Lazy U, you’ll need to explore the trails to burn off the three-egg omelettes, family-style entrees and lavish desserts.

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