The sun has set and the nearly full moon will soon be rising over the Colorado peaks. Skiers and snowshoers group outside the lodge at Devil’s Thumb Ranch, bindings latched and stomachs churning. It’s time to eat.
They are the first wave of participants on the annual Grand Huts Association progressive dinner at Devil’s Thumb Ranch 65 miles west of Denver near Granby, Colorado. In this earn-your-calories version of moonlight dining, more than 200 winter warriors will slog and glide on a five-mile, five-course eating journey through the Rocky Mountain night.
Located 11 miles north of Winter Park, Devil’s Thumb is arguably Colorado’s premier winter resort for snowshoers and Nordic skiers. The 5,000-acre spread features well over 100 kilometers of trails groomed for skate and classic skiing, plus a host of packed routes for snowshoers only. The dinner track begins with an easy half-mile trek to the ranch’s barn and stables for appetizers.
Inside, between harnesses and horse stalls, tables sit covered with cheese, crackers, fruit, sushi, pizza, tacos, cider, hot chocolate and wine. Hungry hands could wrangle up a dinner’s worth of grub right here.
In the summertime, Devil’s Thumb offers all the accouterments of an a la carte dude ranch. They feature close to 50 horses, a sleigh-pulling donkey, a mule that didn’t appreciate the Grand Canyon and a dairy cow who’s willing to be ridden.
“It’s bareback, of course,” says stable manager Jill Eichler. “At 2,300 pounds, it’s hard to fit him under a saddle.”
From the barn, the route winds past the ranch’s 16 cabins on an electrically illuminated trail. Beyond the last accommodation, electrons stop and candle power begins, with luminarias marking the route. Unlike the paper bag version, these consist of candles burning inside one-gallon milk jugs whose tops have been trimmed off. They’re spaced about every 20-30 yards along the trail.
The route angles slowly uphill through an open meadow. Across the valley, moonlight caps the mountain crest with a tiara of shimmering luminescence. Diamonds of light sparkle in the darkness below. The still night feels cool but not bitterly cold. Crusty snow crunches under foot. In the distance, the lonesome whistle of a freight train echoes along the tracks.
Through this valley, the nonprofit Grand Huts Association plans to build a string of backcountry huts linking Berthoud Pass to the south with Grand Lake to the north. The eco-friendly outposts would shelter skiers and snowshoers in the winter and hikers and bikers come summer.
For diners, only the winding line of luminarias appears ahead. The ultimate destination, the Soup Yurt, remains hidden, leaving first-timers to ponder how much farther there is to go. Finally, when least expected, it suddenly looms dead ahead.
Invented by Mongolian nomads, modern yurts are circular structures with conical roofs, making them look like colossal cupcakes. Strong, cheap and easily wood-stove heated, they make excellent backcountry ski shelters. Some diners welcome the warmth and choose to savor their choices of tomato bisque, cheddar cheese or tortilla soup inside. Others opt to sit and slurp out on the deck.
Since the trail to the yurt was largely uphill, the trail back is largely down. The luminarias lighting the route look like airport landing lights on a skinny, twisting runway. As the moon climbs, light intensity increases, making trees silhouetted against the snow look like Rorschach inkblots. Below, the lodge complex at trail’s end glows like a small city.
Not that many years ago, Devil’s Thumb was a funky little enclave used primarily by local cross-country skiers who didn’t want to brave the backcountry. It’s still a favorite of locals, but it’s grown into so much more.
In addition to the ridge cabins, the resort offers a geothermally heated lodge containing 52 studios and suites, plus 13 bunkhouse rooms down the road. The property features three restaurants, a wine cellar dining room, a full-service spa and a renovated barn with space to host weddings, meetings and events.
“The barn was brought in from Indiana,” says Christine Braford of guest services. “It’s a Civil War-era classic, reconstructed here.”
The neighboring day lodge provides the progressive dinner’s salad and entrée venue. With 35 local restaurants furnishing food, diners enjoy more eating choices than a preacher at a potluck. It’s all donated, in an effort to fund the Grand Huts Association’s first hut, which will be built in the backcountry at 11,000 feet off Berthoud Pass, an area that receives 450 inches of snow annually.
“We will have a cistern, indoor plumbing, solar power and propane for cooking. It will be an environmental engineering feat,” brags GHA representative David Maddox. “Over the years, progressive dinners have netted us over $50,000 toward its construction.”
Entrees devoured, it’s off to the ranch’s restaurant-tavern where dessert lies, a band plays and silent auction bids can be made on donated items. For those who still have room, s’mores fixings await beside the fireplace outside, and not surprisingly, many indulge. After all, guests at this dinner have earned their calories.
If You Go
GHA Progressive Dinner
Participants should be in appropriate physical condition and have experience using snowshoes or cross-country skis. Temperatures and weather conditions can vary from cold and clear to colder and challenging. Contact the Grand Huts Association (970-726-9877, www.grandhuts.org) for information and tickets.
Devil’s Thumb Ranch
The ranch lodge features 52 guest rooms that go from studios to two-bedroom suites. There are 16 individual cabins ranging from one-bedroom lofts to four-bedroom units with full kitchens and multiple baths. Contact Devil’s Thumb Ranch (800-933-4339, www.devilsthumbranch.com) for information or reservations.
Devil’s Thumb is about 11 miles north of Winter Park off U.S. Highway 40. About a mile before the town of Tabernash, turn east on County Road 83, take a right at the fork and follow Devil’s Thumb Road another three miles to the ranch.