By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

There’s nothing like starting the year by checking something off your vacation bucket list.

For Kacy Yerger, 24, that meant seeing snow for the first time. She grew up in Florida and now lives in Southern California, she explained.

Cross-country skiing at Vista Verde Ranch in Northern Colorado

Cross-country skiing at Vista Verde Ranch in Northern Colorado


“That was the impetus for this trip,” said her boyfriend Michael Swenson, whose mom Karen Bransten was treating the young couple to the trip that wouldn’t put the onus on her to organize. “I didn’t want to think about what to do or where to eat,” Bransten explained

For horse-loving Paige Skibba, 19, and her mom, both from Wisconsin, it was experiencing a dude ranch in winter, complete with horse rides in the snow and riding clinics in the indoor arena rather than a Mexico resort. “Sitting in the hot tub on the porch with the snow coming down watching the horses was the best,” said Jenny Skibba.

And for my niece, Allison Jonez and her mom, Tracy Yemma, it’s been learning a new sport — cross-country skiing — stepping out of their comfort zone with nearly two feet of snow in two days.

Welcome to Vista Verde Ranch, about a half-hour from Steamboat Springs, Colorado; and it couldn’t be more different than a traditional vacation in snowy country. For one thing, there are no crowds here — just, at maximum, 52 guests staying in 15 deluxe cabins and three lodge rooms on 540 acres at the edge of national forest.

There is a staff of more than 40 to take care of everyone — from stocking the cabins with favorite beverages to serving the always excellent meals (the homemade mac and cheese got special raves for lunch, as did the hors d’oeuvres dinner with everything from salmon atop cucumbers to Asian tenderloin skewers and empanadas and duck wellington.

Guides and gear are all included as part of the package, whether you want to go back-country ski touring, fat biking in the snow, cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing in pristine meadows, ice fishing or even snoga (think yoga in a homesteaders cabin heated by a wood-fired stove that you reach by snowshoes or cross-country skis).

The ranch is now owned by Laura and Chris Jones, who live in the western Chicago suburbs with their eight kids. They didn’t buy it, Chris Jones explained, as a money-making investment. “We wanted to be able to impact people’s lives in a positive way,” he explained. “People leave here refreshed and relaxed and doing better than before they came … mission accomplished.”

The family had long been coming to Steamboat Springs to downhill ski. But at Vista Verde — where incidentally there is a children’s program some holiday weeks and over the summer — families can spend time together without the tumult of a big snow resort, standing in lift lines or fighting for a table at lunch, Jones said.

And for those who may not be fans of downhill snow sports, he added, there are plenty of options at the ranch, including parking yourself in a comfy chair with a book in front of the fire in the big lodge. “Just hanging out with the family in the lodge was one of the best parts,” said my niece.

Lounging by the fireplace in the lodge at Vista Verde Ranch

Lounging by the fireplace in the lodge at Vista Verde Ranch


No one seems to mind that there aren’t TVs in the cabins or the limited Wi-Fi that is by design, said Jones — to encourage everyone to get off their devices. Guests seem to appreciate that.

“It’s nice to live without my phone,” said Michael Swenson, who works as an addiction counselor. “It’s so relaxing here.”

“A great escape amid all of this outdoor beauty,” agreed Carol Fivozinsky, from Washington, DC and back with her husband and another couple for a repeat visit.

Make fresh tracks whether you are tubing down a hill or snowshoeing, as I was with two feet of fresh snow under my feet, trying to figure out which animals (fox or snow hare) made the only tracks in the snow. Join a photography workshop or check out a cooking demonstration. For those who want to downhill ski or shop there are complimentary shuttles.

In the evening, play trivia, listen to country music or brush up on your country dancing skills. The always enthusiastic young guides take care of everything — from making sure you are geared up properly to taking you to areas appropriate for your skill level. Of course, you can always head out on your own.

“People love that they don’t have to think about anything,” observes Chef Jason Monohan. That includes special meals, whether they are vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free. “They just have to ask,” he said. That goes for kids too, who can get anything from grilled cheese to the adult offerings.

Some of the meals are buffets where guests happily share tables with the staff. There are first-rate breakfasts (think waffles with boysenberry syrup or eggs atop winter veggie hash) and lunches designed for those outdoors all morning (the chili bar is a favorite, as are the daily freshly baked cookies).

After the holidays and until mid-February, the ranch is adult only. Interestingly, at least half the guests are families with grown kids looking for a different kind of vacation to share.

There are only a handful of ranches open in the winter in Colorado, including the Home Ranch near Vista Verde, the YMCA’s Snow Mountain Ranch near Winter Park and the C Lazy U Ranch in Granby. Fewer than two dozen around the country are open in winter, according to the Dude Ranchers’ Association, including The Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana, and the Triangle X Ranch in Moose, Wyoming, in Grand Teton National Park.

Vista Verde isn’t inexpensive — $1,725 per person for a three-night stay; $300 less for kids under 13. (In summer, everyone must stay a week.  Rates are lower for those who opt for a winter week.)

But as Jones noted, anyone who has taken a family to a snow resort knows costs add up fast between lift tickets, lodging, ski lessons and food.

Most everything here is included — even wine and beer — and as much as I love traditional ski vacations with my gang, they are a lot of work for parents. “This is completely different,” said an appreciative Karen Bransten, a veteran of traditional family ski trips.

“We’re already planning to come back,” said her son. Michael.

As for Kacy Yerger, she’s become a bona fide snow bunny. “I can’t believe it’s so beautiful,” she said.