Building fire in back country

Our 2010 Colorado winter adventure continues. DAY 5  — Think four wheel drive. Think four wheel drive on skis.

I’m in the back country of the Vista Verde Ranch—some 560 pristine snow covered acres at 7800 feet above altitude—trying my hand at back country skiing. (

This isn’t the kind of skiing where a snow cat takes you up a ski slope so you can ski down without anyone else on the mountain. Nor is this the kind of back country experience that my kids like where you sling your skis on your back and hike up the mountain for the glory of skiing down, “working for your turns,” they call it.

This is just another way to experience the back country, floating over five feet of snow, on skis that are slightly fatter than traditional cross country skis.

We arrived at Vista Verde today—about an hour’s drive from Steamboat—just in time for lunch. The ranch has just nine cabins and room for 45 guests; today there are just about 20 of us. It is a beautiful place with a brand new main log lodge with a huge fireplace that just seems to invite you to stretch out on the big couches; there is a new indoor arena too—to help teach riding (there are 90 horses here).

Though there are only 20 0f us, the staff is more than 40 –including dedicated youth staff—to see what we’d like to do- do we want to ski, skate ski, Nordic ski, snow shoe, ride, sled?

“This is a good place to experience winter for the first time,” explains Stephanie Wilson, who oversees marketing for the ranch.  Families come who have never seen snow and want to dip their toe in winter activities–many people think they’ll go over to Steamboat to downhill ski several days but then don’t, Stephanie adds. This is also a good place for families who like winter in the mountains but don’t quite enjoy the hustle bustle of downhill ski resort. 

Dallas writer Nancy Nichols has brought her three nieces aged 10, 11, and 12 who have never seen snow. “They are In love with the horses,” she reports.

Another plus: this is a safe place where kids can have some freedom and try new things—with or without their parents by their side.

For us—I’m traveling with my cousins Carl and Dana Weinberg and their two kids as well as another friend and her teenage son—we opted to try the ranch for a couple of days in the middle of a 10 day ski trip. We arrived after four days at Steamboat.

The teens were skeptical at first. Would they be bored? They perked up immediately when they realized they could have one cabin to themselves—and the adults another. A word about the cabins–they are terrific–log cabins with hot tubs on the deck stellar views out to the mountains and the fields, a wood burning stove and oh-so-comfortable beds with a patchwork quilt. Each is named for a mountain peak we can see. Ours is called Farwell.

Because the ranch is all inclusive, there are soft drinks, wine, beer and snacks in the cabin fridge for us.  I love that for a few days, the only decisions we have to make is whether we want to ski or snowshoe or whether we want fish or lamb for dinner.

Everyone is friendly.  Kelly and Steve King oversee all of the activities; the ranch—originally homesteaded in the 1920s—is now owned by Peggy and Jerry Throgmartin who are from Indiana and have only owned the place since 2006.

There are 30 guest ranches in Colorado but Vista Verde is just one of a handful that is open in winter as well as summer. And it is so beautiful here-horses grazing on hay in snow-covered fields, log cabins built to take in the views, mountain vistas.

The place also forces you to get unplugged–though there is wifi, cell service is spotty. We can also go deep in the back country to snowshoe or ski where we won’t see another soul.

In summer, families settle in for a week—all arriving on the same day and leaving the same day. In winter, families come and go typically staying three or four nights. There are periods when the ranch is adult only but the holidays and mid February to mid March it will be family central. And unlike being in a ski condo, the place is conducive to making new friends.

All of the kids, in fact, ate dinner together last night and then watched a movie while the adults shared a large table and a stellar meal starting with tamales, guinea hen with rice pilaf, baked fish topped with cranberry tapenade or lamb shank with whipped tomatoes, followed by a napoleon filled with peanut butter pastry cream or an assortment of sorbets.  Can you tell we’re not exactly roughing it?

The good news: We’ll work off the calories snowshoeing tomorrow