February 24, 2012 9:52 pm

Snow on the range

Colorado’s ranches are opening up in winter, with scenic rides, great food and a shuttle to the ski slopes

“C Lazy U”, the ranch is called. That had me perplexed for a few days. See lazy you? See how lazy you are? Look at lazy you? I couldn’t get it to sit right – not until the end of a long drive over three 11,000ft Colorado mountain passes, with dark walls of rock looming out of the night on all sides and snow flying at us like the stars in Star Trek when the Enterprise enters warp-speed (as one of our sons remarked). Eventually we hit the rolling interior of the Rocky Mountains, coming down from the intense weather that had wrapped the high peaks. We could see the stars again and hills in the distant moonlight and soon enough we made out the twinkle of a giant ranch gate coiled in fairy-lights.

There it was on the gate’s arch: “C Lazy U”. And underneath, the ranch’s logo: a capital C and a U lying down on its side, catching some Zs, like a cowboy who expends no more energy than strictly necessary. It seems a fitting way to brand a dude ranch.

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I had thought these were ordinary ranches where city slickers could go and work – but the reality is rather different. Like many other dude ranches, this one has shifted almost entirely from agriculture to hospitality. Part hotel, part holiday camp, they typically offer luxury, good food and a roster of outdoor activities. The horses are not for rounding up cattle, they’re for guests to take scenic rides on. Some even rent small herds of cattle so the guests can do some pretend herding.

Of course, when you imagine ranching, cowboys and the Wild West, the horses are always galloping across grassy plains, their hooves kicking up dust in the heat. In short, it is summer. But growing numbers of dude ranches are now opening to guests in winter too, combining snowy activities on the farm with shuttles to nearby ski resorts. It is a completely different ski experience.

Dawn at the C Lazy U: a few chimneys among the ranch buildings are leaking smoke. The thermometer is below zero Fahrenheit. When the horses in their corrals step across the snow-bound dirt, their hooves squeal in the cold. Across the floor of the valley it’s as if a white tarpaulin has been stretched tight.

Colorado map

As Thoreau said, our bodies make “good pasture” for the cold. It eats out warmth from within your clothes, leaving you acutely aware of your own skeleton. But the redeemer comes soon: long streaks of peach and russet sunlight are laid across the white land. Out of the dull, matt hills the contours suddenly appear – shadowed gullies, folds, clefts and sunlit rocks. To one side the hills are rusty, and to the other a luminous blue, when the brightness on the skyline erupts in sunlight.

The human day begins with feeding the horses. A hay trailer goes out behind a tractor with six bales of the ranch’s own hay. We ride on the back, helping to distribute the matted hay, which comes apart in slabs. They tumble off the side of the wagon smoky with dust and the horses start following us in long lines, casting blue fringes of shadow, their noses steaming.

Tyler and Connie, ranch hands in chaps, jeans and woolly hats, say they know all 175 horses by name. Some pluck at the wagon as it passes, their long necks stretched out. One or two roll on their backs on the hard snow-dusted ground. A yak stands watching from his shed like a Hindu god in his shrine.

“Sometimes I feel bad for those guys,” head wrangler Bill Fisher told me of the horses. “We had 52 below last year. I reckon they just stand there and think: when is July coming?”

After a tremendous breakfast of all manner of eggs, waffles, pancakes, potatoes and gallons of coffee, served in the gleaming all-wood dining room at the lodge, we head off up the hill in a sled pulled by a snowmobile for the second of the day’s activities: ranch skiing.

Parker, who resembles a young Owen Wilson in caramel overalls, speeds us up to a summit commanding a view high over the ranch. Our boys, who are 13 and 11, are both loving it. They’ve never been near a snowmobile before. Nor have they skied on completely untouched snow. No piste, no lift: just the silent leafless aspens and dark conifers we weave through, swishing in light powder into a lower valley striped with the shadows of trees. All day, even at noon, the shadows here are long, spilling down the white slopes. We growl up the hill again, and swish down again, several times over, and before we know it, it’s lunch time: burgers, soup and salad, back at the lodge.

Then another family joins us and we all climb back into the snowmobile-sled for “tubing”. The kids hurtle down a long hill at terrifying speeds in their inner tubes before exploding in clouds of snow as they spill off at the bottom. They pick themselves up, shrieking, and climb back on to the waiting benches of the sled, to be rattled back to the top of the hill, a tail of inner tubes whipping about behind them.

The Home Ranch near Steamboat Springs

The Home Ranch near Steamboat Springs

Late afternoon each day brings an ice hockey game on the frozen pond near the lodge. You can see the Indian Peaks from there, a rugged range blushed pink just now, riddled with crevices, looking like a legendary land that could only exist in a painting.

“Five-spur” they call the treatment here. The experience is a blend of baronial hunting lodge and Michelin stars. The dining room has pewter pitchers, giant claret glasses and demi-glace on its rib-eye steaks. There’s a lot of landscape art and horse art on the walls, and intricate forged-iron chandeliers up above. The whole room, with its log walls and wood ceiling, made of a particular shade of caramel-coloured pine, is like a golden cave.

The day’s final activity is dinner hour – cocktails in the lounge followed by dinner at the long communal tables. Obviously this could be a crap-shoot, entailing the risk of feeling stranded in a cocktail party of strangers. But here, out west, where social paralysis is non-existent, it works just fine. Relaxed, genial, interested, American small-talk is personable, non-adversarial. They just want everyone to feel good.

Next day a van takes us up to Winter Park ski area, half an hour away. Winter Park is Colorado’s oldest continually operating ski resort. Owned by the city of Denver, it has a more relaxed atmosphere than some of the more self-consciously upmarket Rockies resorts, though its slopes are as good as anywhere, with the gamut of bumps, steeps, tree runs and “groomers”.

This winter has been a 32-year record for low snowfall in Colorado, but we’re still delighted, with three-quarters of the mountain open and enough territory that it seems like it would take a few days to get to know it all and a few more to get anywhere near growing bored of it.

Skiing is a multi-billion-dollar business in Colorado, with more than 30 ski resorts. Some estimates claim the population of Denver can drop by as much as 45 per cent on long weekends, with its citizens away in the hills.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado’s second or third largest ski area, got its name from some early white explorers who saw steam up round a bend in the river they were following and thought a steamboat had to be coming upriver towards them. In fact it was steam from the natural hot springs that would go on to put the place on the map as a spa town.

After the small ski operation in New Mexico that our family is used to, Steamboat’s base seems incomprehensibly vast, with a whole giant shopping precinct unto itself: bars, cafés, restaurants and a huge edifice from which the gondola lift emerges. During ski season the population swells from around 10,000 to 15,000.

Steamboat just goes on and on: run after run, lift after lift. There are long mogul runs like white rugs unrolled down the mountainside, gentle groomers that coil round the hill and more intense skiing on the “back side”. We spend all day with an Australian guide, Ryan Watts, who lives in Steamboat half the year. The boys can’t get enough of the terrain parks and we have to endure the terror of watching the jumps launch them high into the sky. Somehow they manage to land every time, and arrive at our side panting wildly with exhilaration.

The setting is spectacular: massive, mid-continent scenery with a legendary scale about it. Steep mountains plunge to a plain and at their foot the town huddles – an attractive town, solid and four-square, built of 19th-century American brick when the eponymous hot springs attracted people in need of a cure. Today it claims to have more Olympians per head than anywhere else on earth: one in every 145 people. It was one of the first places in the west to get into winter sports. In 1913 a Norwegian ski-jumper called Howelsen demonstrated his sport to the local postmen (who did their rounds on skis). People were amazed and his ski-jump still looms on a hill above Main Street.

Half an hour from Steamboat is the Home Ranch, another luxurious dude ranch, one of only a handful of members of upmarket hotel fellowship Relais & Châteaux in the western states outside California. The food here is an even bigger deal than at the C Lazy U, with renowned kitchen staff and a formal announcement by sous-chef Craig Lister each evening of what the night’s offerings will be: venison chops, perhaps, or poussin, guinea fowl, bass, exotic risottos or New York strip steaks from its own “Sand Mountain” cattle herd across the river, all prepared with lavish precision and paired with superb wines.

Like the C Lazy U, this place offers high luxe – white robes galore, fancy toiletries, hot tubs – along with a range of outdoor activities, especially cross-country skiing. The ranch has its own extensive network of trails winding through aspen woods, climbing up the side of its valley.

The valley here is narrower, more intimate. At night the stars are fat and brilliant, with Orion looking like he’s drawn in chalk on a blackboard. The air is so cold and dry that sound carries in a different way, exact as a hairline crack in glass. While out on a dawn ski in the woods, some bird of prey keeps whistling. Down in the snowy meadow, the horses stand still in huddles, like bushes in their dark winter coats, and the snow creaks like unoiled hinges. The madness of the ski slopes could be a million miles away.

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Details

Henry Shukman was a guest of the C Lazy U (www.clazyu.com; from $325 per person per night, full-board and including activities) and Home Ranch (www.homeranch.com; doubles from $475 full-board and including activities). For details of the ski resorts mentioned see www.winterparkresort.com and www.steamboat.com, and for more on skiing in Colorado see www.coloradoski.com

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