It’s the best time of the year to simmer down and get on a horse in snowy Colorado.
If you are ready for a hassle-free school break in a fantasy setting, consider an all-inclusive family vacation at Vista Verde Guest Ranch, a luxury dude ranch in Northwest Colorado. How best to describe it? it’s like a marriage of cowboy culture with uber-luxury service, or like Sam Elliott is your innkeeper, but he has a degree from the British Butler Institute. With a limit at 52 guests per stay, and a guest-to-staff ratio of 1:1, even in the high season, Vista Verde is a place where every Wild West Winter Wonderland dream you ever had can come true. They have the wranglers, trainers and the guides, the horses and the gear to make anything happen. Overcome your fear of horses one day, and the next day ride your equine friend through a snow-covered valley? Check. Sip Irish coffee, sharing a lap blanket with your sweetheart, while sitting in a snow sleigh pulled by a Clydesdale? Check. Yell “Mush” to a team of dogs while you stand on the sled behind for the ride, taking charge and holding the reigns? Check.
Vista Verde sits on 600 acres in a high valley surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, and it’s about an hour drive north of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, near the Montana border, an area known to have big sky and some of the fluffiest snow for powder skiing or horseback riding found anywhere. With only 6 percent water content, it’s been called “Champagne powder,” and it extends up through the ranch and into Montana.
A ranch hand picked us up at our hotel in Steamboat and drove us up through the high valley at 7752-foot elevation to the lodge at Vista Verde, an apt name in the summer months, but in the snowy winter, it could be called Vista Blanco. Like all of the cabins at Vista Verde, the lodge is an authentic lodgepole pine cabin structure, its great room dominated by a massive fireplace at the base of a wall of windows 30 feet high. Through these windows you can see the horses trot by on their way to the barn, and at the end of the day, back to their corral. The lodge is the central gathering place before and after rides and meals. After dinner, during game night, which is one night a week, we played several lively rounds of corn hole in the lodge with the staff, throwing bean bags across the room—not a scene you’d see at other luxury resort getaways.
Three amazing meals a day, beer and wine are included in the rate, as well as enough snow and equine activities to do two each day of the week and not repeat: horsemanship and horse rides, sleigh rides, Nordic skiing on 30 km of groomed track, snowshoe tours (you will feel more winded from the altitude in the first few days walking and skiing), snow-tubing (with uphill assists from a snowmobile), along with photography, yoga and cooking classes. Shuttles to and from Steamboat are also included. Activities offered at an added cost include snowmobiling, dog sledding, ice climbing and powder-Cat skiing. I opted for the Nordic skiing and got what turned out to be a private (beginners) lesson along a 5K ski on a groomed trail. This one-on-one attention happens a lot, said my guide, when there are only 52 guests here and two dozen activities.
Snow play dominates the kids program. Children from ages 6 to 12 run over to the “Hut” after breakfast to join the “Kid Wranglers” and start tubing, snowshoeing, riding horses or just rolling in the powdery stuff, getting tuckered out. The staff understands there is no better travel situation than to have your child happily tuckered out from play at the end of the day. While there is no formal teen program, nearly every activity, equine or otherwise, is accessible to teens.
At the end of the day, open a bottle of Champagne and slip into the hot tub outside your private log cabin. Let the tub’s hot bubbles work on your saddle sores, while the bubbles in your glass work on your mood. I found it an oddly refreshing experience to have your head below freezing, while the rest of your body is 90 degrees.
Dinner is the main event. They are casual, with one formal, plated dinner a week, when adults enjoy other adult company while the children “Dine and Dash” off to more guided activities. Vista Verde was recently recognized for their list with an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator.
You’ll find there are lots of additional reasons to award Vista Verde on your own—an indelible winter-wonderland backdrop with luxury service, Old West hospitality and horses. What more could you wish for?
During the winter season, Dec. 13-22 and Jan. 6 to March 31, seven nights at Vista Verde is $3,195 per person for a cabin or $2,925 per person for a lodge room. Deduct $100 per night for children 6-13. Adults-only season is Jan. 6 to Feb. 14. www.vistaverde.com
Written & Photographed by Randall Tierney