Winter Fun

Colorado’s Rockies are home to our favorite winter getaway – Snow Mountain Ranch. Owned and operated by the YMCA of the Rockies, the retreat welcomes members and nonmembers alike. Among the too-numerous-to-list activities are snowshoe hikes, dog sled tours, and horse-drawn sleigh rides, but our 75 main reasons to visit are as many miles of fabulous Nordic ski trails that are carved into the snow during most “normal” winters, owing to the property’s elevation of 8,750 feet, or higher.

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Its 2,800 acres have been set aside from development thanks to a conservation easement, and provide a home to many non-human denizens. We regularly see birds, and sporadically squirrels, foxes, or even weasels. In an almost-total transformation, the latter replace their brown summer with a snow-colored winter coat, to blend in nearly seamlessly into the background, were it not for their black tail tips. Unfortunately, I have never been able to capture one on “film.” On occasion, we happen across big, boisterous ungulates. During a trip earlier this month, while huffing up the final hill to the Nordic Center, I notice three tall, dark shapes out of the corner of my eye. I dash to the car to grab my camera, but soon realize that my worry is superfluous, as the three male moose, recognizable by their antlers, are in no hurry. They are sparring – clanging their shovel-like head projections against one another – in what appears a playful manner, as it is not mating season, and there is no need to edge out competitors.

Often described as ungainly, I find moose handsome. Their physique is adapted to surviving in winter, as they have long, slender legs, and heavy, and heavily insulated, bodies. Once our trio’s scuffling ends, we watch those legs in action as they stalk through knee-deep snow. The animals’ destination is a cluster of willows, where they browse with their impressive muzzles. In summer their diet consists of willow buds and leaves, in addition to aquatic vegetation, but in winter they have to fill their tummies with woody twigs and conifer needles – a frugal, little nutritious fare that annually results in weight loss. The pendulous appendage dangling from the chin is known as bell, or dewlap, whose purpose remains unknown. Antlers, unlike the permanent horns of other animals, are temporary bony growths that sprout from the moose’s skulls in spring and summer, before they are shed during the winter. At least one of the bulls has already lost one antler, and the ones that remain are naked, their fuzzy covering, known as velvet, having long been sloughed off.

Three sparring male moose

Meanwhile, a crowd has gathered in front of the Nordic Center, and everybody is clicking away with camera or cell phone. As it is late in the afternoon, and a cloud cover compounds the short winter day, we watch the three companions work their way toward a stand of trees, where they might bed down for the night, which will be cold, long, and foodless. My husband and I pack up our gear and drive to our lodge, where we will find warmth, light, and plenty of food to fill our tummies.

Nordic Paradise

     Imagine a vast mountain valley at an elevation of 8,700 feet. High hills draped with pine and aspen trees line its southern and western borders, the ridges and rugged peaks of the Continental Divide dominate the eastern horizon, and to the north lies the wide expanse of Colorado’s Middle Park. In this picturesque location in Grand County, between Winter Park and Granby, the YMCA of the Rockies operates Snow Mountain Ranch. From our home in Colorado Springs, we usually travel the 150 mile distance in at least three hours, depending on the conditions along 11,300 foot Berthoud Pass.

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     During a typical winter, the countryside is clad in coverlets of snow. Pole Creek and its tributaries crisscross the flatter terrain and murmur gently under a shield of ice. Rows of willow thickets thrive in low-lying areas. Stripped of leaves at this time of year, their branches luminesce in shades of olive, orange and claret in the slanting sunlight. When clouds are absent or scarce, frozen hexagons sparkle in Colorado’s intense sun, and the Rockies’ version of alpenglow greets us at dawn and dusk, painting the sky and mountaintops in various hues of gold and red and purple. While we delight in the calm and clear days and enjoy quietly falling flakes, occasionally we deal with notorious blasts measuring up to 45 miles per hour which turn the sprawling basin into a wind tunnel whirling with horizontal crystals.

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     Snow Mountain Ranch offers a choice of accommodations: unheated yurts (you may bring your own electric radiator), three different lodges with rooms that sleep up to eight (with one single bathroom), and cabins with two to multiple bed- and bathrooms. Compared to other ski resorts, the prices are very competitive (see website for detailed information). We appreciate that our lodging fees include access to the Nordic Center with up to 100 kilometers of well-groomed ski and snowshoe trails, varying from easy to expert. In recent years, a course for fat mountain bikes has also been added. A multitude of additional family-friendly activities are available daily, such as tubing, skating, swimming, and archery.

     One of my favorite destinations on skis is Columbine Point. This overlook affords views of the Continental Divide in the distance and, closer at hand, of Gaylord Reservoir, nestled at the foot of Snow Mountain, the Ranch’s namesake. The scenic spot is home to many aspen, our state’s most emblematic trees whose cream-colored trunks bifurcate into ever more delicate twigs, forming a reticular pattern that contrasts charmingly with Colorado’s cerulean skies. This inspiring site has spawned the construction of an open-air chapel and has become a favorite for outdoor wedding ceremonies in warmer months.

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     The Just and Rowley homesteads, which are still visible and visitable, recall some of the area’s first settlers. The YMCA purchased this land from the Just family in 1966 who had owned it since the 1890s. I try to picture what life in a log cabin would have resembled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, without close neighbors, electricity, and indoor plumbing. The pioneers’ life was dominated by hard physical labor, if not hardship. I hope they marveled at the majesty of their environs nonetheless and, at the risk of sounding overly romantic, I envy their connection to Mother Nature and her rhythms. To experience the melting snow and the return of the first birds in the lengthening days of spring, to savor the extended summer hours beautified by a profusion of wildflowers, to revel in the brilliant autumn days and blazing colors of the aspen trees must have been welcome counterpoints to the cold and harsh days of midwinter, when it would have been most comfortable to curl up next to the fireplace.

     It is a bonus to happen upon the wild denizens of this landscape. Tufts of coarse hair and oval-shaped droppings in the snow foretell the presence of moose, but beholding one of these largest representatives of the deer family, whose males can reach weights of 1,200 pounds. still comes as a surprise. We admire their thick brown fur, pendulous bells, and the bull’s weighty antlers from a safe distance, and make sure never to get between a cow and calf. The fact that these herbivores manage to subsist on dry vegetation throughout many cold winter months is worthy of marvel.

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Occasionally we observe a red fox in a warm, fluffy winter robe, lying in wait for rodents underneath the surface. Squirrels chatter as we pass their territory. Chickadees twitter in the tree branches. The wingbeats and raucous calls of crows, ravens, and magpies pierce the air. Those are often the only sounds, apart from those generated by our own skis.

     We feel fortunate to have found this paradisiacal place. The serene setting, away from crowds of people, and the breathtaking skiing, literally and figuratively, continue to exert an irresistible allure.

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