Vista Verde Guest Ranch, Steamboat Springs, Colorado, late January 2014.
….But the Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullaby
Rocky mountain high
Rocky mountain high
high in Colorado
In the weeks leading up to our Colorado adventure, there was rather a lot of off-key but entirely enthusiastic crooning of John Denver’s beloved folk song Rocky Mountain High. As in the song, Colorado had enthralled us with its thrilling mountain landscapes, pristine alpine lakes, dense pine forests and wide blue skies on a road trip with friends a few years back. Though our time in the State was brief, we were overwhelmed by its beauty and vowed to return to experience a little more Colorado Rocky Mountain High in the future.
And so, some 4½ years later, we disembark at Yampa Valley airport just outside of Steamboat Springs in northwestern Colorado to be met in Arrivals by a beautiful girl from Vista Verde Ranch, our destination for the next five days, wearing a cowboy hat and giant smile who greets us with a warm “How y’all doing? My name is Cori”. Oh, it’s so good to be back in the Rockies!
With my nose pressed against the SUV’s frosty window, Cori whisks us from the airport to Vista Verde Ranch, a 45 minute drive away. The scenery is utterly gorgeous, and I have to suppress the desire to ask Cori to stop every few minutes so I can take photographs. The sky is the blue of a robin’s egg* while the snowy white landscape reminds me of a scene from a Christmas card minus Santa and his reindeer. Fat pine trees, their fanned branches heavy with powdery snow, stretch as far as the eye can see. Arriving at Vista Verde Ranch, my excitement turns to unabashed, open-mouth gawping: a dreamy winter wonderland extends before us.
As we are shown to our pretty wood cabin, Saddle, perched on a gentle** hill above the main lodge, we drink in the beauty of our surroundings: the heady smell of wood smoke punctuates the cold, fresh alpine air; horses, their shaggy winter coats dusted lightly with snow graze in a vast snowy paddock; a grove of Aspen trees, stripped of all foliage, stand silvery and sentinel-like next to our cabin; long icicles, glistening in the afternoon sun, hang like delicate glass sculptures from the roof; and in the distance, densely forested mountains are framed gloriously against the dome of bright blue sky.
Inside, our three-level cabin is the perfect combination of rustic, cosy and comfortable luxury. In keeping with the ranch surroundings, traditional Southwestern rugs are slung over railings and floors, lodgepole pine furniture – handcrafted by on-site woodworker Bill Backer – outfit the cabin (including a handsome king-sized bed in the main bedroom), a big barrel filled with seasoned wood sits next to the wood-burning stove in the cheery sitting area while a pair of vintage leather cowboy chaps (just in case you have forgotten your own!) are draped over a peg in the entryway.
Humming away happily to Keith Urban as we unpack (an iPod docking station is provided in each cabin for sing-a-long purposes), I contemplate the days ahead at the ranch. As tempting as it was to consider curling up in front of the crackling log fire with a book and glass of wine, the ranch offers a host of winter activities which we were eager - and admittedly a little nervous*** - to try out. Ranging from the genteel (wine-tasting, cooking classes, yoga, sleigh rides) to the exhilarating (tobogganing, backcountry skiing, snow biking) to the just plain this-is-so-beautiful-I-have-to-pinch-myself (a horse ride in the snow), I opt to ease into things with a sleigh ride.
Snuggled in blankets and with the prospect of a flask of steaming hot chocolate to warm us up midway, our sleigh driver, head
wrangler John, murmurs a soft command to the magnificent draft horse charged
with pulling the sleigh and we are off! With the sun dancing off the snow making
it glitter like thousands of tiny sequins, it feels very much like a snow globe
come to life.
Later that evening, our noses Rudolph-like from the cold, we luxuriate in the hot tub on our cabin’s deck. I am not generally a jacuzzi kind of girl, but the experience of sinking into a large tub – with mood lighting! - filled with steaming, bubbling water while surrounded by vast amounts of freshly fallen snow is pretty incredible. We stay in until our fingers and toes are wrinkly and it begins to snow.
The next morning, we awake early to find the entire ranch looks as if it has been coated in a thick layer of royal icing overnight. It is staggeringly beautiful. Standing on our deck with mugs of fresh coffee in hand, gazing at the snow-covered
houses cabins, the silence is only broken by the occasional whinny of a
horse and the distant hum of a snowplough. Oodles of fresh Colorado powder to
play in? Even a novice powder puppy like me could feel the excitement in the
Over the next few days we throw ourselves into ranch activities. Cross-country skiing on groomed trails, tobogganing (I start off nervously - wearing my yaktrax for extra grip - and by the end am taking a flying leap before hurtling down the slope, face covered in snow and laughing wildly), a horsemanship clinic, backcountry skiing, and a snowy horse ride. My favorite? Backcountry skiing. Before we head out into the wilderness, Steve and Kelli, our wonderful guides, kit us out with skis, boots and poles and ask about our expectations, experience, likes and dislikes. I sense that skiing in a remote forest in deep, untracked powder is as much about the spiritual as the physical. With Steve’s words of wisdom spurring us on “Nobody grooms as good as mother nature” and “We are human beings, not human doings”, we set off with Steve and Kelli’s adorable lab, Rosie, leading the way. As Rosie bounds ahead of us – four legs are better than two skis it seems - her black face sprinkled with snow, we are soon deep in a pine forest where the only sounds are the swoosh of our skis (and the rustle of my pants!) and Steve and Kelli’s enthusiastic encouragement. It is magical. And although I fall, feel frustrated (mostly trying to master uphill!) and am exhausted by the end, we both agree that it is the highlight of our stay at Vista Verde Ranch.
On the last night of our stay, one of the other guest’s gives an impromptu speech after dinner: it is the best holiday that he and his partner have ever had.
That is just the kind of place Vista Verde Ranch is….Colorado Rocky Mountain High indeed.
Eat + Drink:
Food at the ranch is hearty, sophisticated without being fussy and utterly delicious. So scrumptious that despite all my physical exertion and restraint from raiding the (freshly baked) cookie jar each time I pass it, I am grateful for the elastic waist in my nylon pants by the end of the week! Head chef John is passionate about cooking the kind of food people want to eat – flavourful and wholesome. Breakfast highlights included winter hash with crispy pancetta, sage, runny eggs and tabasco aioli, and cranberry pear crepes with cinnamon cream cheese while supper standouts included a divine homemade pasta with meltingly tender braised lamb shoulder, and pan seared scallops with kale and radish salad, butternut squash and truffle vinaigrette.
Each cabin is also kitted out with a fridge filled with complimentary beer, wine and soft drinks as well as a goodie basket filled with trail mix, freshly ground coffee, pretzels and other snacks should you feel peckish between meals (you won't!).
*I later learn that bright, sunny days after recent snowfall are called bluebird days in this part of the world….so probably a bluebird’s egg would have been more appropriate!
**Before we adjust to the altitude (the ranch is at 7,800 feet) the trek up the gentle slope after a day of activities feels rather more like scaling Mount Kosciuszko!
***Leading up to our trip, I alternated between elation at the prospect of a proper holiday in the snow (my first) to sweaty-palm inducing panic. With America gripped in the throes of a polar vortex, I could no longer dismiss puffy down jackets from the likes of Moncler and Canada Goose as mere fashion statements. It was going to be cold in Colorado and my previous method of dealing with sub-zero temperatures – piling on the contents of my wardrobe underneath a sizeable coat – was not going to work for skiing and horse riding. Cue a harried trip to an array of outdoor stores for contemplation of wicking, base layers, snow gaiters, thermals, gloves, nylon pants that make an unnerving crinkling sound when walking, and yaktrax (the latter – like grippy snow chains for your hiking shoes - turned out to be the star purchase).
And I was worried I would not be fit enough for cross-country skiing at altitude, which, when viewed on YouTube, looked like something that should only be attempted by those at Olympic levels of fitness. Mostly however I was concerned with the mortifying thought of falling over in the snow like a giant, crinkly-panted bug and not being able to get up again!
We were hosted by Vista Verde Ranch during our stay in Colorado.