Winter’s Wonderland!

The Snowy, Old-Time Charm of Grand County, Colorado

I had no idea the size of a bear’s claws until I stood under a gored aspen trunk in Rocky Mountain National Park. Sam Crane, my snowshoeing guide, points out that you never see claw marks in lodgepole pines. “Who wants to get sap on their claws?” he asks.

Indeed. I’d only visited Colorado once before during the snow season, for a weekend in Vail, which felt a bit commercialized. But in Grand County – two hours northwest of Denver – I got to see a moose, stay in a cozy mountain lodge, and learn about the preferences of bears. My trip to Grand County was full of mom-and-pop enterprises, gorgeous sunsets, winter exercise, and piles of snow.

Snow Exercise

Rocky Mountain National Park offers lots of free programming, including the snowshoeing expedition I joined with 23 other people. It’s BYOS – I rented my snowshoes at Never Summer Mountain Products in the nearby town of Grand Lake. We started at about 9,000 feet and climbed 300 more. My activity tracker gave me the most points ever, proving it lacks the sense to differentiate exercise from imminent heart attack. Fortunately, we stopped frequently for natural history lessons.

Some trails are packed down enough that snowshoes aren’t required. Boots were enough for the East Inlet Trail near Grand Lake. However, wander off the trail a few inches and you’re up to your thighs in snow. Out by Big Meadow, my closest-ever moose sighting thrilled me. She kept chewing her leaves as I took a bazillion photos. Ah, another tourist, she said.

Grand County has plenty of skiing, even if it’s not as glitzy as Vail. At Winter Park, the county’s biggest ski resort, the beginning green diamonds are more like intermediate blues elsewhere. Skiers and snowboarders defy gravity and risk their necks in obstacle-filled terrain parks. If you’re there for the holidays, don’t miss their annual Torchlight Parade. More sedate folks (me) stick to the county’s many miles of Nordic track.

A Dogsledding Pastor

Like many animal lovers, I was quite unsure about dogsledding. But the dogs at Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA of the Rockies are well-loved and live to run. About 2,000 people a year attend a dogsledding presentation at the Y, with 1,500 going on a short ride with a musher.

Steve Peterson has one of the most intriguing slash careers I’ve encountered: Chaplain/head musher. He’s been a pastor for more than 30 years, and a musher for almost 20. He started with one dog, Fox, who accompanied him when he guided back-country trips in Minnesota. He later adopted three dogs and acquired an old sled for winter camping. “The bond that you develop with the dogs doing that together was a greater bond than I’d ever had with a dog before,” he told me.

When Peterson moved to Colorado and became chaplain, the Y asked if he’d do a dogsledding presentation at their winter festival. A hundred and fifty people showed up. “It was crazy popular,” he says. The program grew and grew.

Peterson’s dogs get excellent food and veterinary care, he says, plus “they get loved on by thousands of people a year.” He considers his 16 sled dogs part of the family. “They come in the house and sleep with us. We have a really strong bond with them.” Their urge to run and pull is genetic. “They’re so passionate about it. If people say that animals don’t need purpose, I disagree.”

When I got my chance to ride the dog sled, Liv Kohnen, a Saint Louis native, was the musher. I stood behind her, tightly holding the handles. The nine-dog team burst down the trail, tearing through the gleaming snow. As a wipeout seemed imminent, I concentrated on my balance. Clearly the dogs were in control. I was just along for the ride.

Eco Elegance at Devil’s Thumb Ranch

Eight miles from the family-centered YMCA, Devil’s Thumb Ranch offers an eco-luxe retreat. This is the kind of place couples or small groups can spend an entire week getting away from it all. Summer offers SUP yoga, a zipline course, and mountain biking on 125 miles of trails. Snowshoers and Nordic skiers take over in winter. There’s a ski waxing yurt, spa, wine cellar, game room with billiards, and a cushy movie theater. The lodge rooms have specially made trough bathtubs.

For owners Bob and Suzanne Fanch, environmental concerns were paramount from the get-go. They’ve chosen only to develop 10 percent of their land, and have found innovative ways to recycle. They’ve turned lodgepole pines decimated by the 1996 mountain pine beetle outbreak into interior walls and ceiling beams in the lodges and the spa. They also relocated two Civil War-era barns from the Midwest to use as event spaces. Visitors can see the axe marks where an Indiana builder cut into the beams two centuries ago. The resort has the state’s largest privately-owned solar panel system, and its filtration system breaks down bacteria in the wastewater.

Tip for wannabe visitors: April is budget season.

Eating Veg in Grand County

Grand County pleasantly surprised me with its many vegetarian options. A few standouts:

  • Heck’s Tavern at Devil’s Thumb offers a quinoa dish with Brussels sprouts and curried cashews. Plus, they make their own red and green chili sauces.
  • The Stillwater Grill in Grand Lake, owned by French chef Jean-Claude Cavalera, serves a vegetables napoleon with a hefty chunk of baked tofu surrounded by kale, red cabbage, spaghetti squash, mushrooms, and quinoa with a balsamic drizzle.
  • Weekend Brunch at Grand Lake’s Fat Cat Café features owner Sally Hoffman’s scones and pies. Vegans should ask for Sally’s mush – a big plate of fresh lettuce mix topped with crumbled black bean patties and walnuts. Sally cooks everything herself, and bans alcohol, margarine, and iceberg lettuce from the premises.
  • The Vertical Bistro at Winter Park Resort offers a veg burger, as does the old-fashioned Sloopy’s in Grand Lake.
  • An order of veg nachos at the Sagebrush Café in Grand Lake feeds three people.

If You Go

Many airlines operate direct flights between LAX and Denver. Expect your flight to take about 2 hours and 20 minutes. From Denver, rent a car or take the Home James shuttle to Grand County. The shuttle is a good option if you’re planning to spend all your time at Devil’s Thumb, Winter Park, or the YMCA, and won’t need to drive during your visit. Winter highlights include Christmas events like Grand Lake’s tree lighting, Winter Park’s Torchlight Parade and the Festival of Trees, and the Grand Lake Annual Winter Carnival in February.

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This article is a part of the Jan 17 - Dec 18 issue of Whole Life Times.