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Snow Mountain Ranch: Colorado’s most affordable dog sledding and fat bike foibles

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If you’re going to die (of laughter) I highly suggest bareling into a three-foot grave of snow.  My friend Sheree were attempting Snow Mountain Ranch’s new Fat Bkes and were on our umpteenth wipe-out as we sluggishly plowed through the powder playground.

tubingI’ve long touted YMCA of the Rockies’ two locations–Snow Mountain Ranch (between Winter Park and Grand Lake) and the Estes Park Center–as Colorado’s most affordable and fun vacations. My family has been to Snow Mountain Ranch’s 5,100-acre expanse several times but we upped the fun factor by inviting two other families to join us in our revelries. We had the time of our lives–from a free movie (Nemo) in the Programs building to dog sledding to tubing, cross-country skiing and biking at the Nordic Center, to colorful creations at the Craft Shop to late-night Scrabble showdowns at Indian Peaks Lodge to rollerskating, archery, basketball, volleyball, ping, ping pong, archery and rock climbing in the Kiva Center (click top image for slideshow).

All these activities were within a 24-hour period so were intermingled with a few exhausted meltdowns (from parents and kids) because every amazing vacation needs some healthy doses of reality, right?

Colorado’s most affordable dog sledding

Now in its fourth season, Snow Mountain Ranch’s chapelain Steve Peterson has made dog sledding accessible to a broader audience. While most dog sledding outfitters start at $150/person,  SMR is just $30.  Longer, advanced routes or group sessions are also available but the standard ride is offered twice weekly and is a fantastic option for first-time riders ages 6 and older.

dogsledWe registered the week prior but were told to arrive at the Doade Library well before the 8:30 a.m. presentation to add our names to the list to determine our riding order. Our 30-minute orientation by Steve is open was as informative as it was entertaining as he reviewed the terminology of mushing such as the gang and tug lines,  shared a few entertaining horror stories of his own learning curve, as well as an inspiring message about the importance of the lead dogs, being leaders in our communities and perseverance. Following his overview, we waited. Our group was smack in the middle of the 26 time slots so we stayed entertained by watching a movie, downing hot cocoa, burning s’mores by the firepit and making darling dog sled Popsicle stick and necklace crafts. Even if you’re not dog sledding, anyone can attend the presentation and do crafts.

Each sled can carry up to 250 pounds in addition to the driver so my husband and I went separately. My kids rode together with my son in the front bucket with the musher in the middle and my daughter standing on the back rails. They had the privilege of dog sledding a couple of years ago in Breckenridge so I was worried their experience along this 2-mile loop would be anti-climactic but I needn’t have fretted. Following their thrilling ride, they proclaimed they’re “Mushers for Life.”

As I boarded my sled, the dogs errupted in pandemonium, which was  replaced by a sense of sudden, efficient shared purpose. They took off, the tow line snapped taut and I nearly fell backward as I clung for dear life. Almost immediately the pace slowed as the dogs ran quietly, tongues flapping, paws flashing. The weather was idyllic as we soared across that snowy expanse under a chemical-blue sky in a white-flecked pine forest. Our sled dogs obediently responded to our mushing commands “Gee!” “Haw,”  first turning right, then left as we flew across those tussocks of tundra-like landscape in a flash of sheer mountain majesty. 

Fat Bike Delusions of Grandeur

Every time I bike through a Colorado resort town in winter, I see locals braving baneful conditions on their Fat Bikes with sturdy tires the size of snowcats. In my Canadian-born (insane) mind I think, “that looks like fun!” Fat Bikes are certainly entertaining but are a lot of other adjectives, too. Tiring. Hilarious. Humbling. 

Snow Mountain Ranch is in its first full season with their Fat Bike Program. The bikes come in three different adults sizes and are available for rent at the Nordic Center: $60/full day, $40 half day or $20/hour.  My friend Sheree and I figured one hour would be enough time to conquer the 10 km of trails dedicated to Fat Bikes and I ignorantly tossed my map to the side. That was my first mistake. Sheree’s first mistaken was following me–guns and Fat Bike blazing–down the steep hill in front of the Nordic Center.

We started strong along the narrow path but not even 10 minutes into the ride, I heard a squeal, followed by silence and turned to see Sheree and her bike buried. “How did that happen?” I wondered but five seconds later, my tire veered an inch off the path and I, too was in the dunk. We learned very quickly that on either side of the soft-pack narrow trail was three feet of softer, fluffy powder that doubled as a sticky mosh pit. As long as we stayed on the trail, we were OK…until we encountered other variables, such as hikers’ footprints and then our wheels got stuck, we would pedal viciously and then our bikes tipped over.

After a particularly difficult patch, I was relieved to see a small hill with smooth trail. “I’ve got this” as I brazenly plowed downhill and all was going well until my tire veered slightly off the trail, it sunk about 10 inches and my bike and I flipped over in a move only attempted by Cirque du Soleil performers. Besides my pride, I was unhurt but that was when we acknowledged “We have a problem, Houston.”fatbike1

Sheree and I turned around soon thereafter and continued to slide ‘n slide away. As we we neared the Nordic Center she had yet another wipeout and just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did when we realized we had an audience. Perched atop the hill was our beloved family. Our two sweet boys raced down to greet us and trailed us back up the hill. 

We later learned that we had taken the most advanced route possible while our friend Andrew, himself an advanced rider, took a leisurely, hard-packed loop near the Nordic Center and his breezy, easy ride was a much different experience that didn’t include face-plant snow angels.

His loss. I haven’t laughed so hard in years.

Lodging

Many of Snow Mountain Ranch’s activities are free with lodging and day passes are available for those who don’t stay overnight.  Accommodation rates vary depending upon the time of year and day of the week. Lodge rooms start at $79, 2-bedroom cabins at $159 and 3-bedroom vacation homes at $259. Guests staying in lodge rooms receive two free breakfasts for each night booked. Yurts are $99/night and campsites start at $49/night.

Parting Words

The only thing that sucked about Snow Mountain Ranch?swing

The tire swing.

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Comments
  • comment avatar Natalie January 28, 2016

    We love Snow Mountain Ranch but have never been in the winter. In summer, we love their new sledding hill and there are some really amazing hikes. Will need to check it out.

  • comment avatar Gail January 28, 2016

    Their cabins have the most awesome views. For lodges, I prefer Indian Peaks over the others. The one thing vs. Estes Park Center is everything is within walking distance in Estes but because of the size of the property at Snow Mountain, it’s a lot more spread out. It’s a double-edged sword for having an expansive property.

  • comment avatar Amber Johnson January 28, 2016

    Natalie–Winter is definitely the best season to visit Snow Mountain Ranch. The Nordic Center in particular is amazing!

  • comment avatar Amber Johnson January 28, 2016

    Gail–We’ve only stayed in their cabins and the views were gorgeous. There’s definitely nothing fancy about either location but it feels like family camp to me, which is why I love it.

  • comment avatar Lana January 28, 2016

    We love everything about YMCA of the Rockies (ultimate family trip) except for one thing: the food. I really wish the cafeterias would step it up. I could understand it if the cost for meals was inexpensive but it’s not and the food is sub-par. One thing I do appreciate is the salad bar has gotten a lot better over the years so I usually stick with that.

  • comment avatar Amber Johnson January 28, 2016

    Lana–I’m with you on the food! It’s been really hit and miss for us. The first night wasn’t good at all but the second night was actually really good. I’d love to see a bit more consistency. I don’t need gourmet but something a step up!

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