When I was a teenager, I cut out a magazine photo showing a cowgirl riding a horse through thigh-high snow. The image was so exotic and romantic that I pasted it to my mirror as a reminder of what I wanted from life. So when I had the chance to take Indigo, my horse-mad 12-year-old daughter, to join friends at Vista Verde Ranch outside Steamboat Springs in midwinter, I had an ulterior motive: I was going to fulfill my cowgirl fantasy.
The plan was to spend four nights at Vista Verde, a summer-winter guest ranch, and three at Steamboat Springs ski resort.
Vista Verde is 25 miles from downtown Steamboat in the middle of the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area. Even swaddled in snow, the 600-acre property offers an extraordinary panorama of rivers, mountains and forests. The nine cabins and three lodge rooms can house as many as 40 people, although in winter there usually are 20 to 30 guests at a time. Management is careful not to call Vista Verde a "dude" ranch. "There's a terrible impression of beans and weinies that comes with that term," said Stephanie Wilson, guest relations manager.
Our cabin, Little Agnes, was cozy: two bedrooms, a sitting room, a kitchenette and a hot tub on the deck. It was decorated traditionally, with a wood-burning stove, leather chairs and oak furniture. It felt like a friend's guesthouse, with plenty of room for a preteen unpacking explosion.
Part of Vista Verde's attraction was Terry Wegener and the heated indoor riding arena. Riding in thigh-high snow might be romantic, but it has its limitations. An arena allows you to take lessons and ride for hours in a T-shirt. Wegener is a horse breeder, trainer, champion roper and a true-blue horse whisperer. Although he doesn't look like the Robert Redford character in the movie "The Horse Whisperer," he gets the same respect from horses.
Vista Verde is an all-inclusive resort, meaning you don't pay extra for its array of activities. I relished the 2 1/2 hours we spent each morning in the arena learning the subtle art of flying lead changes and postural communication. "There's a big difference between sitting on a horse and riding a horse," Wegener told me, perhaps casting aspersions on my ability. "The horse should know how to move just by where you point your hips." Wegener proved to be a perceptive and relaxed instructor, and Indigo and I became hip-rotating, intuitive riders.
The ranch is not just for riders. We were also seduced by backcountry skiing. With hundreds of acres and few people, no one was around to laugh at our feeble first attempts. We were entreated to try backcountry by Steve and Kelli King and their also-12-year-old daughter, Maddie. The Kings run the Nordic center at Vista Verde. "Cross-country is wonderful here and you can go for hours on our trails, but you've got to try backcountry. There's nothing like it," Steve King told me, strapping on a backpack stuffed with outdoor rescue gear.
Backcountry skis are thicker and heavier than their cross-country cousins, with scales on the bottom to grip the snow. This means no trail is required, so you merrily make your own way up hill and over dale. One blue-sky day, Steve and Maddie took us up the Elk River. After a couple of spills, Indigo, who has only downhill skied, mastered the motion and was off in Maddie's wake. I was less adept, using the dazzling scenery as an excuse for my frequent pauses. It was, as Indigo said, "Snow Queen kingdom-ish," with shimmering trees, the whispering river and silky mounds of white.
Although we were at Vista Verde for five days, we ran out of time for all the activities and wished we'd stayed a week. We did, however, manage to go sledding and snowshoeing and to take a sleigh ride. I also fulfilled my fantasy of trail riding in the snow, although I was wearing ski pants, a parka and goggles rather than the chaps and cowgirl hat ensemble in that girlhood photo.
At night we'd eat country gourmet food with other families and then assemble in the soaring great room to listen to the cowboy staff singing songs by the "indoor campfire." The music was especially endearing, particularly "The Last Cowboy," once famously sung by Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, and its line, "Another piece of America is lost." Hearing this made me content that Indigo was witnessing this piece of her national heritage and that there are still places where we can experience an iconic way of life.
We left Vista Verde late on our fifth day and drove through Steamboat Springs to our accommodations on the slopes of Steamboat Ski Resort. In the heart of the Colorado Rockies, Steamboat is known as one of the best ski hills in America, with nearly 3,000 acres of terrain, 3,670 feet of vertical drop, 165 trails (one more than three miles long), an average snowfall of 349 inches and world-famous "champagne powder" for tree skiers.
Because our group of friends had kids in tow, we chose ski-in/ski-out accommodations, meaning there would be no hellish schlepping of gear. We could store everything in lockers downstairs, where we had only to gear up and waddle 15 feet to the snow.
We rented a condominium at the Edgemont, just above the gondola. Ours was a new, chic two-bedroom with a full stainless-and-granite kitchen (with Viking range), dining table, living room, washer/dryer, luxe bathrooms and a view of the children's terrain park, where kids would wave up at their parents midair. Downstairs were a heated pool and hot tub.
Well aware of my inclination to get lost and ski out of bounds, Indigo and I took a lesson the first morning to get the lay of the land. Our instructor didn't do much instructing, but we did learn the mountain, which is actually six peaks linked by 18 chairlifts. The best part was when he took us through the trees and into that champagne powder. We live in California, where Sierra cement is the norm, so this was Indigo's first time in powder. "It's like meditating," she yelled as she whipped past me, "so calming." Not that the child has meditated for even a single second.
We ate some dinners in the condo, thanks to a supermarket at the base of the hill, reached by Edgemont's free shuttle. One afternoon we took the shuttle into Steamboat Springs, where we bought big-buckled Western belts and wool-lined boots at F.M. Light & Sons, had tea and scones and bought books at Off the Beaten Path bookstore and cafe, procured fudge at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and joined Steamboat resident friends at the decidedly non-cowboy Bistro C.V. for dinner. Indigo, who survives on mac 'n' cheese, ordered grilled romaine with garlic truffle dressing, Chinook salmon tartare and a Wagu beef burger with foie gras and aioli. Amazing what tree skiing does to an appetite.
Steamboat was founded in the early 1800s by fur trappers and still has that frontier look. It houses about 10,000 Mountain Hardwear-and-cowboy-boot-wearing locals, a five-block stretch of movie set-style brick buildings and a disproportionate number of Winter Olympics athletes.
The area is also known for its thermal springs, so one snowy afternoon we headed to Strawberry Park Hot Springs, seven miles outside town. The pools are surrounded by trees and mountains and are contained by a series of rock walls stepping down the valley. Seeing humans crouched in the steaming water — eyes half-mast, snowflakes coating their hair — I was reminded of the blissed-out snow monkeys of Japan.
The following day we flew out over the Rockies in all their craggy, rumpled splendor. It had taken me 30 years to ride a horse in the snow, but I'd done it. And I'd also done things that reminded me of how well life had turned out, including watching my daughter out-ski me in the trees.