I manage to click off one photo of the snowmobile group before my phone dies from the cold. That’s what happens when you’re hanging out in the middle of winter at 3,600 metres near the summit of the Continental Divide. With more than 1,000 Rocky Mountain peaks over 3,048 metres, Colorado has the highest mean altitude of any of the US states.
It had been close to a balmy -5 Celsius as we boarded our snowmobiles down in Winter Park at the Grand Adventure Snowmobile Tour meeting point. But the elevation there is only 2,780 metres. I had thought I might be overdressed in the big snowsuit and gloves provided.
We rounded curves and blasted up the forested mountain on wide-groomed trails and, as we came to an open viewpoint, our guide pointed out Winter Park Ski Resort and other landmarks in the valley. It’s been years since I’d been on a snowmobile – so exhilarating to be in charge of the throttle (did you know the handle bars are heated now?).
As we continued above treeline, the wind became intense and the temperature dropped (I was happy for the full suit then), so windy that in spots the powdery snow made visibility difficult.
After our photo op at the top, we start our descent, stopping at points of interest like the Rollins Pass, a wagon and rail route that crossed the divide, a dilapidated trestle still visible. But settlers weren’t the first to use this area. Native Americans used this naturally low crossing area for game drives, rock wall blinds built to funnel large game like big horn sheep and elk up slope to waiting hunters. With the drone of the snowmobiles, we don’t spot any wildlife, but I’m told there is plenty here.
Back to treeline (and warmth), our guide takes us on more challenging, single-track trails through groves of lodge pole pines and aspens before we finish the tour.
Ski in the Sunshine
The fun factor had started earlier that day at Winter Park Ski Resort when I clipped on skis and ventured out on the 3,081 acres of three inter-connected mountains. With 166 trails and 25 chair lifts, there are no line-ups, even though this is the closest destination resort to Denver. In operation for over 75 years, several of the trails are marked as historical with a commemorative sign, like Mary Jane territory, known for its bumps and spectacular tree-skiing, and so-named because a section was originally owned by Mary Jane, well-known madam of the evening during the gold rush days.
By lunch time, I’m ravenous, and lunch options are numerous in the alpine-style base village. Grand County is known for its beef as after the gold rush, ranching took over (it’s now the rodeo capital of the world), but nobody at Vertical Bistro bats an eye when I order the Herbivore Burger.
Explore the Snowmobile Capital
When I’d arrived three days earlier to Denver International Airport, only 90 minutes away, lower altitude adventures were planned to ensure acclimatization. The first day was exploring Grand Lake, a village of about 500 at 2,551 metres established in 1881 as a supply post for mining settlements. Located on the shores of Grand Lake, it’s the largest natural body of water in Colorado and a base camp for Rocky Mountain National Park.
Known as the snowmobile capital of Colorado, there are hundreds of miles of trails here. You can even ride your snowmobile through town, where the main street is the original width for wagons and horse-tying posts, with pioneer-style board sidewalks. This place oozes cowboy culture, and I keep expecting a John Wayne-ish character to walk into the street for a shoot-out at high noon (supposedly John Wayne had a vacation home here).
On a hike on East Inlet Trail, established in 1913 to provide access from Grand Lake to nearby lakes, it’s sunny and quiet. There’s been enough traffic on the trail that snowshoes aren’t needed, but not so busy that there’s no wildlife, and we spot a female moose in the trees in Big Meadows munching on whatever she can find in the deep snow.
Later, at Kawuneeche (land of coyotes) National Park Visitors Centre, we strap on snowshoes and join Ranger Sam Crane’s outing. He leads us on a loop, stopping at stunning lookouts to view the Vasquez and Indian Mountain Ranges and pointing out nature highlights like bear scratches and bites on trees.
Back at my motel, I scare coyotes from the second-story landing upon my return. It’s that wild here.
Dogsled at the Ranch
The next day is dogsledding at Snow Mountain Ranch, YMCA of the Rockies. The 16 sled dogs are mainly descendants of Yukon, otherwise called the Professor, because he taught most of the other dogs. These Alaskan Huskies are smaller than Siberian Huskies, yet they eat an incredible 4-6,000 calories a day.
When it’s my turn, I jump on a tandem sled with “musher” Liv from Missouri who came to volunteer at the Y and then fell in love with the dogs and the sport. “These dogs were born to run,” Liv tells me in between shouts of gee (right) and haw (left) commands to Indigo and Juniper, the two lead dogs. “They can actually run themselves to death, so must be well taken care of,” she continues as we make our way amazingly quickly around the 3.2-kilometre trail that winds through open meadows with breathtaking views of mountains on every side. This was a bucket-list experience for me.
Ski the Nordic Trails
Lunch is by a fireplace made from 27-million-year-old volcanic rock at the luxurious, but rustic, Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort. Here they’ve taken eating local to a whole new level, even raising their own wagyu cattle.
The 2,400-hectare ranch has won awards for its 80 kilometres of groomed Nordic ski trails. At a group lesson, their resident expert checks my kick and glide: “Work on shifting your weight from side to side more,” she suggests, before she effortlessly glides away to tutor the next person.
To finish the day is a much-needed massage. At the spa, situated on the quiet corner of a meadow, I sink into a plush lounging sofa in front of a crackling fireplace and think, if, as Henry David Thoreau said, “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” Grand County is doing its part.
Altitude: drink lots of water, eat well, stay in Denver for one night, if possible, to acclimatize.
Dog sledding at Snow Mountain Ranch: reserve ahead, the dogs can only run at cold temperatures.
Ranger programs at Rocky Mountain National Park: generally, only on weekends.
Where to eat: Grand Lake – catch the incredible weekend breakfast buffet at Fat Cat Café; or dine in a saloon-style environment at Sage Brush, where you can eat peanuts and throw the shells on the floor.
Granby – Stillwater Grill has superb food created by the French owner/chef.