WILDERNESS RESORT: I am sitting in a private hot tub on the deck of a log cabin at Vista Verde Ranch (vistaverde.com), which overlooks Colorado’s snow-covered Rocky Mountains. In the distance, the late-afternoon sun hits the peak of Mt. Zirkel, and, for a moment, the mountain appears to be topped with swirls of frozen peach yogurt. I sip a glass of wine and soak my tired body. But then the squeals of preteen girls zap the Zen out of my moment, and before I can drain my glass, three gleeful gals with frosty red noses are standing around the tub. “Let’s go, Uncle Nancy,” they say in unison. “We’re late for dinner.”
FUNNY FAMILY: I have five nieces, and they all call me Uncle Nancy. When I get the urge to have a child, I adopt one or all of my nieces and take them on an “Uncle Nancy Trip.” I was a little nervous about escorting three of them—Mia, 11; Katie, 12; and Hannah, 11—to Vista Verde Ranch. None of them had ever seen deep snow. And I’ve never had to shoulder the responsibility of transporting three young, overly active girls from their home in Dallas to a dude ranch tucked into the wilderness of the Elk River Valley, 25 miles north of Steamboat Springs. They wanted to learn to ski, sled, and ride horses. I wanted them to experience it all. At the same time, I could have used a little downtime.
RESORT RESCUE: I signed up to go during the ranch’s winter kids’ program, when the young, energetic outdoorsy staff is ramped up to entertain kids ages 6 and older. My girls shrieked with delight as Rachel showed us to our cozy three-bedroom, two-story cabin with a wood-burning fireplace, a minibar filled with snacks, and a refrigerator stocked with drinks. I was happy as well. There was high-speed internet, two bottles of complimentary wine, and a king-size lodgepole pine bed.
DINNER BELL: We made our way through the sidewalks, which were more like tunnels due to the 7-foot walls of snow on either side. As we entered the lodge, we were greeted by a staffer who directed the girls to the kids’ table. We all looked at each other. “Could I have dinner with them tonight?” I asked. Before I got an answer, I found myself standing alone.
PARENT TRAP: Three days later, my girls surfaced. They had learned to ride horses at Vista Verde’s heated indoor arena and knew every ranch hand by name. Their instructor, ranch trainer Terry Wegener, has an extensive background in reining and ranch versatility horse training, competition, and judging. He not only taught the girls how to ride but to communicate with their horses. (Of course, now they all want horses.) The girls spent an afternoon zooming up the side of a mountain in a snowmobile and sledding down. They’d spent hours hanging out at the Kids’ Cabin, where they traded e-mail addresses with kids from all over the country, played games, and watched movies. Sure, they had counselors with them at all times, but the rules were clear: no grown-ups allowed.
PERFECT FIT: Between my long naps and book reading, I did manage to share a few activities with the girls. We all learned to cross-country ski and cuddled under blankets for a horse-drawn sleigh ride, both of which allowed us to tour some of the ranch’s 540 acres. And I learned to fit in with the adults. Each night we gathered at a candlelit table, dined on gourmet cowboy cuisine, and talked about what most parents talk about: how much we miss our kids.
Snow BusinessBefore settling in at Vista Verde Ranch, many guests get their fix of downhill skiing in Steamboat Springs (steamboat.com). By the time they arrive at the ranch, they are ready to tackle the snowy adventures offered at Vista Verde. Don’t bother toting heavy equipment; the Nordic Center provides a full line of top-notch gear to make these winter ranch activities enjoyable. There are miles of trails for Nordic skiing. The property’s ski guides will escort you on full- or half-day backcountry tours. There are telemark instructors to help you learn or take you to some steep terrain where you can practice your skills. If you need an ego boost, try snowshoeing. Anybody can do it. All of these activities are covered in the daily rate of the lodge, but there are optional activities available at minimal charges. You can spend an afternoon dog sledding through the wilderness ($150 per person, children under 80 pounds $110) or climb a frozen waterfall using ice axes and crampons ($125 per person). Go for it all. The resort can arrange to have a massage therapist waiting for you when you return.
How To Get There:
United (united.com) offers daily nonstop flights from DFW to Steamboat Springs. A representative from Vista Verde will pick you up and transport you to the ranch. Colorado Dude Ranch Travel Service, 800-729-5521, is available to help you with flight and transportation arrangements.
Rates: A three-day minimum is required in the winter. The ranch is open for the dude ranch season from June though September and as a winter ranch from mid-December to early March.
Winter rates for cabins: $325 for one person to $2,000 for six per night. Capacity each night is 40.
Take the Kids: This season kids’ weeks run December 15 through January 5 and February 18 through March 20. Call 800-526-7433 or 970-879-3858 for more information or to make reservations. vistaverde.com