Sky High

Colorado: Friendly and accessible Winter Park offers a breath of fresh, if thin, air for a family looking for fun on and around the slopes

January 09, 2000|By Lester A. Picker | Lester A. Picker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Think of Colorado skiing, and names such as Vail, Aspen and Winter Park race to mind faster than a daredevil run down a double-black diamond. An average of 30 feet (that's right, feet) of powdery snow each season sounds mighty good to us mid-Atlantic skiers, so long as we don't have to shovel the stuff.

But my annual winter trip West this time was a mixture of excitement and anticipation. I could easily imagine the exhilarating downhill runs on the slopes of the Rockies, with the tingly, dry mountain air whipping my face. On the other hand, I was a bit apprehensive about taking my 8-year-old grandson, Matthew, with me because the two of us had planned a week at Winter Park that involved more than just skiing -- much more.

Our wintry week together started at a dude ranch, despite my entreaties to Matthew that summer was a better time to ride horses -- or spring or fall, for that matter. Those of you who have grandchildren know that such entreaties in a grandparent-grandchild relationship tend to work only one way. He saw the ranch brochure tucked in the back of a promotional stack, fancied himself a cowboy and -- hey -- I get to give him back to his parents after I spoil him, anyway.

So, bags in hand, we arrived at C-Lazy-U Ranch in Granby, Colo., on a cold, crisp, snowy day. The 2,000-acre spread, a Mobil five-star and AAA five-diamond facility, lies in Willow Creek Valley, overlooking the Continental Divide. But, at 8,150 feet above sea level, I was already beginning to feel the headachy effects of altitude sickness and was chugging water like it was going out of style. Matthew, on the other hand, was so excited when he saw the herd of more than 100 horses, he couldn't stay still, let alone be coaxed into drinking something as mundane as water.

No sooner had we arrived in our spacious room with a cozy fireplace than a knock on our door announced that the daily sledding activity would start in 15 minutes. This is a wild, raucous time for the entire family. One of the ranch pickup trucks lugs a group of guests up a half-mile-long driveway, while another takes a load of traditional steel-runner sleds, inner tubes and plastic sleds. This main access road to the ranch is closed for an hour, while guests zip down the winding path back to the main lodge, either solo or in pairs, while laughter, shrieks and whoops fill the air. While Matthew and I sledded, other guests enjoyed the 25 kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails, a sleigh ride, dog sledding, skating or snowshoeing.

When the sledding was over, many adults relaxed in the lodge with cocktails and good conversation, while youth leaders took the children for a couple of hours of activities. I took the opportunity to exercise, play a couple games of racquetball and enjoy 15 minutes in the hot tub at the activity center. When I arrived next door to pick up Matthew, he was in the midst of a cannonball dive into the outdoor heated pool, snowflakes bombarding his face as he squealed with delight. A permanent fog hovered over the pool, where the hot vapors met the cold evening air, adding a surreal, mysterious atmosphere for the kids.

Home on the range

Meals at the ranch are not for the faint-hearted, or for people on a weight-loss diet. The owners figure that a full day of activities should more than balance out the extra calories.

Meals are served family-style, with 10 guests to a table, in a dining room that overlooks much of the ranch activities, including a large horse corral. While dress is casual, the menu is far from it. The chefs make sure your stay includes both adequate and delectable nutrition. The food is good, hot and plentiful.

Following the evening meal, Matthew and I joined those guests who weren't out for a candlelight ski for a live sing-along, complete with a down-home country band that somehow got even the kids involved. We were all comfortably nestled around the walk-in fireplace in the main lodge, while another two inches of snow quietly fell outside.

By 9, I was already nodding out, while Matthew was still going strong with his newfound friends. Finally, I corralled him and we moseyed back to our room. The entire ranch was lighted by clear holiday lights. Combined with the new snow, the effect was magical, at least for a minute. Then, without warning, I was hit in the back of the neck with a snowball, the bulls-eye no doubt the highlight of Matthew's day. After our brief snowball fight, our wet clothes made the fireplace even more inviting. (Every day the staff replenishes the supply of firewood that is neatly stacked outside each room.)

That night, Matthew complained of a headache and then vomited. With no distractions, I managed to get lots of water into him, and by morning he was fine. From then on, he needed just a periodic reminder to replenish fluids.

On the trails

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