WINTER PARK, Colo. — Alice Walker, a Redondo Beach nurse, hadn't seen her sister, Barbara, and her three nieces for four years. Baltimore, Md., where they lived, was too far for yearly visits, and the hectic pace of the children's summer schools and sports camps had made joint summer vacations difficult to arrange.
So last winter Alice and her husband, Tom, and their two children met Barbara and her family for a vacation almost at the nation's midpoint, a resort ranch high in the Colorado Rockies.
"It was heavenly," Alice recalls. "The mountains were unbelievably beautiful, and so quiet and peaceful. All nine of us stayed together in one big cabin. We cooked together, ate together, played in the snow together.
"We'd light a fire in the fireplace and stay up all night talking. The kids had so much fun getting reacquainted that we've decided to go back this year."
The Governor's Cup
During that same February, Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm came up to the ranch from Denver. The governor and 1,100 other avid outdoorsmen were competing in the 1985 Governor's Cup, a 10K cross-country ski marathon on the ranch's 4,600 acres of deep powder snow.
That race will take place at the ranch again Feb. 9 as will the Snow Mountain Stampede, two marathon races (a 22K and a 44K race) kicking off the "The Great American Ski Chase," an area-wide ski competition held here in the Frazier Valley.
What kind of resort has a recreation program that attracts families looking for an old-fashioned winter vacation and serious skiers such as those on the U.S. Olympic Biathlon Team?
The place is Snow Mountain Ranch, a rustic spread just off U.S. 40 about 75 miles west of Denver. The ranch is only 20 minutes from the granddaddy of all Colorado ski resorts, Winter Park-Mary Jane.
There's a good reason for its growing popularity: a full range of outdoor and indoor activities for people of all ages and skills, and break-even prices for food, lodging and recreation.
The list of outdoor family activities includes sleigh rides, Nordic (cross-country) ski tours and lessons, snowshoeing and ice skating. And for experts and professionals, 50 kilometers of marked, groomed, double-tracked trails and 15 kilometers of wilderness trails wind over the ranch grounds.
Tucked in an evergreen forest at 8,400 feet, Snow Mountain Ranch spreads over a high mountain valley on the west side of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.
Lodgepole pine, subalpine fir and Englemann spruce clothe the ranch, Snow Mountain and nearby Nine Mile Mountain in a blanket of green. From the summits of the two peaks, just a short hike from the ranch, visitors are treated to a wide-angle view of the horizon and the snowcapped Indian Peaks pushing up below the clouds.
SMR, since its purchase 20 years ago, has been strictly recreational, and a property of the YMCA of the Rockies.
High on the western side of the Continental Divide where eastward-traveling clouds drop their moisture, the ranch is bathed in a continuous supply of deep, dry, powder snow, guaranteeing a superb winter sports program.
Ideal for Families
In addition to fabulous snow, recreational facilities make a winter vacation ideal for families. Close at hand are a general store with groceries, meat and canned goods; a gas station, self-service laundry, gift shop, the Aspen Dining Room, the Snack Bar, guest cabins, lodges, offices, a chapel, museum and a library. And there's more, including the gymnasium, ski and snowshoe rental shop, ice skating rink, craft center, a large swimming pool, roller-skating rink and stables (open only in summer). Baby-sitting can be arranged.
The ranch's YMCA nonprofit status means that charges for cabins, meals, rentals and activities are reasonable, with each service priced separately, so that guests pay only for the services they choose.
Convenient for guests not wanting to bother with pockets full of change is a YMCA credit card. You can pick one up at the administration building and use it at all the ranch facilities.
Best of all, you can re-create the feeling of an old-fashioned Colorado winter, like those your great-grandmother might have enjoyed in the early 1900s, when tourists were a rare and hardy breed and only a few ranchers toughed out the winter at these altitudes.
To get to the ranch, a gravel lane turns off U.S. 40 and passes through the thick forest to a clearing, where the main complex is.
Like a page from pioneer history, a log cabin, smoke house, root cellar, horse barn and some pieces of old farm machinery make you feel the simplicity and isolation of early life in these parts.
The Fun Begins
After you arrive and settle into a cabin or lodge, the fun begins. Even novices try cross-country skiing, because of the convenience of rentals and lessons and the proximity of beginning, intermediate and advanced trails. The SMR ski rental shop provides all you need--skis, boots and poles--for $10 a day or $5 for half a day.