ASHCROFT, Colo. — Flashing like frosty fireflies, the lights on the mining helmets winked through the winter skeletons of an aspen grove, bobbing on the heads of cross-country skiers as they moved through the night. Stillness. Quiet. Only the swish-swish of a dozen pairs of skis.
On another mountainside far away, schnapps-fortified, fur-wrapped passengers clambered into a wagon behind a yellow snow cat.
The engine rumbled to life, pulling the wagon along an icy stream, where little waterfalls gleamed and shimmered in the moon's cold light. The festive group toasted one another, and spoke to the mountain gods, wishing all good cheer on this special night.
Miles away, a team of shaggy huskies strained against a leather harness as they drew a sled along a hillside thick with black spruce.
The yelping of the dogs drifted back over the passengers, and they smiled as the cold air of night tickled their ears and turned their cheeks the color of ripe cherries.
Three events, three locations deep in the snow-choked mountains of a wintry Colorado night, the stars so bright it looked like you could reach up and pluck them from the sky, diamond presents for night visitors.
Reward at Trail's End
A common thread, however. At the end of each journey, a reward; a bonus for those who ventured off the usual road, who used the night to travel deep into the woods, far from the bright lights and bars of the ski resorts.
Fine food was the prize, and good wine, and company enriched with the experience, talking of little else, warming by a pine-wood fire that crackled a welcome.
Such experiences have become very popular in recent years, as skiers and others tire of the pseudo-sophistication of mountain restaurants that line the streets of Vail and Aspen, Breckenridge and Crested Butte, Winter Park and Steamboat Springs. These night adventurers yearn for a different experience, far from unctuous head waiters and overpriced wine lists.
Many Colorado mountain resorts offer offbeat dining, restaurants that serve fine food but in casual circumstances; restaurants that can be reached only by skis, sleighs, gondolas or snow cats.
These restaurants are either on the mountainsides or deep in the woods, far from the neon wonderlands called ski resorts. Although the restaurants are very different from one another, all offer the special allure of dining well in a setting as wild as the winter wind.
Among the mountain dining choices for Colorado skiers this year:
Ashcroft: You begin your journey in Ashcroft, a ghost town 12 miles up a splendid valley from Aspen. Although you can cross-country ski to the Cookhouse in daylight, and settle on the wide sun-swept porch for lunch, the night ski trips are the most enthralling, as you pick your way through aspen groves, a single light on your helmet showing the way.
After you arrive you will warm beside a pot-bellied stove, select a wine from an extensive list and listen to the old upright piano.
Then, you can order trout and lamb, chicken and Hungarian goulash. All to fortify you for the trip home. If you don't care to cross-country ski to the Cookhouse, you can ride in a horse-drawn sleigh, its bells ringing out a welcome in the high country where the massive Elk Mountain Range glistens in the moonlight.
The guided cross-country tour, including dinner, will cost you $35. Add another $10 for the sleigh ride. For reservations (book early), call (303) 925-1044.
Beaver Creek: Although this 5,000-square-foot log cabin is only a couple of years old, it has the feel of old Colorado, with massive pine beams lending a rustic look, a huge river rock fireplace spreading warmth throughout, bearskin rugs on the floors and cowhide chairs cozying up to the bar. The cabin is on the 1919 homestead of Frank (Beano) Bienkowski, whose crumbling log home is passed on the sleigh ride up from Beaver Creek ski resort.
There are two seatings each night in the splendor of this high meadow where deer and elk graze, one leaving the resort at 5:15 p.m., the other at 7:15 p.m. Each night you'll be treated to steak or chicken, corn on the cob, baked potatoes, salad and dessert, all for $45 ($30 for children), which includes the sleigh ride and wine. For reservations--and make them at least two weeks in advance--call (303) 949-5750.
Snowmass: A dog lover's delight is Krabloonik. The owner of this restaurant, which serves some of the best and most unusual food (elk, moose and caribou) in Colorado, has a love affair with huskies, strong big-hearted dogs who delight in pulling sleds through the White River National Forest that surrounds the restaurant.
You can take a full-day dog-sled trip ($160), which includes lunch, or a half-day ($80, $65 for children) and romp through land as silent as sandstone, a place where elk and deer hide in the midday shadows and ravens call from the tops of swaying aspen trees.