But no matter what, our family always flies into Denver. It’s centrally located, friendly and clean, and to us, Denveris Colorado. The city’s public transportation system is convenient and reasonably priced. If we stay in a far-reaching suburb, we’re still able to ride the train in to check out neighborhoods such as LoDo, the Lower Downtown Historic District, or visit Denver’s Downtown Aquarium. But the best thing we’ve discovered in Colorado is its off-season.
Even during the summer, the Rocky Mountains are capped with snow. The sight of them sends my sons, ages 9 and 13, spinning off on chattering tangents about what they plan to do first — even though we all know they’ll inevitably land on their favorite activity, alpine sliding.
Locals know that in Colorado it’s skiing in the winter, sliding in the summer. Many of the area’s resorts, including Steamboat Springs and Winter Park, add alpine slide courses to their summer repertoire of activities. Logan and Justin can race each other down a mountainside on sledlike contraptions, steering through a sort of slalom course built into the ground. And, because the alpine slides are found at ski resorts, there’s always a gondola waiting to take them back up to the top for another turn.
Winter Park’s course is the longest in the state, with 3,000 feet of chutes and 26 turns. If we’re aiming for that resort, we always try to book at least one portion of our trip on the Ski Train. It tacks an extra hour and a half onto our travel time (Winter Park is about an hour and a half northwest of Denver by car), and it only runs on Saturdays, but the upside is the unparalleled close-up view of Colorado wildlife. We’ve seen bison and moose from the windows of the train car — the photos we’ve taken on those trips are our trophies from summers in the Centennial State. The trip also takes riders through dozens of tunnels, and carries a train car host who can answer the questions of even the most inquisitive kids.
Once you arrive in Winter Park, be aware of the elevation change; the city center sits at 9,100 feet above sea level, a valley compared to Winter Park’s highest point, 12,060 feet in Winter Park Resort. It’s the highest incorporated town in the United States, so we try to drink an abundance of water to avoid the altitude’s dehydrating effects. The whole family has been afflicted here before, and the dizziness and nausea are memories we don’t want to repeat.
Regardless of the height, athletes arrive every spring to take advantage of the area’s trail system. Winter Park hosts a summer mountain bike race series with a kick-off event June 14: a simple 5.3-mile ride ... with an elevation gain of 2,160 feet. If you’re up for it, check-in starts at 8 a.m.
We tend toward the more leisurely pace of a hot air balloon. After our first attempt at a balloon trip amid the Rockies four years ago (when our son threw up over the side of the gondola), we started taking a day or two to get used to the elevation change. Now we love these rides — it’s the closest we can get to being on top of the world without doing the work of climbing a mountain.
Rodeos and family festivals also pepper Winter Park’ summer calendar, along with the second annual Crankworx Colorado Freeride Mountain Bike Festival July 31 through Aug. 3 (with all kinds of bike competitions, from big air to cross country), and the Jazz Festival July 26 and 27.
But we come to Colorado to get away from the hustle and bustle. And for that we turn to Bill Berger, manager of the Platte Ranch in the one-stoplight town of Fairplay, less than two hours outside Winter Park.
I’m a Midwestern girl at heart, and when I met Berger for the first time, I felt the thrill of an authentic Western experience that seemed very foreign. He’s leathery, with a deeply tanned face, a Marlboro-raspy voice and a big ol’ belt buckle: the embodiment of the wordcowboy. He doesn’t take guff from a horse or a customer, but during our rides he regales us with story after story. He describes how he lives here in Colorado year-round, without heat (sometimes using a bottle of Jameson Whiskey to keep warm), and spins yarns about the animal skulls we pass on the trail.
His tours differ from the typical tourist experience in many respects. We get to trot and even gallop our horses across his 4,200 acres of land, which stretches from mountain peaks to valleys far below us.
“We ride in small groups, not nose to tail, and we give you the freedom to ride,” he explains. During his Ride and Dine trips, we take the horses on a three-hour trek and then sit down to what Berger calls a typical ranch dinner: steak, chicken, ranch potatoes (or “patters”), tortillas, corn on the cob and homemade peach cobbler. At $85 per person, it rates favorably against competing stables, which hover around $60 for a two-hour trip. However, his tours depart from the tourism ideal (cheap and easy) in one important way: You’ve got to reach him by phone — there’s no Web site, no PR person. Now that’s a true cowboy.
Slide: At Winter Park Resort. 239 Winter Park Drive, Winter Park; 1-800-979-0332; www.skiwinterpark.com
Ride: The Ski Train. The train runs between Winter Park and Denver on Saturdays. Call (303) 296-4754 or go to www.skitrain.com for boarding information.
Hang: In LoDo, a neighborhood full of eateries, funky shops and Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies. www.lodo.org
Saddle Up: At the Platte Ranch. The Ride and Dine takes place during the summer months on Fridays and Saturdays. Call (719) 836-1670.
A Grand Gathering