Colorado: A true winter experience without skiing

Graham McKenzie revels in the chill

I might be considered strange, but I like winter. I adore the crisp, clean nature of the air, the changes a heavy frost brings to the world and the opportunities it brings for different types of adventure. Nowadays winter, as I define it, has becoming virtually extinct where I live in the south of England. Once every 5 or 6 years we might get some flurries and a week of temperatures hovering around five degrees centigrade. What I want, and I must admit I only want it for a maximum of a few weeks, are not flurries but inches or even feet of snow, I want temperatures that begin with a minus figure and end with a double digit. Yes, I want it cold, crisp and even. I wish to see the vegetation transformed by the sort of frostiness only Jack can bring, that turn green to white overnight and puddles into mini-ice rinks.

So, having established I like winter what can one do about it given the ravages of climate change on the winters of my youth? Travel – yes, travel to a region of the world that still have ‘proper’ winters. One’s desire for this type of climate alongside adventure can often be satisfied by skiing but what if, when faced with a frozen incline, you are the equivalent of Bambi on Ice after a heavy session down at the pub? Well, last January I was lucky enough to travel to Colorado with the intent of finding my refrigerated nirvana: winter but no skiing.

Capital Ideas

Arriving at Colorado’s main gateway airport on the outskirts of Denver you are left under no illusion that you are entering a cold zone. Be it from your aeroplane window or as you walk outside to the quick and efficient metro train that takes you downtown, chances are the ground will be covered in snow, the sky will be blue, the temperature will be low and the view of the distant, snow-capped Rocky Mountains call to you, ‘Come here come and get me’. Not so quick though as the capital city has a lot to offer as well.

Festivals and events figure highly in the Denver winter schedule and if you arrive early enough you can enjoy the fantastic spectacle of the National Western Stock Show, which features rodeos, livestock shows, and exhibitions. Think traditional Western movies, cattle, drovers and stockmen, all in a modern city downtown area. Colorado is definitely more cowboy than one would first imagine.

The Blossoms of Light Festival in the Botanic Gardens is located right in the centre of the city. It seems that almost anywhere in the US the Christmas Light season is one that basically starts the day after Thanksgiving and continues right until till mid-January.  When you have invested as much as Denver has, why not? The illuminations are truly spectacular especially when combined with the snow on the trees and if you have lost the festive spirit this will go some way to getting it back.

Rocky Mountain High

Just ninety minutes from downtown Denver lies the town of Estes Park which is widely recognised as the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park and has long held the reputation for being a centre of activity for wildlife watching and taking in the stunning views. In the winter it is nothing short of a wonderland. On the drive from Denver to Estes Park there is a constant reminder of how magnificent the Rocky Mountains are. They are at their spectacular best in the winter. When the sky is a deep blue and sun is high, the terrain before you is magnetic in its quality. It’s the mainland equivalent of being at the seaside. Here watching the views roll in one after another is as hypnotic as watching waves cascade.

Estes Park is a relatively small town and in the colder months not especially busy. It’s easy to park, easy to get restaurant reservations and easy to find a good hotel. For the nephologists amongst you it is also a dream destination as the winds that are taken high over the Rocky Mountains create some of the most spectacular skies one could see. Lenticular clouds are quite common.

Snowshoeing above sea level

The big-ticket item for me, however, was snow shoeing in the Rocky Mountains. This is not something I had done before and approaching the mountain staging post I was expecting to slip into a pair of comfy modified tennis racquets. Modern snowshoes are, however, unsurprisingly, oblong pieces of plastic with grips on the bottom and straps for your snow boots. Once I was fully equipped, off we went to the trail to begin the ascent. The temperature at this stage was around the -15C level but the trail was fairly clear with compacted snow. After about a mile I realised that the reason for the lack of breath was the altitude as we were over two miles above sea level but the counter to this were the unbelievable views across and down the valleys. We called the ascent off after an hour or so, but the descent was definitely a walk on the wild side as we went decidedly off piste. Springing, if that’s the right term, through huge snow drifts we also slid on our backsides, spotted wildlife, traversed frozen lakes (do not do this at home) and stopped to wonder at the beauty of it all.  The images will remain with me on what was a day never to be forgotten.

Hello Danny come and play with us

Once back in town, I had a single last task to complete and that was to re-enact one of the most iconic and frightening horror movies of all time. Estes Park is home to the Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel The Shining.  You can pay a small fee and take a tour of the hotel, find out about its history, which in itself is compelling, and how Stephen King came to stay there, get very drunk, have an argument with his wife, pine for his newly born son (who was being baby sat by his in-laws) and have a nightmare which gave him the inspiration for this dark tale.

No Axe to Grind

Graham axe throwing
Graham axe throwing

No nightmares for me as next morning I was off to the warm welcome in Loveland, the epicentre of global romance which comes to a crescendo every February 14th. They like to surprise you in the land of love so whilst I was anticipating a candlelit dinner for two, my first activity actually turned out to be axe throwing.  After my encounter at the Stanley Hotel, I channelled my inner Jack Nicholson and took to it like a duck to the chopping board. My normal pinpoint accuracy on throwing things did desert me and I am afraid I took a few chunks out of the target surrounds. I blamed the altitude.

Cowboy life for me

It was now time to settle down, and I was about to become a true cowboy at the Sylvan Dale Ranch. Located a few minutes away from downtown, the working ranch offers accommodation in small self-contained cabins. These are no ordinary cabins though as they are exactly what you would imagine a little house on the prairie to look like. Separate bedroom, bathroom, front room with real fire (set for immediate use), sepia photographs adorn the walls along with other objet d’art of a bygone age.

I stayed in the Annie Oakley suite. It was a bit chilly to enjoy the deck, but one could easily imagine sitting on it, cowboy-booted feet up on the rail, enjoying a cup of coffee, tipping my hat, watching the sun go down and dreaming of a day of riding. My dreams came true as early next morning I was sitting astride my trusty steed Leo as a small group of us set off on a two-hour trek through the snow along narrow tracks and up to the ridge near Alexander Mountain.  This being only the second time I have ever been on a horse the journey seemed to pass very quickly.

The tranquillity, the nature, the conversation and the deceptive feeling that I had some control over Leo was quite frankly marvellous. It got even better when we reached the summit of the ridge, lit a fire and enjoyed cooking burgers in the open air. Does food taste better when cooked al fresco? You bet it does. A couple of hours after lunch we were back in the stables, and I was patting my horse farewell.  I was taking to the life of a cowboy like Leo took to his oats.

Chilling out in the Colorado winter

My journey to Cowboy land was however at an end and so rapidly were my adventures into the Coloradoan winter so off I went in search of some ‘chillout’ time which, given the temperature, was relatively easy. The downtown area of the University town of Fort Collins is something to behold with literally hundreds of independent local retail outlets. The preponderance of unique bars, restaurants and shops gave rise to my inquisitive nature and a feeling of excitement as to what I might discover next. Uniqueness is a brand credential worth holding onto.

Food scores highly on the Fort Collins register and I was lucky enough to enjoy three distinct and unique restaurants that come into the highly recommended category. For lunch I had comfort food at Ginger and Baker in the shape of a ham sandwich and soup du jour. The buzz of the clientele who all appeared to be both local and regular added to the reassuring nature that this was the place to be. Dinner at The Regional was extra special as I chowed down on deep-fried chicken and vegetables. This truly was finger licking good. For breakfast the ninety-year-old Silver Grill is regionally known for its Cinnamon Rolls. Now I am not a great lover of cinnamon in any form, but this delicacy is worth travelling those few extra miles for. I was not alone either as around 12,000 are sold each month.

In addition to the food and beer (Fort Collins is the independent brewery capital of the universe), the winter months offer a unique opportunity to see Fort Collins’ beautiful landscapes covered in snow, including the Rocky Mountains, Horsetooth Reservoir, and Poudre River. If you’re looking to get in from the cold, Fort Collins has plenty of indoor attractions to explore but my personal recommendation would be to allocate at least half a day to visit the Museum of Discovery. It is relatively small but packs an educational punch way above its size. In the space of a few hours, you can discover the history of the region, study the geology, become a scratch DJ and learn how to play guitar. Whilst you may not become the new Jimi Hendrix, it is huge fun and the whole facility is worth the visit as indeed is the destination as whole.

Farewell Winter Wonderland

The drive back to the airport is short and bittersweet as you catch glimpses and memories of Colorado in the winter – picturesque snow-covered landscapes, winter hiking, horse riding, great food and cosy mountain towns – a destination beyond ski.

Find out more

To book a winter (or summer) experience in Colorado, call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678. You could be snowshoeing just like Graham.

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