Winter Wonderland

Eyes on Colorado

As the temperature drops, nights lengthen, and the first dusting of snow whispers through the air, winter enthusiasts turn their thoughts to Colorado. The number one destination for skiing in all of North America, this winter wonderland is known for its signature light-and-dry powder, world-class slopes, and stunning scenery.
With 25 ski resorts in the state, there is a perfect fit for every skier and snowboarder, from luxurious and exclusive Beaver Creek Resort (complete with heated moving walkways) to the “all thrills, no frills” that Silverton Mountain promises. Howelsen Hill Ski Area, the oldest ski area in Colorado, has the largest natural ski-jumping complex in North America and is a training ground for Olympic skiers. Buttermilk hosts ESPN’s thrilling Winter X Games and Arapahoe Basin is famous for having one of the longest ski seasons in North America, which can easily stretch from mid-October to early June.

The list of world renowned Colorado ski resorts, and their unique attributes, goes on and on – as does the list of winter draws that go far beyond the ski slopes for which the state is so well known. Rugged mountains, breathtaking vistas, and sunny winter skies are the perfect backdrop for a wide range of snowy activities.

More often associated with the far north, many tourists are surprised to learn that Colorado has become a popular spot for dog sledding. From mid-November to mid-April, visitors can experience the thrill of gliding through towering pine forests behind a pack of restless huskies. Typically small and family owned, many of these dogsledding companies will even teach tourists how to guide the sled themselves for a one-of-a-kind experience in Colorado’s backcountry.

Younger tourists (or those who are just young at heart) will enjoy the sledding and tubing opportunities that pepper the countryside. These rides are all fun and no work; sledding and tubing runs are fully equipped with lifts or tow ropes, cutting out the ominous task of lugging everything back up the hill again. Snowmobiling serves up even greater thrills – as well as stunning scenery. Rentals are plentiful and snowmobiling trails can be found in almost every corner of the state.

For those looking for more romance and less adventure, Colorado is also an ideal site for horse-drawn sleigh rides. Wrapped in warm blankets and serenaded by the soft jingling of sleigh bells, riders will enjoy a magical ride as they are whisked through peaceful valleys and secluded alpine woodlands.

Sometimes the best way to explore Colorado’s backcountry is by foot. An endless variety of trails wind through evergreen forests and snowy valleys, ideal for snowshoeing or cross country skiing. Many ski towns boast well-marked trails, or tourists can choose from several national parks for a solo or ranger led tour. Experienced snowshoers and cross-country skiers can even make a reservation for the state’s extensive backcountry hut system for a multiday tour of the Colorado wilderness.

At Gunnison National Park, South Rim Drive offers cross country skiers six miles of spectacular views along Black Canyon’s snow-dusted rock walls. Guided full-moon trips are available as well, for an ethereal experience alongside the isolated, moon-lit canyon. Rocky Mountain National Park serves up some of the best ranger-led snowshoe adventures in the region. One of the park’s trails, which winds around scenic Gem Lake, is a favorite of local snowshoe enthusiasts for its easy accessibility, less strenuous walk, and remarkable views of the Continental Divide and 1.8 billion-year-old towering granite walls.

For a moving historical experience, tourists can traverse a snowy trail at Mesa Verde National Park to view Spruce Tree House. Constructed between A.D. 1211 and 1278, this wonderfully preserved cliff dwelling has 130 rooms and eight kivas to explore. Another stunning destination for a winter hike is the 25 foot tall Zapata Falls, located a few miles outside of Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. The falls freeze in winter, creating an otherworldly ice sculpture. The nearby park is not to be missed either; imagine 30 square miles of massive sand dunes – some soaring as high as 750 feet – smothered in snow and surrounded by eerie silence.

Adventurers will find a number of frozen waterfalls and ice climbs to conquer throughout the state. At the top of the list is the mountain town of Ouray, widely acknowledged to be the world’s ice-climbing capital. The community hosts the internationally renowned Ouray Ice Festival every January and thousands of ice-climbing enthusiasts visit the town each winter to enjoy the events and to scale the Ouray Ice Park, a man-made ice climbing venue located within a spectacular natural gorge. The park features approximately 200 ice and mixed climbs, from beginner to expert, in over three miles of vertical terrain peppered with viewing and observation points. For those looking to scale a natural feature, there are a handful of backcountry ice climbs just a short drive away. These frozen, sparkling wonderlands boast names as fantastical as the views: Stairway to Heaven, Bridal Veil Falls, Bird Brain Boulevard, and Ames Ice Hose.

Winter is also an excellent time to discover Colorado’s wildlife. At Julesburg’s South Platte River Trail, an astounding number of bald eagles – often more than 100 – may be seen roosting along the river in the wintertime. The 71,000 acre State Forest State Park is home to 600 moose that lucky trackers may be able to glimpse in the snowy landscape. The park is also home to elk, mule deer, beaver, fox, eagles and black bears, some of which may also be seen in the wintertime. At Bighorn Sheep Canyon, winter is an ideal time to see bighorn sheep clinging to canyon walls and drinking from the river below.

Ice fishing is a popular winter pastime in Colorado as well. Ice-fishing cabins are available for rent for those who prefer to kick back more comfortably; those willing to brave the elements can simply cut a hole in the ice and wait for a bite. A variety of fish lurk beneath Colorado’s frozen lakes, including kokanee salmon, cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, brown trout, yellow perch, largemouth bass, walleye, crappie, bluegill, and wiper.

Whatever activity winter tourists choose to undertake, a soak in a hot springs is a delightful way to unwind at the end of a long, tiring day. These warm, therapeutic waters are plentiful in Colorado and winter is one of the best times of year to experience them; just imagine swimming outdoors during a gentle snowfall while gazing at the surrounding mountains. Glenwood Hot Springs Resort stands out for its 500,000 gallon outdoor mineral hot springs pool – the largest in the entire world. Fed by the planet’s deepest geothermal hot spring, The Springs Resort & Spa offers 23 naturally hot therapeutic mineral pools and a mineral water lap pool. Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort has a soaking pool that runs a balmy 105 degrees, as well as an adults-only Relaxation Pool. For a child-friendly venue try Old Town Hot Springs, an entertaining waterpark / geothermal hot springs hybrid, with eight hot spring pools, two waterslides, a fitness center, childcare, and massage services. The list of world-class geothermal hot springs goes on to cover virtually every budget and preference, ensuring that virtually every visitor will have a chance to rejuvenate weary muscles.

Indisputably the continent’s leading skiing destination, Colorado has certainly earned its reputation as a must-visit winter wonderland. But the winter fun does not stop there; with an abundance of winter activities in addition to skiing – from tubing, snowmobiling, and dog sledding to snowshoeing, ice climbing, wildlife watching, and ice fishing – the vacation possibilities are almost endless.

July 17, 2018, 7:37 AM EDT

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