Dashing Through the Snow
The secret season at America’s top dude ranches is all about winter fun.
The best guest ranches are among the best luxury resorts of any kind, and winter is the secret season at places like Montana’s lauded Triple Creek Ranch (triplecreekranch.com) and The Ranch at Rock Creek (theranchatrockcreek.com). The latter (above) has just 29 accommodations, from glamping cabins to five-bedroom homes, set on 6,600 acres. In sharp contrast, the nation’s smallest five-star ski-in/ski-out hotel has more than three times as many units (most regular hotel rooms), all in one building.
“Unlike a traditional ski resort luxury hotel, we have maybe 30 to 60 people here in winter, on a huge property,” says The Ranch at Rock Creek’s General Manager Jon Martin. “When you book a luxury ski trip to Jackson, Aspen, Telluride, wherever, it is very snow dependent. Here we have this great hedge of flexibility, and even if you don’t go skiing at all, you are always going to have a great time because there is so much to do. Maybe one day you were planning on not skiing and going horseback riding instead, but then it snows a foot overnight, so you decide to ski. Or it doesn’t snow much and you go snowmobiling. Our philosophy is you can come here and do whatever you want.”
“Whatever you want” can mean staggering choices at these properties, which are much busier and better known as summer destinations, built around a vast slate of outdoor (and indoor) activities. This same variety is offered in winter, but on a far more intimate scale for fewer guests. The big change in recent years has been the addition of skiing and snowboarding to many of the best ranches, most of which already had cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, fat-tire biking, dog sledding, ice fishing, and skating, as well as winter horseback riding, sporting clays, a spa, and yoga classes. “I grew up skiing, and we added it here as part of our all-inclusive rates in 2018,” says Martin. To do that, The Ranch at Rock Creek purchased a complete fleet of top-of-the-line skis, snowboards, boots, and even goggles, helmets, and apparel to get interested guests kitted out.
“You can show up here in February in flip-flops and shorts, and we provide literally everything you need to ski, ride, fish, shoot, or do any activity. It’s something our owner believes deeply—you come here and whatever you want is included.” The ranch teamed up with nearby Discovery Mountain, a hidden gem that enjoys Montana’s reputation for prodigious powder, but not crowds. “It’s not a massive mountain, but they get a lot of snow and have seven lifts, challenging expert skiing off the backside, powder, groomers, and no lift lines, even over the holidays.” Once a week (more often over holiday periods), the resort’s chef sets up a gourmet tailgate lunch party in the parking lot for ranch guests, who are shuttled over on demand, and typically ski once or twice in a five-day stay while also enjoying all the other activities.
Colorado’s acclaimed C Lazy U Ranch (clazyu.com) teams up with two nearby mountains, Winter Park, a major destination ski resort, and the smaller Granby Ranch, just 15 minutes away, so avid skiers can go out repeatedly without feeling limited. C Lazy U has been operating as a guest ranch for over 100 years, but when they started they did not own the fleet of snowmobiles they have now, so they can offer twice-daily guided tours without using outside sub-contractors. The cross-country and snowshoe trail system that sprawls across the 8,500-acre property is so extensive it was ranked the second-best snowshoe destination on earth. The ranch closed for a few months in late 2020 and early 2021 due to the nearby East Troublesome wildfire, and used the downtime for a ranch-wide renovation, including upgrades to its 40 guest cabins. An especially family-friendly resort, C Lazy U has a robust program with supervised child and teen camps for those as young as 3 years old.
Also in Colorado, Vista Verde Guest Ranch (vistaverde.com) accesses Steamboat Ski Resort and offers optional (extra fee) off-site cat skiing with Steamboat Powdercats. Because the transfer is an hour long, Vista Verde is more popular with those who want a day or two of alpine skiing and is especially known for its excellent Nordic offerings, including groomed skate skiing, tracked classic, and on-site backcountry touring using the wider, metal-edged cross-country skis. In addition to the usual snowmobiling, yoga, and such, one specialty here is expert-led photography lessons. All lodging is in one- to four-bedroom cabins with hot tubs and either a gas fireplace or a wood-burning stove, and for most of January and early February it is adults-only.
Montana’s Lone Mountain Ranch (lonemountainranch.com) has gone a similar route, except it partners with the biggest of them all, adjacent Big Sky Resort, which is among the largest ski areas in the country, with 38 lifts and over 300 runs. But the most impressive stat is the skier-to-acreage ratio: Even on the busiest days there are about two acres of terrain for every visitor. Lone Mountain is just 15 minutes from the lifts and 18 miles from the Yellowstone National Park boundary. The ranch itself has been named the top Nordic ski destination in the country, with over 50 miles of Nordic trails, a staggering amount—plus 19 additional miles of dedicated snowshoe trails. All this is for guests of one- and two-bedroom cabins with fireplaces and decks or patios. For larger groups, there is a four-bedroom home and the luxe six-bedroom Ridgetop Lodge, a contemporary residence with a hot tub, multiple decks and fireplaces, a billiard room, and a commercial kitchen, and every single lodging boasts a signature touch: record players and an assortment of vintage vinyl. All the Lone Mountain naturalist guides are also certified Yellowstone guides, so they routinely take guests on cross-country or snowshoe jaunts in the nearly empty national park, America’s oldest. They also have immediate access to backcountry skiing in the thousands of acres of adjacent wilderness, from off-track cross-country to full-blown Alpine Touring, as well an Orvis-endorsed winter fly-fishing program on famed blue-ribbon waters like the Gallatin River. For a truly unique winter experience, Lone Mountain offers guided full-moon snowshoe tours.
But the most unique winter ranch experience of all is likely the skiing at Wyoming’s Brush Creek Ranch (brushcreekranch.com). Instead of partnering with a nearby resort, Brush Creek built its own, private Green Mountain. Use is limited to a dozen skiers and snowboarders per day, and guests who sign up for the full-day experience (extra fee) get outfitted the evening before at the ranch with any rental gear they need, from skis or snowboards to goggles and complete sets of Patagonia outerwear. Green Mountain has 640 acres of skiing and a 1,100-foot vertical drop, and sits high in the wilderness of the Sierra Madre Mountains near the top of the Continental Divide, totally off the grid. Guests are shuttled to the property by snow coaches on treads, and as it has no lifts—all the skiing and boarding is by snowcats, set up to groom on their way up and down.
“I tell guests they are going to have either fresh powder or perfect corduroy on every single run, guaranteed,” says Director of Activities Matt Anderson. “It’s perfect for mixed groups where some are really into skiing, and some are a little into skiing. There are trails up to 1.25 miles long, plus glades and more challenging off-piste terrain. You get four to six runs in the morning, then stop at our second yurt, up on the top, for a chef-prepared lunch (guests pick their menu with chef the night before), and then a couple more runs after lunch.”
At The Farm at Brush Creek, the kitchen has a seed-to-table philosophy, growing over 100,000 pounds of fresh produce on-site each year, and also operates a full-production bakery, a creamery crafting cheeses from its goat herd, a brewery, and even a distillery. Cooking and baking classes are offered weekly, and lodging consists of 14 two- or three-bedroom log cabin residences with gourmet and outdoor kitchens, hot tubs, multiple decks, patios, fire pits, and fireplaces; as well as 11 cabin suites and 13 rooms in the main lodge.
All of these properties are world-class vacation destinations from spring to fall, but for skiers, winter may be the best time of all.