An icy wind claws at my face. Snow scatters in my wake. I'm topping 40 miles an hour and climbing to the top of the Continental Divide on the back of a Polaris 550 snowmobile. After a week spent cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and dogsledding my way across Colorado, this last stretch of my trip feels like the final adrenaline-pumping leg of The Amazing Race. And I'm loving it.
I'm not alone in my enthusiasm, either. Snowmobiling is now the second-most popular winter activity in the U.S. behind skiing, and it's easy to see why. On a snowmobile you can explore miles of otherwise inaccessible winter terrain and climb to staggering alpine heights. It's a pretty good bargain for a few hours or a few days of adventure, too.
But snowmobiling is also just one of many ways to explore the Colorado backcountry in winter. There are almost as many options as there are trails to explore. Here are some possibilities.
Choosing your own Colorado winter adventure
The eager yipping of excited huskies is the first thing you hear when you step outside Good Times Adventures' lodge in Summit County, Colorado, not far from downtown Breckenridge. You can feel the urgency of the dogs' need to take off and run, with a driver and passenger in tow, through the backcountry wilderness of the Arapahoe National Forest. It's $60 for adults, $30 for children eight-years-old and under.
Groups are limited to about six passengers who take turns mushing and riding in the old-fashioned sled in pairs, one driver and one rider. The rest of the group travels ahead in a sleigh towed by a snowmobile—a great vantage point from which to take pictures and watch the dogs race up and down the trail.
Good Times Adventures is one of many outfitters across the state that run dog-sledding and snowmobiling tours from the same base of operations. Another is Nova Guides, based out of Camp Hale where the 10th Mountain Division trained for World War II. Nova's dogsled tours are pricier—a minimum $270 for two people on an afternoon run—but are also more exclusive, limiting the group size to two or three and offering longer tours.
You have similarly varying options for snowmobiling. Nova Guides offers basic one-hour snowmobile tours from Camp Hale starting at $80 a person ($100 for two riding on the same machine). There's also the full-day "Top of the Rockies" package at $255 a person and the $330 full-day high-performance tour for experienced riders who want a challenge. Each of the tours rides along the Continental Divide.
Head to head, Good Times Adventures offers a better bargain for single riders on a short excursion, charging just $85 a person for a two-hour ride up to the Continental Divide at Georgia Pass. Its extended three-hour trips, which only depart in the morning, cost $125.
White Mountain Snowmobile Tours, about 10 miles south of Copper Mountain in Summit County, might be the best of the bunch. Its cheapest tour is $50 for an hour, and its most expensive is $200 for three hours of riding on wooded trails and mountain meadows. These longer tours ride right over the Continental Divide. White Mountain has been operating tours for more than 15 years.
I can't say enough good things about the Nordic center in Frisco, just a 10-minute drive from downtown Breckenridge. If you love cross-country skiing, this is the place to go for an afternoon's excursion. Its 27 miles of groomed trails aren't quite as expansive as, say, the Kingdom Trails in Vermont, but they're more than enough for a day's outing. And the payoff comes in unmatched alpine scenery. Trail passes go for $14 a day, as do ski or snowshoe rentals.
Monday through Saturday, you can end the day with a dinner sleigh ride from local outfit Two Below Zero, which picks up passengers right at the Nordic center entrance. The sleighs are handmade by Steve Lewis, who along with his wife Cindy operate Two Below Zero. The sleighs are pulled by a team of two mules, which are more sure-footed than horses on the slippery backwoods trail that leads to the heated dinner tent. It's $70 for a two-hour ride with dinner and live entertainment, less for a quick ride and a cup of hot cocoa.
Staying in Colorado
First, choose your base of operations. I suggest either of two Summit County towns, Breckenridge or Frisco, both best known for their accessibility to downhill skiing but equally well suited to other outdoor winter pursuits. Both are also less than two hours from Denver's airport and easily reached by the convenient Colorado Mountain Express.
"It's easy to forget Breckenridge was really an old Wild West town," says Kristin Pettit, the town's director of public relations. "But there's history around every corner." So much history, in fact, it's home to Colorado's largest historic district with more than 150 registered buildings. It's also home to Breckenridge Ski Resort, which gives it a real winter resort feel as well. And that means there's no shortage of lodging and dining options.
The town's website, GoBreck.com, is a great place to start your trip planning. It offers last-minute hotel specials as well as bargain vacation packages. One such package, the "Outdoor Adventure" special, caters to families interested in many of the activities I've discussed here. Among them: dogsledding, snowmobiling, and ski lift tickets. It's $173 a person per night for four nights through April 2, and it's a good deal if you're just interested in the basics—a one-hour dogsled ride and a short snowmobile outing, for example. If you want to do any of those activities in a more extensive way, your best bet is to make separate arrangements.
Colorado's winter value seasons are January and late-March to early-April. April is a particularly good bet this year because the state is experiencing one of the snowiest winters in memory, and that means more snow late into the season. But be aware some outfitters close the first week of April regardless of the weather, so it's important to verify your preferred activities will still be offered if and when you choose to save money by waiting till April.
There's no doubt Colorado is ski country. That's just scratching the surface of what it has to offer, though. Even in winter, there's something for everyone.