Giddyap, let's go!

Sleigh rides offer a taste of the Old West

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— Gary and Hattie Yeager have stories of marriage proposals on the sleighs, in the barn and on the deck. They remember wedding parties heading out to their ranch for dinner rehearsals and even fights breaking out on the bus rides to and from the Bar Lazy L Ranch.

"We try to set up something special if we can where the drivers will stop and pretend something is broken while the man proposes," Hattie said.

As lanterns lead the way through the miles of snow-packed roads on 128 acres for sleigh rides each night, patrons sip on hot drinks and bundle under blankets for a chilly night's ride.

The trip begins with a bus ride from the mountain and town to the ranch at 6 p.m. on County Road 52.

The horses pull sleighs along the Elk River, through tall cottonwood trees and down across a meadow to the barn for dinner and entertainment with The Yampa Valley Boys or Johnny Harris.

Dinner is steak, chicken or trout with cowboy side dishes and hot beverages.

Whatever the occasion for a sleigh ride at the Bar Lazy L Ranch, Gary Yeager said safety always comes first.

Yeager promises that his drivers are local chariot racers and the horses are gentle and docile.

"They're prepared for any situation because anything can happen," Yeager said of his black Percheron horses that enjoy the exercise.

Yeager has three sleds one that seats 25, 16 and another 16 pulled by a team of two horses.

Although Yeager said he likes to keep it small and personal, he typically cooks for at least 40 people a night and sees between 2,500 and 3,000 patrons every winter.

"For the month of December, 85 percent were locals. That must say something," Yeager said.

For 16 nights in a row, the Yeagers have fed, entertained and shown visitors and locals an old western sleigh ride.

"We have robes to cover but dress as if you're going skiing. The barn is heated," the Yeagers said. "We get people with high heels and tennis shoes on. They must go skiing in awfully funny stuff."

Yeager said he does not tell people how cold it is but allows them to just enjoy the ride. Only in the heated barn will you know the outside temperature.

"On a cold night it's too far, on a warm night it's too short," Yeager said of the irony. When it's 20 degrees below no one minds, but when it's zero degrees, people are freezing. Yeager said it all depends on the moisture in the air.

The Yeagers bought the sleigh equipment from All Seasons when it was going out of business and said they remember when sleigh rides first began in 1964.

Bill Hillard, owner at the time, took visitors on a sleigh ride. The only thing missing was food, Yeager said, remembering the story.

"So the next night he stopped and built a fire and cooked them hot dogs," Yeager said of the sleigh rides around Mount Werner before there were condominiums and houses.

Hattie said many people have never seen the stars and sky where they live and think Steamboat actually has different stars than many of them do.

Other ranches in town include:

Wanda Hawes, co-owner of the Dutch Creek Guest Ranch, said her sleigh rides are different because of the sit-down, restaurant-style dinner provided. Although no entertainment is provided, Hawes said hot chocolate and hot cider is available in the lodge before the ride with a classy dinner and background music after.

Dutch Creek has two nightly rides at 4 and 6 p.m. Hawes said the entire evening is about four hours with the sleigh ride through meadows and trees lasting about a half-hour. Dutch Creek provides menu items from salmon to barbecue ribs and a variety of side dishes.

"We have beautiful views of Steamboat Lake and the Zirkels in a great lodge atmosphere," Hawes said.

Windwalker Tours provides nightly transportation to and from Steamboat Springs and wool blankets to stay warm while on the 40-minute sleigh ride. The sleigh ride takes patrons on the banks of the Yampa River east of Steamboat.

Windwalker has two nightly sleigh rides at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m., each usually lasting about three hours.

Windwalker has a sit-down dinner of steak, chicken and vegetable lasagna accompanied by side dishes and hot beverages with live country-western entertainment.

The Elk River Guest Ranch also provides transportation to and from the ranch. The evening begins with hors d'oeuvres and drinks in the Silhouette Saloon followed by a 20-minute sleigh ride to a tepee for dinner.

Many people think an alcoholic drink will warm their insides on a cold night during a sleigh ride, but don't think of bringing alcohol to the Elk River Guest Ranch. A cash bar is provided for alcoholic beverages.

Jay Tobin, general manager for the guest ranch, said hot blankets right out of the dryer will also be provided.

Dinner choices ranges from salmon to duck with plentiful side dishes accompanied by candlelight. After the tepee dinner, the sleigh takes patrons back to the saloon for dessert and coffee.

Tobin said dessert is his favorite part of the evening.

"I love it. We've got a five-berry pie," Tobin said.

Bill and Kathy Hinder have owned the Elk River Guest Ranch for the past seven years and Tobin said they've done major work recently.

The Elk River sleigh rides run during the same months as the Steamboat Ski Area, December through April, and typically take about 40 people, or three sleighs a night, during the busy season.

In its second year, Big Rack Outfitters & Horseback Adventures provide afternoon and evening sleigh rides at flexible times.

Co-owner Eric Hamilton said the sleigh rides are at no specific times because the entire event is pretty laid-back. However, the afternoon rides are becoming increasingly popular.

"'It's personal and family oriented' are most of our compliments," Hamilton said, adding that the dinners have been jam-packed.

Big Rack Outfitters typically does between 15 and 20 dinners a night with a minimum of six people. Transportation is provided to and from the ranch 10 miles west of Steamboat, but no entertainment is available.

Afternoon sleigh rides consist of salmon, pork or steak with side dishes and desserts, and people need to bring their own alcohol.

Hamilton said their ranch is 117 years old and business has really taken off in the second winter he and his wife, Keri, have owned it.

Sunset Ranch sleigh rides, the oldest continually owned sleigh ride company in Northwest Colorado, also provide transportation and a 20-minute ride in a wooden sleigh with high-back seats and wool blankets for warmth.

The Belgian or Percheron horses will take people through a wooded glen of aspen and oak trees at the base of Deer Mountain to a large tent for dinner.

"We have pot-bellied stoves at either end, so it's nice and toasty in there," said Becky Wilhelm, daughter-in-law of sleigh ride owner Patsy. Live country-western music also is provided through dinner.

Dinner consists of steak, chicken or trout and side dishes with non-alcoholic hot beverages. Bring your own alcoholic beverages.

Wilhelm said the ranch suggests ski attire.

Wilhelm said they try to provide sleigh rides every night depending on the numbers and the only way in and out is by sleigh.

"It's part of the West. Many people in the East don't experience this. This is as rugged as you can get without being out of civilization," Wilhelm said.

The many repeat customers the Wilhelms receive say the quality of the ride and the consistency of the meals is why they return, she said.

"It's fun and different and unique," Wilhelm said. "You come to Steamboat for a western flair. This is part of what used to be."

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