Clark Horse-driven sleighs were the historical mode of winter travel in the Yampa Valley, allowing ranchers to throw pitchforks of hay to waiting cattle even in the deepest snow.
But times have changed and some area ranches now look toward tourism to supplement their agricultural endeavors. Ranch sleighs are now loaded to the edges with aprÃs skiers instead of hay. Visitors get a chance to see much of the rural Yampa Valley landscape as they snuggle under warm blankets, listen to the breath of the draft horses and look up at crystal clear Rocky Mountain skies.
The Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association lists seven sleigh ride providers -- offering something for every pocket book and group size.
Elk River Guest Ranch -- Dinner in a teepee (879-6220)
$75 for adults/ $45 for children 12 and younger
A driver will come to the door of your hotel or condo to take you the 21 miles to the Elk River Guest Ranch on Seedhouse Road near Clark.
Guests are welcomed into the ranch's saloon with drinks and appetizers before going out to the sleigh.
"We cover your lap with a warm blanket and take your picture," manager Jay Tobin said. The ride is 20 minutes through the forest and a meadow to a warm teepee and a gourmet dinner.
After dinner, it's back on the sleigh and back to the saloon for after dinner drinks, dessert and coffee.
"We pride ourselves in providing good service because we keep our groups small," Tobin said.
For families with small children or elderly members, the Elk River Guest Ranch also provides dinner in a wood paneled 1920s era dining room. Use of the dining room costs $65 for adults/$35 for children.
"(The ranch) is surrounded by the Routt National Forest," Tobin said. "We have views of the Zirkel Wilderness and 1,000 foot ridges on either side of the ranch. As the sleigh goes through the meadow at night time, you have the moonlight and the sky is full of stars."
Windwalker Tours -- Closest to Steamboat (879-8065)
$60 for adults/ $35 for children ages 6 to 12/ $10 for children ages 2 to 5/ under two are free.
This is the perfect tour for families with young kids because it is located only six miles from Steamboat on Colorado Highway 131.
The driver meets guests at the Windwalker office in Gondola Square, next door to Sportstalker.
Three things make this sleigh ride special, owner Kay Sullins said.
First, the sleigh ride follows the Yampa River.
"It's gorgeous out there," Sullins said. "Second, our food is delicious. We cook outside over mesquite wood -- even in a blizzard."
Live entertainment provided by Kenny Knapp completes the package. Knapp plays the fiddle, banjo and guitar, Sullins said. There is a dance floor in the log cabin where dinner is served.
"I think people like to take sleigh rides because it's something the whole family can do," Sullins said.
The whole experience takes about three hours. They have two rides a night -- at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Saddleback Ranch -- Family atmosphere (879-3711)
$60 for adults/ $40 for children ages 6 to 12/ $10 for children 5 and under
Saddleback Ranch is owned by the Iacovetto family on County Road 179, about 16 miles from Steamboat. Guests are picked up at their hotels or condos.
The sleigh ride lasts about an hour over rolling hills and up a canyon to a log cabin called The Bunkhouse.
"We give them hot chocolate or spiced cider as soon as they walk in and then feed them a good meal," Iacovetto said. "After dinner, my daughter in law's mother plays old cowboy songs on her guitar."
Then the cowboys come in and show guests how to rope. The Saddleback Ranch is a 7,200-acre working ranch with between 1,500 to 1,700 cattle.
"People like our sleigh ride because it's all family run," Iacovetto said. "We always try to give them a little more then what they expect and we try to make them feel like family.
"We have fun with the people and they make it fun for us."
Dutch Creek Guest Ranch -- Star filled nights near Steamboat Lake (879-8519)
$55 for adults/ $35 for children 6 to 12/ $10 for children 5 and under.
Dutch Creek Guest Ranch is near Steamboat Lake and "away from city lights," owner John Hawes said. "It's the best place to see those star filled nights."
Guests are picked up in a van at their hotel or condo and driven the half hour toward Hahn's Peak and the ranch. The experience starts in the main lodge with hot chocolate near the river rock fireplace.
Everyone gets bundled up with blankets for the 35-minute sleigh ride.
The difference between the Dutch Creek sleigh ride and others offered in the area is the dining experience, Hawes said. Guests are offered a full menu selection with table service.
"Being able to order off the menu, that's what differentiates us," he said. "We only take smaller groups and each group gets its own table.
"Those who book together have dinner together. We don't herd them in and out."
It's just like going out to dinner at a restaurant, he said, only you arrive on a sleigh.
Sunset Ranch -- Oldest continuous sleigh ride operator in the valley. (879-0954)
$50 for adults/ $32 for children 12 and under/ $8 for children 5 and under/ infants are free.
Sunset Ranch is a mile west of Steamboat Springs Airport on County Road 44. It is easy to access from town, owner Patsy Wilhelm said.
Guests are picked up at the Gondola Transit Center or downtown by arrangement.
Once on the ranch, the sleigh ride follows the base of Deer Mountain to a stove heated army tent that is only accessible by sleigh.
This is the 20th year for the Sunset Ranch sleigh rides, making it the longest continually operated sleigh ride in the valley, Wilhelm said.
The maximum group size is 50.
Dinner is served with homemade bread, baked on the ranch every day by Wilhelm, she said.
The Wilhelms sold their cattle a few years ago, Wilhelm said, but they continue to run pack trips for fishing and hunting on the property just as the family has since 1943.
"We only host one sleigh ride a night, so it's not rushed," Wilhelm said. "We stay until they are ready to go."
Big Rack Outfitters & Horseback Adventures -- Offering daytime rides. (871-1427)
$60 for adults / $40 for children / $10 for toddlers.
Eric and Keri Hamilton operate Big Rack Outfitters out of the historic Overlook Ranch 10 miles west of Steamboat. This is their fourth winter offering sleigh rides.
Guests are picked up at their hotel or condo and driven to the ranch. They try to keep groups small, averaging 15 people a night.
The sleigh ride wanders through a wide-open meadow and through a little valley to a small cabin where dinner is served.
"We have a little dance floor and live entertainment," Eric Hamilton said. "The cabin is rustic but warm and cozy."
The Overlook Ranch has been in the same family for 118 years and is still a working cattle ranch.
The Hamiltons also offer daytime sleigh rides they call "the cookie ride."
Cookie rides leave anytime of day that a small group wants to go, morning or afternoon. It ends in the cabin with cookies and hot chocolate. It costs $35 for adults/ $15 for children.