Horse-driven sleighs were the historical mode of winter travel in the Yampa Valley, allowing ranchers to feed cattle even in the deepest snow.
But times have changed and some ranches now use tourism to supplement their agricultural endeavors. Sleighs now are loaded 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 pocketbook and group size.
Elk River Guest Ranch
Dinner in a teepee (879-6220)
$75 for adults/$45 for 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 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.
The ranch also offers dinner in a wood-paneled 1920s-era dining room. Use of the dining room is $65 for adults and $35 for children.
Closest to Steamboat (879-8065)
$60 for adults/ $35 for ages 6 to 12/ $10 for ages 2 to 5/ Free under age 2.
This is the perfect tour for families with young kids because it is only six miles from Steamboat on Colorado Highway 131.
The driver meets guests in Gondola Square.
Three things make the sleigh ride special, owner Kay Sullins said.
"It's gorgeous out there (along the Yampa River)," Sullins said. "Second, our food is delicious. We cook outside over mesquite wood -- even in a blizzard."
Live banjo, fiddle and guitar music by Kenny Knapp completes the package. A dance floor is in the log cabin where dinner is served.
The whole experience takes about three hours. They have two rides a night, at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Family atmosphere (879-3711)
$60 for adults/ $40 for children ages 6 to 12/ $10 for children 5 and younger
Saddleback Ranch is owned by the Iacovetto family on Routt County Road 179, about 13 miles from Steamboat. Guests are picked up at their hotels or condos.
The sleigh ride lasts about 35 minutes 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," Luanna Iacovetto said. "After dinner, we provide cowboy entertainment, with cowboy songs played on the guitar and singing."
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 and 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.
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 younger.
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 at their hotel or condo and driven to the ranch. The experience starts in the main lodge with hot chocolate or hot cider near a river-rock fireplace.
Everyone gets lap 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. We don't herd them in and out."
Oldest continuous sleigh ride operator in the valley. (879-0954)
$60 for adults/ $32 for children 12 and younger/ $8 for children 5 and younger/ infants are free.
Sunset Ranch is a mile west of Steamboat Springs Airport on C.R. 44. It is easy to access from town, owner Patsy Wilhelm said.
Guests are picked up at Gondola Square or downtown.
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.
The Sunset Ranch sleigh ride has been operating for more than 20 years, making it the longest continually operated sleigh ride in the valley, Wilhelm said.
The maximum group size is 50, except by special arrangement.
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," she said.
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 meadow to a small cabin where dinner is served.
"We have a little dance floor and live entertainment," Eric Hamilton said.
The Hamiltons also offer daytime sleigh rides they call "the cookie ride."
Cookie rides leave anytime a small group wants to go, morning or afternoon. It ends in the cabin with cookies and hot chocolate. It costs $35 for adults and $15 for children. n