Three Forks Ranch guide Jason Neiberger skis down a run through the powder on Three Forks Mountain, which overlooks the ranch’s guest lodge. The resort expanded its winter offerings this year to include private snowcat-accessed skiing and snowboarding.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Three Forks Ranch guide Jason Neiberger skis down a run through the powder on Three Forks Mountain, which overlooks the ranch’s guest lodge. The resort expanded its winter offerings this year to include private snowcat-accessed skiing and snowboarding.

Downhill skiing the newest offering at Three Forks Ranch

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Three Forks Ranch is a lodge and spa on the Colorado-Wyoming border, in North Routt County on Routt County Road 129. It offers a variety of summer and winter activities including downhill skiing for overnight guests and day trips. For more information, check out www.threeforksranch.com.

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Three Forks Ranch snowboarding guide Chase Fix cuts in the powder during a run down the ranch’s ski and snowboard mountain, which it debuted this winter.

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Ski and snowboard lockers are set aside for guests arriving at Three Forks Ranch. The lodge also features a bar, a pool and a full-service spa. The locker room doubles to serve fly-fisherman in summer. The safe contains shotguns for shooting sporting clays.

— Three Forks Ranch is a place designed to make one feel alone.

The luxury resort lies in far northern Routt County, straddling the Wyoming-Colorado state line, and is protected from the comparative hustle and bustle of Steamboat Springs by miles of national forest that flank either side of the road, expansive meadows of deep powder and the babbling Little Snake River, from which the resort draws its name.

That’s part of the idea, Sales and Marketing Director Allison Pratt explained, saying the ranch’s guests go through an inevitable process upon their arrival, a slow unwinding as they disconnect from the rest of the world.

Alone never felt better than it does standing atop Three Forks Mountain and then flying down its untouched snow-covered flanks, however.

That, too, is purely by design.

Already offering nearly every outdoor activity its staff could dream up, Three Forks set out this winter to add a big one: downhill skiing.

Everything at the ready

Three Forks Ranch is 12 years old this year and is owned by St. Louis’ David Pratt.

It started as a massive working cattle ranch — it still is, and with 7,000 head of cattle, it is among the largest in Colorado and Wyoming. Since then, it has progressed from private hunting oasis to guest ranch to all-anyone-can-ask-for resort.

The current version is enough to make the word “wow” cliché. Ornate dining rooms feature massive stone fireplaces. A long bar is backed by a wall-sized mural depicting a Ute Indian summer camp on the ranch. A staff waits all day at a full-service spa, which is set up near a year-round indoor/outdoor pool and lush guests rooms, which come with wide-screen TVs.

Of course, Allison Pratt said, the guests rarely spend time in their rooms. There’s plenty to do, from fly-fishing, hiking and shooting sporting clays in summer to elk, bear and antelope hunting in fall. In winter, guests can take on more than 100 miles of cross-country ski and snowmobile trails, a tubing hill, ice fishing, snowshoeing or sleighs powered by horses or dogs.

“We want to overwhelm the customer with the whole experience,” Director of Recreation Daren Mangiaracina said.

For the first time this winter, downhill skiing was included in that long list.

The new guest lodge was finished three years ago, and much of the staff already was in place. The expansion seemed to make sense.

“Our fishing and hunting seasons, we have that dialed in. We’re busy for them,” Mangiaracina said. “We had a winter program with cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoeing, but those don’t have the same draw as downhill skiing. We have everything in place, why not keep people in that building year-round?”

The conversation didn’t take place until early August, but once it did, Three Forks Ranch wasted little time getting into the skiing business.

“We called a guy from Park City. Chris Diamond in Steamboat said, ‘If you’re going to do this, this is your guy,’” General Manager Justin Flaherty said, referring to advice from the president and CEO of Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. “I called and introduced myself, said, ‘We’re putting in a mountain. When can you come see us?’

“He said maybe two weeks, but I said, ‘I’d like you here by dark.’”

Mountain to build

Time was of the essence.

Outside contractors were quick to survey the hill, and within days, bulldozers were working on the 9,096-foot Three Forks Mountain.

Crews thinned the forest, mostly by removing beetle-killed trees, and opened up ski runs with roads built to allow snowcats to ferry skiers from the bottom to the top of the mountain’s 1,100 vertical feet.

“It’s been a real interesting project, and we’re very happy with the result,” Mangiaracina said. “A lot of people were worried about the environmental aspects, but we cleared out the beetle-kill that was a fire hazard anyway. We worked to put down wood chips on the roads to prevent erosion.”

There are five runs that can be groomed, but they lead to dozens, maybe hundreds, of options. No trip down Three Forks Mountain is complete without a guide peering off into a thicket or down a ravine, wondering what’s down there.

The ranch bought four snowcats and equipped two to haul passengers, allowing as many as 16 visitors to take on the mountain at a time. The other two are used to groom enough runs to allow skiers of all skill levels to hit the slopes.

Unsure whether things would be ready by the time the snow flew, the resort hesitated to promise downhill skiing this winter, but it already has hosted skiers and snowboarders ranging from Olympic experts to never-ever beginners.

“We have variable terrain, something for everybody,” guide Jason Neiberger said. “We’re finding new stuff up there every day, different ways down for guests with different abilities. It’s great.”

Phasing up

Much of the terrain is left to be covered in powder, and long shots through steeps with sparse trees await. And guides always are looking for more, still exploring the playground they immediately came to love.

That process won’t stop soon. Plans are in motion to expand the terrain in summer, an effort that will thin out more choked-up sections of the forest and one that eventually could swing on to other nearby peaks included in the 200,000-acre ranch.

“We’ve just scratched the surface,” Flaherty said. “This is Phase 1. We have started penciling in Phase 2 and even Phase 3. We have a lot more we can develop.”

The response has been terrific, managers said.

They asked many of Steamboat’s most famous skiers, Olympians and powderhounds, to test it out and offer honest critiques. They’ve used that to help shore up small problems.

Already, they’re receiving return visits from customers and have seen business improve compared with previous winters.

“If you build it, they will come, right?” Mangiaracina said. “They’ve all been pretty impressed with our skiing. We’ve been able to accommodate and keep smiles on the faces of all of them.”

Still, Three Forks isn’t crowded and doesn’t intend to be, no matter how its skiing program takes off.

Even with guides waiting to help with skis and in and out of the snowcat and a lodge full of cooks, masseuses and wait staff waiting with lunch 1,100 feet below, silence is golden on Three Forks Mountain.

— To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or e-mail jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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