TABERNASH, CO - The sign I see as I’m about to glide out on a cross-country trail puts me a little on edge: “Bears, moose and mountain lion in this area.”
I’m deep in the heart of Colorado country, in Tabernash to be exact, so this warning shouldn’t surprise me. Plus, I’ve skied within meters of buffalo in Yellowstone’s back country.
Still, though, the sign unnerves me, and as I head out to ski, my wildlife radar goes up. It also doesn’t help that the snow is falling at such a wicked pace that visibility is near zero, natural light is fading, and I’ve gone out alone.
Perhaps not the smartest idea, I’ll admit. Yet when you’re a cross-country skiing addict and you’ve been dropped in Nordic skiing paradise, staying off the trails in inclement weather isn’t only tough, it’s impossible.
I’m at a resort called Devil’s Thumb Ranch, which I find ironic given that Devil’s Thumb matches my definition of heaven. Just about 100 kilometres outside of Denver, the ranch sits on over 5,000 acres of privately owned wilderness at the foot of the Continental Divide, hence the reason it features more than 100 km of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails. There’s even 10 km of dog-friendly trails, including those for skijoring, and 4 km of lit trails for night skiing. (If, though, you need to satisfy a downhill ski craving, Devil’s Thumb has a partnership with the nearby Winter Park Resort, giving you access and even a ride to that ski area.) In summer, the ranch turns its outdoor playground into a mecca for hiking, fly fishing, horseback riding, guided mountain biking and nature and bird walking.
Call it a blessing or a curse, but when you visit Devil’s Thumb, you leave the real world behind. For the 52 rooms in this posh, eco-friendly lodge (and the 16 luxury cabins on the outskirts), Internet is spotty at best, and there’s not a Starbucks in sight. (Yet you can get your caffeine fix at the ranch’s coffee shop or two restaurants, both of which also serve sustainable, locally sourced foods.)
The whole premise of the ranch? Enjoy a healthy, mindful slow-down in an environmentally friendly setting - the lodge, for instance, was built with beetle-kill lodgepole pine while the rock on the buildings and the lodge’s massive fireplace in Heck’s Tavern came from rocks in a nearby landslide.
Slowing down is perhaps an oxymoron for my type A personality, especially with so many kilometres of ski trails to explore. Yet I’m willing to give it a try, and one morning I take advantage of the ranch’s free yoga class. I do sun salutations and downward dogs in a second-floor studio where three walls are paneled with windows that overlook the snowy scenery. I also visit the Ranch Creek Spa (with 10,000 square feet, this spa ranks among the best) and settle in with a book on what becomes my favourite leather couch near Heck’s fireplace.
Left:Skiers would sell their soul for a chance to ride this Devil’s Thumb. Right: Yoga classes are all part of the package offered at Devils Thumb.
One night I also take a horse-drawn sleigh ride around the property, which includes a trek through the ranch’s stables. The horses equate the sleigh with food (the ranch also offers sleigh rides that include feeding the horses), and in no time, the sleigh is surrounded by six horses. They find nothing but TLC on this sleigh, but it’s doled out in heaping portions.
For me, though, the skiing is the main attraction, and because I’ve heard Devil’s Thumb instructors are top-notch, I take two skiing lessons, one in the classic technique, which is what I’ve done for decades, and the other in skate skiing, my latest venture. (If you don’t know the difference, classic is the more traditional way of cross-country skiing where you keep the skis parallel while skate skiing looks like inline skating on skis.)
Although I’ve been classic skiing for decades, my instructor’s corrections in my form make all the difference when I zip back on the trails. I don’t like to leave any trail unturned, so to speak, but I eventually realize that skiing all 100 km of trails is an impossible feat for a long weekend. So I settle for my favourites, including one called Blue Extra, an intermediate trail that zips me through the woods – and fortunately, not near any wildlife.
Even though I don’t see one moose, bear or mountain lion in the flesh – and for that, I count my blessings -- it’s apparently not uncommon to encounter this wildlife. In fact, when I ask the instructors in the ski shop if they’ve ever run into any of these Colorado critters, they look at me as if I’ve just asked if snow falls in Colorado. One instructor, though, tells me that days earlier, he had a run-in with a moose. He was skiing with a friend, and the moose charged them. Nobody was hurt, but his friend did have to do some fancy dodging to escape.
Later, I go back to reread the sign I first saw, as I have no idea how to avoid a charging moose. The answer? Run as fast as you can and put something like a tree or rock (and, no, a ski pole doesn’t count) between you and the moose.
The toughest part about visiting Devil’s Thumb? Leaving. After four days, I’ve embraced the ranch’s slow-down philosophy, but there’s one problem: The ranch offers no exit plan for immersion into the real world. Until, that is, the morning I’m leaving and I step outside at 6 a.m. I’m hit with an air temperature of -5C, which is balmy, considering that two hours earlier it was much colder. It’s like a slap in the face, and that, I decide, is perhaps the best wake-up to reality.
Devil’s Thumb Ranch, which is open year-round, is an easy drive from Denver.
You can even bring your pet, as some of the cabins are pet-friendly.
For more information, call 800-933-4339 or visit www.devilsthumbranch.com.
Air Canada flies to Denver as do several U.S. airlines out of Toronto.