Think four-wheel drive on skis.
I'm floating over five feet of snow in the wilderness on skis that are slightly fatter than traditional cross-country skis.
This isn't the kind of skiing where a snowcat takes you up a ski slope so you can ski down in deep powder as fast as you can. Nor is this the kind of backcountry experience my kids enjoy, where you sling your skis on your back and hike up the mountain for the glory of skiing down -- "working for your turns," as they call it.
Vista Verde Ranch (www.vistaverde.com), 25 miles north of Steamboat Springs in Colorado on some 560 pristine acres at 7,800 feet above sea level, is a place to literally slow down and enjoy the scenery from the back of a horse or on snowshoes or backcountry skis away from crowds and cars. It's also a good place to introduce children to snow, if you aren't sure how they'll take to a major ski resort like Steamboat (www.steamboat.com), an hour's drive away.
Vista Verde Ranch has just nine well-appointed log cabins, each named for a surrounding mountain. Ours is called Farwell. (Think wood-burning stoves, oh-so-comfy beds with patchwork quilts, deck hot tubs and astounding mountain views.)
Of course, none of this comes cheap. Figure on more than $1,300 a night for a family of four all-inclusive, though there are less expensive deals if you choose your dates wisely. (Come Jan. 2 to March 12 and pay regular rate for the first two guests and half off for additional ones.)
If you don't want all of the guided excursions, rates start at $195 a person, including meals, equipment and evening programs. At a major ski resort you could spend more without the personal attention. (Mention Taking the Kids and get an additional $50 off.)
There is room for 45 guests; today there are about 20 of us. There's a new main lodge with a huge fireplace that seems to invite you to stretch out on the big couches, as well as a new indoor arena for riding lessons (there are 90 horses here). "It has gotten used 10 times more than we expected," said Peggy Throgmartin, who, along with her husband, has owned the ranch for four years.
Maddie King, 11, whose parents oversee the activities, says, "It is a ball to get out in nature and have snow all over you," she says. There's nothing better either than having a snowcat pull you back up the hill you've just sledded down. Sledding, Maddie declares, is her favorite thing to do on the ranch.
Because the ranch is all-inclusive, there are drinks and snacks in the cabin fridge -- and the teens in our group have their pick of activities, not to mention cookies. I love that for a few days, the only decisions we have to make is whether we want to ski or snowshoe, or whether we want fish or lamb for dinner. (Or whether the kids want to eat with us or with the other kids.)
We spend the morning in the backcountry touring on skis, through the trees in the deep snow on National Forest land that surrounds the ranch. We end up at an ice cave built by local schoolchildren. So quiet! So beautiful!
The place forces you to get unplugged -- there is Wi-Fi, but cell service is spotty. We go deep in the backcountry to snowshoe or ski where we won't see another soul. Another plus: This is a safe place where kids can have some freedom and try new things -- with or without their parents by their side.
The atmosphere is conducive to making new friends too, whether you're nine or 49. All of the kids ate dinner together and then watched a movie while the adults shared a large table and an impressive meal that included tamales, guinea hen with rice pilaf, Napoleons filled with peanut butter pastry cream and an assortment of sorbets.
The good news: We'll work off the calories snowshoeing tomorrow. The other good news: The teens are smiling.