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Taking the Kids: Get away from the crowds to play in the snow

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Content Agency on

I've barely gone 100 yards when I fall ... get up, and fall again in the snow. It takes me a while just to figure out how to get up, much less move the long, narrow skis where I want them to go. Why don't kids seem to have as much trouble getting up when they fall learning a new snow sport?

A longtime skier, I'm on cross-country skis for perhaps the second time in my life at Vista Verde Guest Ranch, which is surrounded by snow-covered meadows and peaks and about as far from a crowded ski slope as you can get.

We discovered one week last winter that, despite the tumbles, it's exhilarating for everyone in the family to have the chance to try a new snow activity like snowmobiling, horseback riding, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing or biking on "fat bikes," an increasingly popular option, especially for those who are determined to go home with "bragging rights" for having tried something new on vacation.

My family offers that as much as they love skiing and snowboarding, there's something especially nice about getting away from the crowds -- the lift lines, the wait for a table at lunchtime "just being able to chill," my daughter Mel suggests, whether outdoors, in front of the huge fireplace in the main lodge or on the porch of our cabin in the hot tub watching the horses play in the meadow.

The family-owned Vista Verde Ranch is about 25 miles north of Steamboat Springs, set on 540 acres in the middle of Colorado's Routt National Forest. There are just nine well-appointed cabins -- each with their own hot tubs -- and three lodge rooms. There's no jockeying for a spot at lunch -- and no one had to grocery shop, cook or do dishes.

There are fewer than a dozen ranches in Colorado and elsewhere in the west open in the winter, according to the national Dude Ranchers Association, most in Colorado. Some are moderately priced, like Elk River Guest Ranch, (book just a cabin starting at $135) others like the all-inclusive Vista Verde, are pricier (starting at $1,350 for three days for adults, less for kids.) In summer, at Vista Verde, like at other ranches, you must commit to a week's stay and it is even more expensive.

Whether you live near the snow or your kids have never seen snow, you can find winter experiences unlike any you've had before:

-- Mush by dogsled across a frozen Minnesota lake and spend the night in a yurt with White Wilderness sled dog adventures in Ely, Minnesota.

-- Build a giant snow creature with kids and lob snowballs while staying in affordable cabins at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park at the YMCA of the Rockies and Snow Mountain Ranchwhere you'll find all the gear you'll need for adventures in the snow.) Cabins start at $154 a night. There's also a new Spruce Saddle Adventure Zone at Snow Mountain Ranch and zipline at the YMCA of the Rockies.

-- Learn to ice climb and let the kids try an ice-climbing camp in Ouray, Colorado, famous for their hot springs, which have just been renovated.

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