5280.com Exclusive: Read Natasha Gardner’s Beginner’s Guide to Nordic Skiing here.
After I checked into my room at Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa last February, I took a moment to savor the setting: Two leather chairs were turned toward an only-in-Colorado view of the Ranch Creek Valley as iridescent flakes started to fall on the Nordic ski trails outside. The sun was setting and bathed the landscape in soft peach and lavender tones. A bottle of Petite Sirah sat waiting to be opened, and paperback books begging to be read were perched on the window ledge. It was, in a word, idyllic.
And then a pterodactyl screamed. At least, that’s what it sounded like when my then-16-month-old son, Oliver, tested his lung strength. During my short reverie, he’d managed to scale one of the chairs and was poised—gravity be damned—to launch like his prehistoric idol. I lurched across the room in one of those light-speed mommy sprints, steadied him, and waited.
I knew what was coming. There would be a knock at the door any moment. This was a luxury resort, after all. This was the sort of place that wouldn’t like kids hanging from the rafters (this is not a cliché; children actually do this), that would frown upon a toddler’s idea of volume control. Some staff person was going to show up and tell me my baby dinosaur was disturbing the other guests in the lodge. I’d stare back at them, hair torn out of my ponytail, with a toddler straining to get past my legs to run down the hall.
But that knock never came. And when my son did escape the confines of the room to tear down the hallways with my husband sprinting after him, no one complained. A few of the guests even stopped to say “hi” (Oliver was just learning to wave). When a staffer found us climbing a nearby staircase for what must have been the 200th time, he asked if we needed a glass of water. I could’ve hugged him. And then I started to wonder why it had taken me so long to get what Devil’s Thumb Ranch is all about.
The drive to Devil’s Thumb—tucked into a valley 11 miles north of Winter Park—makes you feel lost, in a good way. The winding trek from U.S. 40 through snow-swept fields with little to no real estate development reminds you that there is still open space in this country. Even when you reach the parking lot, the ranch’s buildings look small compared to the mountain range that shadows them. That is, until you look to your right and behold the massive High Lonesome Lodge, which opened 11 months ago. The 50,000-square-foot building houses 35 cozy guest rooms as well as space for 350-person events. The lodge was a major investment—and milestone—for a destination that has taken nearly 15 years to catch on.
Snow is king in Colorado’s $17.3 billion tourism industry, and outdoor activities—particularly snow-based ones—are major contributors to that windfall. Devil’s Thumb Ranch receives plenty of the white stuff, averaging about 27 feet each winter. What it lacks is vertical drop, which means it’s best known for its 125 kilometers of cross-country skiing, the much less profitable side of winter sports tourism.
So what is an upmarket Colorado resort doing in the middle of a valley instead of at the base of a downhill ski area? When owners Bob and Suzanne Fanch bought the land in 2001 (saving it from becoming a subdivision and golf course), they saw an opportunity to create a remote getaway that would cater to outdoorsy tourists with a little extra cash who were looking to escape crowds and lift lines. They weren’t starting completely from scratch: The land they purchased had been a stagecoach stop, a dude ranch, and a Nordic ski area for decades. What was missing was something to attract an upscale clientele.
In 2002, the Fanches started building 15 individual cabins and converting a Civil War–era barn into a conference center. They purchased adjoining land in 2006, 2009, and 2010 to increase their holdings to 6,000 acres (for comparison, Vail Mountain Resort encompasses 5,289 skiable acres). They added a national park–inspired main lodge (with geothermal radiant heat and EPA-approved gas-burning fireplaces) in 2007 and an 18,000-square-foot spa a year later.
All the while, the Fanches used guest feedback to decide what happened next in their “if you build it, they will come” exercise. But it took time to draw guests. Today, with the High Lonesome Lodge fully online—and the resort hitting 60 percent occupancy rates with regularity—the ranch has become the destination in the Winter Park area. “It’s a grand experiment that’s finally working out,” says Holly Johnson, Devil’s Thumb’s public relations representative.
Part of the reason for that is the Fanches’ willingness to adapt. They added fly-fishing ponds, yoga classes, night skiing, sleigh rides, and ice hockey. In the summer, there’s stand-up paddleboarding, hayrides, laser biathlon, and bocce ball. The ranch furthered its already-kid-friendly vibe by adding a movie theater and candlepin bowling. If a guest wants to try an activity the resort doesn’t have, they’ll look into it. If a visitor craves an amenity, they’ll try to produce it.
One of the most obvious examples of that accommodating attitude is the televisions, which weren’t initially in guest rooms. The resort even promoted that fact, touting the ranch as a much-needed refuge from technology. But when they realized modern travelers who spent the day skiing or in meetings might just want to unwind in their rooms at the end of the day, they adjusted. “It is a high-end product with a rustic feel,” explains executive vice president Sean Damery. “But it is not a dude ranch.”
In another concession, the company recently added the Vasquez Creek Inn—formerly the Gasthaus Eichler—to its portfolio. The Fanches realized that, as a business, it was smart to also cater to folks who want to stay in Winter Park near the slopes. The in-town property opened in June with 15 rooms, a Spanish-Italian restaurant named Volario’s, and a less upscale feel and lower price tag than the flagship resort. All of this makes Devil’s Thumb’s philosophy clear: The grand experiment survives by constantly evolving.
I didn’t pay much attention to the evolution of Devil’s Thumb Ranch until I took up cross-country skiing about seven years ago. At that point, my husband and I started making frequent daytrips to the area. We took lessons. After skiing, we ate at Heck’s at the Ranch in the main lodge. We even shopped the gift store, but we never checked in; it was too easy to just drive back to Denver for a good night’s sleep at home.
Once our son was born, though, Devil’s Thumb quickly became the cross-country skiing destination for us. Nordic ski facilities are often bare-bones: a locker room, a ticket booth, and maybe a soup and sandwich stand. If you need to breastfeed, you’ll probably do so at a cafeteria-style table. There’s rarely a space for families to be, well, familial. That’s not the case at Devil’s Thumb. When Oliver was just eight weeks old, we spent a day at the ranch tucked into Rob’s Room, a private game space adjacent to Heck’s. While one parent skied, the other played with Oliver. During my shift, I unpacked the diaper bag, ordered a coffee, and snuggled into the couch with my infant. The restaurant’s staff would check in with us every once in a while, but mainly they let us hang out in privacy.
We were still making the round-trip slog up U.S. 40, though, when my husband finally suggested spending the night. It made sense: We were already hauling a diaper bag and a change of clothes for everyone; why not throw in some pj’s and avoid afternoon traffic? By then, the staff’s combination of attentiveness without being obtrusive had become my standard for customer service. That careful balance is no accident. “My background is in four-star hotels, and what I wanted to bring here is to not have a robotic staff but to hit all the service points,” Damery says. “The staff members have personalities, but the service formula is consistent.”
That high level of responsiveness has made my quest to raise an adventurer who is unafraid to try new things and plays outside every day seem doable. As a day guest or an overnight guest, our little Oliver has searched every corner of that lodge. He’s built forts with couch pillows, pulled holiday ornaments off the tree, and greeted guests by the front doors. And because no one shushed him—or us—it was “home,” if just for a night.
On that February trip last year, when Oliver eventually fell into a deep slumber, my husband and I finally had time to savor the view. We chatted about what trails we’d tackle in the morning; if we had enough diapers; and if it would be too cold to take Oliver outside for a short snowshoe. As we talked, Oliver let out a mini-pterodactyl cry in his sleep. I rushed to him to make sure everything was OK and to quiet him before he could make a ruckus. I shouldn’t have worried. If my little animal woke, there wouldn’t be a knock at the door. Which is exactly why we’ve officially fallen in love with Devil’s Thumb. It took a while, but we get it now. Really get it. Sure, I’ll keep expecting someone to tell my kid to be quiet or for the service to fail me—because that’s what I’ve come to expect when I travel. It’s a good thing Devil’s Thumb keeps proving me wrong.