On a crisp midwinter day, I'm slip-sliding along a rolling Nordic trail deep inside Three Forks Ranch. Meandering miles of stream peek out of monstrous drifts. Pine thickets and aspen groves dot nature's canvas. The cerulean sky is huge. And, as a guest of the ranch, this landscape has become my exclusive playground.
Jessica Philip, who grew up in Steamboat Springs, is my personal cross-country ski guide for the day. Philip knows intimately the undulating trails that take us through thick woods, over ice bridges, and around the ranch's gulches and peaks: After all, she's the one who's spent the past two winters exploring the nooks and crannies of Three Forks' 200,000 acres of private snowfields in an effort to map the perfect routes. Today, she's taking me along a portion of 76 kilometers of flat, freshly groomed corduroy. Perfectly parallel tracks have been laid down at least two arm-lengths widemaking it easy for a devoted downhill telemarker like me to profess a love of the skinny ski.
Like her fellow guides, Philip is well-seasoned in the Three Forks art of pamperingshe keeps our ski leisurely without scrimping on the best terrain, and easily avoids taking me down the same trail twice. Along the way she points out specific geography and other open trails. We don't see one other person on our day-long excursionand the ranch likes it that way.
Over the past decade, the ultra-exclusive Three Forks Ranch has become an internationally renowned hunting and fishing destinationdrawing repeat guests as well as television crews, movie stars, and critical acclaim for its progressive river-restoration projects, trophy catches, and public hunting programs. The South, Middle, and North forks of the Little Snake River all converge on the ranch, and 16 miles of the rivers have undergone extensive restoration in the past decade in what is considered among the largest privately funded river-restoration projects in the country. Until this year, Three Forks had been a warm-weather destination; guests could only enjoy the pristine acreage and luxurious digs from June to late October.
But two years ago, the ranch's owners decided to keep the property open year-round and let skiers enjoy the terrain that other sportsmen have come to covet. With a new lodge (finished last June) ready to welcome its first winter visitors this year, the ranch awaits the inevitable crush of reservations it's become accustomed to during the summer season.
Inside, the 35,000-square-foot lodge feels more Old World European than rustic. Huge fireplaces, dark, hand-carved wood-panel walls, cathedral ceilings, Persian rugs, marble bathrooms, and white-linen dining rooms decorate the lodge's interior spaces. The spacious Roaring Fork Spa offers an indoor-outdoor pool, hot tubs, steam room, and treatments like the Little Snake River stone therapy massage. Haystack Mountain Dairy goat cheese-filled ravioli with red basil pesto and a bison rib-eye round out a dinner menu filled with cuisine meant to warm guests from the inside out.
By all means, book an extended stay at Three Forks if you can (at $1,250 a night per person, your wallet may be a limiting factor), but if you find yourself in Steamboat Springs this winter, a decadent day trip is certainly worth the splurge. Three Forks is letting a limited number of day-trippers come out to enjoy the exceptional cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, sleigh rides, and on-site spa.
Even with the addition of day-trippers, the odds for solitude here are high, a result of Three Forks' commitment to exclusivitya policy that allows just 20 people a day on the rivers in spring and summer, and limits the number of people allowed to roam the property in the winter to 30 guests. "I don't want to know there's anyone on the ranch until I have lunch with them," says ranch manager Jay Linderman. Indeed, I didn't meet up with him until we hunkered down for a midday bowl of homemade soup to talk about the ranch.
Linderman waxes poetic about the new lodge and the ranch's amenities, but he is especially keen on the ranch's dedication to guided recreation. Whether you're cross-country skiing or headed out behind a team of sled dogs, everything here is guided. In getting the ranch ready for winter, Linderman relied heavily on his guides and their savvy knowledge of the topography to map out trails. "We think it enhances the experience," he says. "And it makes sure you get home for dinner."
Three Forks' food may be top-notch and the spa's massage doesn't disappoint, but the true draw of this getaway is the stunning wide-open spaces. Three Forks is a higher evolution of the Rocky Mountain dude ranch. Yes, 6,000 Black Angus cattle roam the land, and that quintessential Wild West atmosphere is alive and well in the Little Snake River Valley. However, you don't have to sit in a saddle, nose-to-hindquarters-style, to partake in the solitude of more than 300 square miles of private land. "This is big country," says Linderman, admiring the area's natural and man-made featureslike the historic homestead cabin that's been transformed into the ski locker roomthat well-heeled guests will appreciate as fully as the cowboys who came decades before them.
A couple of hours into my cross-country excursion with Philip, I'm starting to realize just how big this country really is: We've skied a half-dozen miles and I'm beginning to tire. But the surroundings keep me energized. I pass trees with antler scratches, a telltale sign that giant elk have passed through. I hear the occasional babble of a brook where colossal trout await the spring melt-off. Along the way, I also eye many vertical stashes screaming out to be skied, an endeavor the ranch guides say they're happy to help guests like me explore. Those steeps will take fatter skis, I notepriming myself for yet another day of adventure on Three Forks' unequalled geography.
Jennie Lay is a Steamboat Springs-based writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.