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Horseback riding at Triple Creek Ranch in Montana - Courtesy of Triple Creek Ranch

Rocky Mountain Pleasures

By Andrew Harper Staff

The Harper Way | October 24, 2016

The Rocky Mountains are rich in year-round recreation. From thriving walkable towns filled with galleries, fine dining, museums and retail shops to the distinguishing natural beauty of the range itself, the Rocky Mountains offer a winning combination of access, activities and space. Feel the rush of downhill skiing on perfectly powdered snow. Discover wildlife, unique landscapes and the history of the American West. Or take time for some secluded relaxation at hot springs, mountain spas and the serene open country. More than 25 Andrew Harper Alliance partners — found across Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Montana and Canada — make it easy to reach new heights of mountain travel, however you prefer to adventure.

City Slickers

A downtown street in Ketchum, Idaho Courtesy of VisitSunValley © ToryTaglio

By way of its airport, the bright lights of Denver are often a traveler’s first encounter in the Rockies, and the city makes a well-provisioned base for exploring the quintessential Rocky Mountain state of Colorado. Mr. Harper praises the appealing transformation of the downtown area, where new microbreweries, art galleries, nightclubs and an impressive arts district combine with the city’s rustic heritage to create an exciting and memorable destination. “Denver seems to foster energy and creativity,” he says, with “seemingly limitless natural-playground possibilities within a stone’s throw of downtown.”

But hidden throughout the peaks is a wealth of charming towns worthy of visiting in their own right. With the advent of the ski resort in the early 20th century, former mining camps and outposts found new life as tourists poured into the region. Along with Aspen and Vail in Colorado, towns such as Park City, Utah; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Jackson, Wyoming, built their modern reputations on a supply of prime winter offerings, but they are a delight in all seasons.

“When people think of Aspen, of course they think about the skiing. What most folks don’t know is that there is an amazing cultural backbone that runs through here,” says Sara Stookey of the St. Regis Aspen Resort.

Like elsewhere in Colorado, Aspen consistently sees more than 300 days of sunshine annually, and the town makes the most of the favorable conditions with a number of activities on offer. Beyond its scenic and sporting draws, discover Aspen’s acclaimed festivals and concert series; world-class shopping and fine dining that line the streets; and the new Aspen Art Museum that joins the town’s museum-quality galleries. What may be surprising given the prevalence of the jet-set crowd (Aspen’s real estate is among the nation’s most expensive) is the sense of a vibrant local community, which is found in lively weekend markets, attractions such as the John Denver Sanctuary and the quirky folk art encountered among the woods of the ski runs, where artists have created nearly 100 homemade shrines dedicated to a range of musicians, writers and more.

With so much to do, Aspen’s relatively small size becomes an advantage. “Everything is just steps from the mountain,” Stookey says. “Guests are able to easily walk, bike or take the free local bus to any destination around town.”

Aspen’s cosmopolitan aspect is mirrored in Park City, Utah, a former silver mining boomtown that was reinvigorated with its annual Sundance Film Festival, as well as from hosting a portion of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Today, more than 600,000 travelers visit the city each year. Juxtaposing past and present, the small-town setting boasts glamorous amenities for the Hollywood crowd alongside historic buildings and an extensive, still-traversable system of mine shafts and tunnels beneath the city.

Further afield in central Idaho, the resort town of Sun Valley proves comfort and community can be found even in the Rockies’ more out-of-the-way locales. “Sun Valley is North America’s first and original destination ski resort. It’s also nestled in a remote location, which makes it a special place, still relatively untouched by mass commercialization, heavy traffic and overexposure,” says Kelli Lusk of Sun Valley Lodge.

Founded in 1936 to rival Europe’s great ski destinations, the resort was popularized by celebrity guests like Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, in particular, was so taken with the area’s rich hunting and fishing that, after completing For Whom the Bell Tolls in the renowned lodge, he made his home in nearby Ketchum for the remainder of his life.

And while the population has remained small, the reputation hasn’t. The celebrity roster continues to be strong, and Sun Valley and Ketchum today form an oasis of easy living and year-round thrills in an otherwise pristine mountain landscape.

“There is something to do for all generations, which many people do not know until they arrive and experience it here,” says Lusk, championing the sense of “real community” and mentioning activities “from the Opera House showing first-run movies each day, to a bowling alley in the renovated lodge, to pools, tennis courts, a gun club, fitness center, a full spectrum of dining options, hiking and biking trails and shopping.”

Where the Buffalo Roam

An American bison gazes across a plain in Yellowstone National Park RachelBd/iStock/Thinkstock

The extensive diversions make it easy to spend your days within the cities, but the crux of the Rockies’ appeal lies in the region’s staggering natural beauty. “Mountains, bluebird skies and natural beauty surround the entire area,” Lusk says. “So much of the land is undeveloped and protected, and [it] will remain that way for generations.”

Spanning more than 3,000 miles, the landscape is awash with dozens of protected parks containing some of North America’s most recognizable natural landmarks. The Grand Tetons, Pike’s Peak, Lake Louise and Old Faithful are set among a breathtaking background of majestic mountains, crystalline lakes, rivers brimming with trout, primordial geysers and lush forests. The enormity of the space (Yellowstone National Park alone is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined) can often add a numinous quality to these encounters.

“One of the most special things is that there are so few people here,” says Jennifer O’Donohue of Montana’s Triple Creek Ranch. “The entire state of Montana has just over a million people. Adventurers can spend hours exploring without encountering a soul and have a true wilderness experience.”

While driving in the Rockies won’t short you on scenery, a network of hiking trails suitable for all skill levels encourages on-the-ground exploration, and operators are plentiful for a number of immersive experiences such as horseback riding and whitewater rafting. This is also one of the last, best places to view North American wildlife in a natural setting.

“Local herds of elk, mule deer, whitetail and bison often appear on the horizon,” says O’Donohue. “Guests may spy eagles and hawks soaring through Montana’s big sky and a variety of nesting song birds and waterfowl up close and personal through our high-powered scopes. They can keep an eye out for majestic bull moose, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, black bear and an occasional shy fox or coyote, or they can follow the track of a silent wolf or mountain lion.”

A variety of resorts and lodges can place you in the thick of the wilderness. In addition to its palatial main resort, The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs offers three new wilderness camps hidden among the mountains for a rustic experience when exploring the Garden of the Gods, Pike’s Peak and the area’s many other scenic attractions. Farther up the range in Wyoming, Amangani sits atop a 7,000-foot butte just outside of Jackson. Here, boundless outdoor adventure is highlighted by guided treks to nearby Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks along with frequent sightings of elk, bison, moose and more. Across the state line in Idaho, Henry’s Fork Lodge on the Snake River gives you coveted access to one of the country’s most esteemed fly-fishing streams.

Rocky Mountaineer crosses a river in the wilds of the Canadian Rockies Courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

Still, one of the more unique experiences is to travel by train. The Rocky Mountaineer glides through the rugged wilds of Alberta and British Columbia, with stops in Banff, Lake Louise, Whistler, Vancouver and more. The sightseeing is maximized with massive domed windows, off-train excursions and daylight-only travel. (Overnight accommodations are in premium area hotels.)

“Traveling aboard the Rocky Mountaineer rivals other world-class travel experiences, but what sets it apart is the up-close view it provides of Western Canada’s scenery and wildlife,” says the luxury rail line's vice president of guest experiences, Deb Paulsen, who cites views of old-growth forests, glacier-capped mountains and shimmering lakes and rivers. “When a black bear is spotted out the window, you can feel the excitement throughout the train.”

Take It From the Top

Cross-country skiers within a winter landscape in the Rockies Courtesy of Triple Creek Ranch

Of course, the Rockies’ reputation for winter recreation is not undeserved, boasting a number of ski-in/ski-out resorts, Olympic facilities, ample backcountry and ideal snow.

“The snowfall is best described as ‘Champagne powder,’” Stookey says. “The snow is light, fluffy and easy to ski in. This differs from East Coast skiing, or even West Coast skiing where the snow is often wetter or icier.”

Of Aspen’s four ski mountains, Mr. Harper notes Snowmass Mountain as the preferred base for families. Aspen Mountain, rising directly above the town, boasts 76 meticulous runs better suited for intermediate and expert skiers, yet it also retains ample classic charm with stylish resorts such as the St. Regis and The Little Nell at its base alongside the historic Silver Queen Gondola. The 14-minute ride to the top can be enjoyed by all, providing scenic views of the surrounding highlands from Sundeck restaurant.

The area offers plenty of action for those looking for something beyond the traditional downhill experience as well: “Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are always popular winter activities,” Stookey says. “New for winter 2016, the St. Regis Aspen is creating an Uphill/Downhill package to teach the fundamentals of ‘uphilling’ — essentially skiing uphill — which offers guests the chance to see the mountains and backcountry of Aspen in a whole new way.”

For a historic twist on phenomenal skiing, look no further than Sun Valley. In the winter of 1935, the Union Pacific Railroad commissioned Count Felix Schaffgotsch of Austria to locate a site for a ski resort that would be on par with those in the Alps, which were drawing a significant number of American skiers with superior conditions. After an exhaustive search, the count declared he had found the perfect spot at what was then a sleepy ranch outside of Ketchum, Idaho. His instincts were sharp, and within a year the lodge was open, the world’s first chairlifts were installed, and the resort was welcoming its first guests.

“Sun Valley is a downhill skier’s paradise, consistently ranked as one of the top ski resorts in North America,” says Lusk. “Bald Mountain offers a consistent pitch, lack of lift lines and diverse terrain, making it one of the world’s finest ski mountains. Dollar Mountain is the perfect place to learn to downhill ski, with gentle slopes suited for beginners, [and] The Sun Valley Ski School ranks at the top whether you’re a first-time skier or just want to hone your skills.”

Over in Park City, winter visitors have their choice of options in the largest ski area in the country, with more than 7,000 acres of skiable terrain. The numerous ski runs include a varied mix of groomed and gentle slopes, bold powder lines and steep descents, and they’re bolstered by the nearby Utah Olympic Park and the Winter Comet Bobsled, which rides down the 2002 Olympic track.

“Utah’s heritage of snow sports is suited for the adventure-seeking multigenerational family,” says Dana Fioravanti with Montage Deer Valley resort in Park City, which offers ski-in/ski-out access along with mountain hosts, a ski concierge and an on-site outfitter for a tailored, carefree ski experience.

Nearly as important as the snow and ski runs are the après-ski activities: The familiar lineup of hot tubs, heated pools and warm beverages is garnished in the Rockies with distinct options such as fireside s’mores, bespoke cocktails (try the Downhill Snapper at the St. Regis Aspen), specialty massages and more.

“One unique option [and] a local and tourist favorite is to ski into Utah’s only ski-in gastro-distillery, High West Distillery, which offers locally distilled whiskeys and creative western-inspired cuisine,” Fioravanti says. “In addition, Montage Deer Valley has opened the slopeside Après Lounge & Beach Club, which is Utah’s only mountainside Champagne lounge.”

Range Life

A guest relaxes in the natural warmth of Dunton Hot Springs Courtesy of Dunton Hot Springs

While the scenery, skiing and cities are reason enough for a trip, it may be the mythos of the region that ultimately sets the Rocky Mountains apart.

“It’s the undeniable romance of the American West,” says O’Donohue. “Riding a horse on a mountainside stimulates just about every one of your senses — the air sweetly scented by the grasses and pine trees, the sound of your horse’s hooves, the gurgle of a nearby creek, the chatter of birds or sometimes simply pristine silence. And of course, the breathtaking view of an unspoiled wilderness that doesn’t look that much different than it did hundreds of years ago.”

Though several of the mining towns and camps evolved into posh modern communities, others became more recognizable symbols of the region’s distinguishing heritage: a crossroads where wild places meet cowboy culture and the historicity of westward expansion. Take Dunton Hot Springs, once a moderately thriving mining camp near Telluride, Colorado. Abandoned in 1918, the entire town was purchased and meticulously restored as a resort with 13 original cabins, a saloon and a dance hall. Coupled with the eponymous hot springs, it is a welcoming and convivial experience of the romance of a Western ghost town. The owners of Smith Fork Ranch in nearby Crawford took a similar approach, refitting a dilapidated ranch as an authentic wilderness retreat that emphasizes the area’s history and lifestyle.

This rugged frontierism is perhaps most evident under the Big Sky of Montana, where a number of high-end ranches combine the vast landscapes with well-appointed cabins and tents, plus activities such as horseback riding, cattle drives, fly-fishing, shooting, nature safaris, ATV tours and a wide variety of winter sports. O’Donohue highlights three particularly unique activities at Triple Creek Ranch: discovering handfuls of raw sapphires in dirt from the nearby Gem Mountain mine; skijoring (“ski driving”), where guests enjoy skiing across the snowy fields while being towed by a horse; and dog sledding.

Says O’Donohue, “The woman who runs our dog-sledding program, Jessie Royer, has raced in the Alaskan Iditarod 14 times. So not only can our guests go dog sledding, but with teams who have raced in the Iditarod. In fact, during a two-week period in January, we offer each guest a complimentary dog sled ride as it helps Jessie get her team ready for the big race.”

Sledding through snowy forests with a team of dogs may be a far cry from the metropolitan bustle of Denver, the warmth and culture of Aspen and Sun Valley, the luxury train journeys and sunny summer hikes through Yellowstone’s otherworldly setting, but it illustrates the range of on-demand activity and pleasure a trip to the Rockies provides. As O’Donohue puts it, “The ideal vacation can truly be found at any time of year.”


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This article is an excerpt from the October, November, December 2016 edition of the Traveler magazine. Click here to access the full issue.

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