The Find: Avalanche Ranch Backcountry Lodge & Hot Springs
By late February, you reach a point where you need the promise of warmth just to get outside. The hot springs at Avalanche Ranch and Nordic trails at nearby Spring Gulch, outside of Carbondale, Colorado, will give you the kick you crave, and then some. Kids and adults can ski all day on groomed track and afterwards soak in thermal pools. If you’re so relaxed you can’t bear to drive home, spend the night at one of the ranch’s 13 rustic but cheerful log cabins.
With over 700 acres of land and a 13-mile network of Nordic trails, Spring Gulch, about 15 minutes from the ranch, has something for everyone. For those just learning how to cross-country ski, there are plenty of beginner and intermediate trails, including Rafter-T, Rabbit Run, and Lazy Eight. There are also longer tours, like Finlandia, and steeper climbs like Highball for the more advanced skiers in the family.
Spring Gulch trail system is the result of a unique collaboration between the Mount Sopris Nordic Council and the cattlemen who own the land, mainly the Crystal River Ranch and the North Thomson’s Cattleman’s Association. In the summer, Nordic Council volunteers maintain the trails for cattle. In exchange, skiing at Spring Gulch is free and open to everyone (except your pets). There are no rentals, so bring your own gear or rent ahead of time from Ajax Sports in Carbondale.
After you’ve had your fill of skiing at Spring Gulch, head back to Avalanche Ranch and soak in the three mineral pools. Tastefully flanked by flagstone terraces, the thermal baths are linked by a series of waterfalls, and with views of Mt. Sopris and the sounds of the Crystal River nearby, are as close to the backcountry as you can get at a developed springs. The ranch backs up to National Forest and when the pools are uncrowded (as they often are), it’s easy to imagine you just skied out of the woods and found this place.
When the kids tire of soaking, they can play in the kid’s cabin and the tree house. Or they can play tetherball, swing, or check out the sledding hill and nearby ice rink. There’s a lodge with games, movies, puzzles, and ping-pong.
The ranch also operates as a small farm and apple orchard. You can even buy eggs, apples, and beef from the ranch store. And nearby Carbondale has outdoor, drop-in ice skating and pick-up hockey at the Gus Darien Ice Arena, tours of the 115-year-old Redstone Castle, and excellent restaurants like Six89, Hestia, and Village Smithy that won’t snub the kids. This amount of quaintness is hard to leave. Luckily, you can return. The ranch is open year-round—a trip there in the summer, with its nearby biking, hiking, fishing and kayaking, is equally lovely.
Avalanche Ranch: $15/adults; $9/ kids; Cabins, from $125; Pools open 9-5 (closed Wednesdays until 3PM for cleaning); http://www.avalancheranch.com/; Spring Gulch Trail System, http://www.springgulch.org
—Guest blogger Emily Brendler Shoff