As you glide through the forest riding in an oak sleigh, pine trees cast shadows on snow-covered ground, aglow in the moonlight. The soft jingle of bells fills the evening air, as 2,000-pound horses pull a group of bundled-up guests across vast expanses. On a clear night, the dark sky crowds with more stars than city dwellers can imagine. Snowfields stretch into possibilities, where it's easy to let your mind journey back into the late 1800s, when pioneers traveled by horse-drawn carriages and sleighs. This is the world of nostalgic rides, and the most magical place to experience them is in the mountains.
But how do you know which company to choose? Well, to begin with, Summit County by far outnumbers the Vail and Roaring Fork valleys when it comes to the number and variety of dinner sleigh rides the region offers.
Summit County Sleighs
If you're looking for a no-frills ride without the dinner expense, Copper Mountain offers 45-minute scenic rides around the base of the ski area at 5:30 p.m. during ski season ($35 adults, $25 kids younger than 12), as well as the 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Triple Treat, which sweeps families and friends into the woods, where a tent filled with fixin's for s'mores and hot cocoa awaits, along with live entertainment ($50/$45). It's a perfect choice for kids who might otherwise get antsy or tired during a longer two- to three-hour dinner ride.
Nordic Sleigh Rides near Breckenridge is also a good fit for families. After a half-hour sleigh ride, guests arrive at a replicated miners' camp that makes people feel as though they stepped back in time about 180 years. Chefs cook with an antique stove salvaged from an 1865 mining site, and another stove dated 1870 warms the tent. Most sleigh excursions include live entertainment in the form of an acoustic guitar player, but this outfit delivers an entirely different experience with three family-friendly theatrical shows. Depending on the night, you might encounter the Mountain Man, who tells stories of trapping beaver and selling pelts to England so hatters could make the finest hats in the world; the dance hall girls, who portray Breckenridge's history and the flirtatious life of working in a saloon; or Molly Brown, who moved to Summit County at age 19 and married a man who would invent a new way to shore mines, leading him to plenty of riches (she also talks about her time on the Titanic). Cost is $82 for adults and $60 for kids 4-12.
In the summer, Nordic Sleigh Rides transitions into a Western show with a cowboy band. Here, the food remains the same but the wagon ride doesn't play as large of a role; after all, guests usually just want to get bumped and bounced around on metal wheels for about 10 minutes.
Two Below Zero offers winter dinner rides ($84-89 for adults and $55-$60 for kids 4-12), hot cocoa rides and summer excursions (July and August only). It lends an authentic experience with antique, century-old fur lap robes woven from horsehair or cattle hide, though many sleighs use thick cotton blankets made in Ecuador.
Two Below serves up the heartiest meals; rather than choosing between a New York steak and grilled chicken breast, guests get a plate of both — plus Southwestern soup, a baked potato, vegetables, cocoa (with peppermint schnapps, if desired) and hot apple pie. The sleigh ride takes guests about a mile into the woods to a remote site with gorgeous views. The new tent, built two years ago, features wooden beams and posts. During summer, the outfit transitions to a chuck-wagon dinner, with a Wild West show full of corral games, roping, physical comedy, play gunfire and more.
Keystone Resort pulls guests into history by way of wranglers telling stories about Soda Creek Homestead, a dairy farm and ranch in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As the horses head to a smattering of cabins, which were designated as a historic site last year, history comes alive.
Breck Stables operates Peak 9 Dinner Sleigh Rides out of Peak 9's base parking lot ($89 adults, $60 kids 4-12). From there, it whisks guests up in small, handmade Amish sleighs that only hold 10 people. Once visitors arrive at 10,500 feet in elevation, they move into a yurt, decorated with Christmas lights, candlelight and Western artifacts. No alcohol is served on this ride. During summer, people can ride on horseback to a tent for breakfast and dinner.
Vail Valley Vistas
Bearcat Stables in Cordillera sweeps about a dozen passengers at a time through breathtaking Rocky Mountain scenery during a 25-minute ride to and from Timber Hearth at Cordillera. After the ride ($20), diners can relax in Timber Hearth's rustic elegance, accented by tongue-and-groove carpentry and a two-story fireplace. Guests can order entrées from the unique menu, highlighting American cuisine with a distinctive Western flair, or simply order drinks, appetizers or desserts. Entrees range from $19 to $49 and include ahi tuna, veal medallions, pasta, lamb chops, steak, King crab and Dover sole. There's also a s'mores platter to take to the outdoor fire pit. Rides run from early December to the last week in March.
4 Eagle Ranch is a bit off the beaten path — in Wolcott, about a half hour west of Vail — but that's what makes it all the more special; unobstructed views of hillsides and open pastures surround the 1,000-acre ranch. Ranchers can pick guests up from Vail, Avon and Beaver Creek ($90 for van transportation and dinner for adults and $35 for kids), or you can arrive at the late-1800's homestead by 6:30 p.m. for the two-and-a-half-hour excursion centered upon the 1890's Nelson Cabin ($75 for dinner only, $25 for kids).
Uniquely, guests can jump on the sleigh at anytime throughout the evening for a 20-minute ride — and they can do it multiple times; Belgium draft horses follow an old stagecoach road, which travels beside cottonwood trees, out into the fields, past other horses grazing.
Then again, guests wouldn't want to stay on the sleigh too long and miss out on award-winning steak chili or the buffet stacked with two different steaks, barbecue baby back ribs, mac-and-cheese, potatoes, rolls, veggies and a dessert bar complete with warm fruit cobbler (with real whip cream), fresh giant cookies and an outdoor campfire with s'mores.
Every Wednesday in July and August, the ranch hosts Western family nights, with wagon rides and a dinner buffet for $50 for adults, $25 for seniors and $25 for kids 5-12. "We treat everybody as if they were our guests at our home," says Elly Conklin, ranch coordinator. "It's just a down-home genuine Colorado experience."
Roaring Fork Outfits
Ashcroft Pine Creek Cookhouse provides legendary mountain dining 11 miles outside of Aspen, at the base of the Elk Mountain range at the Ashcroft Ski Touring area. Built in 2003, the cookhouse is a log cabin that hosts cross-country skiers for an extravagant lunch and sleigh riders (or skiers) for an extraordinary banquet of greens, grains, pastas, seafood salads, wild game, Alaskan salmon, rainbow trout and vegetarian specials.
Maroon Bells Lodge and Outfitters offers scenic sleigh rides only ($30) from Thanksgiving to the end of March, and in the summer, a two-hour ride along Maroon Creek takes you to dinner, where rib eye and New York Strip steaks, chicken breast or lobster await.
Aspen Wilderness Outfitters sets up a 30-minute hot cocoa ride from the Aspen Nordic Center from 4-7 p.m. during winter and in summer offers dinner horseback rides with a picnic lunch ($95) and cowboy dinner rides ($160) with two meats, backed beans potato, slaw, corn bread muffins and dessert.
To get the most out of your winter experience, remember: All sleighs provide thick blankets, but it's important to dress warmly with wool socks, boots, a hat and gloves, even during spring nights.
Hitch a Ride
Gold Run Nordic Center Sleigh Rides: 970.389.1701, www.breckenridgestablessleighrides.com
Breck Stables Peak 9 Dinner Sleigh Rides: 970.453.4438, www.breckstables.com
Copper Mountain Stables: 970.968.2232, www.coppermtstables.com
Keystone Dinner Sleigh Rides: 970.496.4386, www.keystoneresort.com
Nordic Sleigh Rides: 970.453.2005, www.nordicsleighrides.com
Two Below Dinner Sleigh Rides: 970.453.1520, www.dinnersleighrides.com
Bearcat stables in Cordillera: 970.926.1578, www.bearcatstables.com. Restaurant: Timber Hearth Grille: 970.926.1578
4 Eagle Ranch: 970.926.3372, www.4eagleranch.com
Roaring Fork Valley
Ashcroft Pine Creek Cookhouse: 970.925.1044, www.pinecreekcookhouse.com
Aspen Wilderness Outfitters: 970.922.6600, www.aspenwilderness.com
Maroon Bells Lodge & Outfitters (summer dinner rides only): 970.920.4677,