Winter Adventure: Dog Sledding at Colorado's Snow Mountain Ranch


A cold breeze rushes around the group of people standing outside. The place, near Winter Park Colorado. The wind blows a bit of snow from the trees and smoke from the fire pit. The guests are too busy oohing and aweing around a pack of dogs to notice the chilly air. The dogs, all Alaskan Huskies, are furry and adorable as they lick mittens, swipe kids with their tails and lean against people’s legs. Their blue eyes pierce through the surrounding snow. The dogs are not there for amusement, however. They are here for some serious business. These animals are sled dogs and soon they will be pulling these people on a thrill ride.

Snow Mountain Ranch is a part of the YMCA of the Rockies and one of the largest family camps in the US. In summer months, people come here to spend a week in the wilderness hiking, biking, fishing and playing sports. However, this is a year around ranch and winter offers skiing, cross-country skiing, ice skating, snow shoeing and the activity to be performed today, dog sledding. Steve Peterson, Head Pastor for Snow Mountain Ranch is also an expert musher and has run sled dogs for decades, including participating in the arduous John Beargreese Marathon Race in Minnesota. Pastor Steve uses dog sledding as a metaphor for life.

“Every dog is important,” says Pastor Steve. The dogs run must run together, turn together, and carry the sled’s load. Like many things in life, it takes a team to do that. While teamwork is important, Pastor Steve says that all sleds must have a leader. Lead dogs must maintain the pace, keep the other dogs in line and avoid distractions. Applying those skills to our lives can make us better leaders.

Pastor Steve gives the group of eager guests a tutorial on dog sledding basics and how the sled, harnesses and rope lines work. The dogs are attached to “gang” lines on the collar, but then they are also harnessed to tuglines attached to the sled.

The weight of the sled is evenly distributed around the dog’s chest and back. He also talks about the importance of a key piece of equipment, the snow brake. The dogs don’t want to stop running and although a musher may tell the team to stop, the dogs may not stop as quickly as needed. The snow brake, which works like an anchor, brings the sled to a quick halt. The guests are then taught the proper way to approach dogs, always from the side, not from the front.

“Unless you want to a head butt to the chin,” says Pastor Steve. “I’ve had one and it’s not pleasant.” After the training session, people used that training on the pack of dogs waiting outside. The dogs are surprisingly small; not much taller than an adult’s knee, but their powerful legs and robust chests belay an inner strength that their size does not. The dogs’ speak directly to the point of Pastor Steve’s dog sled sermon.

“Dog sledding has taught me three important lessons,” says Pastor Steve. He says those lessons are letting go of things that hinder performance, the importance of nourishment and what it means to commit to something.

Dog sleds need to be light because the dogs can only pull so much weight. Pastor Steve takes only the bare necessities when on the trails because too much weight will hinder the dogs’ performance. He says if people get rid of things that weigh them down, be it physical or emotional, it will allow them to do more in their own lives.

The dogs’ health is maintained through proper nourishment. Pastor Steve feeds the dogs a stew-like meal of high quality beef that he orders in 50 lb. frozen blocks. He chops the blocks into chunks, adds hot water and some high quality dog kibble to create a stew.

The meal is high in protein and hydrating. Proper nutrition keeps the dogs performing at their best and helps them live long, healthy lives. Proper nourishment, both physically and mentally, helps humans to perform their best as well.

What may be the most important lesson is committing to a goal. Although the trail may be long and the weather harsh, those who persevere can accomplish anything.

These dogs live to run and the excitement of a morning sled pull is visible in their every tug, howl and bark. A group of ranch staff helps Pastor Steve prep the sled and tie the dogs. Ten dogs will haul the sled today and its passengers were a group of students along with moms and dads and their excited kids. It was going to be a busy day for the dogs.

The guests are grouped by family and weight and then given numbers to determine their order. Each would be given one turn on a dog sled trail that runs near the ranch’s library and ski shop. One adult stands up behind the musher while kids get to ride on the sled. The 2-mile ride lasts only 15-20 minutes, however the dogs seem to stretch these minutes with each stride of their legs while slicing through the wind on the trail. Those few minutes will not be forgotten.

To experience a dog sled ride for your family, contact Snow Mountain Ranch and book a stay in the ranch’s main guest lodge or in one of the many yurts and multi-bedroom cabins on the ranch’s 5200 acres. Rides are given Thursday and Saturday mornings.

The presentation starts at 8:30 AM and the rides begin after 9 AM. Riders are assigned a number and a bonfire and hot chocolate are available to keep guests warm while they wait. Cost is $25 for single riders and $40 for doubles who are guests of the ranch. Double riders must be from the same family and combined weight must be under 250 lbs. Guests staying at Snow Mountain Ranch get first priority for rides, however, non-guests may sign up to ride. The non-guest fee for dog sledding is $65 per person or $120 for two and includes a day pass to the ranch. To book a ride call 970-887-2152.

Carrie Dow
Carrie Dow is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Islands, International Living and Go World Travel. She also published a children's book about her annoying cat called Morning, Miss Moo, available in hard copy and digital format from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and iTunes. Mom to an English lab, a Queensland healer mix and a reformed alley cat, she hopes to make the world a little smaller by reporting on its companion animals.
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