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adults on a sleigh ride at Snow Mountain Ranch in Colorado

Winter Fun in Colorado with Teenagers

By Wendi Aarons

Because we live in Austin, Texas, we escape to Colorado most summers to cool off a bit. I’ve written about both the YMCA of the Rockies and also YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch before. But this past November, we did something we’ve never done and visited Colorado in the winter. Thanksgiving week, to be exact.

And boy, did we cool off. Like really, really cool off. So cooled. But all of us had a wonderful time playing in both the city and up in the mountains. Here’s a look at the trip I took with my husband and sons, Sam (18) and Jack (16),  and what I recommend when planning your own Colorado adventure with older tweens and teens. Let’s start it off with Snow Mountain Ranch.

Snow Mountain Ranch (SMR)

The first thing to know about the YMCA of the Rockies in Colorado is that they have two properties: 1) The Estes Park Center is located near the city of Estes Park, and 2) Snow Mountain Ranch (SMR) is located higher up the mountain near the town of Winter Park (specifically, Granby, Colorado.)

SMR is a two-hour drive from the Denver airport, but if you don’t want to drive or rent a car, there’s also private shuttle service and Amtrak transportation from Union Station that’s available and easy. That said, I recommend taking a car because unlike in the summer when it’s fun to walk or ride a bike around the resort, it’s too cold to do that comfortably in winter. You may also want to have the car handy in case you need to go to Granby for any groceries or supplies.

What’s Snow Mountain Ranch like?

Think of Snow Mountain Ranch as a resort, but one that’s affordable, friendly and accessible to all because it’s the YMCA. They offer a few lodging options, including three buildings that are basically no-frills hotels. “No frills” meaning you have a private bathroom, comfortable beds, quiet and privacy, but no TV. (But there’s free Wi-Fi throughout the resort.) There are also campsites and yurts available, but they’re mostly offered in the summer. As for us, we stayed in a lovely, warm and cozy three-bedroom, two-bathroom cabin with a kitchen. It was perfect because we could all go into our separate corners after a day of togetherness, then regroup later to play a board game from the game closet. Plus the views were gorgeous.

lots of cabins dotting landscape at Snow Mountain Ranch in Colorado

What are my dining options at Snow Mountain Ranch?

The dining options at SMR include the Schlessman Commons Dining Hall, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day in an all-you-can-eat buffet style. It has a fresh salad bar, desserts, homemade specialties, and beverages, so it’s perfect for kids. There’s also a restaurant with items like pizza and chicken fingers in the main building. The YMCA doesn’t sell alcohol, but you’re welcome to bring your own. I was traveling with two teenagers, so I sure did.

What are the outdoor winter activities at Snow Mountain Ranch?

With more than 5,000 acres, there are many outdoor activities available at SMR. I detailed the summer activities here, but let’s talk about what you can do in the fall and winter.

Much like a resort, SMR has a daily activity schedule printed out (or you can use their app) to help you plan your day. There’s also the staffed Activity Cabin. The winter activities are mostly located at the Nordic Center and they include downhill skiing, snowshoeing, fat tire biking, ice skating, tubing, snowmobile rentals, and sleigh rides. Most activities are included in your stay or with your day pass, but equipment costs more to rent. (It’s not pricey.) They also have dog sledding! Like, yelling “Mush!” at a team of dogs that pulls you around. It wasn’t yet available when we were there, but I’d go back just for that. They’re so cute.

dog sledding at Snow Mountain Ranch

One of the biggest attractions at Snow Mountain Ranch is The Summer Tubing Hill. They offer it in the winter, too, so it’s more of a sledding hill, but it wasn’t yet open when we were there. However, it seems like a perfect activity for kids who aren’t into skiing. I myself wasn’t ever into skiing before, but I’m proud to say that I tried cross country skiing for the first time during this trip. Kind of risky at my age with brittle bones and all, but when in Rome, right? The ski rental desk experts at SMR were super helpful in teaching me what to do, and the trail I skied on was flat yet scenic. I only crashed once, so I’d definitely do it again because I’m clearly a natural. SMR also provides easy access to the Winter Park, Mary Jane and Granby Ranch downhill ski areas where there’s also snowboarding.

I should also mention that the boys were outfitted for their snow fun by a woman-owned Colorado company called Slope Threads. It’s like Rent The Runway for cold-weather gear like gloves, ski pants, and jackets and perfect when you don’t want to invest in clothes for growing kids and/or travel with all of that bulk. (Free shipping and free return shipping.) Be sure to check them out.

What are the indoor activities at Snow Mountain Ranch?

My teen boys enjoyed skiing, but they also loved the indoor activities at SMR. Thank goodness they offer them, considering that one day it was 3 degrees when we awoke. Yikes.

The Kiva Center has archery, a rock wall, basketball (the boys’ favorite), dodgeball, ping pong, and billiards. They also host fun events like Human Hungry Hungry Hippos, which sounds … fun? Maybe? I loved the roller skating rink, too, which I took a few spins around because they were blasting 70’s music. It was out of my control. Whenever I hear The Bee Gees, I just have to skate.

We also enjoyed the time we spent in the huge SMR craft cabin. They offer leatherwork, beading, mosaic making, and other soothing artistic activities. My son Sam and I sat together and painted our own ceramics (which would never happen at home, so that almost made the trip worth it), and I made a super ugly Christmas ornament that everyone mocked. But the prices are reasonable, the staff is helpful, and it’s a great place to relax.

Book now for some great deals

Reservations for Winter and Spring at Snow Mountain Ranch are open now, so hurry and get your cabins. They have some great deals right now. I now know that it’s fun all year round, too. And also check out CCO (the kids’ summer camp) and Women’s Adventure Camp. Now let’s go back to what we did in the city!

Traveling through Denver

We started our trip flying to Denver, drove up to Snow Mountain Ranch, then spent a couple more days in Denver before flying home. Because Denver International Airport is so giant, there’s no shortage of flights and airlines available. The flights are fairly inexpensive for that reason, so tickets on a non-stop Southwest trip only cost us around $200 each. Not bad. Plus the airport has a skating rink in case your flight gets delayed and you want to live out your “Ice Castles” fantasies. (I did not.) The airport in Boulder is closer to the mountains, but it’s small and mostly for charter and private planes.

Where to Stay in Denver

We spent the first night of our trip at the brand-new Hyatt Place Peña Station in Denver. It’s an airport hotel in that it’s close to the airport, but I liked that it’s farther away from the cluster of chains. It was just a quick trip on their complimentary shuttle to this pretty hotel that was designed with the beauty and light of Colorado in mind.

hotel lobby at the Hyatt Place Pena Station in Denver

You can tell a lot of thought was put into the decor, and the original art-filled lobby is welcoming with ample seating, a board game and video game nook for kids, and a full-service Starbucks for the parents of those kids. Plus there’s a breakfast bar and a regular bar so you don’t have to venture out for refreshments.

Of course, none of that can compare to the main attraction, the Hyatt Place Peña Station official greeter, Denver. Awwww.

puppy greeter at Hyatt Place Pena Station hotel in Denver

What makes this hotel so attractive to out-of-town visitors arriving at DIA is that it’s located on Denver’s Light Rail system, so you can easily navigate to nearby attractions, stadiums, downtown Denver and beyond. And you can even take it up to the ski areas! Good news for those not wishing to drive in snow.

After returning to Denver from our trip to SMR, we moved to the downtown area and stayed at the swank Hotel Indigo. Located next to the beautiful Union Station (worth a visit even if you’re not taking a train), this boutique hotel is right where everything is happening: restaurants, bars, galleries and the nearby 16th Street Mall that’s bursting with movie theaters, bookstores, and shopping.

bronze statue in lobby of Hotel Indigo in Denver

The vibe of Hotel Indigo is rustic-chic and we all remarked on friendly the staff was to everyone. Plus our well-appointed room was really comfortable and quiet, which counts for a lot when traveling with teenagers.

Perhaps the best part of Hotel Indigo, however, is their Colorado-centric restaurant Hearth & Dram. They’re “all about meat, whiskey and rock & roll,” which are all things I’m about, too. Who isn’t? It’s a beautiful, fun space and we ate one of the best Thanksgiving dinners we’ve ever had there, while also enjoying music, ambiance, and friendly servers. Don’t miss their weekend Vinyl Brunch.

community table at Hearth & Dram restaurant in Denver

Things to do in Denver with teens

Unfortunately, we were in Denver during Thanksgiving week so a lot of the usual activities were closed, but some places we did enjoy include Book Bar Denver, a fun and welcoming bookstore AND bar in the trendy Tennyson Street arts district, Denver Biscuit Co., Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Tattered Cover Books, shopping at Larimer Square, and the Holiday Market at 16th Street Mall Denver.

If you’re taking a trip to Denver and the Rockies, I hope this helps you plan your adventure. And please share your favorite activities and places to visit when visiting the area, in the comments!

My family stayed at Hyatt Place Pena Station, Hotel Indigo, and Snow Mountain Ranch as guests for promotional purposes.  But we’re telling you, and our friends about them because it was a fantastic family vacation.

About the Author

Wendi Aarons

Wendi Aarons is an award-winning humor writer and blogger who lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and two sons. You can usually find her at Wendi Aarons

Wendi Aarons is an award-winning humor writer and blogger who lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and two sons. You can usually find her at Wendi Aarons, The Mouthy Housewives or starting fistfights near the 70% off rack at Target.

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