SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. - "River rafting? Horseback riding? At Snowmass?" Larry behind the counter at the Ski Chalet, in Los Angeles was skeptical.
For many people, just hearing a ski resort name - Snowmass, Steamboat, Copper Mountain, Winter Park, Vail, Taos - is a summertime turn-off. Winter winds, cold feet, blistering snow storms? No way.
"Snowmass? That's for skiers," he told me. "Not where I want to be on my summer vacation."
I'm a skier, so snow is what comes to my mind, too. But after last summer, I'll never think of Snowmass the same way. We floated the idea of a two-family vacation in March, but procrastinated until June. Then somebody mentioned Snowmass, the resort and village.
As it happens, most ski resort lodging, hotel rooms and condominiums stand empty in summer. As vacancies grow, so do discounts. Prices had dropped as much as 50 percent during some off-season weeks. Finding an affordable place to stay, with a kitchen - another money saver - was step one. But if we weren't skiing, what else would we do?
Colorado is a natural place for summer fun because ski resorts aren't in ugly, flat places. Those slopes are located in magnificent mountain settings where there's plenty to do in any season. River rafting, of course, and fly fishing, hiking, music festivals, zip lining, paragliding, jeep trips and golf, for starters. At Snowmass, where I expected to see hillsides marred by ugly bald gashes (those vertical runs that parallel the lifts), the slopes were transformed, grown into grassy, flower-filled meadows - like Switzerland without the cowbells.
Hiking trails slipped through the trees, glades where I had so often crashed my skis into the trees. Taking it easy, we rode the chair lift to the summit, stopped at mid-mountain to watch the Kids Camp kids take turns on a climbing wall, and climbed higher up to admire the views. Almost all ski resorts are built on leased National Forest land, So a network of interconnected, well-defined trails - often old deer or mining trails - is the rule.
The Fanny Hill ski run, a giant bunny slope at the resort base village, was half empty until the weekly music festival on Saturday. The musicians - rock, country and pop bands - perform on a raised stage; food and drink tents were set up along the perimeter, and everyone, including us, sat on blankets until the stars came out.
On Thursday night, we went to Snowmass Village's weekly rodeo, a well-attended and pleasingly abbreviated amateur event. It attracts bronc riders, ranch cowboys handy at calf roping and barrel racers (on horseback) from around the county. Half the fun is watching the kids participate; this is their chance to compete in a real arena. I expected the Mutton Busting contest to bore, but it was a side-splitter. The onlookers roared as 20 kids, ages maybe three to six, clutched onto that slippery wool for dear life trying to reach the finish line
Snowmass is one of my favorites. But it isn't the only ski resort trying to fill empty rooms in summer.
Did I mention horseback riding, chuck wagon dinners, lake canoeing, river kayaking, rock climbing, campfire sings, square dancing and overnight trail rides? And when a ski village gets into the act, the list grows longer: Art shows, Mountain Men Rendezvous, Black Powder festivals, Arabian horse shows, Celtic Festivals, Arts and Crafts Markets.
With Snowmass half empty, traffic was a non-issue. Restaurants abounded and the food was very good. Pick your choice and you'll be seated immediately. Our remodeled, upscale condo in the Top of the Village complex had a swimming pool and free parking.
My "don't miss" suggestions: Fly fishing lessons for the kids, and a half-day river trip. Our expert guide, Roger Morse, revealed his secrets. By noon, 12-year-old Dillon landed three good-sized trout (catch and release) and I lost three hooks, snagged on underwater tree trunks.
Even crazier was our eight-mile raft trip down the Roaring Fork River. I expected a lazy float with seven other tourists. Instead, the three-hour paddle on the highest water levels in a decade went from a few splashes, to white-knuckle thrills, to scenic pools and back to the splashes. During slow moments, our guide's clever comedy routine kept us chuckling. A caveat: the kind of ride you'll get depends on the water level.
You'll need to buy a ticket to ride the Elk Camp Gondola; rodeo tickets are $2. A resort concession rents mountain bikes, and the Kids' Day Camp charges a day-rate fee. But the free scent of pines, mountain scenery and red-gold sunsets are part of the best vacation you'll ever have.
If you go: