There is something special about the Rockies.
Running for some 3,000 miles all the way from Canada down into New Mexico, the rough and rugged mountain system is the West’s largest. With its unfettered wilderness, much of it protected as national and state parks, the Rockies are a paradise for outdoor-loving groups in search of soft adventures. And at no time of the year does that hold more true than during the winter, when the snow piles up in great drifts, hushing sound and turning the landscape into a fairy tale-made manifest.
The cold-weather months in the Rockies provide opportunities for group travelers to indulge in everything from skiing to ice skating, sleigh rides to hot spring dips — and so much more. Whether you’re planning on putting together an itinerary in one of the Rocky Mountain states — or a tour through several of them — Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah can all provide your group with the adventure of a lifetime.
There’s a reason why Colorado is perpetually ranked among the most physically fit states in the country: the wealth of healthy outdoor activities available in it. Thanks to 28 ski resorts that include legendary locales like Aspen, Vail and Telluride, the Centennial State’s most popular outdoor activity of all is likely downhill skiing and snowboarding. For groups wanting to test their skill on the slopes, rentals and lessons are available in the above locations and at other resorts across Colorado.
Meanwhile, those who’d like to take things a little more slowly will find more than 20 cross-country skiing and snowshoeing centers in Colorado, including at Vail and Breckenridge. Both Nordic centers offer trails as well as lessons and rentals. And from January through March, leaders can book a private ranger-led snowshoe walk in the legendary Rocky Mountain National Park for their groups.
Another option is to take your group skating in Colorado. After all, there may be no more iconic winter pastime than strapping on a pair of blades and hitting the ice. Along with Denver’s other delights, the city offers a downtown ice rink that can host private events, while a half-hour away, the 40-acre Evergreen Lake is home to the world’s largest Zamboni-groomed outdoor ice rink. The lake’s individual skating rinks and the warming hut are available for private group events.
Of course, making the most of the season in Colorado doesn’t always involve outdoor activity. Sometimes, it’s enough just to kick back, relax and enjoy the environs, as Julianne Krogseng, director of Tour Colorado notes.
“In the winter you have snow on the mountains; and just like in summer, you have beautiful clear blue skies; and it’s just breathtaking,” she said. “So, I would suggest that groups take a scenic train, like the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. It’s beautiful; you’re following the river all the way up there. There’s also the Georgetown Loop and the Royal Gorge, too.”
Along with riding the rails, a must-do winter experience for groups touring Colorado is soaking in one of the state’s hot springs. There are a variety to choose from — Colorado now features an 800-mile “Historic Hot Springs Loop” to help shine a light on 23 of the attractions. Among the largest of them is Ouray Hot Springs Pool and Fitness Center, which features five pools.
While Colorado, which is the most populous Rocky Mountain state, positively bustles with 5.685 million people, Wyoming is by comparison nearly deserted. And according to Piper Singer Cunningham, communications senior manager for the Wyoming Office of Tourism, that’s all the better for group travelers.
“Wyoming is the least populated state in the entire nation, so there’s an opportunity for you to really be immersed in the winter experience here without the crowds,” she said.
Among the state’s most unique pleasures for groups is taking a snow coach into Yellowstone National Park, which is accessible in winter only via the oversized vehicle. There are a variety of themed snow coach tours available, including wildlife adventure tours, geyser tours and more. The snow coaches also deliver guests to Old Faithful Snow Lodge, located near the famed geyser and offering a restaurant, accommodations and cross-country ski and snowshoe rentals.
Sleigh rides through Jackson Hole’s National Elk Refuge are also incredibly popular with group travelers. Guides lead the sleighs into North America’s largest migrating elk herd, answering questions about the animals along the way. While in Jackson Hole, which Cunningham calls Wyoming’s biggest winter destination, leaders might also want to take their groups to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort for a scenic gondola ride with stunning views of the Teton mountain range. At the summit, there is a restaurant that serves hot chocolate for a warming treat.
Before departing the state, groups should visit one of the state’s truly awe-inspiring sights: Devil’s Tower National Monument. Located in northeast Wyoming, on the border of South Dakota, it was America’s first national monument.
“It’s this rock butte that comes out of the ground from nowhere,” Cunningham said. “But there’s a paved trail that goes around the circumference and it’s open year-round.”
According to Nancy Richardson, senior marketing tourism specialist for Idaho Tourism, one of the best things for groups about the state is the variety of winter activities it offers. Snowmobiling is a favorite, and a number of rental and guide services are available in areas including Island Park and McCall. Island Park Adventures can handle groups of more than 12, while Brundage Mountain Resort in McCall also features skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing in addition to snowmobiling, so bigger tours can be split into smaller groups, with travelers choosing their own adventures.
After a day hitting the powder or riding a sled, your group is sure to appreciate a relaxing trip to the hot springs. There are a number of commercially developed geothermal pools appropriate for groups scattered across the state. Richardson suggests groups head to Lava Hot Springs Hot Pools, Swimming Pool and Waterpark, located near Pocatello. Then, following a good night’s rest, take off for central Idaho and Hap and Florence Points Sleigh Rides. During the tour guests sleigh sitting on hay bales, which the elk come and feed from, allowing for a true up-close-and-personal experience with the majestic critters.
Whatever else your group’s itinerary in Idaho includes, make sure to add in a stop at one of the state’s many winter festivals, such as McCall Winter Carnival, Lava Hot Springs Fire and Ice Winterfest, or Sandpoint Winter Carnival.
“Idaho Falls is very much an outdoor place,” said Richardson. “We love being outside in the fresh air. And that continues through the winter months, so there are wonderful celebrations for groups to attend throughout the state during the season.”
With 15 ski resorts known for having what’s been dubbed the “Greatest Snow on Earth,” resulting from some 500 inches of powder annually, Utah beckons leaders planning winter getaways for their groups. But while iconic spots like Park City and Sundance are great stops for skiing and snowboarding, leaders should also consider more unique opportunities, like booking a private Nordic Yurt Dinner with Wilderness Access Outfitters, out of Heber City. During the adventure, groups will take a guided snowshoe tour to a toasty warm yurt, where a four-course dinner awaits.
For other singular offerings, groups can also head to the southern part of the state, notes Anna Loughridge, public relations manager, Utah Office of Tourism.
“For example, Bryce Canyon National Park is such a cool winter destination because you can find that desert-meets-winter experience,” she said. “The air is crisp and pure; you can see for hundreds of miles, but there are no crowds, and the fact that the park is open year-round is really unique.”
There’s plenty to do there, too, including taking trips to both Bryce Point’s stunning overlook and Inspiration Point, the latter of which offers an easy walk along the canyon’s rim. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing amongst the park’s celebrated rock spires are also an option for groups (equipment is available to rent at Ruby’s Inn in Bryce Canyon City), as well as taking a gander at Utah’s night skies, internationally rated as some of the darkest in the world.
Ranger-led astronomy programs continue through winter at the park, or leaders can book a two-hour “Campfire, S’mores and Star Gazing” event through Adventure Tour Company in Kanab. Goodies include not just the stars above but also the Hollywood version as well — groups will visit an Old West fort movie set where more than three dozen movies and shows, including “The Apple Dumpling Gang” and “Westworld,” were filmed.