By Rachel Walker
Before I had sons, I never gave much thought to snowcats. But once Henry and Silas were mobile, those giant, beefy machines that are mounted on tracks and able to ascend and descend extremely steep slopes became central to my life, at least in winter. Since the kiddos could talk (they are now six and four), we’ve discussed everything about snowcats: what they sound like (loud!), why they’re awesome (big machines!), and why they’re important (corduroy!).
But we always admired the beasts from afar—until recently, that is.
Winter Park Resort offers guided, two-hour snowcat rides, as anyone who’s hung out at the bottom of the mogul practice slope, where the fire engine-red PistenBully waits for passengers throughout the day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (and on Friday and Saturday evenings), can tell you. When still, the snowcat is something to behold, and behold we did (do) every time we pass the cat on our way to or from the chairlift.
It’s got an impressive blade mounted to its front and an intriguing staircase at its rear (to say nothing of the gigantic tracks that, if you’re a little kid, really ought to be examined from every angle). In fact, that PistenBully is as tempting as all that brightly colored candy at kids’-eye-level at the grocery store checkout counter. And, like the treats I routinely deny my children, the snowcat was always off limits. Fun to look at, but nothing we were going to do.
Fortunately, my kids don’t take “no” for an answer. Since our first visit to Winter Park in November through Christmas and then through January and then through the first week of February, they asked for a snowcat ride.
Asked is actually putting it mildly. They begged, demanded, threatened to secede from the family if denied, and then tried sweet-talking. But it was their homespun imaginative game of playing snowcats, requesting lullabies with snowcats, and renaming all of their stuffed animals some iteration of the word “snowcat” that persuaded me to stop being such a dictator.
Which is how I found myself climbing aboard the heated cab with the kids and my husband (who is equally obsessed; his retirement dreams include moving to a ski town, getting an on-mountain grooming job and meeting me for first tracks) the first weekend in February.
Spoiler alert: I told myself we were doing the snowcat ride for the kids, but, in the end, I enjoyed it every bit as much as they did.
The tour began in the Balcony House (tip of the day: grab a coffee and could-be-French-it’s-that-good croissant from the Coffee & Tea shop in the building). After signing waivers and meeting our fellow riders, our group of eleven followed our guide, Virginia, to the cat outside.
My boys were immediately enamored with Virginia, who loaded them into the front seat while the rest of us shuffled into the back. After a quick overview of the tour, she climbed in and off we went en route to the Lodge at Sunspot. As we rumbled along, she shared an impressive amount of information.
First, Virginia pointed out animal tracks: snowshoe hare, ermine, fox. Then she told us about water. She explained that the snowpack in the Fraser River Valley provides a significant amount of the Front Range’s drinking water; when the snow melts, the water is piped through the Indian Peaks and into reservoirs in and around Denver. Virginia also recounted Winter Park’s extensive history (passenger trains originally went up and over the Continental Divide before Moffatt Tunnel was built, and skiers just jumped out when the train cruised by the ski area). Her information was riveting, and her delivery engaging.
We stopped halfway up to stretch our legs and give someone else a turn to ride shotgun. Then we continued on. Virginia pointed out the tabletops in the terrain park and explaining the effort that goes into making them, and also showed us the family-friendly Snoasis Lodge, situated near the Olympia Express lift. (When we ski, this is our go-to spot for brown bagging lunch.)
At Sunspot, named by the Ute Indians, the valley’s original settlers, who believed that spot was where the morning sun first hit, we had about thirty minutes to explore before the ride down. Although I’ve been to that lodge countless times on skis, arriving via snowcat gave me a new perspective, and I realized this is the ideal mode of transport to share Winter Park with non-skiers. Not only do they get to take in the entire resort on the way up, the views from the top are stunning. Better yet, the ride down was equally engaging.
That was my experience. When I asked the boys what the best part was, they simply said, “riding it.” I pressed: What part about riding it did they love so much? The answer? All of it. Can’t argue with that.
If you go: Book Scenic Snowcat Tours tours through the Winter Park Adventure Center, which also does features tubing, snowshoe rentals and guided snowshoe tours, ski bike rentals and tours, and ice skating.
Cost: $54 (with reservations made more than 48 hours in advance); $59 (booked within 48 hours.
Children: Cat tours are booked by the seat with no discounts for children. However, children 2 and under that are comfortable riding on a guardians lap for the entire 2 hour tour may ride along at no additional cost.