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Image: Zach Mahone

Film photography may be dead, but Kodak moments are alive and well in the digital realm: they circulate on Facebook and Instagram, animate our e-mailed holiday cards, and fill our hard drives and the smart frames on our walls and mantelpieces. Conveniently, photo ops abound in the Vail Valley, where snow-bright peaks cleaving azure skies create idyllic backdrops. Add in the people you cherish (including yours truly, via the obligatory selfie), faces aglow with holiday warmth (and cheeks rouged with winter chill), and you get a memento guaranteed to outlast a few transitory “likes.” So consider this our holiday gift to you: a guide to the area’s most picturesque wintertime bonding experiences—for fitness buffs, families, foodies, and everyone in between. Plus: six tips from Vail-Beaver Creek photo editor Zach Mahone to help you capture that perfect pic.

FOR ANIMAL LOVERS

Bells on Bobtail

Nothing beats the romance of an open sleigh ride at Bearcat’s Cabin in Edwards, when the only sounds that break the snow-hushed silence of the Squaw Creek Valley are the rhythmic beats of horses’ hooves and jingle bells (and the occasional snort from your four-legged tour guides). Each sleigh seats 14 (there’s also a more intimate, one-horse “couples” sleigh for engagements and other romantic celebrations), and rides end at an early-20th-century homestead now operating as a 35-seat restaurant that blends vintage aesthetics with modern sustenance: a full bar and wine list accompanies the likes of free-range lemon-thyme chicken and gnocchi with truffle cream sauce (for kids, house-made mac ’n’ cheese). $75/adult, $50/child for sleigh ride dinners at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Tue–Sat (nightly during the holidays); $25/person for rides only, 3–5 p.m. Tue–Sat; $150 for private sleigh. 970-376-4647, bearcatstables.com

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Woofing It

Dogs provide the power at Mountain Musher, a dogsledding outfitter that transfers canine energy into human relaxation: bundled into your sled, you feel as cozy as a babe in a gently rocking cradle. Alaskan huskies pull you through the unpeopled aspen glades and snowy fields of Lazy J Ranch, where foxes, elk, and coyotes find refuge in winter. Sip hot cocoa and munch homemade pumpkin bread at the halfway point of the two-hour journey, then howl a thank-you to your hardworking team as they whisk you over the hills. $175/person, two tours daily. 970-653-7877, mountainmusher.com

Walk on the Wild Side

Stop by the Nature Discovery Center (that yurt at the top of the Eagle Bahn gondola) for a naturalist-led snowshoe tour offered daily at 2 p.m. Wildlife experts from the Walking Mountains Science Center fit participants with snowshoes before leading them on rambles into critter country: snowshoe hare, pine marten, grouse, and others leave tracks in the snow that your guide will script into nature’s dramas. Listen for ravens and squirrels, and learn how wildlife not only lives but thrives in the winter wonderland that humans merely visit. Free, offered Dec. 17 through the end of ski season, no reservations required, ages 10 and up. 970-754-4675, vail.com

Hoofing It

For a rowdier evening that pairs sleigh rides with live music, head to 4 Eagle Ranch north of Wolcott. After slurping bowls of steaming-hot steak chili, couples and families climb aboard sleighs pulled by teams of Belgian and Percheron draft horses. Tink holds the reins: the weathered old cowboy specializes in spinning yarns and steering steeds on a 20-minute tour through open meadows bordered by distant mountains. Riders then cast off the sleigh’s blankets for dinner at historic Nelson Cabin (an 1890s sheep barn now decorated with a menagerie of animal heads, including Elvis, a beloved longhorn that once roamed the ranch). Accommodating up to 100 guests, the dining room with a double-sided fireplace serves rib eyes and baby back ribs while cowboy troubadours strum guitars. Dessert is warm fruit cobbler—though most guests opt for a finale of s’mores roasted outdoors at the campfire, where glowing embers compete with the glittering stars. $85/adult, $50/child ages 5–12, $25/child ages 2-4, Mon–Sat. 970-926-3372, 4eagleranch.com

 

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FOR NIGHT OWLS

Sunset Stroll

Strap on snowshoes and stride out beneath the evening’s first stars on a guided tour departing from Beaver Creek’s Nordic Center (located next to the Strawberry Park Express lift). Every Tuesday at 4 p.m., guides distribute snowshoes and headlamps for the easy hour-and-a-half hike (suitable for ages 6 and above). Your reward includes more than dusky mountain vistas: tours conclude with cookies and hot cocoa. Free, offered Dec. 16–March 31, reservations advised. 970-754-5313

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Light the Way

Most torchlight ski-downs are open only to resort employees, but Beaver Creek’s Thursday Night Lights is more democratic than most: anyone can join the weekly procession (call for weekly start times), provided they’re intermediate skiers or snowboarders (Level 5 or above). Register at at the Children’s Ski & Snowboard School, then ride to the top of the Buckaroo gondola, where glow sticks are distributed for the synchronized descent. Patrollers lead the parade down the Haymeadow run, and after the tail of the glow-worm dissolves into the base area, fireworks explode in the heavens above. Thursdays, Dec. 18–March 26, participants must have their own ski or snowboard gear. 970-754-4636

Silent Night

After the lifts stop running, check your skis and ride Lionshead’s Eagle Bahn gondola to the Nature Discovery Center, where, fitted with snowshoes, you’ll venture forth into the night for an hourlong exploration of the world at 10,300 feet. Learn about Vail Mountain’s nocturnal residents, spot winter constellations, and submit your ears to the exotic sound of silence. Free, offered Tue–Sat at 5:30 p.m., ages 10 and up. 970-754-4675, vail.com

Gimme Some Skins

After the lifts stop running, head to Alpine Quest Sports in Lionshead and avail yourself of the 24-hour AT ski rental package (backcountry skis, boots, and climbing skins), and, if the moon isn’t full, invest in a headlamp. After acquainting yourself with Vail Mountain’s uphill policy (vail.com/mountain/mountain-safety), call the trails hotline (970-754-3049) to check which runs will be closed for grooming, then click into your skis and free-heel to the summit, humming “Silent Night” under a starry sky on your own private mountain. $65.
616 W Lionshead Circle, 970-476-7999, alpinequestsports.com

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FOR WANNABE VICTORIANS

Tea Time

One lump or two? An array of sweet choices awaits moms and daughters (and liberated dads and sons) at the Sonnenalp Resort’s High Tea. Held in the quaint yet cozy King’s Club, this traditional tea service pairs steaming cups of England’s finest with buttery scones, fruit tartlets, shaved meats, and finger sandwiches. An event so refined it makes après nachos and beer seem downright barbarian. 3–5 p.m. on select late December dates. 970-476-5656, sonnenalp.com

Go Figure

Leave indoor arenas to the sequined pros: only open-air ice rinks offer old-fashioned charm, and the Vail Valley gives skaters a choice of four venues. Beaver Creek Ice Rink (970-845-0438, beavercreek.com) occupies the heart of the pedestrian village, which surrounds the oval with vintage lampposts, fire pits, and trees shimmering with lights. Afterward, retire to Toscanini (located rinkside, 970-754-5590, toscanini
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) for a plate of gorgonzola-stuffed ravioli and a warming glass of vino. The Solaris rink (970-479-7132, vail.com) in Vail Village is also surrounded by shops, most notably Yeti’s Grind (970-476-1515, yetisgrind.com). Serving rich locally roasted coffee, even richer hot cocoa, local beer, and a respectable selection of wine—plus an array of artful cupcakes and hot-from-the-oven cinnamon rolls—Yeti’s provides an ideal post-skate warm-up or a convenient hideout for mom and dad (who can sip adult beverages while watching the kids from Yeti’s outdoor tables). The Alderhof Ice Rink at Lionshead (970-476-9090, vail.com) is surrounded by the Arrabelle’s turrets, making impressionable young Bambi-legged skaters feel like they’re gliding (and slip-sliding) through a scene out of Frozen. Or venture off the tourist circuit to Avon’s Harry A. Nottingham Park (970-748-4060, avon.org). Although a plan for a permanent outdoor rink has been proposed for the Avon Recreation Center parking lot, this season the town will reprise a makeshift outdoor ice rink on the park lawn across the street that, groomed nightly, offers views of Beaver Creek and Bachelor Gulch. Benches around the adjacent fire pit offer a convenient spot for thawing numb noses (BYO s’mores fixings). Afterward, sip a hot cocoa or cider (for sale at the rink) or go tropical with a swim along the Lazy River at the Rec Center’s indoor pool. Skate rentals are available at all rinks; the Beaver Creek rink will be closed from late January through mid-February.

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FOR CUDDLEBUGS

Movie Night

If you’re looking for an alternative to stargazing in the below-freezing outdoors, catch a movie at Solaris and you may catch a glimpse of a certain local celebrity who loves the anonymity of a dark theater: when in town, ski racing sensation Mikaela Shiffrin makes a habit of hiding out at the CinéBistro at Solaris, which screens new releases and serves gourmet grub. “Get the Wagyu beef sliders and those crispy fries!” suggests Shiffrin. “Oh, those fries!” $16.50/adult, $14/child ($12 and $9 for Eagle County residents), entrees $16–$27. 970-476-3344, cobbcinebistro.com/solaris

Playing with Fire

If an open fire creates a mesmerizing ambience on a summer campout, on a frigid winter eve it’s sheer sorcery. Which is why you should forgo the stuffy après lounge scene and seek out one or more of these favorite fire pits. At Cucina (located within the Lodge at Vail; 970-754-7872, lodgeatvail.rockresorts.com), complimentary hot cocoa and cider amplify the warmth of the flames, and live music attracts a diverse crowd of empty-nesters, twentysomethings, and professionals with young kids. Of all the decadent amenities offered at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch (970-748-6200, ritzcarlton.com) the fire pit tops the list. A ceremonial fire-lighting every day at 3 p.m. signals the start of après-ski, when guests devour free, fresh-baked cookies, stock up on s’mores kits (at Espresso 16 grab-and-go coffee shop), and sip cocktails and Valrhona cocoa at Ash, where, beyond the crackling log fire, the setting sun silhouettes the surrounding mountains with rosy light. On its 8100 deck, the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek (970-949-1234, beavercreek.hyatt.com) also offers (complimentary) s’mores filled with its house-made silver-sugar-dusted marshmallows (celebrating the Park Hyatt’s 25th anniversary); long fire pits at the base of the ski hill invite crowds to roast and toast. (Cocktails are also served on the patio.) 

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FOR ADVENTURERS

Up, Up, and Away

Hot air ballooning is the next-best reason to wake with the sun (the best, of course, being a powder day) on a cold winter morning. Flights with Camelot Balloons begin shortly after dawn, but no snooze-button sleep extension is better than the hawk’s-eye view from the basket. A sea of snowy peaks surrounds you, from the pyramidal majesty of the Maroon Bells near Aspen to the jagged Gore Range north of Vail. Herds of elk dot the valleys. And the rarefied air is surprisingly warm—from 10 to 30 degrees balmier than ground temperatures—thanks to inversions that trap cold air in the valleys. Plus, wind chill is never a factor, since balloons float with (never against) the currents. $295/adult, $225/child ages 6–12. 970-328-2290, camelotballoons.com

Outta Bounds

Something remarkable happens when you leave the lift lines and powder-hungry first-tracks seekers behind: you stop hurrying. Backcountry and Nordic skiing let you explore uncrowded terrain where your tracks may be not just the first, but often the only tracks you’ll see. Vail Mountain’s backcountry guides can introduce you to such secret spots. The Backcountry Ski Tour ($175/person, 9 a.m.–3 p.m.; 970-476-7749, vailbackcountrytours.com) familiarizes skiers with climbing skins, avalanche safety, and backcountry protocols as they plunder powder fields near Tennessee Pass and other backyard haunts. Nordic tours ($107/person, 10 a.m.–1:30 p.m. daily; 970-754-3200, vail.com) let those on skinny skis enjoy spectacular mountain scenery while logging a light aerobic workout. Snowshoe Wilderness Tours ($107/person, 10 a.m.–12:30 p.m. daily; 970-754-3200; vail.com) follow East Vail trails through forests where ermine, foxes, and moose are sometimes spotted. 

Outta Bounds, In Style

For those seeking first tracks in the backcountry without the requisite uphill slog, Vail Powder Guides ($550 per seat, $6,000 to rent the entire 12-seat vehicle; includes powder skis or snowboard, safety gear, and lunch at a backcountry yurt) offers guided access to 3,500 acres of open bowls, treed glades, and untrammeled steeps around the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area via a heated Pisten Bully snowcatSeason begins Dec. 20, conditions permitting. 719-486-6266, vailpowderguides.com

(Sugar) Plumb Crazy

It may look like a candy-covered mountain, but the multicolored hand- and footholds dotting the indoor climbing wall at The Vail Athletic Club (within Vail Mountain Lodge, 970-476-7960, vailathleticclub.com) deliver plenty of spice. Routes challenge experts as well as newbies, who sharpen their skills by spidering up vertical indoor cliffs and defying gravity across horizontal underhangs. Even kids can discover a taste for upward mobility during family climbing sessions (Sundays from 3 to 5 p.m., $15) that invite munchkins onto the wall for problem-solving lessons that guarantee more fun than any math class. Or book an ice climbing session on a local frozen waterfall with Apex Mountain School (from $178/person, for groups of five; 970-949-9111, apexmountainschool.com). Offered  daily in East Vail, these daylong tours teach participants how to scale 30- to 100-foot-high curtains of vertical ice. Crampons, ice axes, and all other technical necessities (other than courage) are provided. 

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