There is no command for “Stop” when you are being pulled by a team of excited sled dogs running as fast as 25 miles per hour. For most people, this may seem like inconsequential knowledge. But I found out about this right before our two young daughters were to embark on a two-mile-long dog sledding tour in the subfreezing temperatures of Grand County, Colorado on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park.
We were at the dog sled center at Snow Mountain Ranch, one of the hidden gems just 30 minutes from Rocky Mountain National Park’s western entrance. Steve Peterson, head of the ranch’s mushing program, was in the midst of giving his dog sled introduction. The room was packed with seated families who had signed up to do individual dog sled tours. No one seemed alarmed.
I watched Peterson authoritatively hold up an anchor to show how he ⎯ and all mushers ⎯ stop sled dogs, and I immediately relaxed. It took me about one minute to realize that Peterson ⎯ with red, ruddy cheeks, piercing blue eyes, a white beard and hearty laugh ⎯ is probably the closest person to Santa Claus I will ever meet. While Santa is legendary for landing sleigh teams on dangerously steep rooftops in hazardous conditions, Peterson has spent decades as a pastor and a musher, leading sled teams over miles of mountainous terrain in -85 wind chill conditions. An incredibly inspirational speaker, Peterson is exactly the person with whom you want to be out on a dog sled tour.
Dog Sledding, a Lesson for Life
For Peterson, leading dog sled teams is a lesson in how to live your life from good nutrition and fully committing to your goals to the necessity of frequently taking inventory on the contents of your life. His introductory talk reflected the life of a hardy man who has spent years building trusting relationships with dogs to lead him through thousands of miles in the darkness of winter.
“Every player on your team is important, but your lead dogs are the most important,” he told us. “The lead dogs hold the line while you put every other dog on the line. Otherwise the lines can get tangled, leading to injuries and fights. In other words, catastrophe. It’s a great lesson for life. Leaders have to work harder than their followers. They have to set the example.”
Following his talk, we went to the check-in table to get our ride number. We quickly realized nearly everyone else had picked up their numbers before the talk, putting us second-to-last in the dog sledding queue. A little advice: arrive several minutes before 8:30 a.m. for your Saturday reservation rather than five minutes late.
From Campfire to Kids’ Crafts
But we ended up having a lot of fun waiting a couple hours for our turn. By 9:45 am., my husband and I were on our second round of S’mores, warming ourselves by the outside fire pit while our kids toasted our marshmallows and played in the snow nearby. We were glad we were wearing our ski jackets, warm layers, snow pants and snow boots. Without them, we would have spent the entire time in the lodge, missing great conversations around the fire with the dog sled helpers and other families.
The fire pit is a stone’s throw away from the dog sledding track, so we watched as new passengers loaded up before the dogs pulled away, disappearing magically into the forest before reappearing on the snow-covered hills nearby. Nine Alaskan huskies pulled each sled, and every time they stopped to load up a new passenger, they barked and hopped around in place, excited to start the next 2-mile loop. I had always imagined sled dogs as huge husky-wolf-like animals, but in reality sled dogs are smaller and leaner than you’d expect. Despite their size, their coats are warm and they are strong, running 30-40 miles on a good day four-to five days per week. Watching them, you can tell they love every minute spent running on the snow-covered trails.
When we got cold, we headed into the lodge to make complimentary crafts. Our kids made miniature dog sleds out of popsicle sticks and used pipe cleaners as leashes to attach a small plastic dog to their sleds. They also made wooden pendants decorated with husky stamps.
Dashing Through the Snow
When we finally saw our number “20” hanging on the wooden post, we dashed to the starting area to load our two kids onto the wooden sled. As luck would have it, Peterson was their musher, and he spun stories about his dogs as they sped through the fresh fallen snow for the 10-minute ride. Aside from Peterson’s voice, the only sound out there was the rhythmic breathing of nine dogs, working together to carry their sled passengers.
As they slowed to make the last turn before reaching the end of the ride, the first thing our daughters shouted out in unison to us was, “When can we go on a longer tour?”
There are a couple different places that offer dog sledding tours in the Grand County area. Don’t wait until the last minute to make your reservations as dog sled tours are very popular. Book long in advance.
Snow Mountain Ranch
Dog Sled Rides of Winter Park
Not operating winter 2021-2022 season.
Tori Peglar is editor of National Park Trips Media and loved spending the morning at the dog sled center at Snow Mountain Ranch. Based on her kids’ excitement over their dog sled tour, she and her husband are going to sign up for a ride next time.