My husband and I had hiked Stowe’s Mount Mansfield at least a half-dozen times before we decided, last spring, to hire a guide to take us up during a long weekend’s stay at The Lodge at Spruce Peak. It wasn’t that we needed to know how, or even where, to walk, of course. We’d been hiking together throughout New England and beyond since we met, and Bob prides himself on being great with a map. But after a long year-plus of restricted living that included limiting our travel to places we could drive to and too-few interactions with people outside of our household, there was something undeniably appealing about the potential of seeing something new—or, even, seeing something we’d seen plenty of times before, but through someone else’s eyes.
The day turned out even better than we expected: Guide Dylan Griffin took Bob and I through a section of the Long Trail we’d never even seen on a map, and along the way pointed out flora and fauna we hadn’t noticed before. The hotel had set up a picnic lunch at the top, where we enjoyed giant sandwiches and local craft beer along with our views—a far more luxurious trail lunch than our usual squished Larabars and water. It was exactly the kind of mini-adventure we’d been after.
Unreliable winter conditions and an uptick in domestic travel over the last few years have resulted in an off-season boom for ski resorts across the country. In Breckenridge, Colorado, off-season visits have gotten so popular that Gravity Haus, the town’s popular hotel and social club, expanded the formerly members-only upscale gear rental club Haus Quiver to accommodate visiting guests coming to explore some of the Rockies’ most glorious months, where the winterscapes shift to include (thawed) alpine lakes and fields of wildflowers. In addition to hiking, biking and paddle boarding—guided or on your own—there’s fly fishing, gemstone panning (keep what you find!) and—my unexpected favorite, on a recent visit—summer dog sledding, a two-mile circuit through the scenic Swan River Valley that helps keep the dogs in shape for the winter season. Last summer, the resort launched Epic Discovery, a blitz of all-level activities for families, plus on-mountain dining. In my experience at least, that bottle of wine you order at lunch will be a far safer bet when you’re riding the lift, not your skis, back down.
In the past, many people with experience in outdoor adventure may have been inclined to forgo a guide in favor of DIY exploration. But there’s no doubt that the right guide can enhance your experience in myriad ways, arranging a 15-minute jaunt or a full-day adventure and tailoring it on the fly in response to how you’re doing or what you are capable of. Breckenridge is also home to some of the country’s best whitewater rafting down the Blue River and, just slightly farther afield, the Arkansas River, which passes through the iconic Browns Canyon National Monument. On my first-ever rafting trip, our guide gave me the encouragement and confidence I needed to push myself just a bit outside of my comfort zone—paddling along instead of simply sitting and holding on for dear life, as I was inclined to do. I suspect I had a much better time because of it.
“When you hire a guide, you are getting more than a robot that can take you up pitches and mountains,” says Cody Bradford, a rock climbing guide who leads trips in Las Vegas, Joshua Tree National Park, Moab and western North Carolina, among others, largely through the travel app 57hours. “You are hiring someone who has thought through the ‘whys’ of techniques and mountain movement, someone who uses their years’ worth of technical abilities to give you an intimate learning experience. Hiring a guide is also a way to enter an unknown area and only have to think about the climbing or hiking at hand. This completely frees you up to focus on whatever skill you have come to develop or experience you have come to have.”
In Stowe, The Lodge has increased guided services over the last few seasons in response to high guest demand. On-mountain, there’s now full- and half-day spring, summer, and fall offerings for hiking, mountain biking and climbing at a variety of experience levels, as well as kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding. You can hike, bike or float in pursuit of food—maple creemees, local craft cider—or wildlife, like otters, deer and the occasional moose. This season, until the last snow melts (which can be as late as June), The Lodge is introducing the Sugar on Snow tour, a moderate hike along the pretty Mill Trail that ends with the local tradition of “sugar on snow,” drizzling hot maple syrup over packed snow to create a taffy-like candy.
Recently, Bob and I put our good guide luck to the test in Snowmass, part of the Aspen/Snowmass complex, nine miles from Aspen proper. While Aspen may still be best considered for its snow-season debauchery, it is, in fact, one of the most well-rounded all-season destinations for both diehard outdoor enthusiasts and those who adventure mainly for the celebratory cocktail or three after. From our home base at Limelight Snowmass, we explored just a small part of the area’s 2.8 million acres of wilderness, including an epic climb over the Elk Mountains (also available to see by hot air balloon—next time, we decided), and a three-hour guided mountain bike ride in and out of aspen groves. Later, we found the après scene as festive as it always is during ski season, and just as satisfying. We might not have spent the day braving the elements in quite the same way we had on previous winter visits, but we’d had more than a day’s worth of adventure all the same.