Way Out West | AspenTimes.com

Way Out West

Wranger Gary Broome waits for guests to load onto the horse-drawn sleigh for a ride around the Maroon Bells Lodge property. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox

The Maroon Bells Lodge may be just a short drive from downtown Aspen, but in many ways it’s a world away.”It’s an experience you can’t get anywhere else,” explains general manager Eva Pekkala. “It goes so far beyond just going to a restaurant for dinner.”

Indeed, the Maroon Bells Lodge’s “Western Dinner Dance” – open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays in winter, Saturdays in summer – is no ordinary night out. From the food and fixings to the music and merriment, the lodge serves up serious cowboy fun.

“It’s really, really fun, relaxing and genuine … a real Rocky Mountain, old West experience,” she says.Having spent a few evenings at the lodge in both summer and winter, I’d have to agree. My husband and kids feel the same way. In fact, my 5-year-old daughter could hardly sit still as we snaked our way up Maroon Creek Road to the ranch one recent winter night; when it was time to leave, my 2-year-old son pitched a temper tantrum for the record books.

Located at the T-Lazy 7 Ranch, a few miles up Maroon Creek Road from Aspen Highlands, the lodge is run by Dan MacEachen, a longtime local restaurateur and the owner of Krabloonik (The ranch itself is owned, and has been for decades, by the Deane family, which still oversees the snowmobile tours.). It’s open for both public and private events – “we’re probably the pre-eminent wedding rehearsal dinner location,” notes Pekkala.In winter, Dinner Dance evenings begin with a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the surrounding wilderness led by either Dan and Dolly, Dick and Harry, or King and Price; in summer, these Belgian and Percheron draft horses take guests on a hay-wagon ride. At both, kids (of all ages) are encouraged to sit up front, ask questions and even pet the horses.It’s followed up by a “grill-your-own-steak” buffet dinner inside the rustic, yet refined lodge – which is designed for entertaining rather than overnight guests. (In summer, the feast features hickory smoked ribs and chicken served at the outdoor “chuckwagon grounds” just across the street.) A full bar, with a wine list featuring Woody Creek Cellars selections, makes it adult-friendly; plenty of sweet treats make it kid-friendly.

To end the night – and to make it truly distinctive – local band Rodeo Cool plays live country music. Plus, lead singer Ethel Lossing not only belts out the tunes, she offers dance lessons: cotton-eyed Joe, electric slide, the old cowpoke … you name it.I thought the dancing was good, old-fashioned fun. My husband, a serious non-dancer, wasn’t quite as thrilled. Either way, there’s nothing funnier than seeing a bunch of cowboy-wannabes trying to two-step their way around the dance floor, or watching your toddler try to follow the lead of the boot-stomping Lossing as she does an air lasso (think air guitar, cowboy-style).”There used to be supper clubs – where you had dinner, danced … the whole experience,” explains Pekkala. “Those are few and far between nowadays. I think of this as something like that, but with a Western twist.

“And, of course, it’s still up to Aspen standards,” adds Pekkala, noting that Krabloonik head chef Ed Schmidt creates the menu for all lodge events.The lodge’s offerings aren’t limited to parties, however. Taking over trail ride operations from the Deane family in 2003, Maroon Bells Outfitters also offers guided horseback tours within the White River National Forest in summer.

There is a one-hour breakfast ride – perfect for people unaccustomed to long hours on horseback; lunch rides, with gourmet meals served up at a “base camp” near the Maroon Bells; half- and full-day tours; and overnight pack trips.”These are the finest trail rides in the Aspen area as they go right toward the Maroon Bells,” says Pekkala.In fall, the outfitting company leads hunting trips; fly fishing is also available.

“Aspen has so much to offer, and I think what we add to that mix is a truly unique, cool, one-of-a-kind experience,” concludes Pekkala. I guess I’ll have to join in on a few other Maroon Bells Lodge & Outfitters excursions before I can agree on all fronts. But from the sound of it, and the fun we’ve had at the lodge, I’m guessing Pekkala’s right.Jeanne McGovern’s email address is jmcgovern@aspentimes.com

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