Around Steamboat Springs, Colo., ranchers call it a three-wire winter when the snow piles up to the top wire of the fence lines. Miles away from town, on old U.S. 40, little picket signs herald not the Steamboat ski slopes but a venerable boot shop, F.M. Light, on the main drag. On mild days, ski director Billy Kidd and his staff ski Mount Werner in white stetsons.

Yep, this was cowboy country long before it became one of the West's top downhill ski areas, and in its heart Steamboat Springs is still a laid-back little ranch town. But from November to April, skiing is what makes Steamboat jump, and skiing is why I showed up last February with my wife and 5-year-old daughter, three dudes in serious need of either remedial or beginning work on the slopes.

Steamboat, about a three-hour drive from Denver in north central Colorado, is best known for its downhill scene, but the Elk River valley north of town is a keen cross-country venue. We decided to get our ski legs and adjust to the mile-plus elevation by holing up for a few days at a ranch, Vista Verde, that specializes in the (more or less) horizontal sport, before moving on to Steamboat to test the vertical.

Vista Verde, 25 miles from Steamboat, is one of a growing number of guest ranches that is seeking to extend its season beyond the trail rides and cookouts of summer to an all-winter ski touring regimen. A working ranch that keeps 100 head of cattle in the summer, Vista Verde manages a neat balancing act. It clings to its rustic, log-sided personality while offering yupscale diversions like interesting food and spa exercise.

When we arrived, snow was piled in billowing drifts beside the string of seven cabins spread out around the main log lodge. Somehow the muffled stillness made the ranch, surrounded by huge tracts of national wilderness, seem all the more removed and inviting.

Frank and Winton Brophy, the VV owners, are latter-day pioneers (I'd hesitate to call them dropouts) who left behind the corporate world of suburban Westchester County, N.Y., in the early '70s to run a 600-acre horse ranch. A few years ago they decided to make the endless and difficult snows work for them. The scheme is right, and it turns out to be double-edged: You embrace the winter, ski happily into its clenched teeth, and then you kick off your boots, slam the door on the elements and luxuriate in toasty, well-upholstered comfort.

Summer on a guest ranch presents a fuller menu than winter, what with riding, fly-fishing, hiking, mountain biking, but the Brophys can help fill up a February day. There are sledding and tubing down a bunny hill beside the lodge, daily sleigh rides around the snowy paddock to drop bales of hay for the 50-odd horses, rabbit and chicken feeding back at the barn, ice fishing and dog-sledding nearby, and a log-sided spa -- with whirlpool, exercise machines and sauna -- that looks across a white hayfield to the piney wilderness. Cross-country skiing, though, is the main event, and any guest, 5 to 75, would be a fool not to try it.

Vista Verde has a full-time ski director who gives lessons and leads outings and generally preaches the beauty of the skinny ski. Last winter it was Steve Appenzeller, on loan from a ranch near Kremmling, 50 miles or so to the southeast of Steamboat. We were indebted, Pam and I, to this patient and strapping young man for leading our daughter, Kate, around and around the mile-long practice tracks on the ranch hayfield. This freed us to stride away into the deep forests that make up the two main skiing spheres, East Side and West Side.

The virtues of cross-country skiing have been well documented, and indeed it's a sublime feeling to cruise through the silent woods, alone with the sounds of birdsong and falling lumps of snow, all the while knowing you're behaving aerobically and making room for the next meal. It is not however as easy as it's made out to be. As elementary as walking? Not when you confront a sudden dip or a hill on those edgeless skis. Where are the brakes, you gasp, before plowing into a fluffy drift.

One day all the guests made a gentle, mile-long run to a deserted cabin for a picnic lunch. Kate went the easy way, hitching a ride with the cooks on a snowmobile. The sun was bright and warm and we all hunkered down in a snowy dugout beside the cabin and ate chef Nancy Appenzeller's nutritious chili.

At Vista Verde you eat family-style at shiny plank tables in the main lodge. One of our meals was so notable -- a salad of spinach, kiwi and macadamia nuts in a raspberry vinaigrette, followed by shrimp Dijon with sugar snap peas and fettuccine -- that at least three diners started jotting down recipes and ingredients.

That night, just as we were finishing up our Black Forest Cake, an hombre dressed in black came through the door. He was the night's entertainment, a singing cowboy named John Main. Here was a perfect confluence of Steamboat's skiing and ranching worlds.

Another day we skied at the Home, a cross-country ranch just down the road that is a bit more polished than Vista Verde in its accommodations, with a staff of ski instructors, a full range of rental equipment and a wide network of trails.

Finally, we were ready for a week of downhill fever at Steamboat Springs.

The Steamboat Ski Area on Mt. Werner, a mile from town, is a vast and varied ski mountain that competes with the stylish Vail and Aspen for the ambitious skier. But we could tell immediately that this is still a friendly, easygoing place favored by people who are as likely -- well, almost as likely -- to ski in jeans as in day-glo designer overalls. This was good news for us: When you're a little shaky on skis, the last thing you want to meet is a lot of chic-looking, taut-jawed people who know they ski like angels.

I'd wondered if I could get the kinks out with a few private lessons, but everyone I consulted said group lessons were the answer. It sounded a little too much like going back to school, but I bit the bullet and on Monday morning we all showed up for class, Pam and I in a beginning Ski Week, Kate enrolled in the Kiddie Corral, a reputable learn-to-ski program for children 3 1/2 to 6.

Adult Ski-Week groups are ranked from one to five. Ones are newcomers who start out on level ground learning how to fall down and get up. We decided we were twos and joined a short line, all of us nervous and chatty and full of inflated humor. Our instructor, Vic Steiner, led us directly up the Preview chairlift to the top of the beginner's slope for a dose of snowplowing -- or wedging, as it's called nowadays. We pointed our skis together like upside-down V's and followed Vic down the slope in a series of slalom turns.

Steiner, a wry, bushy-mustachioed Chicagoan, was not the image of the early-twenties, hey-dude ski instructor. Short and 52, this ex-doctor had sold his medical practice in Illinois, sent his grown children into the world, bought a ranch with his wife near Steamboat and taken the job he'd always wanted: teaching klutzes like us to stand up on skis, earning $5.80 an hour.

By the end of the first lesson, it was clear that two hours a day with Vic Steiner and my four classmates was the right choice. There was not only a hefty savings, $110 for a Ski Week vs. $50 an hour for private lessons, but also the benefit of the prodding and encouraging that neophytes can supply each other. Little did I expect that two of the four would be prodding me with English accents. One was a 50-or-so Hampshire businesswoman who had come to Steamboat with her grown daughter, an excellent skier; the other was a 24-year-old beautician from Newcastle with a thick geordie accent and a natural way with skis. These Brits had been steered to Colorado, like many of their countrymen, by an unsnowy winter in the Alps.

Each day, over the protests of some who begged moderation, Vic took us down tougher runs, advancing us a half and sometimes a full number toward the charmed five. We skied mostly on the beginning, green-designated runs, venturing onto an occasional intermediate blue. Vic kept us off the scary black-labeled advanced slopes, but on Wednesday, as a snowstorm suddenly swept up, he had to lead us down a steep intermediate hill that, under the conditions, he dubbed "a blackish blue." We fought the blinding snow all the way to the base, Vic riding shotgun, urging us on. Later he told us, not entirely in jest, that survival -- our survival -- had persuaded him to shoo us down the steep slope.

Even as we progressed through the week from the wedge to parallel turns, I doubted my progress, but in a giddy moment on Thursday Vic pronounced me a No. 4 -- "an open-stance parallel skier." Pam graded out to 3 1/2. Denise, the hell-for-leather beautician, had left us all behind. My two other classmates -- the Hampshire businesswoman and a Michigan woman -- found the going too hairy and formed a mini-clinic to set their own pace.

As for Kate, she spent the first few days with her little classmates lining up and taking short, gliding runs at the bottom of the mountain. Kids ski all week without poles. It's said to teach balance, keep them from impaling themselves or each other. On Thursday afternoon when we went to collect her at the Kiddie Corral, Kate was nowhere in sight. "She must be up on the mountain," an instructor told us. "They all took the gondola up." My little snow bunny already skiing down Why Not, a three-mile-long run? Sure enough, a few minutes later Kate emerged out of the whiteness, her head down, doing a careful wedge.

I can't give the Kiddie Corral total credit for turning my 5-year-old into a downhill racer, though it clearly knows how to keep as many as 250 children (and another 70 in day-care) busy all day. Much of what Kate picked up came from after-school practice, repeated trips down the beginner slope with a friend of mine, an excellent skier, who hung onto her from behind until she got the hang of it.

We all spent so much time on the mountain that we couldn't begin to try out all the other activities Steamboat touts: cross-country skiing on a well-run course laid across the golf course, dog-sled rides, ice skating with the locals at Howelsen Hill rink, hot-air ballooning. We did squeeze in some hours on the main drag, with its variety of saloons and restaurants and many sport and western shops.

I admit there were mornings -- snowy, cold mornings (said to be a rarity at Steamboat) -- when we didn't want to budge from our condo. Is it really worth it, you ask yourself, putting on all this gear to throw yourself at the freezing mountainside. Well, it is. Hurtling down a slope gets the blood pumping like no other sport, cross-country included.

Condo life can be an impersonal and unfulfilling prospect, but at Timber Run, a cluster of dark-wood buildings down the road from the base, we found ourselves in a friendly little colony that always had a shuttle bus waiting to leave for the slopes or town. In the snow-heaped inner courtyard, people played at all hours in the heated pool and a pair of whirlpool tubs.

Some nights, resisting the broad range of restaurants around Steamboat, we stayed home and cooked dinner. On Valentine's Day we ate at an Italian place in Ski Times Square near the base, and although the food was good, it wasn't the highlight. We looked up from dessert, through a broad window, to see a torchlight procession winding its way down the mountain. It was a troupe of Steamboat ski instructors -- Vic Steiner among them -- inching toward the bottom in the shape of an arrow-pierced heart.

Another night, nestled under blankets, we took the gondola up to a barbecue dinner at the BK (for Billy Kidd) Corral. The BK Corral is a relaxed affair, with couples and families, young folks and old, tying into ribs and chicken, everyone mixing on the dance floor while Randy and the Redheads, a country and western foursome, play their bandannas off.

Cowboys and skiers, skiers and cowboys: It's pure Steamboat Springs. David Butwin is a writer living in Leonia, N.J.

GETTING THERE: To get to Steamboat, you can fly into Denver and drive up (it's three hours west on I-70 to Route 9 north, then west on Route 40), take a bus from the airport or catch a commuter flight.

Continental flies from Washington Dulles nonstop to Denver and then on to a commuter airport five miles from the slopes for $409 round trip, with restrictions; fares as low as $373 round trip are available between Dec. 15 and April 7; American flies from Washington National to Denver for $363 round trip or to Hayden, Colo. (22 miles west of Steamboat) via Chicago for $541 round trip (with fares as low as $386 between Jan. 3 and Feb. 1). .

There also is daily express bus service from Denver's Stapleton Airport to Steamboat for $66 round trip ($78 on Saturday and Sunday).

WHEN TO GO: Mt. Werner's many slopes and lifts are open from November to April.

WHERE TO STAY: Unless you find the rare one-bedroom condo, it makes economic sense for couples to double or triple up. Nightly rates at the deluxe Bear Claw or Chateau Chamonix, both built on the slopes with ski-in/ski-out convenience, range from $215 to $520 for a two-bedroom, depending on the season. A two-bedroom at the more economical Timber Run is $$120 to $395 a night. A double at the Sheraton Steamboat, a short stroll from the lift lines, is $79 to $159 in low season and $229 to $289 in high season. For reservations and information on ski week packages, discounted air fares and other arrangements at Steamboat, call 800-525-2628.

Daily rates at Vista Verde ranch are $100 per person including meals ($70 without). Ski gear can be rented in the nearby hamlet of Clark. For more information: Box 465, Steamboat Springs, Colo. 80477, 303-879-3858.

At the Home Ranch (303-879-1780), daily rates begin at $275 for two, including meals, ski gear and lessons. You also can stay for less across the road at the more rustic Glen Eden Resort (303-879-3907), a series of condo cabins managed by the Home, where doubles are $85 to $110, depending on the season; each extra person in the room is $20, and children stay free. Address for both the Home and Glen Eden: Box 822, Clark, Colo. 80428.