BY KATHLEEN STOEHR
Colorado dude ranch offers truly memorable stay
Picture a quiet September morning; quiet, but in some way … charged. I am standing alone on a dirt road, hands in my pockets to keep them warm. My breath puffs out in front of me, but I know that as soon as the sun peeks over the faraway hills, the day will warm up measurably.
My attention is drawn to a little black dog running toward me on the road, tongue lolling, ears pricked. He has a look about him: some may call it trouble; others might say he’s just very alert and aware.
It’s then that a nicker punctures the stillness. I shift my position and move off the road, behind the short fence.
A horse, maybe two, crests at the bend in the road. Before I can exhale, three more horses appear. The little black dog runs back toward them, then forward, then back again. I understand now — he’s herding.
I feel the ground begin to tremble slightly as the road erupts in horses of all colors and sizes, manes and tails flying. There must be at least 70 of them. They trot past me, up the road, and into a nearby corral, and there they greet each other and nuzzle as the ranch hands ready them for their day.
I feel so fortunate to be able to witness this spectacle that long after the dust on the road has settled, I stand and absorb the feeling that I just lived a dream. I’m in Colorado at a ranch called Vista Verde, and I’m happier than I’ve been in a very long time.
Riding at the ranch
My husband and I had arrived at Vista Verde a few days prior not really knowing what to expect, save for what the ranch’s website touted. We were both eager to ride horses in the way they are meant to be ridden — not those awful “nose to tail” rides, but honest to goodness trot, cantor, and gallop-style rides. Vista Verde promised we’d have our own horses for the length of the stay and rides would be more akin to “bushwacking” (as in, off trail). Sold.
At the entrance a young woman on horseback, clad in dusty jeans, plaid shirt, and well-loved hat, waved to my husband and I. We’d later learn that was Jo, one of the ranch hands, an expert horsewoman. This was just the first of many friendly greetings we would receive during the stay.
Within an hour of arrival, I had my horse selected for me (“Chief” — who I discovered had a penchant for frequent food trolling), and a glass of wine placed in my hand. Our bags were sent to our cabin (its name: Big Agnes, after a nearby mountain range) and then we were seated at dinner, a robust meal prepared by the talented Chef Matt. And it was during this whirlwind that we were asked, “So, what would you like to do tomorrow?” Guests buzzed amongst one another at dinner, making acquaintance and talking about their chosen itineraries.
For the next few days, my life (and stomach) was full. While there was always horseback riding available, from individually guided rides to various riding clinics, there was also a plethora of other activities to explore. Each ran about two or so hours long, providing ample time to prep for the next gourmet meal, sometimes served al fresco on a beautiful patio overlooking a small trout pond; sometimes served in the expansive dining room. If you weren’t hungry enough for a full meal, the fridge in your cabin was stocked with beer, wine, juices, and water; and a nearby basket harbored fruit, trail mix, locally produced candies, and chips.
So I was assigned Chief, the “grass eater.” In a testament to the pull of this place, one of the guests riding with me that first day cooed, “Aw, you got Chief? I rode Chief last year when I was here. He’s such a sweetheart! Just yank up on the reins if he eats too much.” Yes, she was a return guest who chose this particular week, as it was the last week of cattle round up. Guests begin their stay by brushing up (or learning) riding skills and also training in cowmanship, culminating in a two day round up in which the outlying area is bushwhacked for the last few straggling bovines needing to be brought into the winter pasture.
In just two days, I was able to “relearn” all of my old skills as a rider, and some new skills too. We formed and named teams (such as the “Four Riders of the Cow-pocalypse”), and earned points for the ease in which we were able to intimidate cows through a small area set up with orange cones. Great fun.
For those who love the ranch experience but didn’t have much interest in riding, there were vast possibilities for entertainment. Mountain biking, river rafting, a hot air balloon ride, a gourmet cooking class, yoga — the good folks at this ranch were poised to ensure a memorable time was had by all. One fellow chose to forego an afternoon of activity and sat down by the trout pond with his cigar and a book. A mother/daughter team asked for a ride into Steamboat Springs for a day of shopping.
Happy hour with the horses? Check. Fly fishing? Yes, I actually caught two trout from a lovely stream about 15 minutes away from the ranch, within the Routt National Forest. Cattle wrangling? I am now an expert. (Okay, well, maybe not an expert but you know what? Not too many people can say they have done it!) I also participated in a wine tasting; a photography tour; rode Chief to an early morning breakfast set around a campfire; listened to a toe-tapping cowboy band; attended a barn dance; and sat in a hot tub on a star-filled night, contemplating the beauty of silence, lush pine forests, and stars. And I ate more than I ever should, but simply couldn’t say no.
At five o’clock in the evening, “happy hour with the horses” commences. With full wine glasses or bottles of beer, guests were allowed access to the pasture to walk among the gentle beauties, ply them with apples, and learn from their wranglers about herd dynamics. It’s a casual, easy affair should you choose to do it.
I can’t say this was an inexpensive trip. But with so many vacations where one might gamble on the quality of campsites, hotels, and restaurants; where you cook when you’d rather be served; where you scrimp even as you are spending; where you spend more time in your car than on a hike, or find yourself paying for an unsatisfying trail ride just so that you can have a horseback experience … and then you can have an vacation like this? It means everything. You total up your expenses from one; you total up your expenses from another and you think — wow. The difference isn’t that much compared to the value. An all-inclusive experience suddenly sounds less like indulgence and more like what a true, relaxing getaway should be. I highly recommend you do it.
Getting there:Vista Verde Ranch is in a far-reaching area of Colorado, near Steamboat Springs. You can fly into Denver and drive about four hours across the state. It’s a lovely drive on easy roads through mountains and high plains. You can also choose to fly into Steamboat/Hayden and the ranch will pick you up at the airport and bring you to the ranch. This option is the best in the winter, when the roads from Denver can be snowy, depending upon the day.
Accommodations: The cabins and lodge rooms are authentic log structures, in keeping with the northwest Colorado locale. But rustic stops at the front door. Modern, elegantly furnished and spacious living quarters await, along with spa robes and your own outdoor hot tub.
Meals: All inclusive, the meals bring the gap between ranch-y and fancy, casual and also elegant — but always, always delicious.
Adventures: The hallmark of a stay is the diversity of activities offered. As a guest, you choose from myriad activities offered each day. Whether you want to try it all, or immerse yourself in one program, the depth is there and the options abound. With such diverse offerings, you could easily call this an adventure ranch vacation instead of a dude ranch. And with a one-to-one staff to guest ratio, the program is quite flexible. Visit Vistaverde.com for more information.