Back at the Ranch

Six Western guest ranches to see.

May 2012

5280.com Exclusive: Images from May's Back at the Ranch.

Take authentic ranch living, add upscale accommodations, chef-prepared cuisine, and countless outdoor activities and adventures, and you’ve got the makings of a Western guest ranch. Escape to one of these six dreamy destinations for a taste of the Old West—and the good life.

4UR Ranch

Creede, Colorado

If you’ve never wound your way through the beauty of the Rio Grande National Forest to the century-old 4UR Ranch, you’ve let one of Colorado’s last perfect places escape you. Tucked into a slender valley between palisades and the Rio Grande River, the ranch’s meadows, ponds, pastures, roving fences, and meandering creek melt into the well-manicured grounds that encircle the main lodge and surrounding guest cabins. It’s here, in the heart of the ranch, that visitors can feel the pulse of the daily routine: ranch cats meowing at dawn, children up early for the kids’ program, footsteps on the porch delivering morning coffee, voices humming with excitement about the upcoming day of fishing, the ringing of the breakfast, lunch, and dinner bells, splashing in the outdoor pool, and the hoof falls of horses in the late-afternoon sun.

The 3,000-acre ranch has been in the Leavell family for more than four decades, but Pete and Lindsey Leavell are today’s stewards. They live on the grounds during the summer, greeting guests with hugs and having a glass of wine in the lodge’s small bar in the evenings. Gregarious and lovably quirky, the husband-and-wife team—along with longtime ranch managers, a trained chef, the head wrangler, and other affable staff—has created an upscale summer camp atmosphere that caters mostly to families from early June through the end of September each year. While the kids are horseback riding, exploring nature, and playing games, the adults can enjoy their own vacation. It’s a setup that has generations of families coming back year after year.

The weeklong, all-inclusive retreat begins in earnest on a Sunday morning and spills over six full days filled with horseback riding, fly-fishing on private sections of Goose Creek and the Rio Grande, a ranch cocktail party, a chuckwagon breakfast, a steak ride dinner, a kids rodeo, and a fish fry. The fun is a bit regimented—fly-fishing with a guide usually begins on the early side and horseback rides leave at specified times—but you can choose how much or how little you want to participate. So, if a soak in the ranch’s hot spring pool sounds like your idea of heaven…er…vacation, that’s a fine option, too.

The Details

You’ll Love It If… You want to start a vacation tradition with your young family.

High Praise Executive chef Wray Warner could likely make cowboy stew into a gourmet meal, but in 4UR’s kitchen he turns out seasonal cuisine that makes chowtime a thrice-daily event to look forward to.

The Low Down Although the guest accommodations are more than adequate, the rooms are basic. Plus, the lodge-style cabins mean that you share walls and creaky front porches with other guests.

Cost June 23–August 10: single occupancy, $2,730 per person/week;
double occupancy, $2,590 per person/week; children 5–12, $2,275 per person/week; children under 5 as third party in parents’ room, free. June 9–June 22 and August 11–September 29: single, $2,450 per person/week; double, $2,275 per person/week; children 5–12, $1,960 per person/week; children under 5 as third party in parents’ room, free.


The Lodge & Spa at Brush Creek Ranch

Saratoga, Wyoming

The view from Indian Paintbrush—a one-bedroom log cabin on Brush Creek Ranch’s property—redefines what most people think of when they think about Wyoming. It is not brown and barren and hardened by a relentless wind. Instead, the 15,000-acre tract of land manifests itself in lush valleys, soaring buttes, clear streams, and green pastures. This is the other Wyoming, the one you don’t want to miss—or leave once you’ve arrived.

Of course, the spot-on experience Brush Creek Ranch delivers is another reason you won’t want to go home. Owned by Bruce White, the CEO of White Lodging (which operates 160 hotels across the country), the year-old ranch runs with seamless precision. It has to: In its first year, the resort hosted some of the planet’s wealthiest and most well-traveled guests (Reba McEntire and Kelly Clarkson have visited). Yet Brush Creek manages not to feel pretentious. Sure, the grab-whatever-you-want-because-it’s-included wine cellar is the epitome of upper-echelon travel. And the heated bathroom floors set a high standard for pampering. And, yes, you might be seated next to the richest man in Mexico at the community-style tables for dinner, but you’d never know it. That’s because the staff makes no obvious distinction between a VIP and, say, a writer from Denver.

That careful service extends to the rest of the ranch’s offerings as well. And those offerings are extensive. Although you can get your daily dose of dude ranching in with as much horseback riding as your rear end can handle, Brush Creek doesn’t pigeonhole itself. Mountain biking, hunting, target shooting, hiking, paintballing, outdoor yoga, spa services, and fly-fishing are just some of the other available activities. Each evening, after you’ve come back to your cabin, snacked on whatever delights happen to be waiting for you on your bedside table, and kicked off those trail-dust-covered boots, you’ll saunter over to the outfitters barn to schedule the following day’s recreation. Guests usually choose two or three activities per day.

No matter what outdoor pursuits you choose, you’ll want to belly up to the bar in the saloon every evening. Borrow one of the cowboy hats from the wall rack, order a cold one from bartender Chia Valdez, and hum along with live tunes (four nights a week) or the old-school jukebox. Or take your longneck outside, settle into an Adirondack-style deck chair, and soak in the moonlit view.

The Details

You’ll Love It If… You’re in your 30s, 40s, or 50s, relish a certain level of pampering and refinement, and want to do more than just horseback ride on your vacation.

High Praise The dinner at Creekside Camp is exactly the kind of occasion you envision when you book a ranch vacation. The staff lights a big ol’ bonfire, sets up tables beside a stream and a nearby horse enclosure, and grills a spread of potatoes, steak, chicken, and corn that tastes like the West served hot.

The Low Down The family-style service and lack of multiple entrée options at dinner in the Trailhead Great Room are surprising, considering the price.

Cost All-inclusive rates start at $720 per night for a lodge room and can go as high as $6,000 per night for a cabin. There is a four-night minimum during high season and a two-night minimum during low season. 


Vista Verde Guest Ranch

Steamboat Springs, Colorado

The sound of cowboy boots two-stepping across a wooden floor isn’t something you hear often within Denver city limits. But at Vista Verde Guest Ranch, you can listen to that heavy plodding—that is, big-belt-buckle-wearing men dancing with ladies in black Stetson hats—at its weekly old-fashioned barn dance. And if you’re sitting alone, tapping those newly purchased boots, it’ll only be a matter of moments before a polite young wrangler puts out his hand. 

That well-mannered, congenial attitude permeates this small guest ranch situated on a petite parcel of land 27 miles outside of Steamboat Springs. No matter what you happen to be doing—sitting by the lake taking in the sunset or watching a band of horses graze in a nearby pasture—someone from the Vista Verde staff will ask if you need anything, and then smile and give a tip of the hat when you say you’re doing just fine. The truth is, you likely are doing better than fine because you spent the morning on a cattle roundup, ate a hearty lunch on the outdoor patio, took a short hike in the Zirkel Wilderness Area in the early afternoon, and now you’re nursing a beer while you wait for dinner to be served in the main dining room. Life is good here at the ranch.

In fact, at Vista Verde, the most stress-inducing decisions come in two categories: what to eat for dinner (there’s a choice of three entrées each night) and what to do after dinner (check out that barn dance or retire to your cabin’s outdoor hot tub to look at the stars). Fortunately, you can’t really go wrong with whatever choice you make.

The same can be said for the ranch’s recreational options. Most guests choose Vista Verde for its well-regarded horse program, which mixes clinics with trail rides and caters to every ability level. Ranch trainer Terry Wegener, along with a group of wranglers, seems to be able to teach guests more about horsemanship in one week than most others could in months. But if four-legged fun isn’t your thing, Vista Verde employs a host of guides—usually college-age kids with a ton of energy and skill—that can take you mountain biking, fly-fishing, and hiking whenever the mood strikes. And to be honest, it’s the overall mood—that balance of eager-to-please service, casual friendliness, and upscale amenities—at Vista Verde that makes it so darn enticing.

The Details

You’ll Love It If… You’re a wannabe horseman or horsewoman—or an advanced equestrian—looking to improve your skills at a riding-oriented ranch.

High Praise The accommodations here are sublime. The two-story Little Agnes “cabin” has plush linens, a small kitchen, a sitting room with a wood stove, a king-bed master suite, a queen-bed guest room, two bathrooms (one with a giant shower), and a front deck with a hot tub.

The Low Down Although Vista Verde offers fly-fishing, hiking, mountain biking, rafting, and other activities, many are not available on the ranch’s nearly 600-acre property, which can mean a long drive to reach your adventure.

Cost All-inclusive rates depend on accommodations and time of year, but a cabin generally runs $3,900 per week per person. Vista Verde does stay open for much of the winter season.


Travel Options: RoundUp

Guest ranches abound in Colorado. Here, three more vacation destinations that will show you the Old West lives on.

1. C Lazy U Ranch, clazyu.com

Where An 8,500-acre ranch near Granby, Colorado, just 30 minutes from Winter Park Resort

Why C Lazy U understands that having a diversified program has benefits. While the ranch excels at traditional dude-ranching recreation such as horseback riding and cattle pushing, it also boasts fishing, archery, zip-lining, trap shooting, tennis, yoga, mountain biking, and a ropes course.

Who Knew? Dean Singleton, founder of MediaNews Group, which owns the Denver Post, has been a part owner of the 93-year-old ranch since 2008.

Don’t Miss The ranch’s children’s program—which focuses on horsemanship for older kids—is an important part of C Lazy U. Kids 3 to 18 spend the majority of the day with counselors so their parents can revel in whatever activity suits them.

The Basics Rates range from $2,650 to $2,900 per person/week, depending on cabin selection. 

2. Latigo Ranch, latigotrails.com

Where A 600-acre ranch near Kremmling, Colorado, that has stunning, blown-open views of the Middle Park Valley and the Continental Divide

Why Latigo Ranch is lower-frill than some other ranches when it comes to, say, the decor in its cabins—and there’s zero fancy-schmancy spa services to be had—but if you’re in the market for relaxation, isolation,
serious horseback riding, and a slew of included adventures like white-water rafting, this is the ranch for you.

Don’t Miss Latigo offers an overnight pack trip into the high country for more daring riders. It’s a bit of a haul but completely worth it for the views and the backcountry camping experience.

The Basics All-inclusive weekly rates vary depending on age. Adults run $2,750; kids 6–13 cost $2,050; children 3–5 are $1,575. Kids under 2 are free.

3. Zapata Ranch, zranch.org

Where A 103,000-acre ranch near Mosca, Colorado, that is situated adjacent to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Why This working bison ranch is the place to go in Colorado if you’re itchin’ to build fence, drive bison, and put the ranch horses through their paces.

Bonus Zapata Ranch’s terrain is unbelievably varied; you’ll even have the opportunity to ride horseback through the Great Sand Dunes.

Don’t Miss Zapata offers special events throughout the year. In 2012, you’ll want to think about booking during the annual pack trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park (June 17–24), women’s week (June 22–29), or during the horsemanship clinic (July 29–August 5).

The Basics All-inclusive prices range from $985 for three nights to $1,995 for seven nights. Rates for children younger than 8 range from $788 to $1,595.