Cloud of Dust: First, I heard the sound of pounding hooves, then saw a fast-moving cloud of dust and two mounted wranglers closely followed by 200,000 pounds of horseflesh. The 200 thousand-pound horses were galloping from their overnight pasture to the Colorado dude ranch’s corral, dogs at their heels. I kept my distance from this thundering herd.
The head wrangler slammed the corral gate behind the bunch, caught my eye, and looked around at the mountains. “A piece of heaven,” he said. “A big piece of heaven.” A lifetime in the saddle and the love is still there.
“The cowboy way,” as it’s known, creed and tradition, is still alive and well up here. But one thing that has changed in the Wild West is the addition of young women wranglers, pink-cheeked, fresh out of college, and plenty handy with bovines, equines, and greenhorn humans from the cities.
Sue and I spent a week or so this September at five Grand County dude ranches, where all the horses were fine, the food was far superior to chuckwagon grub and accommodations ranged from early 1900s rustic to luxury. We liked it both ways. There, in the Rockies west of Denver, at up to 9,000 feet, guests get three meals a day, two trail rides, and all kinds of other fun and sleep in a room without a TV or phone. Possibly wifi and cell phone service. Owners feel strongly that you and your kids are there to enjoy the outdoors and get away from the boob tube and ringing phone. All the ranches have children’s programs and rates.
Mule deer are everywhere, and with luck you might see moose, Rocky Mountain pronghorn antelope, elk, and maybe even a bear. Coyotes yip at night.
Normally, ranch stays run for a week, starting on Sundays. But on occasion there are three-night windows, especially early in the season, in May, or near the end, September or October. Every kid should get to spend a week at a dude ranch, but they tend to be pricey. At one end of the line is elite C Lazy U Ranch, really a resort offering not only horses but the works, including hillside cottages with fireplaces. Price tag: $2,900 a week per adult plus a 20 percent service charge. You pay a lot but get a lot.
At the pre-dinner social hour, munching huge, meaty ribs, we rubbed elbows with rich Manhattanites, a Midwestern multi-millionaire, and a Southern businessman whose teen daughter back home rides a $350,000 show horse. But astride a horse, everyone’s equal.
Just up the road at King Mountain Ranch, deep in a pine valley, you could have a whole week’s enchilada for around $1,500. In fact, you could drop in for one night, ride once or not at all, and get a budget-sized a la carte bill. We met a London couple who not only had never ridden, but I doubt had ever seen a horse up close. Here you stay not in a rustic shack but a 35-room hotel-like building (no keys) with a dining room, lounge, and popular bar. Outside, you’re back at the ranch, as authentic as you can get. No service fee and tips are optional.
At Latigo Ranch, 9,000 feet high, owner Jim Yost taught us more about horseflesh than we ever dreamed of knowing. He took us on a nature walk where we learned about tiny plants underfoot and towering lodgepole pines. One memorable afternoon we rode among lazy horses grazing in a meadow under a toasty sun, while rivulets of irrigation water soaked the grass underfoot. Adult rates: $2,500. No service charge and no tipping. You stay in plain but clean motel-like units. There are cattle roundups in the fall.
I don’t know why it seemed like such a thrill, but over at the Bar Lazy J, I found that I could ride across the Colorado River. Twice. Not the powerful brown torrent you see at the Grand Canyon. Here, close to the source, it’s clear and clean, shallow, fine for fly fishing and narrow enough to throw a stone across. Caution: On hot afternoons, following a long ride, your horse might take a great notion to roll in the cool water. I guess you just roll off. There’s a wide lawn and there are seats for dozing by the river. Best fun we had was a ride to the high country for lunch, then down to a spa in a small town. Price: $1,725. Tips are OK but no service fee.
Drowsy Water Ranch is tucked in a lovely canyon. It’s family owned and cozy as an old tack room. There are hayrides, a float trip on the Colorado, campfires, sing-alongs and staff shows. The lodge has a knotty pine, log cabin theme. You stay in log cabins. Regular rates are $1,800 per adult double occupancy. There’s a $350 discount for non-riders and, on certain weeks, discounts up to 20 percent. A 12 to18 percent tip is customary for good service. This is a working cattle ranch.
At these ranches you learn which side of a horse to mount from (always the left), that most of the time in the mountains your steed is smarter than you, and what it means when a horse pins his or her ears back (back off). You learn respect for people whose country smarts trump whatever street smarts or computer wizardry you brought with you.
You learn, if you didn’t know before, that a horse is a remarkable animal that can see better, smell better, and hear better than you can and probably think better on the trail. It’s an amazingly sensitive creature, a quick learner, and likes to hang around the herd, where he or she has friends and also those he’d rather not rub noses with.
We flew to Denver and rented a car, but some take the Amtrak to the town of Granby and arrange to be picked up.
The ranches: Latigo, www.latigotrails.com. Tel.: 800-227-9655. C Lazy U: email@example.com. Tel. 970-887-3917. Drowsy Water: drowsywater.com. Tel.: 800-845-2292. Bar Lazy J: barlazyj.com. Tel.: 800-396-6279. King Mountain: kingmountainranch.com. Tel.: 800-476-KING.com.