Last night I awoke to police sirens, barking dogs and revving motorcycles. What a difference from the serenity and stillness of the three days my family had just enjoyed at the North Fork Guest Ranch. There, nights consisted of inky skies glittering with stars, aspen leaves rustling gently and cool mountain air snuggling us into soft blankets. The only sound was a whinny or two from the horses in the pasture below. It truly was paradise.
Guest or “dude” ranches have been around for about 100 years, when real working ranchers first realized what a lure the cowboy lifestyle was for us “regular” folks. Today’s ranches help visitors experience the romance, adventure, and spirit of the old west without giving up the basic creature comforts of home. Here are five great all-inclusive Colorado ranches for families.
Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch, Parshall
At 7,500 feet elevation, the 100-year-old Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch is located on an unusually lush green valley alongside the Colorado River. This 42-person-capacity ranch is cozy and intimate, featuring twelve log cabins with screened porches.
Owners Cheri and Jerry Helmicki, who bought the ranch in 1995, make sure each guest finds his or her niche here: Activities include riding, catch-and-release Gold Medal fly- fishing, rod and reel fishing in the stocked pond, swimming in the heated pool, hot-tubbing, trap shooting, team penning with cows, visiting the petting zoo, reading from the extensive library and mountain biking. Kids” groups, in which certified counselors and wranglers lead children through a variety of activities, are divided into ages 3 to 6 and 7 to 12. The 1,500-foot Colorado River zip line for ages 13 and up is a very popular feature.
Bar Lazy J’s meals are served family-style. Lemonade, coffee, tea, fruit and fresh cookies are always available. A different planned activity, such as campfire sing-a-longs and western dancing are offered each evening. Week-long (Sunday to Sunday) rental rates are available; select weeks are reserved for adults only.
4UR Ranch, Creede
At the 4UR Ranch—seven miles from Creede in south-central Colorado—guests are pampered. This 45-person-capacity ranch is surrounded by national forests: the La Garita range to the north, Weminuche Wilderness and Wolf Creek Pass to the south and west. Nearby is Wheeler National Monument, with its striking rock formation “hoodoos.” Also here are the headwaters of the Rio Grande River. The ranch has more than 3,000 acres of terrain as well as the source of the Wagon Wheel Gap Hot Springs, which are funneled to a large hot tub pool.
First and foremost, the 4UR is a catch and release fly-fishing ranch, offering fishing on Goose Creek and the Rio Grande River, with abundant brown, rainbow and cutthroat on six miles of private tailwater. Guides are not mandatory, but available for extra charge.
The ranch offers an outstanding kids” horseback program, during which children will prepare for the Kids” Rodeo. At the rodeo, kids get to show off skills learned, such as goat wrestling, maneuvering through a horseback obstacle course and more.
During less busy weeks, the 4UR allows three-night packages. The Leavell family has owned and operated the ranch for more than 40 years, and takes great pride in meeting and knowing their many longtime guests.
North Fork Ranch, Shawnee
North Fork Ranch is located just one hour from east Denver. Set smack on the North Fork of the South Platte River, the 20-person-capacity ranch enjoys superb fly-fishing and is Orvis-endorsed. The friendly, low-key ranch has been operated by Karen and Dean May for the past 30 years. The dining is delicious—you might enjoy a Mexican buffet on the patio or an Italian-theme evening. Fresh-baked cookies are always in the cookie jar, as well as a bowl of fruit, trail mix and other goodies.
The river’s flows create a private fishery, teeming with brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout. The half-mile of North Fork Ranch river is fly- fishing only with guided, barbless hooks, catch and release. Fly-fishing casting classes are free for ranch guests, held on the stocked trout pond.
The ranch does not offer a supervised children’s program, but there are plenty of family activities and reduced rates for younger children and nannies. Families can choose to spend the night in the tepee, while the ranch provides hot chocolate, marshmallows, and sleeping bags. There’s a petting zoo with sheep, hens and a miniature donkey; a large swimming pool and a game room. Whitewater rafting is available for ages 8 and up; fishing and horseback riding for 6 and up. In the evenings, participate in family game nights, mountain man storytelling, hayrides and other options.
For a special treat, reserve the Stonehenge Lodge—a gorgeous 85-year-old stone house with endless rustic elegance. Although the ranch encourages full-week stays, it permits stays of just one night, with a la carte pricing for activities such as target shooting and whitewater rafting.
Sundance Trail Guest Ranch, Red Feather Lakes
Known for being relaxed, friendly and flexible, the Sundance Trail Guest Ranch is a cozy 24-person-capacity ranch with just four dining tables. The resident owners Dan and Ellen Morin are hands-on, helping with cooking, cleaning rooms, teaching horsemanship and leading rides—and philosophizing. Food is ample, delicious and health-oriented.
Sundance Trail borders a million acres of National Forest for riding, exploring and hiking. Or, take in skeet shooting, rock climbing, belaying, Frisbee golf, horseshoes, archery, foosball, pool, tomahawk throwing, mountain biking and white water rafting.
Guests are welcome to bring their own dogs and own horses—a rarity among guest ranches. Kids can opt to participate in ranch activities with their families, or join counselors for kid-specific offerings for ages 5 and up, including gathering eggs, trail riding, playing outdoor games, treasure hunting and more. One evening per week, kids camp out in a tepee while adults enjoy a candle lit dinner at the main ranch house.
Sundance Trail permits weekend stays in the non-summer months, late September through mid-May. Three day, four-night packages are also available.
Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, Loveland
This year-round, 30-person capacity ranch is one of Colorado’s oldest working horse and cattle ranches. Just one and a half hours from Denver, the ranch is about 30 minutes east from Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park. Surrounded by the red rock cliffs of Eagle Ridge, the Big Thompson River runs through the 3,200-acre property.
In just three days there, we saw a black bear on the hillside, a blue heron flying over our heads, several mule deer, endless bunnies and a few toads. Susan and Dave Jessup, the friendly owners, share the passion of Susan’s parents, who bought the ranch in 1946.
Sylvan Dale is proud of its cattle program, raising its own grass-fed cows with no hormones, steroids, antibiotics or GMOs. In addition to cattle round-ups and team penning, guests can enjoy horseback riding, fly-fishing and rod and reel fishing in the stocked bass pond (about two miles away), tennis, swimming in the heated pool, volleyball, ping pong and other games, horseshoes and yoga. In the off-season, Sylvan Dale offers a Bunk & Breakfast three-night stay.