With well over thirty dude ranches in Colorado, you wouldn’t think that there was a need for another one. But in May of 2012, High Lonesome Ranch, a luxury getaway for fly fishermen and big game hunters, began welcoming wannabe cowboys as well.
The property, which is situated on the west slope of the Rockies, consists of 300 square miles of leased and permitted land. As such it is bigger than 25 of the nations 58 national parks. Paul Vahidiek Jr., a Houston attorney who began buying some of the property in 1994, is determined that this land—a mix of high mesas covered with sparse vegetation and deep valleys filled with greenery—be preserved and protected from rampant development. Opening the ranch to guests year round helps fund the conservation and restoration projects that take place on the ranch, but even more important, it imbues young children with an appreciation for all that nature has to offer.
“We want children to experience and appreciate the great outdoors,” says Scott Stewart, general manager of the dude ranch. “They are the policy makers of tomorrow, and we want them to understand the importance of land conservation and preservation.”
The new ranch aims to differentiate itself by offering guests an almost totally customizable experience. Yes, the main focus is on equestrian experiences, but there are also plenty of activities for the non-horsey set.
My family and I are among the first guests, and we bring new meaning to the phrase “beginning riders.” All of us—grandparents, parents and two kids—are admittedly, if sadly, city folks through and through, more at home with four-lane highways than with four-legged creatures. We eye the other guests warily. Will we be the only novices in a group of experts?
The answer becomes clear the next morning when we go down to the stables for our first horseback ride. Everyone else is wearing a cowboy hat or riding helmet. We, on the other hand, are decked out in baseball caps and bonnets. Oh dear!
But Trail Boss Amé Longfellow isn’t phased in the least by our lack of expertise. She quickly assesses each person’s personality as well as skill. When she sees that my grandson is inexperienced but unafraid, she assigns him to a horse that is small but lively. “He’ll be able to handle this one,” she says, and she proves to be right. I tell her that I want a horse that knows what to do, because I don’t. “No problem,” she says, and she asks one of the wranglers to bring out Giant Bob. “He’s slow and steady,” she tells me.
All the guests go into the arena for Horse & Rider Orientation. The novices among us get lessons in saddling and bridling. Others practice controlling their horse by leading it around obstacle courses, and one guest, who has been riding since she was a child, trots off on a ride with one of the wranglers.
Over the next several days, we have the opportunity to go on multiple horseback rides, beginning with easy trails and gradually advancing to ones that require more energy from the horse and more skill from the rider. “Folks who can handle their horse will be able to go on a cattle ride at the end of the week,” said Amé.
Giant Bob and I plod along on a few of the easy trail rides, but after two days I decide I’d rather see the ranch by van rather than horseback. “No problem,” says Scott, and that’s when I see how the customization plan works.
That afternoon he drives me to the upper reaches of the ranch for a private wildlife safari. The ranch is home to a variety of animals—deer, elk, bear, moose, antelope, mountain lion, Big Horn Sheep and, since 2010, wolves, which returned to Colorado after a seventy-year hiatus. In the most remote areas there are even bands of wild horses, descendents of horses that were abandoned by the state’s earliest settlers. In addition, there are more than 100 species of birds. I have the time of my life!
The next morning my daughter-in-law and I go fly-fishing, my granddaughter goes on a picnic, and later in the week my husband goes on a photo shoot. Only my grandson is the only one of us who spends most of his time with horses.
Next year there will be even more non-equestrian activities. The staff has plans for guided hikes, scenic painting workshops and interactive experiences with the scientists who are working on projects that will benefit the land and the wildlife. There will even be massages, cooking classes and, if people request them, excursions to nearby wineries.
For more information: www.highlonesomeranch.com