In the 1991 film City Slickers, Mitch (Billy Crystal), a middle-aged man trying to “find” himself on a cattle ranch vacation, approaches a cow and says, “Hi. I’m Bob Vila with This Old Herd. We’re going to rope you today.” Then he slips a rope around the cow’s head and the cow takes off with a screaming Mitch in tow.
A cattle drive may make good slapstick, but it doesn’t work quite that way. At least not at The Home Ranch, a Relais & Châteaux guest ranch in Clark, Colorado, where cow herding is a quotidian event that guests can work, should they be up to the challenge. And it is work, so don’t bother to ask for an itinerary. As head wrangler Michael Moon puts it, “It will take as long as it takes. It’s a job.”
Cattle herding—riding across a fairly big stretch of the 4,000-acre property to locate the grazing cows and drive them home—is only one of the unique experiences that make a Home Ranch vacation so memorable. This is authentic Western ranch living; the difference is the guest aspect, which provides a window into a lifestyle that looks much as it did centuries ago, when the first settlers came to the Elk River Valley.
The biggest attraction here are the horses. The working ranch has upward of 80 trained mounts, capable of everything from languid trail rides to loping across acres of backcountry on an all-day horseback adventure. At the beginning of the week-long residency, guests are paired with horses based on riding goals and temperament (human and equine) for the duration of their stay. This applies to children, too. In fact, watching kids bond with their horses and become comfortable in the saddle is one of the most rewarding aspects of the program.
Rides range from easy to challenging, but all afford incredible views of the wilderness surrounding the alpine valley in which the ranch is situated. The Medicine Bow–Routt National Forest and the Elk River border the property, and the terrain rolls across high-country meadows and aspen and evergreen forests, with the snow-dusted peaks of the Rockies always within view. The trails for riding and hiking wind through all that and lead to alpine lakes, old homesteads, and wide-open vistas that inspire awe for our nation’s wild and scenic places.
Possibly even more fun is the penning. Every Friday morning there’s a cattle competition, in which teams of riders learn how to sort and move cattle across an arena and into pens. Think less rodeo, more cowboy Zen. There’s a version for the children too, and the adults get to cheer from the sidelines as the young riders round ’em up with newfound competence.
When a break from the saddle is called for, a robust, Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing program offers anglers a prolific patch of water right on property. The part of the Elk River that passes through The Home Ranch is rich in brook, cutthroat, brown, and rainbow trout, and the guides know how to coax the fish out of the water with expert-tied flies. They might even teach you a new technique or two.
Off-ranch activities range from rock climbing to whitewater rafting and can be easily arranged through the ranch staff. Rock climbing is an excellent option for children, who are belayed and safely guided up a rock face by local outfitter Rocky Mountain Ventures. It’s technical but doable—and a superb confidence booster.
One of the best parts of The Home Ranch experience is that there is no roughing it. The ranch offers generously sized log cabins with huge windows to admit the views of mountains and aspen groves. Each cabin and lodge room is furnished in the Western tradition with rich woods, leathers, and regional fabrics and art.
But the best surprise comes at mealtime. The Relais & Châteaux designation means elevated cuisine and an outstanding wine program, and The Home Ranch delivers on both counts. Breakfast and lunch are offered buffet-style, with a huge spread of homemade delicacies. Dinner is a special experience, with a la carte presentations of locally sourced meats, fish, and produce prepared creatively and thoughtfully paired with wines. To keep things real, there’s also a smattering of casual dinners. Pizza night at the ranch farm, featuring the bounty of the harvest, is a favorite with guests of all ages.
The week ends with a cookout and singalong around a big campfire, during which the wranglers give out ribbons to those who looked least foolish in the cattle competition. Amid a convivial atmosphere of backslaps and laughter, head wrangler Moon and his wife, Dawn, bust out a guitar and begin singing country classics like “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Everyone gets into the spirit, and as the cool blue twilight gives way to myriad stars, the warmth lingers even after the fire is reduced to embers. (970-879-1780)