Aspen and evergreen-covered mountainous terrain dominated a western-flavored landscape as we turned off Highway 285 near Buena Vista, Colorado in favor of a mostly dirt and gravel road. For our first dude ranch experience, we had selected Elk Mountain Ranch because of its elevation, small-group allowance, varying amenities and well-noted family-friendly atmosphere.
As Colorado’s highest guest ranch at 9,600 feet above sea level, Elk Mountain, which is surrounded by the San Isabel National Forest, overlooks the Arkansas Valley and is teeming with wildflowers, deer, antelope and, you guessed it, elk. Additionally, the family-owned facility allows no more than 30 guests at a time from late May through mid-September each year, a feature that provides more one-on-one guest to staff interaction and additional chances for ranchers to become acquainted with other vacationers beyond what would probably be available to them at larger dude ranches.
Upon arrival, we parked near the ranch’s dining hall and primary social gathering spot, a building simply referred to as the Main Lodge, in order to unload our own bags. However, it quickly became apparent that our good intentions were in vain as staff members warmly greeted us, introduced themselves and took charge of our luggage. Meanwhile, my eight-year-old daughter, Alaina, and her 11-year-old brother, Preston, took an immediate interest in a pair of overly friendly dogs who were also eager to meet them. As avid animal lovers, the Seiter children had formed a positive opinion of Elk Mountain Ranch from the start.
Shortly after unpacking, we gathered in the ranch’s intimate western-themed dining room, where circular and rectangular tables positioned close to one another allowed for introductory conversations prior to what would prove to be a spectacular family-style meal. While getting to know other guests, we enjoyed salad, dinner rolls and a pair of main course entrees including fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and pumpkin pie for desert. Our kids, a couple of widely-recognized picky eaters, appreciated the fact that they were able to choose ice cream rather than pie.
Throughout the week, dining in The Main Lodge was fabulous with varying menus that always provided numerous options aimed at pleasing flexible and selective eaters alike. The accommodating kitchen staff was even prepared to swap peanut butter or grilled cheese sandwiches for steak, casserole or lasagna, if necessary.
My family and I stayed in the spacious Pioneer Lodge throughout the week—a simple but inviting one-story structure that consists of three separate lodge rooms, each equipped with its own bathroom, shower and exterior entrance. With nothing but the tranquil sounds of nature beckoning outside our door, that first night’s sleep, in particular, was the most peaceful one I’d experienced in a long time. Our children, on the other hand, were more enthused about having their own room than the prospect of enjoying a good night’s sleep. In fact, we quickly realized their bedtime excitement partially evolved around the challenge of trying to secretly smuggle a persistent tomcat into their room for an overnight stay.
After a hearty breakfast the morning after our arrival, I slipped on a pair of borrowed boots that the ranch provided, adjusted my recently purchased cowboy hat and moseyed over to the facility’s arena for a safety-themed “intro to horses” orientation by Elk Mountain Ranch owner, Tom Murphy. Later, we were introduced to our assigned horses, which had been handpicked by staff members based on each respective guest’s body type and riding experience.
My dark tawny-colored steed was named Tuffy, a muscular animal that boasted a calm and pleasant demeanor. However, as we ventured out for a morning trail ride on our first full day in camp, I quickly learned that Tuffy had a peculiar interest in the back side of Dumplin, the horse assigned to Alaina. In fact, as the week progressed, I often found myself having to work hard at keeping a safe distance between Tuffy and Dumplin. On the flip side, it was comforting to know that our children were able to enjoy the outdoor experiences alongside my wife Denise and me. It’s important to note that some of the offered riding excursions at Elk Mountain can last several hours and may not be appropriate for young, inexperienced riders but I can honestly say that our guide-accompanied mountain-ride outings throughout the week provided memorable bonding experiences for all four of us.
As rookie riders, we were sore in the saddle after that first day’s trip so it was refreshing to learn that Elk Mountain Ranch guests can ride as much or as little as they chose while visiting. In lieu of taking their horses out for a spin, some guests may prefer a peaceful afternoon nap or a trail hike while others may opt to go fishing, play horseshoes or battle a staff member in one of many on-site board games. While some workers specialize in horse care and serve as trail guides, others are assigned to tasks that include kitchen duty, cabin clean-up, ranch maintenance and recreational activities. No matter the need or the time of day, we found staff members readily available to assist with even the simplest of requests. Quite frequently, my kids opted for relaxation time in the facility’s hot tub during lazy afternoons but also enjoyed feeding and caring for ducklings near the ranch’s pond.
Additionally, we were pleased to learn that a dedicated children’s program counselor is always available to provide kids with opportunities to do things such as pan for gold in a nearby shallow creek bed, visit a hillside teepee (pre-supplied with plenty of easy-to-find arrowheads) and work on handmade crafts.
One day, our early-morning trail ride ended at a prairie-like clearing where we enjoyed brunch followed by a friendly game of “fat bat” softball. Alaina had fun displaying her speed on the base path during that contest but Preston was more focused on hitting the plastic wiffle ball as far as he possibly could. Later that evening, we all kicked our collective boot heels high while enjoying a ranch-wide square dance. Even the kids had fun learning how to do-si-do, promenade, chasse and swing on the deck of the Main Lodge.
The next day, many of us elected to ride the waves rather than our horses so we were transported to nearby Buena Vista for a full-day whitewater rafting experience on the Arkansas River. This proved to be another first-time, full-family experience for the Seiter party and even though we didn’t see any bighorn sheep or mountain lions while navigating rapids of various sizes that afternoon, I often felt like I was being watched from the breathtaking tree-laden rocky terrain that surrounded us.
Adult-only options at the ranch involved archery and skeet-shooting tournaments. Our children were eventually given a chance to experience archery themselves but only while under the careful supervision of a staff member. Additional family-friendly experiences that week included an evening musical concert provided by a well-known local artist and a day-long visit to the nearby city of Aspen.
Saturday highlights included a children’s rodeo, where the kids were able to show off some of the riding skills they had attained throughout our stay, along with a country-themed candlelight dinner. During the rodeo, Preston and Alaina carefully raced their respective steeds around barrels, displayed their roping skills while capturing a “willing” target and tried to navigate their horses while balancing an egg on a spoon. Throughout the exhibition, we were comforted in knowing that ranch employees were always nearby to ensure complete safety.
Admittedly, our Sunday morning departure from Elk Mountain Ranch was a difficult one, not only because of the enjoyable experiences we had shared in the midst of what was truly the most breathtaking scenery I had ever encountered, but also because of the meaningful relationships that had been developed in just one week’s time.
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Greg Seiter is a freelance writer from Indiana whose work has been published in a variety of print publications and travel blogs. He also serves on the University of Indianapolis Alumni Board of Directors. To find out more, follow him on Twitter @gregseiter or visit his Facebook
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