Rocky Mountain High

By Jane Van Berkum on March 19th, 2010

One Week At A Colorado Dude Ranch
Is The Travel Bonanza Of The Year
By Candi Pillitterri

There’s a reason somebody made a song about springtime in the Rockies; this is the kind of place people get silly and rhapsodic about approximately five seconds after they arrive. And if you’re lucky enough to get to spend a week on a dude ranch 9,000 feet in the mountains, forget it – there’s no talking you down. My City Slickers vacation was at Rainbow Trout Ranch in Antonito, Colorado, which is in southwest Colorado’s Conejos River Valley near the border of New Mexico, about 185 miles from Albuquerque and two and one-half hours from Santa Fe.

The ranch is surrounded by southern Colorado’s Rio Grande National Forest. Snow-covered Mt. Blanca rises above the range, which looks like a backdrop for Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald movies. This is high western mountain country, the place where days are clear and dry, the nights are chilly, and the air is as clean as you’ll find in America. This is where, for one week, my daughter and I left our east coast Florida personas back at the shopping mall and were transformed, day by day, into cowgirls, the kind of cowgirls we had always wanted to be – with our own horses and cowboy boots and campfires at night. A four-year-old who won blue ribbons at the rodeo and a 35-year-old who used a Swiss Army knife for the very first time. We were stars in our own movie, riders on the range. We were in heaven.

Rainbow Trout Ranch offers the quintessential western family vacation – including riding, rafting, fishing and overnight campouts – in an unparalleled mountain setting. The guest capacity of the ranch is only 60 people, dispersed among 15 rustic log cabins, which ensures a sense of privacy and personal attention that actually maximizes the experience. There are no telephones, no televisions, no daily newspapers – just the sound of the Rocky Mountain winds in the pine trees, the spring run-off charging up in waterfalls, the sound of horses and, some-times, coyotes in the distance. There are separate programs at the ranch for adults and children so adults really do, in fact, get a vacation and kids have the kind of fun they like, which usually involves about 20 different activities in five-minute intervals.

The first thing you see when you roll up to Rainbow Trout Ranch is the grand lodge, the focal point of the ranch, a massive old-fashioned log lodge built with timber from nearby Spruce Hole, with a rambling porch on three sides looking out at the mountains and the meadow where the horses graze. As you step inside, you find yourself in the kind of old wooden ranch house you imagine the Cartwrights used to have, with sun-light pouring in from every direction lighting up the rustic furnishings, the animal trophies and bearskins on the log walls. The lodge contains the reservation area, the library, the dining room where all the communal meals are served, the rec room downstairs with Ping-Pong tables and children’s arts and crafts and the laundry room.

The lodge is distinguished by two massive stone fireplaces inlaid with chunks of old turquoise that were lit every morning and evening to take off the chill. The smell of early morning woodsmoke and the pine trees made us know we were at camp somewhere, far from the heat and the tropics and the damp coast we had left. Nearby is the heated swimming pool, spa, volleyball / basketball court and an area for horseshoe pitching.

Our adventure started as we entered the big old lodge; waiting for us were little rawhide boleros with our names on them, so everybody could figure out who everyone else was throughout the week. Next, we were shown to our cabin which was built of logs, with log furniture inside and wooden floors, the Colorado answer to the Three Bears cottage, only with panoramic mountain views from the little front porch.

Half of the cabins have a living room with fireplace, two to three bed-rooms and either one or two bath-rooms; the other half have two rooms with a single bath. The cabins are provided with daily housekeeping services, have lots of drawer and closet space and funky little old-fashioned wall heaters.

We just had enough time to figure out where everything was and pick out our beds (this is very important to a four-year-old) before it was time to come to dinner at the lodge, an event I grew to anticipate every day.

In fact, mealtime at Rainbow Trout Ranch was an integral part of the vacation, I am happy to report; all-you-can-eat mountain-appetite inspired home cooking, from fresh trout to steak to ribs to turkey – all served family-style, all with lots of fresh vegetables and fruit and home-made breads and desserts.

Many dishes are directly from Mary Dale’s Cooking Tales, a compilation of recipes from family and guests with continuous updates to meet everyone’s needs. During the week there are frequent cookouts on the ranch and after dinner there are evening activities for those who want to be social.

Being social at Rainbow Trout Ranch requires no effort, especially since you meet everybody the first night, sharing hometowns and first names, all of you sitting by the fire in the lodge, listening to logs crackle, getting sleepy and warm and relaxed after dinner. It is here that time began to change for us. All of a sudden, there was nothing much more important to do than curl up in our log cabin, wait for morning and the moment we would meet our horses for the first time.

The ranch has 96 horses matching all different levels of riding skills; as is the case with romance, when it comes to horses, there is someone for everyone. My horse was an eight-year-old quarter horse named Tinfoil and my daughter had a full-size sorrel quarter horse named Cletus. They would be our companions for a week, our trusty mounts, our Triggers.
But first, we had to get to know each other. The week began in the arena where we put our horses through their paces (and they checked us out) to allow everyone to achieve a certain comfort level before hitting the trail. Guests were then broken up into smaller groups based on ability and interest and embarked on trail rides twice a day. An all-day ride was offered later in the week.

The experience and skill of the ranch “wranglers” is an invaluable asset to the riders. Not only do they help you learn about your horse and teach you all about our environment but they also give you helpful hints about how not to get sore. Mostly, they become your guide to the world of the mountains, bringing you to vistas and valleys and narrow trails among the wildflowers that will take your breath away.

One of my favorite rides was a half-day trip to First Meadow. The ride took us through the woods on a narrow trail with a sheer drop off the mountain on one side and a dramatic rock cliff wall on the other. The spring runoff has become a raging waterfall. At one point we came to a bend in the path, and suddenly the woods opened up to a mountain valley full of wildflowers, ringed by the jagged Rockies, grand, snow-topped, in sharp relief against a cobalt-blue sky.

But you don’t have to take to the trail to soak up the natural grandeur of the ranch; the place is actually named for what it’s famous for trout fishing. Whether you are an accomplished fly fisherman or have never fished in your life, their fly-fishing guide is on hand for your shot at The Big One. For the novice to intermediate fisherman, he can instruct you in the basics of fly fishing and/or bait & spinner. You can fish the Conejos River on the ranch for Rainbow, Brown, Brooke or Golden Trout which the kitchen will be happy to cook for you. For the accomplished angler, he can share the secrets of Gold Medal – designed waters, which is fishing-talk for hard-to-catch-unless you’re Hemingway. Still, people who actually understood the concept of shadow casting in A River Runs Through It will undoubtedly leap to the challenge.

Regular people who do not normally sleep with their fly rods at the foot of the bed can get a package deal that includes fly fishing equipment; if it’s in good condition, the ranch will buy it back. You can also arrange to have your prize fish mounted and shipped to you.

If fishing and riding don’t do it for you, the ranch offers several alternatives: whitewater rafting on the Rio Grande; a hike through the mountains, a trip into town to explore Taos, New Mexico.

One popular option is the Train Ride, officially called the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic railroad, a narrow gauge train excursion that meanders 64 miles in the peaks and valleys of the Rockies through tunnels and gorges and trestles between Antonito and Chama, New Mexico. This is an Old West train ride at its finest, and a great way to get an overview of the Conejos River Valley area.

The Rainbow Trout Ranch experience is as gratifying to children as it is to adults; the activities are simply scaled down to kid-size and kid abilities, and given an extra dollop of personal attention by counselors. The children, ranging from ages 3-12, ride, hike, fish, swim, play games and do arts and crafts. They also have the opportunity to roast marshmallows, make s’mores, go on hayrides and practice for the rodeo at the end of the week.

By the second day, my daughter who has never been on a full-size horse, was described as “fearless.” In fact, she won two first-place ribbons in the rodeo at the end of the week. As for me, I used my new Swiss Army knife cutting the line on a fish she caught. And I, too, won a prize at the rodeo – a ribbon for originality in the barrel racing event because I managed to execute the entire course backwards. But win or lose, it always felt good by the end of the day.

Evenings at the ranch often begin under star-filled skies around a camp-fire or a cookout and may involve things like sing-alongs, square dancing and line dancing. After a full day outdoors either riding or fishing or hiking, the nighttimes are when you begin to wind down, your muscles a little sore in the “good way,” skin flushed with sun and wind, your daughter curled up next to you in the firelight dreaming, as she would every night, of her horse named Cletus, or the way she caught a trout that was over 12 inches long. It is these quiet times that allow visitors the full effect of being on Ranch Time, away from work and schedules and Daytimers and deadlines, on a different cycle, one that begins with the sun and ends with mountains darkening against the sky. This was the best time we had ever found together, this ranch time, and it is the one that still rides through my head these days sometimes. Even though it is thousands of miles away now, Rainbow Trout Ranch is the kind of place you can go back to that way, now and then; it’s the next best thing to being there.
What To Bring

Since nights can drop below 40 degrees, you’ll need jeans, sweaters, sweatshirts, and a medium weight jacket. On the other extreme, days can heat up to 75-80 degrees so don’t forget sunglasses, swimsuits, short-sleeve shirts, shorts, tennis shoes. Other items that will be useful; rain gear, sunscreen, cowboy hat or baseball cap, chapstick, canteen or water bottle. For riding: riding boots, or hiking/work shoes with a heel. An old wrangler’s remedy for saddle sores is to wear something to absorb the friction between your jeans and skin. Anything from nylons, lycra running pants or even a pair of long underwear cut off at the knees will protect you from chafing.

Cowboy Boots