Antonito, CO. – Where the mountains meet the desert at the Colorado-New Mexico state line, the Conejos River winds its way through a tranquil valley 9,000 feet high in the Rockies. Guarded by towering peaks and dramatic waterfalls, the beauty of this place is matched only by its remarkable stillness. Here, for a week you pray will last a lifetime, you can trade all the honking horns and jangling phones of city life for a heavenly woods called Aspen Cathedral, a rushing stream named Elk Creek and the omnipresent watch of three towering bluffs known as Faith, Hope and Charity.
In the midst of this natural beauty sits Rainbow Trout Ranch, a 600-acre playground for urban cowboys in the heart of the Rio Grande National Forest. It’s a place where City Slickers meets A River Runs Through It – complete with daily house-keeping, hot showers and gourmet meals.
Our family of four was among 60 guests, a full house, that spent a recent week at Rainbow Trout. The 17 families arrived as strangers, drawn from as far away as London and Los Angeles by the promise of clean air, unlimited horseback riding, and a week away from the stresses of modern life.
We left seven days later as friends who had danced together, climbed 10,000-foot cliffs, cheered one another’s fishing successes, bounced in the saddle and held hummingbirds on our fingers.
During our last dinner together, there were more addresses and phone numbers exchanged than at a singles bar on a Saturday night.
What is it about a guest ranch that makes fast friends of perfect strangers?
At Rainbow Trout, one of 40 members of the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association, it’s the combination of something-for-everyone activities, eye-popping scenery, and a down- home-friendly and attentive staff.
That was evident on the afternoon we checked in, as Linda Van Berkum, who owns the ranch with her husband, Doug, greeted us by name and personally showed us to our cabin. The ranch’s staff of 30 college students – working as waiters, housekeepers, wranglers, cooks, and counselors – kept the personal attention coming all week long.
Our home for the week was a two-bedroom, one-bath log cabin with a front porch overlooking the ranch’s main lodge and barns. For larger families, the ranch also offers three-bedroom cabins with a small living room and fireplace. All the cabins are rustic but clean and comfortable, which made them very inviting when we tumbled into bed each night after a full day of fun. And fun is what Rainbow Trout is all about.
Guests can ride all they want, fish all they want, and try their hand at trap shooting, hay riding, hiking, swimming, socializing, or just plain relaxing. A supervised program for children and teens gives youngsters as many choices as adults, and allows family members to stay together or go their own ways.
Guests can also visit Santa Fe or Taos, N.M.; ride the narrow gauge Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad; shoot the rapids down the Rio Grande; or climb the dramatic Sand Dunes National Monument – all within a two-hour drive.
Historic Home Base
Each day at Rainbow Trout Ranch begins at the lodge, an 18,000-square-foot structure built in the 1920s from spruce logs hauled in from more than 40 miles away. The lodge’s two rooms – decorated with cowboy gear, animal trophies and bear skins – serve as the communal dining room, living room, dance hall and activities center.
It was on the lodge’s three-sided porch, dotted with hummingbird feeders, that Doug Van Berkum taught us how to hold the tiny birds. Standing absolutely still with our fingers near the feeders, we were awed to hear the furious beating of their wings as they settled lightly on our hands to drink the sweet nectar. Our 8-year-old twins, at first unnerved by the birds’ swift movements, became so enthralled that we played with the hummingbirds several times a day.
Fresh Catch of Trout
When they’re not in the lodge, Rainbow Trout guests are likely to be hip-deep in a running river or in the saddle on a mountain path. The nearest fishing spot is a short walk to the Conejos River, where a ranch staff member provides pointers on how to fly cast.
More adventurous anglers can hike into the mountains, further from other folks and closer to the clear lakes and streams that run through the area. Doug Van Berkum said many of the ranch’s repeat guests have their own favorite spots – and guard them carefully. Indeed, the ranch keeps a log book of the fish caught each week, and asks guests to reveal where they got the big one. In many cases, they write “secret.”
Back in the Saddle Again
If you’re not fishing at the aptly named Rainbow Trout, then you must be riding. The Colorado horseback riding program is in the hands of David and Jane Van Berkum – son and daughter-in-law of the owners and experienced wranglers who worked at other ranches in Wyoming and Colorado before joining Rainbow Trout.
David, Jane and seven seasonal wranglers care for the ranch’s approximately 96 horses and lead up to nine rides a day. Guests can choose rides that match their ability level, from “mosey” rides for those who are happy just walking to the more advanced rides that can include loping and more varied terrain. They might wander lazily through First Meadow, climb a steep trail to the 10,000-foot top of Charity ridge or take an all-day ride into the mountains to see beaver dams and eat lunch beside a mountain waterfall.
The last day at the ranch, even guests who had never ridden before were able to guide their mounts around barrels and through an obstacle course of poles during the Rainbow Trout Rodeo.
As we wound our way out of the ranch, past the corral, across the Conejos and south toward Albuquerque, a ditty called Rocky Top danced in our heads from the sing-along the previous night:
I’ve had years of cramped up city life,
Trapped like a duck in a pen.
All I know is it’s a pity
Life can’t be simple again.
Unless, of course, we make those reservations for next year!