Colorado Dude Ranches offer Horses, Cowboys & Happy Trails

By Heidi Schoen,

Healthy Planet Green Living Editor


January in Missouri is marked by short, cold, gray days. Dreams of summer are welcome distractions during this hibernation time. Buried now in powdery drifts reaching 300”, I dream about snow covered Grand County Colorado.  I vacationed there with my daughter in August and it is a thrilling vacation destination. The experience was so exciting we came back and immediately started to plan our return. Not a week goes by when my daughter doesn’t reference this time of wonder.


We flew into Denver and proceeded to climb up the eastern slope of the Continental Divide. One pit stop in Winter Park to stretch our legs and then it was early afternoon when we arrived at Drowsy Water Ranch (DWR), located 8,300 feet above sea level in a spring fed canyon extending seven miles. The beauty of Grand County is immense, with Rocky Mountain National Forest to the north and a sizeable 145,000 square miles of land protected by the Bureau of Land Management.


Long ago, the Homestead Act granted pioneer folks a few hundred acres if they could live on the land claim for 2-3 years. Many settlers decided the harsh winters were no compensation for the summer bliss. Others never made it through the winters.  Little by little, more land was owned by fewer people and those pioneers that adapted to life in the mountains thrived. In the late nineteenth century, ranchers raising cattle in the mountains began getting visitors, usually friends and family from the city looking for fresh mountain air, hunting and fishing. Since travelling was time intensive, guests usually stayed for the better part of the warm season. At the same time, ranchers were dealing with the fact that raising cattle was no easy life, driving them all over the mountain grasslands and protecting them from rustlers and wild animals. Many ranchers phased out cattle as their main source of income and created a sustainable ranch model of horses and hospitality– the dawn of the Dude Ranch.


Our first destination, Drowsy Water is a working Dude Ranch with 109 horses with names like Ace, Smokey and Prince. The ranch week starts out Sunday night with an orientation and an introduction to the staff and wranglers. For 33 years the ranch has been owned an operated by the Fosha family, a friendly group with Wranglers and staff coming from all over the United States. The guests however are from all over the world. Families from London, Cambridge and Sandy England filled the cabins and lodge. Another family from Bermuda with two small children arrived a day late successfully avoiding a hurricane in the Atlantic.  Not all the guests were from abroad. A grandfather from Chicago brought his teenage grandson from Seattle Washington. For many guests it was a return visit, like Jean and Bob Warn from Sandy England.  They brought their two young grandsons, Corbin (8) and Luke (6) back to Drowsy Water because they enjoy the experience of being buckaroo cowboys. During the last trip, Jean told the boys they could return and be Range Riders, a program for older kids ages 6-13.  Jean and Bob don’t ride but explain that it is “a most relaxing vacation with interesting conversations.” Each day offers those peaceful moments when the kids and other riders are out on the trail and non riders can go for a hike, mountain bike, fish or do nothing at all.


Family style meals are served in the main lodge, an old west structure. Guests enjoy plenty of good home cooked food like chili, turkey with stuffing and blueberry pancakes. The week is semi-structured with an opportunity to ride in the morning and afternoon but also down time to relax.  Although the horses are the stars of the Dude Ranch, there are side trips included in the cost of the stay, such as rafting down the Colorado River or a night soak at the hot springs nearby. Each day the trails rides explore a new location, sometimes into an aspen meadow or loping in wide expanses with sage brush wafting in the air. Horses at Drowsy Water Ranch are well cared for and easy to ride. At the end of the week, happy exhaustion sets in from hayrides, country dancing, riding horses and roping cattle. It’s truly an experience of a lifetime and one that centers on good times and family.


After a few days at Drowsy Water, we moseyed down the highway to C Lazy U to check out another Dude Ranch. This was due to a time crunch, Dude Ranches are meant to be experienced for an entire week from Sunday afternoon until Saturday afternoon.


In 1919, C Lazy U began as an operating guest ranch and now covering a vast 8,000 acres with 100 miles of trails. We checked in as a thunderstorm threatened and received our gift basket which included bandanas filled with homemade cookies and stainless steel water bottles with our names on the bottom – very eco-friendly. Our large cabin had a Jacuzzi tub and fireplace which we immediately put to use. Due to a downpour, we missed the afternoon ride but were comforted by the crackling fire and excellent cookies.  The C Lazy U property is in a valley so the feel is wide open.  There is a large Patio House with an elegant blue tile pool and hot tub fed by a waterfall and a full service spa housed in cowboy tents next to a bubbling stream. Every meal was gourmet: giant barbeque beef ribs as appetizers served poolside before dinner, sea bass or lamb for dinner, kids eating ice cream on the side of the hot tub, an open bar near the pool – all experiences reminiscent of an exclusive Country Club scene.   The kids programming at C Lazy U includes an entourage of counselors who supervise children, toddler to teen, and all their activities. Counselors occupy children all day long until after the adult dinner when they rejoin their parents to be tucked into bed.  A fun tradition is the talent show starring the kids in the clubhouse after dinner on Thursday.  Many guests commented on visiting C Lazy U each year during their childhood, in the winter and summer months. This summer the patriarch of the Payne Family claimed fifty-one consecutive years at the ranch and three Payne generations were present to celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary.  An international crowd is surely attracted to this upscale vacation destination but during my stay I met a friendly couple from Scotland. The rest of the guests were from all over the States. The horse rides at C Lazy U lasted up to three hours and the high country was alive with elk and fox and vistas that took my breath away. The Continental Divide was there for the taking,  just slicing up the horizon.


Each Dude Ranch is unique so ask questions about the gear you need to bring and the type of kids programming offered. For novice riders it’s important to pick a ranch that has an instructional aspect to their programming. The instruction makes communication stronger between rider and horse and enriches the riding experience.   Many ranches offer discounts to non-riders and alternative programming such as the ropes course at C Lazy U.

Dude Ranches are the perfect family vacation where there is something for everyone and memories that will last a lifetime. Check out Grand County Dude Ranches at www.dude-ranch.com – Happy Trails!