“Last photo,” my wife lied to me as she clicked the camera yet again at 10,839 feet of elevation atop Hahn’s Peak in northwest Colorado on a golden September day.
“Last cast,” I lied to her 5 hours later as I cast my fly once more into the gin-clear waters of the Elk River.
The 34-mile stream is both the namesake of Colorado’s Elk River Valley and the watering hole for The Home Ranch, a luxury dude ranch 4 hours from Denver which my wife, Jodie, and I visited recently. The Home Ranch made liars out of us both, but for good reason. Its beauty and charm overwhelmed us; we could not stop clicking and casting during our all-too-short 4-day stay.
Superlatives for the 38-year-old mountain resort founded by active owners Ann and Steve Stranahan come up short. We were in awe in from the moment we arrived – our first afternoon found us strolling among 80 horses grazing freely in a beautiful high meadow above the ranch – until the moment we left.
Since words fail to do it justice, the best way to convey this quintessential Old West experience is via a photo essay. If you’re considering a fishing/hiking/horseback riding trip in the high country, these photos will tell you what you need to know about The Home Ranch.
The Home Ranch is an active, working ranch with cattle, horses, pigs, chickens and a robust farm and garden in the mist of the million-acre Routt National Forest. It delivers an authentic experience that includes cattle drives, harvest week, and the opportunity for elite horsemanship if that’s your thing – heck, there’s even a “Work Week” each spring where guests pay for the privilege to fix fences, repair trails and plant seedlings.
The Home Ranch is also the only Relais & Chateaux guest ranch in Colorado, so if you go into the all-inclusive vacation with impossibly high expectations . . . you won’t be disappointed. Every minute detail is carefully considered and flawlessly executed. Eight distinctive wood cabins are nestled among the aspens surrounding the main lodge, which hosts another half dozen rooms tastefully decorated with local artifacts.
Most nights see a 2-to-1 or greater staff-to-guest ratio, which enables the ranch to accommodate any request. On 25 minute’s notice, Jodie and I got a staff guide to take us on a half-day hike up Hahn’s Peak. When I went fishing that same afternoon, it was just me and my guide. When 5 p.m. arrived, my guide, Dave, said, “I’m pretty much on your schedule. We can fish as long as you want.”
Those who know me know those are dangerous words.
Fifteen minutes into fishing on the Elk River, a 20-inch rainbow trout took my hopper fly on the surface. I eventually lost the ensuing battle, but seeing that fish emerge, devour my fly and run up and down the shallow creek for however many minutes it stayed on the line was a thrill I won’t soon forget.
I’m a novice fly fisherman at best, so fortunately the fish were cooperative. I landed 23 trout in 10 hours total fishing over 4 days, including my first brook trout. Elk River predominantly produces browns and rainbows commonly in the 10- to 16-inch range; brookies are rare.
Jodie threw on waders to take pictures and wade the clear waters. She found sitting in the stream therapeutic and peaceful, especially with the surrounding leaves showing dashes of orange, crimson and gold. September is also great time for dry flies and streamers for trophy fish; the lodge is Orvis Endorsed and offers energetic guides, plus all the gear and tackle you need. You can fish the ranch’s private section of the scenic Elk River (guided or unguided), the nearby Yampa River, or a pond stocked with rainbow trout.
The Horseback Riding
The Home Ranch is renowned for its equestrian program. Knowledgeable wranglers are dedicated to helping guests with everything from basic trail rides to elite horsemanship skills and everything in between – such as groups playing “capture the flag” while riding horses.
We stayed during Hands on Horses Week, which featured Curt Pate as a special guest instructor. Pate is a legendary horse whisperer; those not intimate with the equestrian world could compare this to their favorite fishing lodge bringing in Al Lindner to share meals with you and be your guide.
Jodie and I are casual riders, but were warmly welcomed and felt completely comfortable to participate in as much or as little of the horsemanship activities as we wanted. The wranglers match you up with horses and rides that fit your abilities (you hear guests refer to a horse as “their” horse because the ranch pairs up repeat guests with the same horse each visit).
The more advanced riders were thrilled to work on specific skills, which we skipped in favor of a leisurely trail ride through the high meadows. Both Jodie and I agreed it was the single best horseback riding experience we’ve ever had; the views were spectacular. Pate and Michael, the ranch’s head wrangler, were both true gentlemen whom we enjoyed visiting with over dinners, even though we hadn’t taken advantage of their advanced horsemanship daytime clinics.
The Home Ranch sits in the midst of a hiker’s paradise. You can summit Hahn’s Peak or nearby Mount Zirkel at 12,000 feet, walk along the gurgling creek, or hike to discover a number of alpine lakes (quick tip: don’t forget a collapsible fly rod).
On our first afternoon, we made an easy 20-minute hike up to the high meadow overlooking the ranch. We stumbled across the ranch’s herd of horses freely grazing, which was awesome to sit and watch. We didn’t realize at the time we’d later climb Hahn’s Peak, the prominent point in the background of the photo below.
Our Hahn’s Peak hike with Angel was a huge highlight as we climbed above the treeline, spotted deer and fox, and soaked in spectacular views. It’s a fairly steep hike, gaining 1,500 feet of elevation in 1.5 miles, but totally worth it. It also made us appreciate the night-time soak in our cabin’s outdoor Jacuzzi that much more.
You know how I said we couldn’t stop snapping photos? Well, we also couldn’t stop eating – though we conceded that point quickly upon realizing we’ve never been anywhere in the world with better quality food. Executive Chef Clyde Nelson and his team do a phenomenal job with their “haute mountain cuisine,” much of which is raised and grown right on the ranch.
Our single best meal was the wine pairing dinner in the main lodge, featuring specialty wines matched with six mouth-watering courses: fingerling potato confit, olathe corn soup (corn custard and crispy artichoke), seared Maine diver scallop (truffle cauliflower risotto), bison carpaccio (fried brussel sprout leaves and cippolini onion), Sand Mountain Cattle Company strip loin (caramelized fennel, braised greens) and chocolate mousse dessert.
The night before, however, dinner was wonderfully simple – we were picked up at our cabin and driven down to the farm on a horse-drawn wagon for homemade pizzas cooked in an outdoor, brick oven.
Eating outdoors in that gorgeous setting made each bite even tastier. That’s probably why lunches were my favorite overall meals at the ranch (plus the bacon-wrapped grilled shrimp was amazing).
Lunch was served out on the patio and, like all meals at The Home Ranch, was communal. Dining with the other guests was a surprising highlight. Lunch was a particularly exciting time because we had all enjoyed spectacular morning activities and eagerly swapped stories over lunch, knowing full well we’d have another fun activity in the afternoon, only to be followed by another round of appetizers and dinner.
In her New York Times best-seller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” Patricia Schultz praises The Home Ranch for “raising Western hospitality to an art form.” It’s not an overstatement. The owners and employees at The Home Ranch clearly love sharing the ranch with guests, who themselves feel a sense of ownership.
“When you’re here for the week, it’s your ranch,” a long-time guest told me over happy hour. “We’ve been coming with our kids for 25 years. Why would we go anywhere else? Besides, our kids would kill us if we stopped coming.”
Since returning home, my wife has swapped emails with two other women we met on the trip. To facilitate connections, The Home Ranch provides a list of each guest’s cabin during the week, as well as their back-home mailing and email addresses.
Angel, our hiking guide, kindly wrote the note below to us after our morning hike and arranged to have a waiter deliver it to us at dinner that night.
Our fellow guests seemed like guides themselves; most had been to the ranch before and generously offered helpful tips on everything from fly patterns to specific hikes to scenic routes back to the airport – all advice we gratefully followed.
The fact we couldn’t stop clicking and casting during our days in the mountains speaks volumes about The Home Ranch. In reality, though, the following statement reveals even more: When we left breakfast early to depart for our flight home, every single guest got up from the table to give us a handshake, hug or even a kiss on the cheek.
Indeed, there’s no place like Home. And that’s the truth.
Editor’s note: The website for The Home Ranch is www.homeranch.com. For more information, call 970.235.0750 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. And be sure to check out the short video below that showcases this amazing destination.