Lake City’s Vickers Ranch: Frontier Spirit Thrives in the San Juan Mountains

Colorado dude ranch vacations can be as simple or luxurious as you want them to be. From airy mountaintop cabin rentals with four-star gourmet meals and spa treatments to rigorous cowboy camping excursions, guest ranch proprietors are ready to make your Old West lifestyle vacation a reality. Adventurous travelers with a yearning for days gone by will find their perfect getaway somewhere in the middle at Vickers Dude Ranch, a beloved family vacation spot in the heart of Western Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

Few things in Colorado have remained the same since the Vickers family opened their property to the public in the early 1900s. But the minute you arrive at their family-oriented resort you’ll see this is one place where the frontier spirit is alive and well. About the only thing that’s changed since J.W. Vickers purchased the 1,800-acre property in 1920 is that beginning this year, guests can own a piece of Western Colorado paradise by purchasing their own vacation cabin in the new Vickers Horse River Ranch, a 66-acre property on the family homestead.

Vickers Ranch is one of the oldest family businesses in Colorado. The property is an easy 4 ½-hour drive west from Denver to Lake City, a historic community founded by prospectors and ranchers in the mid-1800s. This town of just 500 year-round residents is nestled at the foot of the Slumgullion Earthflow, a spectacular landslide that created Lake San Cristobal, the second-largest natural lake in Colorado which today provides endless fishing, camping and exploring opportunities.

The weekly steak fry is a social event.

The Vickers family, 100 years after welcoming their first guest, remains an integral part of this remote and wild territory. What makes this place extra special is that the Vickers are not only hospitable hosts, but they’re dedicated land stewards, too. The Vickers partner with the Nature Conservancy to keep their property undeveloped and wild, using it for the family’s agricultural and wood harvesting needs, as well as for guest activities, such as hunting, outfitting, fishing and cowboy-style cookouts.

Vickers Ranch is perfect for vacationers who prefer to create their own adventure. Guests of the ranch check in at the early-1900s-era log cabin office. This authentic homestead, originally hand built by the Vickers family in the upper hay meadow, was later disassembled and relocated for easy access to what later became Colorado Highway 149. Upon check-in, you’re certain to meet one if not all of them at the office, since every family member plays a key role in making sure guests have a good time.

The property is managed by head honcho Larry, his son Paul, wife Paulette and daughter Faith. Occasionally the grandkids will be there, along with the resident herd of ranch dogs. One or all of the Vickers family will explain the ins and outs of enjoying the property, which includes four private fishing ponds, guest access to 1.5 miles of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River and numerous alpine lakes. Nearly 2,000 acres with heart-stopping views of the Uncompahgre, Weminuche and Powderhorn wilderness areas provide access to the Rio Grande and San Juan national forests.

Whether you enjoy riding horses or jeeps, the Vickers have a fleet of both available at reasonable rates. Group trail rides are offered several days a week, including a popular early-morning breakfast ride where guests dine on cowboy coffee and biscuits and gravy in the backcountry.

One of the best ways to explore the surrounding wilderness — some of the most remote in Colorado — is by jeeping the Alpine Loop Byway, a technically challenging, epic four-wheel-drive journey that traverses the awe-inspiring San Juan Mountains between Silverton, Lake City and Ouray. This summer Vickers is adding four-door jeeps to their touring fleet so larger parties can enjoy the 65-mile ride together. The ranch is just five minutes away from the Alpine Loop gateway.

Once you settle in to your vacation, you’ll see that Vickers is much more than your typical dude ranch; it’s a way of life for a long roster of repeat visitors. Most of them are there at the Wednesday night open-pit barbecue, held on a bluff overlooking Lake Cristobal, one of the most breathtaking mountaintop views in the San Juans.

Vickers Ranch has four private fishing ponds.

The weekly steak fry is a Lake City social event. After a long day on the trail or river, bring your beverage, a potluck dish and a hunk of meat to grill in the open pit barbecue tended by Larry Vickers and a crew of local characters, ranch guests and other Texans (who comprise a large percentage of Lake City’s summer visitors). Family dogs are also welcome. Should you miss the Wednesday gathering you’ll have another chance to meet the Vickers’ extended family on Friday night, during their complimentary customer appreciation burger feed in the historic log-built recreation hall.

And while summer is the best time to experience the area, fall has its own lure. As the air turns brisk and aspen leaves start to turn, the Vickers get out their gear to lead guided elk hunts for hardy hunting guests. The property is home to Hinsdale County’s best habitat for big game animals. Paul Vickers says that as many as 500 elk have recently been spotted on the property.

Paul explains that Hinsdale County is a Colorado Division of Wildlife “draw unit,” which requires potential hunters to apply for a tag to hunt as early as April of the same year. Winners are randomly drawn by May, so guests need to reserve early for a chance to hunt with sportsmen who have extensive knowledge about hunting in Hinsdale County.

Guest accommodations may be one of several hand-built, chink log cabins with stone fireplaces and cozy living rooms, two to four bedrooms, fully-stocked kitchens and rustic porches. The Vickers family has built the cabins themselves over the years. Some are situated alongside the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, while others are set in a more wooded, private setting. Every cabin is pet-friendly and includes linens, cooking equipment, complimentary firewood and barbecue grills.

Guests who love their cabins so much that they can’t bear to say goodbye now have the option of staying for good. Starting this year, 17 of Vickers Horse River Ranch cabins are for sale. Each one is newly renovated with updated electrical and plumbing and water systems, along with individual propane tanks.

Although the cabins are on the market, the family has assured guests that nothing else about the ranch will change. When the last cabin is sold, the Vickers family says they’ll no longer be in the cabin rental business but will continue offering their legendary hospitality, amenities and activities to property owners and their guests.

While the Vickers offer a long list of modern creature comforts, the dude ranch experience remains as genuine as it was when A.J. Vickers opened the gates in 1929. From the first-time visitor to today’s fourth-generation repeat guest, everyone can expect warm hospitality and a memorable mountain getaway. Just don’t expect to encounter all the trappings of a pre-planned vacation; there are no spa services, cowboy gunslinger reenactments or yoga classes. Instead, what you’ll find are the keys to your own San Juan Mountains adventure and authentic Colorado camaraderie from hospitable proprietors waiting to welcome you into the Vickers Ranch family.

If You Go

Vickers Dude Ranch Cabin Rentals

Vickers Horse River Ranch Properties

Alpine Loop Scenic Byway
Alpine Loop Scenic Byway: Colorado at its Loftiest
Scenic Byway: Alpine Loop

Lake City, Hinsdale County CO

Rene Agredano is a freelance writer who lives in Livingston, Texas.