Mountain High: Colorado Dude Ranches

The last traces of snow have disappeared here in the Rockies, replaced by blooming wildflowers, shimmering aspen and the pure, warm breezes of summer.

The temperate days and cool nights provide perfect conditions for hiking along mountain streams and horseback riding across valley pastures. Though thousands of skiers flock to Colorado each winter, summertime is when the Centennial State shows off her best features.

But you don’t have to live in the mountains to savor the pleasures of summer in the High Country. Just head to one of Colorado’s dude ranches, and experience it for yourself.

Horseback rides in scenic pastures are just one delight at Latigo Ranch.

Grand County, located in the heart of the Rockies just two hours from Denver, has been called the “Dude Ranch Capital of the U.S.” Tucked away high in the Colorado Rockies, this region boasts four world-class ranches, each one with its own unique approach to the Colorado western experience.

The trick is to find the dude ranch that fits your needs.

“There is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to dude ranches,” says Randy George, co-owner of Latigo Ranch in Grand County, “When you’re first looking at ranches, it’s good to find several of them that interest you and then give them a call. Every ranch has its own personality, and that comes from the people who run it.”

It’s important to find out how the ranch is geared. Is it right for families? Do kids have their own program? Can mom and dad have time alone? Is there family time for those who want it?

“When people call, I ask them what they’re really looking for,” George says. “Usually the folks who come to a dude ranch hit it off well together because they have made the same choice and are looking for the same thing out of the experience.”

Latigo Ranch is a hybrid of several focuses, says George. While the ranch offers a well-organized children’s program, the main priority is still on family togetherness. Nightly entertainment is geared for all ages, with cowboy poetry readings, sing-alongs and square dancing.

Bar Lazy J is the oldest continuously operated dude ranch in Colorado.

Latigo’s other focus is one you would expect from a world-class ranch — horseback riding. With some of the most scenic pastures, river walks, Aspen groves and panoramas in Colorado, riding at Latigo is a delight to the senses.

Bar Lazy J, another of Grand County’s guest ranches, is the oldest continuously operated dude ranch in Colorado. Originally built in 1904, Bar Lazy J has been welcoming guests since 1912. Now owned by Jerry and Cheri Helmick, former business people who decided to make their dream of owning a ranch come true, Bar Lazy J prides itself on being “family and kid friendly.”

“The ranch is set up in a compound with the lodge in the middle,” says Jerry Kelmick. “That way, the kids are never far away, and guests can use the lodge and library as their living room.”

Kids enjoy their own special area of the ranch, with baby animals, teepees, a playground, and horseshoes nearby. Each of the 12 individual cabins has a screened-in porch and is situated on the banks of the beautiful Colorado River.

In one unique aspect of the children’s program, young riders can take a ride into the small town of Parshall. “The kids can hitch up their horses, and have a sarsaparilla with Dorothy at the General Store,” says Kelmick.

The C Lazy U is luxury with a western twist. With a 1-to-1 guest/staff ratio, ranch visitors are never lacking for whatever they need. Accommodations at the 5-Diamond ranch are top notch, and guests enjoy tennis courts, a gym, indoor riding arena, spa, and a swimming pool fit for a country club.

There is a comprehensive children’s program for kids ages three and up. Children eat in their own dining room for lunch and dinner. Families eat together for breakfast.

“Our rustic elegance sets us apart,” says Brian Murray, who operates the ranch along with several other members of his family. “We provide a high level of service to an upwardly mobile urban crowd, yet still maintain that flavor of the Old West. It’s an amalgam of those two things.”

Drowsy Water is one of the few Grand County Dude Ranches that offer infant care. Their program is geared from the littlest guest on up. Well-known for their riding programs, hesitant riders will be at home in the saddle in no time. The 600-acre ranch offers other activities, including hayrides, pack trips, rodeos, raft trips and trout fishing.

Dude ranch vacations are all about spending time together. You can hike, ride, swim—or simply do nothing at all. But no matter what you want to do, you’ll probably find it at a Colorado dude ranch.

If You Go

Latigo Ranch

Drowsy Water Ranch

C Lazy U

Bar Lazy J

Janna Graber is a Colorado native.