Home on the Range: Colorado’s Home Ranch

LEADdudeRanchThere’s a difference between learning to ride and learning to communicate with your horse,” says Johnny Fisher, general manager at The Home Ranch, as he leans back in his chair. “We help you learn both.”

The 12 guests sitting around the long oak table in the rustic dining room listen raptly to Fisher. They’ve just spent the day horseback riding through aspen-covered hills and across the green Elk River Valley in Clark, Colorado. For many of them, riding is a new experience. Now they’re relaxed, enjoying a scrumptious gourmet dinner and fine wine — and they’re eager to hear more.

“It’s not magic,” Fisher says, speaking of the ranch’s philosophy on riding. “It’s just simple body language the animals understand.”

Fisher should know. He fell in love with ranching when he was just 14 years old and working at the C Lazy U Ranch in Grandby, another dude ranch in the region. Now he aims to share that passion for the Western high country with guests at The Home Ranch, and it’s obvious that he relishes the role.

“I love this job — the people, the lifestyle and the surroundings,” he says.

With experienced staff like Fisher, The Home Ranch easily reaches its goal of providing guests with an authentic Western experience. This is no canned Hollywood encounter where guests can simply play cowboy for the week; this 1,500-acre (16 km ²) working ranch is the real thing.

Yet don’t let the name “dude ranch” fool you.

While the tone here is laidback and never pretentious, The Home Ranch spoils its guests with luxurious surroundings and fine gourmet dining. This 4-star lodge is a member of Relais & Châteaux, a prestigious association of luxurious small properties worldwide. “All Relais & Châteaux properties have something unique, something rare, that they offer their guests,” says Fisher.

The tone at The Home Ranch is laidback, yet the amenities are never short on luxury.
The tone at The Home Ranch is laidback, yet the amenities are never short on luxury.

And The Home Ranch is a rare find indeed. There are six elegant guest rooms in the Main Lodge, and eight cabins, each with its own spa and covered porch. The cabins vary in size, from one to three bedrooms, and can easily accommodate a family.

There are Native American-made rugs on the floors, cozy comforters on the soft beds and even a wood-burning stove in each cabin. Thoughtful touches, such as homemade chocolate-chip cookies, cheese and crackers, and teas and coffee, make each cabin feel like home.

The tasteful decorations and Western ambiance at The Home Ranch are the creation of Ann Stranahan, one of the ranch owners.

“We walk a narrow line when it comes to furnishings and decorations,” says Ann. “It would be easy to become too elegant, and lose the warmth we want to have. We want to preserve the look and feel of an original Western homestead in a sophisticated way.”

Such careful study reveals Ann’s true passion for the ranch, which has been a part of her life for the past 25 years.

The idea for the upscale lodge was conceived in 1977. Ann and her husband, Steve, were vacationing at a well-known dude ranch in Cody, Wyoming, where they met Ken Jones, then the ranch manager.

The three became friends, and Jones, whose father ranched in Montana, shared his dream of starting a new ranch of his own. The Stranahans, entrepreneurs from Ohio, shared Jones’ vision. Soon a partnership was born.

When it came to choosing a location for the ranch, the three co-owners looked at properties all over the West. Yet they were drawn to the Steamboat Springs region, where the Stranahans had spent many happy times with their four children. While on a family ski trip in Colorado, Ann saw a newspaper ad for land in the Elk River Valley. It was exactly what they were looking for.

The Stranahans were pleased that the valley’s agricultural heritage had been preserved — and they aimed to keep it that way. “After we purchased the land, we got together with our neighbors,” Ann says, “and we agreed on our goal of preserving the valley in its current state. This is one of the last undeveloped alpine valleys in the country, and because of the efforts of its landowners, it will stay the way it looks now.”

The lodge has an extensive riding program, with excursions for all levels.
The lodge has an extensive riding program, with excursions for all levels.

Located 175 miles (281 km) from Denver, the guest ranch borders the 1 million acre (4,047 km ²) Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. The ranch lies on the valley floor, only 7,200 feet (2,195 m) above sea level, yet the towering Rocky Mountains, including 12,180-foot (3,712 m) Mount Zirkel, are just minutes away for guests to explore.

Steamboat Springs, the famous ski town, is just 18 miles (29 km) away. This Western community of 10,000 has skiing in its blood, and has produced more than 50 Olympic ski champions. Yet Steamboat has not forgotten its Western roots. Ranching is still a way of life, and it’s not uncommon to see cowboy hats, even on the ski slopes.

While winter is a glorious season in the valley, with sparkling, white-covered hills and crisp days, in summer the region truly comes alive. Thick groves of aspen leaf out, wildflowers cover the mountain meadows, and the days are warm and sunny. In fact, there are so many ways to enjoy the long summer days at The Home Ranch that you may never even make it into town.

The lodge has an extensive riding program, with about 100 horses. There are riding programs for all levels, including children. There are riding programs for all levels, including children. (Children ages 6 and up are welcome at the ranch; during the Christmas season, younger children are welcome, as well.) Swimming and a fully stocked games room ensure that tykes are never bored. Older kids may enjoy volleyball or rock-climbing.

While such activities make for unforgettable vacations, other memories are formed around the ranch dinner tables. All meals are included at The Home Ranch, and this in itself is a treat. Chef Clyde Nelson is well-known for his gourmet creations, with dishes ranging from calamari to grilled beef tenderloin and fresh salads.

Meals are served communal style, allowing guests to mingle with the ranch staff and each other. “We’re always surprised how many guests get to know each other at the ranch and then become “vacation friends,” says Steve Stranahan. “They enjoy each other so much that they come back together at the same time each year.”

The Home Ranch donates one week every year to a very special group of guests: children and their families from MD Anderson in Houston, a hospital that specializes in cancer research. Though the children may be ill, they and their families have a carefree and unforgettable experience at The Home Ranch. “This week is a high point for our staff as well as our guests,” says Ann.

And unforgettable family vacations are what The Home Ranch is all about. Guests come from as far away as Europe to experience the Old West in classic style — and it’s no wonder.

As another summer evening at the ranch slips away, the sun begins to dip behind the Rocky Mountains. The barns cast long shadows against the green pastures, and the aspen groves grow dark.

The guests lingering over dinner come out to watch the sunset. Streaks of yellow and pink rise from behind the towering peaks, as if backlit by some unknown director. And then suddenly, the light is gone.

Someone in the group breathes a contented sigh, and then the guests slowly walk back to their separate cabins. It’s been another good day in the Rocky Mountains.

If You Go

The Home Ranch