A Western vacation doesn’t get any better than Colorado’s Drowsy Water Ranch.
Location, location, location. It has as much to do with choosing a vacation as it does buying real estate.
Last winter, when the desire for a mountain riding escape became unbearable, I began perusing websites hunting for that just-right ranch vacation. A well-meaning friend suggested I save travel time and money by finding a destination in the Southeast. Sorry, but no, thank you.
I enjoy plenty of good rides on my own horse on the numerous trail systems here in North Central Florida, but when it comes to vacation, location is my first priority, and when I want to ride in the mountains, I mean the serious mountains—as in the Rockies. With that in mind, I began searching for a ranch in Colorado. There were a few prerequisites. In addition to a Rocky Mountain location, there had to be plenty of riding with a chance to do more than just amble along, as well as other outdoor activities. I wanted to sleep in a real bed with access to a shower and actual bathroom instead of an outhouse. I’ve done the whole tent-camping- sleeping-bag adventure more than once, but that wasn’t what I wanted this time around. I didn’t want a big crowd, and while I have nothing against children, I wouldn’t mind a vacation without any.
How did we ever find vacations before the Internet? Ah yes, I seem to remember that’s what travel agents did. Today, you get to be your own travel agent; after all, you know better than anyone what you want and don’t want. It’s amazing what a wealth of information you can find with a good search engine.
After many hours of studying websites, I narrowed down my Colorado Rocky Mountain quest to a handful of ranches before settling on Drowsy Water Ranch (from here on referred to as DWR). Their website was extremely informative, and Justin Fosha, ranch manager and one of the owners, helpfully answered all my questions when I called. But it was the large number of enthusiastic online reviews from past guests that sealed the deal.
After reading the detailed and honest feedback from travelers, I felt this ranch definitely offered what I hoped to experience. The fact that DWR was voted No. 1 All-Inclusive Resort in the World on tripadvisor.com in 2010 and voted No. 4 in 2011 was also quite appealing. So, I rounded up three girlfriends—Mary, Martha and Robyn—who were also eager for a Western riding vacation, and we started making plans.
Summer guest season runs early June through mid-September. If, like us, you’re traveling with friends instead of family, you might prefer one of the ranch’s “adults-only” weeks, which fall at the end of the season. (Follow our lead and make reservations early before the season books up.) This is an ideal time for singles, couples and groups, and there are noticeably fewer guests. Unlike the height of the season with 50 to 60 guests per week, during adult weeks, there are usually only about two dozen or so. When September finally arrived and we headed to Colorado, we discovered for ourselves that all of those rave reviews were right on the money.
For nearly 80 years, DWR has been a guest ranch, and the Fosha family has owned it since 1977. An easy two-hour drive from the Denver airport, DWR is only a few miles outside the town of Granby and close to Rocky Mountain National Park, but it feels like you’ve stepped into another world. From the moment you hit the dirt road and drive under the towering timbered entrance that welcomes guests to the ranch, you sense both history and tradition. At an elevation of 8,200 feet, the ranch, covering 640 acres, is snugly situated in the valley’s lap and surrounded by majestic mountain ranges.
A big reason DWR earns so many positive reviews is that there’s literally something for everyone. In addition to riding every day, there is fishing and unlimited hiking trails, and for the fit and adventurous, mountain bikes are available. Golfers will appreciate the four 18-hole courses within the area, and there’s an all-day rafting adventure on the Colorado River included with your trip. The ranch has its own zipline, which offers amazing views from hundreds of feet up as you zip across the valley. There’s a swimming pool and also a hot tub, which felt positively divine after a day in the saddle. Families appreciate the fact that kids ages 6 through 12 can take part in the resort’s supervised “Range Rider” riding and instruction program.
Family is huge at DWR.Not only is the ranch family owned and operated, but the atmosphere is ideal for family vacations. DWR was recognized in 2011 on familyvacationcritic.com as the No. 1 Best Dude Ranch for Families.
The Foshas—Ken, Randy Sue, Justin, Gretta and Ryan—take their role as hosts seriously, but they have plenty of fun doing so. Whatever activities are scheduled, you can be sure one or more family members are involved, along with friendly, helpful staff. (Some of the staff were past guests who loved the ranch so much, they decided it would be a great place to work.)
If you come with a family or group and not everyone wants to ride all the time, there is no shortage of other options. A large dry erase board in the dining room lists the day’s activities, and you can do as little or as much as you like.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been to a dude ranch, and it exceeded my expectations,” says Peggy Sheahen, 75, who was visiting from Victor, New York. “I only rode once before when I was a kid. Beyond the horseback riding, there’s always something to do, and the Foshas pay attention to you. They’re sincere about you having a good time.”
Lodging is comfortably Western,whether you stay in the main lodge, known as “Horse Thief Den,” or one of nine cozy cabins nestled along the banks of the picturesque Drowsy Water Creek. We felt right at home in our “cabin sweet cabin,” a surprisingly roomy four-bedroom, two-bath idyllically situated by a small pond. We even had a wood burning stove, and on those crisp September nights, it was great to relax in the living room with a glass of wine in front of the fire. In addition to daily housekeeping, the DWR staff makes sure that cabins with woodstoves are well stocked with kindling and split wood, so starting a fire was a breeze.
If there’s one four-letter word you never want to hear on vacation, it’s “diet” After riding, eating seems to be one of the most popular activities at DWR. A staff member always rings the “gather ‘round” bell 15 minutes before lunch and dinner are served, and we found ourselves eagerly awaiting that signal to mosey on down to the lodge.
For the entire week, we forgot about calories and carbs and enjoyed the luxury of someone else doing all the cooking and cleaning up. Sticky, warm homemade cinnamon rolls and creamy hot chocolate became my standard way to start the day. After a morning spent in the saddle, we were more than ready to eat again at lunch, and somehow, come dinner, we found our appetites yet again.
Food isn’t fussy, but hearty and tasty. Meals are served family style by attentive and friendly staff who are quick to bring drinks and anything special you might need. I love the fact that there’s dessert at both lunch and dinner. My hands-down favorite was the pumpkin bars we had for lunch on the first day. (I loved them so much I had to get the recipe to make these treats at home.)
When you go to the Colorado Rockies, the very best way to experience this magnificent country is on the back of a good horse. DWR borders thousands of acres of spectacular backcountry and the Arapahoe National Forest. No matter which direction you ride, the scenery is breathtaking.
Riding is the ranch’s main focus—no matter how much or how little time you’ve spent in the saddle before your arrival. In our group, Mary and I have our own horses and ride regularly, while Martha and Robyn rarely get a chance to be on horseback. The beauty of DWR is that they are easily able to accommodate riders of all skill levels, thanks to a string of 130 well-trained horses and a detail-oriented wrangler program. Horses are carefully matched to each rider, based on their experience, size and any special considerations.
I’ve been on numerous riding vacations, but the horses at DWR were the best of the best. I ended up with a Paint gelding who was so responsive and such a pleasure to ride that I never felt like I was on a “dude” horse, while Robyn was able to release her inner cowgirl and cut loose on a dependable, safe mount who increased her confidence and improved her riding ability.
“Our goal is to help people have fun but also to become better riders,” says Randy Sue.
In addition to careful matchmaking between horse and rider, the Foshas take the time to give enough general instruction that even first-timers learn horsemanship basics. They offer lesson rides and loping clinics so that riders feel competent before hitting the trails, some of which are remarkably steep and twisting.
“Even if you ride elsewhere, the terrain is different here and there are different things to look out for,” Ken adds.
The opportunity to play cowgirl for a week is exactly why Trudy Wesley, 25, of Ipswich, England, returned for a second vacation at DWR. (Actually, 50 percent of the ranch’s clientele are returning guests.)
“I ride two or three times a week at home, but my first time riding Western was here last summer. I came back this year because I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wanted the cowboy experience, and I get to ride in amazing scenery that you never see in England,” says Trudy, whose sweatshirt declares “Keep Calm and Canter On.”
“The ranch taught me that horseback riding is ageless,” says Irene Hayden, 72, a social worker/therapist from Apex, North Carolina who came to DWR with her extended family. “The instruction is awesome! They matched me with a horse that was responsive, and I really had a rapport with my horse.”
“I’ve done some horseback riding, but it had been years and years,” admits Scott Gardner, 48, of Parkland, Florida, who came to DWR with wife, Susan, 48. “I decided I wanted to do something in the mountains with horseback riding, but I hadn’t been on a horse for 20 plus years before this week. We took two half-hour lessons at home before we came out, but the training they offer here made it easier than I expected. The horses were very well behaved, and the small lessons sunk in very quickly.”
For the Fosha family, such comments only confirm that they are indeed meeting their goals of satisfying guests.
“We’ve been to a lot of ranches ourselves, and it’s industry-standard to match horses to riders, but we’ve found it makes for a better experience to take the time to offer more instruction,” notes Justin, who has an MBA in marketing and serves on the board of directors of the Colorado Dude Ranchers’ Association.
To me, the proof of a perfect vacation is found when it’s time to pack up. On our ride that last afternoon, I tried to imprint every moment to memory: the grandeur of the mountains, the blazing gold of the aspens, the clink of horseshoes on the rocky trail, the laughter of our small group of riders and the cool curtain of evening as it descended over the valley.
After a hilariously entertaining skit show and awards presentation on the final evening, all the guests, the Foshas and their staff gathered one last time to reminisce about the week, exchange email addresses and say our good-byes. As we four walked back to our cabin under a black velvet sky studded with countless stars, I was overwhelmed with a bittersweet sense of sadness at having to go back to the “real” world. I haven’t had that “I don’t want to leave” feeling on a vacation since I was a kid at the end of summer camp in the mountains of Arizona.
If the Foshas and Drowsy Water Ranch can deliver this kind of fulfillment, it’s no wonder guests return again and again. I plan to be one of them.
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