I spent the last week on a uniquely American vacation. High in the mountain canyon of the Conejos River, there lies a western Dude Ranch like few others. The Rainbow Trout Ranch, owned and operated by the Van Berkum family since the early 1990’s boasts award-winning horse riding, fly fishing, and programs for children and teens in a beautiful location. The ranch itself is roughly 600 acres, but has access to vast areas of the Rio Grande National Forest and the majestic San Juan Mountains.
As I said, I had the good fortune to spend 7 days on this ranch last week. It was the third time I have been there as a guest since 2010.
Early in the vacation, I had in my mind that I would write about the experience. So, while on a quiet trail ride my first day, I started gathering some thoughts about what I’d write. First in my mind was what, from a visitor’s perspective, makes for a good experience at a dude ranch? Here are a few thoughts:
The first thing that a visitor must notice is the quality and comfort of lodging. It is not necessary to have swanky, modern amenities. In fact, having rustic, but comfortable sleeping and living quarters like cabins is better than hotel style rooms. Clean running water, comfortable beds, a nice front porch to sit on, and perhaps a working gas or wood-burning fireplace are all nice features. But guest space should be comfortable without removing you from the rest of the ranch setting.
The next expectation is good food, and an ability to cater to a wide variety of dietary needs and restrictions. I realize dude ranching isn’t likely to be the first choice of vacations for a family of vegans, but it is critical that a ranch be able to create enjoyable food options for all. Three years ago, when we visited RTR for the second time, Isobel and I were in the middle of a several month vegan thing, and we were very impressed by the ability of the cooks and servers to accommodate our needs. We never had to remind a server that we had different dietary needs. The cook always had something interesting prepared for us, and the staff were ready to serve us along with everyone else as soon as we sat down to the table. Clearly, the main focus of food at a western dude ranch is going to be meat. If you are a happy carnivore, you will not leave disappointed. Loads of barbeque chicken and ribs, fajitas, steaks, eggs, turkey, lasagna, and more make meals enjoyable and filling. Meals at the ranch are open and allow guests from different families and groups to mingle and get to know each other.
Finally, to create an enjoyable experience for everyone, there have to be good activities. Nobody wants a vacation to feel like a forced march. For a ranch to cater to all, it must offer a full range of activities and opportunities for each person to make choices about what they are doing. A good dude ranch is first and foremost about riding horses, and the ranch must feature a range of riding experiences that do more than simply entertain the guests. What this means is good ranches must maintain complete riding programs, run by a highly skilled, knowledgeable and friendly staff. It must also have the benefit of locations that allow for riding opportunity of all levels of skill and length from one hour mosey/trail rides to all day advanced rides and every possible combination between. Fly-fishing, trap shooting, square dancing, cowboy poetry and singing, hay rides, poker games, and more also fill gaps. Furthermore, the activities have to encourage people who have travelled great distances to experience the surroundings in fun and engaging ways.
On all three of these points, I found the Rainbow Trout Ranch excelled.
In my experience, the proximity to airports, and the ease of travel to and from plays little or no role. In fact, the easier a dude ranch is to get to, the less it may offer in terms of good riding and fishing spots. There may well be exceptions to this statement, but none that I have experienced. Being remote in no way equates to beautiful rides on good horses with good guides, but not being remote often does imply the lack of some of those key qualities. 30 years ago, when I was a young boy, our family enjoyed a great dude ranch within a couple of hours drive of Denver (in Estes Park, CO), but these days one should expect at least a several hour drive from urban areas to find a good ranch that is far enough away from civilization. Part of going to a western dude ranch is to step out of the modern world for a few days. Don’t waste the experience at a place with great cell service or wi-fi.
The operation of a good guest ranch rests on the shoulders of ranch owners who are active, hard-working, and smart about the business. Dude/guest ranching, is just as much ranching as running any other working ranch. You take none of the work away when you focus on guests. You only add a big component of hospitality. But the work of maintaining property, grounds, cabins, trails, dining and recreational common areas, etc. is constant. Ranch owners who present themselves only as hosts and not working ranchers don’t run great dude ranches.
Another important part of running a good dude ranch is having a property that is worthy of the effort. Often the location, size and offerings of the property are what determine if a ranch is good or great. A great property has the right amenities for the purpose, plus stables and other needed facilities to run a quality riding program, comfortably house, feed and support guests, owners and staff. It also needs access to National Forest land or neighboring (private) lands. All of this requires savvy management and a good location to start.
In years of visiting these types of establishment, I have come to appreciate how important a good staff is to the operation of a good guest ranch. A ranch that doesn’t make the hiring of good staff a high priority is not a ranch that sees returning guests. And, yes, the opposite is true. A ranch that seeks to hire the best available staff — knowledgeable, hard-working, affable and good with guests — is a ranch that will see return visits from guests. High standards are mandatory in hiring from the riding and horse program staff, to the cooks, the housekeeping and wait staff, and the staff to work with kids. At RTR they hire a person with qualifications in early childhood education to run the activities for young visitors, and the result is a bunch of extremely happy kids.
A visitor arrives at a ranch tired and weary from travel but eager to have fun in a beautiful setting. In the three visits I’ve made to Rainbow Trout Ranch, I have always found I’m greeted by people who are ready to help me and my family have a great week. From the moment I arrive, I feel that I am at a working ranch, not a Hilton hotel. I’m ready to step out of my normal life to experience something exciting and rare. I trust that my needs will be addressed with great attention and care, and I know I won’t walk away feeling like I have just loafed around at an expensive spa for a week. This is active, fun family vacationing.
As horses are such an important part of the activity at these ranches, I should say a few words on that subject specifically. I have been quite amazed at the investment these ranches need to make in their riding programs. A good ranch can accommodate 30 to 50 guests a week, and must have horses for everyone. RTR has at least 115 horses, and almost all of those are top riding horses. They have spent years and it appears a great amount of money building their riding program. And it shows. New guests arrive on Sunday afternoon and leave the following Sunday morning. The ranch have organized their program so that each rider goes through a basic horse safety session first thing on Monday morning, followed by a small group (family) ride to ease each person in and introduce riders to their horses. Normally, a person rides the same horse all week, unless there is some reason to switch, and each day one has opportunity to do a morning and/or afternoon ride with options for beginning, intermediate and advanced skill levels. On Thursday they offer a couple of longer all-day rides. If at any point, you chose not to ride, you simply tell the staff. If you plan on not riding at all in a day, they don’t saddle your horse, but if you aren’t sure, they get your horse all ready just in case. It’s obviously lots of work for them, but they make it look effortless and it gives visitors a great deal of flexibility.
The Rainbow Trout Ranch is a great experience for families. We’ve been three times, which might sound like we’re hardcore, but trust me, we barely compare to the ranch’s real regulars. It isn’t uncommon to meet guests who come every summer and have done so for many years. Frequently, you meet other guests who are there for the first time on the recommendation of friends who have been 10 or more times. Guests come from all over the U.S. and the world.
The ranch is moderately priced in comparison to many other ranches. More expensive ranches will be more like spas with horses. Rainbow Trout Ranch is not that kind of ranch. It is a comfortable, fun and beautiful experience which encourages activity, participation and enjoyment.
The Rainbow Trout Ranch is a winner of the Signature Ranch Award of Duderanch.com. For information about rates, and to find more information, visit the ranch’s website or from the website of the Dude Rancher’s Association (national) of the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association.