CRAWFORD, Colo. - My horse's name was Big Sugar Mama. We hit it off, loping through streams and chasing even the peskiest cows into their pens. I had saddled up only a handful of times since riding as a kid in Amherst. But I've always loved the intuition of a good horse. You can't pretend to be calm on a horse while doing mental gymnastics. My new equine friend forced me to let go and relax. Big Sugar Mama soothed my soul in ways that I didn't know I needed.
I was riding out of a dude ranch nestled at 7,200 feet on the Smith Fork of the Gunnison River along the Rockies' western slope. My wife, Elena, my brother-in-law Richard, and I had brought our six children, ages 3 to 15, to ride horses, fly-fish, practice archery, hike the Black Canyon, eat gourmet food, and live the cowboy lifestyle. The wildflowers were in bloom, the salmon fly hatch at its peak, and the views of snow-covered mountains made me think that, after a decade in venture capitalism, I was in a Marlboro commercial.
Smith Fork Ranch was homesteaded in 1890 and legend says it was traded for a banjo before being turned into a guest ranch in the 1940s. By the time Marley Hodgson Jr. and his wife, Linda, bought the property in 2000, the 289-acre ranch had fallen into severe disrepair.
Over barbeque ribs with the sound of the Smith Fork nearby, Hodgson told me the story of how the deal came to pass. The couple's real estate agent had been looking for years to find them a piece of the "working west." They were preparing to sell their luxury leather goods company, Ghurka, when they got an urgent phone call in Manhattan to come to Colorado. The agent had spotted the ranch while flying his plane from Telluride to Aspen. He landed and asked for a lift out to the property from the cow town of Crawford, about 7 1/2 miles away.
The Hodgsons bought the ranch and decided to restore it to its original condition and function. Artisan carpenters numbered each log of each building, took the structures apart, and rebuilt them on the original footprints. All the renovation and improvements reflect an attention to detail and concern for authenticity and comfortable elegance that help makes Smith Fork Ranch feel like home to guests. It opened in 2002 and has quickly gained a reputation for offering one of the most intimate and luxurious dude ranch experiences in the country.
We found out about the ranch from travel brokers Abercrombie & Kent, who recommended it as particularly kid-friendly. We flew to Denver and took one of the most breathtaking drives our country has to offer over Vail Pass and along the raging Colorado River. Near the ranch is a massive rock monolith about 1,000 feet high that looks right out of an old Western movie set, and, we discovered, is near where rocker Joe Cocker lives.
When we arrived, Alyssa Adams, whose husband, Andy, manages the ranch, showed us our rooms while her kids, Otis and Lulu, played with our 3-year-old, Cole. (They would all become fast friends, among the dogs, ponies, tepees, and kids' dinners.) Soon after we got there, I looked up at the mountains, at the horses grazing in the pastures, and breathed deeply for the first time in months.
The ranch accommodates a maximum of 26 guests at a time and has a one-to-one guest-to-staff ratio. Our group of nine took over the largest guest house, complete with our own living room, kitchen, and porches. Cole was particularly happy to have a "big bed" to sleep in, a beautiful willow-framed sofa/day bed turned toward the wall to keep him from tumbling out. Each room was beautifully decorated, and there was twice daily maid service.
Beyond the accommodations, the food here was also first rate; Smith Fork received a rave review from Food & Wine magazine. As we sat down on the large outdoor dining pavilion to Colorado lamb chop with Zephyros goat cheese bread pudding and Fire Trail watercress, I began to understand why. The kitchen's commitment to the local organic slow-food movement was apparent with every meal; local ingredients were used almost exclusively.
At the dinner table, I was overwhelmed by the view of Saddle Mountain; the food equaled the location in every way. We dined on duck, pheasant, and local elk, along with traditional barbeque. The wine cellar, with more than 250 labels featuring many local brands, kept even the most sophisticated connoisseurs happy. Elena was charmed by the breakfast room with its booths covered in raw cow hides and custom Ghurka leather seats. I made sure to get up early for the fresh baked muffins.
I came to Smith Fork for the riding and I was not disappointed. I rode Sugar Mama through the watery ditches that have irrigated the high desert for a century and up to the most breathtaking views of my life. The wranglers were uniformly friendly and wonderful with kids of all ages and riders of all levels.
With 3 1/2 miles of private water along the Smith Fork bisecting the property, and six stocked trophy trout ponds and the world famous Gunnison River just a few miles away, fly-fishing fans can indulge their passion. The ranch has four knowledgeable guides who turned us on to the sport. One helped Cole catch his first fish, and another helped Seamus, our 12-year-old, catch a five-pound rainbow trout. At the campfire one night we all laughed when we heard that one enthusiastic guide had jumped into the Smith Fork - his camera and walkie-talkie be damned - to net the 19-inch brown trout a guest from Texas had hooked.
Ranch activities provide guests of all ages and interests with plenty to do. One morning we rode our horses upriver for a cowboy cookout breakfast, and we topped the week off on Saturday afternoon by riding to the top of one of the nearby mountains for cocktails. A local husband and wife team of musicians inspired adults and kids alike to boogey with wranglers and fishing guides one evening. Another night John Mark Winchester, one of the guides, broke some teenage hearts when he played guitar and sang at the campfire.
With six kids in tow we wanted to make sure they had a good time. Two staff members were assigned to take care of our little ones at all times, from tie-dying to pony riding, as part of the kids' program. Children had the option of eating dinner each night with their counselors, close enough so they could run over to visit us whenever they wanted, but far enough so parents could dine in peace. There is a weekly kids' cookout complete with field games.
Seamus and his cousin, R.J., 15, got every last ounce of fun out of the week by creating an elaborate point system involving everything from fishing to shooting pool. Seamus was the reigning ping-pong champion until one of the fishing guides beat him soundly. My daughter, Kerry, 14, was inspired by one of the waitresses who sang a hauntingly beautiful song at the campfire.
By the end of the week none of us wanted to leave, because of the horses and fishing and mountains and amazing food, but mostly we didn't want to leave our new friends. We said goodbye with the promise that we would return.
Thomas Matlack can be reached at ThomasMatlack@gmail.com.