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Beat the Heat This Summer With the Rugged Luxury of Vista Verde Ranch

The all-inclusive Colorado dude ranch provides an escape from the weather and busyness of everyday life in North Texas.
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Vista Verde Ranch's trail rides are perfect for any age. Courtesy: Vista Verde Ranch

Beat the Heat This Summer With the Rugged Luxury of Vista Verde Ranch

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After living in Texas for almost my entire life, nothing beats escaping the oppressive temperature of the Lone Star State like a summer trip to the Rocky Mountains. For an escape that feels like a luxury summer camp that balances unbeatable views with horsemanship and mountain adventure recreation, Vista Verde Ranch can’t be beaten.

North Texas guests at this luxury ranch resort can fly either Southwest or American Airlines into the Hayden airport near Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where they are less than an hour’s shuttle ride to the ranch. As guests leave the picturesque ski town and head into the mountains, they will follow the Elk River to the 540-acre property in the middle of the Routt National Forest, 25 miles from the nearest stoplight and less than 20 miles from the Wyoming border.

After being home to ranging Ute tribes, the ranch was originally settled via the Homestead Act in the early 1900s. It became a full-scale Dude Ranch in the 1970s and is now owned by the Jones family, who purchased the property in 2016 and are from Chicago.

At more than 7,720 feet in elevation, guests will want to take it slow, but the ranch’s bevy of activities make it hard to slow down, especially if there are children in tow. The ranch boasts 12 private cabins, each equipped with its own hot tub, and three rooms in the lodge, where guests eat and are entertained by live music and line dancing at the all-inclusive resort.

The rooms are a short walk to the lodge, game room, barn, and activities center and come with all the trappings of a five-star resort room, complete with luxury bedding, a comfortable sitting area (warmed by a wood-burning stove in the winter), and ample snacks and drinks. For our guys’ trip earlier this year, we stayed in a two-bedroom cabin with my six-year-old son, a college buddy, and his son.

Summer is Vista Verde’s busiest period, and guests can participate in traditional rugged dude ranch activities as well as something a little calmer. Horsemanship clinics, trail riding, hiking, mountain biking, fly fishing, paddle boarding, and archery are great ways to burn calories and enjoy the scenery in the summer. If you are looking for someone a little less aerobic and more creative, the ranch also offers a photography workshop, yoga, cooking classes, and wine tasting.

Our visit was in the winter, and was especially memorable for being the first time my son had seen real snow. The ranch had been dumped on in previous days (Vista Verde Ranch receives 350 inches of snow annually), but we enjoyed three bluebird days, perfect for getting out and about while feeling like we were in the snowy Rocky Mountains.

We spent one afternoon being ferried up and sliding down the snow tubing hill with only minor crashes to speak of, and another day we spent ice fishing on a frozen Steamboat Lake, where we caught several Rainbow Trout, a first for all of us. The boys were ecstatic!

I was worried that the young ones may not last long while doing what can be physically taxing back-country skiing, but our guide’s patience, encouragement, and excellent selection of terrain made the experience memorable for all of us first-time cross-country skiers—the past few days of snow created acres of gorgeous untouched terrain in Routt National Forest for us to ski through.

My son enjoyed all the activities, but the time spent around the horses stood out for him. He wanted to know everything he could about the horses and lacked the trepidation that often accompanies the first ride on such a powerful beast. The trail ride and sleigh ride where we fed the horses made us, if only briefly, feel like real cowboys. My son, meanwhile, may have found his calling. The ranch has indoor and outdoor arenas for the more experienced riders to develop their skill sets by riding more than 100 horses on the ranch. The equine activities were a great way to tour the ranch and learn more about riding.

Our group opted to stick together for our first trip to the ranch, but for the families who’d like to spend some time apart during their stay at the ranch, Vista Verde offers children, tweens, and teens programs that allow the kids to experience all the ranch has to offer without being bummed out by their parents. The Ranch staff were as kind and professional as any I have experienced, with their knowledge of the activity and of the grounds matched by their bright and personable attitudes. While we didn’t take advantage of it this time, I would have zero problems leaving my kids with the staff for a fun day.

For our younger children, the Kids Hut was the perfect respite between activities. Arts and crafts, cards, and the primary activity of the trip, foosball, were the ideal way to break up the days spent outside. And when a barn cat wandered into the kid’s club to entertain the boys, we almost didn’t get them to their next activity.

To be honest, the food was not on the top of my list of things I was looking forward to when visiting Vista Verde Ranch, but it was the first thing I mentioned when I came home and told everyone about the trip. Whatever you think about Dude Ranch food, you can forget it when Vista Verde is concerned. Food & Beverage Director Chef Jonathon Gillespie brings a wealth of experience from other hospitality-focused head chef positions and creates meals that compare to any luxury resort. On the range cowboy food, this is not.

Breakfast options include an ample buffet amplified by made-to-order items ranging from buttermilk pancakes for those seeking comfort foods to more exotic options like corned beef hash with Shiitake mushrooms and carrot cake waffles with walnut syrup.

The ever-changing dinner menu provides options for adventurous guests who can enjoy starters like butternut squash soup followed by artistically presented and savory entrees such as potato gnocchi with short rib ragu or hand-cut squid ink fettuccine and royal red shrimp with roasted fennel, tomato, sea urchin butter. Each entree has a unique wine pairing, and Gillespie maintains a list of over 150 wines that Wine Spectator has recognized with the Award of Excellence for several years. The desserts were also plentiful and beautiful, and we can recommend the flourless chocolate cake topped with Gran Marnier Anglaise.

Vista Verde also has a kid-friendly menu with all the classics you would expect. Every second night, the kids head upstairs to the lodge for a kids’ dinner and movie night supervised by ranch staff while the adults enjoy a fine dining experience.

Speaking of time at the ranch without children, Vista Verd’s hosts an adult-only season from mid-August through the fall, when the ranch capacity is just 30, and adult guests can enjoy the wine, hot tubs, and plush robes for what the staff jokingly calls summer camp for adults.

The ranch also makes an excellent spot for an executive corporate retreat, incentive trip, or annual meeting. From October to November, corporate groups can take advantage of the all-inclusive rate or plan activities a la carte. The luxury accommodations and Western-themed team-building activities can help a new team bond or an experienced one become even stronger.

The trip was the first time my 6-year-old son and I had traveled without his brother and mother, which made the trip and the bonding even more enjoyable. As we sat with our friends in the hot tub on a brick evening, we could see thousands of stars we don’t see in Dallas, listening to the fluttering leaves of the aspen trees throughout the ranch, faint outlines of nearby Mount Zirkel and Hahn’s Peak in the distance.

Watching the massive elk that would tower over the white-tail deer we are used to in Texas, listening to the cackles of coyotes, and catching a glimpse of a marmot and a fox made the experience even more unique. We didn’t see any on our trip, but we heard that the lucky guests may catch a glimpse of a moose or bear roaming the Rockies. In summer, a pair of Sand Hill Cranes join the guests at the ranch as they nest near the creek that runs through the Ranch’s pasture.

The trip lasted a few days, but the memories will last a lifetime.


Will Maddox

Will Maddox

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Will is the senior writer for D CEO magazine and the editor of D CEO Healthcare. He's written about healthcare…