The Home Ranch review: Colorado dude ranch

If you book a stay at The Home Ranch, located just outside Steamboat Springs, Colorado, you’d better get used to hearing the word ‘yes’. As in, ‘Yes, we can accommodate that’, or, ‘Yes, we’ll make that happen’, or ‘Yes, you most certainly can’. And yes, this ‘can do’ attitude is a delight to hear during a dude ranch vacation.

We discovered this rhetoric early on during our early summer visit, when I hoped to spend a little extra time with my assigned horse for the week in the fenced riding arena before hitting the many bridle trails. Immediately, despite (or perhaps because of) a daily schedule that runs like a well-oiled machine, head wrangler Michael Moon made sure it happened. I had two excellent sessions in the arena, with wranglers Davy and Bree. I heard ‘yes’ again and again throughout our stay: yes to the family hoping to hop on mountain bikes at the last minute, yes to dietary needs that ranged from pescatarian to vegan, yes to a run for blueberries at breakfast, yes to fly fishing at a specific location.

We’ve now sampled four North American dude ranches, all of which serve up all-inclusive vacations located amid stunning natural beauty with plenty of opportunity for outdoor recreation. All require Western riding boots and cater to families seeking week-long stays. After that, they differ considerably, which is why it’s important to know how to pick the right dude ranch for your family. Or you can cheat, and book The Home Ranch without risk of disappointment: for almost all families, this Colorado dude ranch will tick all the boxes.

What makes The Home Ranch perfect? Three factors: the variety of included outdoor activities offered in addition to the riding program, the level of service and culinary standards (The Home Ranch holds membership in the prestigious Relais & Chateaux hotel association), and the friendliness and flexibility of the staff, from the dining team to the barn director.

Lodging options at The Home Ranch:

Founded in 1978 by the Stranahan family, The Home Ranch sits on 4,000 acres along the Elk River, in the shadow of the Zirkel Wilderness and the Sawtooth Mountains. The cozily sprawling main lodge houses six guest rooms, several of which have lofts to accommodate kids in a suite-style layout, plus communal ‘living room’ space with a river rock fireplace and tucked away sunroom, a dining room and no-host bar, and front and back decks with lots of lounging options. Out front sits the children’s recreation building, outdoor pool and hot tub, and within easy walking distance amid the aspen trees, eight cabins accommodate from four to eight guests each.

Each of the cabins and the guest rooms in the lodge include in-room WiFi, a small fridge stocked with some sparkling water and snacks, pantry snacks such as granola bars and homemade cookies, and a Keurig coffee maker (in the lodge, we just stepped downstairs in our provided robes to use the Keurig at the wet bar adjacent to the living room). The Home Ranch does not use keys, but you can lock yourself into your room with a deadbolt, and a safe is available in each room and cabin. You also get a hair dryer and makeup mirror, humidifier, and the aforementioned bathrobes. Cabins have fireplaces or wood-burning stoves. We were very comfortable in our lodge room…the only thing I missed was a patio or balcony, so I could enjoy a beverage in the morning or evening while looking out over the beautiful Alpine valley views.

A typical day at The Home Ranch looks a little like this:

Breakfast is served in the lodge dining room from 7:30 am until 9 am, with continental offerings and coffee and tea set out earlier. At breakfast, which is made to order (just about anything you could ask for), with two featured specials per day, head wrangler Michael makes the rounds, taking ‘orders’ for the day’s activities. Morning rides depart from the barn around 9:30 and 10 am, and in addition to kids’ rides led by specialized children’s counselors and adult rides split into ability groups, families can ask for individual family rides as well.

Lunch is served on the front deck, and always included sandwich makings, a variety of salads and veggies, two soup options, and something on the grill every day. Around 2 pm, an afternoon ride is offered for all groups, or families can opt for pool time. During both the morning and afternoon rides, staff members from the hiking and fishing huts offer fly fishing clinics and trips, guided hikes, guided mountain biking on state-of-the-art suspension mountain bikes, and nature walks. Most days, we opted for a morning ride followed by an afternoon playing in the mountains in another capacity.

After the afternoon rides and activities, kids are kept busy with the children’s counselors while parents freshen up or enjoy a dip in the pool, and children’s dinner is served on the deck around 6:30 pm, with adult dinner in the dining room around 7 pm. The kids continue to be looked after until 9 pm.

While this is the general schedule, every day holds a different surprise, such as a brunch ride one day (riding horses to an 11 am brunch), an ‘all day ride’ offered several times during the week (a few hours in the saddle followed by lunch at a remote location and a few hours back), and evening activities that include wine pairing dinners, cookouts, and barn dances.

Highlight: kids are supervised with their own programming with their own dedicated counselors during the morning ride, after lunch, during the afternoon ride/activity time, between activities and dinner, during dinner, and after dinner. That’s a lot of supervision! Of course, you can always take your kids out of the children’s program for any family time. However, kids are not allowed at grown-up dinner.

Dining at The Home Ranch:

When you drive up to the ranch on arrival, the first thing you notice might not be the barn and horses. It might be a greenhouse and gardens. That’s because The Home Ranch hires a horticulture team headed by Home Ranch team member Allison to provide some of the food for the ranch kitchen; in fact, I was told 80% of their salad greens and veggies are homegrown…not an easy feat at elevation in Colorado. Chickens and livestock are also raised on-site for local, sustainable meat and eggs. There are even beehives.

Executive chef Jonathon Gillespie is highly creative (we affectionately called him the mad scientist chef) and our meals were extremely fresh, inventive and delightful every night. All meals utilize the fresh food available, with a whole food-bent. All diets can be accommodated. You will never go hungry; Pastry Chef Douglas Short’s pastries and freshly baked breads were my personal downfall.

The honor bar in the lodge is fully stocked with a good variety of wines, local beers, liquors, and all the mixers you might need. Just go in and help yourself, writing down any selections on the provided tickets organized by cabin or room name. Not realizing The Home Ranch would have such a fully stocked bar, we brought a fair amount of our own booze, and if we had had a balcony in our lodge room, we might have made our own drinks to enjoy there (guest-brought alcohol is permitted, but only in rooms and cabins). However, we quickly realized we didn’t need to. Wine, cocktails and beer can be ordered at dinner as well. Each dinner menu offered two featured wine suggestions, but everything in the bar is available during meals as well.

Included activities at The Home Ranch:

In addition to the elevated cuisine and service, the amount of included activities at The Home Ranch is what sets it apart for me from the others we visited. We tried out just about everything, and the only things we encountered with an extra charge included alcohol (both from the bar and at dinner), items bought in the gift shop, and on-site massages. Of course, you can add more to this list if you ask the ranch to arrange off-site activities, such as clay pigeon shooting, river rafting, hot air balloon rides, or gravity-based (lift-served) mountain biking at Steamboat. However, all on-site activities were included.

Horse program:

The horse program at The Home Ranch offers the best first-day orientation we’ve encountered so far at a dude ranch. The wranglers take the time to explain not just what to do on the horses, but why, and extensive (but not too lengthy) instruction is given in the arena before riders hit the trails. Each guest who wants to ride horseback is paired with a horse of their own for the week, which is very nice for consistency. Wranglers divide up rides into small groups based on ability levels and desires (grouping all riders who want to trot and lope together, for instance, and all riders who want to only walk together). Every wrangler we rode with was excellent, and I never rode the same trail twice. The topography varies between high mountain meadows, woods, and ridges, with plenty of interesting moments as horses picked their way carefully down steep grades or loped along fence lines (as desired by the group of riders).

I never grew tired of riding. As noted above, all-day rides are offered several times during the week, as well as a ‘Ride Fish Ride’ offering, which combines the two sports. One day during the week, wranglers invite guests to help them bring in the cattle from a distant pasture, and the week often culminates in a ‘rodeo’ of horse and cattle games in the arena.

Hiking, biking, and fishing:

Next to the recreation building in front of the lodge sits the hiking hut and the fishing hut. Visit either (or just talk to Michael at meals) to arrange hiking, mountain biking, or fishing. Daily organized hikes were led during our visit by guide Gage, whose repertoire of hikes include trails on the North Fork, Hinman Lake and Overlook, Home Mountain, Burr Ridge, Hahn’s Peak, Three Island, and Zirkel Circle. He can also bring in additional guides for specific routes or needs. Gage also led the mountain biking, which included single track and dirt road biking on The Home Ranch’s off-site (but close by) property, called Murphy-Larson. He also leads additional rides into the national forest land adjacent the ranch, when permitted.

The Home Ranch is an Orvis-endorsed fly fishing lodge, which means that when you visit the fishing hut, the friendly fishing guide staff can outfit you with Orvis gear and offers a fly fishing clinic on the lawn and in the stocked pond on ranch property. We caught two fish in the pond, then one member of our group fished the Elk for two afternoons, catching multiple trout (catch and release). Three miles of the Elk flows right through the property.

Don’t overlook the hiking, biking, and fishing opportunities at the ranch. While horseback riding is often the main draw, some guests spend their entire time fishing or hiking, and we can see why!

Check week-long rates for The Home Ranch here. During the early season and late season, sometimes four-night stays can be accommodated if needed, but we recommend the full week-long program. You won’t want to go home earlier!

Disclosure: We checked out The Home Ranch at the invitation of the ranch, for the purpose of review. All opinions remain my own.

About the author

Amy Whitley AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.

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