Rocky Mountain Memories
A Visit to Vista Verde Ranch
written by STEVE TRENTA | photography courtesy of VISTA VERDE GUEST RANCH
Upon landing in Colorado, my wife and I first stopped to purchase a state mug from the “You are Here” collection at Starbucks. Determined to have a memorable trip, we thought such a token would stir recollection. We shouldn’t have worried — a stay at the luxury Vista Verde Guest Ranch, just outside of Steamboat Springs, is every bit as unforgettable as one can hope a vacation to be. As we discovered, an experience there negates any need for souvenirs.
KINDNESS AND KINDLING
Our drive across the mountain range from Denver to Silverthorne and then north to Steamboat Springs was a revelation. As the scenery increased in grandeur and the rugged landscape unfolded in front of us, we realized how small we are — as if we were holding a magnifying glass against the majestic mountains and the sky somehow had a higher ceiling in Colorado. We briefly stopped in the town of Steamboat Springs, taking note of several small shops we would want to peruse, should we have the chance. As fate would have it, we found a Vista Verde Suburban leaving a ski equipment shop, and were happy to follow them. We were busy admiring Ponderosa pines and Aspen trees framing creeks and vistas along the winding country road … and then, there we were.
With a turn to the left, we pulled through the gate and drove to the rustic collection of buildings nestled against a low mountain ridge. Upon entering the Main Lodge, we received a warm greeting by Steph Wilson, the director of hospitality, who helped orient us to the property. We immediately felt at home and could sense the wonderful mix of easy informality and sturdy hospitality that carried over to every facet of the ranch. That feeling was emphasized when she confirmed our cabin was ready and assured us that while keys are available on request, they wouldn’t be needed.
Settling into our cabin, we unpacked then decided to catch our breath with a quick drink and snacks fireside. Charlie Cammer, director of ranch operations, later insisted that even the most precisely cut kindling at Vista Verde reflects his high standards and attention to detail. Touches like these mirror the AAA Four Diamond ranking the Ranch receives regularly.
GETTING ROPED IN
Typically, the Main Lodge is where guests gather for a Happy Half- Hour before dinner. As new quests, we were quickly drawn into animated conversations about that day’s conquests and the adventures everyone was looking forward to the next day. While being introduced to our fellow guests, it soon became apparent that many of them had connections to Georgia, North Carolina or Texas, and before long, it felt as if we all vacationed together often.
This intimacy among guests is by design, as guest capacity is limited between 30 to 45 guests, ensuring strangers quickly become friendly acquaintances. During this time, staff members are available to help arrange, adjust or accommodate schedules. All available activities are listed on a large whiteboard daily and the schedule is visible to all.
Not surprisingly, eating is a favorite ranch activity, especially with Executive Chef Cholly McGlynn at the helm. Well-executed and sumptuous, the meals are a welcome sight as each dish arrives with a first-class presentation. Featured entrées during our visit included crab legs, ahi tuna, Chicken Milanese and shrimp and grits. Dinner is served family style and mingling with staff is encouraged unless a formal dinner is on the calendar. We shared a table with Ben Martin, the general manager, for our first meal. A seasoned ranch hand, Martin immediately put us at ease.
Over the course of the evening, we learned the differences between a dude and a guest ranch are that the first focuses on traditional ranching experiences, characteristically is not all-inclusive and has a minimum weeklong stay, whereas a guest ranch offers more diverse activities, is all-inclusive and allows stays as short as a single night.
Our stay lasted four days and three nights, and the cost covered nearly every part of the experience. Learning about the incredible variety of options available made us want to dive into adventures even sooner, but stargazing from the hot tub of our resort-quality — yet cozy — cabin became our first official activity. With no light pollution, it was a wonder to see the constellation Orion standing watch over the ranch.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of buttermilk pancakes, French toast, eggs to order and eggs Benedict, we decided to work with the horses for our first full day on the property. In a modern riding arena that can be heated during colder months, we were introduced to General Lee and Babe, our assigned steeds. Wrangler Samantha Minnich taught us the basics of controlling a horse. Not unlike guests at Vista Verde, horses are social animals and prefer to congregate together. Throughout the lesson, we learned how to climb into the saddle, how to encourage our horse to go and more importantly, how to “steer.”
Turns out that horses, again like people, move away from pressure, so pushing a knee against the left side of the horse meant it would respond by turning right. By the time we got ready for the trail ride, we felt comfortable and able to keep up with the others. With a well-marked trail and well-behaved horses, this made for very enjoyable saddle time.
Of course, many activities here involve the more than 100 horses on the 500-plus acres that comprise the property and adjoining parkland. Selections include: horsemanship clinics, trail rides, sleigh rides and opportunities to learn about training horses. Depending on when you visit, other exceptional choices include classic Nordic events such as snowshoeing, classic or skate cross country skiing on groomed trails, backcountry skiing, tubing, snowmobiling and snow biking; indoor activities vary from photography workshops, cooking classes, beer tasting, leather working and yoga.
With a day as ranchers under our belts, during the Happy Half Hour that night, we took our turn welcoming new arrivals and sharing our own highlights and anecdotes. Huddled near the bar, we were able to contribute to the conversations, comparing notes and observations with our new friends rather than simply listening.
We repeated our fabulous day, only this time, we swapped saddles for skis. We met with Ben Yoder-Henley, our backcountry skiing guide, and with his help, learned how to cross-country ski. During our trek into the nearby woods, Yoder-Henley also provided us with handy survival skills training — like how to get up after a fall in the wilderness, how to build an emergency shelter, how to find easily flammable materials and even build a fi re. Like the rest of the staff, he was personal, courteous and reflected a true desire to share his passion for the outdoors.
As we left to make our way back to the airport, we again passed the quaint shops in Steamboat Springs. It occurred to us that we were so captivated during our time at the ranch that not once had we considered exploring elsewhere.
Our drive to Denver International Airport left us wishing we had fl own directly out of Steamboat Springs, so should winter travels be on your to-do list, my suggestion is to avoid the drive, catch the Vista Verde shuttle and save the excitement for the ranch.
The magical spell of our excursion resulted in smiles we could scarcely contain and toes tapping to lyrics from John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”: Coming home to a place he’d never been before … The ranch had rejuvenated us, and only after the fact did we realize how much we needed a break from the everyday grind, compliments of a glimpse at a bolder way to live.
Pack your bags, prepare your ambitions. Swap the mundane for something wild, something adventurous and slightly surprising. Bring all those expectations to Vista Verde Guest Ranch. And prepare to have them exceeded.
FOR MORE INFORMATION