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Aspen Times Weekly: Wild about Ranches

There’s nothing more American than a ranch.

From the early pioneers who settled the Wild West to modern-day ranchers raising cattle and horses on enormous spreads of open land, ranches have pulled at our heartstrings with the promise of a richer, more rewarding life.

But for most of us, the idea of the ranching lifestyle is just a romantic concept. Less often than we’d like to admit do we city slickers (Aspenites included) get out amongst it. Rarely do we settle down for a meal alongside folks in cowboy hats and boots and belts with big buckles, grinning from ear-to-ear with the satisfaction of a good day in the saddle or on the river.

More often, we city slickers (Aspenites included) like to have our taste of adventure served with a heap of luxurious amenities on the side. To cowboy up by day, then, after gourmet meals that in no way resemble campfire grub, nestle into downy beds.

Lucky thing, that style of ranch experience is just a few-hour drive away.

Color/ATW Gold – MediumA DESERT OASIS: Sorrel River Ranch Moab, Utah

Chances are you’ve driven past Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa on the way to Moab on Highway 128, or floated past it on a kayak or raft trip down the Colorado River. Passing by, you likely noted its postcard-perfect setting, a 160-acre plot of land on a verdant river bend with spectacular Convent and Perriot Mesas seemingly close enough to touch. You may have even made a mental note to return someday to check it out, or pull in for a stay.

Well, what are you waiting for?

Like many of the luxe, resort-like ranches scattered around the American West these days, Sorrel River Ranch has roots. It started out in 1903 as a small homestead built by Fred and Ida Stearns, who used a single-plow horse to help farm enough land to provide for their family and livestock.

What remains of their two- room, lodgepole farmhouse still stands on the property today, surrounded by a well-tended herb and flower garden.

The ranch has changed hands several times since then. Elizabeth Rad owns the whole kit-and-caboodle now, and it’s been gussied up and a full itinerary of activities have been added to keep you occupied from sunrise till sunset, both of which light up the surrounding red rock formations with an otherworldly orange glow.

Guest rooms and suites (some as large as 1,000 square feet) are within a collection of delightful cabins set along the river, and each has a pair of rocking chairs on a covered front porch and a “Welcome to the Ranch” sign on the door. Interiors are Western chic: Hardwood plank floors and log beam ceilings; four-poster log-framed beds dressed with fresh white linens and plump pillows; cozy sitting areas; mini-kitchens with everything you need; pocture windows framing river and red rock views.

While you might think the name “Sorrel” refers to the iconic red rock cathedrals and sandstone arches that are its neighbors, it was actually inspired by the rusty-red hue of American Quarter Horses, a breed well-suited for Western riding. The ranch’s equestrian program, led by Emily Hutton, is a major draw, with a handsome herd of 30 or so horses at the ready. You can saddle up for easy morning or afternoon trail rides through Ida Gulch and up and over the rolling foothills below nearby Perriot Mesa, or the more challenging Ridge Top ride during which you can take in knock-out views.

TOWERING ROCKS

If you’d rather sightsee by foot, early-morning guided hikes to spiraling Fischer Towers (a short drive away) will get you out and about on trails that wind amongst significant red rock formations. Along the way, you can ogle climbers making their way to the pinnacle, and if it looks familiar it’s likely because it was featured in a Citibank commercial where local pro climber Katie Brown makes the accent to a refrain of “Somebody left the gate open.” Wow.

Back at the ranch, far tamer activities, such as tennis on a pair of outdoor courts, swimming in the riverside pool and yoga at the river’s edge, abound during the day. Another way to go is to simply book a sugar and bourbon scrub, or sage and lavender soak, at the ranch’s peaceful little Colorado River Spa. Beyond that, the ranch’s super helpful guest experience staff can arrange for everything from float trips to jeep tours to BASE jumping adventures around the area. Sporty Moab is just 17 miles away.

DINING IN THE DESERT

Eventually, often really, you’ll wind up hungry. Chef Henry Christian has it covered. Pulling from local sources (not to mention the ranch’s formidable greenhouse and farm that sit just inside the entry drive) and ordering things like impeccably fresh seafood from Hawaii, or other shores, he turns out remarkable dishes.

For breakfast, there are pancakes made with Utah’s Darigold Farms Sustainable buttermilk, or huevos rancheros topped with fresh tomato-chile sauce. Lunchtime favorites are arugula and dandelion salad with local Castle Valley chevre and heirloom beets, or free-range chicken sandwiches on fresh-baked focaccia. Dinner means garden-fresh vegetable carpaccio flavored with herb-infused oils, Heritage Valley chicken with Utah cherry vinaigrette and, if you’re lucky, ocean-fresh sashimi — all are served in the lovely River Grill Restaurant in the ranch’s main lodge, or on its sunny riverfront deck.

Feeling refreshed and pampered, and a little more in touch with your wild side, you’re bound to return home with a smile, and with a little red dust on your hiking shoes.

Color/ATW Gold – Medium

A MOUNTAIN RETREAT: Smith Fork Ranch Crawford, Colo.

Just over the hill from Aspen as the magpie flies, or a short two-and-a-half-hour drive, is a jewel called Smith Fork Ranch. Nestled in a picturesque valley outside of the tiny town of Crawford, Colo., extraordinary scenery and location are combined with rustic authenticity and modern-day refinement to provide the quintessential mountain western experience.

Driving the dirt road along the Smith Fork River to the ranch, the real world is left in a cloud of trailing dust. Passing under the dramatic Needle Rock, and gazing at the snow-capped peaks of the West Elk Range, it becomes clear that it is possible to find unspoiled Rocky Mountain vistas if you just get off the beaten path.

Marley Hodgson and his wife, Linda, spent 30 years in New York, where Marley created the enormously successful Trafalgar and Ghurka brands of menswear and bags. Looking for a change, they began scouring the Rockies in search of the perfect property to create the perfect guest ranch. They found their Shangri-La at the run-down “Bar X Bar.” Re-christening it Smith Fork Ranch, Marley, Linda and their family set about restoring the property and after two-and-a-half years began accepting guests.

The experience begins with the lovingly updated cabins and original ranch house. Wood plank floors, featherbeds and Indian blankets give the rooms style, and each is unique and luxurious, a result of the attention to detail that the Hodgsons insisted upon. So inviting are the rooms that it is tempting to slip your boots off and simply listen to the river, never leaving. But then you might miss the soul of the ranch experience.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Smith Fork Ranch’s raison d’être is to provide guests with the classic Rocky Mountain outdoor experience. Start with the trout fishing. Five stocked ponds are on the property and three miles of the Smith Fork flow through the ranch. The big waters of the Gunnison, just a few miles away, are available for guests who wish to head to the bottom of the Black Canyon for their fishing.

The fishing pavilion, set just below the Ranch House, is as stocked as the ponds; Sage fly rods, Ross reels, Simms waders and boots are all available for guests to use. So diverse are the waters that it is possible for anglers to accomplish the SFR “Grand Slam,” which is catching all four species of trout during a visit.

Of course, a ranch requires an equestrian program and this one is world-class. With more than 40 American Quarter Horses and Appaloosas on site, the staff works with each guest to find just the right horse for each rider. Options include group trail rides into the Gunnison National Forest, barrel racing in the 250-foot arena, and magnificent sunset rides above the ranch with views of Needle Rock to the west.

There is also a Sporting Clays facility that allows shooters the opportunity to shoulder 20- or 12-gauge Italian Beretta shotguns and “ready, aim, fire” at the clay targets that simulate flight patterns of game birds. Mountain bike trails abound and the hiking trails are amongst the finest in the state. There is also a longbow archery range and a parcourse-like trail with targets to challenge archers.

And at the end of the day, a massage awaits. Be it in the quaint and comforting massage room, or under the shade of a tree in the “Massage Outpost” tent, a Swedish, Sport or Hot Stone Massage salves the muscles and soothes the mind.

WINE AND DINE

All of which lead to dinner. If there were a single element that puts Smith Fork Ranch on a pedestal above all others it would be their extensive culinary program. Under the auspices of chef Seth Bateman, who came to the ranch following stints as a sous chef at Napa’s Meadowood Resort and as chef at the Lodge at Torrey Pines, Smith Fork has become a culinary destination

To find “local ingredients,” Bateman needs only to walk out his back door where gardener Alama Roberts has created a veritable Garden of Eden, featuring the finest and freshest veggies and herbs. Bateman also sources local meats from area ranchers, uses fish flown in daily and creates spectacular repasts using his vast culinary techniques. Not only do dinners stand out, but all three squares at Smith Fork Ranch are impeccable. And the picnic baskets and afternoon cookies are, well, to die for.

Bateman’s food is complemented by a Wine Spectator Award-winning wine list and a fully stocked bar. Ending the day and beginning the evening with a “Campfire Manhattan,” made with High West Double Rye, on the wooden deck above the flowing river is a lifetime memory. Sitting down to order wines from around the world that have been expertly picked by general manager Jim Nielson is a pleasure.

Of course, any luxury accommodations are only as good as the staff on call. Smith Fork Ranch features a cadre of young, ready and willing professionals who return each season. They are a key part of the fabric of the operation.

For some in Aspen, a getaway means going to the beaches of Hawaii or Bali or Mexico. For others, a trip to Europe or India sets the standard. But for those who appreciate the grandeur of the West and want luxury experiences, look to your own backyards.

The Ranch life beckons, and it’s just a short drive away.


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