Iconic Cap-K Ranch still going strong after 131 years as cattle operation
Once upon a time cattle ranchers and environmentalists mixed about as well as manure and fresh-water streams, but a unique partnership in the Aspen area has reduced the fissure to an Old West myth.
One of the most iconic ranches in the Roaring Fork watershed is teaming with Aspen’s oldest environmental organization in a cooperative venture that benefits both.
The Cap-K Ranch in the Fryingpan Valley brings the hoof power and expertise in raising beef to the partnership. Rock Bottom Ranch provides innovation and expertise in marketing locally grown foods.
Lynn Nichol’s family has owned the Cap-K Ranch for 63 years. She said running any kind of an agricultural operation in the Roaring Fork Valley is tough for a variety of reasons, so it’s important to strike up partnerships in the pursuit of long-term sustainability.
“We’re like a small community. We support each other. We learn from each other,” Nichols said.
She and her family wanted to play a bigger role in the local food network so she approached Rock Bottom Ranch manager Jason Smith about teaming up three years ago.
Rock Bottom, owned by Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, uses an intensive rotational grazing program to keep its midvalley pastures healthy on the south side of the Roaring Fork River at the end of Hooks Spur. However, Smith and company don’t have the skills and time needed for a cattle operation — calving, growing hay and running the cattle onto grazing allotments in the national forest. Rock Bottom has chickens, goats, sheep and hogs to circulate through its pastures, but it lacked the heavy hooves of bovines.
“We need those animals,” Smith said.
Cap-K supplies a dozen or so cow-calf combos in May that will graze on the lush grasses of Rock Bottom Ranch well into the fall. Smith stockpiles forage, allowing the cattle to graze later in the year on grasses rather than relying on hay.
Once the calves grow to the size where they can be slaughtered and processed, Rock Bottom sells the meat at the farmers’ markets in Aspen and Basalt, and through its retail operation and specialized wholesale accounts at Rock Bottom.
“This is a really incredible partnership for both of us,” Smith said. “We’re both doing what we do best.”
The partnership opened direct access to local customers for Cap-K, something that Nichols said her ranch wasn’t able to undertake itself. It also expands Rock Bottom’s offerings.
“This added something to what they could sell,” Nichols said.
The amount of beef that Cap-K sells through Rock Bottom has soared each of the past two years. Nichols said she has helped out at the booth at the farmers’ markets and was gratified to learn that many customers wanted to know about where and how the cattle were raised. People care about the origins of their food, she said.
“In the summer, we sell our prime cuts faster than we can get them processed,” she said.
That leaves about 240 pounds per animal of hamburger, so they’re cautious about growing too fast.
She takes pride in explaining to prospective customers that the calves are born in the Fryingpan Valley, graze in the vast pastures on the Cap-K Ranch and on federal grazing allotments in the surrounding hills. Their cows are hormone free and are entirely grass fed. The beef is processed at Homestead Meats in Delta.
“We’re as local as you could possibly be,” Nichols said.
The ranch also explores relationships with restaurants in the Roaring Fork Valley and it continues selling its beef through auctions at Fruita, Colorado.
“You’re at the mercy of the commodities market,” she said. “Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not.”
The Cap-K Ranch provides part of the visual character that makes the Fryingpan Valley so special. It’s as ingrained in the Fryingpan as the Grange family ranches are along Highway 82 on the fringe of Basalt or as the Bill Fales-Marj Perry Ranch is on Highway 133 just south of Carbondale. They preserve an important part of the area’s heritage.
Cap-K sprawls across both sides of Fryingpan Road 9 miles east of Basalt. There are old barns, a former bunkhouse, hay sheds, toolsheds, a former forge and multiple residences. Pastures of green grass stand in contrast with the red rock of the mountainside. The Cap-K’s land climbs in a series of benches from the Fryingpan River onto the hills of the White River National Forest. The cows and calves will head into the high country June 15.
Most of the buildings on the ranch date to the early 1900s. “I love the history of the property,” Nichols said.
Jake Luchsinger homesteaded the ranch in 1887 and built the house where Nichols and her husband, Jim Gilchrist, live and raised their sons Carson and Griffin.
Stirling Sloss bought the ranch in 1902 and developed it with his twin sons, Alvin and Alfred. In 1911, they replaced a wood house that burned down with the beautiful brick house that remains the centerpiece of the property.
The site was once a stop along the Colorado Midland Railroad. The rear portion of the brick house was the location of the post office, a meat locker and dry goods store. Nearby is an old forge. The former railroad depot is across the road.
Two barns have been in continuous use for nearly 120 years. One in particular stands out because it has 5-foot high walls of distinctive sandstone from the Peachblow Quarry a short way down the valley. It’s used as a calving barn, where the babies can come in out of the cold. A massive hayloft dominates the upper floor.
The Sloss family sold the ranch to Tucker McClure in 1941. His heir sold it to Nichol’s dad, Miller Nichols, and his friend and business partner Joe Gregg in 1955. Lynn said the two Kansas City men completed the purchase without telling their wives. They ended up using a combination of their wives’ first names, Cap and Katie, to come up with the Cap-K name and get them to buy in on the endeavor. It resulted in decades of great times.
Lynn said she spent summers at the ranch with her family and would always leave high school and college when it was time to return to the Cap-K for the fall cattle roundup.
“I found I really loved it a lot,” she said of the property. She made the ranch her home in 1981 and takes an active role of management for her family. Dave Waller is the ranch manager, only the fourth in the 63 years the Nichols have owned the place.
“The ranch has always been raising cattle,” she said.
They inherited the ranch’s brand — the Lazy T, reverse 7.
As is the custom with many cattle ranchers, she politely declined to say how many cattle they run or acres they own. That’s like asking a person about the size of their bank account, she said.
They converted their herd to the Salers breed, which originated in the French Alps, about 30 years ago. They’ve had good luck with health and weight gain.
March was calving time on the Cap-K. Saturday they had to brand the additions to their herd before putting them out on the open range next month.
It was a scene of organized chaos at the corral. Cowboys and helpers heated the brands. Skittish calves vacillated between searching for an escape route and stubbornly refusing to advance down a narrow between wooden fencing. The calves were led to a squeezing chute and placed on their sides. They temporarily bawled when they were branded with the hot iron. The males also were castrated and the nubs of their horns cauterized. Anxious cows bellered from nearby pins. Once released, the calves would dash off to find their moms and give what seemed to be a bewildered glance back to figure out what just happened.
Nichol’s son Carson, 24, returned for a weekend of work at the ranch from his job as an accountant in Denver. He said he comes home whenever possible. Ranching is in his blood, Nichols said. He’s always been good at whatever needed to be done, from solving an unusual irrigation issue to grading the roads.
Carson said he has helped with branding since he was 14 years old. Several of his Aspen-area friends joined Saturday. He always had friends eager to lend a hand because it’s such a unique experience. Griffin, a student at the University of Colorado, wasn’t able to return this year.
Nichols is eager to keep exploring ways to assure the sustainability of Cap-K. She said she tries to meet with other ranchers and farmers in the Roaring Fork Valley to explore collaborations and news ways of approaching business. The partnership with Rock Bottom Ranch has her optimistic about the future.
“It makes me hopeful about what’s possible,” she said.
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Highway 82 over Independence Pass is closed Tuesday morning for safety reasons after an overnight snowstorm, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.