Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green
To say that High Lonesome Ranch, which is located in the high mesas of northwestern Colorado, is immense is an understatement. With nearly 400 square miles of leased and permitted land, it’s bigger than 25 of the nation’s 59 national parks.
To say that it’s lonesome requires some elaboration. It’s not lonesome in the sense of barren, although vegetation is sparse due to the dry climate and high altitude (5,000 to 9,000 feet). But the endless vistas are interspersed with valleys of green, thus creating a landscape that is both open and welcoming.
It’s also not lonesome in the sense of empty. There are animals aplenty—deer, elk, bear, moose, antelope, mountain lion, Big Horn Sheep and, more recently, wolves, which returned to Colorado after a seventy-year hiatus.
But the ranch is lonesome in the sense of secluded. Although it’s just a few miles from Interstate 70, the main route across the Rockies, stars shine undisturbed by passing lights, and the night silence is broken only by the rustle of a tree or the distant sound of an animal.
The decision to open the ranch to wannabe cowboys was as idealistic as it was practical. Obviously it makes good business sense to bring in paying guests, but more than that, says general manager Scott Stewart, “we want children to experience and appreciate the great outdoors. They are the policy makers of tomorrow, and we want them to understand the importance of land conservation and preservation.”
But while the ranch wants to attract guests and spread its message, seclusion and privacy are still of prime importance. Thus there are rarely more than twenty guests per week.
My group of twenty was a diverse lot. We ranged in age from 4 to 74, in home location from Colorado to Connecticut and in ability from horse-savvy to horse-shy. Our trail boss took pains to fit each of us with a horse that had the right temperament as well as the right fit. I told her that I wanted a horse that knew what to do, because I didn’t. “No problem,” she said, and she asked one of the wranglers to bring out Giant Bob, who, she said, was “slow and steady.”
Pretty soon we were all in the arena, ready for our orientation. Those of us who weren’t familiar with horses got lessons in saddling and bridling. Others practiced controlling their horse by leading it around an obstacle course. I practiced not falling off.
Over the next several days, we went on multiple horseback rides. Giant Bob and I plodded along on a few of the easy trails, but by midweek I decided I’d rather do something else. I asked one of the wranglers if I could see the upper reaches of the ranch by car rather than by horse.
“No problem,” he answered. “I’m sure one of us can take you on a personal wildlife safari either today or tomorrow. You’ll be able to go into the back roads and, if we’re lucky, spot some animals.”
No matter what any of us wanted to do, the answer was always the same: “No problem.” The small number of guests allows the staff to customize activities to fit each person.
My granddaughter wanted to picnic with the ponies, my daughter-in-law wanted to fly-fish, my son wanted to hike, and my husband wanted to go on a photo shoot. My grandson, who quickly turned out to be the best cowboy among us, wanted to become a good enough rider to participate in the end-of-the-week cattle drive.
The ranch has non-equestrian activities as well, from massages and mountain biking to cooking classes, from visits to area wineries to interactive experiences with scientists who are working on nearby conservation and restoration projects.
Meals are ranch-hearty (lots of beef) and heart-healthy (even more fruits and vegetables). Best of all, they include a weekly “Elevated Dining Experience.” For adults this means a seven-course dinner replete with beverage pairings. For kids this means a campfire cookout that, depending on the age of the participants, can morph into an overnight.
The end of the week came much too soon. After a farewell dinner, we sat around the campfire and each of us made one last, gooey s’more. A ranch hand read cowboy poetry. Then other people chimed in with their thoughts — how they stretched themselves physically and mentally, how they enjoyed the camaraderie as well as the solitude, how they fell in love with the blue sky, brown earth and thin air.
But it was a fourteen-year-old girl who cut to the chase. “I had such a good time that I didn’t even miss my cell phone,” she said with a smile that creased her sun-burned face.
In just one week she’d turned from city slicker to real wrangler.
photo caption: High Lonesome Ranch is larger than 25 of the nation’s national parks.