When it comes to scenery, it doesn't get much better than the Rocky Mountains.
Raised in Tucson, Arizona, I lost count of the hours I spent riding my horse along desert trails and into rugged foothills that offered endless opportunities for exploration.
Now that I live in the horsey, but rather flat, country of Ocala, Florida, I have plenty of great trail riding, but alas, no mountains. So, when my friends — Mary, Martha, and Robyn — and I decided to plan a riding trip, I insisted there had to be mountains involved.
Avid trail riders know there's more to planning a trip than simply picking an appealing location. Plenty of ranches offer pretty places to ride, but not all have the horses and the staff to pull off a truly exceptional vacation.
After many hours online and numerous phone calls researching ranch riding trips, one name kept popping up: Drowsy Water Ranch (www.drowsywater.com) in Granby, Colorado.
I then read dozens of reviews posted on Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com). Unsolicited reviews like this are an excellent way to get a realistic idea of what to expect from a destination, and they tend to be more objective than testimonials on a destination's own website.
After reading many glowing reviews of Drowsy Water Ranch — most of which focused on the horses and riding — I moved it to the top of my list.
Then I chatted by phone with Justin Fosha, the ranch manager. His family has owned and operated DWR for 35 years. After I hung up, I was certain this was the vacation for us.
Come September, a week at DWR confirmed that we'd absolutely made the right decision.
Rocky Mountain Grandeur
Some guests drive to the ranch, while those coming from far away (my group included) fly into Denver and rent a car.
DWR sent us easy-to-follow directions and the option of several different routes from the Denver airport, depending on whether we wanted the leisurely scenic route or the more direct.
The irony is that there's no "un-scenic" route! We opted for the shortest, most direct course and were still amazed at the stunning surroundings.
Located at 8,200 feet elevation, DWR is just a few miles outside the small town of Granby, but there's a sense of being far from civilization.
Chalk that up to the fact that DWR is nestled in a picturesque valley and covers 640 acres. It borders thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management land, as well as the Arapahoe National Forest. The mountain ranges surrounding the ranch add to that snug, "tucked away" feeling.
The Fosha family bought DWR in 1977, but the ranch has been in business for almost 80 years. At peak season, DWR accommodates as many as 50 guests per week.
However, we came during an "adults only" week at the end of the summer, and there were just two dozen of us. Several staff members told us how much they enjoy the full weeks with plenty of families and children, but we were tickled to be there with fewer guests. It felt like our own private getaway.
Depending on the size of your group and any specific lodging requests, you may stay in Horse Thief Den (the main lodge) or in one of nine cabins nestled along the banks of picturesque Drowsy Water Creek.
Accommodations have comfortable Western-style décor, and the staff provides daily housekeeping. We four had a two-story, four-bedroom, two-bath cabin idyllically situated by a small pond.
We even had a woodstove, which made things especially cozy on the crisp fall nights. (DWR staff made sure we were well-supplied with kindling and split wood.)
We quickly became familiar with the lodge's dining room, eagerly anticipating the cheerful clanging of the "gather round" bell 15 minutes before lunch and dinner.
The staff doesn't ring the bell for breakfast, but we had no trouble showing up between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m. There's something about homemade cinnamon rolls warm from the oven that inspires punctuality!
At home, I never eat three full meals at regular times each day, but it was easy to fall into that routine here. Meals are served family-style by smiling, attentive wait staff. They can handle any special dietary requests; just make sure to let them know beforehand.
Riding is the main focus at DWR, and it shows. This is truly where the ranch and the Foshas — Ken, Randy Sue, Justin, Gretta, and Ryan —excel.
True, it's industry standard to match horses and riders, but DWR does a better job of it than many guest ranches. Owning a string of 130 well-trained horses definitely helps.
The Foshas put extra time into providing instruction following basic natural-horsemanship principles. Their focus is not only on safety, but also on making sure guests have the best possible riding experience.
In addition to careful matchmaking between horse and rider, they offer lesson rides and loping clinics, so riders feel competent before hitting the trails
"Our goal is not only to help people have fun, but also to become better riders," says Randy Sue.
"We've found it makes for a better experience to take the time to offer more instruction," adds Justin, who has a Master of Business Administration in marketing and serves on the board of directors of the Colorado Dude Ranchers' Association.
I've been on numerous riding vacations in several different states, and I found the horses at DWR were the best of the best. I was impressed by the variety; the DWR string includes everything from Quarter Horses and Paint Horses to draft breeds and draft crosses.
In our group, Mary and I have our own horses and trail ride regularly, while Martha and Robyn rarely get a chance to ride.
We were matched up with a Quarter Horse (Mary), an Appaloosa (Robyn), a Thoroughbred/Clydesdale cross (Martha), and a Paint (me).
My horse was responsive and alert — a true pleasure to ride. I never felt like I was on a "dude" horse, and appreciated riding a horse that was accustomed to the elevation and terrain.
Groups are broken down by skill levels, so riders who enjoy trotting and loping don't go out with beginners or children who are only walking.
Some of the surrounding trails are remarkably steep and twisting, but the wranglers made sure we also had opportunities to speed things up when the terrain allowed.
"We came to ride and rode everyday. They do a real good job of putting people with a horse you're comfortable with and to your ability to ride. I felt like I was matched well with my horse," says Sherry Beverlin, 51, of Muscatine, Iowa, who came with her friend Terri Sheetz.
"The best part was the scenery," Sherry adds. "We don't have this back home, and I enjoy being up in the mountains. You see so much more from the back of a horse than you do in a truck. That was our reason to come here and ride, and that's the best part of it for me."
Like Sherry, for us, this vacation was all about the chance to ride, and we had plenty of chances to do just that. The only time we were in a large group was the morning of the breakfast ride, when everyone rode up to a scenic plateau overlooking the ranch valley and enjoyed breakfast outdoors.
The rest of the time, we went out in small groups. This made it easy to ask questions of the wranglers and learn about the area, once prime hunting grounds for Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Ute Indian tribes. The first white men didn't show up here until the mid-1800s.
Our wrangler regaled us with interesting bits of regional history, such as the attack by an Arapaho and Cheyenne war party on a Ute camp on the shores of nearby Grand Lake.
Legend has it that the Utes put their women and children on a large raft and pushed it out into the lake to keep them safe from the fighting. As the men fought on shore, a sudden wind arose, stirring up the normally placid waters and capsizing the raft, tragically drowning all those aboard.
It's said that when the lake freezes over each winter you can sometimes still hear the haunting voices of those ill-fated Utes, crying beneath the ice.
Our trip coincided perfectly with the aspens turning. We rode beneath towering golden canopies and along winding trails scattered with their leaves.
The aspen stands on the mountainsides literally seemed to glow with an intense light. Combined with those Colorado blue skies, it made a stunning backdrop.
One rider in another group expressed anxiety about the drop-offs and height of many of the trails. Someone with acrophobia might find that a bit unsettling.
Ken and Randy Sue made sure this particular rider had a wrangler to keep her closer to the ranch to avoid especially high trails. This is the kind of concern and attentiveness that makes it possible for guests to have the best riding adventures possible without getting too far out of their comfort zones.
Our favorite ride was the all-day trip that took us to the top of Music Mountain, at nearly 11,000 feet. The views at the summit were spectacular as we talked, joked, and ate our sack lunches. A brief hailstorm blew in after we mounted up again, but we stayed dry, thanks to the slickers tied to each saddle.
The most remarkable part of the ride was coming down the Aspen Slide. (Think The Man from Snowy River, only in slow motion.)
Recent rains had made the trails muddy and slick, so we had to fan out and zigzag our way down the steep mountainside, riding through a blazing-gold aspen forest.
I was never so grateful for a surefooted horse. After we finally made the descent, it was awe-inspiring to look back up the mountain and realize what we'd just accomplished.
Make Plans Early
Our trip happened to be the last week of the season at DWR, which runs from early June through mid-September. You'll want to make reservations early, like we did, before the season fills, especially if you have your heart set on specific dates.
Once you have the week reserved, mark it on the calendar, and start looking forward to the riding adventures and memories you're sure to make at this outstanding Colorado Rocky Mountain hideaway.
Cynthia McFarland is a full-time freelance writer who writes regularly for a number of national horse publications and is the author of nine books. Horse crazy since childhood, she owns a small farm in north central Florida. A horse owner for more than 35 years, she and her Paint Horse gelding, Ben, enjoy trail-riding adventures on a regular basis.