The Colorado Mule Riders have a membership of 35 riders. Members are guaranteed a spot on the annual fall “Ride of the Aspens,” which takes place from the third Saturday in September through Thursday of the following week. Openings for nonmembers, called Mavericks, occur when members don’t fill out the ride.
It’s a great opportunity to ride, on a mule only, unique places in the mountains of Colorado. Riders may bring their own mules or rent a reliable mule at a reasonable price. Accommodations are always first-class and the meals five-star.
The Colorado Mule Riders select the site for their annual ride from among the guest-ranch facilities that make up the Colorado Dude Ranch Association. President Lee Sheard of Johnston, Colorado, chose North Fork Ranch in Shawnee, Colorado, as the site of last fall’s ride. The ranch is located on the bank of the North Fork of the South Platte River at an elevation of 8,400 feet. It has a picturesque setting and great guest facilities with terrific hosts Karen and Dean May.
Ride activities kicked off on Saturday night with a group trip to the Flying W inColorado Springs. On Sunday morning, the mule riders assembled at the Al-Kaly Mule Train tack room for coffee and sweets before departing the barn for the two-hour plus trip to North Fork Ranch. Lunch was next on the agenda. A tasty Mexican fare followed by cream-cheese brownies soon had riders thinking more about a nap than an afternoon ride.
A Rainy Start
The morning began with sunshine and clear skies, but about noon, it turned to clouds and overcast skies with a hint of rain. In spite of the threatening skies, the afternoon ride was joined by a majority of the riders. Still, the rain that started about 2:00 p.m. (ride-departure time) fell on a number of mules still in the corrals. Randy Gibbs of Peyton, Colorado, was heard to say he “didn’t mind putting on a slicker to get home, but there was something bad wrong with leaving on a ride with your slicker on.” Those hardy souls who took the ride returned in about two hours, a little damp and cool, but in high spirits.
When the riders gathered for the evening meal – flank steak, broccoli, and new potatoes, with white-chocolate bread pudding for dessert – host Dean May introduced his family and staff, and gave a brief history of North Fork.
In the 1960s, North Fork was an egg-laying operation. The unique Stonehinge House, across the river, was built in 1940 as a home for the Petterson family. Dean and Karen arrived in the mid 1980s, and the rest is history. North Fork bears no resemblance to its early beginnings. You can imagine rustlers, gunfights, romance, and all sorts of stories but not a chicken ranch.
Monday dawned clear and cool. As the sun warmed the morning chill, riders gathered in the dining hall for breakfast. Pack lunches were the order of the day as they prepared for a 9:00 a.m. ride departure. The ride – scheduled for five to six hours into the Pike National Forest – began with a moderate climb up Dead Horse Gulch. From Dead Horse, riders crossed the upper end of Crow Gulch and rode over into Slaughter House Gulch. After a break for lunch and a brief rest, they continued down Slaughter House on the ride’s return leg.
The highlight of the day was a slight detour to ascend Derringer Peak, about 9,000 feet in elevation. This is a special place in the hearts of Colorado Mule Riders. It was on Derringer Peak, in May of 2000, that the ashes of one of our mule-rider brothers were spread. A small capsule inscribed with the name Augie Brown marks the spot. Not much talk as we rode off Derringer Peak. The wind picked up, stirred the aspen leaves, and left coolness in the corners of eyes.
A big change occurred in the weather Monday night. Rain began sometime after midnight, and, as riders gathered for breakfast Tuesday morning, the rain began to change to a mixture of sleet and snow. There was significant snow and ice on Kenosha Pass, and the conditions weren’t safe for the planned ride into the Mount Evans Wilderness.
The riders decided to postpone the high-country ride – and the Empty Saddle and Maverick Ceremonies – until Thursday. Some of the older riders remarked this was the first time they could remember a ride being canceled.
As the day wore on, it continued to snow, sometimes heavily. Seven riders decided to brave the elements and go for a ride after lunch. The group did in fact put on their slickers and go out. Most of the ride was on ranch property and never far from the corrals. They returned in about two hours, a little wet and cold.
Wednesday, the weather turned for the better. After a day off from riding, everyone was ready for some fun and games. Games-day chairman Hal Johnston was well-organized and kept things moving at a brisk pace. The overall quality of the mules used on these rides has really improved in the last several years, and the competition was fast and intense. It was a day full of fun and friendly competition. When the dust settled, or rather the mud, Scott DeWalt of Peyton, Colorado, earned the high score in a close race.
Riding on Ceremony
Thursday morning, mules and riders were loaded in trucks and trailers for a trip to the top of Kenosha Pass. It soon became evident that Tuesday’s snow was much more intense at the higher altitude. Things went smoothly, and after about 20 minutes, the trailers arrived at the top of the pass (10,001 feet in elevation), the starting point for the day’s ride.
The trail led north and east, gaining altitude on a series of switchbacks. After a mile or so, all tracks disappeared, and everything was covered in new snow. As the ride neared its destination, the trail became extremely steep.
The site chosen for the ceremonies (about 11,760 feet in elevation) offered a terrific view of the Twin Cone Peaks and Mount Blaine. The wind was strong and steady with a definite bite as riders gathered at the base of a small rock outcrop.
Dave Potts of Poncha Springs, Colorado, conducted the Empty Saddle Ceremony, reading the names of the mule riders who’ve passed before us. Then Owen McEwen of Wichita, Kansas, conducted the Maverick Ceremony for six first-time riders. Owen has conducted this ceremony for 13 consecutive years.
Mavericks and veterans alike will tell you the Maverick Ceremony defines the spirit of the Colorado Mule Riders. A time capsule containing the names of all past and present riders, as is the custom, was buried beneath a pile of rocks. A group photo was taken, with the Mavericks holding the mule riders banner and Old Glory snapping sharply in the wind.
The riders worked their way down from the Twin Peaks area to a lower, sheltered spot for lunch. The lunch break also offered an opportunity to take pictures with Mount Blaine in the background.
The return trip to the trailhead was down via the same route. The biggest difference going down was seeing the trail created in the new snow by all the mules. The decent was faster on the downhill, and the mules knew they were headed back to the trailers. The return trip to the ranch was smooth, and the tack was stowed and mules fed in short order.
Thursday night, after the traditional dinner of steak and trimmings, the riders assembled for the awards ceremony. The May family and staff were presented a plaque in appreciation of their superb hosting job. President Sheard recognized the board members and thanked the committee chairmen and assistants for all their good work. Each rider was presented with a plaque commemorating the ride.
Friday-morning breakfast marked the end of another successful mule ride. It’s always with a little sadness that we all say goodbye. For most, our chance to spend time in the company of our Colorado Mule Rider family comes but once a year. It is, however, a special time, thanks to all those past and present Colorado Mule Riders who’ve unselfishly contributed to this unique bond we share.