Tucked in the middle of Gunnison National Forest—away from any civilization—sits Smith Fork Ranch, located in Crawford, Colorado. A dude ranch that allows guests to get away from their busy lives and enjoy a simpler time. You can choose to relax and enjoy the stunning view, or partake in outdoor activities like trail riding, hiking, skeet shooting, archery, or fly fishing.
The twisting road that leads you to Smith Fork Ranch is surrounded by the absolute beauty that is the Western slope of Colorado. The snow-capped mountains, table mesas, and fall foliage made the six-hour trek from Denver go by fast, and the lack of cell service allowed me to fully disconnect, and enjoy the scenery that was in front of me.
A majority of my riding career has involved being in the competition arena. But as a rider, I always enjoy the challenge of breaking out of my comfort zone and trying something different. So when I was given the opportunity to spend a couple of days at Smith Fork Ranch, I knew it would be the perfect place to check trail riding in the mountains off my bucket list.
About Smith Fork Ranch
Smith Fork Ranch is off the beaten path. After several miles of gravel and dirt roads, I finally made my way to the entrance. What was once considered a ghost ranch is now a thriving destination spot, thanks to Linda and Marley Hodgson, who purchased the 300-acre ranch in 2000 after deciding it was time to leave New York City and experience a different style of living.
The cabins and houses scattered across the property were originally built between the 1920s and the 1950s, but were in need of some serious help. So with the help of 100 locals, each cabin was taken down, the logs numbered, and re-built from the inside out. Some might consider it a real-life version of Lincoln Logs. My room had a lovely rustic feel to it, and not a TV to be seen. Instead of my usual routine of falling asleep to the sound of Netflix, I opened my window and enjoyed the silent night.
Hitting the Trails
While there’s an assortment of activities available for guests to do, I came to see the view of Colorado’s Western slope by horseback. We met at the ranch’s tiny warm-up pen the next morning, and found out our horse assignments. The wranglers take the time to carefully pair horses with each guest’s riding ability. The group I was riding with were all experienced riders, but they offer beginners the chance to get the hang of things in the warm-up arena before heading out on the trail.
As we start the ride it’s easy to see that these horses are pros and know what their job is. My trusty sidekick, Jazz, a kind gelding who’s been with the ranch for a few years now, fell right into line as we casually strolled up the mountain. It took a minute for me to figure out that all I had to do was sit there and enjoy the view—something I’m not used to doing as a rider.
The creeks, mud, and rocks scattered throughout the trails seemed like nothing new for our veteran mounts. My sure-footed horse effortlessly climbed the rocky terrain that eventually led us to one of the best views on the ranch.
It seemed that everyone on the ride stopped at the same time to take in the view that was surrounding us. The perks of living in Colorado is that I get to spend a lot of time in the mountains, but I’d never seen this kind of view horseback. The leaves were an assortment of reds, yellows, and greens, and there was hardly a cloud in the bright blue sky. The perfect morning for a ride.
As we continue on, I started to talk to one of the wranglers about riding in the mountains and she tells me it’s one of the best parts of her job, and I can see why.
The ride wasn’t nearly long enough for me—I could have spent the whole afternoon enjoying that view—but understandably, the next group of riders were eagerly waiting for the wranglers to return to the barn so they could head out on their own set of horses.
Packing for Your Ride
Right away I realized that packing for a horseback-riding vacation was much different than packing for any other trip or competition I’d been to. I needed to be prepared for any type of weather; fall in Colorado consists of snow one day, and then 70 degrees the next. When in doubt, check with the guest ranch you’re staying with. For example, Smith Fork Ranch offers an assortment of riding boots and helmets for riders to use for the duration of their ride.
During the ride, I tried to make note of the note of some of the items you’ll want to bring along if you plan on riding during your next vacation.
Layers: Always be prepared to pack layers, especially if you’re going for a longer ride. Our morning ride started out chilly, but once the sun came out, it instantly warmed up. I started with a lightweight, waterproof jacket (because there was a chance for rain) and ended up tucking it away in my saddle bag for the remainder of the ride.
Sun protection: Sunscreen is always a must! I recommend one that is small enough to fit in a saddle bag or pocket, so you can easily reapply as needed on the trail. A hat or helmet with a visor, and sunglasses should also be included in your packing list to protect you from harmful rays.
Riding boots: Most riders already know to pack riding boots when you plan on riding, but make sure it’s something you don’t mind getting a little muddy. Some of the trails we rode involved crossing creeks, and walking through mud. Save your dress boots for dinner!
Comfortable jeans: Find a pair of jeans you’re comfortable riding in for several hours, you don’t want to deal with chafing when you’re taking in the beautiful mountain side. It should also be a pair you’re OK with getting dirty.
Water bottle: Bring a reusable water bottle you can fill up before you head out to ride. It’s very easy to become dehydrated when you’re riding—especially in the mountains. Thankfully, Smith Fork Ranch provided each rider with a water bottle in their saddle bag during our ride.
The Cowboy Way
After a day filled with outdoor activities, it was nice to head over to Old Elk Lodge and enjoy one of the many five-star meals, prepared by Chef Marcus Parrott, at the end of an exciting day. The farm-to-table menu was inspired by fresh produce from the ranch’s personal garden, and other locally-sourced food from the surrounding area.
During our meal, ranch guest, and third-generation saddle maker, Randy Severe, shared stories of the rodeo life, the Pendleton Round-Up, and how that rodeo lifestyle inspires him in his work as a leather and saddle maker. “In the sport of rodeo you’ll find a great desire to strive for excellence,” he shares. “Every rider is out there trying to score that perfect 100.”
In true spirt-of-the-west fashion, the cocktail list was inspired with Pendleton Whisky in mind. The smooth Canadian whisky celebrates the tradition of 107-year-old Pendleton Round-Up with their signature trademark “Let ‘er Buck.” What better way to celebrate the Western way of life, than with a drink that celebrates the cowboy lifestyle?
Once we finished dinner, it was time to head outside for campfire and some singing. As we all huddled around a fire enjoying homemade s'mores, we listened to Severe and his family sing classic Western songs and share stories of the famous Casey Tibbs.