One recent October, I left my horses at home and headed to Vista Verde Ranch (www.vistaverde.com) near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Vista Verde looks like a quintessential Colorado mountain ranch, with high-altitude scenery, friendly staff, luxury accommodations, well-trained horses, and epic trail riding.
The ranch is located in northwest Colorado, about four hours from Denver International Airport and a little over an hour from the Yampa Valley Regional Airport.
The ranch is surrounded by the Routt National Forest, part of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland. This vast, federally protected area covers 2.9 million acres and includes parts of the Elkhead, Flat Tops, Gore, Laramie, Medicine Bow, Park, and Sierra Madre mountain ranges.
Vista Verde Ranch also provides access to the enchantingly beautiful, untamed Mount Zirkel Wilderness area, a 160,648-acre area that straddles the Continental Divide and boasts rich ecosystems, from alpine tundra to sagebrush meadows.
Vista Verde Ranch is situated on 540 acres of grassland, pine forests, and mountains. At 7,800 feet above sea level, the ranch’s weather varies a great deal throughout the year. Summers are warm—not hot—with temperatures ranging from the 70s during the day to the 30s at night. In the winter, daytime highs range from the mid-20s to the 30s. Nighttime temperatures often dip below zero.
In the fall, the temperatures can be cold but still pleasant, due to the region’s low humidity.
Guest comfort is Vista Verde’s primary focus. The staff is remarkably friendly and attentive. It’s like being part of a big family. Staff members make sure all guests are well cared for and nothing is left undone.
The ranch’s main lodge is large and welcoming with a great room and large fireplace. The lodge also houses a formal dining room, as well as three private rooms for guests.
Ten luxurious cabins round out the guest accommodations. Each has its own private hot tub and is richly decorated in traditional Western motifs.
One of my favorite places at the ranch was the patio, just outside the main lodge, next to the pool and pond. There, you can enjoy picnic tables, deck chairs, a large outdoor fireplace, and a grill. I found it to be a wonderful place to rest after a ride, gazing at the mountain views and watching riders pass by.
When I visited, the ranch guests were an eclectic group. They were from all over the United States, and one couple was from Great Britain. Several were repeat guests.
Cell service is spotty, and there’s no wireless connection. Disconnecting from all the distractions of civilization gives you an opportunity to relax in peace and enjoy the surroundings.
For the seasoned trail rider, the quality of the horses can make or break a riding vacation. At Vista Verde, horses are a top priority. They all appeared fit and healthy, with good coats and feet.
On the first evening at the ranch, my traveling companion, Kim Nesnadny, and I met the other guests and had a look at the horses during the ranch’s Horse Happy Hour, which begins at 5:30. What a fun, relaxing way to meet people and horses!
We joined a small group heading out to the horse pasture with wrangler Nate Margason, who has an extensive knowledge of each horse.
Nate introduced us to the horses, describing each one’s personality. He then asked each guest about his or her riding experience and what they were looking for in a horse. He kept notes, which he then used to match each guest to a compatible mount for the week. I loved this personal touch.
The ranch caters to all riding levels. Kim and I represented each end of the riding-experience spectrum: She’d ridden just a few times, while I’ve been riding for more than 25 years. I requested a well-trained, sensitive, energetic mount. For Kim, I requested a mellow horse.
The ranch keeps a herd of around 100 head of horses—mostly Quarter Horses, with a few mustangs and draft horses. It also has a small Quarter Horse breeding operation. In fact, the ranch’s handsome, calm, bay stallion went out on one of the group trail rides.
Vista Verde’s breeds versatile, sound minded, “people-loving” horses, with a focus on championship reining and working cow horse bloodlines. This commitment to quality carries over to the ranch’s training program. Nate told me the horses are selected based on physical attributes and personality.
The ranch also offers horsemanship retreats throughout the year, in addition to daily clinics and lessons.
When it came to trail riding, Vista Verde lived up to my high expectations. There are endless riding opportunities, with more than 50 miles of trails.
Before we hit the trails, the wranglers provided us with a short rider orientation, then made sure our saddles fit us and were comfortable.
After mounting up for our first ride, one of the wranglers took us out to practice controlling our mounts. My mount was a sturdy 5-year-old Quarter Horse gelding named Buddy. He was eager and willing, just as I had requested.
Kim’s mount was a sweet, light-colored palomino gelding named, of all things, Mellow! Nate had taken my request seriously. Mellow was totally relaxed, even though Kim was not. He took great care of best buddy, and I’m very grateful to him.
Our first trail ride was about an hour and a half long. We took time to explore the facility. After crossing a few creeks, we were allowed to spread out and explore some territory on our own. I sure enjoyed that part of the riding.
When we returned to the barn, it felt luxurious to just hand off the reins to a wrangler and head for the hot tub.
I’m used to caring for my horses after a ride. I recommend a riding vacation to other horse owners just to see how it feels to hand over the reins and walk off. But I admit I did want to groom Buddy to say, “Thanks for the ride.”
The next trail ride was into Routt National Forest. It was a partly sunny day, with clouds moving slowly overhead. Our group was small—just myself, two other riders, and the wrangler.
We left the ranch heading west toward the Continental Divide and began a gradual climb through the grasslands. We reached a gorgeous old pine forest and spread out. The wrangler encouraged us to bushwhack—go off the trail and ride through the trees and over the deadfall (dead trees lying on the forest floor).
After reaching the top of a ridge, we began a steep descent into the valley below. It was incredible to feel Buddy work his way down this terrain. He was a master, picking his route with care.
Then it was uphill again through an aspen grove. The leaves were just past their peak, which meant the leaves had changed from bright yellow to dark yellow and orange. It was still a perfect time to be in the Rocky Mountains.
Just as the clouds began to turn dark, we reached our destination, Panorama Peak. This peak is aptly named. The view on all sides was breathtaking. Views of the white-capped peaks of the Medicine Bow Range were plainly visible.
On our way back to the ranch, it began to sprinkle, but our spirits weren’t dampened as we trotted down the trail.
The next ride was my favorite. This was a strenuous, four-hour ride, and some portions of the trail was difficult. This time we headed east. I rode with the same group as before, but with a different wrangler, Patrick Ambrose.
We passed through the colorful grasslands—straw-like grass and olive-green bushes, enjoying views of yellow-and-orange aspen groves mixed in with dark-green pine trees. The quaking of the aspen leaves was musical.
The color palette was right out of a Colorado postcard. The sun shown, and a breeze blew; it was a perfect day. Buddy was a little tired, but he was game.
The trail was a bit rocky, but the horses were shod and traversed the tough terrain without a problem. Again, we split up for some bushwhacking, crossing dead logs and following switchbacks up the side of a steep hill.
We reached a wide forest road and galloped for bit. I loved picking up the pace—and so did Buddy.
When we reached the summit of the small mountain, we were greeted with another breathtaking view, with the Medicine Bow Range on full display. The snowcapped peaks shined brightly against the dark, forested base—another completely Colorado view that made the tough ride up even more epic.
As we rode leisurely back to the ranch, we talked and laughed, then quieted down to enjoy the beauty of nature. Few things compare with being in nature on the back of a horse.
Back at the ranch, I attended a foal-handling clinic, in which a small group of guests and two wranglers armed with brushes and small halters head out to the pasture to play with the foals. This was pure fun.
There were six foals, four of which were sprawled in the grass. We were instructed in the basics, then allowed to interact with them. It was so delightful to go right out there and visit them. One baby refused to get up, lying on the ground even though several people visited him.
All in all, Vista Verde is the complete package. It offers everything you could possibly want in a Colorado riding vacation and more.
Cate Lamm, The Trail Rider’s editorial assistant and longtime horseperson, enjoys trail riding aboard Banjo, her draft-cross rescue horse. Click here to read her rescue-horse blog, Our Journey.