Driving the winding road to Smith Fork Ranch in Crawford, Colo., the land seems largely untouched by people. Tucked away in the Gunnison National Forest and the West Elk Wilderness and just a short drive from Colorado's Black Canyon, Smith Fork resides in the largest wilderness area in the state. The secluded luxury guest ranch sits on some of Colorado's most rugged and beautiful terrain, merging the best of both worlds for those looking for a taste of the west.
The Spirit of the West
In 2000, Linda and Marley Hodgson were eager to leave behind their lives in the New York fashion world. The Hodgsons, founders of the leather goods company Ghurka, decided to put their creative talents into developing a luxury dude ranch that's both elegant and rustic.
Linda Hodgson says she and her husband looked all over the west for the perfect place and instantly fell in love with Colorado.
"We wanted our children to grow up not thinking the whole world was New York City," Linda Hodgson says.
When the couple found a 300-acre deserted ranch on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, they knew they had something special. But the land wasn't without its challenges. The buildings were in disrepair and the property was littered with hundreds of empty beer cans.
The Hodgsons hired locals to renovate the property, putting in plumbing and heating in the old lodges. The crew spent two years taking buildings down log by log and putting them up again like a "massive version of Lincoln Logs," Hodgson says.
Smith Fork opened to the public in 2002 and hosts guests from all over the world. The large Mountain House and the three log cabins hold about 28 guests during the ranch's open season from May through October.
Out on the Trail
Although it may be difficult to tear yourself away from Smith Fork's guest houses - and those insanely comfortable feather beds - a trip to Smith Fork wouldn't be complete without a horseback ride through the Rockies.
Smith Fork's wranglers will be your guides on the trail, helping to navigate the terrain and teaching newbies how to be comfortable in the saddle.
I rode Comanche, who's been a part of Smith Fork for over ten seasons. The wranglers take care to pair each rider with a horse suited to their riding expertise. When I was told Comanche is usually paired with first-time riders and children, I knew my dreams of becoming a real rodeo cowgirl were a long way off. But I couldn't ask for a better travel buddy.
There's no better way to take in Colorado's breathtaking views than on horseback. You can't help but think of George Strait singing about the giant sky in "Baby Blue."
Looking out on a sea of powder blue, cotton candy clouds and fall colors you know the King of Country wasn't lying.
In addition to horseback riding, Smith Fork Ranch also provides opportunities for hiking, sporty clays, bird watching, archery and fly fishing.
Food and Drink
Just because you're on a ranch doesn't mean you'll be living on campfire beans. At Smith Fork Ranch, five star meals are prepared by renowned chef Marcus Parrott, who's created a farm-to-table menu. Most of the produce comes from the ranch's organic farmstead garden with more than 80 varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Fresh lamb, poultry, beef and fish are delivered from nearby local farms.
During my stay, guests gathered for dinner in the dining room of the rustic Old Elk Lodge, where Chef Marcus prepared delicious dishes with locally raised goat and bison.
Smith Fork Ranch has an extensive cocktail menu and a collection of over 400 wines from around the world. But in the west, you drink as the cowboys and cowgirls drink. And that's Pendleton Whisky, a blended Canadian whisky steeped in the history of the west. Pendleton Whisky is named for the Pendleton Round-Up in Pendleton, Ore., 107-year-old- rodeo (and one of the largest in North America). The smooth whiskey was developed with the Pendleton cowboys in mind. It also pays tribute to the legendary rodeo with the trademark logo "Let 'er Buck"
The Cowboy Way
Ranch guest Randy Severe, a leather worker and saddle maker, has long been inspired by the cowboy way of life.
"In the sport of rodeo you will find a great desire to reach excellence," Severe says. "This bronc rider, every time they open his shoot gate he's striving for excellence. He wants the highest score, the best points. He's looking for a score of 100, which has never been attained. But that's what he's striving for."
That pursuit of excellence is reflected in everything Severe does. Severe, whose saddles have been displayed in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, designed Pendleton Whisky's limited edition leather sleeve for the 2018 Directors' Reserve bottle.
The third generation saddle maker runs a saddle shop, Sever Brothers Saddlery, with his brother Robin. The second floor of the shop is the Hotel de Cowpunch bunkhouse. It's been serving as lodging for rough and rowdy cowboys for decades. Rodeo warriors from Ty Murray to Casey Tibbs have hung their hat in the bunkhouse. Every year, Severe makes a saddle for champions at the Pendleton Round-Up.
After dinner, guests gathered around a campfire under the full moon. Randy Severe played guitar while his daughter Jodi Severe-Thackeray fiddled and sang classic western ballads like "I Want to be a Cowgirl's Sweetheart." In between songs, Severe told stories about Casey Tibbs and his stay at Hotel de Cowpunch. Between the cool mountain air, the smell of campfire smoke and classic cowboy ballads, is was clear that the best parts of the west will never change.
For more information on Smith Fork Ranch, visit here.
- 20 Luxury Ranches You Wish You Owned
- 10 of the Best Dude Ranch Vacations in America
- 5 California Ranches You Should Visit
- 15 Things I Learned as a Seasonal Ranch Hand