Imagine a perfect summer day. A gentle wind washes over you as the sun beams down from a cobalt sky. All around you a stunning mountain panorama unfolds—rocky peaks and emerald valleys, soaring pine trees and cold, babbling brooks.
It’s like a scene from a movie, and you’re the star! You breathe in the fresh, pine-scented mountain air and smile as your bike rolls effortlessly down a smooth path that never seems to end.
Few things thrill like riding a bike downhill. Now imagine a bike ride that lasts for over an hour and descends 12 breathtaking miles down a mountain in the heart of the Colorado Rockies. Last summer Peter, our son Ross, 17, and I experienced this amazing bike ride down from Vail Pass. It was just one of many adventures we enjoyed on our 10-day vacation in Colorado, the penultimate playground for families who love the outdoors. Sure, everyone knows Colorado is a skier’s paradise, but summer is another amazing time to visit this pretty-as-a-postcard state.
Years ago I almost moved to Colorado with my college boyfriend, but a different path opened up and I followed it. I’ve often wondered how my life would have been different if I’d gone out west in my younger days. Over the years various friends of mine have moved to Colorado and become enchanted by its ethereal beauty and recreational opportunities. Finally I planned a trip to discover what exactly was so magical and magnetic about this state.
It didn’t take me long to find out.
Our first stop, North Fork Ranch—about 70 miles west of Denver—looks like something out of a storybook. With the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, the ranch sits next to a sparkling river surrounded by green pastures, where horses graze peacefully. As Peter, Ross, and I drive our rental car into this hidden valley, I’m pretty sure we’ve chosen the perfect spot to begin our Colorado vacation.
I know, dude ranches seem so 70s, but today’s ranches offer families more activities than ever. Besides horseback riding (natch), you can go fly fishing, white water rafting, mountain biking, zip lining, hiking, and more.
Then there’s the food—no more beans and franks. In fact, North Fork Ranch, is nicknamed a “food ranch”—the meals are that good. After checking in and getting settled in our cozy cabin, Peter, Ross, and I head over to the ranch house, where meals are served family style—and chow down on a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, prepared by owner Karen May, who runs the ranch with her husband, Dean. The couple met in their 20s working at another dude ranch and have welcomed countless happy guests in the 27 years since North Fork opened.
Their son and daughter help on the ranch, too. The next morning we meet daughter Hayley, who will take us on our first ride. I’m amazed at how clean the stables are—no flies—and the horses are super gentle and well behaved. In fact, kids as young as six can ride, and for the pre-k set, pony rides are available. Horses are assigned to guests for their entire stay. Mine is Dundee, Peter’s is Jaybee, and Ross gets Rosco! We ride through woods, across meadows, and up slopes where amazing views of the Rockies unfurl. The weather is perfect—stunning blue sky, wispy white clouds, and gentle breezes.
You can ride as little or as much as you like. What’s unique about North Fork Ranch is there are lots of options if someone in your family doesn’t enjoy riding. For example, you can spend an afternoon fly fishing with an Orvis-endorsed guide right on the ranch. That afternoon, my family and I relax by the pool and watch guests reeling in good-sized speckled trout from the river. Nearby a hot tub bubbles, and Ross jumps in to soak his muscles. For those who like a little more in-depth pampering, you can get a deep-tissue massage on site as well.
Our visit is late in the season so some of North Fork’s regular programs aren’t available, but during the summer, scheduled activities will keep you and your family as busy as you want to be. Hayrides, picnics, sing-a-longs and storytelling around a campfire, square dancing, archery, and skeet shooting are just some of the fun in store. There’s also a game room, a petting zoo, and of course trail rides twice a day. For parents who want a little time to themselves, Kids’ Corral offers supervised child care with plenty of ranch fun for the little ones. For adventurous families, a teepee by the river welcomes you for a unique camping experience, including a campfire with s’mores!
But don’t feel like you have to stay busy. Part of the appeal of a dude ranch vacation is there’s always time to unwind and commune with nature—and your family members. During our stay at North Fork, hiking with Peter and Ross is one of my favorite pastimes. I love the smell of the woods and the sounds of nature, especially how the aspen trees say “shhh” as the wind blows and how the rowdy river roars along on its journey eastward.
One night at dinner Gayle, a guest from New Jersey, sees something across the river. “It looks like someone walking,” she says.
Karen, the owner, glances up. “I think it’s a bear.” Everyone jumps up, grabs their cameras, and rushes outside, where we glimpse a black bear ambling along a path that’s thankfully on the other side of the river.
The bear is traveling pretty fast, and it’s hard to get my camera focused on him before he disappears behind shrubs and tree trunks.
Ross says, “C’mon, Mom,” and we run alongside the river, the only ones who choose to chase the bear. From our vantage point across the river, we watch him travel up a mountain trail, pausing now and then to sniff around. Ross takes a photo, and even though it’s not very good, we’re thrilled anyway. Seeing a bear in the wild is a memorable moment.
After three days, we say goodbye to Karen and Dean, feeling lucky to have discovered North Fork Ranch with its enchanting scenery, gentle horses, friendly staff, and home-cooked meals. Our Colorado vacation is off to a perfect start.
Tucked among soaring mountains, the cozy town of Breckenridge comes alive in the winter months when everything is blanketed with snow, and skis and snowboards are the best way to get around. In summer Breck has a much more relaxed vibe and offers visitors the option to slow down and smell the wildflowers—or participate in one of many outdoor activities, like hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, fishing, rock climbing, and more. Breck’s delightfully cool climate in summer offers a nice break from the heat and humidity of the East Coast.
We arrive in Breck at lunchtime and enjoy a delicious bite at Amazing Grace Natural Eatery, which specializes in natural, organic ingredients. In fact, Colorado has always been at the forefront of sustainability, and everywhere you look, it seems, you’ll find grassroots organizations striving to make the world better, greener, and more sustainable. Restaurants are the perfect place to enjoy firsthand the fruits of their labor. We sit outside on the patio, where flowerpots overflow with colorful geraniums, and order a healthy lunch. Ross tries the veggie deluxe sandwich with avocado, cheddar, and lots of sprouts. Peter opts for mixed greens served with a generous scoop of albacore tuna salad. I try the “not-chos,” featuring black beans, spinach, cheese, salsa, and veggies. We agree the food is fabulous—down to the last crumb on our plates.
After lunch we decide to ride the free gondola that carries visitors from the center of Breck up into the mountains. In winter it’s an efficient way to get skiers up to the trails. In summer it’s a pleasant way to enjoy the scenery. At the top is Breck Summer Fun Park with mountain coasters, slides, pony rides, putt-putt, mountain biking, and more.
Clouds are gathering overhead, but we decide to hike the B & B Trail at the edge of town, which meanders through the woods past abandoned mine sites. A nearby tourist attraction offers visitors the chance to go down into a mine and pan for gold. Peter, Ross, and I are happy just to explore the woods and get some exercise. We get back to the car just as a summer shower brings cool wind and rain to the valley.
We take refuge in our accommodations, an attractive condo nestled in the trees, but soon venture out to walk along Breck’s cozy Main Street, which is lined with shops selling everything from incense to cowboy boots. Breck was founded in the mid-1800s by a group of miners and still maintains a sense of historic charm. If you stroll in the neighborhoods adjoining Main Street, turn-of-the-century homes line the streets. You can learn more about Breck’s history at the Breckenridge Welcome Center, where a cozy museum provides a glimpse of the town’s early inhabitants. Be sure and ask about historic tours and programs.
Our shopping expedition is interrupted by more rain, and this time we decide to enjoy an adult beverage at Relish, one of Breck’s many fine restaurants. We sit at the bar and sip happy hour martinis while Ross nurses a soda. Karen, the owner at North Fork Ranch, mentioned that Relish is her favorite restaurant, so I buy her a gift certificate as a gesture of appreciation for our wonderful time at the ranch. For dinner we go to Snake River Saloon up the road in Keystone, where we dig into tasty steaks and hearty, home-cooked food.
Thankfully the rain clouds drift away during the night, and we wake up to a golden summer morning—perfect for the Vail Pass bike excursion we’ve been anticipating. After coffee, we check out of our condo and head to Mountain Wave, the outfitter that offers bike rentals and, of course, the shuttle van up to Vail’s Pass. After an orientation, we drive up to the summit, take photos, adjust our helmets, and we’re off on the most exhilarating bike ride of my life. Wheee—it’s all downhill from here.
As we let gravity carry us down the mountain—using our brakes more often than our pedals, we pass a few intrepid cyclists who are taking the hard way up the mountain. Sweating and red in the face, they huff and puff up Vail’s Pass, using high gear and burning a zillion calories. I imagine their ride back down will be even sweeter than ours, but I have to say, ours is pretty sweet.
Next Month: Part 2 – Discovering Denver and Environs