By Irene Middleman Thomas
I have visited nearly 20 guest ranches or so in Colorado, Wyoming and Arizona. Some blend together, and some stand out.
Sundance Trail Guest Ranch, near Red Feather Lakes, Colo., is one that has its own unique appeal. It is a small, cozy ranch with just four tables in the dining room, seating 24 maximum, and it’s very relaxed, friendly and flexible – catering to special diets, special needs and special requests.
The 140-acre guest ranch is one of the smallest in Colorado and is open year-round, with the owners living on premises.
Speaking of the owners, they’re delightful folks. Ellen and Dan Morin are hands-on, helping with just about everything, from cooking to cleaning rooms to teaching horsemanship to leading rides.
Some ranches push a political or religious agenda – not this one. “Live and let live” is their motto, and just about anyone would feel comfortable here, including vegans, diabetics and even Buddhists, who might want to visit the fascinating Shambala retreat center six miles up the road. Dan used to teach meditation classes there, and you might be lucky enough to have him give you a tour.
Another rarity, or perhaps it’s the only ranch to allow this: Ellen and Dan welcome guests to bring their own dogs and report that they have never had an “incident.” Your dog will thank you for the experience to run free with new friends. You can even bring your own horse – and many people do.
Sundance Trail is one of the very few ranches in the nation that permits weekend stays in the non-summer months, late September through mid May. They can be “Country Inn Stays,” which include dinner on the arrival night and all meals throughout the stay, along with a daily horseback ride. Or they can be one-night stays with breakfast only.
Summer dude ranch stays include seven days and six nights of lodging and meals, a Western horse for the week and all trail rides and instruction. There also are three-day, four-night packages, and non-riders enjoy a discount. Prices are reduced for children and teens, and children under four stay for free.
Some ranches add an automatic “service fee” or “gratuity” to your bill. At Sundance Trail, a tip is at your discretion and is divided equally among the staff.
Looking for something really out of the ordinary? The ranch offers, at no extra charge, “Murder Mystery Weekends” in the off-season. The ranch provides the script and instructions for complete mystery plays and will advise in advance of the costumes and supplies each person should bring. All Murder Mystery packages include lodging and meals and a daily horseback ride (weather permitting). There is even one scheduled for New Year’s Eve.
Summer brings a wealth of activities at Sundance Trail, with horseback riding, exploring, hiking, rock climbing, belaying, Frisbee golfing, mountain biking, tomahawk throwing, soaking in the hot tub and whitewater rafting. Or guests can lie in hammocks in a shady spot or sit back on the comfy couch in the parlor and enjoy one of the many books and movies in the library.
Because the ranch is so small and has such an easy-going staff, riding groups are kept small, and rides can be customized to the needs and desires of the group. For example, unlike some ranches, which have a set rule that only kids over age 6 can ride, Sundance judges a child’s maturity and attitude, weight and height to determine who can ride.
Beginners start with a safety video and hands-on lessons, and everyone else can develop horsemanship skills through private or group lessons, or just by practicing in the barn.
The ranch is opposed to “nose-to-tail” rides, and Dan does not believe in lines. All wranglers are safety-certified by the Dude Ranchers’ Association, and Dan is a certified instructor.
Sundance Trail maintains 22 miles of trail between its land and the Roosevelt National Forest. The ranch sits at an elevation of 8,000 feet, and its horseback rides offer views of the Snowy Range, Mummy Range and Rawah Wilderness. The ranch is located in north-central Colorado, about 37 miles northwest of Fort Collins.
The ranch is not tied down by the clock. A general hour is announced for meals, but the dinner bell signals the real time. Meals are tasty, abundant and served family-style. But don’t worry – your steak will be cooked to your specifications.
Rooms are well-equipped. All of the suites, in either the mountain lodge or the cabins, are comfortable and spacious and offer refrigerators, coffee-makers, private baths and daily housekeeping.
There is nothing like hearing the horses being saddled to rouse you up out from under the blankets – and when you smell that coffee brewing, it just gets better.