We passed Hog Heaven on Highway 285, just along from the Happy Camper Cannabis Company. I guess that really is high on the hog. Yes, we’re in Colorado, though our only high will be up in the mountains and a visit to the Tumbling River Ranch for a horseback ride.
The road swings right at Al’s Pit and we climb up through Platte Canyon, the Rocky Mountains around here in late June looking like Switzerland, with thick forests of pine and snow-capped peaks in the distance. By the side of the road the South Platte River races down, a torrent of white water, which we follow upwards, seeing other creeks join it from the mountain slopes.
We pass 9,000 feet and the river’s beside us the whole way. We pass the entrance to a cute-looking old house on the right, and then on the left we turn into the Tumbling River Ranch to discover that the cute-looking house is the Pueblo, and next to it, beside the fishing pond, is a log cabin that’s our home.
In summer the ranch is only available for week-long bookings, but in the shoulder seasons shorter visits of 3, 4 or 5 nights are available, though it helps if you arrive on a Sunday when the orientation session takes place detailing the week’s activities, from fly-fishing, hiking and horse-riding to white-water rafting: the optional rafting excursion is the only activity not included in the price.
At the induction session the amazingly friendly ranch owners, Megan and Scott Dugan, introduce themselves, their kids and their staff, then the guests introduce themselves too. It’s a great way to break barriers, and puts everyone on first-name terms instantly. Pretty soon we’re having a beer in the bar, then settling down to some delicious BBQ meat. As we snuggle under the duvet that night and listen to the soothing sound of the water flowing nearby, it’s hard to believe we’re only 90 minutes from Denver International Airport. And yes, the ranch will pick you up there if you want a car-free vacation.
You don’t even need to take riding boots with you, as there’s an array of sizes and colors to choose from as we kit ourselves out for what will be the highlight of our ranch stay, a trail ride up high in the mountains. The people in our small group all have some riding experience so the introductory session is brief, though if you’re a beginner you’ll get riding lessons before you set off.
‘We like to push you on the first day,’ Megan had said. ‘We like to get you up high, get you through some water, get you going uphill, downhill, let you know how these horses love the mountains. You’ve just got to trust them. They don’t want to fall any more than you do, and they’re a lot more sure-footed than we are.’
As the ride leader, Brendan, adjusts my stirrups he tells me I’m lucky.
‘You’ve got Freckles today. He’s my favorite horse. I love riding him and he likes to go fast.’
There’s no going fast for Freckles today, though, as we amble along a rocky trail that zig-zags up through the pine trees, a mix of sunshine and shade, though I really ought to be wearing a stetson rather than a baseball cap. We pass through a group of aspen trees.
‘The fall colors here are wonderful,’ Brendan tells me. Freckles may not be racing today but he has managed to edge his way past a couple of other horses to be near the front. Brendan’s in his second summer working at the ranch, after being brought here several times on family holidays as a kid.
The gentle pace of the ride is soothing, and there’s plenty of quiet contemplation as people admire the landscape, and the occasional views of valleys and mountains in breaks in the trees. After an hour or so we emerge into a spectacular sight. We enter a lush mountain meadow, a flat and open space carpeted with thick grass, fringed with pine forests and, in the distance, some 14,000-foot mountains with snow on their slopes, like a piebald pony. We’re at almost 11,000 feet, having climbed from the ranch at 9,600 feet. The horses relax and we take it in turns to borrow Brendan’s hat for the cowboy photo moment. It’s sunny, and it’s one of those moments that makes you happy to be alive. It’s a true Rocky Mountain high, in Colorado.
See the Tumbling River Ranch website.
For more information on the state and to plan a visit to Colorado, visit www.Colorado.com.
All photos (c) Donna Dailey.