How I spent my summer vacation: Black Mountain Colorado Dude Ranch

by julie on August 7, 2011

Since 2008, our summers have been devoted to swim team. The commitment increased in 2010 when both daughters were on the team, and next year it’s likely that all three kids will be swimming. That plus my volunteer committee head position means swim team consumes all of our leisure time for two months.

“How did you spend your summer vacation?”

“Uh…at the pool. No, really. Every day. For two months.”

This year, my kids had a different answer, thanks to Black Mountain Ranch.

Over the July 4th weekend, at the invitation of my friend Andrew, we packed up and headed west. Black Mountain Ranch is in McCoy, Colorado — between Vail and Steamboat Springs — which means, yes, that it’s not particularly easy to get to, but that’s one reason it’s such a fantastic getaway.

Storm clouds

The road between Steamboat Springs and McCoy.

We arrived in the midst of a late afternoon shower, and Wrangler Jacki pointed us to our cabin — a cozy bungalow (the Columbine cabin) complete with a woodburning stove and bunk beds for the girls.

View from our cabin porch

Not a bad view from our porch, even in the rain.

The weather cleared up quickly, as it usually does during Colorado summers, and we ventured down to see the horses, chickens, and baby goats. If you’ve never seen a baby goat, you’re in for a surprise. They behave like dogs — trotting over to greet you with their tails wagging, milling around and nuzzling you. They’re soft, too.

Baby goat Jo noshing on CJ's skirt

Don’t tell a goat, “Eat my shorts.” He’ll do it.

We learned that the goats with short ears are milk goats and those with long ears are meat goats. I’m not sure who would want to eat a goat, but I’m just a city slicker. These goats were taken from their mothers (I’ve forgotten exactly why, but I believe it had something to do with their health) so they’re bottle-fed goat’s milk fortified with medicine.

While the kids got acquainted with the animals, I chatted with a family from New Jersey who had been at the ranch all week. The mom told me that they’d gone to St. Thomas the summer before: “First class, five star, top of the line the whole way. But this vacation blows St. Thomas out of the water. Best vacation ever.”

At dinner, I got my first taste — literally — of what she meant. I knew that the ranch had a professionally trained chef, but I wasn’t expecting such elegant and delicious food. All five of us cleaned our plates, and while I should be ashamed of how much berry cobbler I consumed…well, I’m not.

We were in for an even bigger treat after dinner. Every evening, the horses are released from the corral to gallop out to pasture together. As Andrew told us beforehand, watching them never gets old.

The five of us were tired, so we left the rest of the group enjoying the fire outside the saloon and retreated to our cabin. Kyle and I tossed and turned a bit, but the kids slept like rocks.

Ollie's makeshift crib

Totally zonked in his makeshift crib.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and we filled up at breakfast, knowing that we had a day of riding ahead of us. Kyle and Tacy and I selected pairs of boots from “boot library” at the trading post — dubbed “the farm store” by Oliver — and reported to the corral for our horse assignments.

Black Mountain Ranch boot library

Pick a pair, any pair!

Kyle’s horse was Chief, Tacy’s horse was Taffy, and mine was Chip. Without knowing us, the wranglers had managed to assign us horses who matched our personalities. That is, Chief was an easygoing good ol’ boy, Taffy was young and easily distracted, and Chip was a control freak.

Tacy on Taffy

Tacy and Taffy — two of a kind.

We set out for a short trail ride with Wrangler Molly, which made me giggle because the last time I’d been on a horse was at Girl Scout camp where I’d ridden a pony named Molly. But I soon discovered that a trail ride in central Colorado is way different from being confined to an arena in southern Ohio.

Taking in the view from horseback

Way, WAY different.

Since CJ wasn’t able to accompany us on our trail ride, when we returned to the ranch, Wrangler Jacki saddled up Cassidy and led CJ around the ranch and down to the front gate and back.

CJ, Jacki, and Cassidy at the front gate

Like Tacy, CJ wanted to trot. Over and over and over again.

On our second trail ride, both Kyle and Tacy had gotten up their confidence higher than the rest of us. They’d hang back, and then kick their horses to trot and catch up with the group. I still wasn’t too thrilled with trotting — it felt like getting spanked — but Chip would sense Taffy coming up behind him and get testy, so he’d start trotting too. (Chip didn’t mind Chief, but he and Taffy apparently have some unresolved issues.) Wrangler Matt, who stayed toward the rear with Kyle and me, watched Tacy and shook his head. “You guys are in trouble,” he told us. “She’s really good.”

That evening all the ranch guests were invited to the owner’s home — Nowell May — for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Completely unbidden, Tacy gushed to Nowell that “this vacation is better than Disneyland!” High praise, indeed.

Mountain lion perched on a cross beam at Nowell's house

This is as close to a mountain lion as I ever want to get.

Back at the ranch, we enjoyed the fire and watched the horses run again. As much fun as those horses must have, Kyle and I agreed that life on the ranch must be heavenly for the dogs. At least one dog accompanied us on our trail rides, and they love to run with the horses each evening.

Poised to strike

Riley also tries to eat the fire. The life of Riley, huh?

Saturday was the cattle drive. In the morning, the week-long ranch guests went out riding with the wranglers to find all the cattle and move them back into the arena. Meanwhile, the rest of us practiced our fledgling roping skills.


I roped myself.

With all the cattle and their calves in the arena, the guests headed in to rope them. It’s not just for sport; when the calves are caught, they’re injected with electrolytes.

Calf roping is a sport, yes

Kyle gave it a shot.

Still holding on!

And he succeeded!

Once all the calves had been caught and shot up at least once, it was time to drive all of them back out to pasture. Tacy and I saddled up to join in, and as we were waiting for the wranglers to coax all the cattle out of the arena, they discovered that one cow needed to stay behind.

Moving cattle out of the arena

She was in labor!

I’ve always loved steak and hamburger without apology, but now that I’ve participated in a cattle drive, I can say without reservation that cows are so damn stupid that they deserve to be eaten. The idiocy of cows is what makes being a cowboy (or a cowgirl) a valid career choice. They move in a herd, but there are still stragglers and wanderers. One cow even shat on another cow’s head.

But once we got them where we wanted them, the ride back was so peaceful and lovely. Chip and I hung back just so that we could enjoy it longer.

Riding through the meadow at the end of the cattle drive

Wide green meadow and acres of deep blue sky.

After we’d left the horses in the corral, we went back to the arena to see how mama and baby were doing.

Mama and baby

Cows may be stupid, but I’m still a sucker for mamas and babies.

That evening, the whole group headed up to Steamboat Springs for dinner and the rodeo, but we left Tacy with friends and headed back to the ranch directly after dinner. Steamboat was gorgeous though — we’ll make it a point to return for a ski trip.

Back in our comfortable cabin, CJ and Oliver went to bed early, and Kyle and I stood outside and watched the sky. We saw the constellations the way our ancestors saw them — bold and bright — plus the fuzzy glow of the Milky Way, two faint satellites moving slowly across the sky, and even a shooting star. There was no way we could capture the beauty in pictures, but this time lapse video, shot by Michael Cummings at the ranch, is absolutely stunning:

As Tacy told Nowell, our vacation at Black Mountain Ranch was better than Disneyland. The family from New Jersey agreed that it was their best vacation ever, as did a twenty-something couple from London whom we chatted with too.

What did we love about Black Mountain Ranch? Simply put, it’s unlike any other vacation you’ll ever take. Even though we see horses and cows every day within a few miles of our home, being a guest at a working ranch is a whole new experience. Tacy had never expressed interest in horseback riding before, and yet she loved it. Likewise, CJ constantly clamored to ride again. Even Oliver, who spent most of his stay at the ranch playing with the stash of toys inside the trading post, has asked about the ranch many times over the past few weeks. They all want to go back, and Kyle and I would be thrilled to go again ourselves.

And we only participated in a small fraction of the activities planned for week long guests. I can only imagine how much more fun we’d have with the full experience!

But I’d probably wait until all of our kids were big enough to ride unassisted. Though we were told that kids as young as six can ride on their own, both CJ and Oliver had to stay behind while Kyle, Tacy and I went out on trail rides. Small kiddos have a tough time controlling big horses (who don’t even realize that they’re being ridden). Fortunately, ranch staff were kind enough to keep an eye on CJ and Oliver so that we could ride, and I’m grateful for that. Still, it was a huge disappointment for CJ that she couldn’t ride as much as she would have liked to.

There also wasn’t that much for CJ and Oliver to do while we were out riding, at least not in terms of structured activities. The loft above the tack room had a ton of art supplies and games, but there really wasn’t a kids’ program as I had anticipated. That was a disappointment for me, since I would hate to put off a Black Mountain Ranch vacation until my youngest was eight (which would mean my oldest would be fourteen). An important part of what makes it such a cool vacation is seeing young kids embrace a whole new world.

Black Mountain Ranch designates specific weeks of the season as “Adult Only” weeks. Perhaps they could do something similar for families and plan a more structured kids’ program for those family weeks so that those of us with younger kids can enjoy the full experience too.

Would I recommend a week at Black Mountain Ranch? Absolutely! No matter where you’re from or how outdoorsy (or not so much) you might be, if you’re ready for a vacation like you’ve never had before, this is the place to do it. We’re saving up now for future summer vacations.

Thank you to Andrew Hyde for the kind invitation and to the owners and staff of Black Mountain Ranch for accommodating us during one of the greatest weekends we’ve ever spent as a family. Find my full Flickr photoset here.

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