Getting Ranchy in the Colorado Rockies
It’s a place where doors are left unlocked and strangers say ‘howdy’ as you walk by. Horses are the primary mode of transportation, and people gather for dinner at the sound of a bell. The hum of electronics is absent, replaced by the sound of a creek outside one’s window.
No, I’m not talking about a bygone era in towns like Mayberry. This place still exists. Nearly two hours from the bustle of Denver, high in the Rockies at 8,300 feet above sea level are dude ranches that invite guests to experience this simple life in one-week doses. Last summer, I packed my cowboy hat and traveled to Colorado to try out ranching for myself at Drowsy Water and C Lazy U Ranches.
Drowsy Water, located on the western side of the Continental Divide along Drowsy Water Creek, specializes in family travel and welcomes guests from June–September. Neighboring C Lazy U, more appropriately called a guest ranch, is open year-round and offers a Western experience with hotel-style amenities like a fitness center, spa, and cocktail hours. After visiting both ranches, I see why so many guests and employees decide to hang their hats here forever.
Drowsy Water Ranch
Popular with families, couples, and anyone looking to escape city life, Drowsy Water has been in operation for over 90 years as an authentic dude ranch experience. Unlike a typical resort where guests duck in and out of their own rooms, hardly daring to make eye contact in a hallway, strangers at Drowsy Water are just friends you haven’t met yet.
Drowsy Water makes its home in Granby, Colorado right off the U.S. 40, and a red wagon in front of a dirt road marks the entrance. Tucked in a long canyon at the road’s end is this 700-acre ranch where livestock outnumbers guests and everything from stables, barns, rustic cabins, and kid’s playgrounds are within easy walking distance.
I arrived around dinner and wondered what I would eat at as a pescetarian (vegetarian who eats fish) participating in a decidedly cowboy experience, but the staff was blessedly accommodating. Thanksgiving dinner was served the first night, but instead I enjoyed fresh fish topped in a tomato-avocado slaw. All meals are included in your stay, and special diets like mine are no problem with advance notice.
Coming on my own to a press trip at the ranch, I worried it would be like the first day of school with me aimlessly wandering among the tables looking for a place to sit. Gratefully, it was the opposite.
I dined with older couples who called dude ranching the “trip of a lifetime” and ladies who’d been visiting annually since the ‘90s. Our intimate group of just 15 visitors made getting to know everyone easy.
Ken and Randy Sue Fosha, owners and operators of Drowsy Water Ranch since 1977, offer the down-home hospitality you’d expect in a Western vacation. They’re some of the nicest people I’ve met, and their dedication to dude ranching shows in the annually returning families and repeated nods from Trip Advisor for Best All-Inclusive Resort. Their two sons and the wife of one have more recently joined them in business, and they all live here year-round and manage everything from the horses to children’s programs.
Their staff hails from around the nation and are a mix of college-age first timers and returnees who (happily) work long days—upwards of 12 hours—all summer filling roles from kids’ counselors to wranglers. Many are former guests themselves who couldn’t wait to return. One long-time staff member, Ian, visited the ranch from England 17 years ago…and basically never left! My fellow guests are almost exclusively from the East Coast, minus two ladies who crossed the pond to visit from England.
Despite their wild success, the Fosha’s like keeping it small, and the ranch is limited to just 50 guests each week. Because school was back in session, my September visit was designated an adults-only art week with painting clinics taught by artist Barbara Tiffany, in addition to the traditional schedule of riding and recreation.
Horseback riding is the heart of Drowsy Water, and you’re assigned a horse for the week based on ability forms filled out prior to arrival. They excel at matching horses and riders to ensure you enjoy your twice-daily rides, and I was delighted to meet my horse Clifford, a large, reddish-colored gelding aptly given the moniker after the huge, red storybook dog. It fit. Although almost too tall to mount on my own, Clifford was a gentle giant. Drowsy Water emphasizes gentle communication with horses, and only allows kicking as a final resort if other command requests are ignored. Thankfully, Clifford needed just a little nudging to stay with the group. I started with a warm-up ride then moved into an advanced loping group for afternoon where we climbed out of the valley and onto a high peak to a dramatic overlook, spotting deer and a moose along the way. Throughout the week you’ll lope through meadows, trek up mountains, and view wildlife as you explore miles of scenic mountain trails.
This is your vacation, and there’s plenty of free time to spend how you choose. Join planned activities like mountain biking, hiking, and river rafting, or just grab a book and read by the creek. Whatever you do, don’t miss the ziplining. Drowsy Water has rigged and operates over 3000 feet of lines, including a grand finale that launches you across their canyon with splendid views of the ranch from above. As a mild agrophobic, I felt panicky as I hurled myself off the edge and down the steep line, but speed is key to not getting stuck in the middle so I went full throttle until the platform came into view after what seemed like minutes in the air. What a rush!
Nightlife and ranching sound like an unlikely pairing, but country dancing, bingo, hayrides, a staff show, and an outdoor candlelit dinner are part of the week’s experience. I visited for the dancing night, and loved learning square dancing steps and getting my Hokey Pokey on with the staff and fellow guests.
Known for their spectacular children’s program, counselors supervise infants through teenagers in horseback riding, hikes, cookouts, crafts, swimming, and more. They’ll even take on diaper duty and bottle-feeding for babies so the adults can focus on mastering their riding skills. There’s also time for family togetherness as meals and many activities take place jointly. Learn more about kids’ offerings at drowsywater.com.
After my two-day taste of Drowsy Water Ranch, I knew I wanted to return and am looking forward to one day booking my own week-long ranch getaway.
C Lazy U
Though just 10 miles down the road from Drowsy Water Ranch, the C Lazy U experience differs greatly. A guest ranch for the last 95 years, C Lazy U has modernized with the times and offers impressive facilities more akin to a four-star resort than a dude ranch. Their Patio House boasts a gorgeous pool and indoor fitness center, and a short walk away is the famed Lazy U Spa. Perched along Willow Creek, this outdoor sanctuary of tent-like structures offers luxurious massages, facials, and copper tub soaks that feel otherworldy.
Activities and Horseback Riding
Not everything has changed over time here, and guests still gather every morning and afternoon to watch wranglers herd the horses in and out to open pasture. Known as “The Jingle,” seeing nearly 200 horses run free along the dirt road led by just a few cowboys and cowgirls was a highlight for me. Plus, the ‘Cowboy Coffee’ served at the morning Jingle is downright delectable.
C Lazy U’s weekly schedule is similar to Drowsy Water with twice-daily horseback rides supplemented with activities such as trap shooting, ropes course, archery, horseshoes, hiking, ball sports, and of course…hot tubbing and swimming.
In addition to trail rides, C Lazy U has a gorgeous indoor arena, and since my horse was of the stubborn variety, I spent nearly an hour wearing him down inside on our first ride before venturing back outdoors. On select mornings, guests can try their hand at herding cattle on horseback. Guiding 50 steers through a river and into an arena is a challenging—but fun—endeavor. On regular rides you’ll experience the ranch’s diverse trails with striking overlooks and a wildflower or fall color backdrop, dependent on when you visit. All this riding means you’re backside may get sore, but I can bet you’ll be loping by week’s end.
Meals are done a bit differently at this ranch. Food is nothing short of gourmet, but the lunch served alongside the outdoor pool ranked as my favorite. Set up like a barbecue, you pick your main entree and pair it with an ever-changing assortment of soup, salads, and desserts. Dinner is a far more formal affair here, and children dine separately for this meal each night. It begins with cocktail hour downstairs before moving upstairs for dinner, which is served course-by-course on gorgeous flatware by welcoming, elegantly dressed staff.
Comfort is not lacking in the accommodations, and the plush king-size beds and fireplaces will put you in total relaxation mode. Little bonuses like the C Lazy U water bottle left in your room, along with a giant jar of housemade granola, make the stay even cozier.
Kids and adults ride horses separately at C Lazy U, save one family ride offered during the week, and kids spend much of the day participating in activities like rowing, archery, scavenger hunts, swimming, hay rides, carnivals, volleyball, and crafts. Young children through teenagers have programs tailored for them, and families are together primarily in the mornings over breakfast, some afternoons, and evenings following dinner.
Getting There and Booking Information
Drowsy Water Ranch and C Lazy U are about 90 miles west of Denver in the town of Granby, Colorado. The quickest way there is to fly into Denver and drive to the ranches. Other nearby sites worth visiting include: Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Lake, Winter Park, and Hot Sulphur Springs.
Both ranches book out far in advance, but more availability and discounted rates can be found for adults-only weeks in September at Drowsy Water (drowsywater.com) or during the off-season at C Lazy U (clazyu.com).
Horseback Riding Wear
A sturdy pair of jeans, plaid shirt, and cowboy hat are all you really need to ride, but these additional items make great partners for a long week in the saddle.
Goode Rider Heritage Down Jacket
Mountain mornings are cool, making this flattering jacket great for early rides. Down insulated with cable wrist cuffs to keep cold out and a removable shearling-lined hood. Also available as a vest. $180 gooderider.com
Justin George Strait Boots
Boots are required for riding, and Justin’s are a great investment. After six years of riding horses I still exclusively pick Justin’s for their long-wearing comfort, and this waterproof leather style felt broken in at the first wear. $130 justinboots.com