SUMMER VACATION AWAITS IN CLARK, COLORADO
by MONICA PARPAL STOCKBRIDGE
When it comes to vacation, many people just want to get away from it all. Whether that means powering down from a high-stress job in the city, or physically abandoning day-to-day obligations, we often feel compelled to leave home in order to relax, rest and perhaps even enjoy a new adventure.
Arriving for the first time at The Home Ranch – the state’s only Relais & Chateaux affiliated guest ranch and all-inclusive, family-friendly summer vacation destination – there’s a very real, very refreshing sense of isolation. Nestled in the heart of the Elk River Valley, 18 miles north of Steamboat Springs and bordering thousands of acres of Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest land, you immediately feel a long distance from wherever you journeyed. But that distance is welcome. You begin to unwind from the bustling, city-light drenched, mile-a-minute lives we lead. Fresh mountain air expands your lungs, and blue skies dazzle your view. As General Manager Brooks Bradbury and Guest Services Manager Selina Heintz greet you upon check-in, they take your bags with warm smiles and a delightfully unexpected greeting: “Welcome Home.”
Finding Home in Clark, Colorado
It all began nearly 40 years ago, when Toledo, Ohio residents Ann and Steve Stranahan (brother of George Stranahan of Colorado whiskey fame) met Ken and Sharon Jones, cattle ranchers from Montana. The four decided they would start their own ranch. The Stranahans were vacationing in Steamboat Springs with their four children when they discovered a 580-acre swath of alpine ranchland in the Elk River Valley, in a small settlement called Clark. This was during what locals call a “Three-wire-winter” – meaning the snow was so high that it reached the tops of the barbed-wire fences separating the roads from the cattle ranches.
From first glance, the Stranahans were transfixed with the area. Later, Ann would write a poem about the experience of seeing the land for the first time, exploring the several hundred acres on cross-country skis with Steve.
The Stranahans purchased that land, “laying impermanent claim,” as Ann writes, to the natural beauty they discovered there. The land they would eventually transform into a guest ranch would change their lives, and change the face of Clark itself. It was here they established The Home Ranch.
Staying at The Home Ranch
The owners intentionally modeled the ranch after early western homesteads – not the imitation ski chalets popular in the late 1970s, but a more rustic, low-lying look somewhere between a high-country cabin and a farm cottage. As the property has grown, they have added private cabins alongside the main lodge house. Today, there’s a barn that hosts Wednesday night dances, and a spot for weekly bonfire cookouts. There’s a garden and greenhouse, a downright swanky chicken coop, and a hay pasture for grazing horses – 78 of them to be precise, including an irritable yet adorable miniature horse and a beloved donkey named Poncho.
All of this creates a summertime playground for guests of all ages and abilities, who plan their weeklong stays with equal parts respite and recreation. You might learn to fly fish in the gently babbling Elk River, or perfect your horsemanship skills on long back-country rides. You might choose to join a guided hiking trip along the 11-mile Zirkel Circle – practically untouched by Front Range 14er-baggers – or charter a hot air balloon ride for an exhilarating journey high above the rugged peaks. There are constant diversions for kids, from horseback riding to pond fishing to arts and crafts – and, of course, plenty of afternoon ice cream breaks at the local Clark Store.
For many, simply wandering the property between hearty gourmet meals proves fulfilling. That’s because The Home Ranch treats guests to all-inclusive haute cuisine by Executive Chef Jonathon Gillespie, who sources locally (and we mean locally) as much as possible. Beef comes from neighboring Sand Mountain Cattle Company, and charcuterie is made in-house. Pork, poultry and produce, including lettuce, carrots, corn, peas and radishes, along with herbs and flowers, are raised and grown onsite. Plus, desserts by Pastry Chef Douglas Short round out every meal, and freshly baked cookies stacked on a platter in the foyer make irresistible late-night snacks.
During meals, guests sit at long community tables, sipping rare wines and Colorado craft beers, unwittingly laying the foundation for lifelong friendships. What might begin as a conversation over breakfast flapjacks and fresh-squeezed orange juice will often continue over barbecued chicken and grilled whitefish on the patio at lunch. By dinnertime, over dishes of Colorado lamb chops or Parisian-style gnocchi with Home Ranch garden greens, those same guests are exchanging family photos and email addresses, already making plans for a return trip at the same time next year.
The Ranching Way of Life
Part of the magic of The Home Ranch is how it trots the line between high-class and high-country. There’s an admirable success in providing a luxury experience on an otherwise harsh landscape (the growing season is an impossible 59 days, and winters regularly reach 40 degrees below zero). Yet, that unflinching emphasis on hospitality lives alongside an undying respect for the land and those who have lived and worked it for generations.
In fact, the Home Ranch and its neighboring ranches have made it a mission over the years not only to create a destination getaway for discerning travelers, but to protect and preserve the surrounding land and ranching way of life by placing more than 8,000 acres of the Upper Elk River Valley into a permanent conservation easement, meaning the land will remain undeveloped for generations to come.
This wasn’t always a popular notion in a place where land developers mine profits in hills that were once mined for gold. Finding like-minded individuals to keep the land pure and undeveloped, however, has enhanced the beauty of the landscape. Over its lifetime, The Home Ranch has grown from 580 acres to 4,000 – land that encompasses hayfields and hillsides where horses graze and calves are born in the spring, where herds of deer gather and graze, and where guests can hike, bike, and fish on land that likely will remain this beautiful for centuries.
It may seem impossible that this place – with its vibrant green hills, distant frosted peaks, gentle horses and graceful river – could ever truly be home. But in the communities that form over meals and around bonfires, in the shared experiences on the land, and in the stories of days gone by, there lies an inescapable sense of belonging. You may be far from home, but you’re right where you need to be.
Learn more and book your stay at homeranch.com
A Home of Your Own
Some guests visit The Home Ranch year after year before finally deciding to move permanently to Clark. For those who cannot imagine life anywhere else, there’s the Murphy-Larsen Ranch: a conservation-oriented residential project managed by The Home Ranch that offers ownership opportunities in a breathtaking setting. Learn more at www.murphy-larsen.com