Just three hours from Vail, Music Meadows Ranch offers families a place to connect with horses, each other and themselves
Special to the Daily
“You’re a real natural; you know just how to steer that horse,” says Rich. He’s one of our guides for the day, complimenting my 5-year-old daughter Ellis who beamed in reply. He wasn’t kidding: she didn’t have a hint of the anxiety I felt when I rode for the first time as a pre-teen.
It’s our second day at Music Meadows Ranch in Westcliffe, Colo., and we’re mid-way through a milestone for the kids: their first time riding horses.
But the experience goes far beyond just a ride. Before setting out, Elin Parker Garchow, a third-generation rancher and the ranch’s owner/operator, patiently explained how to hold the reins and communicate with the horse. Most riders learn how to groom and saddle their horses prior to putting their feet into the stirrups.
After our feet-on-the-ground lesson, we set out for a short out-and-back ride on the 3,800-acre working cattle ranch. While Garchow held the reins for my 3-year-old son, Davis, guiding his horse along, she trusted Ellis to listen and comply to her instructions. “Pull up the reins, tell her whoa,” and Ellis rose to the occasion, listening intently and following instructions.
Later, after the ride, the kids feed apple slices to their horses — Babe and Rusty — and it’s hard to tell who was happier, the children or their trusty steeds.
A history of horses
Situated in the southern Wet Mountain Valley, it’s hard to stop staring at the dramatic Sangre de Cristo Mountains abutting the ranch. The land was originally homesteaded in the 1800s and Garchow’s father, Bill, purchased it in the 1960s; her family has been working it ever since.
While you can opt to visit the ranch for just a horseback ride, spending at least three nights and four days in the ranch house allows you to really settle into ranch life and all it encompasses: horseback rides each day; family dinners made onsite by Sherry, the ranch’s sweet and talented chef each night.
You can enjoy bonfires in the fire pit and trout fishing in the dusty light of early morning or evening. Another highlight? Petting and feeding Lily, the ranch donkey that comes on command. An abundance of solitude, stars and serenity relaxes tension held deep inside.
Plus, if she can get you for three days or a whole week, Garchow can accomplish her goal, which she explains as we’re warming ourselves by the bonfire post-ride while filling our bellies with barbecue beef wraps made with Sangres Best Beef, Garchow’s grass-finished beef company also located on the ranch: “I look at this as a full immersion-type experience with the horses, and not just a ‘get on, go down the trail, get off and walk away.’ I want people to learn and gain confidence with their horse and build a relationship,” she said. “As you learn to read your horse, your horsemanship excels.”
Stepping into the house when we arrived at the ranch on a Friday evening felt like taking a step back in time when things were simpler and people were more connected to the land and each other. The three-bedroom, two-bathroom home has everything you might need, from a well-stocked fridge and pantry to plenty of books, games and even extra cowboy hats in case you forgot your own. There’s plenty of wood for the wood-burning stove in the living room and instead of a television, there’s a piano. It’s functional and comfortable rather than fancy. In other words — it’s the perfect fit for a vacation at a working cattle ranch.
Aside from horseback riding, the highlight of our stay was dinner with the ranch cook Sherry — Sangres Best Beef filet mignon, homemade rolls, roasted vegetables and chocolate pudding sundaes for dessert, along with plenty of good conversation about the ranch and surrounding area.
During our three-day visit in October, we found enough adventure around Westcliffe to fill our days but if and when we return, we will stay put at the ranch, soaking in the welcome reprieve from life’s busy to-do list.
Music Meadows Ranch is located at 6076 CR 119 in Westcliffe, about 150 miles and a 3-hour drive southeast of Vail. The ranch itself is about a 20-minute drive from downtown Westcliffe. Pricing is $300 per night, per person (minimum of three people; each person after four gets a 25% discount). Price includes lodging, daily horseback riding (3, 4 or 5 hour rides) and three meals a day (two of which are prepped and one that is cooked and served by the ranch cook, Sherry). Visit musicmeadows.com to learn more.
Mission: Wolf: Open since 1984, this sustainable wolf sanctuary is home to 27 wolves, including Arctic and Timber wolves. Go on a Saturday and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to watch feeding time, which happens twice a week. Visitors are welcome every day except Thursdays and Sundays. Take a free tour (donations welcomed) led by a volunteer to hear about how the sanctuary got its start and how the resident wolves ended up at this remote sanctuary. Follow Google Maps directions for the most direct route, which is 45 minutes from Westcliffe but is well worth the trek.
Smokey Jack Observatory: Designated an International Dark Sky Community in 2015, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff were the first Colorado communities, and second in the whole nation, to earn the honor. Since, the observatory has become a popular destination for people from around the country and world. The observatory features a retractable roof and a 14-inch computer-automated telescope. Free public star parties take place at the observatory mid-March through October. Reserve a spot online beginning in January. The calendar fills up fast; the observatory was nearly entirely booked in 2019.
- Breakfast: Duck into Candy’s Coffee (102 S. 2nd St.) in Westcliffe for egg, green chile and cheddar croissants and Mexican chocolate chai.
- Brunch or lunch: Cliff Lanes (25 Main St.) boasts the best mountain views of any bowling alley you’ll find. After brunch at the Rancher’s Roost Café inside, stay for a round of bowling. There are even bumpers, ramps and lightweight balls for the littles.
- Dinner: Tony’s Mountain Pizza (630 Main St.), in the adjoining town of Silver Cliff, serves up calzones, pizza, pasta and salads in a warm, family-friendly establishment.
Former Vail Daily Arts & Entertainment Editor Caramie Petrowsky is a freelance travel writer and public relations professional who lives in Denver with her husband and their two children.