A Majestic ranch experience
Top50’s Mel Rutherford reveals why a visit to Majestic Dude Ranch in Colorado converted her from working ranch gal to all-out Dude!
Plug ‘Majestic Dude Ranch’ into your SatNav and you’re setting pretty high expectations already. Although actually, you won’t ever find it because SatNav still recognises the Colorado dude ranch under its former name of Mancos Lake Ranch. Only at beginning of 2011 when LA movie theatre owner Robert Bauksbaum took over did the ranch, nestled high in the Mesa Verde National Forest, take on its Majestic title – I hoped the ranch lived up to its name...
My journey to Majestic Dude Ranch was to take me on a two-night horseback riding adventure bang in the heart of the Mesa Verde National Forest. So it was with the ranch’s former name tapped into my faithful geolocation device that I drove through the quickly changing landscape of Colorado, northeast from Tuba City towards Mancos. On reaching the tiny town, I followed my trusty SatNav’s instructions to “turn left” and took a wide gravel track, promptly turning right up a steeper gravel path. "Turn right!" SatNav lady told me after a couple of miles. Turn right I did - through a narrow gate right into someone’s back yard. Not so trusty, then... Instinct took over and soon, after following signs for ‘Mesa Verde National Forest: Camping’, I finally stumbled across Majestic. You couldn’t miss it for the world - with bright red chalets clustered behind bright white picket fencing, this was every bit dude ranch as I’d expected.
Robert 'had been expecting me’ and greeted me almost as warmly as his golden Labrador, Mike, who found my face remarkably tasty. ‘Warm welcome’ is a well-worn phrase, but I honestly felt part of the Majestic family as soon as my boot hit the dirt, and meeting Robert was like greeting an old friend. The same can be said of Majestic’s staff. Dressed in their uniforms of jeans, cowboy boots, bling belts and checked shirts, they may have looked the cliché but were every bit genuine.
Setting down my oversized suitcase in the luxuriously rustic cabin accommodations, I quickly tested the king-size Tempur-Pedic mattress (thumbs up from me) and silently screamed with joy at the newly tiled shower room that wouldn’t look out of place in a five-star hotel. “Make yourself at home - you’ll hear the dinner bell ring at 6pm,” Robert told me, so I swapped my trainers for cowgirl boots and headed out to explore the ranch.
What Majestic lacks in size, it makes up for in charm. Although evidently child-friendly (denoted by a petting zoo and a friendly lone calf wandering the grounds), this ranch is certainly no mere kids’ camp and oozes tranquillity - I hadn’t felt so relaxed in weeks. So content not even the sudden clang of the dinner bell made me jump while I was saying hello to some of the horses in the dusty corrals. With a glance to the gently rippling Mancos Lake in the distance, I suddenly felt as though I’d stepped into a scene from Dirty Dancing.
I seated myself in the buzzing dining room alongside a group of guests who were exchanging stories of the day’s adventures. Over a prawn salad starter, main course of pork schnitzel and mashed potatoes, and a sumptuous apple pie dessert, I marvelled as the guests described their encounter with a brown bear on their afternoon trail ride. With cries of “it was this big!” and retorts of “don’t be silly, it wasn’t that big”, I felt like part of a very large family around the bustling dinner table.
Evening activities were by no means compulsory, but wholly tempting: a hay ride followed by campfire stories, sweet treats and music. As I seated myself around the crackling fire in the starry darkness, one of the wranglers was already in mid-recital of his ‘legendary’ cowboy poems. The sweet part involved toasting giant marshmallow on sticks over the campfire, before sandwiching together with chocolate between two sweet graham crackers to make ‘smores’ – traditional cowboy campfire treats. My proud efforts tasted every bit as naughty as they promised. The night’s entertainment carried on with banjo-playing, singing and more cowboy poetry. Anywhere else I might have thought it clichéd, but at Majestic it was perfect - the only way I could have wished to end my first Majestic day.
The next morning a hearty breakfast, including made-to-order omelettes cooked by Robert himself, set me up for a morning in the saddle. After trailering the horses to the start point of our trail ride, I climbed on-board San Anton, my mount for the morning. Our trail guide led us on a ride I can only describe as breathtaking. With unlimited access to Mesa Verde National Forest, Majestic offers stunning riding country over diverse terrain. Anywhere else I would have been disappointed not to have moved out of a walk (with beginners on our ride there were no opportunities to trot or lope), but here I wouldn’t have wanted the scenery to move by any faster. Along winding mountain trails and narrow, tree-lined paths we rode, often wading through the wide, fast-flowing river that criss-crossed its way through the national forest. We stopped to take pictures of a bear-print on the muddy track, although didn’t see the mark’s maker on our travels. A few hours later a steep, rocky climb took us back up to the main gravel road leading back to ranch. I held on to my saddle horn as San Anton expertly negotiated his way up the mountain path - no directions from me required.
Back at the ranch, lunch was ready and waiting in the dining room. A stomach full of ham and cheese paninis later, I headed back out to explore the local area - this time swapping jeans and cowboy boots for pants and sneakers... You see, Robert had insisted I try out one of his brand new, state-of-the-art collection of mountain bikes. Cycling guide (and pro triathlete and cyclist) Nick kitted me out with gloves, water bottle, helmet and snack-bag, before expertly matching me to one of the $2,500 bikes. Yes, you did read that correctly. Feeling more than a little nervous heading out on such an expensive model, I made mental notes to myself not to fall off and scratch the thing (or me). So well-equipped we were, I was prepared to be gone for hours on arduous cycle routes, but Nick, very good at gauging guests’ abilities (and my lack of), took me on a wonderful lap of the gently rippling Lake Mancos. A few ups and downs along the wide gravel track were enough to put me out of breath thanks the 8,000 ft altitude of the ranch, but an hour later both the bike and I were safely home.
Invigorated by the exercise and keen to make the most of the beautiful scenery, I kept my sneakers on and decided to take a ‘quick’ run around the lake. A keen runner, I expected this to be a relaxing and pleasant experience; I could take in the still lake and surrounding forest, casually waving hello to the fishers and boaters dotted around its perimeter... Not so. Forgetting the altitude, I found myself stopping every 100 yards to catch my breath - a world away from my usual eight-mile run closer to sea level!
The dinner bell had never been so welcome. After a quick shower and change, I arrived to a BBQ in full swing outside on the veranda. Helping myself to grilled prawns, bread and salad, I seated myself alongside the other guests who were again exchanging stories of the day’s adventures. One group had been out mountain biking that morning to the famed Phil’s World - named one of the top 10 mountain biking trails in the USA. The up and down, twisting and turning trail had these hardcore mountain bikers on a high, their enthusiasm for the rollercoaster trail almost enough to make me forget my tired limbs and sign up for it. Almost...
With Robert expertly grilling and serving barbecued steaks, chicken and salmon, I felt lucky to be at such a warm, friendly guest ranch. With the perfect balance between slick dude ranch operation and family atmosphere, Majestic certainly lives up to its name. Indeed, I was surrounded by several families at the dinner table - one couple had brought along their two (grown up) kids and newborn grandchild, and other families included toddlers and teens experiencing their first dude ranch vacation. As Mike-the-dog helped himself to leftover steak, it was time to make room for “Majestic’s best dessert” - a mouth-watering toffee-pecan-meringue-chocolate offering for which everyone found room for second helpings.
As a chill took to the Colorado air, we headed inside to the warmth to watch an end-of-week performance by the kids, which they had prepared under the guide of the recs counsellor. Speech time for Robert, who took the opportunity to hand out ‘medals’ to the kids - think ‘most improved rider’, ‘best un-choreographed dismount’ and ‘champion marshmallow toaster’. Kids sorted, it was time for fond farewells, thank yous and a tongue-in-cheek presentation of bills for the adults that only Robert could have gotten away with!
Having only spent a few short days at Majestic Dude Ranch, I vowed to take up my host’s offer to return for a longer vacation: “You’re always welcome back here any time,” Robert told me, expressing to the other guests how privileged he felt to have his ranch included as one of the Top50 Ranches in the world. Yet I felt the privileged one, having been able to experience such a wonderful place as Majestic - I can honestly say it charmed the socks off me.
- Ranch food is generally frequent and plentiful, so no need to pack extra snacks or drinks. Check if your ranch includes between-meal snacks - at Majestic each room had a fully stocked fridge and snack basket, plus a ‘help yourself’ policy on the dining room’s drinks fridge. A bottomless cookie jar made for many a happy child as well!
- Try to get off the ranch for at least one day of your trip. Exploring the local towns is a really rewarding experience - whether it’s popping into a diner for a root beer float, shopping for authentic cowboy boots and Stetsons, or visiting a local museum to learn more about the area’s history and western culture.
- Check out what off-ranch activities are on offer. At Majestic, a stay at the ranch gave you a good discount on white-water rafting at nearby Durango, for which the ranch organized trips for guests on request.
- Bring sneakers! Most ranches (dude ranches especially) offer plenty of non-horseback activities. Majestic offered baseball and other sports, mountain biking, fishing, kayaking, gold panning, archery and more.