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Western life in Buena Vista, Colorado
Aurora Photos
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Whitewater rafting in Colorado
Elk Mountain Ranch, Colorado
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Cycling in the mountains of Colorado
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Riding horses at Elk Mountain Ranch, Colorado
Elk Mountain Ranch, Colorado
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A dude ranch vacation offers a unique and memorable way to experience the western USA.

Learn more about getting a taste of cowboy culture from Sue Murphy, the co-owner (with her husband, Tom) of Elk Mountain Ranch in Buena Vista, Colorado.

Getting to Know the Ranch

The highest guest ranch in Colorado, Elk Mountain Ranch sits at 3,000 meters overlooking the Arkansas Valley, right in the middle of Colorado. The ranch is surrounded by several 14ers (mountains higher than 14,000 feet, or 4,260 meters).

“We’re a dude ranch, so the main emphasis is on horseback riding,” Murphy says, “but we do offer a pretty wide variety of activities.

“One day in the week we offer a full-day whitewater raft trip through Arkansas Canyon. We have shooting, archery and skeet shooting. We offer an excursion to a ropes course that’s popular for our teenage guests. There are mountain bike trails and two stocked fish ponds, and we bring in fly fishing guides to give lessons. One night, we have a hay ride and campfire, and we have square dancing and line dancing in the evenings. The petting zoo has lots of baby animals, and we have many other activities for young kids.”

The bottom line? “We try to pack in a week the best that Colorado has to offer,” she says.

Going for a ride at Elk Mountain Ranch in Colorado

Going for a ride at Elk Mountain Ranch in Colorado
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Elk Mountain Ranch, Colorado

Her Favorite Thing about Working at the Ranch

“I get to be outdoors in this amazing country and be around guests who may have never done some of the things we offer.”

“Since we’ve been here 32 summers, it means a lot to me when guests come to us as young people and then later bring their families back. It makes me happy that all these years later, they still think of us as their best vacation.”

Petting a friendly horse at Elk Mountain Ranch

Petting a horse at Elk Mountain Ranch in Colorado
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On the Changes That Come with the Seasons

The Arkansas River runs past the ranch, which is open from mid-May to the end of September. Nearby Brown’s Canyon is considered the whitewater capital of Colorado. “If you’re looking for a wild whitewater trip, May is the time to come – the river is really running. Later in the summer, the river is calmer.”

Riding against a backdrop of stunning Colorado mountains

Riding against a backdrop of stunning Colorado mountains
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Ideas for Extending your Colorado Trip

In nearby St. Elmo, an old mining/ghost town, visitors can rent ATVs. “You can ride to a little town called Tin Cup and go to this little restaurant called Frenchie’s and get a burger and a piece of pie.”

To the southwest, “Ouray is such a cute little town, surrounded by rugged mountains. People call it the ‘Switzerland of Colorado.’”

From there, visitors can take the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway to Durango. “There are three passes along the way. It’s a very narrow road, and the ride is pretty spectacular.”

Near Durango is Mesa Verde National Park with its well-preserved ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. Then head east to Great Sand Dunes National Park, which is popular, particularly in the springtime, and north back to the ranch.

For a shorter loop, visitors can fly into Denver Airport and head to Rocky Mountain National Park to see incredible wildlife including elk before they head to the ranch.