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North Fork Ranch

Nestled in a verdant valley about 70 miles west of Denver, North Fork Ranch looks like something out of a storybook. With the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, the ranch sits next to a sparkling river surrounded by green pastures, where horses graze peacefully on lush green grass. My family has been looking forward to our first-ever dude ranch vacation for months, and as we drive into this hidden valley, I’m pretty sure we’ve chosen the perfect spot.

I know, dude ranches seem so ’70s, but today’s ranches offer families more activities than ever. Besides horseback riding (natch), you can go fly-fishing, white water rafting, mountain biking, zip lining, hiking, and more.

Then there’s the food – no more beans and franks. In fact, North Fork Ranch, is nicknamed a “food ranch” – the meals are that good. After checking in and getting settled in our cozy cabin, my husband, Peter, son Ross, and I head over to the ranch house, where meals are served family style, and chow down on a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, prepared by owner Karen May, who runs the ranch with her husband, Dean. The couple met in their 20s working at another dude ranch and have welcomed countless happy guests in the 27 years since North Fork opened.

Their son and daughter help on the ranch, too. The next morning we meet daughter Hayley, who will take us on our first ride. I’m amazed at how clean the stables are – no flies – and the horses are super gentle and well behaved. In fact, kids as young as 6 can ride, and for the pre-K set, pony rides are available. Horses are assigned to guests for their entire stay. Mine’s named Dundee, Peter’s is Jaybee, and Ross gets Rosco. We ride through woods, across meadows, and up slopes where amazing views of the Rockies unfurl. The weather during our late August visit was perfect – stunning blue sky, wispy white clouds, and gentle breezes.

You can ride as little or as much as you like. What’s unique about North Fork Ranch is there are lots of options if someone in your family doesn’t enjoy riding. For example, you can spend an afternoon fly-fishing with an Orvis-endorsed guide right on the ranch. That afternoon, my family and I relax by the pool and watch guests reeling in good-sized speckled trout from the river. Nearby a hot tub bubbles, and Ross jumps in to soak his muscles. For those who like a little more in-depth pampering, you can get a deep-tissue massage on site as well.

Our visit is late in the season so some of North Forks’ regular programs aren’t available, but during the summer, scheduled activities will keep you and your family as busy as you want to be. Hayrides, picnics, campfires with sing-a-longs, storytelling, square dancing, archery, and skeet shooting are just some of the fun in store. There’s also a game room, a petting zoo, and of course trail rides twice a day. For parents who want a little time to themselves, Kids’ Corral offers supervised child care with plenty of ranch fun for the little ones. For adventurous families, a teepee by the river welcomes your family for a unique camping experience – including a campfire with s’mores, of course.

The ranch can arrange for families with older children to go white water rafting and also offers an optional day trip to nearby Breckenridge, a cozy city with lots of shopping and restaurants. In Breck a kid-friendly attraction called Breckenridge Fun Park features a mountain coaster, gemstone panning, mountain biking, mini-golf, and a climbing wall. En route to Breck stop in South Park City, a recreated gold rush town where kids can learn what Colorado was like in the late 1800s.

But don’t feel like you have to stay busy. Part of the appeal of a dude ranch vacation is there’s always time to unwind and commune with nature – and your family members. During our stay at North Fork, hiking with Peter and Ross is one of my favorite pastimes. I love the smell of the woods and the sounds of nature, especially how the aspen trees say “shhh” as the wind blows and how the rowdy river roars along on its journey eastward.

One night at dinner, another guest sees something across the river. “It looks like someone walking,” she says.

Karen, the owner, glances up. “I think it’s a bear.” Everyone jumps up, grabs their cameras, and rushes outside, where we glimpse a black bear traveling along a path that’s thankfully on the other side of the river.

The bear is traveling pretty fast, and it’s hard to get my camera focused on him before he disappears behind shrubs and tree trunks.

Ross says, “C’mon, Mom,” and we run alongside the river. From our vantage point, we watch him travel up a mountain trail, pausing now and then to sniff around. Ross takes a photo, and even though it’s not very good, we’re thrilled. This dude ranch vacation has been everything I thought it would be – and more.

Peggy Sijswerda has three sons and works as an editor and freelance writer specializing in family travel.