If you’ve ever gone horseback riding on a typical tourist horse trail, you’ll be pleased to know Colorado horse trails are a bit different. True, horseback riding is still carried out in a “follow-the-leader” fashion, but the terrain makes riding the horse quite a challenge.
We went horseback riding at 4 Eagle Ranch in Wolcott, Colorado, which is only 25 miles outside of Vail. The drive from Vail Village to Wolcott was mostly on the interstate, so it was pleasant enough to travel to. Upon arriving at 4 Eagle Ranch’s gates, we almost wondered if we had reached our destination. The gravel road leading to the ranch didn’t contain any signs of intelligent life, such as signs, a mailbox, or even another lost vehicle.
After we turned into the drive we presumed to be 4 Eagle Ranch, we parked in a relatively grassy-gravel location. We walked around for a while and tried to find a ranch hand or manager of some kind, but it took a little while. There was a house, a shop, a few barns, and a restaurant/eating area on the premises, but no sign of any employees. We finally did find one, however. Their website told us to arrive a few minutes before our scheduled ride, but we had apparently arrived a little too early.
Before we knew it, a couple ranch hands were leading horses out of the stable and up to the loading post, where we were each designated separate horses. I got one named Beans. I always get a horse named Beans – and why? Who knows, because they always, ahem, live up to their name. This one was no exception, but he was a sturdy ride, so I couldn’t complain.
In fact, none of us complained about our horses, as they were all spry and obviously well-taken care of. Our trail guide wasn’t much older than me and had just started working at this ranch a few weeks before, but he’d had plenty of previous ranch experience, so he was knowledgeable and friendly enough.
After we got all saddled up it was finally time to ride off into the sunset. Well, not quite. It was only about 10:30 in the morning, and we weren’t even riding in the direction of the sunrise. So much for what I thought would be a Young Guns style experience! But I wasn’t to be disappointed, as the adventure ahead of us was just about to begin.
4 Eagle Ranch is a true, all-American Western ranch, not just a tourist hot spot, so it wasn’t surprising to see actual ranch activity going on throughout the beginning of our ride. During our first ranch encounter we rode right through a pasture filled with Texas Longhorn cattle and steers. They didn’t really bother us, although some of the larger ones started getting a little dominant on us, so we just didn’t stare into their eyes!
The pasture led way to a path up Rocky Mountain terrain. If you’re a fan of Western movies, you’re probably familiar with the shrub brush the characterizes the mountain lowland terrain. It’s a sort of prickly sagebrush mixed with thistle. Not very tasty to us humans, but the horses seemed to have quite an affinity for it. We had to tug on the harnesses a bit to keep the horses focused on the trail ahead.
Moving on, we began the ascent up some rocky cliffs. These were near the base of Turtleback Mountain, where the advanced horse trails are found. Since we’d never been to 4 Eagle Ranch, we were required to take the beginner trails, which were actually rather challenging.
The precipices of 4 Eagle Ranch look out towards a volcanic mountain, which if I recall correctly is called Castle Peak. Its pointy top looked harmless enough, and since it had been inactive for quite some time and there was no smoke billowing from its haunting peak, we didn’t feel too endangered as we rode along.
As we meandered through the desert regions of the ranch, we almost forgot we were in Colorado. The dusty surroundings, though beautiful, reminded us more of a desolate Nevada plateau, not the luscious pines and flowing brooks we kept encountering in Vail Village.
As our two-hour ride came to a close, our guide called in our meal order, which was included with the price of our trail ride. 4 Eagle Ranch serves up some hearty meals, so there’s no need to bring your own food on the trail, just some water.
Here’s some more tips for going trail riding in Colorado:
One: There are virtually no snakes in most of Colorado, because it’s too far above sea level and the air is too thin for them to survive. So you needn’t worry about rattlesnakes as you enjoy your horse ride through the Colorado Rockies.
Two: If you’ve never ridden a horse before, or for long periods of time, here’s some clothing tips: wear long pants (preferably jeans or some other sturdy material), a light-colored, sleeved shirt (no sleeveless tanks or tube tops), and a type of hat. It doesn’t have to be a cowboy hat, as a fisherman style hat or ball cap is fine. You might have to wear tennis shoes for luggage and packing purposes, but if you can, bring a pair of hiking boots or cowboy boots, as these are the most comfortable in the stirrups.
Three: Bring water if you can. If your ride is in the morning and it’s not scorching hot, you can probably get by without it, but I don’t advise going without it in the hot afternoon during the summer and early fall.
Four: Don’t arrive too early if your appointment is scheduled near opening time. As you read previously, you might find you’re the only one on the premises. Fifteen minutes or so in advance is plenty. This gives you enough time to order your meal and use the bathroom facilities before your ride.
Five: There are bathroom stalls available for changing clothes, if necessary. If you’re going whitewater rafting after your ride, as we did, there’s plenty of room to change into your swimsuit and T-shirt, and they’ll let you hang around the ranch for pretty much as long as you need to after your ride.
Six: Tip your trail guide. At some tourist places, tipping is a given, and the guides hang around you waiting for a handout. This isn’t the case at 4 Eagle Ranch. As soon as your ride is up, the guide will take care of the horses, so you’ll have to seek them out to hand him or her a tip, which we found very refreshing. They’re quite appreciative of the tip as well, and they definitely work hard enough for it.