Text by Tom Passavant, photos by Karen Glenn
There are no room keys at Smith Fork Ranch. Cellphone service is spotty, and you can stop looking for a television in your cabin. A swimming pool? That would be the creek-fed pond up the hill. The nearest town, Crawford, consists of one right turn and no stoplights. Nightlife in any traditional sense of the word is nonexistent.
All of which may provide clues as to why couples, families and other assorted members of the species urbanus stressosaurus have been flocking to this low-key but luxurious retreat for the past ten years. Smith Fork Ranch is not inexpensive, and it requires some effort to get to. But once you turn off the pavement and onto Needle Rock Road, you can almost feel your blood pressure dropping. Out here in Colorado’s traditional ranching and farming country, an entirely different sort of culture awaits about five miles ahead. Horseback riding, fly-fishing, and hiking abound. Not to mention other things that might be missing from your everyday life, such as air as smooth and clean as new silk; the purest, sweetest spring water you’ve ever tasted; and a view of the surrounding Rockies and the star-spangled night sky guaranteed to make even the most jaded city kids drop their iPads in awe.
At first glance, the ranch looks rather unassuming. Set at 7,100 feet in a sunny valley and surrounded by granite peaks of the West Elk mountains, Smith Fork consists of a couple of barns on the right, and two low-slung log buildings housing a lounge, five guest rooms, and dining rooms in the middle. Three guest cabins line up to the left along the lawn, with a fourth, the newer and larger River House, set on the bank of the SmithForkRiver itself. You won’t feel nervous putting your feet up on a coffee table here.
Then you start to notice the details that raise rustic to refined: the way the windows in your cabin glide shut smoothly; the hot water gushes from the showerheads in the sleek shower stall. Luscious grape seed bath amenities come from nearby Leroux Creek Spa . In our cabin, Spruce, the three magazines on a side table were True West, America’s Horse, and Wine Spectator. Downstairs in the main lodge is a wine cellar with an exceptional selection (try the Arnot-Roberts rose from northern California with your appetizers). Next to it is a tasteful little gift shop, including leather goods from Marley Hodgson Studio. Marley and his wife, Linda, own Smith Fork Ranch, having decamped from New York City, where they owned Ghurka leather goods. Tucked away down here too is a small spa that dispenses massages and other treatments that will eliminate any kinks left over from a day in the saddle or casting a fly to wily trout.
What really elevates Smith Fork above virtually every other guest or dude ranch in the West is the quality of the food here. Chef Seth Bateman has worked at Meadowood and the Lodge at Torrey Pines in California. Here he takes full advantage of Smith Fork’s sprawling organic garden, plus the nearby North ForkValley’s bountiful supplies of fruits, vegetables, cheese, meats, and wines. (Gourmet magazine once called North Fork peaches the best in the world). Dinner, served on a rustically elegant covered wood veranda, is a single set menu every night, with attention paid to special dietary requests. On a recent Thursday night, Bateman sent out spring lamb cannelloni with asparagus and morels, all sourced locally, and a classic hazelnut gateau Breton with caramel sauce . Box lunches at midday include homemade salumi, salads, and not-to-be-missed fried chicken.
Being such a long way from anywhere, you might expect the employees at Smith Fork to be earnest but amateurish. Well, “no service” may apply to your cellphone signal here, but not to the staff. The 25 employees (serving 26 guests, max), with their snap-button Rockmount shirts, are like the place itself: seemingly rustic but also as refined as need be. Not to mention genuinely friendly and highly skilled at making every city slicker feel comfortable, whether getting on a horse for the first time or choosing a pinot noir for dinner.
“Our guests usually adjust to not having a TV in about 24 hours,” says Smith Fork’s genial general manager, Jim Nielsen. “By day two, they’ve forgotten about the internet as well.” What they’ll remember instead about their time here are the bird songs echoing through the trees, the burble of the river hidden behind willow thickets, and the taste of that sweet mountain water.
Smith Fork Ranch is open from late May through October. All-inclusive rates for two people in high season begin at $2,730 for three nights; $6,200 for six-nights. Shorter stays are available in spring and fall. Contact 855-539-1492; smithforkranch.com
Tom Passavant is a former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine. Now a freelance travel and food writer based in Colorado and Hawaii, his work has appeared in Aspen Magazine, Gourmet, Four Seasons Magazine, Town & Country Travel, ForbesTraveler.com, Ski, Powder, Luxury Living, and many other places. He is the co-author of “Playboy’s Guide to Ultimate Skiing.” A former president of the New York Travel Writers Association, Passavant has won a Lowell Thomas Award for his travel writing and has served as judge for the James Beard Journalism Awards. See more of Tom’s work at TomPassavant.com.
Karen Glenn is a freelance writer, poet, and photographer based in Carbondale, Colorado. Her writing and photography have appeared in Diversion, McCall’s, Edible Aspen, Seventeen, Savvy, Good Food, Self, Aspen Magazine, The New York Times, Mademoiselle, and many other places. Her poem Nightshift was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered.