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Colorado Livin' / Family Travel / Humor

Dude Ranching with the Family at Devil’s Thumb Ranch

Confession: I’m not a horse lover but there is something almost enchanting about a dude ranch. It’s the fabled Western experience come to life with unsullied ranchland, campfire sing-alongs, yer very own fishing hole and, of course, cowboys in chaps.

Devil’s Thumb Ranch has it all and was my choice for Best Dude Ranch for families on our Tour de Colorado. Located 65 miles west of Denver just outside of Winter Park, this award-winning, environmentally-friendly resort and spa has a rustically upscale 52-room main lodge and 16 luxury rental cabins with a full roster of activities for cowfolk both old and young.

My husband Jamie stayed behind for work, during which time he witnessed a tornado uproot our yard in Denver. My children and I had a very different view: 5,000 acres of jade-green horse-dotted meadows flanked by the Continental Divide.

I won.

Home Away From Home on the Range

From Pack-and-Plays in the rooms to Cabin Creek Stables’ popular pony rides, Devil’s Thumb Ranch caters to kids. My little city slickers were anxious to rendezvous with the animals so we ventured out early. We were greeted with a scene out of a Western movie: a fully-loaded barn, twanging country music, a small petting zoo of farm animals and a cowboy named “Garth.”
You just can’t make this stuff up.

Garth gave us an entertaining commentary on the area as we loped around the property on our wagon ride. According to local lore, Native Americans named Devil’s Thumb – a rocky outcropping that towers high above the Ranch. As legend goes, after the warring Ute and Arapahoe tribes settled their differences in the Ranch Creek Valley, they buried the devil, but left his thumb exposed to remind them of the evils of war.

This was the extent of our Cabin Creek Stables experience but we could have stayed entertained for a week…and many families do. The stable offers half-day and full-day horseback rides, sunrise or sunset rides, cattle rides, a meadow lunch in the wagon, dinner wagon rides, a Little Cowpokes Day at the Ranch and a Kids Barn BBQ.

Activities Abound

As the storm raged back home, my children and I splashed around in Rachel’s Pool, a heated indoor entry/outdoor pool with killer views of the Divide. We played air hockey, foosball and pin bowling in the non-electronic game room in the main lodge. We watched Mulan II in the 37-seat theater, played a variety of board games in the cozy library and even worked out in the state-of-the-art Fitness Center.

The main thing Devil’s Thumb Ranch is really lacking is on-site childcare services. Since I was a single mom for the weekend, I was remiss I was not able to enjoy the 12,000-square-foot Ranch Creek Spa.

By 8 p.m., we were famished so stumbled into Heck’s Tavern, the more family-friendly of the two on-site restaurants. My body screamed for red meat. I quickly scanned the menu, saw only one such offering and ordered it. Now, I’ve had many reactions from waiters over the years but never one like this: he high-fived me.
“Did I miss something?” I queried
“You ordered our signature 32-oz rib-eye steak. I’m impressed.”
“32 ounces? How big is that?”
He gestured something approximately the broad side of a barn.
I hesitated. Then my stomach growled. “I’ll take it.”

When in Rome on the Ranch, do as the ranchers do.

Spellbound by the Devil
Our final night, we dined on Heck Tavern’s outdoor patio adjacent to the crackling fire pit. While the kids raced around the pasture, I watched the sun slip behind the Divide, briefly setting Devil’s Thumb aflame. We took a small chunk out of the 20 miles of trails at dusk, meandering through the meadow to Upper and Lower Ponds. We launched rocks into Ranch Creek, identified wildflowers, stalked horses and, upon reaching them, Hadley professed to know how to “Speak Horse.”

Such a comfort to know I gave birth to The Horse Whisperer.

I couldn’t tell you what she divulged to her foal friends but I strongly suspect it was along the lines of “Psssssst. We’ll be back.”

I couldn’t agree with her more.

Amber Johnson
Author: Amber Johnson

Amber is the founder and editor of Mile High Mamas, travel writer and former columnist for The Denver Post. She is a passionate community builder and loves the outdoors. She has two awesome teens and is happily married to a man obsessed with growing The Great Pumpkin.

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Amber is the founder and editor of Mile High Mamas, travel writer and former columnist for The Denver Post. She is a passionate community builder and loves the outdoors. She has two awesome teens and is happily married to a man obsessed with growing The Great Pumpkin.


  1. Sounds like a fantastic place! I’ve always wanted to go to a Dude Ranch. There’s one up by Jackson Hole, WY that I’ve heard about. Maybe next summer I’ll have to check it out!

  2. I’ve spent a lot of time in Jackson and the area would have some amazing dude ranches! Colorado and Wyoming are dude ranch Mecca. 🙂

  3. Dude! Why do I have a sudden craving for steak — a LOT of steak — for breakfast??

    Looks like a wonderful time.

  4. Big, fat juicy steak for breakfast. Hmmm. Though it was good, I can’t say it was the best steak I’ve ever had but it was most certainly the largest. My husband sure appreciated all my leftovers. 🙂

  5. This sounds like a great dude ranch to explore! I’ve been to a handful of different ones throughout the state, but I’ve never been there. We’ll have to check it out sometime!

  6. Amber,
    Huge steak! I can only imagine trying to get that down. Sounds like fun, I never have been to a dude ranch before, now I am curious!

  7. It really was so fun. Most importantly, the kids loved it so if your kids love animals like mine, definitely check it out!

  8. I always thought a Dude Ranch would be a great place for a family reunion–that sounds like an amazing place.

  9. They do a ton of conferences and weddings. In fact, a wedding wrapped up when we were there and we swiped all the rose petals that were scattered on the ground!

  10. Way to go on getting your food storage by ordering that steak? Did they pack up the leftovers for you? Freeze it up for you? For heavens sake please say that you didn’t order your kids anything either – that they ate off your plate.

    You really do have all the fun. I’m home cleaning, school shopping, and volunteering at the high school. Some day when my kids are all out of the house and you have teenagers I’m going to be traveling some exotic place, ordering a 332 ounce cream puff, showing it on my blog, and you will be so jealous of me while you are trying to find the right ‘school bra’ (don’t ask) for your 17 year old daughter and running to every wal-mart in the city to get purple notebooks that are college ruled otherwise it messes up “her system”. BUt then again, you’ll probably find the bra and notebooks wherever you are, on a Costa Rica dude ranch most likely, and Fed Ex it home. You generally seem to have all the right answers.

  11. Tia Juana–you’re funny! I definitely brought Jamie home leftovers, which he polished off in less than five minutes. Impressive for even him.

    It really has been a fun summer but as for having all the right answers? Have you not read all my mishaps along the way? 🙂

  12. Glad you went to the ranch so you could discover that you gave birth to a horse whisperer!

    We were watching a Man vs. Food episode where the steaks were so huge they had a contest to see who could finish them in an hour. (Along with a salad, roll and potato) I told my husband Mike, “Not to brag, but that is child’s play…fetch me a steak like that and I will break the record.”

    I don’t know if I really could but I’d be close.

  13. Dude, now I’m hungry and talkin’ with a drawl…wth?

  14. It was fun for me to read about your experience on the Dude Ranch. When I was ten my parents took me and my two sisters to the Dude Ranch, C Lazy 7, which is still in business.

    It was my introduction to Colorado and that is where I fell in love.

    Enjoyed your descriptions. Thanks for taking me back.

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