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Changing the Concept of Ranch Resorts

By M+E Staff

Erase any vision you might have of a dude ranch, especially the “City Slicker” version. For the purposes of this story, let’s use the name ranch resort and picture a big dose of vision and thousands of acres for both herds and people to roam. It’s a fairly different option, but one with similar friendliness and the Western spirit of a dude ranch.

We’ll use three year-round guest ranch resorts as examples: The Resort at Paws Up in Greenough, Montana; Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa in Tabernash, Colorado; and Brush Creek Ranch in Saratoga, Wyoming. All three were established by husband-and-wife duos that have brought a love for the land, hands-on involvement and a willingness to invest mightily to make their properties distinct and high quality.

Visiting all three ranches over the past year resulted in concluding that six attributes make ranch resorts great options for groups.

1. Laid-Back Atmospheres
There is no need to get fancy at these ranches unless you want to. Having an itinerary that oscillates between indoors and outdoors means it’s fairly laid-back all day long, including evenings. It’s a casual and welcoming vibe, especially for groups that often have to dress up for meetings in the office or city.

“You can go to Brush Creek Ranch with a pair of jeans, and they will outfit you [for activities]. You don’t need fancy gear to participate; it’s one-stop shopping,” confirms Amy Laing, owner of Hawthorne Meetings & Incentives based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

2. Space to Roam 
Lots of land surrounded by mountains means plenty of privacy, amazing vistas and options to try something new. It’s also awe-inspiring to see cattle, bison and horses grazing in huge pastures. The 37,000 acres at Paws Up ensure that activities like horseback trail rides and RZR Experiences don’t cross paths except during check in at the Wilderness Outpost. A nice bonus is that each of Paws Up’s 26 homes comes with a car, so there is no excuse for being late for an activity, meeting or meal.

A corporate incentive group in the technology industry hosted a team retreat last fall at Paws Up. The group enjoyed an array of activities together, with the favorite being a cattle drive, notes Laura Crugnale, director of group sales for the property. “The events manager said, ‘We were able to disappear from the chaos of city life for a few days and be reminded of how beautiful our country is.’”

Most of the venues on the property were utilized for team gatherings, and the last evening featured fireworks and s’mores by the fire pit once dinner concluded at Pomp, one of the on-site restaurants. Another evening, a local band (The Timber Rattlers) performed while the group dined at Great Angus Hall located in The Bull Barn.

On the 6,000 acres at Devil’s Thumb Ranch, there are miles of Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, biking, hiking and horseback trails. Here, the lodging is in the form of 87 guest rooms in two tasteful lodges and 15 ridgetop cabins that range in size from one to four bedrooms. Two sister properties, Vasquez Creek Inn and Trailhead Inn in Winter Park, were purchased and fully renovated a few years ago to accommodate overflow and provide alternative price points for groups and leisure travelers.

Brush Creek Ranch has 30,000 acres for playing, staying and meeting, providing an ideal location for the customer events that Laing has coordinated for clients annually over the past six years. She has watched the ranch grow from just the main lodge to all sorts of venues and activities. “Attendees will do something they haven’t done before at Brush Creek Ranch,” she says. “We hosted a group of Koreans this past September, and when they walked in didn’t really smile or do much. When leaving, they were hiking, smiling and asking to come back next year!”

3. Large Menus of Activities 
Offering a broad selection of recreation options year-round helps planners create ranch itineraries that fit their groups’ tastes and budgets. Definitely plan on spending time outside, but all three have nice spas for treating attend- ees to a big dose of relaxation and other fun indoor offerings.

At Devil’s Thumb there are 35 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking and more than 120 kilometers of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails for winter. Additional offerings include year- round horsemanship and working cattle ranch programs, fly-fishing, zip-lining, stand-up paddleboard- ing, yoga and adventure/skills training courses.

Movement Strategy, a digital media marketing agency with offices in Los Angeles,  Denver and New York City, held its annual retreat with 50 attendees at Devil’s Thumb Ranch. Meetings were held in High Lonesome Lodge; facilities such as the pool, restaurants and game room were utilized; and team-building activities like hatchet-throwing, archery and lassoing took place outdoors.

Colette Gardner, director of people and culture, organized the gathering and especially liked the team-building activities, beauti- ful scenery, top-notch meeting spaces and excellent food. “It’s an awesome location, they worked with our budget, and the staff was very professional and nice throughout all my interactions,” she notes.

New to Brush Creek Ranch are all sorts of winter activities through the purchase of nearby Green Mountain and hands-on food and beverage classes, tastings and tours at The Farm, both mentioned later. Archery and ropes courses, shooting sports, fishing, rafting, horseback riding, ATV tours, yoga and rock climbing are just a few of the many other outdoor experiences to tap into.

At Paws Up, try out cow croquet, take part in a cattle drive and book a Mustang Mindfulness session for something completely different. An aerial adventure park, go-kart racing and archery, sporting clay and paintball courses add to the wealth of options along with water sports, including excursions to Paws Up Island Lodge at Salmon Lake and Seeley Lake House. With 100 miles of trails on property for hiking, horseback riding and ATV touring and winter pastimes like snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, dog sledding, skijoring, ice skating, tubing and sleigh rides, there is no shortage of activities to try.

4. Culinary Excellence 
The Farm at Brush Creek Ranch, an impressive complex just a few minutes from The Lodge & Spa, began opening last summer and expands the ranch’s ability to offer memorable culinary and meeting experiences. At The Farm, the 3,900-square-foot Saddle Barn can host groups of up to 250 guests and stands alongside the new Brush Creek Brewery, Brush Creek Distillery, Medicine Bow Creamery, greenhouses and a bakery. Combined with a herd of approximately 200 Wagyu cattle, the culinary program is becoming increasingly self-sufficient.

The Farm also has a speakeasy, smaller meeting and private dining spaces, and the ranch’s luxury restaurant, Cheyenne Club. Another bonus is that groups and guests can book cooking classes, beverage tastings, tours of the greenhouses and more.

Three primary reasons that Laing and her groups of 18 to 25 people return to Brush Creek are the activities, food and staff. The activities help attendees get to know one another on a more intimate level, and experiences like yurt dinners and meals by the river are sublime, she says.

Devil’s Thumb Ranch’s food and beverage approach also focuses on offering organic, sustainable and locally sourced farm-to-table cuisine that features ranch-raised Wagyu beef and honey, as well as fresh produce from the on-site Kendra’s Garden. Heck’s Tavern and The Ranch House provide deli- cious dining options for guests, and if your group is small enough consider a private dinner in the wine cellar or grotto. If a trip into nearby Winter Park is desired, small groups can go to Volario’s, a rustic northern Italian restaurant with a fairly large private dining room, at sister property Vasquez Creek Inn.

Paws Up has two restaurants and dining pavilions at all six glamping camps. The 85-seat Pomp is the resort’s gourmet restaurant and offers continental cuisine with a Western flair, while Tank & Trough has seating for 64 and has a more casual menu and atmosphere for meals and happy hour. A fun option for outdoor dining is stepping aboard an old-fashioned hay wagon for a ride to the banks of the Blackfoot River for a chuck wagon dinner.

5. Unique Meetings Spaces & Lodging 
Devil’s Thumb and Paws Up have historic barns renovated specifically for meet- ings and events that attendees are sure to remember. Devil’s Thumb can host groups of up to 350 utilizing venues such as the Broad Axe Barn, High Lonesome Barn, Axel’s Pavilion, Timber House, Grotto Suraboza and John Ls’ Wine Cellar & Uncorking Room. Accommodations are in the form of two lodges and cabins. At Paws Up, the Bull Barn is a 10,000-square-foot facility with two conference rooms, a patio and the upper-story Great Angus Hall, while The Bunkhouse (once a hayloft and traditional barn) has been converted into a 24-seat conference center with a lounge. The Lewis & Clark Reception Barn and Lobby features reception space and a 200-seat auditorium, and not far from the ranch’s base camp is The Saddle Club, a 72,000-square-foot equestrian center that has a variety of gathering spaces including a large arena. Lodging options include 28 homes and 36 luxury
glamping tents, which are available during warm-weather months.

The Lodge & Spa at Brush Creek has 10,000 square feet of meeting space and multiple types of guest rooms and cabins for a maximum of 150 guests. Magee Homestead and French Creek Sportsmen’s Club can host up to 27 and 10 guests and feature cabins, on-site chefs and other amenities.

6. Less Busy Times Provide Opportunities 
The picturesque locations and unique spaces make the three ranches especially popular for weekend weddings and family vacations during the summer and over holidays. Talk to sales team members and see when it’s quieter and less competitive for rooms and space, which translates into savings. Also ask about what activities are available at that time of year and the options are sure to be plentiful.

There is a wide variety of great ranches around the U.S. Mountain West, so make sure to check out the options and use these six attributes to find the right fit for your group.

Ranch Visionaries

  • Dave and Nadine Lipson purchased the ranch that became The Resort at Paws Up in 1997 and expanded their land holdings and leases to 37,000 acres. Major improvements to the land and structures began in 1998, including large-scale renovations of the Main House, Diesel House (the original Bunkhouse), Morris House, Bull Barn, Little Barn and several other residences. The largest buildings added are two 7,000-square-foot structures: The Cook Shack and The Saddle Club. After immediately starting and successfully running a Black Angus seed stock operation, the decision was made in 2003 to focus on running a commercial cattle operation and opening a first-class luxury resort. Dave passed away in November 2019.
  • Bob and Suzanne Fanch bought Diamond Bar T Ranch, encompassing approximately 3,000 acres, in 1999 and acquired the adjacent Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa in 2001, which brought the total acreage to around 4,000. The land was once occupied by a dairy farm and Yager’s Devil’s Thumb Ranch, a working and guest ranch until 1972 before transitioning into a cross-country ski area. Since then, they have acquired an additional 2,500 surrounding acres to bring the total to 6,500. The couple didn’t want to see the land developed into a master-planned residential and golf course community and have invested substantial capital and hard work to improve the grounds, build new structures and take on additional properties in the nearby town of Winter Park.
  • Bruce and Beth White acquired Brush Creek Ranch in 2008. Mostly retired, Bruce continues to serve as chairman and CEO of White Lodging, a company that operates premium-brand hotels across the country. What started out as a private ranch for the Whites to savor during retirement became too special not to share so the family built The Lodge & Spa, has acquired additional historic ranchlands (adding the Magee Homestead property in 2010 and French Creek Sportsmen’s Club in 2016), and in 2019 launched The Farm at Brush Creek Ranch and acquired Green Mountain to offer winter activities.