By Kim Fuller Published in Vail Lifestyle Magazine and the Vail Daily
The quintessential alpine ‘ranch’ delivers mountains of memories for families.
“Piney,” as it was always fondly called in our house growing up, was where we went camping.
In the years before the efforts of backpacking were of any interest to myself or my older brother, Scott, our annual car camping trip with Mom and dog easily fulfilled the family’s desire for mountain adventure.
Scott would always fish; Mom would fish, too, and cook the catch. Our Golden Retriever, Spring, didn’t fish, but she rolled in all the dead bones she could find by the river.
I fished a little, but I more often played Indian Princess games with my ladybug friends. I whittled sticks, read Nancy Drew novels and domesticated the dirt floor of our campsite with leaf mats I made from large native plants.
Piney River Ranch was never far down the road from where we were — “It’s where the cowboys live,” Indian Princess would say.
The ranch was partitioned off with a wood fence, automatically signifying the mark of private land — making it all the more intriguing to my Nancy Drew-driven mind.
I enjoyed watching lines of the ranch’s horses cross the river, carrying a combination of both excited and fearful riders. I loved horses, and I always wanted to ride one up at Piney. That wasn’t for camping, though, Mom said, so the Indian Princess watched her steeds from a distance.
Eventually, our yearly Piney trips lost their battle with our increasingly busy, now young adult schedules, falling beneath summer camp and pre-season sports on our list of pre-teen priorities. Looking back now, it was after we stopped camping alongside the Piney River when the carefree summers of childhood, the Princess herself, began to slip away.
Two decades later on a warm September afternoon, I sat right on the edge of Piney Lake, just upstream from my family’s once-favorite campsite. The late-summer Friday evening at Piney River Ranch grew quiet and soft in the hour of alpenglow, and the sweet light all around began to fall down upon the earth, rippling in layers like water circles that expand from the plunk of a pebble.
A grown up summer friend, Bulleit Rye, rested neatly alongside my bundles of fleece blanket, while equally warm and friendly human companions took to their lounging outside our lakeside cabin.
An enchanting and picturesque sunset accompanied our cabin-camping dinner from the grill — a comfort meal of homemade mac and cheese with ground buffalo, and a side of broccolini with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper. The scene set the same solitude I remembered soaking in as a little girl, and the experience was just like camping — only a little more refined.
We prepared a campfire for s’mores, and the growing flames began to rise between our porch and the water’s edge. As the stars above began to emerge, chirping crickets and occasional laughter from nearby campers occasionally drifted through the silence.
“The experience here is that you get a momentary space of relaxation,” Ty Falmo says. The West-worn wrangler took us on a late-afternoon horseback ride when we arrived to the ranch. “This is everyday reality in these mountains, and there are moments when you get to go back in time, too.”
Ty offers an educational horseback ride, providing guests with an authentic look into stories of the area — tales of mountain history, of miners, sheep herders, cattlemen, horsemen, hunting and fishing.
Like all of Ty’s ancient anecdotes, the cabin was old time western, rustic and delightful. Just as I had always wanted to ride one of Piney’s ponies, I had also wanted to spend a night at the ranch, too. I love sleeping in a tent, but Colorado’s history and wild west adventure really seems to come to life when you stay in a log cabin, or even a tepee.
Three of these Native American triangle dwellings stood just behind our cabin, and also are available to reserve. With full access to amenities, these options, as well as on-site tent camping spots, are ideal for guests who prefer a more open-air experience, paired with the convenience of access to running water.
We woke early on Saturday morning, and the ranch was still quiet. Day trippers would begin arriving around 10 a.m., but I could already see some hikers walking up towards the Upper Piney River Trail. A beautiful waterfall is a moderate 2.5 miles away, and accessible to most. But perhaps the early hikers were headed beyond that, beginning a more rigorous day toward Upper Piney Lake, or to the summit of Mt. Powell at 13,534 feet.
The restaurant and bar on property are open daily for lunch and through the early evening — ideal for post-hike nourishment and libations. The kitchen has a smoker out back, producing some tasty BBQ pulled pork and smoked wings.
The only reservation against coming up for just the day is the drive — it’s often a rough road. But to some that’s part of the full experience.
Piney River Ranch is located 12 miles from West Vail at the end of Red Sandstone Road. It’s at about the two-mile mark that the “wow” factor kicks in every time.
“I remember some incredible drives on that road,” said Jane Russell, Piney’s executive chef at the ranch. Russell lives in Edwards, and she drives to Piney River Ranch every day during the summer. “Sometimes it’s sunny, and sometimes it’s raining and there’s a rainbow.”
The U.S. Forest Service road does always seem like a journey, where you’re likely to see a moose and other snapshots of more views to come. In the 45 minutes it takes to get to Piney, it becomes only natural to shed cell phone service (there’s none to be had) and a resort-driven hustle upon arrival at this pine-laced retreat.
“The view when you get here is worth the trip,” says Monique Busold, general manger of Piney River Ranch, “but it’s the activities here that’ll bring you back again and again. We have hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, paddle boarding, fly fishing — you name it, there’s something for everyone in the family.”
There are moments when time seems to stop at Piney, whether you’re camping by the river or lodging at the ranch. I’ll always go back to the area, year after year, cherishing the found moments of a carefree summer.
Piney River Ranch is open through the end of September.
Visit www.pineyriverranch.com for more information.
“The view when you get here is worth the trip, but it’s the activities here that’ll bring you back again and again. We have hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, paddle boarding, fly fishing — you name it, there’s something for everyone in the family.”
Piney River Ranch offers activities and amenities for day-trippers and overnight guests:
• Canoe rentals
• Stand up paddle board
• Drift boat
• Rod and reel rental (fishing licenses are required). Free casting clinics are offered daily
• Private fishing guide, 24-hour advance notice required
• Two-hour horseback ride
• One-hour horseback ride
(The minimum age for horseback riding is 9)
• Lakeside log cabin; sleeps 8
• Lakeside log cabins; sleep 4 each
• Lakeside yurt; sleeps 16
• Tepees; sleep 6 each (three tepees available)
• Tent sites
• RV sites, no hookups
Restaurant and Bar
The Piney River Ranch restaurant and bar are open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
The Upper Piney trail begins at Piney Lake outside the Piney River Ranch entrance and ends at Upper Piney Lake — 7 miles each way. Public parking is available just outside of the ranch entrance. A waterfall is a shorter destination, about 2.5 miles each way.