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If you think it’s impossible for three children under the age of four and their parents—one of whom was seven months pregnant—to have the trip of a lifetime at a destination that takes 12 hours of travel from the East Coast and has single-degree temperatures, you haven’t been to The Lodge & Spa at Brush Creek Ranch. The American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property in Saratoga, Wyoming (a four-hour drive from Denver) is one of a handful of next-level ranches that have become increasingly popular bucket-list destinations because of their unique take on laid-back luxury, top-tier family-friendly offering, and (mostly) authentic Western ranch experience. (Manual labor is optional.)
What, exactly, is a next-level ranch? Imagine exquisite pelt-draped lodges adorned with exposed wood, cast iron, and leather with arrays of secluded, upscale cabins, each with its own luxury four-wheel-drive ride; bursting with amenities like fine dining, spa treatments, and steam baths; expertly guided and fully-equipped outdoor sports experiences for every taste; wall-to-wall kids programming; five-star service; and even a private ski mountain, all situated on a working ranch surrounded by thousands of pristine, Ansel Adams-worthy acres of wilderness where elk, antelope, and horses roam free.
So, forget the one-note ski or beach resort and head for any of these five ranches that are upping their game in 2020. Many, after beginning as summer getaways, have recently mastered the art of winter hospitality, and feature specialized winter sports, hearty cuisine, and cozy accommodations.
The Lodge & Spa at Brush Creek Ranch
The 30,000-acre working cattle ranch rang in 2020 by purchasing its own mountain. Green Mountain—about 45 minutes away from the ranch by van and SnowCat—was purchased in spring 2019 and entirely built and outfitted as a ski resort in four months, just in time for Christmas 2019. The mountain—the only equipped alpine skiing for two hours’ drive in any direction—has no lifts and can only accommodate 12 skiers at a time, making it one of the most exclusive mountains in the West. On property at the ranch, there’s snowmobiling, cross-country skiing in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest adjacent to Brush Creek, and snowshoeing through the hills and plains of the wide-open Wyoming landscape. And after burning all those calories, there’s the Cheyenne Club, the property’s fine dining establishment that opened in 2019 and is poised to become a culinary destination in its own right. They have their own massive, UV-lit greenhouse purveying savory fresh vegetables and greens in the dead of winter, and serve a breed of Waygu beef that can only be found in two places in the U.S., plus a 30,000-bottle wine cellar. And the spa, while small, is mighty. You’ll feel reborn after either an altitude adjustment or a hot stone massage. The Lil’ Wranglers Kids’ Club is included in the nightly rate, unlike at other ranches, and your children might have so much fun there they won’t want to leave.
The Resort at Paws Up
About an hour’s drive east from Missoula, Montana is The Resort at Paws Up, one of the pioneers of glamping. For those who don’t want to “rough” it in the tents, there are decked-out houses—outdoor hot tubs and your own Lexus SUV are just a few of the accouterments. The ranch has pulled out all the stops with activities. A few highlights: skijoring (being pulled by a horse while you snow-ski), dog sledding, and torpedo swimming in the summer from their Island Lodge on nearby Lake Salmon. Opening later this year is Green O, the adults-only camp that will have floor-to-ceiling windows and open floor plans. These have honeymoon or big anniversary trip written all over of them. The Resort has a cult following and books six to eight months out, even at prices that start well into the four-figures per night per person. The Spa, which is housed outside in teepees in the summer in a cluster called Spa Town, moves indoors in the winter, but is a must-visit in any season.
The Ranch at Rock Creek
A working homestead ranch in Montana since the 1800s, the Ranch at Rock Creek—another American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property—in 2020 marks its ten-year anniversary as a luxury guest ranch. They’ve certainly earned the luxury distinction: they are the world’s first Forbes Travel Guide Five Star Ranch, a rating they’ve kept for five years. The property hosts equestrian retreats and an annual Whisky and Water Weekend, a marriage of the grain alcohol and fly fishing—a sport the Ranch can also arrange on an alpine lake. Unlike at many other ranches, the all-inclusive price tag is really all-inclusive—for instance, lift passes, gear, and meals are all part of the price for downhill skiing and snowboarding at the nearby mountain. Guests can basically put their wallets away upon arrival. For a couple, winter rates start at $1,800 per night. Although the spa and the mercantile store are the two components of the ranch that aren't included, it’s worth ponying up for a massage with CBD oil or to have someone soothe your muscles inside an airy wagon. Perhaps the best of their spa program is their new collaboration with EmerginC, which doesn’t use any plastics in the production of their beauty products.
Located on the banks of the Colorado River 20 miles northeast of Moab, is the Sorrel River Ranch, set amidst Utah’s famous arches and red rock mesas. This is where you can take 11-hour guided hikes through Canyonlands National Park and go whitewater rafting on the Colorado River. Or stay put on the 240-acre property where there are ranch-to-table dinners, riverside yoga classes, horseback riding, and pretty much anything you want to do by water (paddle boarding), land (hiking), and air (sky diving). For the daredevils, Sorrel Ranch is where luxury meets adventure. Staying true to the land, the spa has a partnership with Salt of the Earth, which allows spa visitors a chance to create and customize treatments with Utah-based ingredients such as mineral clay masks, body scrubs—comprised of 72 trace minerals and salt from Great Salt Lake—mineral creams, and Sorrel’s refined local red sandstone pure ground formula. An added bonus is that Sorrel has a more accessible starting rate ($449 in the winter and $649 in the spring/summer), but does not include most off-site activities.
Vermejo, A Ted Turner Reserve
When media mogul and environmentalist Ted Turner does something, he doesn't skimp. And that goes for the hospitality arm of his ventures. Vermejo, a wildlife preserve spanning 550,000 acres on the New Mexico-Colorado border, is a rancher’s ranch with acres of free-roaming bison, elk, black bears, bald eagles, wild horses, and more. Akin to your own private, luxury wilderness reserve, it is likely you’ll see more animals than people during your stay. Speaking of accommodations, you can stay at the Casa Grande, originally designed by Joseph L. Silsbee, mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, a 25,000-square-foot house with seven guest bedrooms. In the winter, you can go ice fishing or take a cooking class that sources ingredients from nearby ranches and farms, such as locally-raised bison and country-fried quail. Summer activities include 3D archery, photography lessons, fly fishing, and horseback riding. Of the overriding ethos at Vermejo is Turner’s mission to preserve the land and animals through his Turner Endangered Species Fund, which has resulted in an abundance of wildlife species making their home in the reserve.