Wagon ride at Keystone Resort in Colorado

A Rocky Mountain ride back in time at Keystone

Have you ever dreamed of playing pioneer by riding a wagon into the heart of the Rockies, of singing to the accompaniment of someone playing guitar while wearing a cowboy hat, or of dining at a for-real Western homestead? If so, than Keystone Resort has just the activity for you. Hop on a bus at the resort to be whisked off for a horse-drawn ride through the nearby Soda Creek Valley where a former mine/dude ranch/farm/ homestead has been only just modernized and turned into a scenic place to dine and listen to music.

We arrived on an unusually mild but impeccably clear winter evening to find two large wagons awaiting us. Ours was pulled by two jet Percheron draft horses, brothers named Bert and Ernie. Although they weigh 1800 pounds each and eat 30 to 50 pounds of hay a day, they are as docile as any animals you’ll ever meet, their sides like velvet, and they will stand patiently not only for photographs but while the children (or grownups) on board pet them.

I hope you’ll excuse me for not jotting down the name of our driver, as amiable and loquacious as his cowboy-hatted assistant (who also shall remain nameless) was silent. He proved an excellent guide. In addition to telling us about the horses and their care and feeding, he spent our ride to the former mining site and dude ranch talking about the landscape we were riding through explaining that it is actually owned by the U.S. Forest Service and for that reason is closed in the fall and spring so that migratory elk can breed and birth there in turn. At one point he paused the wagon, and gesturing all around us said, “This is your land.” Given the staggering beauty of our surroundings, this felt like a gift indeed.

I should point out here that the wagon ride is meant to be a sleigh ride, but not in 2012 – the driver pointed out what would normally be the sleigh path, where nary a speck of snow was to be seen.

As we approached the homestead, the horses plodded directly through the shallow creek (much to the boys’ delight). We were greeted at the door of Smith Cabin by the chef and a few friendly helpers who served us dinner. My hungry boys were delighted to discover a hot kettle of venison-barley soup and huge biscuits with homemade honey butter waiting for us on the table.

The cabin itself is charming and full of fun rustic decorative touches, offering some good “I Spy” opportunities for animal-loving kiddos. Additional entertainment comes in the form of music, which in our case was performed by a lovely woman named Becky who not only had a gorgeous voice and a perpetual smile but a repertoire that included everything from John Denver to Joni Mitchell.

Dinner comes with water and hot chocolate, which are served in pitchers on the tables, as well as soft drinks; wine and beer are extra, but are reasonably priced. Our main courses (which we had ordered in advance) were simple, ample, and good and included a sirloin that was perfectly cooked and a vegetable strudel that was topped with a delicious savory tomato sauce. My one quibble with the meal was the grilled salmon, which was really overdone. Tommy consoled himself for this fact by devouring the mound of mashed potatoes that accompanied it.

At one point during the meal he needed to use the facilities, which are located across the way in a very clean outhouse. Stepping outside the cheerful din of happy voices in the cabin, I was struck by the quiet beauty of the surrounding valley. While I waited for him, I listened to the wind whistling in the pine trees and admired the wagon silhouetted against the barn. It was easy to imagine herds of elk in the swaying grasses. I wouldn’t have minded pitching a tent and spending the night under what I’m sure would be a million stars and the shadow of the mountains of Breckenridge in the distance. In the summer, dinner is cooked on barbeque grills and served outside. I’d love the chance to be outside listening not only to the guitar but to the music of the wind for the entire meal.

But instead we went back inside for some hot apple crumble and ice cream, accompanied by a rousing version of “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain” complete with funny hand gestures and audience participation that left everyone breathless and smiling.

Full and warm from our dinner, we were happy to bundle up under the plaid wool blankets that hang over the side of the wagon and laugh appreciatively at the driver’s bad jokes, which then evolved into a long story about 19th-century bank robbery at the Denver Hotel in Breckenridge, ending as all good Westerns do with a shoot out and a return to justice for the bad guys who killed two deputies and hid a diamond stickpin under a rock where it was later found by school children. The air was clear, the sun continued to set, and the sleepy rhythm of the wagon brought us back to the promised warmth of the bus that would in turn bring us back to the comforts of the resort. Once again it was tempting to linger and watch the night sky just as the pioneers and miners and cowhands who preceded me surely did.

Winter or summer, these rides at Keystone are a wonderful way to end a day with your family. Most nights the rides are $99 for two adults and $45 for children 4 to 12. Children under 4 can ride on laps and dine on mashed potatoes and veggies for $10 a pop. Reservations are required. Dress appropriately for the weather, as you are outside for a good half hour in each direction. And if there’s not much snow on the ground, be prepared for mud in copious amounts at either end of the wagon ride. One woman in our party had dressed in some fancy city slicker boots; her chivalrous husband ended up carrying her from the bus to the wagon!

Vail Resorts and Keystone covered the cost of our wagon ride and meal as well as many of our other expenses on this trip. You can always count on me to let you know when I’ve gotten something for free – and also to honestly share my opinions.

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