Four years ago, if you followed the Smith Fork River upstream from the town of Crawford, Colorado, you might have run into a few wayward cows or a fallen tree before passing by a collection of disintegrating ranch buildings, various rusting appliances and some abandoned vehicles junked beside the road. It was not picturesque. Today, you still have to drive around poky cows, but the run-down ranch is gone. Or rather, it's been reincarnated as Smith Fork Ranch, a tastefully restored and refurbished version of the original, and one of the most luxurious and low-key desti-nations in the West.
Two hours southwest of Aspen and five hours west of Denver, Crawford is a divinely isolated spot. For generations this region of wide spaces and even wider skies has been home to cattlemen and hay farmers. Smith Fork Ranch was homesteaded in 1890 and traded for a banjo before its first incarnation as a guest ranch, in the 1940s. By the time Marley Hodgson, Jr., his wife, Linda, and their children31-year-old Marley III and 29-year-old Lindsaybought the property in 2000 for their personal use, the 265 acres along Colorado's pristine Smith Fork River had degenerated severely. The Hodgsons, who were preparing to sell their luxury leather goods company Ghurka, quickly realized they wanted to restore Smith Fork as a guest ranch and, as Linda says, "honor the heritage of the place."
And honor it they did. Today, almost everything you see on the ranch, which opened in the summer of 2002, was fabricated by local artisans using local materials: the leather-and-elk-horn door handles, the whimsical iron hardware, the handmade pottery, elk-antler chandeliers and river-stone fireplaces. In all, well over 100 craftspeople from the area worked with Marley Jr.who had designed the Ghurka luggage, wallets and beltsto renovate the ranch in a way that was true to its history and environment, but also significantly more elegant than anything the valley had ever seen before.
Smith Fork's guests, never more than 26 at a time, indulge in a flannel-pajamas-and-jeans kind of luxury. They wake up to the sound of the river and the smell of coffee, peppery elk-sausage patties and tender homemade corn cakes packed with blueberries. And to the creak of saddles being loaded onto horses and the green mountains awakening with the sounds of bear and eagle, lynx and coyote.
Fishermen get out early to hit the spirited Smith Fork River. Marley III, a professional fly-fishing guide, shows guests how to strip their lines at the rate of the current and how to cast past all the willows and chokecherries that hang over the water and around the boulder at Larry's Hideout, where a 16-inch trout named Larry lives. More-experienced fishermen can take a guide and head to one of the many good spots along the Smith Fork River, or to the mighty Gunnison River, a major tributary to the Colorado and one of the nation's best trout-fishing waters. The ranch also offers hunting trips and overnight treks in the huge Gunnison National Forest and West Elk Wilderness Areaa total of almost two million acres of terrain. Smith Fork maintains a permanent camp that provides a home base, without the typical campout deprivation. At the end of a day of casting the riffles or riding the ridges, guests sip Volnay Clos des Chênes and dine on aged steaks grilled over an open fire.
Smith Fork Ranch owns 38 horses, and many of its visitors opt to spend all day riding, most spectacularly up Second Creek Ridge to watch the late afternoon light shift across a view that stretches clear to Utah. Later, guests sink into the hot tub bubbling away in a field of knee-high grass, or pad into the hushed massage room before returning to their cabins to wash up. Dinner is an event at Smith Fork, and no one misses it.
The ranch has the good fortune to be situated just a few miles away from the North Fork Valley, source of some of the state's most outstanding meat and produce. Bob Isaacson, Smith Fork's culinary consultant and the former chef at the excellent Montagna in the Little Nell resort in Aspen, works with Smith Fork executive chef Patrick Walley to track down exceptional local ingredients. They buy organic eggs and poultry from Closer to Heaven Farm, where the chickens listen to Grateful Dead music while they swing on small trapeze bars; vegetables from Burritt Produce, a farm locally famous for its sweet melons; lean, magnificent elk from Mendicant Ridge Elk Ranch; Four Directions Farm's plump, free-range pheasants; and tree-ripened stone fruits from Stahl Orchards.
With ingredients like these, Isaacson and Walley make it a point to keep dishes simple. "I like to think of which flavors have evolved to work together, as opposed to trying to be original at the expense of flavor," Isaacson says, unloading a bushel of juicy plums he just bought from one of the Stahl Orchards ladies (who calmly pointed out that she speaks Russian, should he want to know how to say plum in another language). "After all, you can only taste so many things at one time."
Isaacson and Walley prepare velvety sweet corn soup garnished with chopped chiles and Manchego cheese; crunchy pumpkin-seed-encrusted trout fillets, sautéed and served with blue potato hash; and pudgy little quails, perfectly browned, stuffed with buttermilk corn bread and served with Savoy cabbage and pancetta. They bake their own bread and take pride in introducing guests to the local wines (there are some 25 wineries in the area), like the austere Chablis-style Chardonnay from Terror Creek and the flavorful Merlot from S. Rhodes. Dessert is homemade ice creams and pastries made with local fruits, like a delicate plum-and-apple strudel that's both tart and sweet.
Drinks are served in the lodge, with its antique saddles slung over the beams, its yielding Ghurka leather chairs and its smell of leather and pine. Thick Colorado-wool blankets are piled in front of the fireplace. Glasses of single malt whisky in hand, diners mosey out to the dining pavilion. There's a stunning view of the mountains, soft, green and close, with not another house or light in sight. As the sun drops over the horizon, the candles on the tables are lit, the outdoor fireplace is stoked, and everyone finds a seat at one of the tables.
"At first I thought I would only occasionally dine with our guests," says Marley Jr., who splits his time between Colorado and New York City. "But it turns out that I enjoy being with them much more than I ever expected to." Sometimes one of the horse wranglers sings, a cappella, about the streams and rocks. Periodically, the Hodgsons host rowdy, amiable wine-tasting dinners, which attract local wine producers with an inclination to party.
At night, the ranch is quiet. A buttery candy from Ruth's Toffee in Bedrock sits on each pillow, and cool, mineral breezes puff off the mountains and through the buildings. Guests settle into high log beds in their cabins or in their rooms in the main ranch house. The real luxury of this place is natural: the towering mountains, the crisp high-desert nights and the wonderful distance Smith Fork Ranch seems from all that is worrisome in the world.
Eugenia Bone is the author of At Mesa's Edge: Cooking and Ranching in Colorado's North Fork Valley. She lives in New York City and Crawford, Colorado.