Tucked out of range 12 miles north of Vail, accessible only by a winding dirt road, is a beautiful spot, the Piney River Ranch. The ranch sits on the edge of Piney Lake with abundant views of the Gore Range. A popular spot for day visitors, welcome from 9am – 6pm, the ranch rents canoes and paddleboards by the hour. Fly fishermen can also be seen throughout the lake and if your kids are like mine, the cold mountain water won’t deter them from a swim (which deters the fish and annoys the fly fishermen as we found out the hard way). For those willing to stray from the water, there is a 3-hour hike (about 6 miles roundtrip) to a waterfall, as well as 1 or 2 hour guided horseback rides that depart from Piney Stables. For those feeling like they can’t get enough, there are several small cabins and “glamping tents” available for nightly stays.
Recently, at the end of the Piney Ranch season, we rented the Bear cabin. We meant to take our kids camping all summer, but well, camping is a TON of work….the tent, the food, the bathroom, the everything…..If you are like me (outdoorsy in an aspirational sense) , this really is the next best thing. Our cabin had a bunk room, as well as king bed in the front room. No running water, but a bathroom is a short jaunt up the hill (with real flushing toilets)- a small price to pay for the lake view. There is also a restaurant at Piney Ranch- the 9350’ Bar & Grill. However, knowing we would arrive after it closes with the day visitors at 6pm, we had planned accordingly and packed typical camping fare- hot dogs and s’mores. Each cabin is equipped with its own campfire set up right outside the front door- which for us meant right by the lake front. If you are more adventurous though, you do pass many USFS camping sites along the dirt road.
After checking in and taking a short hike, my husband went about making a fire for our dinner (oh, I should mention that the cabins do come with an outdoor propane grill as well, but we were going for as close to camping as we could get here). Of course, without the proper tools to gather wood, we ended up buying bundles at the ranch store upon arrival- cheating, I know, but we made the kids each carry a bundle to make it a bit more authentic. It took a bit of newspaper and firestarter (also sold at the store), but soon we had a roaring fire. Using the grate provided with each fire (I know, less and less like camping), my husband successfully cooked the hot dogs and we enjoyed a picnic by the lake. Luckily it was dark as each hot dog had a nice black coating from the fire that would have made my kids adamantly refuse to eat if they had been able to see it.
We did make the kids forage for sticks for s’mores and after 2-3 s’mores each and a few ghost stories around the fire, we retired to the cabin to play cards. The ranch is popular for event rentals, and we were the only cabin occupied by people outside of a wedding party. Luckily, they were a relatively quiet crew and we all quietly bonded over disobeying the ranches’ alcohol policy (no BYOB apparently).
Leaving the windows open, we all had an almost camping like night’s sleep – there is no wifi or cell phone service anywhere on the ranch so truly unplugging for 24 hours was a bonus to the experience. After a quick breakfast (we brought a few things in a cooler), we ventured out for the 3 hours hike to the waterfall. It was a beautiful day and the leaves were changing which made the hike completely worth it. If you are short on time though, I would recommend sticking to the lake, where we spent the afternoon canoeing, paddle boarding, and fishing after our lunch at the 9350’ Bar & Grill. The restaurant is in the main lodge on the property and faces the beautiful views of the lakes and mountains.
On the website, the restaurant “boasts the best smoked BBQ around.” Given that there is nothing around Piney River Ranch (and I don’t think our charred hot dogs count), I would venture to say their claim is true. Not feeling up for smoked brisket or smoked pork, we ended up with some kid meals, a cheeseburger, and a B.A.L.T. We all enjoyed the meal- in part because we were starving with all the hiking and fresh mountain air. Perhaps next time, we will try something more adventurous on the menu and test their BBQ claim. At any rate, we will certainly be returning for the view.
For more information and reservations, visit https://www.pineyriverranch.com.
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