Exploring Grand Lake and Western Rocky Mountain National Park on Horseback

Colorado is cowboy country, and has served as the setting for some of the greatest Hollywood westerns throughout cinematic history. So when Jeff and I started planning our Rocky Mountain vacation last year, we agreed that horseback riding was a must-do activity; we both really enjoy it as a way to explore more terrain than we can hike in a day.  The guestbook at our Shadow Mountain Lake cabin just outside the west entrance to the national park recommended Sombrero Ranches in the nearby town of Grand Lake.

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Sombrero Stables (“You’ll smell us before you see us”), located at the entrance to downtown Grand Lake.

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Happy that “those with previous horseback riding experience” got paired with bigger faster cooler horses than the newbies.

Sombrero Ranches is located at the entrance to town, next to the market. When we called to book our trip and ask for directions, they told us “you’ll smell us before you see us!”. Grand Lake is just one of several locations from which they operate. We booked a late morning  two hour group ride for $50 per person, specifically on the day forecasted most likely to rain since we knew we couldn’t really plan a hike or canoe trip for that day, and because we actually really like riding in the rain — it makes us feel more hardcore and less tourist-like (see our Lake Louise, Canada, horseback riding write-up).

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Had to wait for wrangler Matthew (on the left) and smaller more kid-friendly horses to return from the previous ride.

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Serious wrangler Guy (on the left) gives us final instructions (including “one hand on the reins at all times…so no cameras or cell phones”) before departing. We, of course, can easily master the camera and our iPhone cameras with one hand, so we tried to sneak photos when Guy wasn’t looking

After the stablehands got enough horses assembled (our group had a lot of kids, and they had to wait for smaller horses to return from the previous ride), they outfitted us with optional helmets and paired each rider up with a horse best suited to our prior riding experience, which for most of our group was zero (Jeff and I got cooler horses!). Once we watched the basic instructions on how to handle a horse, and listened to their safety guidelines (what?… no hands-free riding permitted? what about our cameras and cell phones?), the stablehands got our group prepped to hit the trail.

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Matthew maneuvers the kids through a series of switchbacks.

Our group was entrusted to the care of two very different but equally awesome and experienced wranglers — serious Guy and silly Matthew, both former Marines. Matthew served as lead, putting all of the little kids right behind him (in front of their parents). He is phenomenal with kids; we could hear their laughter and squeals the entire ride, and listened in while he joked with them and engaged them in songs and chants. Their parents kept commenting (gratefully) how this ride would be an experience their kids would remember and talk about their whole lives. Serious Guy rode what we hikers call “the sweep”, bringing up the rear while also regularly riding up along the group line checking everyone’s handling of the reins, position on our saddles, and footing in the stirrups. Matthew took the time to holler back asking each person’s name, where we lived, and what we did for a living (poking fun at my husband by nicknaming him “the politician” and making politician jokes the entire ride). Guy was a wealth of local history and cinematic history knowledge, pointing out particular sites of interest all along the way (much appreciated by this history nerd) and mentioning in which movies the horses starred. The two of them make the perfect personality combination.

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Stunning views of Grand Lake!

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

An interesting fence built out of skis.

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Guys keeps our big group in check.

Cowboys and Aliens

The horse Guy was riding had recently starred in “Cowboys & Aliens”. Yes, we had to rent the movie when we got home, just to watch for the horse.

The trail we followed is the beautiful scenic Tonohutu Creek Trail, which meanders through Grand Lake and the national park. It climbs up from town, providing stunning views of Grand Lake, quickly leading us into lush thick green forest. We even got to ride by Steven Spielberg’s vacation cabin! The experience was so peaceful and so fun. My only regret is booking just a two hour ride. I really wish we’d gone for something longer (if available).

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Guy instructs us on how to handle the horses on a decline.

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Loving this! I really need to do this more.

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the creek.

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Such a great way to explore the forest!

We both highly recommend a horseback ride with Sombrero Ranches for anyone visiting the west end of the national park. It’s a wonderful experience for couples, groups of friends, and families. If you have little kids, be sure to ask that Matthew lead your ride. And regardless of the age of your group, ask for Guy. We are certain that this will be a highlight of your vacation.

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Sadly, making our way back to Grand Lake. I didn’t want the ride to end.

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Steven Spielberg’s vacation cabin. While it has stunning views of the lake and mountains, we were surprised he doesn’t own one of the more spectacular lakefront cabins.

Grand Lake Horseback Riding

Matthew gets the horses ready for the next group (or a time of rest?), while Guy helps us dismount.


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