Colorado's Oldest Continuously Operating Dude Ranch

More than 100 years ago, the Bar Lazy J opened its doors to adventurous travelers.
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More than 100 years ago, the Bar Lazy J opened its doors to adventurous travelers.

Since the time of Lewis and Clark, folks have been fascinated with the American West. In the late 19th century, romantic accounts of the open range and Western adventurers like Theodore Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill circulated back East, and those itching to escape the congestion of the city vacationed out West to get a taste of life on the wild frontier. For a few bucks, these travelers—called “dudes”—could enjoy the full ranching experience at outfits that offered grub, bunks, and plenty of saddle time to their guests. 

In some ways, dude ranching today has come a long way from its early years (most ranches no longer pick guests up at the train depot in a horse-drawn wagon), but in the most important ways, dude and guest ranches haven’t changed hardly at all in the last century—they still offer horses and hospitality, and share their love for the Western way of life with people from around the world. 

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Bar Lazy J, 100+ years old
Parshall, Colo.
800-396-6279, barlazyj.com
Seasons: summer

Early guests of the Bar Lazy J stayed in canvas tents in what is now a grass pasture.

Early guests of the Bar Lazy J stayed in canvas tents in what is now a grass pasture.

In 1912, the Buckhorn Lodge opened its doors to traveling guests for $5/day on the American Plan, which included food and lodging, as well as activities such as horseback riding, fishing, square dancing, singing, and cookouts. The ranch was run by Edgar M. Messiter along with James S. Ferguson and his wife, Florence (Brownie)—until James died, leaving Edgar and Brownie to marry and prosper.

In what may be considered the first form of social media, Edgar and Brownie hired a newly outed debutante as a social secretary, so that Edgar could focus on his gardens and outdoor ranch maintenance and Brownie could ensure clean accommodations and properly prepared meals. As a result of this debutante’s social campaigning, guests were only admitted with a letter of reference.

The early days at the Buckhorn Lodge offered a formal setting, with coffee served on the lawn before breakfast and afternoon teas. In between, polo was played on the lawn, and croquet courts were set up between the banks of the Colorado River and the guest’s tents.

Return guests have always been a part of this ranch’s history: As families continued to vacation here year after year, the tents on the riverbank eventually gave way to cabins built specifically for some of those families, as well as the staff.

The Buckhorn changed hands a number of times over the years until it was purchased by Rudy and Mabel Menghini, who saw fit to change the Buckhorn’s name to the Bar Lazy J, to match the ranch’s original brand, still in use today. After a few more owners, the ranch was finally purchased in 1995 by its current owners, Jerry and Cheri Helmicki.

In some respects, not much has changed at the ranch for its guests—horseback riding, line dancing, and hearty meals are still staples of the Bar Lazy J. The herd includes about 90 head to accommodate everyone from lead-line tots to lifelong horsemen and women. Additionally, the ranch also offers the opportunity for folks to go skeet shooting or to cross the river gorge on a zip line. Either way, Jerry and Cheri do their best to make sure that each guest returns to their home knowing they’ve now got family in Colorado. 

In fact, Jerry and Cheri have ranked in the Top 5 Best Ranch Hosts in the Nation by DudeRanch.com. The Bar Lazy J also pulled a Top 5 ranking as the Best Family Ranch, and in the Signature Ranch Awards, they were ranked as the #1 Fly Fishing Ranch.

Today's guests relax near their comfortably rustic cabins on the banks of the Colorado River.

Today's guests relax near their comfortably rustic cabins on the banks of the Colorado River.