Steamboat Springs Keri Hamilton grew up in suburban Chicago, about as far from the Wild West as one can get. So what's she doing running a horseback riding and sleigh ride business west of Steamboat Springs? The answer has a great deal to do with her husband, Eric.
Keri and Eric Hamilton own and operate Big Rack Horseback Adventures on Diane Holly's historical Overlook Ranch just east of Milner.
Eric is a Craig boy, but he was no cowboy growing up either. Just the same, each day finds him hitching a stocky team of Suffolk Punch draft horses to a sleigh. The two chestnut-colored geldings, Jack and Comet, take visitors on a ride up a bench and past dramatic sandstone rock formations to the old Milner Dance Hall, where the visitors are served a satisfying dinner.
Eric says the horses have the ideal temperament for providing winter vacationers with the ride of a lifetime.
"They are just absolutely bomb proof," Eric said as he fiddled with Comet's harness. The Hamiltons have a second pair of Percherons, Dave and Leo, to help them handle large parties.
Eric and Keri met while attending Fort Lewis College in Durango. He majored in education and she majored in liberal arts. But Eric also had his first experience as a working cowhand in Durango.
"I worked on a big cattle ranch, the Lemon Ranch," he said. He also began working on dude ranches like Wits End in Durango and worked on Middle Creek Ranch near Oak Creek."
The Hamiltons really received their apprenticeship in the winter sleigh ride business during two seasons spent working at Elk River Guest Ranch north of Clark.
"They were so busy," Keri said. "That was a great place to work. We really saw a top-notch operation."
One day Eric heard that the operator providing horseback rides and sleigh rides at Holly's ranch west of Steamboat Springs was selling out.
"I went home that day and said, 'Let's get our money together. We've got to find a way to buy that place,'" Eric recalls.
Keri knew her husband's dream was to work for himself.
Overlook Ranch offers some special opportunities for customers seeking a western adventure, largely because of its geographic location.
The ranch is just 10 miles west of Steamboat, so guests at Big Rack Adventures don't have to endure a lengthy van ride. But the real draw Big Rack offers in the summer is the chance to herd cattle. And the cowhands who visit Big Rack aren't just pushing cows to push cows the job is one that needs doing.
Most of the water on the ranch is at the bottom of a long line of bluffs, so the cattle tend to congregate there daily. If the stock was allowed to do as it pleased, it would quickly overgraze the pasture near the water holes. Consequently, somebody has to go out almost daily and drive the cattle to graze on top of the bluffs.
Big Rack can sell its guests a genuine "cattle drive" and accomplish a ranch chore all at the same time.
"If a cow and a calf run off we shout at our guests to go round them up," Keri laughed. "If people are experienced and comfortable with it, they're free to run the horses."
Eric makes certain he has a string of horses that can walk the line between dude horses and cow ponies.
"The thing you have to have is good horses," Eric said. "All of our horses know they don't have to stay in line all day. That makes a nice horse."
Of course, not every dude has to feel like they're ready to hit the Chisholm Trail.
"We can take people of all abilities," Keri said.
The Hamiltons also offer hay wagon rides in the summer. They leave the ranch in the fall to run a hunting camp (Holly operates her own hunting camp) and then return in the winter for sleigh rides and winter horseback riding.
Unlike some sleigh ride companies, the Hamiltons will accept small groups. And they operate an afternoon ride.
The cost of a dinner sleigh ride is $50 for adults and $35 for children 11 and younger. Infants are free. Diners have a choice of steak, lemon pepper salmon or marinated pork, all cooked by Keri on propane grills outside the heated cabin. The meals are served with baked potatoes, homemade sourdough rolls and, most often, peach crisp.
Eric said his company derives most of its business from the Sheraton Hotel, Steamboat Resorts and Steamboat Premier Properties. But he's also seeing an increase in reservations from his Web site, which has a link at the site maintained by the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association.