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A Ranch Restoration

What happens when an American designer turns his eye to a boutique property in the Colorado wilderness?

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Marley Hodgson drives a 1962 Land Rover with custom leather seats, which—of course the founder of heritage leather brand Ghurka drives a car with custom leather seats. “When we bought ‘Rover’ in the 1970s, we replaced the vinyl seats with our own leather,” Hodgson explains. Summers in Martha’s Vineyard—and kid passengers in wet swimsuit bottoms—made that an impractical amenity for a time, but humidity is no longer a concern. These days, the small people riding shotgun in Rover are more likely to be grandkids wearing dusty riding chaps than damp swimsuits.

Just over a decade ago, Hodgson and his wife, Linda, shucked their former life in New York City and Connecticut for the West—specifically, the West Elk Mountains outside of Crawford, Colorado, where they’ve since applied their meticulous design expertise to refurbishing Smith Fork Ranch, a secluded private guest ranch surrounded by national forest, 100 miles from either Aspen or Telluride. The original buildings were restored log by painstaking log, sneaking in all the modern comforts (feather down beds, slate tile bathrooms, WiFi) and the dining hall deck was extended to provide more outdoor space for sunset cocktails. 

Like the original homesteaders, the Hodgsons brought with them treasures from back East, including a collection of early American primitive antiques, taxidermy elk mounts and Navajo rugs. In the River House, one of just five guest cabins, an 18th-century woodworking table abuts a leather sofa, while the hickory Adirondack-style chairs in the dining hall feel seamlessly Western. Once word was out in the valley that Smith Fork Ranch was being restored, local craftsmen started showing up with portfolios of their work, evident now in the elk-horn pepper grinders, hand-blown glass vases and iron-and-leather wine holders dangling from barn-board tables. Certainly Hodgson’s enthusiasm for expert artisanship has not waned since he envisioned the canvas-and-leather tote that launched the Ghurka brand back in 1975. 

The ranch attracts a clientele that appreciates the character of the design, as well as the quality of the food, wine and service, which includes the ranch’s impressive organic farmstead. Executive chef Marcus Parrott also calls on the bounty of the surrounding valley, where orchards, wild mushrooms, artisan dairies and heritage beef and lamb abound. Seafood is flown in twice weekly. And with the help of his son, Hodgson has developed SFR’s wine cellar to win the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator three years in a row. “We’ll never be able to drink it all!” he exclaims as he refills his guests’ cups. 

At max capacity, the staff still outnumbers guests, 28 to 26. While other high-end ranches host between 100 to 225, the smaller numbers at SFR allow guests to enjoy ranch amenities without a scheduling hassle. If, on a whim, you would like to cast a fly line after skeet shooting, no problem: The ranch has three private miles of the Smith Fork, as well as six trout ponds. For the dedicated angler, a guided day trip up into Little Elk Basin is an option, as is floating the Gold Medal waters of the Gunnison River, though the easiest way to explore the 1.7 million acres of Gunnison National Forest and West Elk Wilderness surrounding the ranch is on horseback, and upon arrival, wranglers assign each guest a steed for their entire stay. 

Alternatively, there is always the quixotic Rover, still riding pretty, available to carry you up the draws and through the coulees, just as Hodgson always imagined. 


All Images: Courtesy of Smith Fork Ranch