The A Bar A is the stuff of perfection: Wide-open spaces, a river for fly fishing and horses to help you explore, balanced with soft beds, gourmet meals and other people who feel the same way about nature as you do.
The land, nestled along the North Platte River, was first homesteaded in 1885. Andy Anderson and Edward Hubbell, two young Princeton graduates who dreamed of raising cattle, bought it in 1922. They moved west with their wives and named their new home the A Bar H. When curious friends from back home began visiting, the idea of a combination cattle operation and guest ranch was born.
The guest ranch was successful right away, but, according to ranch lore, the two wives grew incompatible. In 1932, the families decided to flip a silver dollar to determine the ranch’s fate. The Andersons won, and purchased the Hubbells’ portion. The Hubbells packed up and moved to Arizona, and the Andersons renamed the ranch the A Bar A.
The ranch, now owned by a Denver-based family, has been in continuous operation for 92 years. Parts of the property operate as a working cattle ranch. Honestly, not all that much has changed in the last 50 years or so.
“That’s by design,” says Justin Howe, who grew up at the ranch when his parents managed it and has run it alongside his wife, Lissa, for the last eight years. “We’re careful to keep it like it was. If you came 30 years ago, the feeling remains the same.”
Take my favorite activity: the trail ride to Slim’s Draw for a cookout. We mount up at about 3:30 p.m., slosh our horses through the sparkling North Platte River, clatter up a steep ridge and cross miles of meadows waving with gray-green grass. At Slim’s, high on a mesa top, we hand over our horses and perch on boulders, softly talking as the sun sets. Steaks and burgers sizzle on a barbecue pit, and a few musicians strum guitars. When stars start glittering against a velvet sky, we tug on jackets and gloves and climb back on our horses for the hour-and-a-half moonlit ride back.
Guests have been making this same trek for decades, and it’s one I’ll never forget — that and the moment I catch a rainbow trout while fly fishing with a very patient guide in a creek that runs through the property. There are other moments, too: hiking to the top of Overlook Hill and gazing back at the ranch far below, watching the wranglers bring in the horse herd as the sun rises, listening to bluegrass music in the ranch’s historic Round Room, admiring a bald eagle perched in a tree, and curling up with a novel borrowed from a cozy cabin that doubles as the ranch library.
“We’re stewards of a lot of peoples’ memories,” Howe says.
Guests — about 100 per week during the four summer months the ranch is open — stay in rustic-yet-comfortable houses, small lodges and cabins on the property. Each is unique; some date to the 1880s.
It’s the people here — guests and staff — who create the magic. Without TVs or telephones, and with limited Internet access, the focus is on community and experiencing life as it unfolds. One morning, the dining room is abuzz with talk of a moose that has appeared outside one cabin. Friendships bud on horseback or during hikes. There’s a swimming pool, tennis courts, a shooting range and a nine-hole golf course.
“It’s that ability to take a breath — step away from the frenetic pace that is modern day,” Howe says.
His mother, Margie Howe, worked as ranch manager for 27 years. She puts it a different way: “There’s a heart here. We’ve had people say, ‘This place is the reason my family is strong and still together.’”
It’s easy to fall under the spell, especially if you’re a horse lover. Some guests spend all day riding, either with a guide or, if they’re skilled enough, on their own — with a two-way radio in hand in case of emergency. This isn’t the tail-to-nose procession of hard-worn horses the words “dude ranch” might conjure — it’s free rein to roam hundreds of miles of trails over tens of thousands of acres.
“It has that feel of being very much of a ranch, so you get a feeling for the beauty of the cowboy experience and the Old West,” says Garrett Dee, 51, an attorney from Chicago who worked here as a wrangler in 1987 and has returned with her husband for a visit. “It gets into the very core of who you are. As far as you can hike or ride or drive, there’s nothing but spectacular vistas. It’s so wonderfully, breathtakingly beautiful.”
Others don waders and head to the river or creek, where they cast for rainbow or brown trout, reveling in the bigness of the place and the quiet of the land as much as the quest to catch a fish.
“Every time I come out I find myself in a place where you can’t see any sign of human beings — no jet contrails, no fences,” says photographer and bluegrass musician Will McIntyre, who first came in 2002. Since then, he and his wife have published a coffee table book about the A Bar A and its two sister ranches.