CARBONDALE, CO - You see it in daily-fee golf brochures throughout the west - play golf on historic ranch land - yesterday's cow pasture is today's golf course developement.
River Valley Ranch, just 30 miles from Aspen and 12 miles from Glenwood Springs, was one of those cow-patty fields of dreams that's now considered one of the best layouts in Colorado. Situated beneath 12,953-foot Mt. Sopris in the Roaring Fork Valley, along the rippling Crystal River, this is God's and Golf Country.
It's one of those special places where you can enjoy the flight of bald eagles in winter and address an eagle putt in summer. If your golf bag includes a fly rod, there are rainbows and brown trout in the river and nearby in the Gold Medal waters of the Roaring Fork and Frying Pan Rivers.
One local who knows it all about River Valley Ranch is Lew Ron Thompson. He was born in 1942 in the small cabin adjacent to the No. 8 tee box. He worked, played and fished this land long before RVR was a dream in developer Gerald Hines mind. "We didn't have a TV until I was 13 years old and you couldn't get anything on the radio until night," he said.
It was Thompson's grandfather who acquired the land in 1883 through the Homestead Act and in the early days not only raised cattle, but grew potatoes. His father, Lewis R. Thompson, continued the ranching tradition.
"We had to face the facts in the 1970s," said Thompson. "The cattle business was in decline. We sold out and it became the Gray Ranch. Gray was an art dealer from Chicago who bought it as an investment. And in the 1990s things really came in to focus. It just wasn't economical to run an $800 cow and a $400 calf on $15,000-per-acre land. And those figures probably aren't even close today's market."
River Valley Ranch was born from 600 acres that was the Thompson Ranch until 1974 and from 125 acres of the Mt. Sopris Hereford Ranch, owned by Bob and Ruth Perry. Luckily, their daughter Marge's opinion, was ignored. In the early days of the golf-course development discussions, Marge said: "A golf course is a ridiculous waste of space." The Perrys are still ranching next door to RVR.
Today, Thompson still has his hands on the land. He works for River Valley Ranch as a maintenance person fulfilling many different duties. He looks with pride at the many remaining ranch buildings on the land, including a two-story red-brick Victorian house, that he and his two sisters still own and use as a retreat. His son lives in the carriage house behind the retreat. The sales office for Hines Resorts is a two-story barn, reassembled with huge picture windows next door to the clubhouse.
"The nicest thing would have been to maintain the traditional use as a working cattle ranch," Thompson said, "but that wasn't possible. Most of the ranchers are glad just to see the land in an open environment. I can still go out there and enjoy the scenery like I used to."
That's what golfers are doing from all over the world. Today, River Valley Ranch, is a must play. Jay Morrish's 1996 design is 7,348 yards from the Ranch tees, playing at par 72. It's a shotmaker's course with risk/reward options and multi-fingered bunkers. You will be rewarded more for accuracy than distance as seven holes either traverse or border the Crystal River.
The rolling rye fairways are lush and the bent grass greens are super rolling, some with lots of undulations and others with subtle breaks. Skirting no-man's land left of the northern holes you will find the semi-arid roughness of sage brush and piñion pines.
Playing at 6,200 feet, much lower than most of the Aspen-area courses, RVR has enjoyed eight months of play per year. On this day it was a toasty 85 degrees.
Low handicappers will face tee-shot carries over the river at the first hole and again at 8, 10 and 18.
There are two excellent par-threes. The third is a Redan-styled shot of 224 yards. You can leave it short and right and have a chip, but anything too far right is dead and the left is protected by four bunkers. Leave it too short or pull it too far left and you are in water. The 16th is a tough downhill 237-yarder, with a carry over native grass. If you pull or snap it too far left, the native grass will punish.
Hit all you have at No. 17, a 623-yard par-5. Then finish the day with a beauty over the river. It's a par 4 at 452 yards and a slight dogleg left from the tee. If you can draw it, the slanting fairway will give you an extra kick, and an approach shot of under 150 yards. Two-putt for your par and turn back south to take in the view of Mt. Sopris one more time.
River Valley Ranch
303 River Valley Ranch Drive
Carbondale, CO 81623
Green Fees: Public 18 Holes $90, cart not included. Nine holes $45 (June 1 - Labor Day). Spring/Fall Season $50 for 18 and $30 for nine (April 1 - May 31 and Sept. 5 - Close). Twilight fee $35 after 5 p.m. in summer and after 3 p.m. in spring/fall. Rates lower for Roaring Fork Valley residents, call for prices. Carts: $15 for 18 and $10 for nine. Range Balls: $3 per bag or 2 for $5. Irons only range. For special pass rates check RVR's website.
Honors: Top 10 You Can Play Golf Magazine in 1999. National Golf Course Superintendents Association 1997 Environmental Steward Award. A Bald Eagles' Closure Area is located on the river adjacent to the 18th fairway.
"The eagles seem to have adjusted fine to the development," Thompson said. "They don't nest here, but come like clockwork in November, and spend the winter here before going back north, probably to Wyoming or Canada, for the summer."
Golf School Packages: River Valley Ranch offers a golf school and packages. It includes instruction from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. with breakfast, refreshments and lunch. Round of golf and cart are included. Call for details - Dave Alvarez, General Manager, and Mike Roby, head golf professional.
Directions: River Valley Ranch Golf Club is located only 30 miles from Aspen, 12 miles from Glenwood Springs and 70 miles from Vail. Take Highway 82 from
Glenwood Springs to Carbondale and turn right through town for two miles. The golf course is on your right.
Where to Stay: Snowmass Club in Snowmass Village, just 16 miles away. Check out the Snowmass Villa Rentals at http://www.snowmassclub.com/villas.shtm or call 800-525-0710.
Where to Eat: The Rock Creek Bar and Grill at River Valley Ranch has indoor and outdoor dining.