Utah’s Western Spirit Lives at Blue Sky Ranch

By Jane Gendron

Everyone at some point or another wants to be a cowboy. Roping, riding, sharing whiskey with fellow rugged souls, and working the day away with the help of a trusted and beloved horse. It’s the stuff of western lore and city clicker bucket lists. For folks who want the real deal (albeit, presented with a gentrified dose of country hospitality), Blu Sky Ranch’s Cowboy for a Day is the opportunity to free that inner wrangler.

Located roughly 15 minutes outside of Park City, the 3,300-acre Wanship property is part working ranch, part adventure outfitter, part corporate retreat. Cowboy for A Day, which began last summer, is offered to the public twice monthly—and, according to spokesperson Hattie Gardner, there is nothing nose-to-tail trail ride-ish about the experience. Suitable for novices and experienced riders alike, the adventure is tailored to be an authentic sampling of the wranglin’ life.

The cowboy (or cowgirl) day begins with a hearty breakfast catered by High West Distillery. Then, it’s down to business. Guests are paired up with horses and the ranch’s wranglers (one professional wrangler for every two “cowboys”) help the greenhorns to groom and tack their equine partners.

After this “first handshake for the day,” as Gardner calls the grooming-tacking process, the cowboys saddle up and learn some basic horsemanship, which includes the process of gaining the horse’s respect. Then, the cowboys set about helping to drive the cattle; learning to rope and cut and stopping for lunch along the way. The posse moves the herd of 40 cows four to five miles across a rolling landscape, through meadows, past alfalfa fields, canyon walls and streams.

“When you get on the ground itself, and you’re looking up at Lewis Peak and Alexander Canyon, at the meadows and the cliffs, it’s breathtaking,” says owner Mike Phillips, who along with his wife Barb bought Blue Sky Ranch in 2004.

Taking in the views, which may include glimpses of hawks and moose along the way, the riders spend close to two hours traversing the landscape. After the herd is settled in the pasture, the cowboys are rewarded with a stop at the Blue Sky Tavern for a splash of High West whiskey.
“Real cowboy-ing is really hard work,” says Phillips. He calls this taste of ranching life “cowboy light,” which seems to resonate with the adventurers who saddle up for the day. “They can hardly wait to do it again,” he says.

What began as a way to introduce Phillips’ city slicker friends to life on the ranch has turned into an extension of Blue Sky Ranch’s commitment to “horse whisperer” Buck Brannaman’s style of horsemanship— a kind approach, which creates a partnership between horse and rider, rather than “breaking” a horse. According to Gardner, horsemanship is the focus of the ranch as well as a commitment to sustainability; eco-endeavors, such as solar panels, are slated for the future.

Though the ranch’s centerpiece is horsemanship, cowboy adventures are just a part of Blue Sky’s business. Initially, it served as a management retreat for Phillips Edison & Company (the Phillips’ shopping center development business). Before long, other businesses, such as Nike, began corporate team building on the ranch. Weddings were wooed to the site as well. In the meantime, Blue Sky teamed up with local restaurant-distillery, High West Distillery. The ranch supplies the Park City restaurant with free-range beef and the restaurant supplies the ranch with gourmet meals and authentic cowboy drink.

Blue Sky hosts an array of guided outdoor adventures, from cross-country skiing and fly fishing to yoga and photography trail rides. Currently, onsite accommodations include a yurt; however, once infrastructure is in place, Phillips plans to build a boutique hotel. He anticipates that the luxury accommodations will open in the fall of 2014.
Yep, in the not-too-distant future living that cowboy dream may not necessarily end with the setting sun. For now, it’s a nine-to-five adventure and a chance to feel like the quintessential Marlboro man—no matter who you are.

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