In the valley of the Great Smoky Mountains along the French Broad River, a charming outpost is just waiting to be discovered.
Amid thousands of acres of trees, breaking the enveloping silence, come the sharp clip-clop of sure-footed purebred Arabian horse hooves and the whoops and cries of horseback riders enjoying a morning lope. In the hush of this valley lies the 327-acre French Broad Outpost Ranch, where owner Shawn Gannon has recreated life as the cowhands knew it in the late 19th century, but with all the 21st century civilities. The stage is set in the midst of dramatic 3,000-foot mountain peaks, burbling river and fresh air for contemporary city dwellers to walk perhaps more than a mile in a pair of cowboy boots.
“A dude ranch conjures up the adventure in a person’s soul,” says Gannon. “It has to do with our collective imaginings of the Old West. People can go to a dude ranch and be something they’re not for a whole week.”
At the lodge, in the newly constructed “old Western town” of Rough Cut, lodgers can hear the rush of the French Broad River from the front porch of the dining room or from the bubbly confines of the hot tub located just a few steps away. Adjacent to the dining room, the library/sitting room features a rambling stone fireplace and bookshelves trimmed with frontier trappings. This is the spot for subdued conversation or a quiet read, accompanied by a glass of iced tea. Upstairs, the dance hall and saloon incite guests to rowdier pursuits, like hooking elbows for a square dance, queuing up for the Virginia reel, dealing a hand of crazy eights or even bellying up to the popcorn machine – all to the tune of live country or bluegrass music.
The ambiance at the ranch is warm and welcoming, with an accent on family-friendly and refined rough and tumble. Gannon’s parents, Bob and Lindy, are co-owners. Bob is visible at square dances and meal times, on the trail and in the lodge. Lindy’s presence is evident in the cakes and confections she whips up each night for dessert. Guests are treated like extended family with the benefit of not having to wash their own dishes.
The four guest rooms located in Rough Cut follow the western motif of the lodge, complete with cedar beds, American West decor and colorful bedding. Four mountain cabins are tucked into the trees nearby, each showing off a distinct personality, from southwestern casual to breezy white wicker. Lodge guests have a quick amble over the boardwalk to the dining room; cabin guests hike in by way of gentle footpaths.
Everyone Can Ride
Everyone at the ranch has access to the sweeping vistas of the Smokies. The surrounding mountains provide the trails for the morning and afternoon horseback rides offered five-and-a-half days a week. Head wrangler Kari Spike and assistant Shawn Gannon use a “horse whisperer” approach to train the 33-horse herd and efficiently match riders to horses once a guest’s skill and comfort level have been established. Riders as young as 7 can take to the saddle for a trail outing; 5- and 6-year-old riders clip-clop in the corral under wrangler supervision.
“We want the guests to be comfortable and to interact with their horse,” notes Gannon. “They groom it, saddle it, feed it carrots, scratch it under its belly. The idea is to become one with your horse.
After a Long Day on the Trails
Twice-a-day horseback rides can leave a cowpoke hungry and Assistant Operations Manager Dave Burkey takes pride in designing savory stick-to-your-ribs fare: sausages, pancakes and biscuits and gravy for breakfast; sandwiches, salads and all the fixings for lunch; perfectly seasoned steak, fish, chicken or pork chops accompanied by just-right potatoes, vegetables, salad and rolls for dinner.
After dinner, depending on the night of the week, guests are treated to live music, storytelling or dancing (the exuberant “broom” dance is a ranch original), with the big shindig – the square dance – reserved for Saturday nights. Board games and decks of cards are pulled out, the fire is stoked in the library and, later, a video may be popped into the VCR upstairs. Somebody will fire up the popcorn machine and Gannon might pass a plate of goodies (chocolate-banana brownies, sliced sweet cake roll) from the kitchen.
The French Broad Outpost Ranch is open year-round. Spring and summer show off the mountains dressed in floral finery and signal the start of the cattle drive season. Warm weather also ushers in water sports on the French Broad River, team penning at the corral and overnights beneath the stars (and a lean-to). Fall is the time for horseback riding, hiking and hot-tubbing amidst the splendor of the flaming mountains. Dec. 15 kicks off ski season.
Guests can sign on for half- or full-week stays. All meals and activities (horseback riding, cattle drive, hiking, live music entertainment, fishing, white water rafting and tubing, as well as children’s programs like roping, beginning archery, arts and crafts and a trip to the Forbidden Caverns) are included in the package rates.