Breakfast at the Cataloochee Guest Ranch begins with a warm greeting from Judy Sutton, Granddaughter of the Ranch’s founders Tom and Judy Alexander. On our first morning in the lodge, Sutton orchestrates the addition of a few more place settings for my group at her already full table without breaking stride in her chat with the guests seated to either side of her. Sutton’s parents were dear friends of my grandparents and the friendship was passed through the generations as my mother and Sutton have been close since they were children. I am practically family, I think with a tinge of pride as I settle into my chair. But by the time a second plate of pancakes is passed from the honeymooning Kentucky couple to the edgy jetsetter from Spain, all of whom are hanging on Sutton’s every word; I realize that everyone at the table feels like they are practically family. And that is the magic of Cataloochee.

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About thirty minutes west of Asheville and a mile up from the town of Maggie Valley, Cataloochee has been a gathering place for families since 1938, when “Miss Judy” and “Mr. Tom” purchased the property. Like the other members of the Alexander Family who are still involved with operating the Ranch, Sutton enjoys the time she spends getting to know the ranch guests.

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“It’s important to me as a [Alexander] family member to tell the story of the heritage of Cataloochee,” Sutton says. “When guests know that I’m a family member, the trip becomes more personal for them. They begin to feel like they are a part of the ranch’s story too. There are a number of guests who come here year after year and have a rich history at the ranch themselves.”

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We haven’t been at Cataloochee long before my eight-year-old daughter, Holston, poses the question; “Soooooo, what are we going to do?” Two more sets of eyes look at me expectantly as my nine-year-old niece, Mia and my best friend from college, Jen, wonder the same thing. My normal travel habits include extensive planning and color-coded itineraries, but this trip snuck up on me, and I haven’t planned a single activity. The question is especially unnerving considering the age and interest range of my group.

After a quick trip to nearby Waynesville for some supplies, the reality of our sleepy vacation sets in…and it is blissful. Although the ranch has Wifi, cell service is almost non-existent in most areas. With the adults’ phones unusually quiet and the girls’ iPads packed away until the trip home, we set out to explore. Just below the lodge, a little grove of trees sits on either side of a trickling creek that spills into the trout pond. Wooden bridges crisscross the creek and secret hideouts are tucked into the shade of the quaint forest.

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“Some people are surprised by the detachment from electronics here,” Sutton says. “Parents tell me that at home, it’s a chore to keep their kids off the iPads and such, but here there’s seven hundred or more acres for kids to explore and use their imagination.”

Sutton adds, “For a while, it was important for us to have cell service here, but people aren’t as concerned with that now. People come here and they can sit down with strangers and talk, which is something they didn’t expect.”

Interest in riding within my group of travelers ranges from “yes, let’s ride all day” to “eh, I’d rather play with the barn cats.” As a horse trainer, I’m usually paid to ride, but I still enjoy riding on vacation. With three members to one in favor of riding, Holston being the lone hold-out, we sign up for an afternoon on the trails. During our stay at the ranch, the afternoon ride seemed to be smaller than the morning ride and the wranglers advise that it could also be a bit shorter if we aren’t all up for the usual two-hour journey.

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Our ride takes us up winding mountain trails, through fields of wild flowers and even over a few logs and creeks. Holston has been paired with an adorable little bay aptly named “Little Man,” and he is surefooted across the sometimes-rocky terrain. The horses are all well behaved and seem truly happy to do their job and our wranglers are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The trail ride is a huge success!

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“We have many guests who come here to ride,” Sutton says. “They may come to ride for the first time, or come to ride for the first time in twenty years or they may be regular riders.”

Sutton finds that even the most experienced riders usually prefer a leisurely walk along the trail to a more intense ride. Horsemen who visit the ranch are also quick to notice the condition of the horses at Cataloochee.

“Our horses are fat, happy and slick,” Sutton says. “They’ll go if you tell them to, but they are also happy just to walk along. They look out for themselves on the rocky terrain and they end up looking out for their riders too.”

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During our stay at Cataloochee we find plenty to do, but also have some downtime to enjoy reading and putting together puzzles that we borrow from the lodge. Our favorite evening culminates in a camp fire sing along with local musician Jeanne Nabors. By this time, we know most of the other guests so eating s’mores and listening to the guitar feels more like an impromptu jam session with old friends than a weekly scheduled event. But that’s the magic of Cataloochee.

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Photos by Jen Barker