Then + Now: The Piney Lake Journey

Happy Trails


A mist blankets the alpine lake as warm water meets chilly air. Rainbow trout rise to paint surface ripples. From the willows, a bull moose slowly ventures out for breakfast, heavy head dipping low then lifting, dripping with a mouthful of aquatic plants. An eagle spreads its shadow high across the landscape as the sun rises behind the Gore Range. Perhaps a solitary Ute lingers, but otherwise, no human is present to observe the beauty.


John Wesley Powell

John Wesley Powell

John Wesley Powell summits the 13,448-foot Colorado peak that will bear his name. Despite losing an arm in the Civil War, the heroic major prevails. Now geologist, ethnologist and professor-turned-explorer, he indulges in scaling mountains during his travels. On this second trip to the West, he will head out the following spring on a dangerous, historic expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon. Powell’s personal mission is to enlighten others about the realities of inhabiting the Great American Desert. How fertile is the land? Can it be settled and farmed? The riches that he discovers far exceed his expectations or anyone else who debates him, even in Washington, D.C. Looking westward from the heights of Mt. Powell, he is awed by the majestic view of the Piney River Valley, a fitting prelude to his epic journey. Powell’s expedition departs on the Green River on May 24, 1869, two weeks after the Golden Spike is driven in nearby Promontory, Utah to celebrate the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

NOON. JULY 4, 1876.

A fortune seeker dips his pan into Piney River, eager for a payoff. Rumors abound of gold and silver treasures hiding in the Gore Range. Prospectors and settlers poke around for suitable land and rewards, suddenly more accessible with the growth of the railroads. The amateur gold panner comes up short on this try. Nevertheless, he and his family intend to homestead this valley. The growing season will be short, but he will farm and hunt and build and gather. Change scents the alpine air. The black bear is aware.


Indeed, change arrives. The Denver Water Board acquires the Piney River Ranch property, including Piney Lake, as its front yard and playground. Mt. Powell and companion Gore peaks provide commanding views. The Ranch is a 40-acre retreat surrounded by vast back country wilderness. Over the years, several parties will purchase/resell leases. Each new operator will implement a unique vision and use, adding to the diverse history of the Ranch and surrounding area.

Bob Woods, 1970


Licensed outfitter guides, Bob Woods and Butch Byers arrive, in the red mud with 10 horses in tow, to work the summer at the lake. They live in the sole two-room log cabin with outhouse. They end up with 20 horses and lead riders in the wilderness for the first time, including New York City mayor John Lindsay and his family. Lindsay bellies up for an eight-hour trek with Butch over remote trails around the Piney basin, including the Sheephorn.


The Fullers, 2001;

The Fullers, 2001; Photos courtesy of Sandy Ferguson Fuller.

I arrive at Piney Lake for a holiday weekend of tent camping along the river with my two kids and our dog. It’s an annual tradition, and we always find change … this year, in the weather! It starts to snow, then blizzard and, soon, the property is deserted. We’re prepared, so we hunker down overnight. We wake to two feet of white and one rare, curious female moose spying from a distance.

We are alone at Piney, for the first and probably only time. I sense what a gift it is for the wild creatures to live here without human activity.

We’re soggy, but the sun arrives, along with major melt, drying out and return of the human population. Soon, we’re fishing and paddling our small kayak up the river and savoring s’mores. We’ll return, each year unique but inspiring.


Matt and Nancy McKenna hike the path along Piney Lake to the Piney Falls above. The McKennas live in New York but vacation in their Colorado home near Wolcott. Like many visitors, a repeat visit to these vistas is a favorite … Nancy’s absolute. This trip, they spot a hand painted sign at the trail edge. It reads ‘For Sale’ with a phone number.

What if?

“The more Nancy and I talked,” Matt McKenna remembers, “the more we realized that purchasing the Piney lease would bring together three important personal priorities: cherishing the outdoors, natural beauty and this special place; helping the public to access and enjoy that beauty; and creating an innovative business with trusted friends.

McKenna’s law degree, career in finance with Pepsi Co., tenure as president and CEO of Keep America Beautiful and service as senior advisor to the Secretary of U.S. Department of Agriculture provide his foundation. If he adopts Piney, his Pepsi Co. investor colleagues will join him.

Why not?

McKenna phones. He learns that the Hansen family, current lease owners, has manned the Ranch and raised family there over summers. They embraced teepees, a boat dock and many upgrades. Now, it seems it is their time to pass the torch. They will transfer all improvements to the new operators.

“Most importantly, we will inherit and perpetuate the Hansen traditions and vision for the property. Everyone agrees on the model of a business that can pay the bills but also walk the fine line of balancing wilderness and public access, while enabling people of every age and ability to participate in the Piney experience,” McKenna observes.

What next?

“After completion of the lease purchase, baby steps will first introduce additional changes and improvements each year to polish the gem that is Piney River Ranch. A light-touch biz regarding the environment,” McKenna proposes.

He will recruit staff to work onsite to help reach these goals. He will nurture valuable partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Denver Water Board and others. Gradually, they will encourage more activities, like trout fishing or paddling, events, like weddings or naturalist talks, overnight guest visitation and expanded dining and retail services. With McKenna at the helm, Piney remains a side venture, still open only a few months each year. But, the Ranch will stay alive and thrive.


Opening day for the season, June 21, approaches. McKenna is optimistic about his operation at Piney, but he is missing “one key ingredient.” He has hired an enthusiastic summer staff. Since he divides time between New York and Colorado, and he needs a general manager on site. Enter Monique Busold, who has spent the previous 10 years managing the Lazy J Ranch in nearby Wolcott. Busold brings in Sophia Agostini as her assistant manager, desiring extra support.

Busold is the perfect match. She shares McKenna’s values of stewardship and preserving Piney’s natural beauty. She loves and respects animals,
domestic and wild. Busold covets her twice-daily one-mile walk with her dog along the lake, whatever the weather, always surprised by something new. Her work furthers the goals of promoting the Ranch to the public, facilitating events, guiding visitors about available activities and advocating a “real” mountain experience, especially spending overnights at the lake.

“That’s when the best memories are made,” Busold muses. “How many kids these days have built a campfire from scratch or toasted s’mores or spotted a shooting star with one of the best backdrops in the Valley?”

Although Busold embraces social media to support the Ranch, she is also an advocate of “digital detox.”

“No Wi-Fi,” she explains. “It’s one of the reasons Piney is popular. We are all so connected — always looking at devices. Guests arrive asking me how to connect, and many leave thanking me for the disconnect. They survive without and enjoy what Piney is about.”

Indeed, Piney is about a lot. Into canoeing, paddleboarding, fly, lure or bait fishing, horseback riding, day hiking or glamping? All available. Enjoy a burger or beer or signature barbeque? Come and get it. Crave a hat or T-shirt or toy or snack? Hang out at The Trading Post. Hosting a destination wedding? Piney offers that, too.

“There’s something for everyone,” says Busold. “If the kids can’t make it the 5.8 miles up to Piney Falls, parents or grandparents can stay back and enjoy a canoe ride, pat the horses or savor a snack.”

“I have 10 grandkids and the oldest is 7. Part of my personal guide and motivation for wilderness preservation is seeing the smiles on their faces when they visit,” adds McKenna.

What about Piney’s wilderness and wildlife? Devin Duval, district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, works closely with Busold and the rest of management. Both McKenna and Busold greatly value ongoing partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and the Denver Water Board (DWB). The Ranch is surrounded by White River National Forest, and USFS is mostly responsible for maintaining the road up to the lake, clearing equestrian and hiking trails, etc. Wildlife knows no boundaries, and the creatures who inhabit the area often roam private land. The challenges and benefits of coexisting with humans are paramount at Piney, underscoring the importance of cooperation.

Duval comments on their joint effort and the wildlife:

“The Ranch is a very easy partner to work with, and it helps when their value set aligns with some of the objectives and the mission of CPW. Since the start of our relationship, they have proven to be good stewards of the environment that they operate in. That has fostered a joint work effort and a unified goal in addressing any issues. Our end purpose is to preserve this unique area and to manage it and the Ranch appropriately.

Piney is one of the most beautiful places around and emblematic of the Gore Range and the high-country aesthetic of being in the mountains amid
wildlife and stunning natural beauty. It gives the public the opportunity to connect with and truly appreciate their good fortune … and to kindle a desire to take care of what makes this place so special.

Most notable, perhaps, are the moose. They are a Colorado success story and no more apparent than in the Piney River Valley. This drainage provides optimal habitat with a meandering river and wetlands. Most visitors are blessed to sight them. Black bear, too. Monique and Sophie are
very effective in educating visitors about peacefully coexisting with bears.

Deer and elk roam the drainage. Mountain lions and bobcats are more elusive, with rare sightings, not favoring the disturbance created by human activity. Beaver, porcupine, marmots, pica, pine marten, coyote, red fox and small game species abound. Higher up toward the falls, one might spot an occasional bighorn sheep or mountain goats.

The fish population is abundant with rainbow and brown trout. Occasionally, CPW stocks the lake with catchables, creating a self-sustaining population, unless the lake gets too cold during winter to nurture spawning.

Bald eagles and golden eagles. Blue grouse. A rich variety for birders. Canadian lynx? Who knows? Ask me in a few years.”

Duval concludes, “I believe that Piney River Ranch finds it incumbent on themselves to take care of the thing that draws so many visitors up there, because if that draw is lost, the magic is lost.”


Kim and bobby

Kim + Bobby; Photo by Jessica Benjamin.

I am back at Piney, not in hiking boots or fishing gear. I’m dressed up, with makeup! I’m here for my daughter’s wedding, and so is my son. We camped here together 25 years ago in the snow. This time, my two young grandkids join us, and I watch them soak it all in. Maybe we’ll take a hike tomorrow, or shop for a souvenir. It’s a different Piney experience entirely, but just as special.


We dined and wined and danced. Now, I’ll sleep in a cozy cabin, embracing change. The stars are out, so bright at high altitude, hinting at the infinite. I make a wish. Promise me, Piney?


A mist blankets the alpine lake as warm water meets chilly air. Rainbow trout rise to paint surface ripples. From the willows, a bull moose slowly ventures out for breakfast. An eagle spreads its shadow high across the landscape as the sun peeks from behind Mt. Powell. I am present to observe the beauty.


The journey continues. HAPPY TRAILS, PINEY!