DURANGO, Colo. -- If you think you are going to roll shots up on the greens at Dalton Ranch Golf Club, you better know how to thread a needle.
Demanding might best describe this former alfalfa field that opened in July 1993 as a Ken Dye design measuring 7,002 yards at par 72 in the stunning Animas River Valley just six miles north of Durango. Dye's impressive portfolio also includes Piñon Hills Golf Course, Black Mesa Golf Club and Paa-Ko Ridge Golf Club in nearby New Mexico.
The red cliffs of the surrounding San Juan Mountains come alive with a sangre-hued glow that will make you stop and gaze along the par-5 16th, then turning back toward the clubhouse, the Animas River lines the left border with another scene you won't forget.
Even the touristy Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad runs by the course.
Keep your mind on golf
Ask a visitor what they like about Dalton Ranch Golf Club and you might hear this: "Well, it isn't the huge mounding. It isn't the contoured greens. It isn't the pesky water that confronts you during the round."
"I think what people like is the challenge and the conditioning," said General Manager Brandon England, PGA. "You are penalized when you miss the greens because of the water, bunkering and uneven lies when you are on the side of a mound. The average golfers struggles around the greens."
Dye moved 800,000 cubic yards of dirt and created a mini-mountain range of mounds spread throughout the course. At first, many of the mounds were covered in thick fescue. Golfers soon voiced displeasure over that. It was just too tough. Today, few mounds still have the deep grass, but typical of Dye, the greens are elevated and drop significantly to the bunkers.
Some of the mounds divide fairways, making golfers decide to go left or right of them.
Dalton Ranch's pesky fairways narrow close to greens
Fairways appear to be wide from the tee boxes, but the short green grass narrows the closer you get to the greens. One of the former head pros at Dalton Ranch said it was the toughest second-shot golf course he'd ever played.
Many approach shots will look promising, only to be a fraction short, taking dramatic dives left or right, down into the deep sand traps. On a par 3 surrounded by the mountain-like mounds, just try making par when you miss the green and have a thick, side-hill lie shooting back to an elevated green that runs away from you. Bogey would be good.
Many believe the first seven holes are your opportunity to score. But 8-12 present a tough stretch.
The back tees on the par 3s require accuracy. And even though Dye is known for very tough, undulating greens, only five greens are like that at Dalton Ranch.
No. 14 -- the 156-yard par 3 -- is a great example of the difficultly. The two-tiered, figure eight-shaped green is diagonally placed behind a pond. And if you don't see water, you see a huge amount of sand.
Dalton Ranch Golf Club's 17th is only 308 yards, bending left with the river on the left. A nice draw will put you in birdie range.
"The 308-yard 17th reminded me a great deal of the 18th at Pebble Beach, shortened to a par 4, because of the Animas River running down the left side," said one visitor. "In short, every hole was unique and well thought out."
You finish with a 408-yard beast. The landing area looks tiny from the tee. Too far left, and the river will defeat you, but too far right, and there's water shaped like a question mark, which surrounds the right side of the green and continues all the way behind it.
Dalton Ranch keeping up with the times
Dalton Ranch -- a semi-private club -- added a new clubhouse in 2005, and it is a hub for 500 members in a housing community. They enjoy a pool, fitness center and restaurant.
"Everyone's favorite hole is the 19th," England said. "Members can watch the wildlife along with the Animas River view."
Talk about wildlife. Just as hunters put on those orange hats and vests, 1,000 elk descend on the property in the fall. That demands the course to be closed on Nov. 1, even though temperatures are still good for golf.
They close so the staff can protect the turf with fences and tarps. Without the tarps on the greens, the elk would just tear down the fences, but since they can't see the grass, the elk pass on by.
In the summer of 2002, the Missionary Ridge and the Valley fires rolled through 70,000 acres of surrounding forest, and one national photo showed a Dalton Ranch mower rolling down the fairways with smoke and flames seen in the distance over his shoulder.
Visit Durango for a Western experience
Durango is a Western town created by the railroad, and one that still feels like the frontier. The scenery includes the San Juan Mountains and reddish, sandstone bluffs. Don’t miss walking the thriving Main Street area, which is a National Register Historic District.
In 1879, Durango was designed to be the most modern city in Colorado. Signs of progress began to appear everywhere in the late 1880s and early 1890s, including the four-story brick Strater Hotel, electric lights with a home-owned electric company, telephones, electric trolley and a three-story structure, the Newman Building, with an electric elevator.
Today, locals and vacationers look to ski in the winter at Purgatory, fly fish, take jeep tours, hike, mountain bike, take glider rides, go rafting, play tennis and go horseback riding. It is truly a year-around place to play.