Cheryl Mathews has overseen the acquisition and development of some of the best places for outdoor recreation this overlooked side of Colorado's Front Range, having been making decisions for Douglas County's Open Space and Natural Resources program since its inception.
She loves Spruce Mountain Open Space for how she can take her horse from her home and ride through the meadows to the high bluffs. She loves Dawson Butte Open Space, where a trail loops through trees up to mountain and mesa vistas.
But now the program director is at the highest knoll of the county's latest coup. Sandstone Ranch's whole landscape sprawls before her: the red rock spires and piles, the Gambel oak and ponderosa pine spotting a bright green floor where creeks run between cottonwoods, the great slopes of Pike National Forest forming the border.
Of all of the 63,037 acres Mathews has seen preserved, Sandstone Ranch is particularly special. "I really think this will be the crown jewel," she says.
Which is maybe something she has to say after the 23-year-old program's most expensive investment. But it's also something she says after the most surprising and unlikely acquisition of her career, and that carries weight, too – the emotion of an underdog coming out on top.
For a long time, Mathews was hopeless.
In 2006, a developer bought the ranchland. A grand idea was hatched to build 100-plus homes across the scenery west of Larkspur, a short drive off Colorado 105 that takes searchers somewhere seemingly much farther, where airplanes only occasionally beat the sounds of bugs and birds and where there is no cell phone reception, where elk and deer roam and bears and mountain lions lurk.
Residents would have the scenery to themselves, and another piece of pristine country would be lost to Front Range urbanization.
"We just thought, 'Well, there it goes,' " Mathews says.
Then the 2008 housing crisis hit. The plan froze, the red rock guardians left alone with the outbuildings of early settlers.
Sandstone Ranch eventually hit the market again for upwards of $27 million. With her program generating $10 million to $11 million a year with voter-approved sales tax portions, Mathews couldn't compete.
"I was just wishing I would win the lottery and buy it myself," she says.
Then, last October, the broker sent out a newsletter. The 2,038 acres of Sandstone Ranch were now available for $18.75 million, springing Mathews into action.
That was still an unprecedented cost for the program. She would have to ask county commissioners for general fund money. Fortunately, the lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado and the Chatfield Reservoir Mitigation Co., which protects and enhances water supplies, offered to put up a combined $9.5 million in reimbursement.
"That property has been a priority and focus for us since we were created," says Patti Hostetler, executive director of the Douglas Land Conservancy, the steward of conservation easements in the county and beyond for 30 years. "It's been a bucket list item, untouchable for quite some time. So when the opportunity came, it was a dream come true."
Before the new year, commissioners approved the purchase in a meeting attended by people all wondering the same question: How soon could they finally explore Sandstone Ranch.
The answer is possibly as early as spring 2019. "But certainly, we'll have hikes and preliminary things to get people out here," Mathews says. "So they're not quite chomping at the bit so much."
The dirt road in, shared with Haystack Ranch, warns drivers of no trespassing. Mathews says an alternate way off Colorado 105 must be established, among a long list of to-dos heading into a master plan process. That process could be finished by the end of the year, she says.
The vision is a nonmotorized paradise. But before inviting the masses, the county has a lot to learn about the land, which has as much historical intrigue as natural.
"I'm sure around here there are arrowheads and teepee rings and all kinds of things," says Mathews, strolling around other relics.
Behind one imposing rock wall is a run-down grain elevator. Elsewhere, a big, red barn with a silo reminds that its kind isn't only found in nostalgic paintings. Leaning wood sheds keep machinery used by the resident ranch hand, whom the county inherited along with eight horses and 40 cows.
Mathews thinks the structures and grazing should remain, to hold on to this ranching history that the Larkspur Historical Society says reaches back to the Homestead Act of 1862.
Elsewhere, modern cobblestone blocks have been left behind – maybe elegant signs for a subdivision that never happened, Mathews says with a smile.
It made sense, of course, that idea of Sandstone Ranch being a good place to live.
"Anybody who comes here, they don't want to leave," Mathews says. "It's so beautiful, you just want to stay and soak it up."