Think swimming holes, archery, hiking, fishing, square dancing, stargazing, bird watching, or just relaxing with a good book. Dude ranches, often called guest ranches, are located in some of the most intriguing parts of the country -- adjacent to national parks, along historic pioneer trails and near charming little communities that feel like the Old West. And while roughing it is an option -- with overnight trail rides and cooking over an open fire -- a dude ranch vacation can just as easily include a full-service spa, swimming pools, culinary workshops, a round or two of golf and five-star accommodations.
What Type of Dude Ranch Should We Visit?
"Dude," when used in the context of dude ranching, is a term of respect for those experiencing a lifestyle they don't otherwise know or understand, and there are basically two kinds of dude ranches. The first is a working dude ranch. That's where you get out there and really get your chaps dirty, working with cattle, sheep and other livestock. You might be asked to throw a lasso, haul some hay or scoop some poop.
The second kind of dude ranch is a resort dude ranch. Riding horses is the primary activity, but there are others that give guests the choice to connect with the outdoors or to be pampered indoors -- or both. These are places with Wi-Fi (often included in rates), pools, hot tubs and hot toddies, maybe a tennis court or fitness center, but certainly an atmosphere of relaxation and tranquility.
Tip: Horses are the central focus of any dude ranch experience. Ask about programs that emphasize riding techniques, that partner the horse and rider for the duration of your stay, and that allow the guest to participate in choosing the horse right for them. It's a better experience for the rider and horse. Be sure to ask about riding instruction and guided rides versus free rides, too.
Which Dude Ranch Destination Is Best for Us?
Grand County, Colorado, on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, has been called the Dude Ranch Capital of North America. At one point, Grand County had 17 operating dude ranches, more than any county in the United States. Today, four -- all of which are all-inclusive -- continue to open their gates to city slickers.
Bandera, Texas, about an hour west of San Antonio, is another notable area, nicknamed the Cowboy Capital of the World; it is home to 12 dude/guest ranches. Weekly rodeos are held in town during the summer months, and a number of the ranches host their own rodeos throughout the year, too. Montana is home to a number of great dude ranches, too, with popular names like The Resort at Paws Up and Bar W Guest Ranch. Idaho, Arizona and California also have a decent concentration of guest ranches.
On the East Coast, there aren't as many options, though you can find one or two in Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York and Georgia.
What's the Deal With All-Inclusive Dude Ranches?
Many dude ranches are all-inclusive, providing three meals a day and snacks for the entire family. Plus, activities are included in rates. Some properties even provide transportation from major air or rail hubs, so there's no need for a rental car sitting idle all week.
However, if picky eaters and dinner table tantrums are a concern, look for a guest ranch that has kitchen facilities in accommodations. This works well for families who like to fish and cook on their own.
How Can We Get a Deal?
Many dude ranches in Colorado offer discounts in the month of June, while other properties offer discounts around holidays. You can also get a deal by asking for non-rider discounts if someone in your family is not able to or would prefer not to ride. Oftentimes, you can find discounts on ranch websites and our deals page, too.
Which Ranches Do You Recommend?Tanque Verde Ranch - Tucson, Ariz.
Tanque Verde Ranch is one of those dude ranches with a spa and tennis court, mountain biking trails and other activities, in addition to horseback riding. The Buckaroos children's program is for kids ages 4 to 6, and the Wranglers is for kids ages 7 to 11; both include riding lessons and daily trail rides, educational nature programs and more. Parents are welcome to accompany their children for activities or retreat to the resort's Sonoran Spa, play tennis or just relax. Families work together in "Ride and Seek," a scavenger hunt that covers the entire 630 acres of the ranch property. Discounts are given for in-state residents visiting Tanque Verde.
Tanque Verde Ranch
Drowsy Water Ranch - Granby, Colo.
Just two hours outside of Denver, Drowsy Water Ranch has been doing business since the 1920's. About 100 horses, primarily quarter horses and paints, make their home at the Drowsy Water. Nine individual cabins snuggled beside the creek offer lodging for families. The 640-acre Drowsy Water Ranch welcomes children of all ages, even infants. The children's program is unstructured, but comprehensive. Children ages 5 and under in the Buckaroos program are led on smaller horses in a pen. For children ages 6 to 13 in the Range Riders program, rides are held twice a day. The kids are allowed to walk, lope and trot according to trail conditions and their comfort level on the horses.
Drowsy Water Ranch
Rocking Horse Ranch - Highland, N.Y.
Far from the West, Rocking Horse Ranch, offers a taste of the country on the East Coast. The all-inclusive guest ranch, just 90 minutes outside of New York City, has all the traditional aspects of a dude ranch, plus so much more. The family-owned business has 120 guestrooms, and guests can go horseback riding in the morning and can cool off at the indoor water park in the afternoon. Open year-round, Rocking Horse Ranch offers winter activities, too, such as ice-skating, skiing and snow tubing. The resort ranch has specials and promotions for every season, and because almost everything is included in the price, it's a prime vacation spot.
Rocking Horse Ranch
More From Family Vacation Critic:
10 Best Dude Ranches for Families
10 Best All-Inclusive U.S. Resorts for Families
Dude Ranch Family Vacations
Written by Diana Lambdin Meyer