When you think of “Dude Ranches,” you’re probably envisioning scenes from City Slickers of sleeping on the ground, living on beans, and hearing the laughter of a surly cowpoke when you try to mount on the wrong side of the horse.
But dude ranches come in a wide variety, from the rustic, to five-star resorts with Cordon Bleu-trained chefs.
And, while riding is the mainstay of the dude ranch experience, you can also find wine-paired dinners, archery, tennis lessons, and some of the best fly fishing in the country.
FAMILY FRIENDLY DUDES
Latigo Ranch is surrounded by 75 miles of mountains and valleys in the stunning Colorado Rockies. In the summer, this family-owned and operated ranch focuses on horseback riding, but you can also learn the fine art of rifle shooting, western roping, country dancing, and cattle team-penning. or you can head to the waters for fishing and white-water rafting, or simply take a hike —it’s all included in the price. Longer pack trips and cattle roundups are also available.
Geared toward families, the ranch offers a variety of kids programs that are broken up into age groups. Latigo has a handful of breeds for riding, including Quarter Horses, Appaloosas (spots!), Arabians, Clydesdales (think Budweiser horses), and even mustangs. Don’t worry if you’re new to riding: Your guides will teach you how to handle your steed in the arena and on the trail with fun organized riding games for adults and kids.
Per person weekly rates are all-inclusive (activities, overnight trips and meals). Rates range from $2,000 to $2,400 for adults, and $1,075 to $1,725 for children. 970-724-9008, www.latigotrails.com
Laughing Water Ranch in Montana “Marlboro country” offers a signature children’s program where your kids will be part of the “Laughing Water 7th Cavalry,” or the “honorary Northern Cheyenne tribe.” While making new friends, they’ll feed and bond with their horses, fish, and camp, leaving time for you to ride. During the main season, from June 8 through August 24, you can choose short (four-hour) or long (up to seven hours) rides every day except Wednesday, when you can opt for a rafting trip.
If you’re up for a challenge, try the two-night pack trip during selected weeks. Or if you’re really a glutton for punishment, go on a weeklong adventure with two days of horseback riding plus a four-day pack trip that explores the scenic wilderness of the Kootenai Forest and William’s Creek. Your hosts will take all the work out of it: they pack the food and gear for your guided trek into the upper country—all you have to do is hike and spend your nights cooking over a campfire, story telling and sleeping in tents.
For a “light” version of this pack trip, check out the “High Country Overnight” which is three days in length with less difficult riding for an additional $250. Grownups and kids can also fish stocked trout ponds, join in a barn dance, go on a hayride, or play volleyball. While you’re resting your muscles after a hard day of fun, check out their video library, full of westerns, musicals and classics (and your kids will be too tired to protest the lack of Sponge Bob and Hannah Montana). Per person rate for adults, single occupancy is $2200, double occupancy is $1870, and the family rate (four or more) is $1760 per person. 800-847-5095, www.lwranch.com
Rock Springs Ranch in Bend, Oregon puts your child’s experience at the top of the priority list with a signature youth program, but there is plenty of emphasis on grownup fun too. For your kids, there are team sports, riding, swimming, crafts, nature walks and story telling. A special program for 4 and 5-year-olds includes finger painting, dough sculptures and baking cookies.
For the grownups, check out the four “Bend Bounty” weeks, during which local growers, cheese makers, brewers and wineries visit the ranch to offer samples of their products, wine paired dinners and cooking classes to guests (June 21-28, July 5-12, July 26 – August 2, and August 9-16, 2008).
Chef Steven Hazell uses locally grown, seasonal, whole or minimally processed foods on his menu, and is proud to “focus on ingredients that are good for us, and the local farmers.” He believes that “chefs can be a catalyst for positive change by promoting food that is locally and organically grown” and encourages a “100-mile diet” in which food is raised within 100 miles of the ranch. One ranch activity is Gourmet Night—while the kids are enjoying a campfire sing along, it’s grownup playtime back at the ranch with a menu catering to a mature palette (hors d’oeuvres feature local artisan cheeses paired with Northwest wines).
Developing your horsemanship with professional trainers will help work off those delicious dinners, in addition to trail riding, tennis camps with tennis pro Anni Miller during selected weeks, and yoga. This ranch also offers massages and aroma-therapy facials for an extra charge. The season runs from June 14 through August 29, 2008. Adult double occupancy is $2,750; children 6-17 are $2,225; children 4-5 are $1,850. 541-382-1957, www.rocksprings.com
RANCHES WITH A TWIST
The UXU Guest Ranch is just 17 miles from Yellowstone National Park in Wapiti, Wyoming, along a road that Teddy Roosevelt deemed “the most scenic 50 miles in America.” This ranch stands out from the herd by combining gourmet dining with a carefully chosen 1,500 bottle wine cellar. The main menu includes specialties like soup de poisson with seared scallop relish, curry oil coconut crème brûlée, and red meat dishes that would make a civilized man give an enthusiastic “Yee-hah!”
On the trail, you can expect marinated tenderloin kebobs on the open fire and cookies made fresh that morning. Horseback rides range from one hour to all day and accommodate all levels of riding experience.
If you’d like to catch your dinner, try fishing with UXU’s resident fly-fishing guide in the North Fork of the Shoshone River, in small beaver ponds, or even in the great Yellowstone Glacier Lake (some fishing sites are wheelchair accessible). UXU also understands the need to drowse in a hammock for an afternoon with a cold drink and a good book—their bottom line is that it’s your vacation, so you call the shots. Rates from June 1 to Sept. 30: $1590 for adults, $995 for children 1-13. 307-587-2143, www.uxuranch.com
The Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shingletown, California, isn’t technically a dude ranch, but it is one of the best places to experience real wild horses running free in the pine-covered mountains of Northern California. The Sanctuary has been rescuing unadoptable mustangs from the slaughterhouses since 1978, and has recently taken on 247 new horses for which they are looking for homes and sponsors.
Feeding and caring for so many horses is a heavy financial burden, so to help fund their ongoing efforts, The Wild Horse Sanctuary offers two and three-day trail rides from May through October that will take you up to meet the mustangs. The Sanctuary itself is rich in Indian and pioneer history—much like the horses themselves, who are a mix of the original Spanish horses brought over in the 1500s, and any horse who has been turned loose since!
On the property there are remnants of homesteads, Indian camps, arrowheads and petroglyphs, and the existing ranch house is the site of a past circuit court (complete with hanging tree). The ride is challenging, and goes out in rain, extreme heat, or cold depending on the season—but the cabins are snug, the meals are hearty, and the experience is unforgettable. Two day rides cost $360; three day rides cost $460. (530) 335-2241
The Dude Ranch Association is a wealth of information on the variety of experiences available for your stay, and provides excellent insights and recommendations. For advice on how to find the best ranch for you, visit the Dude Ranch Association at www.duderanch.org/dreams.cfm
By Lauren Van Mullem for PeterGreenberg.com.
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Previously by Lauren Van Mullem: