Dreaming of riding the ridges of a Western landscape, rounding up cattle and enjoying a fire-pit-cooked dinner under the stars? There’s no need to buy thousands of acres and a herd of animals; you don't even have to know a friend who has such. Just plan a vacation to a dude ranch.
Sometimes also called guest ranches, these are usually a working ranch where cowboys heard cows and work the land and livestock. Visitors get to learn all about—and participate in—ranch life, all while staying in luxurious surroundings. To get you in the saddle, here are 10 of the best dude ranches in the U.S.:
Colorado Cattle Company & Guest Ranch
Learn all about life on the ranch, then enjoy a hearty meal and cocktail on the porch at Colorado Cattle Company & Guest Ranch in New Raymer, Colorado. “This is the real deal when it comes to a Western working ranch experience,” said owner and host Tom Carr. “We roll out the welcome mat to everyone, from the beginner who may have never ridden before to the fearless veterans, all with the wish to become a real cowboy or cowgirl.” The ranch accommodates up to 26 guests with five wranglers per guest, and the needs of the 800 cattle establish the daily routine. After a day out on the range, retire to your private quarters in the renovated circa-1897 bunkhouse or a newly constructed log cabin. All have private bathrooms, Wi-Fi and flat-screen televisions so you can be a cowboy by day but a comfortable traveler by night.
Marble Mountain Guest Ranch
“Adventure and thrilling activities are what bring our guests to us, but our legendary hospitality and culinary experience brings you back,” said Marble Mountain owner Doug Carr. The ranch is in the mountains of Somes Bar, in northern California, at the confluence of the Klamath and Salmon rivers, which makes it perfect for white-water rafting and other watersports. “Our one-stop ‘super-clusive’ vacation has a one-fee structure that includes trail riding, arena lessons, white-water rafting and kayaking, frontier shooting sports and archery and all of our evening events,” Carr said. And feel free to bring the kids for the ranch's Youth Buckaroo program.
White Stallion Ranch
At White Stallion, in Tucson, Arizona, horses take riders through pristine deserts, rugged mountains and cacti that have been seen in numerous Hollywood films. White Stallion has one of the largest privately owned cattle herds in the state. Not only do guests get a horse that is custom-fitted to their specifications and riding ability, but they also can drink wine on the patio, get a massage or hot tub soak, enjoy a healthy dinner and sleep on a premium pillow-top bed. Activities include horseback riding, rodeo, hiking, rock climbing, mustang training and more. Guests also can enjoy the recreation room and theater, gift shop, heated swimming pool, fitness center, bar and petting zoo.
For more than 135 years, Eaton's, in Wolf, Wyoming, has offered guests a true Western experience on the pine-covered slopes of the Bighorn Mountains. The ranch includes more than 7,000 acres of beautiful, open country with hills, meadows and valleys. The 47 individual cabins vary in size, depending on the needs of the occupants. Activities include horseback riding, overnight pack trips, fishing and trap shooting, in addition to mountain biking, golf, massages and swimming in the ranch's pool. A family-owned ranch, Eaton’s also has a children’s program that includes babysitting services and plenty of activities for your future riders.
Bar W Guest Ranch
Surrounded by pine-covered ridges of Spencer Mountain near Whitefish, Montana, Bar W offers amazing views. “Beautiful vistas and rolling ridges adorn the countryside of this family-owned Montana dude ranch,” said Scott Theissen, Bar W's marketing director. “The Bar W is a year-round ranch ready to treat you with true western Montana hospitality—from the moment you arrive until long after the sun sets.” The 6,200-square-foot lodge, cabin suites, indoor and outdoor horseback-riding arenas, stables, barn, play meadow, entertainment area and gazebo all are on the shore of Spencer Lake, giving each guest a slice of Montana heaven all year long. Guests can explore the property and watch the trainers work the horses, help with the chores (if they want), fish in the lake, hike the trails and go mountain biking, swimming and more. And if that isn't enough, there are golf courses, boating, sledding, skiing and other activities to keep guests occupied.
Stunning views and fresh mountain air mix with down-home hospitality at Idaho’s Western Pleasure ranch. “Guests have commented on how welcome and at home they feel,” said owner and operator Janice Schoonover. “Being family owned and operated means the family is involved in the daily operation of the ranch. There are no corporate holdings or off-ranch owners—just a true, family-owned-and-operated Western experience.” By day, guests head out for rides, at night they enjoy evening entertainment and relax in accommodations ranging from rooms in the grand lodge to a private log cabin. Additional amenities include hot tubs, billiards, basketball courts, horseshoe contests and playgrounds for the children.
Geronimo Trail Ranch
“The location of our ranch in the midst of the 3.3 million acre Gila National Forest is certainly one of the things that makes it special,” said Geronimo Trail owner and host Meris Esterly Stout. The scenery is unparalleled and varied: from Ponderosa forest to high mountain views, open meadows to deep canyons with 500-foot sheer cliffs and crystal-clear spring-fed streams running through them. “It doesn't get any prettier than this,” Stout said. Besides the great riding, there are several archaeological sites near the ranch in Winston, New Mexico, that guests can visit to search for pottery shards and view pictographs. Stout said her team is focused on personalized care for her guests, and she applies the same level of care to her horses: “They are the heart of our business, and we treat them with due appreciation and the best care.”
Elk River Guest Ranch
A short drive north of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, ranch enthusiasts will find Elk River Guest Ranch, which runs at a lower capacity than many ranches its size—just 15 guests. This allows owner Becky Atnip Damman, 27 (the youngest person in history to own a Western dude ranch), to offer a highly personalized and intimate experience. When she bought the ranch at age 26, she thought it was all about horseback riding. Now, she knows better. “What I didn’t know was that dude ranching is far more than horseback riding in the mountains. In fact, it’s a lifestyle that’s much more about hospitality and people than it is about horses.” With access to thousands of acres of forest, trails, meadows and private river frontage, activities abound. Indeed, it is about more than horseback riding at Elk River. Guests also can go kayaking, hiking, camping, biking, rafting or fly fishing, then settle down for evening entertainment of rodeo, concerts, cookouts and Western dancing.
In the remote northwest corner of Nevada, you will find Cottonwood Ranch, the working horse and cattle ranch that has been owned by six generations of the same family. Cottonwood’s beautiful, wooded ranch-style lodge is perfect for a Western getaway. It has luxurious rooms with private bathrooms, a bunkhouse bedroom and other sleeping options. Go horseback riding, hunting, fishing, mountain biking, bird watching or snowmobiling in addition to joining horse and cattle drives. Guests can make use of the recreation room, high-speed Internet, big-screen TVs, outdoor hot tubs and much more.
Less than an hour from the hustle and bustle of San Antonio, Rancho Cortez offers more than 40 miles of trails in Texas Hill Country. Go for a true Western experience or lose weight at a two-week bootcamp. Guests can stay for an hour, a day, a week, a month or more. A full day begins at 10 am and includes two meals, two trail rides, lasso instruction, an indoor and outdoor heated pool, Western entertainment, cattle feeding, a hot tub, a hay-wagon ride and a campfire with roasted marshmallows to end the day. There also are overnight campouts and Western style horseback riding and instruction. In addition to the Western ranch activities, Rancho Cortez offers a fitness ranch that includes weight training, circuit training, stretching and flexibility, Pilates and yoga. Want something a little tougher? Go for the two-week cowboy boot camp vacation.
(All photos courtesy the ranches)