How to choose a great dude or guest ranch

dude and guest ranchesHang on, I need to get something out of the way. “City Slickers.” Okay, now that the inevitable has been mentioned, we can move on. Guest ranches–also known as dude ranches–are an excellent choice for a family vacation, regardless of season. Even if it’s just two of you, many ranches cater to couples, ensuring you of an active and romantic holiday.

The guest ranch tradition was established in the Western states as early as the late 19th century. They grew in popularity after the first World War, when advances in technology and the era of the automobile sparked nostalgia for the “Old West” way of life and legendary hospitality. It was also around this time that “dude” ranches spread to the eastern U.S..

While some ranches were and are dedicated to serving tourists, many are working ranches that host guests as a means of supplemental income. My dad worked as a wrangler at one such spread in northern Colorado in the mid-1950’s, when he was putting himself through vet school. Then called UT Bar Ranch, it’s now the Laramie River Ranch, and Colorado’s “newest old dude ranch.” I spent a very enjoyable week there with my extended family for my parents’ 50th anniversary five years ago.

It was the first time I’d stayed long enough at a guest ranch to really get the full experience. Even though I grew up on a ranch, I still love being immersed in the Western lifestyle and participating in ranch activities such as cattle and horse gatherings, trail rides, feeding and care of livestock, and barbecues. When kayaking, canoeing, fishing, hiking, nordic skiing or snowshoeing, horsemanship clinics, mustang/wildlife viewing, pack trips, or even yoga are thrown into the mix, a ranch stay can become a diverse holiday adventure, and you don’t need previous riding experience.

After the jump, tips on how to ensure you choose the right property and get the most out of your guest ranch experience.

%Gallery-128529%dude and guest ranchesFind an online resource
Ranchseeker.com provides a listing of various national and international dude and guest ranch organizations, as well as state associations for Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, and Wyoming. It also describes the strict criteria required for membership. The Dude Rancher’s Association site is helpful for both potential guests and those in the industry.

Another excellent site is Top 50 Ranches, which is “dedicated to showcasing some of the most breathtaking, authentic, and luxurious [international] ranch destinations.” It also allows you to input dates, destination, and other info, highlights special-interest packages, and offers helpful articles and tips, such as what clothes to pack. American Cowboy’s website has archived features on specific properties, as well as their picks for the best guest ranches, and Writing Horseback has similar content.

Authenticity factor
There’s are all kinds of guest ranches out there, from the hokey, git-along-lil’-doggies, tenderfoot tourist mills (this is just a personal quirk, but I tend to think of these places as “dude,” rather than guest ranches, although that’s not necessarily true).

Some ranches are luxury properties (and may in fact be members of boutique hotel or high-end property organizations such as Relais & Chateaux), while others are very family-oriented, with rustic cabins. Many are working ranches, raising cattle or breeding horses. I strongly recommend the latter, for the most authentic, rewarding experience.

Plan ahead
Guest ranches often book up to a year or more in advance. Plan accordingly.

How long do you plan to stay?
Most guest ranches offer a standard week-long program, says the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association (CDGRA). To get the most out of your visit, you’ll really need that amount of time. Some ranches do, however, offer weekend packages.

Ranch capacitydude and guest ranches
Depending upon where you stay, you might find yourself in the company of only a handful of other people or a hundred. If you’re looking for a quiet or kid-free holiday, be sure to take capacity into account during your research.

Accommodations
Are you looking for luxury or a rustic, refurbished historic cabin? Main house or separate building? Full-on Old West decor, or something a bit more modern or genteel? Mountains or desert? Tipi or luxury safari tent?

Dining
Whatever your preference, you’ll find it: Family-style, communal, formal, menu options or no, traditional Western cuisine, kid’s menus, cookouts. Some properties, such as Colorado’s Dunton Hot Springs and The Home Ranch, or Montana’s The Resort at Paws Up are justly famous for their food, made with locally-sourced ingredients. Policies differ on alcohol, as well: be sure to ask whether it’s included, or if you need to BYO.

When to godude and guest ranches
The best thing about guest ranches is that most operate year-round. It’s hard to beat summer in the Rockies, but you may want to consider visiting in the early fall, when the aspens are changing color. Winter allows you to ride horseback in the snow and engage in traditional winter sports, or you can head to parts of the Southwest or California where the climate is mild. Depending upon where you want to go, spring is the only time I’d suggest you think twice about, because “mud season” can be a logistical pain, and blizzards well into April aren’t uncommon.

Activities and special packages
From traditional wrangling work–gathering cattle, roping, and caring for livestock–a ranch vacation revolves around horses and riding. If horses aren’t your thing, this is the wrong type of vacation for you. That said, you don’t have to ride, but you’d be missing out on a key part of the ranch experience. But there are all manner of outdoor activities offered by ranches. If paddling is your primary interest, look for a ranch on or near a river known for its whitewater. Ditto fly-fishing.

Many ranches offer specialty packages; Central California’s Alisal Ranch, for example, hosts a four-day “BBQ Bootcamp” where guests learn how to master the grill from local experts, and enjoy a traditional Santa Maria-style barbecue.

Kid/teen programs
Most ranches are very family-oriented, and I can’t think of a better–or healthier–vacation for kids. Be aware that every ranch has a different age policy, and not all offer kid’s programs or babysitting. You’ll also want to check on minimum age requirements for independent riding.

Level of horsemanship ranch caters to/Can you bring your own horse?
It may sound counter-intuitive to bring your own horse, but if you’re an experienced rider, you may have a more fulfilling holiday and equestrian experience on your own mount (be sure to get referrals, first, to ensure your animal’s health and safety).

Some ranches hold horsemanship clinics, which are as much about educating the animal as the rider. If you’re just planning to pleasure ride but are an experienced equestrian, there are many ranches that breed and train their own animals and emphasize natural horsemanship and the cowboy way of life. Regardless of your skill level, you should always ask detailed questions about instruction, safety policies, how the ranch goes about pairing horses and riders, and their horsemanship philosophy. A poorly-trained mount or injury can really take the fun out of your holiday.

Handicap accessibility
Not all properties have it. Do note that some ranches offer riding programs for those with disabilities.

Phone, wifi, and internet access
Many ranches seek to provide guests with a complete escape from the stresses of modern life. If you can’t live without your cell or computer, rest assured there’s a property that can accommodate your needs.

Pack appropriately
A good ranch will always provide you with a packing list, but you can definitely leave your fancy duds at home. If you don’t own a pair of riding boots or other heavy-duty shoe with a heel, get some (you can find an inexpensive used pair at a consignment or vintage store). These are essential for safe horseback riding, so your foot doesn’t get hung up in a stirrup.

Proximity to a major medical faciilty
If this is a concern for you, definitely bring it up in your initial conversation. Many ranches are located in isolated rural areas.

Cancellation policies
Ask what they are.

How Tourists See Life on a Cowboy Ranch

Top North American rodeos to check out this summer

North American rodeosIn honor of the approaching National Day of the American Cowboy, which I wrote about earlier in the week, I wanted to highlight some of the best rodeos North America has to offer.

Even city slickers can enjoy a rodeo; it is, after all, a sporting event. With a lot of beer. And grilled meat. And a lack of giant foam fingers and face-painting (not a bad thing, I might add).

In all seriousness, rodeos are great family fare. There are usually parades and drill team exhibitions, down-to-earth people, great camaraderie, and you can watch some truly amazing human, equine, and bovine athletes perform in independent and team events. At day’s end, you can always count on a big barbecue, live music, and a dance. The below rodeos are all located in places of great historic interest if you love the Old West or Americana. Git boot-scootin’.

Calgary Stampede
It may be surprising to learn that Canada has a cowboy culture, but Alberta does, and is home to this world-famous event, which is an integral part of the community. Critter lovers should note that the Stampede places extreme emphasis on animal welfare, which you can read about here (FYI, the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) also has strict animal welfare regulations in place, so contrary to belief, livestock are not being tortured for the sake of entertainment). Events ranging from steer wrestling and women’s barrel racing to junior steer riding will be happening July eighth through the 17th.

[Photo credit: bronc, Flicker user Bill Gracey;North American rodeosSheridan WYO Rodeo
Located in the heart of Yellowstone Country at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, Sheridan has no shortage of pastoral pleasures to go with its Western heritage. Rodeo Week–July eighth through the 17th–kicks off with a parade, and night rodeos are held the 13-16th. Part of the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour, Sheridan WYO also features events like the Indian Relay Races (Those of you who are offended by the non-PC-ness of the name…remember we are not in Berkeley, and there’s a $25,000 payout prize), and a public Boot Kick-off event featuring live music, food vendors, and more.

Cheyenne Frontier Days
Know as the “Daddy of Em All,” the world’s largest outdoor rodeo has celebrated the American West since 1897. From July 23rd to the 31st, crowds from all over the world gather to watch arena events. You can also visit Cheyenne’s excellent Old West Museum, tour historic homes and “Behind the Chutes(don’t miss if you want to see what goes on before that gate swings open and bulls and broncs cut loose),” and attend Western Art Shows, concerts (Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow headline this year), a carnival midway, an Indian Village handicraft/historic recreation, and more.

Days of ’76 Rodeo

Held in one of the Old West’s most historic and notorious towns, this Deadwood, South Dakota event has been named Best PRCA Small Outdoor Rodeo four times, as well as PRCA Midsize Rodeo of the Year since 2004. This, the 89th year, runs from July 26-30th, and features two parades and lots of local Native American culture. The entire city of Deadwood is a national historic landmark located in the Black Hills Territory, so be sure to plan on an extra day or two for exploring.

Pendleton Roundup
Eastern Oregon is at the heart of the state’s cowboy country, and Pendleton is one of the ten largest rodeos in the world. Have a last-days-of-summer trip September 14-17th, when the weather is hot and sunny (it does happen in the Pacific Northwest, really). Bareback and saddle bronc riding, team roping, bull riding, Indian relay races, wild cow milking, children’s rodeo, and parade: it’s all here. Trivia: Pendleton is one of the first rodeos to have women officially compete. In 1914, Bertha Blanchett came within 12 points of winning the All-Around title.

[Photo credit: team roping, Flickr user Al_HikesAZ]

Celebrate National Day of the American Cowboy

American cowboyYes, Virginia, there are cowboys. And thanks to the efforts of American Cowboy magazine, the tough, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth men and women who make your juicy T-bone possible are getting their own day of recognition. I’m not talking about your wannabe, Keith Urban-listening, jacked-up pick-up driving, tight jeans-wearing, soft-handed yahoos. I’m referring to the real deal: people who work the land for a living, and actually know how to ride a horse, throw a lariat, and mend a fence.

The National Day of the American Cowboy, held this year on July 23rd, was founded by the magazine in 2004 to “preserve, protect, and promote our Western heritage.”

Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to American Cowboy, but not just because I grew up on a ranch and immersed in the Western lifestyle. It’s because I spent my formative years around ranchers, wranglers, packers, and rodeo folk that I have the respect I do for these people, and have dedicated myself to helping preserve their way of life. I may not agree with industrial livestock production and certain ecological aspects (which don’t pertain to all ranchers, anyway) but I can separate that from the need to feed millions–if not billions–of people, and the respect cowboys and ranchers have for the land, their animals, and their heritage.

Few people are more invested in preserving open space than cowboys. Their livelihood depends upon it. And without a deep investment in the welfare of their livestock they can’t make ends meet. So this year, think about thanking our cowboys by joining a local event (click here for listings). Or put on Sons of the Pioneers, fire up the barbecue, and offer a toast with a bottle of Coors or shot of Jack.

[Photo credit: Flickr user mharrsch]

Trail rides and wagon trains converge in Houston to kick off world’s largest rodeo

trail rides HoustonIn a salute to the Old West, 13 trail rides and wagon trains–some coming from 336 miles away–have converged to mark the start of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which runs through March 20th. The world’s largest exhibition and rodeo entertainment show was developed to “encourage and promote the breeding, raising, and marketing of better livestock and farm products at public fairs and to promote and maintain research and educational functions within the livestock industry.” I recently posted about a similar agricultural and livestock fair in Paris, so happily, these events are global.

Three thousand participants rode from five days to three weeks to reach Houston, carrying on a tradition that began in 1952, when a small group of men started a trail ride to help promote the rodeo. The riders and wagons pay tribute to the heritage of the frontier, and the animals and individuals who made the settlement of the West possible. But the ride is also a form of education. In addition to the settlers, some trail rides are dedicated to honoring the history of black and Hispanic cowboys, which many are unaware of.

Macon.com’s blog interviews a number of participants, some of whom have annually made the ride since childhood, or are second- or third-generation riders. One 15-year-old girl was actually born on the ride. Eighty-year old Mac Goldsby of Houston has been doing the Valley Lodge Trail Ride since its founding in 1959. “To me, it’s walking history,” he says. “There’s so many people that don’t know about horses, mules. If anything, it might inspire them to read history.”

The Houston event has inspired others to host trail rides to promote their shows and educate the public, such as the Dixie National Livestock Show and Rodeo in Mississippi, and the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. Hats off to preserving America’s Western heritage, and keeping tradition alive.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Bill Gracey]

A taste of California history: Santa Maria Style barbecue

Hey, Southerners. I love you, but the barbecue trail doesn’t really end at the Texas border. California has its own tradition, and it can be found in the heart of the Central Coast wine region. As a native Californian, I throw down the gauntlet in the temple of meat. Our beef barbecue doesn’t hide beneath sauce; it stands proudly on its own, adorned only by its residual juices. That takes balls. And speaking of balls, I should add that our barbecue historically comes with a side dish that, well…just keep reading.

Since the 1850’s, Santa Maria Style Barbecue has been a rancho celebration or post-cattle branding staple. After the Mexican-American War, when Mexico ceded California to the United States, Spanish and Mexican colonists and soldiers (“Californios”), established ranchos along California’s rich, central coastal grasslands.

Their heritage merged to form a true California cuisine, one that incorporated the corn, tomatoes, beans, and peppers of the New World with the beef, lamb, and olive oil of the Old World. The parilla, or grill, became the province of the vaqueros (cowboys) and rancheros (landowners). The mild, Mediterranean climate fostered a tradition of outdoor cooking still beloved by Californians today. Barbecues became a way to get down and party with one’s family and neighbors, to mark special occasions, and to partake of the culinary offerings that reminded these early settlers of their homelands.

[Photo credit: Flickr user yaelbeeri]

Only top sirloin or tri-tip steak can be used for Santa Maria Style Barbecue (depending upon where you do your research, it’s variously called Santa Maria bbq, Santa Maria Barbecue, etc.: I defer to the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce version). Tri-tip is named for the small, triangular muscle off the bottom sirloin, from which it’s cut. It’s a fairly juicy piece of meat, with a bit of chew to it; it can be difficult to find outside of California.

The meat is seasoned only with salt, pepper, and garlic salt, and hung on steel rods, before being grilled over native red oak (originally, the meat was cooked in a pit). The accompaniments include tiny, pink, native pinquito beans, salsa cruda, and tossed green salad. The meat is served thinly sliced, with plenty of toasted, buttered, sweet French bread to sop up the juices.

I grew up eating Santa Maria barbecue because I come from a horse ranching family. We frequently attended rodeos and spring cattle gatherings, the successful completion of which are celebrated with a big barbecue. I recall watching the California equivalent of pit masters firing up massive grills fashioned out of halved oil drums, then rigging the hunks of meat on their skewers.

Years later, when my brother was attending college in San Luis Obispo, he would bring slabs of tri-tip home whenever he visited us. My favorite part were the salty, juicy, crusty bits of fat shaved from the grilled meat. My dad, himself a former wrangler, would present them to us on the tip of a knife, in between sneaking pieces for himself (I’m pretty sure this behavior had absolutely nothing to do with his colon cancer diagnosis 18 years ago). For days afterward, my mom would add tri-tip sandwiches to my lunch bag- a welcome respite from warm, soggy PB & J’s.

My first experience with an authentic California rancho barbecue occurred when I was ten. A former vet school classmate of my dad’s invited us up to his cattle ranch outside of Santa Maria, to participate in the spring cattle gathering. We spent a cold, dirty, exhausting weekend riding over rolling green hills, rounding up the cattle to be vaccinated, castrated, and branded.

Work done, it was time to party. The old oil drums were heaped with red oak, and as is the tradition with brandings, the calf “fries,” or testicles, were grilled up as an hors d’oeuvre. The charred, crispy little morsels, still tender and juicy on the inside, were then laid on a flour tortilla, slathered with salsa, and rolled up, taquito-style. At that stage of my life, pizza was a culinary adventure, so eating greasy “prarie oysters” wasn’t an option.

But when my dad smilingly presented me with a testicle taco, how could I refuse? To say no would be to disappoint the man who had given me life, to fail the cowboy brotherhood. I wouldn’t be one of the guys. I had to prove I had cojones of my own! I grabbed the dripping tortilla and bit down…chewed…swallowed. It was good: smoky, salty, a little chewy, the tortilla a perfect foil for the savory juices dribbling down my chin.

Yep. Tastes just like chicken.

Santa Maria Style Barbecue can be found in and around the towns of Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo, usually on weekends, at local charity events. If you’re jonesing for a taste of true California on a weekday, you can stop by or The Hitching Post in Casmalia, which is still considered tops in ‘cue. You can also call the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce at (800) 331-3779, to see what’s smoking around town during your visit.

Black Knight Barbecue Sauce

My dad discovered this recipe in a magazine insert in the early ’70’s called “Chuckwagon Cooking from Marlboro Country.” He always served it with grilled tri-tip if we had guests from out of town so he could show off his adopted state’s cowboy and culinary heritage.

Makes approximately 2 ½ cups

1 cup strong black coffee
1 1/2 cups Worcestershire sauce
1 cups ketchup
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 T. sugar
1 T. salt
2 t. cayenne pepper

Combine ingredients in a medium saucepan and simmer for 30 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasonings to taste before serving.

[Photo credits: Los Osos, Flickr user goingslo; Branding, Flickr user marty 11; “Prairie Oysters,” Flickr user ffunyman]