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

In the Heart of Central America: Cowboys and coffee in Copan, Honduras

Located in the northwest of Honduras, just a few miles from the Guatemalan border, the area known as Copan has a landscape of lush green rolling hills, coffee plantations and cattle ranches. This is pure cowboy country. In Copan Ruins, horses clip-clop softy over the stone streets and the jangle of spurs can be heard as men in boots, jeans and cowboy hats wander through town. A few miles away, cowboy Carlos Castejon warmly welcomes guests to his family’s coffee, cardamom, and cattle ranch to learn about the farm’s production.

Finca el Cisne has been owned Carlos’ family since 1885. What started as a simple farm growing Arabica coffee, corn, and beans, has grown to encompass 800 hectares (40% of which is primary forest). Visitors to the Finca will drive for nearly twenty minutes from the start of the family’s land to the main house, passing by the dwellings of Carlos’ employees who live on the land. In 2002 Carlos decided to expand the farm’s operations to include agritourism. With a subtle, quick wit, a penchant for teasing his guests (in a good-natured way) while providing an interesting and informative experience, and a clear passion for his home country, Carlos is the perfect host.

While in Honduras, I was able to spend a day at the Finca, which starts with a stop at Carlos’ rustic guesthouse. Equipped with five rooms, running water and electricity, the guesthouse is very basic but inviting. Guests who chose to come just for the day will arrive at 8am and depart at 6pm. With transportation from town the outing costs $64 per person. Once you arrive at the Finca, you’ll get to sample some of Carlos’ coffee and a light breakfast prepared from ingredients grown on the farm, such as mashed banana stuffed with beans and served with cheese, an unusual combination that was actually delicious.

From there Carlos took my group on a tour, stopping to point out the many fruits grown on the property, including passion-fruit, mango, mandarin, avocado, banana, plantain, breadfruit, starfruit, lime and grapefruit. Along the way, he’d reach for a fruit, sliver off a piece with his knife, and pass out samples.

Then we were off to the coffee mill to learn about how coffee is produced from start to finish. First Carlos showed us the fruit, which blooms in stages from January to April and begins ripening in December. When the fruit turns red, it is handpicked and the beans are extracted from the fruit (which is used for compost) by machine. The beans are fermented, washed, and then cycled through a series of troughs that allow the low-quality beans to run off and the higher quality (heavier) beans to remain until they are pushed through.

The beans are then spread on the ground to sun dry (and then often moved to a drum to machine dry) and the finished green beans are extracted from their shells. The majority of the beans will be exported while they are still green and then roasted to the taste of their destination country.

While all of this was fascinating for me (and the smell of the coffee was making me rethink my aversion to caffeine), I was anxious to get to the next part….the horseback riding. So Carlos led us over to a small pasture where several horses were saddled and waiting. As the most experienced in the group, I was given the horse Carlos normally rides, while he rode a younger horse that he was training.

With Carlos and another guide we set out to explore the property. Again Carlos would stop, point out the many fruits and edible flowers growing around us, and offer up tasty samples. We walked and trotted our way along a dirt road and then entered a field where Carlos gave us the go-ahead to pick up a little speed. I leaned forward, gave my horse some free rein, and we were off, galloping through the brush and up a hill. After an exhilarating ride to the top, my horse simply stopped and waited for the rest of the group to catch up.

For another hour we explored the property, taking in the views of the rolling green valley below, passing cows and horses grazing in the fields, and again and again taking off at a breathtaking but controlled gallop through the countryside. I can honestly say it was the single best horseback riding experience I have ever had while traveling. All too soon it was time to head back to the house for lunch.

We wandered around the main house gawking at photos of Carlo’s ancestors with jaguars they shot on the property to keep them from eating the cattle. We sat down to a lunch of traditional Honduran food (the menu for which changes based on seasonal availability). We started with coffee (of course), fresh orange juice, and a bean soup with fresh-made corn tortillas and cheese. Then heaping plates of food were served family-style, including potatoes, watercress salad, braised beef, and more beans, tortillas, and fresh cheese. A sweet plantain in a syrup of cardamom from the farm was served for dessert. To complete the day, and to help soothe any sore muscles from the ride, Carlos takes guests to the local hot springs for a relaxing soak.

There are other coffee tours in Copan, and I had the opportunity to do another one during my time in the region. But this one was the best. The tour was informative and, thanks to Carlos’ humor and passion, very entertaining. Lunch was delicious, the property was beautiful, and I think there is no better way to see this area of cowboys and coffee plantations than on the back of a horse.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views express are entirely my own.

You can read other posts from my series on Honduras here.

3 unexpected destinations for riding like a wild west cowboy

The wild west cowboy is an American icon. Buffalo Bill. John Wayne. The Marlboro Man. These guys were as tough, rugged and wild as the west itself. They represented everything exciting and romantic about the undiscovered western half of the country. But this area of the US isn’t the only place where cowboys roam the range. Here are are few more places where you can rope and ride alongside real cowboys.

South America – The Pampas of Argentina
Someone has to wrangle the cows that make that famously tender Argentine beef, and that’s the job of Argentina’s gauchos, the South American cowboys who run the country’s estancias (or ranches). Many, like Estancia los dos Hermanos, are now open to tourism. Just an hour or so outside of Buenos Aires, you can gallop alongside the gauchos for hours, and then return to the ranch for a filling meal of juicy local beef.

Other cowboy outposts in the region include Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru.

Central America – The Hills of Honduras
The hilly region of northwest Honduras, close to the border with Guatemala, is pure cowboy country. Outside of the small town of Copan, near the Mayan ruins, coffee plantations and cattle farms cover the land. Most of these are purely working operations, but a select few, like Finca el Cisne, have caught on to the agri-tourism trend and offer horseback tours of their properties. Here you can learn all about how coffee is produced and then enjoy an exhilarating ride through the misty green hills.

You can also find cowboy culture alive and well in parts of Guatemala and Costa Rica.North America – The Islands of Hawaii
In Hawaii, paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys), herd cattle and sheep over the rolling hills of the islands. Kahua Ranch, on the Big Island, is one of the oldest working ranches in Hawaii. It’s been around since 1850, and in fact is located just above the harbor where the very first cattle arrived on the island. The ranch welcomes guests for 2.5 hour rides over some of the property’s 12,000 acres.

Western Canada, Mexico and of course, many parts of the Western US still rely heavily on cowboys to manage large cattle farms.

Cowboy culture extends far beyond the Americas. They’re just as tough in Australia, where they herd cattle over never-ending expanses of the hot, dusty, Outback, or in New Zealand, where they guide sheep over the country’s rugged landscape. There are even cowboys in South Africa. So pack your boots and ten-gallon hat for your next international journey, and you can have a cowboy adventure almost anywhere you go.

A Canadian in Beijing: Righteous Bikes

The thing about bicycles in Beijing is that they’re fearless, they’re everywhere, they’re irreverent and they’re their own characters. I know that it’s people who ride these bikes, but there seems to be a network of bikes themselves, like a secret society of Beijing bikes that meet at “koumen” (intersections) at all hours of the day to discuss how to better rule the roads. You can almost see them greeting each other in passing.

They’re as alive as this city.

I could write about cycling in Beijing for days. I’m sure this will be one of many posts on the subject. I’ve been observing the clambering chaos between pedestrians, bicycles and cars and after one week I have come to the following conclusion: bikes are in still in front.

They win the power struggle every time because they have the right to both abide by traffic laws and reject them. They seem to have no regulation whatsoever. All in all, the bikes of Beijing are anarchists.

Righteous.A Beijing bike can be seen in the bike lane (and there are a few, though cars and pedestrians often use these lanes too) or in the thick of the streets with the cars and trucks — even turning left in front of oncoming traffic. They hop up on sidewalks when it suits them and ride backwards against traffic when they don’t feel like crossing at the light. All in all, the bicycles are ever-present pedaling powerhouses.

And some are rickety and some are slick. Some are small and can be folded up (I love those!) and some are huge with giant trailers attached for large loads. In fact, these are the ones that I keep photographing because they’re so different from the bikes I know at home. I love how they can be loaded up with giant piles of unrecognizable stuff and still be upright and rolling confidently. Most of these big ones have three wheels, which helps with said confidence.

Now, the only ones I’ve ever seen that look like these are the ones that are quietly used by seniors at my Grandmother’s retirement village in Florida! Obviously they’re related to these bikes, but they haven’t really experienced the urban thrill of takeover. We need to free those Florida counterparts into the cityscape of the future!!

Yesterday I went downtown to search out some music equipment and to explore yet another downtown Beijing area. I was walking along East Gulouda when a bike passed me that was carrying two (yes two!) large leather easy chairs on its wide back. They were piled high and together like two L-shaped pieces of a Tetris game expertly placed. They were strapped together and to the bike itself. Nothing was teetering.

It was breathtaking.

I would even venture to say that it was beautiful; a beautiful example of invention, maneuvering and physics. Not for the faint at heart and truly for the cycling faithful. I grabbed my camera and tried to snap a shot but it was moving too fast. I missed it, but here is an image of another similarly laden bicycle. Differently stacked but equally awesome.

Bicycles are the main work vehicles here. Street cleaning happens from a bicycle and so, too, does street vending and small-scale commercial shipping.

Street cleaners have tools hanging from their bikes like brooms and shovels (pictured). They collect waste in the bike’s container as they move along. Most vendors selling food or other material do so from the back of a bike, and usually with a Aussie “Ute” style flat bed back to enable optimal viewing of merchandise.

Finally, bikes are also used as shipping vehicles. Here’s an image on one carrying several flats of “pijiu” or bottles of beer. This is one step up from the urban couriers of Toronto who mostly just carry small packages and written material.

I’m impressed.

All of these work bikes are the big ones too. These big-load bikes here seem like the ring leaders of the anarchist bike league. They’re the chiefs, the captains, the head honchos, the bigwigs, er. . . wheels. They lumber into intersections and are all the more fearless as a result of their size. The other bikes part and then fill in the wake of their passing like small fish do for whales.

Besides the hierarchy of might and manner, I have to mention the bikes at rest. They are everywhere, especially outside of the subway stops. Locks are also not very common. Those that are locked are only locked to themselves (and generally not to any permanent fixture) and they are mostly the newer bikes. The older ones are left to fend for themselves.

All in all, it’s a lonely pile of metal half standing, half lying on large sections of sidewalk in such a density that it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other. How do people locate their bikes after work? Your guess is as good as mine. In fact, I have an Australian friend here who said that she thought her bike was stolen until she found it three weeks later outside of the subway stop. I laughed out loud when I heard that because I can so imagine it.

This is an image of the bikes outside of my building. Just seeing this gathering of wheels makes me feel left out. I need a bike! I already looked into the prices and brand new ones are only about $80-$100 Canadian. Of course, there’s no reason for me to get a brand new bike, so I’ll be seeking an old one for a few kuai. Rust and squeaks are fine with me! I won’t be going quickly here – I’ll be too busy taking it all in as I join the pace of these living, breathing streets.

I can’t wait. I’m being beckoned by the bikes of Beijing. It’s a street-style revolution and I’m hopping on for the ride.

If you’re considering bringing your own bike to this city from afar, don’t bother. Bike theft, especially of foreign bikes, is apparently a huge problem here. Check out the link below for more information.