Talking Travel: The low-down on ranches from an American cowboy

Gene Kilgore is a recognized expert on dude ranches, having traveled to countless ones since 1980 (and accrued so many frequent flier miles that he was profiled by The New York Times last year). He also worked on a ranch in his younger days, and recently authored a travel guidebook, Ranch Vacations

Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up watching Bonanza and Gun Smoke on TV, often while wearing my boots and favorite cowboy hat. When I was 8 years old, my family went to a dude ranch in Wyoming, and I was hooked on the cowboy lifestyle. My father was a big fan of rodeos, and I would sometimes tag along. I was infatuated with the world of cowboys, and couldn’t get enough.

Is it fair to say you’re a true cowboy?

A real cowboy – no. But, I can say I worked on one of the largest cattle ranches in Wyoming- riding, roping, branding, doctoring and doing all the ranch chores – it was one of the best years of my life. Since 1980, I think I have traveled to more ranches than anyone on the world. I know the life of the cowboy and love the spirit and traditions of ranching around the world.
Why dude ranches?

I have found that dude ranches give us a “back to nature, back to goodness ” experience. My hope is to get more and more children out of the cities to experience this way of life and know first hand what nature, the environment and ranch life is all about. I still think everyone – man, woman, little boy or girl have a little “cowboy” in them.

When’s the best time to go?

There is no best time to go, since dude ranch vacations are possible year round. Ranches are open every day of the year , depending where in the world you wish to go. There are ranches in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.

Packing tips for a cowboy vacation?

I always tell future cowpoke to make sure they take “broken in” boots and jeans. Also, it’s important that jeans are longer than normal for riding purposes. I like to wash and soften my jeans 4-5 times before I saddle up. All the ranches on Ranchweb will provide guests with a suggested packing list ahead of time.

What’s your idea of a “luxury” dude ranch? Seems like a bit of a contradiction to me.

Travelers today expect more than they did 30 years ago. Pampering now goes hand in hand with roughing it. Today, you might be at a rustic ranch experiencing authentic cowboy life, but also have the chance to get a post-cattle drive massage in the ranch spa. Now there are many luxury ranches with amenities and facilities that guests would expect to find at a luxury hotel. However, in this case, the posh properties are located in wide open spaces with the chance to participate in real outdoor “dude” experiences.

What’s it like to experience a cattle drive first-hand? How to go about arranging that?

Cattle drives at dude ranches vary widely. Some last a few hours while others might last several days. I love the thrill of herding livestock from one destination to another – the wide open spaces, fresh fragrant air, riding horseback, and the spirit of camaraderie. It is certainly and experience that stays with you for a lifetime. To arrange such an experience, visit Ranchweb, and under the “Ranch Categories” section, select “Cattle Drives”. This will lead you to a list of ranches offering cattle drives. From there, you can narrow it down by location and what type of cattle drive experience you are interested in.

What are your top five steakhouses around the country?

Besides a really good piece of beef – I regularly eat, when I can find it , buffalo. When grilled well, it is really delicious and very lean and healthy. My favorite steakhouses:

  • Buenos Aires – La Brigada
  • New York – 21 Club
  • San Francisco – Harris’
  • Chicago – Gene & Georgetti
  • Rio, Brazil – Porcão…The Brazilians are famous for their Churascaria’s and this is one of them.

Are dude ranches good real-estate investments?

Over time, dude ranches can certainly become good investments but it is the land itself that is the best investment. I have found that land is always a good investment, and the value is dependent on location and cost.

What about dude ranches as second-home?

Personally, if I wasn’t on the road so much, I would love to have a dude ranch as my second home. In the old days, many families often spent their entire summers at dude ranches. Nowadays, beach houses are far more typical for vacation homes, but ranches would certainly be a terrific alternative.

What are ranches like in other countries? You’ve been to many in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina right?

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting ranches all around the world. Ranch life in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina is truly special and unique. My wife is Brazilian and speaks Spanish and Portuguese. We have met so many great people and been introduced to wonderful customs, food, horses, fishing – the goodness of the land and people in the world of ranching is incomparable.

What are modern day cowboys like? What do they do? Do they even ride horses anymore?

Modern day cowboys drink cappuccinos and drive gas-guzzling pick-ups, but still saddle up and ride whenever they have the chance. While wrangler jeans and traditional boots are still par for the course, you might also find a Blackberry on their hip. Today’s cowboys combine the old and the new – traditions of yesteryear and the marvels of modern day technology. There are cowboys still in Nevada and South America that still embrace old customs and shun away from modern day advances. For these traditional cowboys, riding horses is still very much a part of their daily life.

Your favorite drink?

Sarsaparilla, Brazilian Caperinas, or an ice cold Coors on a really hot day.

Tell us a bit more about your book.

My guide has become a best seller in the world of travel – 7 editions and 250,000 copies sold. I began my research in 1980 and have seen some of the most remote and beautiful properties – several only accessible by helicopter, horse or train. The book has lots of photos and celebrates a way of life that helps to balance the world in which we live.

I have always believed, and lived, one of my quotes: “Travel is the only thing that unites the world”. It is a thrill for me to be involved in travel and ranching . I am so very lucky to have the chance to live the mantra “do what you love, love what you do and the rest will take care of itself.”