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

Woman begins canoe trip from Seattle to San Diego

Margo Pellagrino describes herself as “a stay-at-home mom who doesn’t do a very good job at staying home.” That seems an apt description considering she has just set off on a epic canoe trip that will see her paddling from Seattle to San Diego over the next couple of months, while raising awareness about the health of the world’s oceans.

Margo started her journey on July 3rd, and over the past few days she has paddled across Puget Sound, down the Juan De Fuca Strait, and out into the Pacific Ocean. From there, she’ll turn south, with the intention of paddling her outrigger canoe all the way to San Diego, a distance of more than 2500 miles. Along the way, she’ll make planned stops in a number of cities and towns, where she hopes to spread the word about the importance of the oceans to the overall health of the planet, and how we can all do small things on a day-to-day basis that will help protect them.

This isn’t the first long distance paddle for Margo. Back in 2007 she made the journey from Miami, Florida to Camden, Maine, a distance of over 2000 miles, by canoe. She followed up that adventure in 2008 with another journey, this time along the Gulf Coast, going from Miami to New Orleans. Those trips helped to reinforce her love of the oceans, and her desire to help raise awareness about how their health can effect the rest of the planet.

You can follow Margo’s progress by reading her latest entries to her blog and tracking her via GPS. She’ll be making regular updates along the way, sharing her adventure, and message, with the rest of us.

[Photo credit: Margo Pellagrino]

Big Island Hawaii: Get your adventure on

There’s virtually no limit to the adventures you can have on the Big Island of Hawaii. SCUBA, snorkel, watch whales pass in season, take a helicopter flight over the island, or view lava up close from a boat, watching the fiery rivers pop and hiss as they land in the ocean. On the Kohala Coast, many of the resorts offer easy access to some of the island’s most unique activities. For others, well…you’ll need to get a bit more creative.

Stand-up paddleboarding
Kona Village resort offers guests several options for traditional Hawaiian water-sports, including stand-up paddleboarding, through its Alaka’i program. Alaka’i means “ambassadors of the waves” and the staff here really do try to fulfill that role by teaching guests not just about the logistics of each activity, but also about its historical and cultural significance to the islands. The Junior Alaka’i program is geared for kids 10-17 and includes three days of lessons in activities like paddleboarding, windsurfing, free diving, and outrigger canoeing. Guests at the Four Seasons Hualalai can also use the equipment at Kona Village.

Elsewhere on the Big Island, you can rent a board from Hilo’s What Sup Big Island, where daily paddleboard rental is $65, or $75 for a half day with lunch and beginner lesson.



Outrigger canoeing

Outrigger canoes, traditional Hawaiian boats, resemble regular canoes that have an added support (called an outrigger) added to one side. These canoes can go quite fast, and are more stable in rough waters than regular canoes. As part of Kona Village’s Alaka’i program, guests can learn to paddle one, and once they have successfully learned to maneuver a six-person outrigger canoe, they are free to use one and two-person canoes on their own for the remainder of their stay.

On the Kohala Coast, the Fairmont Orchid also offers outrigger canoe excursions and Sky Blue Canoe offers lessons and rentals. A 90-minute tour is $65.

Surf lessons
It’s practically sacrilege to go to Hawaii and not take a surf lesson. The instructors at Kona Mike’s Surf Adventures are all certified in CPR , First Aid, and professional rescue. Group lessons start at $99 and private lessons are $150 and each lesson includes two hours of in-water instruction.

Horseback riding
Hawaii’s Big Island has a surprising number of cattle ranches, all thanks to a few cattle who were gifted to King Kamehameha back at the end of the 18th century. When, a few decades later, those cattle had reproduced and began to be a nuisance, King Kamehameha III recruited some Mexican cowboys, which the locals dubbed “paniolos”, to handle the problem. Today, paniolos still work the ranches, many of which welcome guests for daily horseback rides. Na’ alapa Stables at Kahua Ranch is one of these. Located less than an hour north of Kona, the ranch offers 2.5 hour rides for just under $90. The price is well worth it for the beautiful views down to the ocean from the ranch’s 4000-foot elevation.



Snow skiing
Snow skiing…in Hawaii? That’s right. Mauna Kea, an inactive volcano, reaches over 13,000 feet above sea level (and over 30,000 above its base on the floor of the ocean, making it the tallest mountain in the world, technically). The top of the mountain is home to an observatory and is the ideal place to do some serious stargazing all year round. And thanks to the elevation of Mauna Kea, Hawaii actually has snow several months of the year! There’s just one catch to skiing Mauna Kea: there’s no ski resort there. So intrepid adventurers have a friend drive them up the mountain, where they strap on their own skis and snowboards (or just grab a sled…or even a cardboard box) and ski or sled down the mountain. If you want to ski in Mauna Kea, you can sign up with Ski Hawaii, which runs group tours for $250 per person, or rents equipment for as low as $50 per day.

Everglades to be put back on U.N. endangered list?

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is meeting with a task force charged with overseeing the restoration of the Florida Everglades this week. He intends to tell them that the Obama administration will ask the United Nations World Heritage Committee to put the national park back on its endangered list when the committee meet in Spain this week.

Two years ago, in what has been viewed as a controversial decision, the Bush administration requested that the U.N. remove the Everglades from the list. At the time, the Department of the Interior defended the decision by citing progress being made in protecting the region and the species that lived there, despite the fact that the restoration program had failed to meet milestones, and was billions over budget.

The current administration believes restoring the Everglades National Park to the list of endangered places will send a strong signal to environmentalists that they are committed to the protecting the environment. If restored to the list, the park will join the Galapagos Islands, the Old City of Jerusalem and Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley as the other World Heritage Sites considered to be in danger. The Everglades were originally added to the list back in 1993 when the area was damaged by Hurricane Andrew and the effects of prolonged exposure to water pollution became known.

Despite the issues effecting the park, the Everglades remains a popular tourist destination. There are more than 156 miles of canoe/kayak and hiking trails, with 47 designated campsites, inside the 2500 square miles of subtropical forest that define the parks boundaries. The Park Service reports that over one million visitors experience the Everglades each year.

%Gallery-64352%

The Top 10 American Adventures (According to National Geographic)

National Geographic Adventure has posted a great list of their choices for the Top 10 American Adventures, offering up plenty of great ideas for adventurous vacations that are close to home. Each of these ten adventures includes a video as well, giving us the opportunity to see first hand just why they deserve to be on the list.

From top to bottom, there are some excellent suggestions for summer vacations for anyone who isn’t looking to add a stamp to their passport in the near future. For instance, the number 10 adventure on the list is SCUBA diving in the waters near Grand Portage, MN. This portions of Lake Superior is littered with shipwrecks, making it an ideal dive spot for those wanting to stay close to home. National Geographic also points out that these are freshwater wrecks, meaning they are far better preserved than their saltwater counterparts in places like Fiji or Mexico.

Looking for an adventure that stays above the surface? Willing to peddle for a few days? Then perhaps RAGBRAI is more what you’re looking for. Sponsored by the Des Moines Register, RAGBRAI stands for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. The seven day cycling tour is as challenging or leisurely as you want to make it. The event has taken place for years, and more than 10,000 riders are expected to take part this July. RAGBRAI is an interesting mix of physical challenge, midwest hospitailty, and summer fun, all rolled into one great event, and the nightly parties are legendary as well. The classic bike ride comes in at number 7 on the list.

Of course, there are eight other great adventures as well, ranging from hiking in the High Sierra to canoeing in the Adirondacks. There is something for everyone, no matter where you live. So don’t let the summer pass you by without taking part in one of these amazing trips.