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

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]

Four resources for horse-crazy travelers

I grew up riding horses, and though now that I live in a big city I don’t get to ride as often as I’d like, I still love the feeling of galloping on horseback to the rhythm of hoof beats. I’ve ridding with the gauchos in Argentina, through coffee fields in Honduras, over rolling green hills in Hawaii, and on the five-gaited four-legged teddy bear of an equine that is the Icelandic Horse. If you love horses and are looking to plan an equestrian vacation, here are four resources to get you started.

Equitours, “America’s largest and oldest horseback riding vacation company”, offers packaged tours for avid equestrians. With tours in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Europe, America, and the South Pacific, they pretty much cover the globe by horseback. The site allows you to search by experience level, location, length of tour, and date. Trips range in cost from $800 to $2900 and include riding, accommodations, meals and transfers, but not flights.

Hidden Trails Equestrian Tours offers packaged vacations, but goes beyond the standard trail rides. In addition to vacation treks, they offer cattle and wild horse drives, riding clinics, covered wagon treks, riding safaris and pack trips in over 40 countries. Specialty trips include ride and cook, ride and fish, woman only, and gaited horse trips. Rates range from $600 to $3000 and include riding, accommodations, meals and transfers, but not flights.Equitrekking works with local riding companies to offer equestrian vacations throughout North and South America and Europe, with few options in South Africa, India and Nepal. In addition to offering links to the individual companies and their tours (which range in price, riding ability required and length) the site also offers advice and information on equestrian travel, travel tips, and clips from episodes of the Equitrekking TV show.

Nancy D. Brown, a travel writer and the lodging editor at Uptake.com, details horseback vacations around the world on her new blog, Writing Horseback. Detailing everything from full-service ranches and resorts to equestrian vacations and companies offering trail rides, her site covers destinations from California and Oregon to Antigua, Norway, and Hawaii. It’s not a fully comprehensive list of everything that’s out there (the site is quite new) but if you are open to suggestions for a destination, want to plan a trip to a resort that caters to riders, and prefer first-hand reviews, this website is a great resource.

Adventures on the Geronimo Trail

Way out west, in the Black Range Mountains of New Mexico, there is a quiet little ranch tucked away in the thick pine trees, where cowboys still ride the trails and rustic bunkhouses give guests a place to lay their head at the end of a busy day. That place is the Geronimo Trails Guest Ranch, an adventure resort that lets us live out our wild west dreams on horseback in a pristine setting.

Located four hours from both El Paso and Albuquerque, Geronimo Trails falls well off the grid. The ranch is 85 miles form the nearest stop light, with all power generated through the use of solar panels and water supplied from nearby streams. The area is so remote, that visitors may as well turn off their cell phones when they arrive, as coverage ends 70 miles back down the road.

This eco-conscious approach helps to give the ranch a quiet, serene setting, allowing guests to rest and soak in the rustic atmosphere. And when they’re done relaxing, there are plenty of things to do as well. Situated on one of New Mexico’s designated scenic byways, Geronimo Trail gives access to plenty of outdoor adventure. Whether you’re on horseback or hiking on foot, you’ll be able to follow in the footsteps of Billy the Kid, Butch and Sundance, and even Geronimo himself, while exploring mountain meadows and beautiful, wide open vistas. There are even Native American ruins to discover, with ancient cliff dwellings and caves with wall paintings to give travelers a glimpse into what this part of America was once like, before the settlers came west.

The laid back setting extends to just about every area of the ranch, which has a fully stocked library and plenty of swings and hammocks to curl up with a good book in. Meals are served up in the mess hall, ranch style of course, with guests gathering around picnic tables to share their daily adventures. Nights are spent around the campfire making s’mores and telling stories, while the more energetic amongst the visitors can take part in cowboy sing-alongs or go line dancing well into the wee hours of the night.

For a true cowboy experience in the untamed old west, few experiences compare to a few days stay at Geronimo Trails Guest Ranch. Just be warned, it won’t take long to get settled in, and you might not ever want to go back home.