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

Hiking and politics in the Basque region’s Grand Canyon

Basque, horse, horses
“The Basques have the oldest history in Europe,” says Dr. Alberto Santana, historian and co-founder of Aunia, a Basque cultural magazine. “We have been here since the Stone Age and have the most distinct language in the world. There are some 6,000 languages in 12 language families. Basque is in a family by itself.”

The Basque language, Euskara, is the heart of Basque identity, he tells our hiking group. In Euskadi a Basque is a Euskaldunak (“one who owns the Basque language”) and the Basque region is Euskal Herria (“the land of those who speak Basque”). Yet only 28% of Basques can actually speak it. At a corner shop in Orduña, where we’re staying as we tour Spain’s Basque region, I only find books in Spanish, including a cookbook on Basque cuisine.

The Basques straddle the border of Spain and France, an independent people who have never had independence. Santana’s statement that they can trace their heritage back to the Stone Age isn’t nationalistic chest thumping; it’s the prevailing opinion among archaeologists and linguists. The theory is borne out by the language itself. For example, the word for “knife” is aizto, which translates literally as “stone that cuts”.

%Gallery-124109%While they may still talk about stone tools, the source of Basque wealth was iron. Basque foundries fueled the Spanish Empire. Basques were Spain’s great shipbuilders too.

He goes on to list several important Basques. Two names stick out. Juan Sebastián Elcano captained Magellan’s ship after the famous explorer was killed in the Philippines. It was Elcano, not Magellan, who circumnavigated the globe. The South American leader Simón de Bolívar came from a Basque family. Dr. Santana then talks about the sufferings of the Basque people during the Spanish Civil War, especially the infamous bombing of Guernica, leveled by the Luftwaffe. The slaughter was immortalized in Picasso’s famous painting.

“What about ETA?” a man in the audience asks after Dr. Santana finishes his lecture.

ETA is a terrorist group fighting for Basque independence. Formed in 1959, they’ve killed more than 800 people. People like Diego Armando Estacio and Carlos Alonso Palate, two Ecuadorians killed when ETA set off a bomb at Madrid’s Barajas airport in 2006. Talking about Basque history without mentioning ETA is like talking about Irish history without mentioning the IRA.

Santana pauses for a moment, obviously choosing his words carefully before saying, “ETA is a radical and violent organization formed by students during the Franco dictatorship. At that time giving a lecture like this one was illegal. I would be arrested. Now ETA is nearing its end. It’s leaders are looking for a way to end it. You will probably see its end this year.”

Indeed, I’m hiking through the Basque region at a critical period in its history. Local elections are being held across Spain. In the Basque region Bildu, a separatist party, is the newcomer and potential game-changer. It was legalized only last month. Many Spaniards believe it has ties to ETA and much of the public is strongly against it being allowed to run. The courts decided to legalize it, perhaps in the hope that with political representation, Basque nationalists will turn their backs on ETA.

Today we’re hiking far away from politics, or so I think. We ascend a steep slope, passing flocks of long-haired sheep and stout horses grazing on rich grass. While Basque ports made their mark on world history with whaling and shipbuilding, most Basques made their living as farmers or herdsmen. It’s these towns and villages that preserved the Basque language and traditions, and it’s in the rural areas where you’ll hear the most Basque spoken today.

Besides a couple of hikers sharing a bottle of wine, we see nobody. After a further climb we’re treated to a stunning view of the Nervion Canyon, a sheer drop of 2,000 feet. The canyon widens out to the north, opening onto rolling cultivated fields and little villages of red-roofed houses.

We head south, where the walls of the canyon close in on each other, finally meeting. The sheer gray rock looks impossible to climb, but in the shade of one overhang a couple of hundred feet down we see a herd of goats sitting away from the sun’s glare. In the air we see Griffon Vultures wheel and dive.

These are the largest vultures in Europe and they favor these high pastures, hoping to feast on a dead sheep or goat. When we stop for a picnic, one member of our group stretches out for a rest on the grass some distance from us. The vultures circle lower and lower above him. They must realize he’s alive because they never land to pick at his flesh. He continues to enjoy his vacation and I miss out on a chance for Gadling’s Photo of the Year.

As we continue, we come to a pair of man-made walls about two miles long. They form a giant triangle, mirroring the natural triangle of the canyon, but instead of ending at a cliff, they end at a deep pit.

“This is a lobera,” our guide Josu explains. “When wolves were common here the people from all the villages would beat drums and pots to scare the wolves into this space. They’d fall into the pit and could then be killed.”

Wolves still roam the mountains not far from here. Like in the U.S., there’s an ongoing controversy between farmers, environmentalists, the government, and pretty much everyone else about how to handle the predators. Should they be protected? Farmers worry about their flocks. Should they be hunted? Hikers worry about people prowling the countryside with guns. Should they be kept away entirely? Environmentalists say this species needs to spread to survive.

Like with human politics, the politics of nature has no easy answers.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.

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]

Daily Pampering: Your private window on Tuscany’s Siena’s Palio

There’s more to Tuscany than wine, olives and the breathtaking Tuscan sun. The Siena Palio is one of the fastest horse races in the world (usually under 90 seconds) and possibly one of the oldest, dating back to 1656. And wouldn’t you just love to see what all the fuss is about? Now you can.

Tuscany’s Castel Monastero‘s package Your Private Window on Siena’s Palio offers you the unique opportunity to watch all the excitement from one of the race’s pivotal points: the “San Martino” curve. The best part? You can skip the crowds and cheer on your favorite steed while sipping champagne and indulging in other hotel-provided treats. The three-night package includes:

  • Three-night luxury accommodations
  • Welcome amenity in your room upon arrival
  • Buffet breakfast
  • Return transfer to Siena from Castel Monastero on the day of the Palio
  • A window space on the “San Martino” curve
  • A champagne cocktail during the afternoon
  • A light dinner with a selection of specialties created by Chef Alessandro Delfanti
  • Access to the “acqua benessere” indoor water area of the SPA which includes a Finnish sauna, bio-sauna, Turkish bath, swimming pool with toning hydro massage, swimming pool with a high saline density for a relaxing, draining effect, Kneipp program, emotional showers with chromo therapy and natural essences, relaxation zone.

Prices ranges from $1,250 USD for a superior room to $2,260 USD for an executive suite. Prices are per room, per night and include VAT and service charges.

Want more? Get your dose of daily pampering right here.