How to choose a great dude or guest ranch

Hang 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%Find an online resource 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 capacity
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.

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?

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 go
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.

Celebrate National Day of the American Cowboy

Yes, 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]

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.”