Sunset Magazine’s ‘Westphoria’ Blog Celebrates The Weirdness Of The Western States

It’s no secret that the 13 states comprising the Western U.S. are a bit unusual. Enter Westphoria, Sunset magazine’s 4-month-old blog dedicated to celebrating all that’s quirky, kick-ass, and distinct about the Left Coast, Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions. Think retrofitted teardrop campers, chicken “sitters,” bike-powered farmers market smoothies, and, uh, hotel rooms designed to resemble giant bird nests.

For those of you living on the other side of the Continental Divide, Sunset is the nation’s top Western lifestyle magazine, focused on travel, gardening, design, green living, food and the outdoors. Understandably, we’re big fans here at Gadling.

Westphoria is sort of like Sunset’s black sheep little sibling: edgy, on-trend, a smarty-pants with a sweet soul. Categories include themes like “House Crush,” “Made in the West,” “Dream Life,” “Food” and “Wanderlust.” I’m hooked.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Green Garden Girl]

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.

5 little-known, must-see sites on a Southwest road trip

So, you’ve settled on the American Southwest as your next road trip destination. Congratulations — you’ve made a sound choice indeed. Picking one of America’s most storied regions to ramble around in is the easy part, but selecting the routes and spots to see is a bit more difficult. You’ve always got the obvious choices – Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, for instance — but it’s the offbeat gems that really stick with you long after you dust off your boots, hang the cowboy hat and return the rental car.

We recently embarked on a 3,600 mile journey that crisscrossed the Southwest, touching parts of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. The cliché stops were nothing short of awe-inspiring, but we found five must-see areas along the way that showcased exactly what this region of the country is all about. Read on if you’re eager to get your wheels turning.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

When you think of beautiful sights in the south of the Silver State, you probably think of neon skyscrapers, or if we’re talking really south, the Hoover Dam. Frankly, there’s no need to fight the crowds at either. For just $5 per vehicle, the 40 or so mile drive from south to north of the park is a wild ride full of expansive views, a plethora of short (albeit rewarding) hikes and a relative lack of human life. Don’t be shocked if you find yourself atop a peak, overlooking miles of pristine desert mountains, with nary a soul in sight. If you’re looking to connect with nature (or just disconnect from the hustle and bustle of the real world), you won’t find a more stunning hour-long drive in Nevada.

Bryce Canyon City, Utah

Just a few short hours outside of desert lies a brisk, highly elevated region of Utah that few outsiders bother to explore. The minuscule town (or should we say village?) of Bryce Canyon City has but two real hotels, and one of those were constructed last May. This place truly shines in the winter; we checked in to the Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel to find an exceptionally friendly staff, a well appointed room, a steaming outdoor hot tub circled by snow and a hot breakfast that would make your local Shoney’s envious. Horseback rides overlooking Utah’s gorgeous orange rocks are but miles away, and the exceedingly underrated Bryce Canyon National Park is right next door. You’re also under two hours away from skiing at Brian Head, and better still, Scenic Byway 12 is just up the road. Speaking of…

Scenic Byway US 12

You’d be doing yourself a huge disservice by not traversing the entire 120 mile stretch of asphalt, which is known as Utah’s first all-American highway. Starting at Bryce Canyon City and terminating at Torrey, this sparsely driven gem carves through towering mountains, stunning monuments and a few towns in particular that are just oozing with character (Tropic and Escalante, if you’re wondering). We found dozens of scenic pulloffs that were impossible to pass by, and the dearth of other vehicles allowed for countless in-road snaps that truly demonstrate the magic of a road trip. For those with ample time, an off-road tested vehicle and plenty of spare gas cans, the 55.5 mile Hole-in-the-Rock Road at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is the preeminent “road less traveled.”

Four Corners / Scenic Byway US 163

There’s really only one way to start the southbound journey down US 163, and that’s from the east after a jaunt down to the Four Corners of America. Sure, you could cut through Utah from the north, but where’s the fun in that? Stepping foot in four states simultaneously generates a feeling of pride and joviality that we have personally never felt in any other scenario — in a sense, it’s the ultimate travel accomplishment, or at least the one that you’ll never forget to tell your grand-kids about. Shortly after you pass Bluff, UT, US 163 begins; it takes but a mile to captivate. Sandwiched on both sides by towering rocks and colossal peaks, the town of Mexican Hat (and the aptly named rock to which the place owes its moniker) is a comedic break in the otherwise solemn excursion. Monument Valley State Park, just north of the Arizona border, is a satisfying conclusion to the buildup that precedes it. A seemingly never-ending expanse of otherworldly statues dot the roadside, inviting you to rest your laurels while soaking in the untamed southwest sun.

Pecos, Texas

If you notice yourself on I-10 heading east (which you won’t, given that Interstates are strictly forbidden ’round these parts), you’ll see a billboard or two beckoning you to visit Pecos. Unlike those signs coaxing you to break for “The Thing?,” this sleepy town of under 10,000 is certainly worth a look. As the story goes, the world’s first rodeo was held here in 1883, and by the looks of it, the weekend wranglin’ is still at the height of popularity over a century later. You’ll find wildly colorful buildings lining the generally wide-open downtown, more pick-up trucks and spurs than you could ever imagine, and beyond all of that, a real, bona fide taste of Texas. Without question, the essence of Texas is still alive and well in the far west of the state. If you dreamed of tumbleweeds and dusty streets but stumbled upon meadows and metropolises when you landed in central Texas, you’ll find the authentic Lone Star vibe you’re searching for just a few hundred (lonely) miles to the west.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

Great American road trip: Choteau, Montana, Letterman’s hangout is a gem of a town

Choteau, Montana where David Letterman married last week at the county courthouse is a gem of a town–the type of off-the beaten-track that beckons people who might be passing through to pull into a parking lot and stay awhile.

When we were on our Great American Road Trip to Montana and back last summer, we pulled into the parking lot of the Old Trail Museum for just “45 minutes” and stuck around for three hours with thoughts of returning some day. This was after staying with friends who live near the base of the Rockies twenty miles from town.

The Old Trail Museum is one of those types that tell unusual tales of western life. There’s the noose that was used for the last hanging in Choteau, for example. I hadn’t seen an actual noose used in an actual hanging before. It catches your attention. The noose is in a display with other artifacts and details about the murder that sent the guy to the gallows.

There are also exhibits about Native Americans, cattle ranching, medical care and whatever else you can think of that has to do with life in the west. One gallery is dedicated to the dinosaurs that once roamed the region.

Along with the main museum are other buildings with a variety of themes. There’s the taxidermy grizzly bear, the cabin dedicated to a Danish pioneer family and an art studio of a prominent Montana artist. I could have spent hours here poking around.

The museum also a great place to pick up books with a Montana theme. Fiction, non-fiction and kids’ fare fill shelves in the gift shop. Here you can buy items made by Blackfoot Indians who live in the state. I went a little nuts with the buying–a problem of mine. But, then again, anything one can do to keep the economy following.

We also helped the economy flow at Alpine Touch, across the street from the museum. Alpine Touch is a brand of specialty spices made in Choteau. While we were buying bottles of the Lite All-Purpose Seasoning, we tossed in several bottles of huckleberry body lotion and huckleberry jelly–also Montana-made.

Chances are, you won’t run into Letterman if you head to Choteau, although people have seen him there. The saucy older woman who is a volunteer at the visitor center mentioned giving him a chuckle when she let Letterman know that he is on too late for her to really know who he is. Who cares who Letterman is was her take, although she did offer that he has been very kind and generous to Choteau.

The great thing about places like Choteau is that it doesn’t matter who you are, you can have the same great glorious time whether you don’t have more than a few nickels to rub together, or you’re a millionaire.

That’s one of the things I thought of when we spent an afternoon wandering around in Sun River Canyon located in the Lewis and Clark National Forest with the brilliant blue sky overhead. Hiking along the trails is free. You can pick up trail maps at the Rocky Mountain Ranger District Trail office in town. We were lucky enough to come across a beaver just as it ducked into a stream to head to its dam.

Before we left Choteau, we would have shopped more, although we did have just enough time to grab some ice cream at the ice-cream shop that’s part of the museum complex. It cost more than a nickel, but it didn’t break the bank.

For anyone looking for a low key fun place to go with families, consider here. It’s only 50 miles from Great Falls, another Montana destination I’d like to have more time for one of these days. One place you might consider staying is the JJJ Wilderness Ranch. We walked around the grounds hoping to snag a horseback ride, but you have to be a paying guest. Next time we’re in Choteau, I’m finding a horse.

Budget Travel: Butte, Montana

Summary: Butte, a town in the southwestern part of Montana, began as a group of gold and silver mining camps in the 1870s. When copper mining boomed, it grew into one of the wealthiest spots in the United States. During WW I, Butte was called “The Richest Hill on Earth.” Never mind that Jon Stewart’s the “Daily Show” made fun of Butte a couple years ago. It’s one of those towns with a unique place in American history that is evident at every corner.

The reason for the Daily Show fun-poking is the Berkeley Pit, the now shut down open copper mine. When the mine closed, it resulted in a lake of toxic water that has since become a tourist attraction. Like I said, never mind that. Butte, unlike what the Daily Show reported, has much to offer the traveler who is looking for a wonderful time that is easy on the wallet. For that reason, Butte has been experiencing quite the tourist boom over the past few years. This is a town that blends hard scrabble and artsy–the old with the new.

As people have discovered Butte’s charm and splendor, some have moved here bringing their money with them. Historic brick and stone Victorian-style buildings have been lovingly restored, and Butte’s can-do spirit has thrived. Evel Knievel was born and raised here, for example. Still, this is a city where laid back might as well be its middle name. You can walk to most places of interest, although, hopefully, you’re fond of walking up long hills. Butte has a doozey.

Getting in: Although Butte itself is a budget-worthy destination, getting there can be pricey. Flights to Montana are generally expensive, although regional airlines offer cheaper options to certain destinations. Delta flies into Butte’s Burt Mooney Airport, but Frontier Airlines flies into Bozeman, 85 miles away. There’s an economy priced RT flight from Phoenix to Bozeman in May for $202, for example.

Also check out Horizon Airlines or flying into a city like Salt Lake City, Denver or Seattle where you can rent a car and drive the rest of the way. We’ve done the Seattle and Denver fly and drive ourselves. A friend of ours flew from New Jersey into Salt Lake City which is 5 1/2-hours away. Frommers recommends this option for the same reasons that I do. It gives you the chance to enjoy the vast landscape in between.

Butte is also on a Greyhound route, although having a car is so worth it for the off the beaten path destinations like Philipsburg. The scenery alone makes Philipsburg, located on the Pintler Scenic Highway not far from Georgetown Lake, worth the drive. If you arrive on a Greyhound, consider renting a car for the day so you can explore more easily.

Where to Stay: The range of places to slumber varies from national chain motels to family run establishments. Most are within walking distance of downtown, but some are closer than most. The Super 8 is one less expensive option. For a historic Butte experience, try the Finlen Inn located downtown. Camping is also possible, although if you’re tenting it, you’ll have RV company. For a comprehensive list of lodging options, check out Montana Big Sky Country, the official state travel information Website.

What to See: You can’t miss Butte’s mining history, no matter from which angle you explore its hills. The headframes where miners were lowered below the ground are a prominent part of the landscape. For a close look at what was once Butte’s glory days of copper mine prosperity, head to the Copper King Mansion. Once owned by William Andrews Clark, one of the three copper mine barons, the 34-room mansion is also a B&B and has been kept to look like it did when the Clark’s lived there. Tours for adults are $7. Children are $3.50. If you’re an overnight guest, tours are free.

On the other end of the mining life spectrum is what is left of Butte’s Chinatown. The first Chinese people came to Butte in 1868 to work in the mines, eventually starting businesses like laundries, restaurants and dry goods stores. Their numbers grew to more than 2,000 until discrimination laws pushed most of them out of Montana. Two attractions not to miss are the Wah Chong Tai Company and Mai Wah Noodle Parlor buildings. Now connected, they serve as the museum of the Mai Wah Society with a purpose to preserve and highlight Butte’s important Chinese-American history.

For a fun, interactive tour, head to the World of Mining Museum to don a mining hat complete with a head lamp for a trip underground into a once active mine. There are chances to operate the machinery. After wards, take time to wander among the buildings of “Hell Roarin’ Gulch,” a reproduction of an 1890s mining town.

Part of mining lore is the disaster stories. Butte’s biggest disaster was on June 8, 1917 when an accident in the Granite Mountain mine ignited a fire that killed 168 men. Toward the top end of Butte is the Granite Mountain Memorial, a tribute to the men and their families. The view from the memorial’s vantage point is stunning.

As with any mining towns, brothels were part of the scenery. Butte’s no different. The Dumas Brothel, in operation from 1890 to 1982, is now a museum.

Wandering among Butte’s downtown shops offers a variety of antique stores, gift shops and galleries. Check out Garden of Beadin, a bead store with EVERYTHING, Jail House Coffee (housed in the original jail), and the Butte Silver Bow Art Foundation for starters.

For entertainment value, there’s nothing better than the National Folk Festival and Evel Knievel Days. The National Folk Festival is a music lover’s dream. Last summer was the festival’s first year in Butte. There are two more summers before it moves to its next venue.

Evel Knievel Days happens every July. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen motorcycles ridden by daredevils fly around the Wall of Terror. Both festivals are FREE and downtown. A good friend of mine swears by the Ai Ri Rah Festival, the largest Irish festival in the Rockies. I haven’t been to it yet, but it sounds fabulous.

The Old Butte Historical Adventures walking or trolley tours is one way to dive into Butte’s intriguing past. Tour guides, who know the inside scoop of particular buildings and the stories of the people who made Butte happen, can point out details you’d otherwise miss.

Where to eat: For dining, and to keep with Butte’s historic past, head to Pekin Noodle Parlor. This Chinese restaurant opened in 1916. It’s been operated by the same family ever since. The curtained booths use to serve as brothel stalls. For Mexican food, try La Hacienda, and if you eat meat, you can’t go wrong with Pork Chop John’s. The pork chop sandwich is tasty and cheap.