Imagine a place where your teenager can't have a cell phone, a video game, or a television, and yet has such a good time they weep when it's time to leave, and beg you to come back. There really are such places. They're called Dude Ranches. “Of all the things we’ve done... and we’ve done, I think, some nice things with our daughters... England and France and things like that ... this is it!,” says Clyde Wetzel of Washington state, “This is the best vacation... and we’re coming back next year.”

We met Wetzel and his family at the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, a gorgeous, rustic and historic property set in a picturesque mountain valley that features a world class trout stream. Horses are the center of this traditional Montana dude ranch, with horseback rides tailored to the age and ability of the rider. Don’t ride? Don’t worry! There’s no better place to learn than at a dude ranch. And the view from the back of a horse is the perfect way to explore the vast and pristine wilderness of this ranch and its adjoining National Forests, just outside Yellowstone National Park.Nine Quarter Circle Ranch Baby Foal

Once you’re back at the ranch, you’re still away from the world. Like most dude ranches, there are no telephones or TV's in the cabins. There is internet access in the rustic main lodge, but you'll have a better time if you take a break from the computer screen, and gaze instead at a crackling fire in the huge stone fireplace of a lodge built back in the 1920's. Or, step outside in the evening and rediscover the stars, that shine brighter is this pure clean air than you’ve ever seen before.

Some guests still fly in on the grass landing strip. Dinners are served family style. An evening softball game of kids and parents in a grassy meadow hearkens back to a simpler time. This very well maintained property looks much the same as it did 50 years ago. But that's a big part of its appeal that keeps families coming back for generations. “This place is kinda like a time warp,” says Chicago architect Michael Graham, here for the third year in a row with his wife and three daughters. “I think people like it because it doesn’t change at all. I mean, its completely family centered.”

The Nine Quarter Circle is one of the more than 100 member ranches of the Dude Ranchers' Association (DRA). Located from Arkansas to California, British Columbia to Arizona, these properties are located in and help preserve some of the most beautiful areas of North America. Each one is different, with its own unique history, and spectacular scenery.
Many are family oriented. Others cater more to adults, with some featuring
special weeks targeted toward women, singles or even quilters. Prices, programs and activities can vary. But they all offer a chance to step away from the hectic world of schedules, blackberries and telephones, and get a taste of the authenticity of the American West. It's an opportunity to discover the peace and majestic beauty of the land, to learn to ride and appreciate horses, and get reacquainted with your family. And once you check in, you can leave your wallet in the room. Dude Ranch rates typically include all your lodging, food, horseback riding and other activities.

Plus, a ranch visit doesn't include standing in long lines on hot asphalt, traffic jams, or worries about strangers at a hotel. Dude ranches are safe places, where children can run free without fear. Many offer comprehensive children's programs that can keep the kids busy and happy all day long, so parents can have a vacation too!

And what a vacation it can be! Some dude ranches can take you on a multi-day pack trip high into the wildest corners of the Rocky Mountains. You’ll photograph places few people will ever set foot in, and be amazed at the kind of back-country cuisine your experienced guides can provide. Other ranches offer white water rafting on the scenic rivers that flow right through their property. Dude ranches are paradise for those who love to fish. Many offer fishing guides, instructors, and even the equipment to help a novice learn the finer points of casting. Come fall some ranches morph into hunting outfitters. And in winter, DRA ranches offer excellent cross country skiing, snowmobiling, and other winter activities, and even a chance to horseback ride in the snow.

Looking for a winter escape from the cold? Head for the dude ranches of the Southwest, where you can experience summer like conditions in January, as you ride through the picturesque desert of Arizona. Mix in a game of golf, a dip in the pool, a nature hike, or even a mountain bike ride. And we haven’t even mentioned all the new friendships you’ll make that can last a lifetime.

Whatever ranch you choose at whatever time of year, they’re all tough to leave. There are often tears in the driveway when it’s time to go home, even among the adults. Once you’ve had a taste of a dude ranch, you may never want to go anywhere else again on vacation.