April 4th, 2011 | by Jamie Pearson
1. Find the right ranch I know you wish the ranch fairy would fly down and just tell you which ranch is perfect for your family. I wished that too, but it didn’t happen. So I made a list of all the things we wanted (not too many guests at a time, a high staff to guest ratio, riding clinics at no extra cost, luxury accommodations, and river rafting), and then researched until I was cross eyed. After talking to some horsey friends and Googling myself silly, I chose Vista Verde Ranch in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. If you don’t know a working ranch from a guest ranch and have no idea what you’re looking for in terms of amenities, I highly recommend you start with The Dude Rancher’s Association website. Knowing your family helps. If you have shy kids, don’t choose a ranch with mandatory separate kid and adult activities every day. If you don’t care about anything but riding, don’t pay extra for activities you won’t try.
2. Book the right week Once you’ve decided on a ranch, the next step is choosing a week to book. Weather is obviously a consideration and holiday weeks (such as July 4th) may cost more. We went the third week in July and were lucky to be able to participate in a cattle drive. Had we gone in June, it would have been too wet and boggy. Also, call the ranch and ask who has already booked the week you’re considering. Ideally you want there to be kids your kids’ ages. I’d also recommend avoiding weeks with big family reunions—these groups tend to be very self-contained, which limits socializing opportunities.
3. Bring a sports bra I won’t go into too much detail on this one, but suffice it to say there’s a lot of trotting and galloping at dude ranches. Hours and hours of trotting and galloping, in fact. And running around with your kids. And mountain biking. And rock climbing. You get the point.
4. Pack more clothes than you think you’ll need I travel extensively, often, and all over the place with my kids and I flatter myself that I know how to pack. I could have done a lot better on our dude ranch vacation, however. Every time we stepped outside the door of our cabin, we got really, really dirty. My husband and I could have used another two or three outfits each. The kids were so perpetually filthy (and happy) that I’m not sure that would have helped. Dinners were casual, but I wished I had cuter clothes. Not to mention clothes that weren’t covered in dust and horse slobber. Laundry service was convenient and inexpensive, but I wasn’t willing to part with my favorite jeans to have them washed. If you choose a ranch in Colorado, throw in a rain jacket for everyone too. It rained briefly (or threatened to) nearly every afternoon.
5. Don’t expect to relax too much There are so many exciting things to do at dude ranches that it can be hard to relax. I wasn’t able to just sit down with a book and read because I felt like I’d be missing something fun. Worse, I felt like I’d be paying to miss something fun. If you’re the kind of person who prefers to lounge around a pool or on a beach doing nothing for seven consecutive days, this might not be the right vacation for you. There are evening activities too, like campfires, rodeos, and barn dances, so you won’t go to bed early very often. Even the kids got a little worn out by the end of the week.