Dude ranch vacations began way back in the late 1800s, giving city slickers an opportunity to be a real cowboy and experience the Old West. Today, this American tourist attraction is still as popular as ever, especially for family vacations. With settings that encourage families to kick up their heels or kick-back, dude ranches are scattered throughout the West (and even in Canada!) and come in all shapes and sizes. Yet dude ranches are not all created equal. So how do you know which dude ranch is right for your family vacation?
Looking to get away from it all and take on a new adventure? Wanting to reclaim family time and unplug? Discover the perfect all-inclusive family vacation at a dude ranch.
What, you say, a dude ranch? I get it. Even though I live in Colorado near all those wide open spaces and grew up on an Iowa farm, I hesitated to take my totally citified city slicker children. Can’t you see the eye-rolling now when you mention that there just might not be cell service? OMG, the world that they know has just ended. Seriously.
But persevere, parents, as your dude ranch vacation will be epic. And your kids will love it – I promise!
How Do You Know Which Dude Ranch is Right for Your Family Vacation
Choosing the right dude ranch for your family vacation can be a bit challenging, especially when navigating the many possibilities of destinations, types of ranches, things to do, and more. What’s a mom (or whomever in charge of the family travel recon) to do? Which dude ranch should she choose? And how does she plan a dude ranch trip for her diverse family personalities AND keep everyone happy? Here are my tips on how to choose the right dude ranch for your family vacation.
Why a Dude Ranch?
Let’s first address the elephant in the room – or in this case, the horse. Dude ranches are popular because they offer all-inclusive vacation packages that bundle a full week of activities, such as trail rides, swimming, fishing and hayrides with fabulous food and comfortable lodging for one low price. Often this package can be more affordable than a six-day theme park vacation.
Some ranches also offer “Kids Stay Free” and even “Grandparents Stay Free” weeks; so if you plan your trip right, you can save even more. Dude ranches offer stays from a long weekend to as many days as you want, although most families opt for a 7-day dude ranch vacation.
What Type of Dude Ranch Fits Your Family Vacation?
The first step is picking a dude ranch. Since there are literally hundreds of ranches across the United States and Canada, your first decision should be which type of ranch is the best fit for your family. Dude ranch family vacations come in all different sizes and flavors.
There are three general categories of ranches:
- Working Dude Ranch where a guest’s experience is as a get-your-hands-dirty, working hand. Your family will be “ranch hands” and assisting in the operation of the ranch, requiring a higher level of riding ability.
- Dude Guest Ranch (Standard Ranch) features primarily horseback riding and a variety of outdoor activities. Cabins are usually more rustic. Food is usually served family style. The theme is to provide an authentic family experience on a ranch.
- Resort Dude Ranch, usually larger ranches, offer an array of diverse activities and onsite amenities, such as full-service spa or upscale dining options. Luxury ranches step it up with four-to-five star accommodations and amenities, gourmet restaurants, spas, and lots of activities in addition to horseback riding. Accommodations range from family-style or individual cabins to elegant lodges
Where does your family fit in the above type of dude ranches? My family enjoys a hands-on approach and getting outside, although this Grandma is more the glamping type – no pitching a tent for me! Be honest as this decision could make or break your family vacation.
My horse-shy daughter overcame her fear with the patient instructions of Wranglers at a Colorado dude ranch. Photo Credit: Diana Rowe, TravelingInHeels.com
How Many Guests at the Dude Ranch?
Just as important as the type of dude ranch is how many guests it can host. Staying at ranch that hosts eight guests will offer a very different experience than a ranch that serves 100 guests. You'll especially notice this difference during dining and social events.
Does your family prefer a more intimate setting with personalized attention? Be one of the family at Rowses 1+1 Ranch, work right alongside the family on this working ranch that only accommodates 10.
Not into a working dude ranch vacation? Consider the Hubbard's Six Quarter Circle Ranch, an upscale guest ranch hosting up to 12 guests on the border of Yellowstone National Park in Montana.
Or perhaps your family is a little more social and enjoys meeting and bonding with other families? Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Arkansas or Colorado Trails Ranch in Durango welcomes 50 and 55 guests, offering plenty of opportunities to meet new people. Or you might prefer a ranch with capacity at 30 or fewer, such as Long Hollow Ranch (Oregon), Rawah Ranch (Colorado) or Rimrock Ranch (Wyoming).
Consider Location, Timing and Experiences for your Dude Ranch Family Vacation
Now that you have the type of dude ranch your family will love, consider the location of your dude ranch, the time of year you want to take your trip and the overall type of experience you want to have. Just as you would for any vacation consider your families availability, budget, and just how far you want to travel (or not travel) to start your vacation.
Prefer a dessert landscape? Or do you dream about the mountains? Is your family into road trips? Love National Parks? Dude Ranch Association make choosing a location easy with their searchable website. Research dozens of available dude ranches by State/Province, Activity & Amenity, and even location in or near National Parks.
When to Book your Dude Ranch Vacation?
Once you've determined where you want to go, consider the time of year to take your trip. Ranches in northern states are busiest in summer months due to their cooler climates. Experience warm weather riding during the winter in the southern states.
Snowshoeing in the winter at Latigo Ranch in Colorado – priceless! Photo Credit: Diana Rowe, TravelingInheels.com
Or take your adventurous family on a winter dude ranch vacation in the Colorado Rockies, and discover snowy activities that are fun for the whole family. Bundle up and take a sleigh ride. Build a snowman or start a snowball fight with the kids.
A few years ago, I escaped the city for a winter getaway at Latigo Ranch, staying in my own little paradise of a cabin and trekking out on snowshoes at my leisure. I can neither confirm nor deny that I warmed up with a hot toddy afterwards.
Accommodations at a Dude Ranch
Lastly, you want to think about what sort of accommodations you'd like. Do you prefer to rough it? Or is a luxurious hotel-like stay more your cup of tea? Ranches offer a wide range of atmospheres, and any and all of these are options for you and your family. Stay at a rustic cabin with no running water, overnight in a covered wagon, or get ready for 5-star pampering and accommodations including a spa! Choose your ranch according to your family’s needs.
How are the Vittles?
Ranch cuisine ranges from family style, fill-your-gut-with-good-ol-home-cooking meals to gourmet dining experiences. Pick your poison according to what your family will (or will not) eat.
Good old’ fashioned eggs and toast breakfast – one of many options at your dude ranches. Photo credit: Pixabay.com
Is Horseback Riding the most important aspect of your dude ranch family vacation?
Horses are a big part of just about every dude ranch experience. If you’re all about getting in the saddle and exploring the ranch, you are going to be one happy cowboy or cowgirl. First time riding a horse? Beginners will be offered lessons, an appropriate skill-based horse will be provided, and then off with you, your cowboy boots and hat. Don’t worry though - ranch hands take the lead showing you their trail rides of varying lengths. Heck, if you’re feeling really adventurous, join in a cattle drive. Some ranches offer the opportunity to spend two or three days riding the range and sleeping in the open – now there’s a story your kids can share with their friends!
Are any of your kids under 6-8 years old?
If the answer is yes, carefully read the fine print at each of your possible dude ranches to confirm that your kids will be able to participate. Many ranches place a minimum riding age for their programs. Although some ranches may offer babysitting or childcare options, others may require an adult to skip the horseback riding to stay with the younger children.
If you or someone in your family is just not into horsin’ around, forget the horse-only dude ranch stereotype. Dude ranches are not limited to horse people, providing multiple activities for those horse-shy family members. Discover activities for every age and all interests – and you’ll might even pick up a few new favorites.
Dip your fishing pole into the lake and work the line together to bring in a 10-pound trout. Sit around the camp fire, poke a stick into the flames and roast marshmallows, arm-in-arm, singing and cementing the family relationship. Take a hike up, up, up into the rugged mountains and see vistas that will be forever imprinted into your memory. Or make it a family day and go to the small town’s rodeo. Challenge each other to learn archery or skeet shooting. All this and more is waiting for you and your family at a dude ranch.
Finally, talk to your family in advance. A dude ranch family vacation will be an epic adventure, but be sure to set up expectations. If the breakfast bell rings at 7am, if you’re teen wants to eat, she will have to roll out of bed. Some ranches’ Wi-Fi signal can be weak or nonexistent. Prepare the kids (and yourself) for the possibility of an unplugged vacation. Share the schedule in advance with your family. Pick out activities to do together, but also be prepared to give the kids (and yourself) time alone.
Got more questions? Check out the Dude Ranchers' Association for resources and tips.
By Diana Rowe, TravelingInHeels.com / Traveling Grandmom at TravelingMom.com