It’s after a soft, pattering rain, with the clouds clearing and the sun streaming through, that the essence of the Western landscape rises up. The pungent scent of sagebrush is wicked up by the moist air, mingling with the sweet aroma of pine. And whether you’re astride your horse, or relaxing on the ranch-house porch with a steaming cup of coffee, the early fall view of snow-dusted peaks with valleys below glimmering with the gold of aspen leaves seems crisper, almost magnified.
Dude ranches have been showcasing these landscapes, and their associated experiences, for generations of families, many who come back year after year after year to relive the experience. And why not? These typically week-long vacations revolve around trail rides that literally carry you into these marvelous settings. And that day in the saddle is followed by a hearty meal that might feature Citrus Roasted Half Chicken, Porcini Mushroom Risotto, or a classic Buffalo Tenderloin. At day’s end, you’ll settle into a soft, warm bed in a cabin that’s rooted in the setting.
With some ranches closing in on a century of welcoming guests, it’s not a lie to say the industry literally grew up with the National Park System. So intertwined are the two that there’s almost a symbiotic relationship between them. True, most dude ranch vacations feature all-inclusive ranch stays. But there are ranches out there that relish and promote their proximity to national parks, places such as the Lone Mountain Ranch that is just 18 miles from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, or the White Stallion Ranch that sidles up to Saguaro National Park in Arizona.
When considering a dude ranch vacation, be sure to look for the establishment’s endorsement from the Dude Ranchers’ Association. This organization, which arose from a meeting in 1926 in a Bozeman, Montana, hotel room between cattle ranching and railroad interests, doesn’t take membership lightly. Rather, ranches are evaluated for two years on everything from their lodgings to how they care for their horses before they’re granted membership. Today, only about 100 ranches sprinkled through the Western United States and one Canadian province have qualified for that distinction.
Here’s a look at three dude ranches that can connect you with a national park when you want the best of both experiences -- ranch life and a sampling of America’s best places.
White Stallion Ranch, Tucson, Arizona
9251 West Twin Peaks Road
Tucson, Arizona 85743
This southern Arizona ranch spans 3,000 acres, but can seem larger thanks to the access it has to Saguaro National Park and its 91,439 acres right next door. All-day horseback rides at the White Stallion Ranch can include treks into the national park. You also can ride up into the surrounding mountains studded with the region’s iconic saguaro cacti or, if you have the skills, take a faster ride that features loping and cantering through the Sonoran Desert. Recall the day’s activities around the evening buffet dinner grilled outside, and relax afterwards by studying the night sky or listening to a cowboy singer.
Gros Ventre River Ranch, Moose, Wyoming
18 Gros Ventre Road
Jackson, Wyoming 83001
Towering over your stay at the Gros Ventre River Ranch are the crags of Grand Teton National Park. Not surprisingly, the park can play a supporting role in your vacation at the ranch. You can take time to climb the Grand Teton itself, or play white-water cowboy on the rapids of the Snake River that flows through the park. Daily trail rides offer great photo opts with the bison and moose that call this landscape home. Family style dinners back at the lodge allow you to make new friends while comparing your day’s adventures.
Bar W Guest Ranch, Whitefish, Montana
2875 Highway 93 West
Whitefish, Montana 59937
There is a place in northern Montana where days are spent on trail rides or sharpening skills barrel racing or maybe simply fishing. Visitors to the Bar W Guest Ranch also have access to mountain bike trails and relaxing on evening wagon rides that culminate with a cookout. For some, helping with a cattle drive might be on your schedule. For all, rides high up into the mountains and through the pine forests are daily adventures. The 3,000-acre ranch is not far from the Canadian border...and it’s also less than an hour from Glacier National Park.
Whether you’re anxious to get back on a horse, or want to slip your foot into a stirrup for the first time, a dude ranch vacation surrounds you with landscapes so magnificent in their beauty that we protect many of them as national parks.