Part-Time Cowboy: Taking a Dude Ranch Vacation

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Thursday 7th October 2010
In this article
  • What to expect at the dude ranch.
  • Booking a successful trip.
  • Ten great dude ranches in the U.S.

Thinking of taking a vacation with your buddies? Think about a trip to a dude ranch. For a whole weekend (or week) you can finally fulfill those dreams of riding the range, roping cattle and sleeping rough.

Now, before you knock it, just think about the advantages of a dude ranch vacation: this trip offers an opportunity to get a glimpse of life on a genuine working ranch. It’s also a great way to get away from the stress of city life, meet warm, friendly people and see some magnificent natural beauty. Plus, chances are that you’ll enjoy learning a few new skills, including horseback riding, roping, and chewing tobacco (OK, that last part’s not required). Check out the SharpTravel scoop:

What to Expect at a Dude Ranch

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Accommodation. If you think you'll be sleeping on hard ground and under the stars every night, then think again. Most dude ranches offer excellent accommodations, ranging from rustic cabins to a room in the main ranch house. You might be surprised to find luxuries like maid service and in-room hot tubs. Of course, you can also opt to take an overnight horseback riding trip and sleep outdoors for a night or two.

Horses, horses and more horses. The main activity at the ranch is naturally going to be horseback riding. Most ranches offer lessons for every level, so the beginner need not fear being left out. Day trips on horseback are the most common activity. Don't expect to gallop through the countryside, though. Most excursions proceed at a leisurely pace.

Other activities. Most dude ranches offer lessons in roping and trick horseback riding. A few ranches also have fishing, hiking and white water rafting.

Chores. You know what they say about all play and no work, right? If you visit a working cattle ranch you can expect to assist the ranchers in the daily work required to run the facility.

Tips for a Successful Trip

Before booking your trip, sit down with your buddies and decide on basic group preferences. These types of decisions on the front end will help to make your trip more successful and enjoyable. Consider the following:

Time of year. Be very specific about when you want to visit a dude ranch, as different facilities are open for business at different times of the year. For example, ranches in the northern Rockies area may have snow on the ground through June, making late summer the best time to visit. By contrast, ranches in the desert areas are popular in spring and at least part of the winter, but are usually closed to avoid the extreme heat of summer.

Terrain and location. Decide what terrain and location you'd prefer and narrow down your ranch choices accordingly. Do you prefer arid desert terrains or greener, forested areas?

Riding skills level. Are you a beginner or an advanced rider? Beginners require a ranch that offers beginner's lessons, while the advanced rider may want to visit a ranch that allows guests to participate more fully in the cattle chores of a working ranch.
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Accommodations. Can you sleep in a tent on a cattle drive, or would you prefer the luxuries of the main ranch? Alternatively, consider the happy medium of a rustic cabin. You'll find a ranch to suit all tastes.

Ranch type. Many ranches cater to families and will have a lot of children's activities. For guys planning to visit with their buddies, family ranches may be too crowded for a "guy’s weekend." Inquire before you book.

Special needs. Finally, before dismissing the group, take a moment to list any special requests of the group. Vegetarian dishes or the availability of hard mattresses for bad backs should be considered in the choice of the ranch and discussed at the time you book your visit.

Booking Your Trip

Once you’ve noted all group requirements, it's time to begin searching for your ideal dude ranch. Select about half a dozen ranches that suit your needs and send for their brochures. You can select ranches by following the SharpTravel guide below or by searching the excellent online directory of the Dude Rancher's Association. This organization also takes questions by phone, (970) 223-8440.

Once your brochures arrive, narrow your choices down to two or three and then call each ranch with your questions. Discuss your group’s requirements in order to find your ideal ranch.

Ten Great Dude Ranches in the U.S.

Circle Z Ranch, Arizona
The Circle Z Ranch is the oldest continuously operating ranch in Arizona. Founded in 1926, the "old world" charm of this facility makes it stand out from other newer ranches. The 5,000-acre property is located at the foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains, just 15 miles north of the Mexican border. The terrain and scenery is varied, with rolling hills and forest within riding distance of one another. Day horseback riding, weeklong pack trips, tennis and hiking are just some of the activities you can enjoy.
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Grapevine Canyon Ranch, Arizona
Located 85 miles southeast of Tucson, this ranch offers guests the opportunity to visit a working cattle ranch. It’s famous for the tranquility of the landscape, the friendliness of the owners and the excellent horseback riding. You’ll enjoy lots of "real" ranch activities, including cattle work and team penning, in addition to challenging trails and magnificent scenery.

Coulter Lake Guest Ranch, Colorado
As the name suggests, this ranch has a wonderful lakeside location and is famous for its rustic setting. Situated in the White River National Forest, the property offers visitors the opportunity to horseback ride through attractive meadows, swim in the private lake, eat cookout dinners outdoors and set out on overnight pack trips. Hiking and four-wheel driving trips are available.

Hargrave Cattle and Guest Ranch, Montana
This genuine working ranch allows guests to join in on no-frills ranch work, including spring calving and fall roundups. The 87,000-acre ranch’s overnight lakeside campouts are also popular.

Lazy K Bar Ranch, Montana
This working cattle and horse ranch is ideal for those looking for unlimited riding. Guests can follow trails up to high country and into open ranges on this 22,000-acre ranch. Round-ups, salting, trailing cattle and campfire breakfast and rodeos are also available.

Wapiti Meadow Ranch, Idaho
If you’re looking for isolation and an unspoiled landscape, then Wapiti is the place for you. Nestled in a magnificent mountain valley, surrounded by crystal clear streams and forested mountain, you’ll find hundreds of miles of mountain trails to enjoy on horseback or on foot, in addition to streams stocked for fishing.

Spur Cross Ranch, Nevada
If you’d really like to get away, consider the Spur Cross Ranch’s "no telephones" policy and self-generated electricity. The ranch gives visitors the chance to live on an authentic, operating horse and cattle ranch. You can participate in cattle drives and branding, or just relax, enjoy the scenery and catch some fish.

Dripping Springs Guest Ranch and Spa, New Mexico
This ranch aims to combine "Old West" charm with modern luxuries. The emphasis is on personalized service, escape and relaxation. Activities range from challenging trail rides to leisurely hikes through old settlers' ruins.

Absaroka Ranch, Wyoming
For truly unspoiled natural beauty, it's hard to beat Absaroka. Located on the slopes of the Absaroka Mountain range and overlooking a beautiful valley, this ranch offers "solitude and beauty on a grand scale." Each trail takes you to even more breathtaking beauty; perfect for hiking, wildlife viewing, campfire songs and cookout trips.

David Ranch, Wyoming
Located at an elevation of 8,000 feet, this ranch retains an 1800s charm. No kids allowed here, so all guests are encouraged to join in on team penning, roping and cattle sorting. Instruction on horse training is also available.

This article last updated on Tuesday 7th February 2012
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