Could it be that dressing down and getting dirty are suddenly hip? With the current spike in interest in ranch vacations, Americans are gladly trading city style for a week spent riding horses, fly-fishing, and roasting hot dogs around the campfire. Perhaps, Brokeback Mountain is to thank for introducing moviegoers to the dramatic scenery of Wyoming and the West (though the film was shot in Canada), or maybe the stress of urban living is causing vacationers to yearn to get back to nature. Whatever the reason, ranch vacations are on the rise, and would-be cowboys and girls can now find a ranch to fit any interest or budget.
Not your grandmother’s ranch vacation
The traditional dude ranch focuses on the horses, with trail riding, team penning, and arena games like barrel racing. Guests stay in cabins or in individual rooms in a main lodge. Meals are served family-style, and everyone gets to know each other. Some ranches are actually working ranches, and guests can help out with the daily farm chores.
Looking for something more? Don’t worry. As Colleen Hodson, executive director of the Dude Ranchers’ Association, points out, “Ranch vacations have been keeping up with the travel trends.” You’ll find resort ranches with luxurious accommodations and amenities, eight-course gourmet dinners, and on-site spas. For the non-rider, many ranches offer a variety of activities such as hiking, river rafting, fly-fishing, golf, hay rides, wine tasting, karaoke nights, trips to the rodeo, and line dancing lessons. Most ranches charge by the week, but some are now introducing shorter-stay packages, so you can combine a few days at a ranch with a trip to a nearby national park.
Some of the ranches also accept guests year-round. You can find a completely different experience in the winter with sleigh rides, skiing, and skating.
Who should go
“Ranches are nifty for young children,” says Gene Kilgore, founder and director of Ranchweb. “Kids can be kids, and mothers don’t have to worry about them.” Indeed, ranch vacations are very family-oriented. Not only can kids run around and get dirty without their parents having to fret about their safety, but families have so much together-time on a ranch that they can’t help but bond. Some even offer accommodations in full-sized houses or cottages, perfect for extended family reunions. Ranchers are also used to children (and adults) who have never gone riding before and will give instructions and pair newbies with gentle horses.
Kilgore also recommends ranch vacations for singles. “There’s such a spirited camaraderie in this natural environment,” he says. With so many communal activities such as riding and family-style dinners, everyone quickly gets to know each other and single travelers won’t feel alone.
Of course, ranch vacations are good for couples, too. And if one partner rides and the other does not, both can be accommodated with the many activities available.
How to book and how to save
With so many different kinds of ranch vacations, it’s important to choose your vacation destination carefully. You can search for ranches on Ranchweb or the Dude Rancher’s Association website by price, location, and amenities. When in doubt, call the ranch and explain what you’re looking for. They’ll be happy to tell you if they’ve got what you need.
- Choose your geographic location: Dude ranches are found throughout the western U.S. and Canada, as well as in South America. Peak season for northwestern ranches is the summer months, while ranches in the Southwest do their biggest business in the winter. If you’re looking to view scenery such as what you saw in Brokeback Mountain, Chuck Coon of Wyoming Travel and Tourism suggests looking for ranches near the Big Horn National Forest, the Wind River Mountains, or Grand Teton National Park. He adds, “You can find the wide-open spaces statewide.”
- Choose your ranch style: Do you want to rough it in basic bunks or luxuriate in Ralph Lauren sheets? Do you want to focus on riding or other outdoor activities? Do you want a very family-oriented experience or a more adult atmosphere? Once you know exactly what you hope to get out of your ranch vacation, you can find a destination that has everything you’re looking for.
- Find a price range: A week at a ranch can cost between $800 and $3,200 per person, often less for children, according to Hodson. Meals, lodging, and many activities are included in this price; some ranches also include airport transfers and special trips, such as white-water rafting. Be sure you know what is included and what costs extra before you book. If you’re looking for deals, you may find them at the northwestern ranches during the shoulder seasons of May and September. Or, check out Ranchweb’s Travel Bargains page. You may also be able to negotiate a group rate if you’re traveling with a lot of people. Just remember that the more luxury you require, the more your ranch vacation is going to cost you.
- Ask about fellow travelers: Most ranches are small; the member ranches of the Dude Ranchers’ Associations can host between eight and 120 people, with most ranches in the 20 to 60 range. If you’re bringing children, you might want to find out if there are children of similar ages already booked. If you want a romantic getaway, you might want to ask if the other guests are similarly minded or if there’s a huge family reunion planned.
- Get recommendations: All members of the Dude Ranchers’ Association go through a rigorous certification process and must meet certain standards, so you should get a quality vacation if you book with one of them. If you’re still feeling uncertain if a ranch is right for you, ask the owners for the contact information of previous visitors. Many ranch vacationers are repeat guests and will be happy to describe their past trips and set your mind at ease.
At press time, approximately 80 percent of the Dude Ranchers’ Association member ranches were booked for the summer. If you’re interested in joining in the latest vacation trend, now would be a good time to dust off your cowboy hat and start planning your return to nature.