By Horse illustrated Staff with the Dude Ranchers’ Association
A memorable and life-changing vacation should be on everyone’s bucket list. For some people, that vacation would entail a beach paradise or traveling overseas to a foreign country. But for horse lovers, a dude ranch vacation offers an experience like no other.
Dude ranch vacations are one of the top-rated vacations for families, couples or even solo travelers in the United States and Canada. These all-inclusive destinations can offer the adventure of a lifetime. So what’s stopping you from riding off into the sunset? The great news is that this type of vacation could be much more accessible than you think.
1. All-Inclusive Value
Most dude ranch vacations are all-inclusive, with your meals, lodging and the majority of the ranch activities included for one price. At a dude ranch, all the details are taken care of, from meal planning to a full itinerary of activities.
If you’re traveling with a group, scheduling to please everyone just got that much simpler—there’s something for everyone to enjoy. When you break down the cost of what’s included, a dude ranch vacation is probably going to be a much bigger bargain than you ever anticipated.
2. Options Abound
Deciding on a ranch is the first step toward making your ranch riding dreams a reality—but it may be the hardest part, given the number of options! From mountain meadows to desert arroyos, dude ranches cover a variety of terrain and scenery. The geographic location of the ranch defines the riding and activities offered; it’s up to you to choose a ranch to live out your dream vacation.
The season for guest ranches in northern states typically runs late May through mid-September, with peak months for family vacations in July and August. For ranches in the southern regions, warm-weather riding getaways during the winter months are prime time. Ranch getaways can be booked ranging from three- to seven-night stays, depending on the ranch.
Booking early is usually recommended for the busy months, but if your schedule is flexible, you might be able to find last-minute deals. Shopping the “shoulder season”—right before or after prime time—may also offer good deals as well. If you are looking for a quiet, relaxing time or prefer a kid-free trip, early or late season is the best time to go.
For ranches that offer seasonal opportunities such as cattle drives with spring and fall roundups, you’ll need to time your trip to coincide with these events. Many ranches also offer special activities at certain times, such as riding clinics, yoga retreats, photography workshops and more. You can also find ranches with year-round programming, including winter sleigh rides.
3. Go Rustic Without Roughing It
Whether bunking in a tent under the stars or in a cabin, dude ranches cater to guests’ comfort at all levels. You’ll find all brands of rustic charm and western ambience, along with amazing views.
But you can define just how rugged you want to go: dude ranches run the gamut from glamping to spa-like amenities. No matter where you choose to make yourself at home on the range, count on bunking down with comfy bed and bath arrangements to rest and recharge with a good night’s sleep at the end of a full day.
While an authentic western experience is a cornerstone of a ranch vacation and you can expect to enjoy activities that are part of that, dude ranches are fully staffed and hospitality is a top priority. You only have to get as dirty and dusty as you want to!
There is a lot that goes into making a dude or guest ranch run smoothly. The number of guests a ranch can host determines the size of the crew and the type of social experience you’ll have as a guest. Consider whether you’d rather dine with an intimate group of eight or a boisterous bunch of 80 when selecting a ranch.
When the dinner bell rings, expect to be delighted. The food you’ll enjoy at a dude ranch often has a farm-to-table focus with an emphasis on fresh fare and ranch-raised beef. Dining caters to a variety of palates, from family style to five-star cooking. Many ranches offer the chance to experience meals in the great outdoors, whether cooked over an open fire or served from a chuckwagon.
4. It’s Just Your Style
There are ranches that cater to every option, from family-friendly outfits with kids’ programs to great girlfriend getaways and more. Every dude ranch will offer a unique guest experience, but in general, there are three main types of ranches to choose from:
- WORKING RANCH—Are you dreaming of a cattle drive? These guest ranches are working cattle operations. Your horseback riding adventures will be determined by the ranch’s livestock and the work related to them. Be prepared to experience the exhilaration of trying these activities firsthand.
- DUDE RANCH—Horseback riding is central to these ranches. The cowboy in you will experience western riding and a variety of outdoor activities.
- RANCH RESORT—Horseback riding is featured along with an array of diverse activities and onsite facilities. These are apt to be the larger ranches with added luxuries.
5. Ride to Your Heart’s Content
Horses are at the heart of any dude ranch. There are horseback riding programs tailored for every level, with great riding adventures for anyone. But for experienced equestrians, a ranch vacation is a chance to live your dreams, whether that’s working cattle, trying out team penning, going on an overnight pack trip in the mountains, or riding the most scenic trails.
Riding at a dude ranch is customizable for the time you want to spend in the saddle and the pace that’s comfortable for you. Half and full-day rides are common offerings, as well as special adventures such as taking part in a guest rodeo, or riding off into the sunset on an evening trail ride.
When in doubt, speak to the ranch’s staff before you book to make sure the type of guest horses available and the riding excursions offered meet the level you’re looking for—whether that’s easygoing trail rides or high-speed cattle sorting.
6. Experience Other Outdoor Activities
The dude ranch experience centers around getting outdoors. It’s all about the amazing scenery, unplugging, and reconnecting with nature.
Out of the saddle, dude ranches offer an array of activities for a well-rounded vacation. Many ranches offer water activities like whitewater rafting, float trips, paddle boarding and more. Hiking trails also abound on dude ranch properties. Most guest ranches border national park or forest lands for exceptional hiking opportunities.
Fishing is another top activity at dude ranches. Cast your line and fish blue-ribbon waters and some of the finest trout fishing the West has to offer. For the adventurous, zip-lining, rock climbing, skeet shooting and archery await.
Most importantly, a dude ranch vacation offers a chance to rediscover the art of relaxation and escape from the stress of modern living. Blue skies, beautiful sunsets, fresh air, starry nights and the sounds of silence are all included in your dude ranch vacation.
Produced in partnership with the Dude Ranchers’ Association.
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!