The origin of the dude ranch vacation is a fascinating story. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, “dude” was the name given to “big-shot city slickers” by Western cattle ranchers (or cowboys). When these “dudes” left their big eastern cities to head out West, ranchers would host them on a complimentary basis at their guest or dude ranches. In fact, offering to pay a rancher for their hospitality was considered an insult. The first known dude ranch, Custer Trail Ranch, was started by several brothers in the 1880s in the Dakota Badlands. After President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Eaton brothers’ property, the word spread about this Western cowboy life with horseback riding, hunting and fishing. Roosevelt even purchased a ranch nearby, known as the Maltese Cross Ranch. Eventually, ranchers had to charge a small fee to host their guests after experiencing a series of hardships – and realizing just how much it was costing them to entertain these East Coast city slickers.
In 1926, the ranchers partnered with the Northern Pacific Railway and formed the Dude Ranchers’ Association to market the dude ranch experience and supplement their incomes. The Dude Ranchers’ Association was founded on six core principles (the 6 H’s) of dude ranching. Those principles are still at the center of the DRA today: horses, hats, hospitality, heritage, honesty and heart.
Today, dude ranches still offer guests the romanticism and spirit of the American West with family-friendly programs perfect for multigenerational families. But there are different types of ranches, depending on the type of “dude” you are. Some guest ranches are small, family-owned and operated properties, but there are also larger, corporate-owned ranches – and not every property is open year-round. Some destinations allow guests to book short-term getaways of just a few nights, while others only offer six-night weekly programs where everyone stays for the entire week, forming a camaraderie among the group. And if you’re into horsemanship and riding, some ranches will pair you with one of their horses for your entire stay. One feature that most ranches have in common is all-inclusive pricing with lodging, meals and most ranch activities, but that may not include extras like alcoholic beverages or additional excursions, clinics, spa treatments and other amenities. And pricing can range from as low as hundreds of dollars per person per night to rates in the thousands of dollars for five-star luxury properties.
If you’re ready for fresh air and wide open spaces – and one of the best-kept secrets for whole family vacations in the U.S. – grab your boots and hat, embrace your inner cowboy or cowgirl and giddy up as fast as you can to one of these top dude ranches in the country.
Alisal Ranch: Solvang, California
(Courtesy of Alisal Ranch)
Situated on an expansive 10,500 acres with the backdrop of the Santa Ynez mountains, this family-owned luxury dude ranch began welcoming guests when the property opened in 1946. Alisal Ranch features 73 private Western-themed cottages ranging in size from studio guest rooms to a three-bedroom home that accommodates a maximum of 12 people. The property also maintains 100 horses trained to ride with experts and beginners – and they offer corral lessons, barrel racing, a seasonal rodeo and hay wagon rides. Guests can also enjoy other outdoor activities, including fishing, canoeing and kayaking on the 110-acre spring-fed lake. On shore, there’s something for everyone in the family: lawn games, pickleball, tennis, e-bike excursions, arts and crafts, a scavenger hunt, a petting zoo and other activities. And in the evenings, guests can feast on traditional Santa Maria-style barbecue, tell stories around a crackling campfire, join in a line dance and then stargaze under the clear, dark sky. Nightly rates are mostly all-inclusive, with some activities, such as spa services, horseback riding, golf and tennis clinics, at an additional cost. The ranch also offers a variety of packages throughout the year.
C Lazy U Ranch: Granby, Colorado
(Courtesy of C Lazy U Ranch)
C Lazy U Ranch has welcomed guests to its year-round luxury Western getaway for more than 100 years. Located 90 miles northwest of Denver, the local family-owned 8,500-acre property is easily accessible yet still secluded in the Colorado mountains. During their stay, guests will be treated to gracious Western hospitality and an opportunity to experience the Great American West. The ranch offers elegant cabin accommodations and one multibedroom home; most feature stone fireplaces and Western-inspired decor. And with a herd of more than 200 horses, beginners and advanced riders will surely find the best match for their stay. The ranch also offers horse showmanship clinics, cattle pushing lessons, trap shooting, ranger jeep tours, guided hiking, mountain biking, Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing on the privately owned sections of the Colorado River and other outdoor activities. In the winter months, guests can feed the horses with the Feed Wagon Sleigh, go ice skating or play ice hockey, and take a horseback ride through the snow or a sleigh ride drawn by their team of Belgian Draft horses. More outdoor winter fun options include snow tubing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling. And the property offers a robust program for children and teens. All-inclusive rates cover lodging, fine dining meals and most activities. The ranch also has special packages around the holidays and adults-only getaways, and it hosts special events and retreats.
White Stallion Ranch: Tucson, Arizona
The proprietors of this 3,000-acre dude ranch in Tucson have owned the property since 1965 – and there are six full-time family members involved with every aspect of the guest experience and the working ranch. White Stallion features 43 guest rooms throughout the property and one four-bedroom home perfect for larger families or small groups. The ranch offers different plans, depending on how long you want to stay and how active you or your family want to be. The Full American Plan includes lodging, three meals a day, evening entertainment, horseback riding, complimentary Wi-Fi and airport transfers – and you can add activities as desired for an additional fee. For the more adventurous guest, the Adventure Package (with a four- or six-night stay, depending on the time of year) includes rock climbing, range shooting, fat tire e-biking and archery. The ranch also offers special packages, promotions, retreats and workshops during the year. And if the property looks familiar, White Stallion was the filming location for many Western feature films and television series, including “High Chapparal” (1967 to 1972) and “How the West Was Won” (1977).
The Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch: Shell, Wyoming
(Courtesy of The Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch)
This all-inclusive, upscale and intimate riding ranch sits approximately 68 miles east of Cody, Wyoming, in the Bighorn Mountains – and boasts nearly 650,000 acres of stunning landscapes to explore at elevations between 4,200 and 13,100 feet. The owners are very hands-on with guests, hosting just 25 people a week for a six-night stay in a choice of Western-style log cabins with a loft, one- and two-bedroom casitas or a luxury home with two master suites. The Hideout is a working cattle ranch, and its herd of horses includes quarter horses and mustangs, which have been adopted through horse adoption programs with the Bureau of Land Management. Daily rides take place on different trailheads and varying terrain as the owners have eight trucks and trailers to load up the horses and reach more remote areas surrounding the ranch. For guests interested in horsemanship, the property offers clinics and retreats, stockmanship and cattle work, and other educational experiences. There are also other activities travelers can enjoy, including fly-fishing (seasonally), trap shooting, archery, scenic off-roading and 4×4 tours, hiking and mountain biking, and swimming in a pool with a view. Guests visiting from June 1 through Aug. 31 can also attend the Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede Rodeo and Cody Nite Rodeo in the “Rodeo Capital of the World” – Cody. Rates include lodging, meals, cocktail hours and on-ranch activities. The property also offers special packages like girlfriend getaways for “dudettes,” and you can even reserve the entire ranch in the off-eason for a special event, family reunion or other occasion.
The Western Pleasure Guest Ranch: Sandpoint, Idaho
(Courtesy of The Western Pleasure Guest Ranch)
Located in Idaho’s Panhandle, this cattle and guest ranch sits on land that’s been in the same family since 1939. The experience and offerings at the property vary depending on the season and guests can choose between lodge rooms or cabin accommodations. The all-inclusive adventure vacation in the summer includes lodging, three country gourmet meals a day, daily horseback rides, evening entertainment, including Dutch oven cookouts and campfires, and all on-site amenities. There’s also an educational program for young wranglers ages 8 to 18 focused on horse husbandry skills and equipment care. At the end of the program there’s even a horse show, where participants are awarded trophies and ribbons. Bed-and-breakfast stays are available from October to May in the lodge and feature a hearty breakfast each morning. Horseback riding is offered during these getaways in the spring and fall. And in the winter, head out for an invigorating sleigh ride in a snow-covered winter wonderland.
Bar W Guest Ranch: Whitefish, Montana
(Courtesy of Bar W Guest Ranch)
Located 30 miles southwest of Glacier National Park and nestled in the scenic Flathead Valley along Spencer Lake in Whitefish, this intimate family ranch hosts up to 60 guests a week. The packages at Bar W Guest Ranch are for a six-night stay and rates include all meals, guided trail rides, horsemanship lessons, cattle working and all ranch activities and facilities. During your stay, you can go boating or fishing on Spencer Lake, hike into the wilderness areas around the property, take up archery or even learn the skill of hatchet throwing. When the sun goes down, ranch guests will enjoy wagon rides, line dancing and sitting around the campfire while listening to the cowboys sing. Summer packages are offered from mid-June through the end of August. The ranch also hosts special adults-only weeks from mid-May to the end of October and the Western Cattle Drive twice a year at the end of May and August. The lodge at the ranch accommodates up to 29 guests, and individual cabins are available as well. You can even go glamping in one of four luxury tents between mid-May to October.
Drowsy Water Ranch: Granby, Colorado
(Buffalo Media Group/Courtesy of Drowsy Water Ranch)
This 700-acre family-owned and operated ranch has been offering guests an authentic Western dude ranch experience for more than 90 years. Drowsy Water is open between the end of May and early September and features six-night, all-inclusive packages that range in price based on guest age. The rates include meals and lodging, instruction-based horseback riding and programs, evening entertainment, a full-day rafting trip on the Colorado River, guided hikes, mountain biking and other Western-themed activities. Guests will find plenty to keep them busy from sunup to sundown on the weekly calendar of activities and events. There are also special programs grouped by age for the younger cowpokes and cowgirls, which include ranch-based activities like horse brushing and horseback riding, and other fun adventures like zip lining, archery, swimming, hiking and more.
Tanque Verde Ranch: Tucson, Arizona
(Courtesy of Tanque Verde Ranch 2019)
This historic property, dating back to 1868, sits on 60,000 acres of desert with 640 acres bordered by Saguaro National Park and Coronado National Forest. The 69 distinct luxury accommodations feature traditional Southwestern architecture and design, and offer views of the surrounding Sonoran Desert landscape and Rincon Mountains. The ranch offers three types of packages: an All-Inclusive Getaway, 3 Squares and a Bed, and a Rise and Dine plan. The all-inclusive option covers lodging, three meals a day, horseback rides and lessons, a supervised children’s program for ages 4 to 11, breakfast rides and cowboy cookouts, evening entertainment and many other outdoor activities and amenities. The Rise and Dine package at Tanque Verde Ranch is another option if you just want a place to lay your head down at night (and hang your hat) after a long day on the ranch. This plan includes lodging and access to on-site amenities like the pools, fitness center and sports courts – and you can add horseback riding, guided hikes, spa treatments, a la carte meals and other activities at an additional cost.
Rainbow Trout Ranch: Antonito, Colorado
An authentic Wild West adventure awaits during a summer vacation at Rainbow Trout Ranch. Situated at 9,000 feet elevation in the remote Conejos River Valley in the Colorado Rockies, less than 12 miles north of the New Mexico border, this dude ranch offers guests a step back in time to the days of Old West. The accommodations at the property are two- or three-bedroom rustic log cabins – and at the convivial historic Grand Lodge, guests can relax by the fireplace, chat with new friends or grab a beverage and a snack. The family-owned and operated ranch hosts six-night vacation getaways that begin with meet and greet Sundays and continue with fun-filled days for adults and children of all ages throughout the week. Activities include horsemanship and horseback riding, cookouts by the river, special programs for the Buckaroos (children ages 3 to 5) and the Cowpokes (ages 6 to 11), sunrise hikes, river rafting, trap shooting, fishing, hayrides and much more. The Friday afternoon rodeo gives all the guests a chance to saddle up and show off their newly learned skills at the barrels and poles. After the festivities, everyone heads down to the river for the last evening’s steak dinner and singalong before saying their farewells or “happy trails!” in the morning. All-inclusive rates cover cabin accommodations, all meals and all on-site activities like horseback riding, guided fly-fishing, children’s programs, whitewater rafting, trapshooting and archery, and evening entertainment. While there, don’t miss taking the 64-mile ride on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, America’s longest and highest steam train journey.
Brush Creek Ranch: Saratoga, Wyoming
(Courtesy of Brush Creek Ranch)
Brush Creek Ranch, a 30,000-acre all-inclusive, award-winning luxury getaway destination, is situated between the Sierra Madre Mountain range and Medicine Bow National Forest in south-central Wyoming. The property is also a working cattle ranch, so guests will experience the genuine spirit of the West with trail rides, barn and campfire cookouts, cattle drives and barrel racing. Other indoor and outdoor activity options abound: Visitors can partake in epicurean adventures, wine tastings, cooking classes, spa treatments, wellness classes, fly-fishing, guided ranger tours, ATV rides, ropes courses, golf, paintball and much more. The ranch even offers goat yoga – yes, yoga classes with adorable baby goats. And in the winter, guests can go cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, downhill skiing and snowboarding, snowmobiling and ice fishing. In addition, Brush Creek Ranch offers special programs for young wranglers 4 to 9 that include horseback riding and outdoor exploration. For accommodations, guests can choose either one of 25 private log cabins with up to four bedrooms or stay in one of the 19 Western-themed lodge rooms. The property offers several packages, including a complimentary fourth night and a shorter getaway promotion. Rates include lodging, daily gourmet meals, many adventure activities and gear, the Lil’ Wrangler program and other amenities. Spa treatments and select activities are an additional cost.
The Ranch at Rock Creek: Philipsburg, Montana
(Courtesy of The Ranch at Rock Creek)
The 6,600-acre Ranch at Rock Creek offers a luxury ranch experience 20 miles from the historic town of Philipsburg – and the property is nestled at 5,200 feet elevation halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. This dude ranch-inspired Relais & Châteaux property is open year-round and offers dozens of outdoor adventures. In addition, the property features top-notch frontier-to-table cuisine, a full-service spa, private yoga instruction and other upscale amenities. The homestead also sits on land that offers access to National Forest and Wilderness areas and is home to local wildlife such as big horn sheep, elk, deer and moose. There are four distinct types of lodging at The Ranch, including rooms at The Granite Lodge or Homestead Barn, private homes and cabins, and luxury glamping canvas cabins. All-inclusive pricing includes lodging, meals, airport transfers, a social hour and evening entertainment in the Silver Dollar Saloon, where guests can go bowling, play table tennis, watch a show in the private movie theater and more. Fun daytime activities include float trips, sporting clays, fly-fishing, mountain excursions, snow sports in the winter months and a weekly ranch rodeo in the summer.
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