Family Travel: Dude ranches

Arguably the best setting for a multigenerational family to kick up its heels or kick back, dude ranches give travelers a first-hand taste of ranch life.
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Arguably the best setting for a multigenerational family to kick up its heels or kick back, dude ranches give travelers a first-hand taste of ranch life.
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Dude ranches are scattered throughout the West and come in all shapes and sizes. Arguably the best setting for a multigenerational family to kick up its heels or kick back, dude ranches give travelers a first-hand taste of ranch life.

Most ranches offer vacation packages that bundle a full week of activities, such as trail rides, swimming, fishing, and hayrides, with meals and comfortable lodging for one all-inclusive price. Often these packages are more affordable than a six-day theme park vacation. Many ranches also offer “Kids Stay Free” and even “Grandparents Stay Free” weeks; so if you plan your trip right, you can save even more.

There are three general categories of ranches: Working Dude Ranches, where guests pitch in as a get-your-hands-dirty working hand; Dude Guest Ranches, which focus on horseback riding and a variety of outdoor activities; and Resort Dude Ranches, which are generally larger ranches that offer an array of diverse activities and on-site amenities, such as a full-service spa or upscale dining. Accommodations range from family-style cabins to luxurious lodges.

Cradled by mountains just 90 minutes from Denver, Grand County, Colorado, is known as the “Dude and Guest Ranch Capital of the U.S.” The area is home to six dude and guest ranches—Aspen Canyon, C Lazy U, Drowsy Water, King Mountain, and Latigo.

The sixth is Colorado’s oldest continuously operated guest ranch, the Bar Lazy J Ranch, which was founded in 1912. Located on the prime trout-fishing waters of the Colorado River near Parshall, Colorado, the Lazy J is a favorite of families that enjoy fishing and the outdoors. You can also explore the adjacent 30,000 acres of Colorado state and federal forestlands on horseback or foot. No need to pack your hats or boots as the owner keeps a supply for guests.

Dude ranches can also provide multiple activities for horse-shy family members, too. Grand County dude ranches provide ample opportunities to hike, bike, fish, and golf.

Horseshu Ranch is located on beautiful San Juan Island in Washington State. Debuting in 2002, this 16-acre spread is open year-round and maintains a herd of more than a dozen horses and ponies. Most of San Juan Island’s attractions, which include whale watching, kayaking, bicycling, sailing, mopeds, golfing, and hiking, are all within a 10- to 15-minute walk from your ranch veranda.

Cheyenne, Wyo. is home of the family owned and operated Terry Bison Ranch. One reader of American Cowboy books an annual family vacation there to coincide with the dates of the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo. His family enjoys horseback rides, train rides, fly-fishing, a Kid Corral—home to Beefalo, Texas Longhorns, and camels—and the ranch’s seasonal bison hunts.

The original 17-room bunkhouse, built in the 1900s, still stands as private quarters and is where President Theodore Roosevelt once stayed. Modern guest cabins and RV sites are the preferred accommodations these days.

Western destinations to make the next family vacation one they'll never forget: