Sunrise never looks so fine as from the back of a horse, whether I’m at a ranch in the Arizona desert or the Rocky Mountains or the wide open Plains. And there’s just something about the satisfaction of a hearty breakfast at a rustic lodge or around a blazing campfire that makes early morning light come alive across unspoiled country. When I swing into the saddle on a well-trained horse for a day of adventure and spectacular scenery, I forget that I ever had a desk job.
Originated by enterprising ranchers looking to make an extra buck off East Coast greenhorns, the dude ranch is a Western tradition that has continued evolving into a 21st-century mainstay. Horsemanship and great trail rides have always been a premium, yet service and amenities (or lack thereof) are much improved. Living like a cowboy for a spell—whether you choose a ranch with a Michelin-rated chef from New York or a rough, overnight cattle drive—will remind you of the finer things in life. The creak of the saddle, the cry of a hawk, and the clip clop of hooves cleanse the harried soul.
And a week spent with horses, and without TVs or cell phones, brings people together like nothing else—especially families. The simple pleasures of hours on the trail, cookouts under the stars, and two-stepping at a barn dance put the real focus on the family.
Why go: You won’t see saguaro cactus in the high-desert mountain ranges surrounding the Circle Z, but that’s part of the attraction. The abundant water in this less-traveled part of southeastern Arizona attracts 4 million migratory birds every year. Perennial Sonoita Creek runs right through the ranch, a bona fide oasis that opened in 1926. With its Southwest-style architecture, worn wooden floors, and huge closets built for the steamer trunks of another era, the Circle Z has a sense of Western elegance
that would make Barbara Stanwyck feel at home.
The riding: The virtually unlimited trails here take you through rocky canyons, wide-open grasslands, and splashing through Sonoita Creek. (The original Monte Walsh and John Wayne’s Red River were shot in the area, which looks as wide open as it did then.) This is a true riding ranch, with a first-rate string of horses.
Price: $1,325–$1,885, one-week minimum from October–May (All rates per person/adult; all-inclusive unless otherwise noted; does not include tax, gratuity, or alcohol.)
Guest total: 48
Why go: No one appreciates the freedom of the American West like someone who has lived with no freedom at all. As a child in her native Czechoslovakia, ranch-owner Eve Searle and her parents survived the Nazis and escaped the Soviets and later endured India’s Civil War. (You can buy her amazing biography in the gift shop.) This part of the Southwest has its own dramatic history, like the early rancher who was ambushed by Apaches right on the Grapevine property. Still, I savored the peace and stillness of the high desert, as I sat on the deck of my cabin during the evening twilight.
The riding: Open to adults only, this working ranch (there’s no tennis, spa, or pool, although there is a hot tub) is the place to go if you want to learn to work cattle and ride where Geronimo and the U.S. Cavalry once roamed. Trail rides visit historic Fort Bowie and the Cochise Stronghold and meander along the route of the Butterfield Stage line.
Price: $684–$744, three-night minimum (All rates for July)
Guest total: 30
Why go: The Western hospitality of the True family makes this picturesque 3,000-acre Spanish-style property come alive. Saguaro National Park, and those huge cacti that symbolize the Old West, is next door. Hollywood has long appreciated the desert ambiance of the place: Jimmy Stewart, James Arness, and Gene Autry all filmed on the property. (The ranch also hosted a recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot.)
The riding: An excellent string of some 130 mounts will impress experienced riders and take good care of beginners. New to the saddle? There’s no better place to learn. The wranglers also teach team penning, which is a blast.
Price: $270–$378, two-night minimum
Guest total: 75
Why go: Napoleon Bonaparte Hunewill founded this ranch in 1861, raising cattle to feed the nearby Wild West gold mining town of Bodie. (Now a ghost town, Bodie is a California State Historic Park and well worth a side trip.) The ranch is still owned and operated by Hunewill’s descendants, who present family-style meals in the ranch house Napoleon built in 1880—the same year the barn was constructed.
The riding: Still a working cattle ranch, Hunewill calls itself California’s “most authentic Western ranch vacation.” Participate in spring cattle work, a fall roundup, or a week-long, 60-mile cattle drive—just three options from a long list of special programs. Or just spend the week riding the lush meadows of the ranch and the spectacular surrounding mountains.
Price: $1,900, four-night minimum
Guest total: 25
Cranbrook, British Columbia
Why go: Those without the John Wayne gene will be happy here. North of Glacier National Park and south of Banff in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, this ranch offers whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and hiking. No, the West doesn’t end at the Canadian border.
The riding: The two valleys of Three Bars add up to 75,000 acres of horseback country. The ranch is also home to one of the top reining horse breeding and training programs in the world. Even those who don’t ride will be smitten with the young registered American Quarter Horse foals.
Price: $1,080, three-night minimum
Guest total: 40
Why go: At the upscale Home Ranch near Steamboat Springs, you don’t just eat meals—you experience gourmet events of Atlantic wild salmon, New York strip of buffalo, or stuffed quail on long tables in front of a huge, stone fireplace. Kick back on a couch in the great room after dinner and listen to the live music, and you won’t want to go home—ever. Choose from rooms in the lodge or private cabins.
The riding: Renowned trainer Tammy Pate’s been conducting clinics here for years, including a Women’s Retreat that blends yoga with horsemanship. Head wrangler Tayler Cabalka is a gifted teacher and loves to share her insights. Winter riding includes snowy treks on plowed trails.
Price: $3,000, one-week minimum
Guest total: 50
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Why go: Whether it’s the five-star food (Sample dessert: Mexican molten cake topped with homemade dulce de leche ice cream and rum-caramel sauce), the brand-new lodge with its huge fireplace, timbers, and picture windows, or the 600-thread count sheets on custom log beds, the goal of co-manager Ben Martin is to instill “the wow factor.” This fall Vista Verde is launching an intensive weeklong cattle gather tailored for serious riders (and those who want to be). The new indoor riding arena has also been a huge hit.
The riding: The big buckskin I rode here was the fastest horse I’d ever been on. My wife loved her gentler mount, Sugar, and the ranch-riding clinic taught us to do “diagonals” for the first time. We learned to drive the wagon team as well, which was a kick. I really enjoyed the long hours in the saddle through the colors of the Routt National Forest.
Price: $3,400–$3,600, one-week minimum
Guest total: 40
Why go: “We are a working cattle outfit,” declares fourth-generation rancher Theron McGarry. This spread 90 miles west of Jackson, Wyoming, takes just eight guests at a time. You’ll trail herds to new pasture, rope and help doctor cows, look for strays, ride fence, put out salt, check for predators, sort cattle, and ride herd on cow-calf pairs, making sure they’re in good shape.
The riding: There’s no set activity schedule here: Saddle up in the morning, work the cattle all day and perform ranch chores, then ride back in for dinner. They run some 2,000 cattle on 55,000 acres of the Big Hole Range, and you’ll be tutored in roping, among other skills. Ride along the Snake River through high-mountain pastures and forests, with views of the Grand Tetons, and you’ll be transported to another era.
Price: $830, four-night minimum
Guest total: 8
Why go: Nestled in the heart of the Rockies, the lodge has the requisite stone fireplace, where everyone naturally gathers. Guests stay in log cabins and are treated to a seven-course wine dinner on Thursday night. Children enjoy a cookout the same night, so parents can really relax. Guests can tailor vacations to suit their tastes, with choices like massage, 300-foot zipline rides, kayaking, or rock climbing. Special offerings include Fall Color Week, Girl’s Getaways, and Wine Tasting Week.
The riding: Kids as young as three can saddle up here (under close supervision) in a program certified for safety by the Dude Ranchers Association. Rides on the surrounding 300,000 acres of National Forest are tailored to all ability levels. On special spring “rider’s weeks,” experienced riders can help the ranch get the winter rust off the horse string. You’ll be on a different horse for every ride as you help the wranglers prepare for the upcoming high season.
Price: $1,169, three-night minimum
Guest total: 40
Why go: The Hideout is a platinum-quality guest ranch complete with luxurious, private log homes and culinary-schooled chefs. It’s also a working cattle ranch that offers unusual, fun activities, like dinosaur digs, professional photography seminars, and winter snowmobiling. Of course, you’ll also have complete horseback access to the 300,000-acre Flintner Ranch.
The riding: Drive cattle with working cowboys, and immerse yourself in the techniques of Natural Horsemanship (the effective communication with your horse through feel, not force). Special horsemanship clinics, such as Colt Starting and Trouble Shooting, are also offered.
Price: $1,900, four-night minimum
Guest total: 25
Why go: What began as a U.S. Cavalry post is now one of the most unique dude ranch properties in the country. Located fourteen miles inside a National Forest in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains, Paradise Guest Ranch is surrounded by well over a million acres of unspoiled country. The trout fishing is world-class, too. Take an overnight pack trip to the high-mountain camp and cast for rainbows. Keep an eye out for the abundant moose.
The riding: While this is a very popular destination for serious riders (forget nose-to-tail riding), Paradise is also known for its excellent kid’s program. Games, crafts, hikes, and pony rides keep the tots busy. The teen program includes an overnight camp out.
Price: $1,875, one-week minimum
Guest total: 70
Why go: “Everything we do is about the Brannaman style of horsemanship,” says owner Shayne Jackson, who opened his intimate ranch in 1999.
Three riding arenas (one indoors) facilitate the teaching. Offerings include an intensive horsemanship clinic in May for serious riders. And you’re always welcome to bring your own horse. Out of the saddle, the first-class cabins feature Pamela Kline-designed bedding and linens. And the mouth-watering breakfast menu includes giant pancakes made with local huckleberries.
The riding: You’ll ride the same Wade Tree saddles, wear the same chaps, and use the same snaffle bits as Jackson and his crew. Learn to communicate with your horse and work with the animal as a partner—a revelation for many people. Buck Brannaman himself conducts annual clinics at the ranch. Test your new skills and knowledge by working cattle on this 75,000-acre spread in northwestern Montana.
Price: $1,850–$2,015, six-night minimum
Guest total: 20
Why go: This pretty little canyon was the home to a pioneer cattleman and is now a prime vacation destination. At the high end of the rate card, this ranch serves superb cuisine, like seafood gumbo and brown-butter pear tart with cognac ice cream. And the top-notch staff makes this place feel like a G-rated version of The Big Chill. “Without the staff, it’s just real estate,” says General Manager Yancey Arterburn. Try the non-horse-related activities, like skeet shooting, mountain biking, yoga, and river rafting.
The riding: The 9,000 acres include deep woods, lush meadows carpeted with wildflowers, and breathtaking ridge-top views. You’ll ride by an old cabin built by pioneers and visit the well-maintained original homestead dwellings. Wranglers can take you to nearby Yellowstone National Park for horseback views you won’t see out the windshield. Spotting buffalos and wolves is not unusual.
Price: $3,200–$3,800, one-week minimum
Guest total: 80
Gallatin Gateway, Montana
Why go: Tucked away in a secluded Montana valley just outside Yellowstone National Park, this traditional family dude ranch looks pretty much like it did 50 years ago. Even the swing set hasn’t changed, and the grass landing strip (remember Sky King?) is still operational. The ranch also hosts the Annual Montana Cowgirl Quilt Retreat.
The riding: Appaloosa horses raised on the ranch are the only kind you ride here. The Kelsey family believes they are especially well-suited to the area’s mountainous terrain. Moose, bear, and elk are among the area’s abundant wildlife that you could see on the weekly overnight pack trips.
Price: $1,589, one-week minimum
Guest total: 65
Why go: Millions of people see Yellowstone, but only a lucky few see the Bob. South of Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness neighbors the Triple J. Wranglers do all the heavy lifting on pack trips, even hauling in a wood-burning stove to prepare backcountry cuisine like fresh-baked apple pie. For those who prefer comforters to sleeping bags, the Triple J also offers a complete conventional ranch vacation as well.
The riding: A week’s ride in the spectacular Bob is great for beginners, as the guides lead a string of pack mules that don’t get out of a walk. The wilderness makes up for the modest pace, though, with turquoise alpine lakes, a towering rock formation known as the Chinese Wall, and grizzly bear sightings (or at least their tracks).
Price: $1,266, four-day minimum
Guest total: 24
Roswell, New Mexico
Why go: In the few short years since opening in 2003, the Chesser family has built an intensely loyal clientele from all over the world. The Chessers literally open their home to guests—a maximum of ten at a time—with family-style meals served at their own dinner table. The relaxed conversations are always rich and intimate.
The riding: Cattle drives are the specialty here. And when you saddle up to move the herd, it’s not just for show. This is a working ranch. You’ll likely get a chance to ride with other working cowboys on neighboring spreads. If you’re looking for the authentic cowboy experience, this is your place.
Price: $855, three-day minimum
Guest total: 10
The New Dudes
Whether open for the first time, re-opened, or re-branded, these places should be on your radar.
This was my very first dude ranch, and I was distressed to hear that it had closed. But the improved Circle Bar has been back in the saddle since late 2009. Even better, the new owners are resurrecting the weeklong Charlie Russell Ride, featuring local landmarks depicted in the legendary artist’s paintings.
Price: $260 per night
Guest total: 35
One of seven new member ranches at the Dude Ranchers’ Association (duderanch.org), this 12,000-acre working cattle ranch near Yellowstone has been hosting guests since the 1980’s. Still run by descendants of turn-of-the-century founder Malcolm Mackay, the cozy Lazy E-L has just three cabins.
Price: $1,895, one-week minimum
Guest total: 16
Enjoy the true West without sacrificing comfort in these ten square-miles of rugged Montana ranchland. Indoors there’s a 2,000-square-foot spa (and a bowling alley!). Lodging options range from a five-bedroom house to luxury camping.
Price: $800–$1,150 per night
Guest total: 70
The Eastern Bunch
Dude ranches flourish east of the Mississippi (and north of the Yukon), too.
Wilderness doesn’t get any wilder than the Last Frontier. Taking just four guests at time, the wranglers here will show you country where griz, wolves, and caribou outnumber people.
Price: $2,000, six-day minimum
Guest total: 4
Owners Dave and Kari Burkey met at a dude ranch and then started their own on Burkey’s family farm. The log cabins are modeled after the Wyoming ranch where Dave once wrangled. There are 750 acres of riding on the rolling, timbered hills and meadows of southeast Ohio. Team penning is a big attraction here, too.
Price: $825, four-day minimum
Guest total: 12
Candler, North Carolina
George Washington became President the same year (1789) they built the original ranch house, when the 2,000-acre property was a tobacco farm. Today that house is the ranch museum, and the same family still owns the place. You can ride the trails of the Blue Ridge Mountains, fish, swim, golf, or go whitewater rafting. The ranch also hosts weekly matches of the Single Action Shooting Society.
Price: $110–$149 per night
Guest total: 50
River Ranch, Florida
Florida’s famous for beaches, not cowboys. But the Sunshine State does have a long ranching heritage. Local cowboys come to Westgate River every Saturday to compete in the full-blown, weekly rodeo. Ride on 1,700 acres of trails or play golf (it’s Florida, after all), shoot trap, and take an airboat ride on the Kissimmee River—alligator sightings guaranteed!
Price: $139 per room, activities and food additional
Guest total: 600