From the mountains, to the prairies and rivers, hundreds of dude ranches dot the American landscape. While horseback riding is the central activity, a family dude ranch vacation offers many western-themed adventures. Even non-riders will appreciate fresh mountain air, outdoor activities, delicious western food, and quality family time. Round up the family and giddy up to one of America’s best dude ranches for families.
Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Rocking Z Guest Ranch, but all opinions are the writer’s own.
Dude Ranches for a Family Vacation
As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, I always wanted my own horse. I never got one, but when my kids were tots we began visiting dude ranches. There, I could have my own horse for a few days and embrace the cowgirl life.
Our first dude ranch vacation was the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Santa Barbara. When my three kids were little, they collected eggs and played with animals in the barnyard. By age 7 they learned to ride. Over the years, we’ve returned several times to this ranch and others in California.
Why Choose a Dude Ranch for Your Family Vacation
Dude ranches are unique and fun for several reasons. “It’s a more personal vacation than Disney or cruises,” says Colleen Hodson, executive director for the Dude Ranchers’ Association. The association has 100-plus ranch members west of the Mississippi.
“You’re there with no more than 200 people. It’s a place to connect and reconnect,” she says. “It gives you time to eat and play as a family.”
Since dude ranches are typically family owned (some for many generations), they are super kid friendly. Ranch staff interact with kids and adults, making you feel like part of their family. Kids become friends with the wranglers, cooks and other families. Ask a wrangler and they’ll tell you that many guests become close and time their annual family vacations to be together year after year.
Typically, most dude ranches are all-inclusive. That covers horseback riding, accommodations, most or all meals, a bunch of western-themed activities, and children’s programs. But some activities are available for an additional fee. Know in advance what’s covered.
Expect to eat well! “Guests will discover that dining at a dude ranch will be one of the most memorable parts of their vacation,” says Hodson.
Imagine dining around a campfire under the stars or enjoying a pool-side barbecue. Or sitting at an elegant candle-lit table. Food is a big part of any dude ranch. The fare will range from home-style cooking to the finest western cuisine. Most ranches have a chef and a baker on staff. Plus, fresh fruits and vegetables are often grown right on the ranch. Most ranches can also meet special dietary needs when needed.
How to Choose the Right Dude Ranch for Your Family
Basically, there are three types of dude ranches, although there is some overlap.
Working cattle ranches usually have fewer guests and are great for learning about ranch life. You can even watch or join cattle drives. “You’ll be in the saddle a lot. You can also learn to round up livestock on horseback. If the ranchers have to feed the cows, you can help. You’ll be immersed in ranch atmosphere,” says Hodson.
Traditional ranches accommodate about 45-50 people. Trail rides and horses are the main focus. You’ll also find outdoor adventures. These dude ranches are usually located by great rivers, so fly fishing is a popular activity. Evening campfires, line dancing, great kids programs, and family style meals are part of the package.
Resort ranches are the largest. These upscale ranches serve gourmet food, and may have an onsite spa facility and swimming pool. Activities are usually guided. For example, guided horseback riding, hiking, fishing, etc.
Consider the Geographic Location
Since ranches are located in mountains, and by rivers and prairies, their location can be remote. Find out the proximity of a ranch to the closest airport and available flights from your hometown.
Ranch location determines the type of riding activities offered. These include overnight pack trips, hunting trips, and all-day rides. In addition, ranches may offer breakfast or lunch rides, cattle drives, team penning, cutting, and guest rodeos.
Some ranches are located next to a national park – a great side trip for your family vacation. Plus, nearby rivers offer opportunities for whitewater rafting during your family dude ranch vacation. Also, some ranches are a stone’s throw to cool historic towns.
Depending on their location, ranch operating seasons vary. Some ranches welcome guests year-round, others are seasonal. In addition, ask about the required minimum stay. Some ranches require a minimum stay of two nights while the policy for others is one week.
Accommodations and Amenities
From rustic to luxury, all ranch lodging is clean and comfortable. But some ranches offer more amenities, like afternoon hors d’oeuvres, WiFi, TVs, hair dryers, etc. If you’re looking for massages or a hot tub, a resort ranch may be a better option than a cattle ranch. Also, not all ranches serve alcohol. So if you enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, you may have to bring your own.
Be sure to inquire about kids programs, which vary from ranch to ranch. Ask about the minimum age to ride, activities for various ages, and if there’s a facility for infants and toddlers. Are there teen camps or special programs for older kids? Find out if there are other kids booked at the same time. “You don’t want your five-year-old to be the only kid in the children’s program,” says Hodson.
Besides horseback riding, dude ranches offer a gamut of onsite and offsite activities for riders and non-riders. Think mountain biking, exercise rooms, pool tables, rec rooms, and hay rides. There may also be western dancing, canoeing, art classes, and cooking classes.
During my family’s visit at the cozy Rankin Ranch in Caliente, California, we rode in a hay wagon, competed in a horseshoe tournament, and played pool in the rec room.
Best Dude Ranches for Every Age Group
Great Dude Ranches for Toddlers
Bar Lazy J Ranch, Colorado
Open May – September, the ranch is located along the banks of the Colorado River. Trail rides, a heated swimming pool with a water slide, and hay rides are among the many activities. In the kids program, kids ages 3 – 12 learn horsemanship skills and roping. They also visit the petting farm and pan for gold. For a fee, babysitting is available for those under 3. Families stay in log cabins or in the main ranch house.
Drowsy Water Ranch, Colorado
This Colorado dude ranch operates from May – September. In the Buckaroo program for kids 5 and younger, activities include horseback rides around the ranch, games, crafts and picnic hikes. Counselors supervise naps and feeding. Kids ages 6 to 13 learn to ride and practice skills in the Rangerider program. Parents are welcome to join kids’ activities. Families eat together and stay in one- to four-bedroom cabins.
White Stallion Ranch, Arizona
Open year-round, the ranch is about a 35-minute drive from Tucson International Airport. Kids under 5 stay free and can ride safely on a lead line guided by staff. There’s also a petting zoo and heated pool. Ranch activities include riding, rock climbing, hikes, and fat tire bikes. The ranch’s 43 guest rooms are ideal for family reunions.
Best Dude Ranches for School-Age Kids
Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, California
Open year-round, the Alisal is a working cattle ranch and full-service resort with luxury cottages. Ages 7 and older go on guided trail rides in wide open spaces with Sycamore trees. Ages 4 – 6 gather eggs, feed chickens, and play with baby goats in Alisal’s Barnyard. Breakfast rides lead to an adobe camp and cowboy buffet. The modified American Plan includes breakfast and dinner.
Red Horse Mountain Ranch, Idaho
Open summer through fall, the full-service resort ranch has riding programs for ages 3 and older. The ranch is among the few that allows kids ages 3-6 to experience horseback trail riding. Kids ages 7 and older learn to saddle up and groom their horses. More ranch activities: kayaking, a challenge course, climbing wall, and zipline.
Goosewing Ranch, Wyoming
Open June – September, the resort guest ranch has activities and riding programs for ages 6 and older. Activities include roping, horse grooming, fire making, and wagon rides. For children ages 3 – 6 there’s the young Buckaroo’s program. Enjoy family meals in the ranch dining room, and sleep in cozy cabins.
Tanque Verde, Arizona
Open year-round, the old time cattle and guest ranch is located in the desert near two national parks. The old west ranch features plush accommodations, a spa, and kids program for ages 3 – 17. Babysitting is available. Among the best dude ranches in Arizona, Tanque offers hiking, biking and fishing. Amenities include an airport shuttle, WiFi, and swimming pool.
Best Dude Ranches for Tweens
Mountain Sky, Montana
Open May – October, this upscale resort is located near Yellowstone National Park. Minimum age for trail rides is 7, but daily arena instruction is offered to 6-year-olds. The kids’ program includes scavenger hunts and swimming pool games. For adults, the Wellness Lodge features massages, yoga, and a steam room. Plus, the ranch offers van tours to Yellowstone National Park. Come chow time, kids are encouraged to eat with peers in the youth program while parents enjoy a multi-course dinner.
Paradise Ranch, Wyoming
From May – September, Paradise is among the best dude ranches in Wyoming for families. The kids program has special activities for infants – teens. But tweens and teens get extra privileges such as supervised overnight trips. Gourmet meals are served in the old western saloon and dining room. Luxury log cabins have fireplaces and spacious rooms.
Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo, Florida
Overlooking the Kissimmee River, the western-themed resort offers a comfortable glamping experience. Guided trail rides are available for ages 8 and older. Besides riding, tween activities include a mechanical bull, bungee jumping and airboat rides. Dining options: onsite restaurants and a dinner hayride. Accommodations feature teepees, tents, cottages and guest rooms. Also: RV and tent sites.
Great Dude Ranches for Teens
Rocking Z Guest Ranch, Montana
Open year-round, Rocking Z Guest Ranch offers an immersive horseback riding experience that’s especially conducive to teenagers. Kids ride to their ability, so teens can spend six or seven hours in the saddle if they want. Those looking to advance their skills can learn western-style moves and ride bareback. They can also groom and care for horses, learn to train horses, and help herd cattle. Horse games include soccer, and barrel racing. During summer months riders can play and swim with their horses in a nearby creek. Meals are served family-style and accommodate all dietary needs. Adults can enjoy beer on tap in the saloon, and wine in the lodge. Come nightfall, relax in an ensuite room with a fireplace.
Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, Arkansas
Open March – October, the ranch has exciting children’s programs for ages 3 – teens. Babysitting ($10/hour) is available for ages 2 and younger. While kids ages 3 – 5 ride ponies with counselors, older kids have the run of the ranch. Riding, canoeing, and tomahawk throwing are a few examples. Guests stay in rustic log cabins and dine in the main lodge.
Mountain Sky, Montana
Open from May – October, this upscale resort is located near Yellowstone National Park. For a fee, ages 13 and older can ride their horses in this national park. In addition to trail rides on ranch property, guests can learn about cattle sorting in the team penning activity. Guests can also assist the livestock manager at the hay and cattle operation.
Paradise Ranch, Wyoming
Open May – September, the ranch is ideal for teens. They’ll spend a lot of time in the saddle on daily rides and overnight pack trips. A full kids program offers crafts and pony rides. More ranch fun includes fly fishing, and chuck wagon dinners. Enjoy gourmet style meals and stay in luxury log cabins.