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From horseback riding to western-themed activities including cookouts, there are many reasons families should consider a dude ranch vacation. Typically, most dude ranches are all-inclusive and offer meals, lodging, activities, and entertainment for one flat rate. While they share some common activities, like horseback riding, guest ranches vary in size and location. With the variety of activities and outstanding children’s programs, a dude ranch vacation accommodates families, reunions and and skip-gen travel. Ready to saddle up for a dude ranch vacation? Check out this first timer’s guide to planning a dude ranch vacation.
Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Colorado Trails Ranch.
Whether you’re channeling your inner cowboy or cowgirl, or simply enjoy the great outdoors, a dude ranch is a great option for a family vacation. Dude ranches, sometimes also called guest ranches, offer an array of activities. So, even if horseback riding isn’t your thing, you can still enjoy western-style activities in beautiful mountain and valley locations. In fact, the majority of dude ranches are located in scenic Colorado, Montana, Arizona, Wyoming, Idaho, California, and New Mexico.
“A dude ranch vacation is a one of a kind opportunity for multiple family generations to come together in nature, enjoy fantastic dining and have the adventure of a lifetime,” says Brian McCormack, general manager at Colorado Trails Ranch in Durango, CO. Open June to September, the family-friendly guest ranch is among the 100-plus best dude ranches listed in the Dude Ranchers’ Association (DRA).
There are many options to consider when choosing the right dude ranch vacation for your family. This first timer’s guide to planning a dude ranch vacation will help steer you in the right direction.
Best Type of Dude Ranch for Your Family
Basically, there are three types of dude ranches, although there is some overlap. No matter which you choose, expect to find friendly wranglers who will ensure great vacation experiences.
Working cattle ranches usually have fewer guests and are great for learning about life on the ranch. You can even watch or join cattle drives. In addition to riding, you’ll learn to round up livestock on horseback. Plus, when the ranchers feed the cows, you can help. Overall, you’ll be immersed in an intimate working ranch environment.
Classic dude ranches accommodate about 45-50 people. Although trail rides and horses are the main focus, you’ll also find other outdoor adventures. For example, Colorado Trails Ranch offers guided fishing excursions for kids and adults. In addition, the Colorado dude ranch offers archery, tubing, square dancing, cookouts, and campfires.
Resort ranches are usually the largest and feature upscale amenities, For example, these luxury ranches serve gourmet meals, and may have an onsite spa facility, tennis courts, golf courses, and swimming pools.
Choosing a Location for a Dude Ranch Vacation
When planning the best dude ranch vacation for your family, think about location. Since ranches are located in mountains, and by rivers and prairies, their location can be remote. Ask about 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 mining towns.
Best Times for a Dude Ranch Vacation
Depending on their location, ranch operating seasons vary. Some ranches welcome guests year-round, others (usually Northwest ranches) are seasonal from about May to September. In addition, ask about the required minimum stay. Some ranches require a minimum stay of two nights while other require a full week.
Dude Ranch Accommodations and Amenities
Think about the type of ranch experience you’d like for your family. From rustic to luxury, ranch lodging is clean and comfortable. However, do you prefer cozy cabins or posh studios and suites? Also, ask about a dude ranch’s amenities. Does the ranch offer afternoon hors d’oeuvres, WiFi, TVs, hair dryers, etc.? Is there a spa, swimming pool, and/or hot tub? In addition, not all ranches serve alcohol. So if you enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, you may need to bring your own.
Dude Ranch Children’s Programs
Be sure to inquire about children’s 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? Also, ask about babysitting services. Find out if other children will be at the ranch at the same time so your kids can make new friends.
Dude Ranch Vacation Activities
Of course, horseback riding is the central activity at a dude ranch. At some guest ranches you’ll have the same horse for every ride. This gives you an opportunity to become acquainted with your horse. However, some people like variety and prefer riding different horses. Discuss your options with ranch wranglers.
If your family isn’t big on horseback riding, ask about other available ranch activities. For example, some dude ranches offer numerous onsite and offsite activities for riders and non-riders. Think mountain biking, hiking, archery, fly fishing, and white-water rafting. Onsite activities may include exercise rooms, pool tables, game rooms, and hay rides. In addition, there may be western dancing, canoeing, art classes, and cooking classes. Generally, everything but spa services will be included in the price, but check to make sure so you can budget accordingly.
Dining on a Dude Ranch Vacation
You may be surprised to discover the food is exceptional at many ranches and that chefs can accommodate dietary needs. However, be sure to inquire about the cuisine and how meals are served.
McCormack advises notifying his ranch in advance if you have allergy and dietary restrictions so the chef can accommodate them. In addition to providing gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options, the chef whips up diverse culinary delights.
So, what can you expect? Served family style, meals include whole marinated grilled beef tenderloin, BBQ chicken, grilled portobellos, grilled garlic bread, salad, grilled veggies and a baked potato bar. Daily lunch varieties include themes such as Mediterranean, burgers & dogs (plus veggie options), and a chuck wagon ride with assorted wraps.
Cookouts feature BBQ ribs and grilled salmon with mango salsa, corn on the cob, spinach salad, and cheddar biscuits. Desserts may include peach cobbler and homemade fudge pudding with vanilla ice cream.
And, although you’re on a family vacation, there’s time for romance too. For example, Thursdays are date night at Colorado Trails Ranch. While counselors entertain kids with games and a cookout, parents enjoy cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and a plated meal.
This special date night dinner may be roasted beets and goat cheese salad with lemon/cumin vinaigrette, grilled lamb chops with fresh mint chutney, crispy polenta and sugar snap peas, and crème brûlée.
What to Pack for a Dude Ranch Vacation
- Breathable jeans or riding pants.
- Boots with a smooth sole and heel are required at all dude ranches. Some, like Colorado Trails Ranch, offer loaner boots free of charge.
- Hiking boots or athletic shoes.
- Socks, including long breathable socks. Wool socks are recommended.
- Long sleeve shirts
- Heavy gloves.
- For summer, pack T-shirts and shorts, although you’ll want long pants for the horseback rides.
- Sweater and/or jacket.
- Waterproof rain jacket for men, women and kids
- Swimsuit for the pool and hot tub.
About the Sponsor
Colorado Trails Ranch is an all-inclusive Dude Ranch set on 450 acres in the San Juan Mountains, 12.5 miles from the historic mining town of Durango, Colorado. The rustic 1-4-bedroom cabins are individually designed, and feature country-styled rooms with porches and mountain views. Free activities include horseback riding, fly fishing, hiking, trap shooting, hay rides and Western dancing.