In the 1880’s, as more families were moving west, some of them took up cattle ranching as a means of support. As they became successful in their endeavors friends and family from back home were invited to come see what they had accomplished. This raised a new set of issues the ranchers had not anticipated. Their guests had such a great time they either couldn’t get them to leave or they had such a steady stream of visitors they couldn’t get their work done.
In the early 1900’s some of the ranchers had a brainstorm and figured if their ranches were going to become attractions they might as well start charging people for their stays and capitalize on the constant intrusions. Thus, dude ranches were born.
Today it’s big business. The early dude ranches of yesterday have evolved into much more than watching cattle graze or taking an occasional horseback ride. Ranches now compete for one another’s business with new and inventive ways of attracting the masses of tourists wishing to play cowboy for a few days. Visitors don’t expect to round up heads of cattle or break a wild bronc. They expect leisurely horseback riding, having their meals prepared for them, and a little A/C in their cabin wouldn’t hurt in the least.
There are tons of dude ranches from which to choose but, if you decide to give this a try, you want to make sure you pick one with that’s tried and true with great reviews to back up their claims. Here a few which have stood the test of time.
A Bar A Ranch – Encampment, Wyoming
A Bar A Ranch has been welcoming guests to their 140,000-acre site since the early 1920’s so they have had plenty of time to get things right. With hills, valleys, pastures, and wooded areas, the ranch offers an array of wilderness scenery. This is one of the very few ranches where guests are allowed to go solo horseback riding without a wrangler being present. This is only due to an antiquated insurance policy they aren’t in any hurry to update.
The ranch is considered a Utopia for horse riders, but it’s much more than that. It’s a luxury dude ranch where meals are prepared by a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. If you don’t feel like hopping on a horse, that’s okay, go play a round of golf or smack a tennis ball.
If you do ride, you’ll be matched with the perfect horse according to your height and weight, your riding experience, and the temperament of the animal. You’re allowed to ride your assigned horse twice a day and if wilderness trekking on an extended journey is on your list of things to do, you’ll be able to check it off your list.
Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort – Solvang, California
Since 1946, Hollywood celebrities have been coming to Alisal Ranch as an escape from the bright lights and the paparazzi. While it is technically considered a dude ranch, it can also be listed under the category of a luxury resort.
There are no TV’s in any rooms to distract guests, but there are two 18-hole golf courses, a fishing pond, tennis courts, and a spa. Oh yeah. There are also 50 miles of riding trails, for those who actually go there to ride.
The riding trails wind through surrounding gold colored hills and groves of sycamore trees for peaceful soul-stirring rides where nothing else is heard but the sounds of nature.
While it’s a bit unusual for a dude ranch, guests and their children are expected to dress in proper dinner attire when being served their evening meal in the dining room.
A fun ride to sign up for takes place in the morning when participants herd up and head out to a cowboy breakfast cooked in the wild.
Hideout at Flitner Ranch – Shell, Wyoming
Hideout at Flitner Ranch is intimately nestled on 150,000 acres of gorgeous countryside. It’s easy to imagine yourself in the old days of the wild west with a six-shooter strapped to your side when you blaze the rugged trails and terrain located on this ranch. There are canyons, forests, and desert.
The ranch encourages families to pay them a visit, but unlike most of the other dude ranches, there are no specific children’s programs so keep this in mind if it matters.
The interesting thing about the Hideout is that it is actually a working cattle ranch. If your dream is to play the role of a real cowboy, here is your chance to do so. In the summer months much of the work on the ranch, including herding cattle and even branding, is done by the guests.
It’s a smaller ranch which can only accommodate 25 guests at a time so receiving individual attention is never an issue. In keeping with the tradition of competitive ranches, dining is second to none and there is a spa for relaxing after a long dusty day.
Rocking Z Guest Ranch – Wolf River, Montana
Rocking Z is one of those places that began as a cattle ranch and later turned into a full-fledged dude ranch. They are newer than some of the others only having made the switch in 2000. For those with environmental concerns, this is the only known dude ranch which operates green. Biofuel is used during the summer months.
The ranch is family owned and operated. All horses are taught natural horsemanship which was the same method used in The Horse Whisperer. It makes them much more gentle and docile, rendering them ideal for inexperienced riders.
The ranch purposely operates under a lack of structure allowing spontaneity to be the order of the day. Since they can only house 20 guests, long rides can be customed tailored for individual guests, or for group rides.
Dude ranches are wonderful places to get back to nature and enjoy some fresh air in the wide-open spaces. While the majority of them would not be considered the least bit rugged by hardcore ranchers, they suit guests just fine. This year, do something totally different. Pack up the family and get riding.