Saddle Up! Family Dude Ranch Vacations
Most ranches fall into one of the following categories:
- Working ranches are hands-on operations with cattle and sheep that need to be driven, herded, and cared for, with roping, branding, and cattle driving in the mix. Working ranches are especially appealing to active families with older children who are eager to learn about cattle and the traditional Western way of life. You may even get to sleep under the stars.
- Dude ranches are less about work and more about horseback riding, with a variety of other outdoor activities. Depending on the ranch location, these may including fishing, boating, or hiking. Families who enjoy camping and school-age kids who love the outdoors typically enjoy dude ranches and the many adventures they offer.
- Resort ranches include many diverse activities, one of which is horseback riding. Resort ranches may also be less rustic and more luxurious, an easy way to experience outdoor living without giving up creature comforts. If you need a hair dryer, TV, a massage, and Internet access, you're most likely to find those amenities at a resort ranch. If you are traveling with a baby or preschooler, this will be your most comfortable option.
Once you have a feel for what you're looking for, check out the Web site for the Dude Ranchers' Association. Featuring more than 100 top ranches of all types, it's an excellent place to start your search.
Once you've determined "What" you want to do and "How," it's smart to think about Who, Where, and When.
First, who do you want to spend time with? Are you hoping for a small, intimate experience with meals served at shared tables? You might enjoy the Sundance Trail Guest Ranch, with no more than 24 guests. On the other hand, if you're hoping for more amenities and prefer getting lost in a larger crowd, check out Westgate River Ranch, billed as the "World's Largest Dude Ranch."
Where do you like to ride? If you enjoy riding on mountain trails, a ranch in Montana or Colorado might be most appealing. Prefer the desert? Head for Arizona. Hoping for ocean-side day trips? Check out Florida. Also, when do you want to go? Ranches in the northern states are typically open only in the late spring through early fall, while southern ranches are open to snowbirds escaping winter weather. Finally, a word about budget. While ranch vacations can appear to be expensive, keep in mind they are typically "all inclusive" – in other words, they include lodging, meals, transportation, recreation, child care, the whole shebang … including once-in-a-lifetime memories for the entire family.
Here are a few ranches to consider when exploring the possibilities:
- Mountain Sky Guest Ranch is a resort ranch in Emigrant, Montana that offers tons of outdoor adventures, plus five-course meals, plenty of creature comforts, and exceptional personal service.
- Triple J Wilderness Ranch is a dude ranch in Augusta, Montana that features intensive riding programs and great outdoor activities for kids.
- Laughing Water Ranch is a working ranch in Fortine, Montana that offers cattle round-up, branding, and drives plus tons of outdoor adventure and an extensive kids program.
- Westgate River Ranch, in River Ranch, Florida, calls itself the World's Largest Dude Ranch. Located in Florida, it includes cabins or more hotel-like accommodations, a 1200-seat rodeo stadium, and 1700 acres, and a restaurant rather than a dining room.
- Sundance Trail Ranch, in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, is cozy and intimate, with no more than seven families or 24 people at any time. With such small groups, they can easily customize activities according to skill level or special desires.
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