Want to escape city life and get back in the saddle? We've got 12 great options ranging from rustic to luxurious.
It was a good idea back in the 1880s (the earliest unofficial guest-ranching era) and it’s an even better one today. Providing a bona fide Western experience to “dudes” of all stripes who have at least one thing in common: a vital, perhaps inexplicable, yearning to briefly escape from citified life into the saddle.
On a real ranch. Out West. In a yonderscape of mountains and meadows, mesas and canyons, rolling prairies and boundless space that could resuscitate the most knotted New Yorker.
By the 1920s, when the dawn of dude ranching led to meetings between a struggling cattle industry, an expanding railroad, and a nascent Dude Ranchers’ Association [see sidebar, page 112], a winning concept was already afoot. Today, hundreds of dude and guest ranches are spread west of the Mississippi — and east, across the border and overseas. The very definition of a dude ranch retreat has evolved to include everything from experiencing day-to-day family life on a working cattle ranch to luxuriating in the semi-wild with gourmet meals, spa menus, and a lineup of ranch-friendly resort activities that includes the sine qua non: a good horse.
What links them all (aside from that horse)? Western hospitality and an invigorating vacation unlike any other.
When the dude bug bites, your greatest challenge is narrowing down all the options. But here’s a step in the right direction, partner: eleven states, one Canadian province — and a dozen classic dude ranch experiences, however you wish to define the term.
PHOTOGRAPHY: GRADDY PHOTOGRAPHY/COURTESY TANQUE VERDE RANCH
Tanque Verde Ranch
Welcoming guests since: 1957
Neighboring natural wonder: Saguaro National Park
Arizona’s top guest ranch wasn’t always 60,000 acres of abundant family fun in the sweet Sonoran Desert — routinely garnering awards for everything from its recreational amenities to its Southwestern cuisine. There’s some colorful history at Tanque Verde that’s not all that obvious to generations of guests who’ve been returning to this upscale ranch retreat since its modern era began in the 1950s.
As early as 1908, a no-frills dude ranch here had Eastern city slickers fully immersed in everyday working ranch chores. Before that, the property was owned by a wealthy 19th-century Mexican hacendado who was nearly killed by raiding bandits searching for gold. Long before that, Pima Indians occupied the land’s seasonal “green pool” waters that gave Tanque Verde its name.
But back to today’s Tanque Verde. The all-inclusive dude ranch (yes, with cattle, but guests won’t be handling them) is well-appointed with 69 tasteful Southwestern-style rooms and suites, innovative regional cuisine, and just about every creature comfort and desert-friendly activity you could want within an easy 20 miles of Tucson International Airport.
Most important, there are (at last count) 180 horses here and a riding program for all levels. Trail rides lead guests into the neighboring Rincon Mountains, Saguaro National Park, Coronado National Forest, and timeless Old West landscapes that southern Arizona can still patent.
Cibolo Creek Ranch
Welcoming guests since: 1994
Neighboring natural wonder:
Big Bend Ranch State Park
Rustic luxury meets Lonesome Dove at this impeccably preserved ranch in way West Texas — one of the few spots on earth where a storied 30,000-acre cattle property and cavalry outpost could be dwarfed by its even vaster Lone Star backcountry.
Home to three forts and a hacienda dating back to the 1850s with several museums now on-site, Cibolo Creek Ranch is 25 miles from the Rio Grande and Mexico and 33 miles from the nearest town (Marfa). Here’s where Big Bend National Park (a couple hours away) and the even more underappreciated Big Bend Ranch State Park (Texas’ largest state park, up to an hour away) could be called “just down the road” without a hint of irony. Or where one might expect the fictional ghost of Gus McCrae — or someone equally recognizable but real — to pull up at any minute and join the escape artists naturally attracted to this place. Like Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall on one occasion.
As the story goes, the former pair put an offer on the place, which the owner politely declined.
Activities at Cibolo Creek include ATV riding, Indian rock art exploring, gourmet dining, and blissfully doing nothing. And, of course, horseback riding through the otherworldly West Texas outback.
A specialized Humvee tour through the rugged Chinati Mountains is another top draw here. But however you savor Cibolo Creek, you can rest assured you won’t be running into anyone from back home.
A Bar A Ranch
Welcoming guests since: 1923
Season: First weekend in June through the third week in September
Neighboring natural wonder: North Platte River
Generations of guests have been flocking to this large family-owned ranch (nearly 100,000 acres) in southern Wyoming where there are now tennis courts, nine holes of golf, a great wine list, and a private airstrip. But the main attraction at this unpretentious gem remains its timeless setting in the North Platte River Valley — a striated palette of river and mountain, sagebrush and conifer, irrigated meadow and glistening aspen grove ... and about 100 friendly folks per week in the summer soaking it all up.
Flowing through the heart of the ranch along with several tributaries, the North Platte River is a big draw for fly-fishing and float trips. This is definitive A Bar A scenery that naturally begs for a sketchpad — or a horse. “Our riding program is unique in that guests can have the opportunity here to self-guide without a wrangler,” notes ranch manager Lissa Howe.
With hundreds of miles of trails and thousands of acres of land to explore, advanced riders love the freedom and the scope of the riding here. Beginners get their own horse for the week along with all the confidence-boosting guidance they need.
“Yesterday morning, a first-time guest and rider challenged herself to ride to our cookout breakfast on the ridgetop,” says Howe. “She returned glowing after crossing the North Platte and climbing steep trails on her first ride.”
Replete with old homesteader sites, the vast property breathes Old West history and offers its Expeditions program into October so small groups of guests can fish, hike, and ride their way from cabin to cabin. But you needn’t hike too far from ranch headquarters to experience yesteryear here. Many of the cabins and barns date back to the 1880s. Three guest houses and 16 cabins offer every creature comfort — and best of all, no phones or TVs to spoil the mood.
The Alisal Guest Ranch And Resort
Welcoming guests since: 1946
Neighboring natural wonder: Santa Ynez Valley
It’s hard to imagine a ranch with a longer running, more dedicated fan base of guests than this hallowed retreat.
Situated like a semi-rustic, but otherwise very refined, mirage in the heart of Santa Barbara County wine country, The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort isn’t short on claims to fame. Among them: raising Kentucky Derby winner Flying Ebony, hosting Clark Gable’s marriage to Lady Sylvia in its library, and maintaining a certain relationship with tradition. Namely, being steeped in it.
“We have an extraordinarily high percentage of returning guests — many for 30 to 40 consecutive years,” says general manager of The Alisal, Dave Lautensack. “These guests want to stay in the same room, ride the same horse, sit at the same table, and even have the same server in the dining room.Change is a dirty word from the perspective of many of our guests.”
While there are cattle on the 10,500-acre property, folks aren’t exactly coming here to do any dude ranch work. But, rather, to mount a horse and ride leisurely into bucolic coastal foothills sprinkled with oaks, sycamore groves, and stunning vistas of Central California’s famed Santa Ynez Valley. The week’s top ticket activity is a breakfast ride to a historic adobe on the property featuring a bountiful cowboy breakfast and entertainment. Afternoons are even more leisurely: out on one of two 18-hole golf courses, on the tennis courts, or at the spa.
During summer months, the property’s 73 cottages cater primarily to families. What’s the sacred age at The Alisal? “Seven,” notes Lautensack. “That’s the required age to horseback ride out on our trails.”
Bull Hill Guest Ranch
Welcoming guests since: 1995
Neighboring natural wonder: Lake Roosevelt
“Most people here arrive as strangers and leave feeling like family,” says wrangler, marketing director, and fifth generationer Tucker Guglielmino, who knows something about family history at Bull Hill Guest Ranch, a working cattle ranch perched dramatically in the Rocky Mountain foothills of northeastern Washington near the British Columbia border.
The hill the property sits on got its name, they say, when Guglielmino’s great-great-grandfather staked his 160-acre claim at this very spot in 1903 and brought the first Hereford bull into the area. More than a century and five generations later, the family ranch on Bull Hill has grown and evolved considerably. For the last two decades, guests have partaken in this kinship in one of the most picturesque ranch settings in the Pacific Northwest.
Guests can fish for rainbow trout on a private 30-acre lake near the main lodge and choose from an assortment of tent/ranch/deluxe cabins. But the real deal here is the cattle drive. “We run just over 500 pair — cows with calves — and are always needing to keep them on good pasture,” says Guglielmino, whose father now runs the ranch. “That’s where guests usually find their most memorable experience.”
A close second are an assortment of blue-ribbon trail rides — think stunning mountain meadows and valleys with panoramas that stretch to Idaho and Canada — which include a popular trip along Lake Roosevelt that stops at a local winery on the shores of the Columbia River.
Welcoming guests since: 2009
Season: March 1 – October 25
Neighboring natural wonder: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Situated on the state’s largest Nature Conservancy preserve with the continent’s tallest sand dunes hulking right next door, Zapata Ranch naturally invites superlatives.
Owned by The Nature Conservancy, managed by Ranchlands, and set on a timeless San Luis Valley, Colorado, stage where the deer, antelope, and many, many bison still play, the 103,000-acre property rightfully claims to be one of the most unique guest ranches on either side of the Rockies.
In centuries past, the Southern Ute tribe called this pastoral valley home. Hopi, Navajo, and Apache groups were here, too. Followed by generations of Mexican rancheros, legendary local cattlemen, and 1980s resort speculators — who built a golf course here, which dissolved back into natural grassland when The Nature Conservancy took over with a mandate to protect the ranch’s natural integrity.
Today, just 15 comfortable guest rooms grace this massive landscape, rife with meadows, creeks, and open range. Flanking the ranch are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which guests are also free to explore.
Custom itineraries are the specialty here. Guests can ride through a free-roaming herd of 2,500 bison, take part in cattle drives, opt for a painting or photography workshop, hike with a naturalist, or join a professional birder during the migration season (spring and fall) of 25,000 sandhill cranes. Bonus: In the process, you can gain a broader understanding of holistic ranch management practices.
BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA
Siwash Lake Ranch
Welcoming guests since: 2001
Season: June 1 – September 30
Neighboring natural wonder: BC’s historic Gold Rush Trail — and waterfalls
Wilderness luxury. It’s not necessarily an oxymoron. But it does take some vision to pull it off with as much aplomb as this western Canadian ranch hideaway.
Arriving in a remote patch of BC’s untrammeled Cariboo region, guests here check into lavish safari-style “glamping” tents, reno’d barn lofts, or deluxe ranch suites. A rugged backdrop of forested hills, ranges, canyons, and rolling rivers blends seamlessly with pasture-to-plate cuisine, spa service, outdoor yoga, and quiet kayaking across a glassy lake. Siwash Lake Ranch is that kind of place.
High-end excursions include a new heli-wine tasting program, whisking guests into the grasslands of the Fraser River Valley for a hike and then onward to a remote winery at the head of BC’s historic Gold Rush Trail. Or adventurers can opt for a wilderness survival class supervised by resident wolves, bear, and moose.
The top activity: indulging in the Siwash signature equine experience, which gets you in the saddle and deep into one of the most luxuriantly wild cowboy countries on either side of the border. Not to be missed: a canyon ride to the region’s own Crater Lake, a mystical pool adorned with breathtaking vistas and myriad waterfalls.
Geronimo Trail Guest Ranch
Welcoming guests since: 2002
Season: Early March to mid-November
Neighboring natural wonder: Gila Wilderness
Off the grid is a relative term for New Mexico’s smattering of small family-run guest ranches, which tend to lurk in the shadow of more attention-grabbing neighbors way next door in Arizona. And at the Geronimo Trail Guest Ranch, you can take that term literally.
“We generate all our own power with solar panels and a big diesel generator,” notes ranch owner Meris Esterly Stout. “We are not a luxury ranch, but offer comfortable accommodations for small numbers of guests who are truly looking for a chance to really get away from it all. We are veryremote.”
Smack in the middle of 3.3 million-acre Gila National Forest, home of the world’s first designated wilderness according to the U.S. Forest Service and the state’s “most remote spot” according to theAlbuquerque Journal, the four-cabin (maximum 16 guest) ranch hides in its own private southwestern
universe — perched at 6,500 feet and contentedly adrift in an undulating ocean of ponderosa pine.
Guests who make it here won’t be pushing cattle, but they will be hitting the trail. Your first job: meeting your horse and vanishing into one of the most pristine, out-there corners of the Southwest. This landscape of alpine meadows, spectacular deep canyons, and spring-fed streams hasn’t seen too many visitors since the Mimbres people (A.D. 750 – 1150) and the Chiricahua Apache (including Geronimo himself) called this vast outback home.
Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa
Welcoming guests since: 1999
Season: Year-round (however, horses are not on the property during low season, from mid-November to mid-March)
Neighboring natural wonder: Arches National Park
Mention Moab, Utah, and the immediate connotation is two wheels, a good set of bike shocks, and the Slickrock Bike Trail.
And, yes, at Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa — about 20 miles upriver from the town and its world-famous mountain bike trail head — a rack of high-end mountain bikes is at the ready. They’re parked right outside the main lodge in a Monument Valley-type setting flanked by 1,200-foot cliffs and the Colorado River, where guests can consult an adventure concierge about every one-of-a-kind day trip that’s made Moab and neighboring Arches National Park a high-octane adventure capital.
But that’s not what folks go to Sorrel River Ranch for.
“First and foremost, our guests come here to relax, heal, unwind, and disconnect,” says the desert retreat’s marketing manager, Franklin Seal. “And our livestock are only here for one thing: to serve our guests. No one comes here to work.”
Which brings us to the second reason folks go to Sorrel River: to ride. And not necessarily atop a bike seat or a river raft. On a horse. In a setting made for director John Ford, who did his share of filming in these whereabouts. Or a Lone Ranger remake, which also happened here (want to guess where the film’s celebrities and brass stayed while on location?).
Signature trail rides at Sorrel River Ranch wind through lonely washes and gulches, up into southern Utah’s high desert with spectacular ridge-side panoramas of sprawling mesas, otherworldly geology, and the Rocky-esque La Sal Mountains on the horizon.
Back at the ranch, the spa’s signature body treatment package is called The Bourbon Cowboy. What else is there to say?
Rowse's 1+1 Ranch
Welcoming guests since: 1999
Season: Mid-May to end of October
Neighboring natural wonder: Sandhills of Nebraska
Never mind nouveau terms like Midwest. Any family that’s been ranching the Nebraska Sandhills — a vast swath of mixed-grass prairie and dunes covering more than a quarter of the state — since the 1880s with ties to the Homestead Act gets honorary True West status as far as we’re concerned.
Those honors apply to the Rowse family, who began their hard-won ranching legacy in the area in 1884. Cut to 130 years later: Small groups of lucky guests (10 at a time, max) are invited into their world for a week of cattle driving and real-life cowboying.
“Guests join us in our everyday life,” says Tammy Rowse, who runs the 7,000-acre working cattle and quarter horse ranch with her husband, Jerry, a sixth-generation rancher. The ranch has been in Tammy’s family for more than 80 years. “We don’t expect them to do the manual labor but want every guest to experience and enjoy the riding and cattle work we do.”
Expect at least six hours in the saddle a day. Driving, sorting, roping if you’re willing. In short, coming as close to a Central Nebraska cowboy as you’ll get (with cozy cabin digs and hearty homemade meals with the Rowse family) during an exhilarating week in the original Old West. Nothing mid about it.
Triple J Wilderness Ranch
Welcoming guests since: 1976
Season: June – September, with a fall hunting season
Neighboring natural wonder: Bob Marshall Wilderness
“The perfect guest for the Triple J would be one who wants a truly Western adventure on a small, personal ranch,” says co-owner and manager Kim Barker. “And someone eager to experience horseback riding through spectacular scenery,” she’s quick to add.
Kim, who runs Triple J Wilderness Ranch with her husband, Ernie, can trace the property’s history from its homestead days in the 1920s to its tenure as a no-frills mid-century hunting lodge to the year (1958) when Ernie’s folks (Iowa farmers) fell in love with Montana and eventually (18 years later) purchased the place. “After lots of hard work and hilarious stories,” Kim says, they turned Triple J into one of the most beloved family-run dude ranches in the West.
Tucked in the mountainous corridor between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks (and sufficiently far away from the crowds drawn by both), the ranch can claim the rugged 1.5 million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness as its backyard. Craggy peaks. Aspen-studded meadows. Gaping canyons. Big Sky prairie. It’s all here for small groups of guests (“capacity is 24, but we average around 20 per week,” says Kim) checking into the property’s private log cabins furnished with Western décor, covered porches, hummingbird feeders, and no TVs or phones to interrupt any of it.
Riding groups are small (six or less) with high wrangler-to-guest ratios, and all levels of horsemen are welcome. Favorite rides lope guests through flowering meadows and into the high country around Mortimer Peak or through the Lewis and Clark National Forest — followed up perhaps by some fly-fishing and a traditional cowboy cookout by the main lodge. Adventure-seekers can opt for a multi-day pack trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, which begins and ends in the warmth of Triple J hospitality.
Clear Creek Guest Ranch
Welcoming guests since: 1996
Season: Late March through Thanksgiving weekend
Neighboring natural wonder: Great Smoky Mountains
Has there been some mistake including the Tarheel State in a dude ranch article? No, but it’s not a preconception that a day in the saddle at Clear Creek Guest Ranch can’t fix at an easy gallop.
“I think many people are looking for the true western dude ranch experience but would prefer not to always have to travel all the way out west for it,” says ranch manager Rusty Oleszewski.
Nestled in a lofty valley along the Black Mountain range lined with forested mountain trails and trout-filled rivers to help guests forget exactly which side of the Mississippi they’re on, the ranch got its start when its original Alabama-based founder visited his wrangler sons out in Colorado and felt inspired to create a true-enough slice of the West somewhere in the Southeast.
Nearly two decades later, Clear Creek has its stock of return guests. They angle on the South Toe River. Raft, zip-line, gem mine, gaze at blinding stars around the campfire. Above all, they ride horses through the mountain trails of Pisgah National Forest — kids included. A Junior Wrangler Ride gets the ranch’s youngest guests trotting off into the mountains with wranglers sans parents. The hills don’t get any freer than that.