If you are hoping for adventure at a guest ranch this upcoming summer, it’s never too early to get your plans in order. Let these previous stays in Montana, Arizona, and Colorado guide you.
Circle Bar Guest Ranch
It’s the cool dawn of a summer day in Montana. And the cowboys at the Circle Bar Guest Ranch are driving in the horses from their overnight pasture. The palominos, buckskins, paints, and other colorful horses are like an artist’s palette, as the energetic herd trots in, driven by a handful of wranglers decked out in traditional cowboy regalia. Looks like a scene out of a Charlie Russell painting.
Charlie would feel right at home. In fact, this still pristine part of central Montana was Russell’s home. The man many consider the greatest Western artist of all time spent the 1880s as a cowboy here in the Judith River basin, a crystal-clear stream that flows right through the Circle Bar. And for two years, the teen then known as Kid Russell stayed in a nearby cabin with mountain man Jake Hoover. The well-preserved log structure still stands today, and the Circle Bar will take you to see it.
“Charlie lived here from 1880 to 1882,” says tour guide Alice True, part of the True family that owns the ranch. “He came here when he was 16, and Jake kind of took pity on him…And so he helped him get on his feet for a couple of years.”
Russell often painted scenes from his cowboy days here, including A Quiet Day in Utica, capturing a rowdy incident in the old frontier town you pass through on the way to the Ranch.
Just like Jake helped Charlie, the True family has put the Circle Bar back on its feet. Founded as a cattle ranch in the late 1800s, its landmark red barn was built in 1902. By the 1940s, the Circle Bar had become a popular dude ranch. Sarah Stevenson, first woman President of the Dude Rancher’s Association, bought the ranch in the 1980s. However, the Circle Bar would later close, and sat vacant for 12 years.
The Trues, owners of the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, brought the Circle Bar back to life in 2020. “Sarah’s son Peter Hollatz and his wife, Sabine, worked hard to put the ranch back in order and then sold it to us,” says owner Russell True. “They handed over a beautiful ranch in a great location with virtually unlimited and varied riding. Our family is so fortunate to have the opportunity to bring back one of America’s historic dude ranches.”
White Stallion Ranch
It’s August outside Tucson. Today the city’s official temperature will hit 110 degrees. It might be the last place you’d think of going for a summer horseback vacation. But for the guests who come from all over the world to the White Stallion Ranch, the weather is perfect.
“We love the heat,” says Hartmud Hausner, here from Germany for the ninth August in a row. “In Germany, it’s so cold!”
The White Stallion is a 3,000-acre oasis of pristine Old West Arizona. While you’re just minutes from the outskirts of Tucson, drive through the ranch gate and it feels like you’re a million miles away. That’s because the ranch lies in a bowl surrounded by mountains, sharing a border with Saguaro National Park. Look in the right direction, and it’s the same view Geronimo and Wyatt Earp might have seen.
With Tucson’s daily high summer temperature averaging right about 100 degrees, the White Stallion had long been a winter destination, closed during June, July, and August. But that changed in 2009, when the Ranch went year-round. And guests are happy they did. Summer stays are especially popular with Europeans. The August we visited, there were guests from Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, China, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
The home flag of every visitor is flown during their stay. “I get a kick out of that,” shares White Stallion owner Russell True. “Our little dude ranch out in the Arizona desert ... we might have eight different countries here at one time.”
Americans are here, too. Eric Christensen came over from San Diego with his two young sons. “If I did this in Southern California, it’d be triple the price,” he explains. “And 20 times the people.”
The White Stallion offers a summer discount off their peak season rates. And True says a summer stay can be half the cost of a peak season visit to a northern dude ranch in Wyoming or Montana.
“We were surprised how much riding we do, even though it’s this hot,” says British guest Simon Turner. “We thought maybe two hours a day ... but we’re getting three, four hours a day.”
Summer is monsoon season, and desert thunderstorms and sunsets can be spectacular. But the weather seldom interferes with rides, which are scheduled early and late in the day to avoid the worst of the heat. Calm weather and and warm evenings allow for outdoor dining on the hacienda-style patio. Family-style meals make it easy to meet and mingle and share dinner with new friends all over the world.
So, what to do when you’re not riding? There’s no shortage of options. The pool is a popular place. And the ranch offers a variety of afternoon activities in its air-conditioned Longhorn meeting room. You can learn about this area’s fascinating Native American history, complete with the chance to handle authentic ancient stone-grinding tools. Or you can try your hand at carving leather, and get a taste of what’s involved in building a saddle or a pair of chaps. There’s also a weekly horsemanship demonstration. And since you’re on vacation, it’s OK to enjoy an afternoon nap.
The White Stallion’s “adventure package” includes rock climbing on the peaks surrounding the ranch, power-assisted fat-tire e-bikes, and target shooting using a single-action cowboy-style .22 pistol and a Winchester-style, lever-action .22 rifle. “They want to taste riding…but what if it isn’t their thing?” says Russell. “Then they’re reassured by the other options.”
Regardless of riding skill, though, the White Stallion has the horses and the rides to keep everyone happy. The Ranch keeps about 150 horses, mounts that fit riders of every size and ability.
The ranch attracts a lot of accomplished equestrians. Fast rides, with long lopes on the trail, are a favorite. You can also take the brakes off chasing cows in the big arena during the ever-popular team penning.
Daily lessons can get new or rusty riders up to speed in a hurry. And the relaxed atmosphere of Western hospitality that pervades this place makes it easy to learn. “It’s the easy ambiance,” says Jeff Kelleher, back again from San Diego. “It puts you at ease in a situation where you’d [normally] tend not to be at ease.”
Some ranch rides include adventurous climbs into the mountains that border the property. There are unforgettable views at the top. It’s enough to make you forget about the heat, which you get used to in short order.
Rainbow Trout Ranch
It’s a summer Saturday night HigH in tHe Colorado rockies, where a memorable week at Rainbow Trout Ranch is coming to an end. It’s the last night of an escape from a troubled world into a rustic refuge that sits at 9,000 feet along the Conejos River, just north of the New Mexico border. We’ve enjoyed days horseback in this unspoiled remnant of the American West, casting pristine waters for the colorful fish the ranch is named after, and hiking to watch the sunrise from a mountain peak.
Flavoring all that adventure is the carefree, summer camp atmosphere of this special place, a tone set by the warm and gracious Iowa family that makes it all happen. “From the very first time I came in the late ’90s, I’d just felt like I’d known ‘em all my life,” says longtime guest Nancy Jane Butler, here from Arkansas.
Three generations of the Van Berkum family bring this century-old ranch to life; Doug and Linda Van Berkum, their son, David, and his wife, Jane, and a host of third-generation family members. “It was fun having them here when they were little kids,” says Doug of his grandchildren, many of whom now spend summers working at the ranch. “I don’t have to tell ’em to do stuff … they just know it has to be done!”
Doug grew up on an Iowa farm and became a high school math teacher. Son David spent college summers out West wrangling at dude ranches, where he fell in love with the business. David dreamed of owning his own dude ranch, an idea that captured his father’s imagination as well. Together the family went to work, and in the early ’90s, discovered a Colorado ranch property that had sat vacant for three years.
Founded as a fishing retreat in 1926 by a Texas oil family looking to escape the summer heat, the property was perfect for the dude ranch the Van Berkums envisioned. But making that dream come true took a lot of work. “There wasn’t a fence that could hold a horse,” says Doug. “So we fenced like mad and cleaned the place.”
Their timing was good. Rainbow Trout opened for the 1993 season, just as Billy Crystal’s beloved western City Slickers hit theaters. Everyone wanted to go to a dude ranch. And RTR was off and running.
Today Rainbow Trout’s main lodge
is like a cathedral made of logs, as polished and beautiful as a classic car. It’s a marvel to explore the massive room where Doug’s artfully displayed Western memorabilia collection adds to the cowboy ambiance. The surrounding cabins date from the same era.
But Rainbow Trout is an outdoor vacation, and the Rocky Mountain high country horseback experience is the star attraction, all done cowboy-style. The wranglers dress the part, complete with chaps. “We try to make this feel like the Old West, but with some amenities,” says Doug, always in jeans and boots, topped off with a cowboy hat. “We have a pool, that kind of stuff, but I think they expect us to be Western.”
It’s Western, but not wild. Horseback riding is no fun if you get hurt. Dave and Jane run the barn, and she kicks the week off with a horsemanship orientation of what to do, not do, and why. “Wait for a wrangler before you mount and dismount,” she instructs, explaining, “You are at your most vulnerable mounting and dismounting.”
Riding is one of the many activities of a children’s program the ranch considers a source of pride. There are counselors for kids age 3 to 5, 6 to 11, and another for teens.
With the children safely supervised, Mom and Dad can embark on their own adventures. On her second visit from Chicago, Kelley Costello has taken advantage of the opportunity to discover fly-fishing. “Last year was my first year fly-fishing,” she says between casts. “And they’re very patient with us newbies.”
Guide McCrae Stephens stands in the stream alongside Kelley. “I just try to help people have a great time on the water,” he says. “A successful day is watching them grow as an angler and pick up the passion for fly-fishing.”
A mile of river runs through the ranch, which is surrounded by uncounted miles of riding trails on all kinds of terrain in the surrounding national forest. Want to mosey? Explore a steep mountain trail? Or kick your horse into a lope on the flats? Jane and her crew are happy to oblige. “Jane goes out of her way for people to get the kind of ride they want,” says Doug. “Sometimes we’ll have 15 people riding, and we’ll have eight rides going out.”
– Mark Bedor
From our February/March 2022 issue
Photography: (Circle Bar images) courtesy Mark Bedor/Circle Bar Ranch; (White Stallion Images) courtesy Mark Bedor/Carol Bachmann/cbranchphotos.com; (Rainbow Trout images) courtesy Mark Bedor