America's Best Dude Ranches
It’s a little past dawn as you and your family lead horses through a still-damp Colorado meadow, the awakening sun turning distant mountains a gorgeous shade of purple. The Continental Divide appears, and soon you arrive at a dramatic overlook, the Western wilderness stretched out before you. You dismount to find breakfast sizzling over a charcoal fire, and chow down in awestruck wonder.
Riding horses at a dude ranch is one of the West’s iconic experiences, and the Latigo Ranch in Kremmling, CO, has been saddling up families for the past 82 years. But Latigo’s hardly the only one. Dude ranches exist all over America, offering the opportunity to combine a trip into the great outdoors with some quality family time.
Dude, of course, is the original slang for “city slicker,” and dude ranches’ collective history dates back to the 1880s, when families who’d recently moved out west would invite friends to visit their cattle ranches. Once the practice spread, thanks to the expansion of the railroad (and the enthusiasm of visitors), ranch owners realized they’d better start charging for room and board. The business model proved so successful that many converted their cattle operations into guest ranches in the early 1900s—a tradition that continues today.
“It’s one of the last vacations out there where you get to relax and not be so plugged in,” says Colleen Hodson, executive director of the Dude Ranchers’ Association (DRA). And indeed, a number of ranches, including Wyoming’s premier A Bar A, purposely leave TVs and phones out of their guests’ otherwise well-outfitted rooms. “We are all about riding and getting to know the outdoors,” says longtime manager Justin Howe.
By definition, a dude ranch is a family-friendly guest ranch offering horseback riding, though only DRA members—those that have undergone the DRA’s rigorous three-year horse-safety program—are certified as such. Historically, their emphasis has been squarely on horses, and that’s still true of most on our list, including the exceptional Hideout at Flitner Ranch, in Shell, WY, which offers all the riding you could want, plus the rare opportunity to do actual cattle work, such as herding cows to new pastures. But according to Hodson, the newest trend is ranch resorts, among them Montana’s spectacular Ranch at Rock Creek, where getting away no longer means roughing it—in any way. Instead, the focus is on pure relaxation, whether it’s fly-fishing, spa treatments, or riding.
All ranches are, like any business, driven by the bottom line. Still, there’s something grand and ineffable about what the best of them offer: a quintessential experience of the American frontier, whose reality and myths have obsessed Americans—and a great portion of the world’s citizens—for centuries. One look at the relaxed, tuned-in faces of your kids after a week in the wild and you realize how very important these places are.
A Bar A Ranch, Encampment, WY
Founded in the 1920s, A Bar A is one of the country’s oldest and largest dude ranches, with 140,000 acres of hills, valleys, pastures, and woods. Thanks to an ancient insurance policy, it’s also one of the few places where you aren’t required to ride with a wrangler—as long as you know what you’re doing. It’s a cross between a serious horseman’s paradise and a secluded, luxe resort with golf, tennis, and “Western elegant” cuisine from a Cordon Bleu–trained chef.
Riding: You’re matched with a horse according to your size, temperament, and riding ability, and can ride twice a day, with or without your kids. Longer treks take you into the Savage Run Wilderness.
Capacity: 100 guests; 130 horses.
Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, Solvang, CA
A secluded go-to spot for Hollywood royalty since opening in 1946, Alisal is a resort as much as a ranch, with two 18-hole golf courses, a spa, a private pond for fishing, boating, and tennis courts (and no TVs in the rooms to distract you). More than 50 miles of trails make for gorgeous horseback rides up through the surrounding hills and sycamore groves. Traditions run strong here: adults and kids alike are expected to dress up for dinner.
Riding: Unlike at most ranches, rides are à la carte, including one to a cowboy breakfast, trail rides, and sunset rides for prime wildlife viewing.
Capacity: 230 guests; 100 horses.
Clear Creek Guest Ranch, Burnsville, NC
Its owners were so inspired by their sons’ work as wranglers out west that they felt compelled to start a dude ranch of their own. Luckily for those on the right coast, they put down roots in the Smoky Mountains. Pisgah National Forest is right next door for trail rides, and Western staples like evening hootenannies, rodeos, and steak cookouts could make you forget you’re east of the Mississippi.
Riding: You’ll never go out with more than seven other guests at a time. Trail rides are offered twice daily, and riding is available for kids ages five and up.
Capacity: 68 guests; 70 horses.
Hideout at Flitner Ranch, Shell, WY
The intimate Hideout, set on 150,000 breathtaking acres, is unusual for a number of reasons: it embraces families, yet offers no children’s program; it’s a bona fide cattle ranch whose work, in summer, is done largely by guests; and despite the cowboy bent, it doesn’t spare creature comforts like top-notch dining and spa services.
Riding: Rides vary in length, traversing anything from quasi-desert to alpine forest and craggy canyons. Those with decent riding skills can choose to do a day (or more) of cattle work, which may include moving cattle into summer pastureland or branding.
Capacity: 25 guests; 80 horses.
Latigo Ranch, Kremmling, CO
Latigo is known for its fine riding program, individualized attention, and “nouveau ranch” menu. The Arapaho National Forest surrounds it on three sides, and trails take you through an array of aspen groves, pine forest, sagebrush, and open meadows. It strikes a thought-out balance between family time (breakfast, dinner, and family rides) and those times when kids and their parents part company (lunch, adults-only pack trips, separate orientations, and kids’ outings).
Riding: The program emphasizes instruction, encourages independence, and has a stated goal that every rider will be able to (but not, of course, forced to) lope by week’s end.
Capacity: 35 guests; 70–90 horses.
Mayan Dude Ranch, Bandera, TX
Cowboy bravado is this ranch’s hallmark. Intended soley for beginners, the ranch is ideal for the family that knows it wants to do some horseback riding, yes, but plenty of other things as well, like fishing, swimming, tubing, taking in a hootenanny, and…lots of Lone Star–style eating.
Riding: Two rides are offered daily, and they’re set up for beginners, lasting just 50 minutes apiece, about half that of most other ranches. They’re also single-file only, and you could find yourself on a trail ride with up to 25 other people at a time.
Capacity: 130 guests; 40 horses.
The Ranch at Rock Creek, Philipsburg, MT
This brand-new spot is a luxury resort that looks a lot like a dude ranch. Situated on 6,600 acres in a gorgeous Montana valley, it offers great riding, to be sure, but its forté is “glamping” (glamorous camping)—getting away from it all, but without leaving creature comforts like spa treatments and featherbeds behind.
Riding: Rides are scheduled according to the wishes of its guests, and trail rides traverse anything from riverbeds to rolling meadows and wooded foothills. Mini cattle drives are an option for those with considerable riding skills.
Capacity: 60 guests; 72 horses.
Rocking Z Guest Ranch, Wolf River, MT
Following in the tradition of the country’s first dude ranches, Rocking Z started out as a cattle ranch, then switched over completely to a guest ranch—only it did so in 2000. A family-run, ultra-green operation (it uses biofuel only in summer), Rocking Z trains all its horses in natural horsemanship, the no-coercion, communication-centered technique elaborated in The Horse Whisperer. The owners believe it’s important to “get people off the clock,” explaining the relative lack of structure here—and the freedom to be spontaneous.
Riding: Rides through open high hills and long valleys are custom-tailored to families and/or individuals.
Capacity: 20 guests; 60 horses.
Southern Cross Ranch, Madison, GA
Open year-round, this ranch is for families who don’t need the cowboy shtick to enjoy horseback riding. Situated amid rolling hills, it’s one of the few that lets capable riders go out on their own, without a wrangler. Its exclusive focus on horses (it breeds and trains its own, either quarter or paint) fosters bonding.
Riding: The hands-on program offers two two-hour trail rides daily, with a maximum of six people per group. The option to separate from the group is available to more accomplished riders after an hour with their guide.
Capacity: 40 guests; 150 horses.
Tanque Verde Ranch, Tucson, AZ
An upscale, 60,000-acre resort near Tucson, Tanque Verde is best visited in spring or fall, when temperatures are cooler and the desert more lush. The surrounding Sonoran Desert landscape, strewn with saguaro and prickly pear cacti, is a world away from that of the typical Rocky Mountain ranch, but horseback riding reigns equally supreme.
Riding: Guests have the choice of three 90-minute rides daily through the countryside, a six-hour all-day ride, or the combination of rides and a group arena lesson to hone techniques (sunset rides and private lessons cost extra).
Capacity: 200 guests; 180 horses.
Triple J Wilderness Ranch, Augusta, MT
The greatest assets of JJJ are its dramatic and highly diverse terrain and its proximity to both the 1.5 million–acre Bob Marshall Wilderness, an untrammeled land tract that’s accessible only on foot or horseback, and Sun River. Riding is the main draw, but trout fishing, nature hikes, and cookouts could keep you outdoors all day long.
Riding: You’re matched with a horse for the week and have your choice of morning, afternoon, or all-day rides of various levels. One of the ranch’s specialties is overnight pack trips.
Capacity: 24 guests; 70 horses and mules.