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.