Top Ten Dude Ranches

Our ten favorite dude ranches that offer a week of all-inclusive horseback riding (and other fun outdoors activities), gourmet dining, and a genuine Western experience for the whole crew.
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Location, location, location. It's hard to experience the real western heritage of a dude ranch vacation without actually traveling to terrain that exhibits "Real West" attributes. High mountain meadows and lakes with rippling creeks; Rocky Mountain vistas, sweeping plains; dusty desert trails; cactus, pines, aspens, and fir trees; wildlife and rangelife. A true West environment is all part of the rustic recipe of a complete dude ranch vacation. Here we highlight some of the best ranches west of the Mississippi that offer an all-inclusive week vacation. All feature horseback riding as the main entrée, but there's a lot more on the menu to entertain your palate.

10. Blackwater Creek Ranch, Guest Dude Ranch
Cody, Wyoming

There's a reason why Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed this mountain region "the most scenic 50 miles in the United States." Literally perched in the heart of the iconic west, Blackwater Creek Ranch bumps up against Yellowstone National Park and is within miles of Cody, Wyoming, the town founded by "Wild West" entertainer, Buffalo Bill. Blackwater Creek and the Shoshone River border the ranch, which makes for some very fine fly-fishing. However, the primary activity is horseback riding, where every age guest from little bitty to bigger are assigned a horse according to their ability level for the week. Exploring the many mountain, valley, and creek trails of the Shoshone National Forest by horseback transports guests to another time when Crow and Shoshone indians tracked the routes over a century ago. Besides the warm hospitality and recreational options on the ranch, guests get a dose of an authentic western town with a day tour to Cody, an evening at the Cody Nite rodeo, and a sightseeing tour of Yellowstone to see geological gems and wildlife. Tantalizing stuff for the western buff looking to increase their cache of cowboy and western trivia.

9. Vista Verde Ranch, Luxury Guest Dude Ranch
Clark, Colorado

A stone's throw from Steamboat Springs, enveloped by towering peaks along the Continental Divide, sits a 1930s cattle ranch tucked away in the Elk River Valley. Original owners, Hollis and Jean Tufly, dubbed it Vista Verde Ranch, translated as "the green view." During summer, every color of green dots the ranch, from the forest of pines to the mountain meadows surrounding it. The luxury guest ranch is known for attention to detail. At breakfast in the main lodge, guests are greeted by guides and asked what kind of activity they would like to do that day and are offered choices based on their responses. The ranch has a 1:1 guide to guest ratio even at its busiest times. The folks at Vista Verde have thought of everything. There is even a rack of cowboy boots for guests to use for horseback riding (kid sizes, too) if they didn't bring their own. The ranch offers an extensive riding program for adults and little buckaroos to improve horsemanship skills in addition to trailrides of the Routt National Forest. Foodies will enjoy gourmet dinners, cooking classes, and wine tasting events. And for those who want to round out their round-up of activities, they can head over to the Adventure Center for hiking, yoga, rock climbing, or mountain-biking on full-suspension bikes.

8. Red Horse Mountain Ranch, Guest Dude Ranch
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

Western traditions run deep in the veins of this Rocky Mountain gem near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The ranch was first homesteaded as 160 acres in the late 1800s. Previous to that bit of history the land was part the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation. Now, Red Mountain Ranch is just shy of 600 acres surrounded by the Panhandle National Forest. Family dude ranch vacations with creative multiple recreation options are the specialty at Red Horse. There's a great kids' program (ages 3 through 11) that will keep wee buckaroos busy learning the ropes of ranching. Big kids (teens and adults) who relish activities in addition to the traditional dude ranch offerings of horseback riding and fishing can attempt the challenge course, which includes a zip line, a trapeze, and a 63-foot-high climbing wall. Rustic luxury combined with breathtaking scenery equal a relaxing experience. Add to that activities like 3-D archery and geo-caching for a winning 21st-century dude ranch adventure.

7. Lone Mountain Guest Ranch, Guest Dude Ranch
Big Sky, Montana

Cradled within a small mountain valley under a canopy of endless blue sky stretches Lone Mountain Ranch, first homesteaded in 1915 by Clarence Lytle as a working cattle, horse, and hay ranch. Cutting through the ranch is a creek originating from the Gallatin River, making it one of the most scenic western landscapes you might ever see. The dude ranch offers plenty to keep guests and their families busy, including day visits to its next door neighbor, Yellowstone National Park, where Lone Mountain staff organize day horseback rides as well as naturalist-guided sea-kayak tours on Yellowstone Lake. Known for their professionalism, the friendly staff at Lone Mountain Ranch excels at providing warm hospitality, mountain horseback riding, and top-notch tours such as Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing guides and trained naturalists who introduce guests to birding as one of the many options. Operating for more than 30 years as a guest dude ranch, Lone Mountain is renowned as offering a genuine western experience.

6. Double E Guest Ranch, Working Guest Dude Ranch
Gila, New Mexico

Southwestern New Mexico is Apache Country, as in Geronimo! The rugged land comprises the 3.3-million-acre Gila National Forest/Wilderness Area and is home to a working cattle and horse ranch that was once part of the Gila Apache Indian Reservation. A stay at the 30,000 acre Double E Guest Ranch is a working vacation. The kind where your hands get dirty and your tush loses its cush from being in the saddle all day. Guests are immediately adopted as "working" crew, where they quickly get in the cowboy spirit as they groom, saddle, and ride horses with the Double E wranglers everyday. Weather is so mild that calving occurs year-round, so guests can earn their spurs with cattle work like roping, round ups, penning, and cattle drives. Experienced riders will enjoy exploring the same rough country that Geronimo rode; plus, ride on all-day treks discovering ancient Native American Indian ruins. Or opt for one of the outstanding clinics offered. Most unique is the "Cowboy Mounted Shooting Clinic," which demands harmonious discipline between horse and rider. The equestrian sport combines reining, barrel racing, and horsemanship.

Published: 15 Jun 2010 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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