In the late-1800s, big-shot city slickers (known to cattle ranchers as “dudes”) discovered that ranch visits out West made for unforgettable getaways. This spurred a unique niche of travel as working ranches entered the tourism business, catering to urbanites who wanted to trade shiny dress shoes for cowboy boots and enjoy a slice of the great American West in a vacation format.
The appeal of escaping to dude ranches to unwind in wide open spaces remains timeless. Today’s dude ranches (also known as guest ranches) are places where you can go horseback riding along trails shaded by Aspen trees, fly fish in rippling rivers and gather around fire pits at night to stargaze and enjoy the crisp mountain air.
Many dude ranches today strike a balance of down-home comfort and luxury pampering and offer line-ups of family-friendly activities and amenities. Ready to saddle up and reign in some fun on your next family vacation? Head out West to these nine ranches that are great for families.
C Lazy U in Granby, Colorado
Wake up at dusk and witness the “jingle,” which is the thunderous parade of 200 horses returning to the ranch from pasture. C Lazy U’s herd of horses share the fame with Petey, a loveable ranch donkey who stars in his own children’s book, which families can take home as a souvenir. Saturday “Shodeos” allow kids to show off their horsemanship skills, and adults can compete in rodeo events like barrel racing and pole bending.
White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, Arizona
Saddle-adorned stools and cactus motifs solidify the Wild West meets Southwest feel at White Stallion Ranch, which has a top-tier horseback riding program. Family-friendly activities include swimming, rock climbing, hayrides and western line dancing. At the end of vacation, departing kids can nominate the next “horse of the month” by placing a ballot at the front desk. Each month, the winning horse receives a therapeutic massage and a “carrot cake” treat of grains and carrots.
Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork, Montana
For a family summer camp feel, head to Flathead Lake Lodge, where log cabins are perched on the lake’s edge and nestled in pine trees. The family-owned ranch welcomes guests for week-long stays, with activities including horseback rides, log rolling, elk preserve tours, kids movie nights and a giant slip-and-slide. The 2,000-acre ranch stretches from the shores of Flathead Lake to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
The Ranch at Emerald Valley in Colorado Springs, Colorado
Tucked away in the Pike National Forest, The Ranch at Emerald Valley is a scenic escape with 13 restored cabins, a placid lake, wildflower-carpeted trails and hummingbirds flitting about near the sugar-water feeders. The property has a big hot tub that’s an ideal resting spot for stargazing. In the summer, the ranch serves peach beignets made with Colorado’s beloved Palisade peaches. Activities on the ranch include fly fishing, horseback riding, horseshoes, canoeing and scaling the property’s waterfall.
Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, Arizona
Families love Tanque Verde Ranch so much that many leave their boots and cowboy hats in Tucson, ready for future visits. As one of the country’s oldest cattle and guest ranches, Tanque Verde is sprawled out over 60 acres and nestled near the Rincon Mountains, adjacent to Saguaro National Park, so you can expect dramatic sunsets and plenty of family photo opps in this cactus-studded desert landscape. In addition to horseback riding, mountain biking and cowboy cookouts, Tanque Verde’s activity lineup has some unexpected offerings such as silversmithing workshops and crystal-infused soap making. Tanque Verde also has its own bar, the Dog House Saloon, that slings prickly pear margs and local beers.
Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa in Moab, Utah
Surrounded by crimson rocks, Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa inspires awe from all vantage points. This remote, riverfront ranch offers immersive programs like a meet-and-greet that allows kids to feed and play with friendly barn animals each morning. The picturesque property also offers a labyrinth for meditative walks and a harvest garden where buckaroos can help gather fruits and veggies that are then incorporated into restaurant menus. Kids will appreciate the “S’mores Concierge” who brings out marshmallows and chocolate to enjoy around a nightly campfire.
Our Heritage Guest Ranch in Crawford, Nebraska
Stagecoach rides, horseback riding through the Oglala National Grassland, fishing, four-wheeling and hiking are all on the activity list at Our Heritage Guest Ranch in Nebraska. But kids can also get real-life paleontology experience with excursions to the White River Badlands, where they can hunt for 30-million-year-old fossils. Preserved in the ash of ancient volcanoes, you just might stumble upon the fossils of saber-tooth cats or the now-extinct brontotheres.
The Resort at Paws Up in Greenough, Montana
Tucked away in the Blackfoot River Valley northeast of Missoula, The Resort at Paws Up is a posh, 37,000-acre property that offers a highlight reel of Montana living. Dude ranch activities include cattle drives, chuck wagon dinners, horseback riding, fly fishing on the Blackfoot River that flows through the ranch, white water rafting, rappelling down cliffs and kicking up dust in ATVs. Elk and Black Angus cows roam the pastures of the ranch and hot air balloon rides overlook untouched Lewis & Clark territory. A cool stay option: Families can book tented luxury camps in the summer and fall, with a dedicated camping butler and concierge.
Rimrock Ranch in Cody, Wyoming
Cody Yellowstone (the east gateway to Yellowstone National Park) has been the home of the Dude Ranchers Association for the past 90 years and is where the term “dude” originated. The region is home to a high concentration of dude ranches. Among them is the family-friendly Rimrock Ranch that’s 25 miles from Yellowstone and that has a “borrowing library” of cowboy boots for those who need Western wear while on the ranch. Ranch activities include horseback riding, cookouts, river float trips, fishing and more.