How to select a dude ranch
We feel for anyone who is trying to select a dude ranch or guest ranch from the vast number that are available. Most of us can offer a vacation that will renew your spirit and get you into the real outdoor world away from the pace of your workday life, TV, video games, and virtual anything. We will try to offer a few pointers that might make the ranch choice easier.
Select the ranch that has the best fit of activities, size, and surroundings to your tastes. Our goal is for you to have the best vacation of your lives, which is what makes this such a fun business for us.
Individual dude ranches are small in comparison to options like cruises, and we all have a unique character because of our location, the nature of our land, and the history of the ranch and owners. You have a lot of variety to choose from. Variety is good on the one hand, but makes your selection process more complicated. I am going to put a plug in for the dude ranch associations here. I am only acquainted with the two we belong to: the Montana Dude Ranchers Association and the Dude Ranchers Association. They have ranch member standards, ranch inspections, and support available to their members for tips on how to provide a quality experience for our guests. Other state associations probably have similar features, but I am not familiar with them.
There are numerous directories on the internet and books that have listings and/or descriptions of dude ranches. They are all "pay for play", and I am not familiar with any that have the standards for inclusion or the support that the ranch associations offer. We are listed in some of those directories that are good but not too expensive. There are others that add too much to our marketing expense, which of course gets passed on to you.
Some of the characteristics to keep in mind are:
Kinds of activities that interest you are a first consideration. Although most dude ranches offer horseback riding, there is a wide variety of other activities offered. Some ranches concentrate mostly on the horseback riding, while others include fishing, guided hikes, side trips to local attractions, rafting, and more. Deciding the activities that are most important to you will narrow your choices.
The state and season of the year in which you are traveling will also help with choices. In the western states, most ranches run their season from mid-May-September. A few in the Ozarks and California are open year-round, and Arizona offers great vacation places in the winter.
Size or guest capacity of guest ranches varies a great deal. Some ranches take only a dozen or so guests per week, while the resort-oriented ranches can accommodate over a hundred people. At a small ranch you will have a more personalized experience with staff and other guests, while there are usually more amenities at the larger ranches.
Cost is usually important in determining a vacation spot. Guest ranches vary considerably in price, usually because of the type of accommodations, meals, and extra amenities such as swimming pools, hot tubs, and tennis courts. Don’t forget to inquire about seasonal rates, as some ranches offer better deals during certain times of the season.
Type of riding and where you will be riding differ at dude ranches. Are you a beginner rider needing additional support or an experienced rider ready to try anything offered? Some ranches have mostly scenic trail rides with limited trotting or loping, others have terrain that allows for more. There may be weight limits for riding. You might have the same horse for your week stay, while other ranches may switch horses daily. Dependable horses which have been used at the ranch for many seasons are the norm.
Scenery, wildlife, and outdoor surroundings vary with location and time of year. Some ranches border national forests and have trails to take you to very special places for your enjoyment. Free from the distractions of the city you will be looking for elk, deer, moose, and other critters while taking in vast mountain scenes of unmatched beauty.
Choosing a working cattle ranch versus a vacation-oriented ranch will offer you different experiences. The working ranches give you a chance to get a “hands-on” experience similar to the cowboys of the past. Cattle drives are offered at particular times during the season at these ranches giving guests an experience of “life on the range.” Expect some rather intensive riding on these. Others choose to enjoy the outdoor activities during the day, come back to the lodge for a hearty meal, and relax in their surroundings with family or friends.
Fishing in the quiet solitude of a mountain stream is often the wish of a person seeking the perfect dude ranch. Some ranches have excellent waters for catching fishing, and fly fishing instruction is part of the package. Some will put you in contact with a fishing guide. You may be able to catch your own fish for dinner.
Choosing a ranch in a remote location or one that is close to cities depends on the needs of the people planning a vacation. For those seeking an outdoor experience in what seems to be unlimited acres of wilderness, a ranch farther from civilization would fit the bill. On the other hand, if shopping or hitting the night spots is what you need, a location closer to city life would be better.
Going to a luxurious ranch resort or to one with a more rustic atmosphere is part of your decision-making process. In most cases, the more rustic ranches are smaller in size and offer a more personalized experience where you are part of the ranch family for a week and leave with long lasting friendships. The larger resort ranches usually offer more amenities and options to guests who are interested in swimming pools, hot tubs, and tennis courts.
Sharing the history and flavor of the area (folk lore, customs, culture of the ranch community) can be a very informative and fun experience. Many owners and families have been in the ranch business for a long time and have a colorful history of cowboys, critters, and culture to share. Ghost towns, old mines, Native American ruins, geological formations, national parks, and more can spark your interest in the history of the ranch.
Structured programs are sought by some but others choose a ranch with a more flexible slate of activities. A smaller ranch will try to personalize activities you wish to do, but the larger ranches usually have more options. Do you want to participate in the ranch activities and eat meals with your children, or do you want a structured children's program that keeps them separated from the adults? There is usually some age limit for young children to ride.
The listings with the dude ranch associations and possibly other listings will help to quickly sort through your options and give you a smaller number of ranches to check for more information. I think a phone call would be welcomed by any of us to help you get a better idea of what to expect.
Good luck in your search. Have a wonderful ranch vacation.