It’s like something out of a movie. You’re on horseback, ambling across a wide open valley. Mountains rise up on either side of you, arching into a sky bigger and bluer than anything you’ve ever seen. Up ahead, a hundred or so cattle — and a bull — lumber forward, propelled further everytime you and your trusty steed get a little too close. The sun is hot, but the air is sharp and cool in your lungs. Soon, the cattle have all passed through a gate to another part of the mountainside, and you and your companions dismount and sprawl on the grass and rocks to eat lunch. Your water is cold, your sandwich tastes better than a four-course gourmet meal, and all is right with the world.
No, it’s not a movie. It’s just one more amazing day on your dude ranch vacation.
Perhaps you’re scrambling around, trying to decide on your summer vacation. Perhaps you’re looking for something different to do this summer. Or perhaps you’re already thinking ahead to next year. Whatever your stage of planning, I’m here to make a humble suggestion:
Spend a week at a dude ranch.
Do people actually do that? Yes, yes they do, and not just in the movies (though if you want to think of your life as one long movie, who am I to judge?). I did last year, and it was one of the best weeks of my life. Oh, you have questions? Go ahead, ask.
What exactly is a dude ranch? A “dude ranch” is a colloquial term referring to several categories of guest ranches that host visitors, mostly during the summer season. These ranches can be found all over the American west, and are as varied as any other type of vacation.
So what are the different kinds of dude ranches? Well, there are luxury resort ranches, which are essentially luxury resorts in a spectacular natural setting with all sorts of available outdoor and indoor activities, such as horseback riding, fly fishing, hiking, and spa services. There are regular resort ranches (most often what is meant by the term “dude ranch”), that are a little more rustic and are organized into what is roughly a summer camp for adults (or families). There are working guest ranches, where the accomodations are often a bit more rustic, meals are taken with the owners and the crew, and while activities can be varied, the primary focus is horseback riding. There are also ranches that offer working vacations, in which you actually work on the ranch for the week. And some places fall somewhere in between, so your choices are nearly limitless.
What do you do there? Ride horses over beautiful countryside. Tour historic sites. Hike. Fish. Camp. Shoot rifles (seriously, this is really fun). Pan for gold. See wildlife that you’ve only ever seen on the nature channel. Soak in a hot tub. Relax with a glass of wine and watch the sun set, or with a cup of coffee and watch it rise. Read. Make new friends. And many many other things, depending on the ranch you choose. Horseback riding is definitely the focus and number one activity, but if that’s not your thing you can find places that give you a cheaper non-riding price and offer other activities.
Do I have to know how to ride a horse? Nope, absolutely not. I didn’t, and by the end of the week I did (and loved it). It’s a good idea to tell the ranch you’re a newbie, however. They’ll take care of you.
What does the cost of the week include? Usually, it includes unlimited horseback riding and many other activities, meals, and accomodations (and sometimes transportation to and from the airport), but this varies from ranch to ranch.
How do I figure out which ranch to choose? The internet is your friend. Check out http://www.duderanches.com/ and http://www.duderanch.org/, which list ranches all over the country. Each state also has a dude ranch association, such as http://www.montanadra.com/. Read the descriptions. Send away for brochures. And then make phone calls. I chose my ranch last year after a conversation with the owner that made me feel so comfortable and so excited about the vacation that I knew it was the right choice.
Do you have a recommendation? If you’re looking to spend a week in big sky country, Montana, disconnect from the patter of everyday life, stay in comfortable cabins, spend your days on horseback, and your evenings going on wildlife viewing expeditions, and be on an actual working ranch (though they won’t make you work), try Flynn’s Hidden Hollow Hideaway in Townsend, Montana. Tell Kelly Flynn I sent you.