How to Choose the Right Ranch Vacation

Ranch vacations are an incredible family vacation option over the summer months. When I was growing up, my family stayed at few ranches in Arizona, Wyoming, and California — without a doubt, my favorite kid-vacation memories are from these trips!

When I first started Ciao Bambino I was on the road in Italy 5 weeks a year. Despite my love for Europe, I found myself exhausted and ready for a stateside holiday. We ended up spending a week at Smith Fork Ranch in Colorado (midway between Aspen and Telluride). Devon was 2.5 years old at the time. I have to say that our week at the ranch was absolutely phenomenal and ideally, every summer I’d switch off between a ranch and more exotic destinations.

There is a massive list of ranch options available throughout the Western United States and it’s overwhelming to research where you should go. I like to look at amenities on a spectrum to help me determine the right choice for a particular trip noting that needs are different from year-to-year plus the age of your kids definitely drives what you need and want to experience at a particular point in time.

He’s an outline of the spectrum of amenities and services to review when choosing which ranch is right for you.

Structured vs. Unstructured Activities

Part of what makes ranches so entertaining is that most offer significant structured activities — trail riding, guided fishing, extensive kids programs — the list is endless. There is something easy about getting up and heading for a scheduled day of action. That said, many of us are so structured in our daily lives that the last thing we want on vacation is a rigorous schedule. For me, I want a combination of options — meaning, I want access to the interesting (and often more memorable) structured activities, but I also want the ability to do nothing. Make sure you figure out how a ranch runs their program and ensure it matches how you envision spending your week.

Horses, Horses, Horses

A typical “dude ranch” is all about horseback riding. If this does not appeal to one or more people in the group (or kids are too young to ride), it’s essential to ensure that there are plenty of other activities of interest offered. Some ranches are “all about” fishing when there are lakes or rivers nearby, while others properties are more like resorts with a swimming pool, tennis, a spa etc. Figure out what you want to experience and this will help narrow down the list of options quickly.

Rustic vs. Posh Lodging

Many ranches offer spacious, cabin-type accommodations — part of why they are so great for families. Most people would argue that a “real ranch” is more outdoorsy and rustic versus decorated like a posh hotel. I love staying at the Four Seasons as much as anyone, but I also appreciate and want the experience of staying in a place that is integrated with an outdoors-focused environment. That said, I don’t want something dusty and dirty — but simple is OK, and cozy is even better.  Photos are deceiving.  Make sure you read user reviews to get the real skinny on the quality of the accommodations.

All-Inclusive vs. A La Carte

Many ranches price by the week and include all meals and activities in a single rate — at first blush this pricing can seem outrageously expensive.  Once you break down what you are getting, including a high staff-to-guest ratio in many cases, the value of ranch pricing is clear. I’d argue that when you really add up what you’d spend on your own in a different venue, including all activities and meals, you might find that you aren’t paying much of a premium for a ranch experience. Part of the fun of a ranch is access to a wide a variety of activities — I’d rather take part in as much as possible without worrying about spending money here and there — that just adds to stress and logistics. Figure out what works for you in terms of pricing and choose a ranch accordingly — there are some properties that offer a la carte pricing for rooms, meals, and activities.

Group vs. Individual Meals

Call me antisocial, but I don’t want to spend every dinner during my vacation making small talk with other guests. When I was investigating going to Smith Fork Ranch, I specifically asked about the structure of dinners — they confirmed that any families eat on their own when they choose to do so.  It is key to understand this! Some people enjoy their trip more when eating with other people — the bottom line is you need to figure out what you want to experience and ensure the ranch is set-up accordingly.

Kids Programs

Unlike beach-oriented kids clubs where the activities and structures seem to be more-or-less the same between resorts, there are vast differences between ranch kids programs.  Step one is to understand age requirements to participate in various activities. When we were planning our Colorado trip and Devon was only 2 year old, I found it surprisingly challenging to find a ranch that had a program for him vs. just the opportunity to pay a babysitter. If you want your toddler to be entertained and have a fulfilling week too — ranches with some sort of program for younger kids are key. For school-age kids and up, many properties offer full programs with age-appropriate activities while other properties offer just riding as the activity option. Ask the ranch to outline the nitty-gritty details of their program to ensure it will be the best entertainment option for your kids based on their age and what they like to do.

If babysitting services are needed during the day or for a few of the nights, it is important to understand rates ahead of time. We list approximate babysitting rates for all Ciao Bambino properties that offer referrals.

Riding Options

Most ranches offer Western trail riding. Based on the terrain, there may be limitations as to what you can do on the horse, irrespective of riding experience. I remember loping through the desert for hours during one of our family trips to Tanque Verde growing up, but on this last trip to Smith Fork, the riding was mostly walking given the steep, mountain terrain. For riding enthusiasts, there is nothing worse than dreaming about fast speeds and ending up walking for hours on end. The other thing worth mentioning is that some ranches have fun rodeo programs for kids — a blast for everyone!

Comfort vs. Gourmet Food

Some ranches offer simple “home cooking” where the focus is comfort and substance. For foodie-types, there are ranches that offer gourmet food and wine. Irrespective of your preference, you are eating food from the same kitchen all week — understand the intent of the meal program. I have to admit that drinking good wine is part of what we enjoy on vacation — before going to ranch I confirm the wine options available too.


Programs run at night like campfires, dancing, and live music can significantly enhance a ranch stay and most properties offer some kind of nightly program. We stayed at the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch last summer and they have a kids dinner and activity program a few nights a week — we loved this! We enjoyed the adult cocktail and dinner service while the kids ran around like monkeys. Devon is still asking to go back there …

Ranch Size and Personalized Services

Part of what we loved so much about Smith Fork Ranch was that there were only 25 guests staying at the ranch during our week there. This enabled a very high level of personalized service and private guides for things like riding and fishing. Ranch staff is usually transitory — college kids or kids in their early 20s — it’s fun to get to know them. Ask the ranch to confirm the maximum capacity of the property and average guest count for the week you are researching.

For families with older kids, some ranches offer overnights where they take you out to a semi-permanent camp on horseback. This is a fantastic experience with none of the hassles of camping as someone does all the planning, carrying, and cooking for you!

We have a small group of ranches on Ciao Bambino. I’ve personally stayed at a few of them and rave about them for different reasons. Our Community Recommended Options look incredible as well.

See our list of recommended family ranch vacations.

One Comment

  1. Amie, I have to echo what you said about getting a clear idea of what you want from the trip. When we went to Spring Creek Ranch, the benefit was that there was an amazing array of activities, while still having beautiful accommodations with ESPN. This was a multi-generational trip where the kids, myself and my siblings, wanted to go fishing, riding, hiking and rafting, while my father wanted to participate when he chose and be able to watch ESPN when he chose. We did some things together and somethings separately and everyone was happy!

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