When I decided to take my 10-year-old daughter to a dude ranch this summer, it wasn’t without trepidation. While she’s been riding horses for two years, I have very little experience with them. So I knew she’d have fun, but I wasn’t convinced I would. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I’d heard about Eatons’ Ranch in Wyoming a few years back, and after some research, decided to give it a go. I didn’t even explore other ranches; this one just felt right. And it did for my daughter, too — within 10 minutes of arriving at the ranch, she was already begging to come back next year.
Back in the late 1800s, three Eaton brothers left their East Coast home and started traveling west. They settled in North Dakota and soon established a horse and cattle ranch. Enamored by the Eatons’ relaxed, outdoorsy lifestyle, their East Coast friends started spending their summers at the ranch. They eventually started paying room and board, and this is how the dude ranch was officially born.
In 1904, the ranch relocated to its current location in Wolf, Wyoming. More and more people came to visit, and some even started building their own cabins on the property. Years later, the ownership of those cabins transferred to the ranch, and they remain on the property today. In fact, we stayed in a cabin built in 1925 by longtime dude Buddie Jenkins.
Last year, the ranch celebrated its 135th anniversary. It’s now run by the fourth and fifth generations of the Eaton family.
Eatons’ Ranch is located in northern Wyoming, tucked against the east side of Bighorn National Forest. It sits at 4,500 feet in elevation on 7,000 acres.
Guests (or dudes, as they’re called on the ranch) often fly into Billings, Montana, a two-hour drive; or Denver, a seven-hour drive. It’s a four-hour drive from the east gate of Yellowstone National Park — some dudes, like us, top off their Yellowstone adventures with a stay at the ranch.
There are 47 cabins on the property, ranging from standard cabins to the “Gold Coast” cabins, which sit on a creek and are a little more spacious. The cabins, decorated in a western motif, haven’t changed much over the years. Most are furnished with twin beds and all include daily maid service. There are no kitchens, but as all meals are served in the main dining hall, guests have no need for them.
In addition to the cabins, there are also four suites in the Main House, a large stone building that’s a popular spot for families to hang out and play board games. The Apartment Bar is also located in the Main House; they start mixing cocktails in the late afternoon.
We spent a lot of time at Howard Hall, where the staff hosts kids’ activities such as tie-dying and softball games in the afternoons. Family-oriented evening activities include karaoke and bingo.
As I mentioned, I had very little experience with horses going into this trip. The few times I had ridden, I was nervous and never felt confident with my horse. This experience was nothing like that.
If you’re a rider or have some experience going in, that’s great, but it’s not at all expected. There are typically nine wranglers working the barn. They’re there to help, answer questions, and guide riders however they need.
After getting fitted for a saddle, riders are assigned a single horse for the entire stay, based on prior experience. This may not be unique to Eatons’, but it was a huge plus — it allowed us to get to know our horses and vice versa. My horse, Hova, and my daughter’s horse, Ichiban, were the calmest, most gentle horses I’ve ever been around. Some days we simply rode the meadows, but other days we were on steep, rocky trails, and I never once felt nervous or concerned about my daughter or myself. The horses are well trained and well cared for, and they know the property inside out. As one wrangler told us, if you’re ever lost, just turn toward the ranch and the horse will take you home.
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Dudes are allowed to ride anywhere on the property (there are countless trails to follow), and the ranch also holds a license that allows riding in Bighorn National Forest. Although the wranglers are always ready and eager to lead, dudes at Eatons’ can venture out alone after the first ride — a rarity among ranches.
TIP: The ranch doesn’t have helmets, and no one wears them. I cringed at first, but relaxed almost immediately, when I realized the good nature of the horses. But if this makes you nervous, bring one with you.
Days at Eatons’ start early. Breakfast in the dining hall, served from 7-8:45a, is mostly made to order; the kitchen serves everything from eggs to French toast to yogurt parfaits.
After breakfast, it’s time for the morning ride before returning for lunch at noon. There are usually two lunch options, and for picky eaters, the kitchen is always happy to make a PB&J or grilled cheese. Those who follow a restricted diet (no grains, no dairy, no sugar, etc.) should have few problems with the menu. There are lots of delicious salads and veggies, and, of course, plenty of protein. I didn’t expect the food to be so good, given the low-key atmosphere, but the meals well exceeded my expectations.
Afternoons are free until dinner at 6p. This may sound like too much downtime, but it isn’t at all. Most kids head to the pool or to the kids’ activities at Howard Hall. Dudes can also ask a wrangler to show them how to fish for trout in the stream, or head out to Duck Pond to fish for bass. At Duck Pond, there’s also a rope swing for swimming, and the water is clear and warm.
Right after dinner, everyone heads out for an evening ride. This was my favorite part of the day. It was serene, and the sunsets took my breath away. Many rush through dinner so they can enjoy an extra-long ride, as horses need to be back to the barn by 9p.
TIP: No one has to ride twice a day; it’s up to you how much you want to be on the horse. The ranch also offers all-day rides, departing after breakfast, including a packed lunch and returning mid- to late afternoon. We did a 12-mile round-trip ride, up to “the cave,” which we got to hike through and explore. It was a blast.
While the daily routine is pretty consistent, the ranch throws plenty of special events into the schedule. For example, there’s a dinner ride and a breakfast ride once a week, for which all the dudes take a two-mile horse ride to a cabin where the meal is served. There’s also a Friday night dance — the wranglers are happy to teach western dance moves. The ranch also hosts a s’mores night at the fire pit. These extra activities are a lot of fun.
I’m stating the obvious, but people go to dude ranches to ride horses. Yes, this is a large part of the experience, and it’s thrilling to see the confidence that riding a horse day-in, day-out instills in a child. But for us, meeting so many other fabulous families was an equal highlight. We loved riding with them, sharing meals with them, or simply hanging out together. Many families return year after year, just like the dudes in the early days. And I get it.
There’s also the staff — everyone is so kind and helpful. Many of the wranglers and dining room servers are college students with riding experience who work at the ranch during their summer break. All of them showed impressive maturity and professionalism, not to mention patience with kids.
Finally, there’s the Eaton family. Yes, this is a business for them. But they made us feel like part of the family, and they want everyone to love their ranch as much as they do. They’re warm and down-to-earth, and many dudes consider them friends.
If you go to Eatons’ Ranch, be sure to open yourself not just to the place, but to the people. You’ll return home feeling renewed and grounded … and of course, counting the days until you can go back again. We certainly are.
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Editor’s Note: Photos by Christine Roher.
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