A dude ranch vacation is a unique experience, different from any other type of family travel — and for those who have never tried one, the uncertainties can feel daunting. If you’re unsure how the logistics work, what gear you’ll need or whether you’ll be bored if you don’t feel like riding … we have answers to these questions and more! Read below for FAQs about how ranch vacations are structured, what to bring and what to expect. Special thanks to our founder and managing editor, Amie O’Shaughnessy, who shared her fabulous tips and insight based on years of ranching and riding.
Most dude ranches are all-inclusive, which means that meals, accommodations, riding, and activities are all wrapped up in a single weekly price. There’s quite a bit that goes into running a ranch (similar to summer camp), and most have great guest-to-staff ratios. To that end, they aren’t inexpensive, but they are a good value.
Some ranches, such as The Resort at Paws Up in Montana and The Alisal in California, do de-couple activity pricing so that guests only pay for what they do. The caveat is that, to a large degree, the fun of a ranch vacation lies in showing up and knowing that there is no math involved in anything … it’s part of the freedom of the experience. And likewise, everyone can load up on as many activities as they want without a financial consequence.
Traditional dude ranches are focused on horses, but even in that scenario, there are usually plenty of things for non-riders to do. Montana’s Flathead Lake Lodge, for example, offers a long list of lake/water activities, plus mountain biking, yoga, shooting, gaming and more. At Colorado Trails, fishing is so big that some guests come just for fishing, not riding. It varies ranch by ranch, but if nobody in the family wants to ride at all, there are lots of other activity-driven resorts from which to choose that are a better fit than a non-riding dude ranch vacation.
Many ranches cater to young children, though there are always minimum requirements around riding. That number will vary, but it’s usually about 4 to 5 years old. Sometimes ranches maintain ponies or small horses just to lead kids around the ring, which is different than trail riding.
Families should understand whether there is a dedicated kids’ program at a given ranch, and if so, what age it targets. It can be more complicated to find programming for tweens and teens who don’t want to be mixed into the younger kids’ programming, so do careful research if you have kids in this age range.
The group element is definitely stronger than at a standard hotel. Trail rides are usually group activities, although they will be segmented by age and ability and higher-end ranches limit how many riders can go on a single ride.
The key question is meals. Some ranches have 100% family-style meals, where the tables are shared with staff and other guests. It takes some getting used to, but this social part of the ranch experience is one of the fun elements. But there are venues that foster more independence, such as Idaho’s Smith Fork Ranch, where families can opt to eat alone. Asking about the guest-to-staff ratio will give you an immediate idea of the level of private outings and personalization offered.
Western wear is part of the fun, and also part of safety. For a week of riding, real riding boots are key. Ranches have a variety of policies on this question, and some have a huge variety of boots that guests can borrow. Ask ahead of time what the situation is.
The same goes for hats. Kids will wear helmets, but parents may opt instead for shade on their faces, in which case a wide-brimmed cowboy hat is perfect. Some ranches have hats for guest to use, but most people end up buying them as souvenirs from the ranch store.
Wonderful ranches are located throughout Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. There are also some excellent options in Arizona, California, and British Columbia. The important thing to consider is what kind of setting you want to be in … a broad valley with lots of room to roam; iconic mountain scenery such as the Grand Tetons; real Wild West scenery surrounded by cacti, like Arizona. What you look at definitely sets the mood.
Likewise, terrain dictates the speed. If you dream of loping day after day, it’s important to understand whether there are flat, safe places for horses to run. Some ranches wedged amid steep mountain scenery have more limited opportunities for fast rides.
Tried and tested tips for families with kids of all ages >
It’s an AMAZING multigenerational activity, as family members of every age can find entertainment on their own and then come together at mealtimes. Grandparents who don’t ride are just as happy fishing or relaxing in a beautiful setting, reading, or watching their grandkids run around like monkeys.
Costs vary widely according to the standard of the accommodations and facilities, the amenities offered, and more. As a rough rule of thumb, inexpensive yet decent-quality ranch vacations start around $900 to $1,000 per person per week (all-inclusive), and go up from there. In the luxury category, plan on at least $3,000 to $4,000 per person per week.
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