Remember the movie City Slickers? Movies can mimic reality, and dude ranches are a chance for families to escape all elements of city life and get the ultimate busy schedule detox. It’s amazing how a week in a radically different environment gives fresh perspective on what really matters.
After spending time at Colorado Trails, I concluded that I’d vacation at a guest ranch every summer for the rest of my life if I could. There’s no other vacation like it. And as much as I’m a fan of Europe with kids, dude ranch vacations are one very good reason to stay closer to home. Interestingly, Colorado Trails had quite a few of our friends from across the pond enjoying cowboy life — the fun is absolutely universal.
Dude ranches are the equivalent of summer camps for families, where one activity follows another and the focus is 100 percent on fun and relaxation in the great outdoors. Like summer camps, ranches come in all shapes and sizes. Some are rustic while others are luxurious; some are focused just on horseback riding while others have a more resort-like ambiance with a swimming pool and spa. Some offer sophisticated gastronomic meals and others offer traditional hearty fare. The list of possibilities is endless!
This category has really grown over the years, as evidenced by all the amazing options on the Dude Ranchers’ Association website, one of the best resources for all-inclusive Western vacations.
Finding the right mix of family time and independent time is one of the challenges of any family vacation. Balance means different things to different families. The beauty of a guest ranch is that most offer the best of both worlds.
Kids’ programming is extensive at the ranches catering to families, and babysitting is effectively built into the vacation. Our last trip was electronics-free and subsequently our time without kids was guilt-free, as they were having an amazing experience equal to our own. Kids are not an afterthought on a family-focused ranch, but part of the main attraction.
Ranches tend to have a schedule of activities each day and families pick and choose what they want to do when. At Colorado Trails, the kids had their programming and the adults had theirs, but we all came together for meals and downtime.
My favorite ranch experiences involve fly fishing and Western trail riding, activities we don’t routinely access at home — certainly not in jaw-dropping mountain scenery, anyway. I love that the crux of a great ranch is enabling guests to experience something new … or spend time doing something they already love, but can’t do often.
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We had tremendous one-on-one time with both fly fishing and horseback riding guides at Colorado Trails. Although I’ve ridden all my life, I learned all kinds of new skills from their talented wrangling staff. Meanwhile, the fishing guides had us catching trout in lakes and rivers in no time.
The wranglers shared all kinds of stories of people who were terrified of horses when they arrived, and left not only loving riding but having conquered a big fear, with all the benefits that go along with that kind of achievement. This happens to parents and kids alike.
We live in a San Francisco suburb that has zero ranch attributes. To spend a week without anything recognizable from home life is glorious! Colorado Trails offers a night of square dancing, and I’ll tell you what: There wasn’t one person who wasn’t smiling and laughing in that room. It’s one of those things that everyone thinks is going to be awkward and then they realize how fun it is in the end.
Dude ranches are all about getting outside, rain or shine. Ranches own consequential land for their horses and guests, and many are located in iconic Western settings with cookouts, campfires and endless opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.
All ranches have different programs for different ages. Not all cater to young kids or teens, or even kids at all, but this is the beauty. Ranches actively choose who their target guests are, and there’s a ranch out there that has something for every person in a family.
TIP: Be sure to understand the minimum age requirement to ride, as well as the age range for the kids’ programming, before booking your ranch holiday. Many ranches cater to school-age kids, but a smaller group of them have active, distinct programming for very young kids and teens.
The Old West way of life is certainly an important part of our American heritage. It’s fun to be part of it in such an engaging way.
Most ranches are either entirely all-inclusive or at least offer all-inclusive options. They are expensive at first blush, there’s no doubt about it, but when you dig into what’s included in terms of the service level, food, effort, accommodations, and array of guided activities, ranch vacations are a tremendous value. Not a bargain, but certainly well worth the spend.
I’ve been teary at the end of every ranch vacation I’ve ever taken. You don’t want the not-a-care-in-the-world lifestyle to end, and you get very close to the ranch staff and other guests. I’m still in touch with one of the guides I met 10 years ago at the spectacular Smith Fork Ranch, located between Aspen and Telluride in Colorado. Ranch memories really do last a lifetime.
Editor’s note: Colorado Trails provided a media package for our week. As always, our opinions on Ciao Bambino are our own. Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy except where noted.
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