Looking for a dude ranch experience neither you nor your children will regret? Sit-a-spell and read on. Families with little critters will find most ranches only allow children 7 years and above on trail rides; young’uns 3 years and older can ‘pony’ around the corral. Accommodations are typically large rustic doubles in a main lodge. (Private family cabins and other rooming options are noted, where available.) Here are some of my favorites.
23500 Walker Basin Rd.
Caliente, CA 93518
Western hospitality is a tradition at the Rankin Ranch, one of the largest privately-owned ranches in the West, operating since 1863. Their 31,000-acre spread in the Tehachapi Mountains, northeast of Bakersfield, has an old-fashioned, down-home atmosphere, from the cozy duplex cabins to the baby calves the kids love to feed. Though casual, there are elegant touches such as linen tablecloths, candles and fresh flowers on the dining room tables. Cabins are air-conditioned and feature wood paneling and carpeting. Closed in winter.
Riding: Guests can sign up for one-hour morning and afternoon rides. The horses are mostly walking because of the terrain, though a few wide-open meadows provide opportunities for advanced riders to canter and gallop. Because this is a working ranch, guests can sometimes help wranglers with chores, such as moving cattle. Children under 12 cannot go on adult rides, but the parents are welcome to join the kids’ rides.
Activities: Guests may bring their own equipment for fishing from the ranch’s stocked pond, guests can clean their fish, then bring them to the kitchen staff to have them cooked for the next meal. There are several of acres available for hiking and exploring. Sacked lunches can be provided if a picnic is desired. Also available are swimming, a hot tub, shuffleboard and ping-pong in the recreation room, horseshoes, and volleyball. If you bring your own bikes, you’ll find plenty of dirt roads and attractive scenery. In the evenings families also love to stargaze and visit the petting farm with its baby calves and chickens.
Children’s Program: The ranch offers a daily children’s program during school breaks from 9:30 to 3:30pm (and then again from 5:30 to 8:00pm) that keeps kids 4-11 very busy. During the Regular Season, children have their own trail rides (trail riding starts at age 6 with counselors), craft sessions, talent shows, scavenger hunts, picnics, games and other events. Children eat breakfast and lunch with their families; at dinner children sit at a special table with counselors. Private babysitting available with advance request.
201 County Road 1911
Kremmling, CO 80459
With over 200 miles of trails, spectacular views and top riding instruction, this ranch should not be overlooked. They offer one-week programs throughout the summer and stays during December-April, June, and September. Note that in winter, the focus is on adults who enjoy cross country skiing, snowshowing and fat tire biking on snow.
Riding: Horseback riding is a major appeal at this ranch, where they pair each guest with one of their 70+ horses for the duration of the visit. Both the rides and instruction are geared to each skill level and instruction in their certified arena is available. Guests can help round up cattle while learning the basics of sorting cattle in “team penning.”
Activities: The Latigo Social Club serves as the hub for many activities, such as weekly dances taught by the enthusiastic staff, as well as archery and rifle and shotgun shooting. In addition, there’s a library, pool table, ping-pong table, hot tub and swimming pool. Latigo is often praised as a standout among dude ranch kitchens, and cookouts and a breakfast ride highlight the week. (Special dietary needs can be accommodated.) The streams, rivers and ponds in the area also offer excellent fishing for rainbow, brook, brown and cutthroat trout. If you would like to try river rafting, the weekly rate includes one day of rafting on the Colorado River through a local outfitter.
Children’s Program: Latigo Ranch offers fully-supervised, special activities for kids 3-5 years, like feeding Wilbur the pig or making crafts in the Sherriff’s office. Kids 6-7 years get as much ride time as the older kids, but their rides are shorter durations than the 8-13 year olds, who go riding on more challenging trails. In between rides, kids swim in the heated pool, play games, hike and learn how to fish for trout in the stocked pond. Families eat most meals together unless the kids are on some special outing, but there is an option for children to sit at a separate table with peers and counselors. Babysitting services are available to arrange ahead of time for infants (2 and under) at a rate of $15/hr. Cribs are also available upon request.
Paradise Guest Ranch
Buffalo, WY 82834
The cattle brand FUN hangs from the gate as you cross over French Creek into one of the oldest ranches in the West. Tucked into a secluded valley in the Big Horn National Forest, Paradise Ranch hosts families, couples, and individuals amongst a forest of lodgepole pine and quaking aspen. The ranch has taken in paying guests since 1907 and has recently renovated one, two, and three bedroom cabins in a “rustic elegance” style. Week-long rates include lodging, three family-style meals daily, and all regular activities. All cabins feature full showers, kitchenettes, washers and dryers, and an outdoor deck to soak up some sun. Open late May to late September only.
Riding: Horses are chosen based on the rider’s ability. Paradise offers two-hour, half day, and full day rides, with lunch is packed on meals and cooked during a break on the trail. You’ll want to cover as much of the varied terrain as you can, by riding as a family or splitting up according to experience.
Activities: Guided and self-guided hikes, fly fishing instruction for the kids (including equipment to borrow), catch-and-release fishing for adults, swimming, and a once-weekly Amateur Talent Show. Also available is a heated outdoor pool, although it’s often too filled with kids to have room for adults. Parents have a weekly, adult-only candlelight dinner while the kids are on their overnight, and there is an evening of swing dancing.
Children’s Program: The ranch offers a free children’s program with a very detailed weekly schedule of events. Hiking, fishing, crafts, and nature studies occupy those under 6, while those over 6 may choose to horseback ride. Kids can count on a daytime sleepout; teens will have their own overnight pack trip. The new teen socials at the beginning of the week help the groups to get comfortable with each other.
Other Dude Ranching Resources
Here are some other dude ranches voted tops for families, as well as some helpful organizations. Although we couldn’t describe them in great depth, these three places have served youngsters for generations: Lost Valley Ranch in Sedalia, Colorado (call 303/647-2311 for more information) and the Wilderness Trails Ranch in Durango, Colorado (800/527-2624), which is known for its lessons in cattle driving.
An excellent source of dude ranch data is the Dude Rancher’s Association (307/587-2339), which has been providing information about inspected and approved Western ranches since 1926. Promising “a ranch to match your dreams,” they offer an excellent free guide, The Dude Rancher’s Association Directory covering 100+ member ranches in 12 western states and two Canadian provinces west of the Mississippi, giving a description of location, facilities, dates of operation, amenities such as children’s programs, and price category. To order a copy, download it from Duderanch.org or write to them at P.O. Box 2307, 1122 12th Street, Cody, WY, 82414.
Another great resource is ranching expert, Gene Kilgore’s RanchWeb.com. It has an easy-to-use search engine and organizes ranches by several categories, including location, facilities and children’s programs. With over 100 ranches with children’s programs available on our last trail ride through cyberspace, you’re sure to find something to please everyone in the family.
And for a global view of all things horseback in the great outdoors, contact Hidden Trails (888/9-TRAILS, 604/323-1141). Their comprehensive site is organized by Vancouver-based travel agents who work with several of the top European equestrian tour planners. Giddy-up and go give ’em a try.
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