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Ranch Vacations in the U.S.A.

Ranches are part of America's fabric. The very idea of them conjures up images of wide-open spaces, sun-kissed cowboys and a slow-paced, idyllic way of life. So idyllic that every year, urban dwellers don hats and boots for a Western vacation on one of the country's many dude ranches.

These guest ranches take their name from the dudes, or city slickers, they cater to but the tell-tale signs of citified life—cell phones and schedules, Blackberries and bustle—are left at the metaphorical gate. Instead, mountain meadows, crystal clear streams, comfy cabins and campfires await. And horses named Bandit and Hawkeye, Rio and Deuce stand bridled and ready for the proverbial trail.


Types of Ranches & Activities
Ranch vacations can usually be divided into four categories: dude ranches, working ranches, cattle drives and luxury ranch resorts. Horseback riding figures highly on any guest ranch and a few even encourage a bring-your-own-horse policy. For visitors more comfortable out of the saddle than in, an array of other activities are usually on offer—most notably fly fishing, river rafting and nature hikes. Many guest ranches also boast swimming pools and tennis courts, and put on cookouts, campouts and kids' programs.

Where and When to Go
The West is undisputedly ranch country and home to the majority of guest ranches. Colorado, Montana and Wyoming top the list with genuine cowboys to boot, quiet forests that never end and spectacular panoramas of the Rocky Mountains. With storied histories of Old West shoot-outs, desert landscapes and 10-gallon hats, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas also have dozens of authentic guest ranches. But East Coast residents needn't cross the Mississippi to jump into the saddle; New York and North Carolina head up the list of eastern states offering their own brand of ranch vacations.

Summer is peak season for guest ranches and many in the Rockies operate only from mid-spring into early autumn, while others re-open for winter vacations from December through March. Ranches in the Southwest, California and the east generally operate year round and vacations catering to a specific activity such as fly-fishing or lambing are available according to season.

Dude ranches are the oldest form of ranch vacations and some have been welcoming greenhorns (city folk) for nearly a century. Accommodation, activities and prices vary greatly between these ranches but most entail rustic cabins and lodges, family dining, cowboy poetry around a campfire and daily trail rides. All levels of riders are welcome as most dude ranches and their wranglers provide riding lessons and some also feature horse clinics, roping instruction and end-of-week rodeos for guests to show off their newly learned skills.

Dude ranches especially cater to families but there are also packages for couples, company retreats, girl getaway weekends and guys who have always wanted to ride and shoot like John Wayne.

Notable Ranches

Latigo, C Lazy U and Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch are among Colorado's top-ranked dude ranches for families and keep all ages involved in cowboy fun. Ranch-packed schedules include daily rides, cookouts, designing a personal brand and team penning contests. The Circle Z, Grapevine Canyon and Kay El Bar ranches in Arizona trade log cabins for adobe bungalows and the latter sets aside a week specifically for women.

Where dude ranches create a somewhat manufactured Western lifestyle, working ranches offer the real thing. Visitors might get a song from a musical host but rarely a barn dance put on just for them. What they do get is an authentic experience of feeding livestock, fixing fences, driving cattle to new pastures or even helping a lamb come into the world. Working ranches usually take in fewer guests and stays might include sleeping in bunkhouses or the ranch house and enjoying hearty, home-cooked meals with the ranchers themselves.

Notable Ranches
The JX, Double E and Burnt Well are all working New Mexico cattle ranches where guests can roll up their sleeves and help with longhorn cattle checks, branding sessions and brush control. Wyoming's working ranches—like the Hideout at Flitner Ranch and the Bucking S ranches—have tens of thousands of acres and hardly a soul in sight, making even traditional dude ranches seem crowded. The Zapata Ranch in Colorado is another huge ranch but in addition to cattle, the ranch runs over a thousand head of bison. And Montana Bunkhouses is a network of Big Sky ranches that open their doors, gates and lambing barns to guests.

The long, dusty drives of moving cattle to distant pastures are a thing of the past but a few livestock owners still use multi-day cattle drives to move their herds to greener grass. And some of these owners offer visitors the opportunity to come along for the ride, literally. Hours in the saddle are rewarded with sizzling steaks grilled over a fire, a circle of tents under a star-studded sky and waking up to the smell of freshly brewed cowboy coffee.

Pack trips combine camping in the backcountry with the quiet life of a cowboy aboard a faithful steed but usually leave out the cattle. Instead, these increasingly popular excursions focus on nature, fishing or hunting in high mountain country.

Notable Ranches

The Double Rafter Cattle Drives in Wyoming and Montana High Country Cattle Drive both have authentic Western cattle drives in spring and autumn, while Montana Horses hosts a three-day spring round up of hundreds of horses. California's Hunewill Guest Ranch and Rock Creek Pack Station also invite guests along for annual cattle and horse drives, and the latter specializes in pack trips into the High Sierra.

Most guest ranches eschew the latest in technology and trends but not so with luxury ranch resorts. Set amidst peaceful surroundings and featuring log-hewn furniture aplenty, these resorts are indeed ranch vacations but the similarities can often end there. Instead of barbecued baked beans or bacon and eggs, guests might dine on gourmet grilled shrimp and polenta or espresso crème brulee. And after a day on the trail—on a horse, a mountain bike or an ATV—a relaxing line-up of spa services, master suites and award-winning wine lists await. Some such resorts offer championship golf or helicopter tours, some are for adults only, some are popular with celebrities. All are the ultimate in ranch luxury.

Notable Ranches
Cibolo Creek Ranch in Texas is the epitome of upscale guest ranches. The meticulously restored Mexican fort features deluxe guest rooms, private verandas, professional staff and wine served poolside. The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort in California goes a step further and boasts two golf courses as part of the luxury ranch. And far to the north, the Resort at Paws Up in Montana is the ultimate in camping. Art adorns the walls of impeccably appointed safari-style tents, meals are prepared by master chefs and spa services await in an enchanting forest setting.

So, slip on the boots and saddle up. America's guest ranches are waiting!



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