May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside's Annual Travel Guide, 1999/2000
No songfests. No hayrides. No dudes! Our kind of guest ranches

Rankin Ranch, California

Despite the recent hipification of the word dude, I've never been remotely interested in dude ranches, which make me think of long days with nothing to do but sit by the pool, take the occasional nose-to-tail trail ride, and suffer through an enforced evening sing-along.

Then I was invited by my father to spend a week at the Quarter Circle U Rankin Ranch in the mountainous Walker Basin of central California. For the past 15 years my father, an avid horseman, has come to the ranch's Western Week, when guests are invited to spend four to six hours a day on horseback cutting cattle. The 136-year-old Rankin is a working ranch, so here was a chance to skip the sunbathing and hayrides and get right to the saddle sores. I let myself be talked into it.

At an altitude of 3,500 feet, the Rankin Ranch does not occupy stereotypical cattle country. Forty-two miles northeast of Bakersfield, bordered to the north by the Sequoia National Forest, it sprawls across 31,000 acres deep in the Tehachapi Mountains. Two days before our arrival in late May, it actually snowed.

The last time I rode a horse I was 13. After a year of lessons, I'd performed the classic cartoon maneuver: I rode into a low branch and knocked myself off and out. So on the first morning at Rankin I ask David, the wrangler, to assign me to a sofa with a heartbeat, and am given a huge palomino named Popcorn. After a morning of Popcorn's falling asleep beneath me every time we stop, I borrow my dad's spurs. I don't even need to use them, just lay them along Popcorn's fat side. He gets the picture, quick.

The cattle we're assigned to move are basically retirees. The Hill Field, rolling meadow gussied up with purple lupine, orange buttercup, and California poppies that release their scent every time a horse brushes past, is the Leisure World of the Quarter Circle U. The mostly sunny terrain isn't too steep or treacherous, but it is definitely rugged, and the trail ascends nearly 7,000 feet.

In the evening, after the day's ride has left long bruises inside my thighs from the seams of my jeans, there's cocktail hour on the patio. It's BYOB, and Dad and I are splitting a bottle of Glenfiddich. The kitchen provides chips and a bowl of spectacular, garlicky California guacamole. Getting to sleep is a cinch; the beds in the birch-paneled cabins—no TV, no phone, no dataport—provide the perfect soft-firm combination.

At the end of the workweek comes our reward: a 20-mile ride into the Tehachapis. All day long we endure fog and freezing rain, and I, who grew up in California and expect the usual scorcher, am dressed in a T-shirt and windbreaker. Every so often I have to get off and walk Popcorn, just to get the blood circulating in my numb feet.

These slopes are known only to David and his ranch hands. No backpackers, hikers, or mountain bikers come here. Although our ponies normally can negotiate the steep four-inch-wide trails without a misstep, the streams, which are exploding with more water than has been seen in a century, have forged new routes. Once-sloping banks have become ten-foot vertical cliffs.

The horses cross single file, each one sinking up to its knees in mud before pulling itself free with a loud sucking smack and leaping to the other side. When it's my turn, a chunk of bank that looks like a slab of bulk chocolate breaks away at Popcorn's feet and crashes into the stream. I try not to imagine Popcorn stumbling, falling on top of me there in the frigid water. I try to sense his mood, worry that he'll resent me for having thought of him as a piece of furniture and won't forgive me for the spurs. I give him a little heel and we're over. Easy.

When a horse figures out that he's headed back to the barn, he'll want to bolt, a bad habit when many of the summer guests are small children and neophytes. We've been ordered to rein them in, but at the end of the day, when we round the last bend and I feel Popcorn start to trot, I let him have his head. We gallop down the hill. There's guacamole waiting for me at the bottom. —Karen Karbo

Rankin Ranch charges $150 per adult per day, including all meals and activities; call 661-867-2511.

Bitterroot Ranch, Wyoming

There are no tennis courts, Ralph Lauren linens, or spa cuisine at the Bitterroot Ranch, a 1,300-acre spread about two hours east of Jackson, Wyoming. The Bitterroot is for people who like to ride horses. Period. With the understanding that they can pick up a fly rod or read a book if they want a distraction. Or drive 26 gravel-road miles to the town of Dubois, population 1,100, to drink beer and square-dance with cowboys.

The 12 wooden-floored log cabins have one or two bedrooms and private baths; meals are served buffet-style. Three well-groomed Arabians are yours for the week, along with a choice of western, Australian, English, or endurance saddles. But don't expect to be coached by grizzled cowpokes; you ride under the tutelage of owners Bayard and Mel Fox, an ex-CIA operative and his wife, whose wranglers, young women all, are more likely to chew Trident than Mail Pouch.

Mornings, the ride takes you through a varied landscape of rifts, valleys, and gorges where antelope really do play, surrounded by the Wind River Indian Reservation, the Shoshone National Forest, and 52,000 acres of protected habitat. In the afternoon you switch horses and head in a different direction with a different guide. Back at the ranch, you can enjoy the company of the resident Irish wolfhounds, Toulouse geese, and peacocks, or hang out in the billiards room, decorated with African spears and tribal art. The true test of your horsemanship comes when the Foxes discreetly encourage you to ride with their company in Kenya—it means that you're good enough to outrun the lions. —Everett Potter

One-week packages, offered May through September, are $1,400 per person, including all meals, lodging, and horseback riding; contact 800-545-0019 or

Rainbow Ranch Lodge, Montana

Twelve miles to the south is Yellowstone National Park; five miles to the north is the stretch of the Gallatin River where Robert Redford filmed scenes for A River Runs Through It. In between is Rainbow Ranch Lodge, gloriously situated just a long cast from the banks of the Gallatin in a spacious, mountain-framed valley that will render giddy any fly fisher, equestrian, or hiker.

The river is indeed blue-ribbon abundant with rainbows, browns, and cutthroat, and experts are on call from nearby Gallatin Riverguides (full day, $275 for two people; 888-707-1505). But fish-fooling needn't be your focus here. Chuck Kendall, whose grizzled good looks and gentle demeanor could charm a horse whisperer, runs the on-site horsepacking outfit called Diamond K Outfitters. His steeds are at the ready for half-day rides into the Gallatin Range ($50 per person) or multiday outings in Yellowstone—such as a five-day pursuit of summer cutthroats on the upper Lamar River ($1,950 per person) or a five-day wildlife-viewing pack trip to Gardner's Hole during the early-fall elk-mating season ($1,950 per person).

We opted for a full-day, 12-mile clomp ($95 per person for groups of three or more) up to seldom-visited Deer Lake, 9,000 feet high in the Madison Range, where we nabbed arctic grayling on every other cast. I also rented a mountain bike from Grizzly Outfitters ($35 per day; 406-995-2939) in nearby Big Sky and hammered a 16-mile out-and-back from Doe Creek Road to Buck Ridge on the Buck Creek Trail.

Rainbow Ranch consists of a main lodge building and 21 rooms fanned out in two wings paralleling the Gallatin, meaning every room has a river view and a private wood deck. Decor is bunkhouse-chic, with lodgepole pine four-poster beds and river-rock fireplace mantels. The spacious main lodge incorporates a high, huge-beam ceiling, rawhide-stitched leather furniture, Moose Drool microbrew on tap in the smoke-free bar, and a river-view dining room. The chef comes from New Orleans by way of Florence, so expect an eclectic menu ranging from fresh shrimp to pasta to local beef. —Robert Earle Howells

The five lodge rooms and 21 additional rooms cost $120–$260 per night, based on double occupancy; call 800-937-4132.

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