After decades of the same old trail ride/chuck wagon formula, dude ranches had grown as dusty as a cowboy’s chaps. But recent years have ushered in a new spirit: Across the West, guest ranches are seeing an infusion of fresh money, expanded programming, heightened energy, and elevated accommodations.
“The luxury aspect of dude ranching has really taken off,” explains Colleen Hodson, Executive Director of the Dude Ranchers’ Association. Several new properties complement the rugged outdoors with ultra-refined amenities. But ranches in all price brackets have had to keep pace with recent improvements in the hotel industry. “People can now go to a Holiday Inn Express and have their choice of five different pillow types, and that’s what they’re coming to expect no matter where they stay,” Hodson explains. Consequently, ranches increasingly offer silky bedding, farm-to-table dining, and spa treatments.
They’ve also broadened the array of activities to include more than just horseback riding. Mountain biking, zip-lining, rafting, and shooting are just a few of the new-school ways to enjoy one of the West’s most time-honored traditions. Here are ten ranches that have updated the classic recipe.
Brush Creek Ranch; Saratoga, Wyoming
Shoot firearms at explosive targets, then raid the ranch’s wine cellar (where guests enjoy an open-door policy to Napa Cabernets and Italian Barbarescos) at this no-expenses-spared property. Owned by Bruce White, a hotelier better-known for such brands as Embassy Suites and Hilton Garden Inn, Brush Creek Ranch started out as White’s personal retreat but opened its doors to paying guests in 2011.
High-end fittings still make this feel like someone’s trophy home. Custom cabinetry and spendy Saratoga China stoneware fill the nine cabins. Buttery leather armchairs and original artwork bedeck the 13 lodge rooms. A fleet of Polaris Ranger ATVs (which are replaced with new models each year) helps guests zip between buildings on this 15,000-acre swath of rolling sagebrush.
But this is no barren wasteland. Delicate purple wildflowers carpet the meadows and draws in June, and rocky outcroppings entertain the eye. Sitting on the porch of the chinked-log saloon (entered via swinging doors, of course), you overlook vast, leather-colored ranch lands framed by distant peaks that glow pink in the setting sun.
Brush Creek flows through the property and lets anglers cast for wild trout. Orvis-endorsed guides also take guests off-ranch to pursue bigger fish in the North Platte and Encampment Rivers. Plus, there’s horseback riding, mountain biking (on 50 miles of trail designed by adventure racer Mike Kloser), archery, and shooting (targets range from sporting clays to exploding bullseyes).
Tip: Book activities ahead of time, because weddings and other group events occasionally monopolize the guides and equipment. Book a massage or a mani-pedi at the Trailhead Spa, which also offers indoor and outdoor yoga classes. And at dinner, tuck into halibut and aged beef tenderloin so fabulous, it makes Ruth’s Chris seem like a greasy spoon.
From $1200/night, brushcreekranch.com
Elkhorn Ranch; Tucson, Arizona
Come to Elkhorn Ranch not for Egyptian cotton bedding or cordon bleu cooking, but for real-deal authenticity that few getaways can equal. Since 1945, the Miller family has kept its guest operations focused on agriculture. Horseback riding remains front-and-center, and the family’s active participation in the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance has helped preserve the neighboring ranchlands. Although Elkhorn sits just one hour from Tucson, you’ll see no city sprawl as you lope among its 10,000 acres of scrubby hills capped by an immense sky.
In recent years, the family has expanded the horse-centric focus to include photography, art, and music workshops. They’re a natural extension of what many guests were already doing, says Mary Miller. “Plus, they seemed a fun way to perhaps lure some new people in,” she adds. Photographers Stewart Aitchison and Ann Kramer help guests capture the ranch’s pastoral scenes, and musicians Rory MacLeod, Sandol Astrausky, and Bill Burke lead old-timey jam sessions. The newest workshop, offered by artist Ruthann Stoner, leads participants on field sketching expeditions among the ranch’s horse herds and wildflower fields.
The food remains down-home hearty, with ranch-baked scones, pies, dinner rolls, and cookies rounding out the steaks eaten hot off the grill. And cowboy boots are standard-issue equipment (they don’t get stuck in stirrups like laced boots do). Forgot yours? Elkhorn Ranch has plenty of loaners.
Weekly rates from $1,524 per person (plus tax and gratuity); elkhornranch.com
Red Reflet Ranch; Ten Sleep, Wyoming
When Laurence and Bob Kaplan bought this 27,000-acre cattle ranch in 2001, they envisioned it as a retirement project and family retreat for their six children. But they spent so much time showing off the red-rock formations and abundant wildlife that in 2008, they opened it to guests—very grateful ones.
Some arrive via their own aircraft (the Kaplans built a 5,000-foot runway and hangar) while others drive in from Cody, two hours north. Most are families, who stay in the property’s three “chalets” and ranch house. Perched on hillsides and built with massive windows, these accommodations feel like eagles’ nests—as does the central lodge, where guests mingle for dinner.
“People love the freedom they feel here,” says Laurence Kaplan. “In today’s society, the kids are never, ever able to do anything alone,” she explains. “But here on the ranch, kids are given a lot of independence.” They frolic on Red Reflet’s four ziplines and roar around on kiddie-sized ATV’s (full-sized versions are equally popular with parents).
Because the ranch spans elevations ranging from 4,600 to 8,500 feet, you can always find a zone that’s ripe for adventure. Afterwards, you refuel with beef that was raised, butchered, and aged on-property. Red Reflet’s greenhouse and garden produce the vegetables, and free-range chickens supply the eggs.
Adults from $500/day (children discounted); red-reflet-ranch.net
Elk River Guest Ranch; Clark, Colorado
A languishing property before Susan Boles bought it in 2013, the Elk River Guest Ranch was worth resurrecting. Situated along the Elk River, in a valley beneath the Zirkel Wilderness, the property is graced with splendid scenery—and standout trout fishing, thanks to its enviable stretch of private water. Boles gave the existing cabins a facelift, upgraded all the linens and towels, brought in local coffee and body products, and installed a hot tub. She also built a saloon that appeals to area locals as well as ranch guests. Tiny but chummy, the bar taps local suds (along with the mainstay, PBR) to wash down cheese or chocolate fondue. Both seem like fitting conclusions to a day of hiking among the high peaks.
This summer, the ranch plans to offer fly-fishing clinics and reinstate the horseback-riding program. And by fall, it’ll break ground on a new lodge and cabins.
From $50/ night (for teepees) and $125/night (for cabins); elkrivergr.com
The Ranch at Rock Creek; Philipsburg, Montana
Owned by an investment banker whose primary hobby is perfecting this patch of heaven, the 6,600-acre Ranch at Rock Creek sets the high bar for ranch-style luxury. Santa Fe interior designer Jet Zarkadas selected antique artwork and reclaimed wood for the guest accommodations (the ranch opened in 2010). In January 2014, it became the first and only property in Montana to earn a five-star rating from Forbes Travel Guide. Actress Kate Bosworth and director Michael Polish chose these mountain-ringed pastures for their wedding site (and you can bet that the reception food was just as spectacular as the setting).
All the ranch’s horses have been fitted with a custom saddle made especially for them. You’re an expert rider? You’ll find far more than just nose-to-tail trail rides here. The Rod & Gun Club also outfits anglers, shooters, and paintball combatants for their respective pursuits. Sapphire-hunting is another option—the surrounding Sapphire Mountains don’t just look like gems, they also offer them up to wannabe prospectors—as is mountain biking, archery, and navigating the new ropes course (installed summer 2014).
Bed down in the Granite Lodge, in canvas-walled tent cabins that sit along Rock Creek, or in private “cabins” scattered throughout the property. Just don’t ignore the dinner bell, which summons you to the likes of red quinoa salad and organic cheeseburgers.
From $850 per person, per night; theranchatrockcreek.com
Smith Fork Ranch; Crawford, Colorado
Farm-to-table dining isn’t new to most ranches, where living off the land is the norm, not a novelty. But Smith Fork Ranch takes that principle and runs with it, creating ingredient-focused meals that even Alice Waters might admire.
Anything that’s not grown on the property is sourced from nearby farms (within about 20 miles). Obviously, your cup of coffee wasn’t brewed with Colorado-grown beans. But everything else—from the lamb and pork to the potatoes and brussels sprouts—soaked up the same scenery you do before it landed on your plate.
The ranch’s greenhouse lets chefs serve melons, heirloom tomatoes, and other warmth-loving edibles that can’t tolerate chilly Rocky Mountain nights. For the fullest bounty, visit in August or September, which affords the greatest diversity of produce. Stop by the ranch’s big garden to help pick your edibles, which chefs transform into the likes of lamb sauced with minted peas and ranch-made bacon. Not keen on sharing your ambiance with the ten-and-younger crowd? Book during one of the ranch’s three adult-only weeks.
Meals are served in the historic ranch house, graced with a huge covered porch that’s perfect for sipping aperitifs while you munch Smith Fork’s charcuterie. After admiring the evening’s golden light on Saddle Mountain, head inside to the dining room to enjoy dinner at individual (not shared) tables. Butterscotch budino for dessert? Might as well. You’ll burn it off tomorrow while horseback riding, fly-fishing, hiking, or mountain biking. A fleet of fat-tired bikes was added in 2013, and lets guests pedal beneath the jagged, snow-caked Elk Mountains.
From $950 per night; smithforkranch.com
The Ranch at Emerald Valley; Colorado Springs, Colorado
You’ve probably heard of the Broadmoor: This ever-classy resort sprawls beneath mighty Pikes Peak, and in late summer 2013, the icon unveiled a satellite property called the Ranch at Emerald Valley. This pine-cloaked property presents a much quieter, lower-key alternative to its parent (which comprises three golf courses and a plethora of shops and restaurants). But guests at these ten cabins enjoy the same stellar service that’s made the Broadmoor famous.
The dining is fine, and plenty of tasty bottles are offered as part of the ranch’s all-inclusive package (certain standouts such as Napa Valley’s Paradigm Cabernet Sauvignon go for an additional fee). But beyond the sophisticated food and plush bedding, the Ranch at Emerald Valley feels like a summer cottage—in the best way. The vibe is contemplative, and guests are just as likely to lose themselves in a novel or a board game as they are to partake in the guided horseback riding, hiking, fishing, mountain biking, and canoeing.
"Experiential travel is a growing trend,” explains Steve Bartolin, the Broadmoor’s Chairman, President and CEO. He says the Ranch at Emerald Valley was constructed to meet that demand. “It creates experiences beyond the boundaries of the typical resort, but does so with the impeccable service and luxurious comforts the Broadmoor is known for.”
The ranch’s twist on comfort includes a pair of barrel-style hot tubs that sit lakeside, within sight of the rocky spires jutting out of the pines behind the main lodge. One session there, beneath the stars, feels better than any spa package.
From $750/night, broadmoor.com/ranch
Lone Mountain Ranch; Big Sky, Montana
People have long loved Lone Mountain Ranch. A homestead turned guest ranch in 1926, it later became the crash pad for newscaster Chet Huntley and his pals, who made it their home base while entertaining potential investors for the Big Sky ski resort they were developing in the 1970s. These days it’s better than ever, thanks to spiffed-up dining options and expert guides that specialize in hiking, fishing, and horseback riding trips in Yellowstone National Park, 18 miles away.
“Only a handful of ranches have guide permits in Yellowstone,” explains PJ Wirchansky, Director of Sales and Marketing for Lone Mountain Ranch, which introduces its guests to the park’s northwest corner. Instead of bison and elk (which cluster on the park’s southwest edge), grizzlies and wolves favor Fawn Pass and Bighorn Pass, where ranch guests hike. And anglers get to fish legendary waters, including the Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison Rivers.
“The focus is getting people outside, just as it’s always been,” says Wirchansky. “But instead of the simple buffet meals we used to do, we now offer four courses of upscale cuisine.” The Wagyu beef and potatoes are Montana-raised. Cute, chinked-log cabins feature stone fireplaces. Massage therapists and yoga instructors help you recharge for your next outing. And the towering peaks of the Madison Range remind you that stunning scenery doesn’t stop at the park boundary.
Adults from $2,500/week; lonemountainranch.com
C Lazy U Guest Ranch and Resort; Granby, Colorado
Fishing and horseback riding beneath Colorado’s jagged Continental Divide used to be C Lazy U’s sole attractions. But since 2008, when a new ownership team seized the reins, upgrades to the property’s accommodations and lodging have turned the once-humble ranch into a an oasis of refined comforts.
Remodeled cabins feature luxury linens, heated tile in the bathrooms, hardwood floors and paneling made from local beetle-kill pine. A new chef (Dennis Kaniger, who worked at the likes of Spago before arriving at C Lazy U) replaced tired standbys with creative sauces and top-shelf ingredients: Striped bass with pistachio-fennel pesto and pork tenderloin with apricot-mustard sauce are now de rigeur. And a new spa offers massages and other body-soothing treatments in wall tents perched beside Willow Creek (glass floors let you stare down into the water while you get kneaded).
What’s unchanged is the ranch’s emphasis on family programming. Liberated from parental oversight, kids spend each day in the company of other tykes their age, riding horses, playing tennis, and soaring through the air on the new zip line. They even eat separately, enjoying poolside barbeque while the adults gather for white-linen dinners. That keeps C Lazy U from feeling like Playskool: Couples can savor adult time in the hot tub and clink glasses without romping young’uns spoiling the mood.
Triple Creek Ranch; Darby, Montana
Whereas some ranches specialize in soft adventure, Triple Creek serves up the real deal. Its cattle drives incorporate guests on actual roundups complete with stream crossings, rocky riding, and fast-action breakaways to return calves to the fold. Trout fishing on the Bitterroot is a bucket-list item for any diehard angler. October ushers in steelhead fishing on the Salmon River. And helicopter excursions into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness let anglers and equestrians explore roadless areas that few people ever see.
During the past two years, Triple Creek has also debuted new amusements, such as archery, trap shooting, and sapphire panning (the ranch trucks in piles of gem-rich sand from the adjacent Sapphire Mountains).
But the emphasis on luxury dining and accommodations isn’t new. This season marks the 20th anniversary of the all-inclusive adult getaway that owners Barbara (a former U.S. ambassador to Finland) and Craig Barrett (Intel’s former chairman) established on this 26,000-acre property located 75 miles south of Missoula. “It’s perfect for honeymooners, or parents with adult children,” explains Deb Schara, Triple Creek’s Director of Marketing.
Most cabins have private hot tubs, and all include a stocked bar and a wood-burning fireplace that gets fired up during the evening turndown service (so you return from dinner to a romantic, firelight cabin). Of course, in-cabin meal service is always an option. As befits a Relais & Châteaux property, food is spectacular. So is the setting: Venture beyond your cabin in the woods, and you’re treated to sweeping views of the Bitterroot Mountains’ serrated summits.
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