Family Vacations, Summer 1996
My horse was a brown-and-white pinto named Shorty, and I had a terrible crush on a wrangler named Jack Neal," my old friend Bonnie said the other day. The summer we were 12, she spent three weeks at a Wyoming dude ranch, while my family took me to the New Jersey shore. Four decades later, I recall almost nothing about that summer, but Bonnie remembers every detail about her ranch vacation. "My mom let me wear the same shirt every day, a blue-plaid, western-cut thing with pearl snap buttons that made me feel like a cowgirl. I went riding with my dad for hours on end, and I still know the names of all the wildflowers that Jack pointed out to us."
The appeal of this classic American vacation hasn't changed much over the past 40 years. Most kids-even the most street- savvy and cool-still become besotted with "their" horses and taken in by the whole Wild West thing, especially the chance to rub chaps with real cowboys. (Caution: Older teens may find some dude-ranch staples, like hayrides and square dances, hopelessly hokey.) It's best to wait until your children are at least six, however, before hauling the family out to a ranch; younger kids usually aren't long-legged or strong enough to enjoy the half-day rides. Parents, meanwhile, have the option of playing cowboy novitiate or not; in the latter case, they can kick back on the lodge porch, hike, or cast for trout in a nearby stream, confident that their kids are supervised and out giddy-upping on the range.
Like horses, there are many different breeds of dude ranches. At one end are the no-frill, working cattle operations that take in paying guests: You stay in rustic quarters (usually separate cabins), share simple meals with the ranch hands, and spend your time helping out with day-to-day chores-driving cattle to summer pastures, branding calves, and checking fences. Some kids are enthralled by the gritty reality of ranch life, but playing cowpoke for a week isn't everyone's idea of a vacation. At the other end are the Relais & Chateaux of dude ranches, with luxurious rooms westernified with lodgepole furnishings and Navajo rugs and options like spas, exercise rooms, pools, and tennis courts.
Most of the hundreds of dude ranches scattered throughout the mountain West, however, are somewhere in the middle. These are casual, kid-loving places where you stay in a private cabin and share meals with other guests in the main lodge. Some are small with no set schedule, while others are bustling family operations that treat guests to a barrage of organized cowboy and noncowboy adventures (e.g., breakfast rides in the mountains or rafting trips in nearby parks). Many have a children's program, and some even have swimming pools and hot tubs.
Our five family ranches, spread around Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Idaho, cover the range from gritty to gourmet. All have excellent riding programs, with gentle, sure-footed horses, plus spectacular Rockies settings that will jangle your spurs.
Copyright 1996, Outside magazine